Dreaming of Electronic Gods
Parashat B’reishit 2017, Agudas Achim
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Dreaming of Electronic Gods
As some of you may know, I have the foolhardy habit of blogging, sharing and tweeting my sermons. Usually, they languish in the dark corners of the internet, dying a quiet death. Last year, however, I wrote and consequently blogged a sermon for Parashat B’reishit on the Singularity and to my surprise, it garnered some retweets and comments about the usefulness to see a rabbinic perspective on a science-fiction topic.
The thrust of my sermon then was that we can not only read the Creation story in Book of Genesis allegorically as describing a mythical past but perhaps even describing a fictional future. Being a lover of science-fiction, I discussed the frequently dystopian nature of science-fiction and what this may say about our collective psyche as a culture. I wrote the following:
“Most of us don’t live with a literal understanding of the Bible in general and the Creation story in Genesis in particular. We are not barred from Midrashic, creative, philosophical and existential interpretations of the text. To grasp the Genesis account literally is to squeeze out its creative and philosophical potential and to miss how the text can speak to us Moderns in very profound ways.”
I then proceeded to discuss the eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as B’reishit describes and argue that even though our Judeo-Christian culture frowns upon this event in the Biblical narrative, we could choose to read it differently:
“Perhaps eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the Edenic equivalent of imagining an alternate reality, like we do through film, literature and the arts. Had the first couple not eaten from the fruit, they would have been trapped in Eden forever more; eternal, unchanging, robotic. My contention is that God set them up for failure—or, to put it differently, intended for this outcome all along. Eating the fruit was the symbolic expression of humanity’s yearning for free will.
As desirable as free will is for our purpose in the world (and our authentic relationship with God), there are consequences. The bond for insight is mortality. The investment in wisdom is the vigor of youth. Hence, it is normal to feel ambivalence about this text: without our banishment from Eden, we could not redeem our world, but at the same time we are now faced with great sorrow, suffering and evil.”
What does it mean for us to face this existential bind and what can the archetypical story of Adam and Eve teach us? Another way to look at this is to consider the Fruit Incident as one of the world’s first dystopian science-fiction stories.
In what way?
The Torah seems to warn us; we cannot have unlimited access to untrammeled knowledge without a trade-off. If we are to have knowledge, we cannot have eternal life. “To have both,” I wrote last year, “would be an aspiration to apotheosis: godhood. The checks-and-balances of the human condition would be loosened and the consequences would be without precedent. Had Adam and Eve been able to have both, they would have been like gods. The Torah tells us: ‘hen ha’adam hayah k’achad mimenu, la’da’at tov va’ra’ - ‘And God said: behold, the man is become like one of us, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3:22).”
In other words, had Adam and Eve achieved their desired apotheosis, this would have been a type of Singularity.
I will try, within my limited technological acuity, to define the ‘Singularity’. The Singularity refers to the moment in human history where artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence. It is, to reverse the metaphor, a type of technological apotheosis: computers become our gods.
Last year, I wrote that there are philosophers and scientists today who believe that the Singularity is imminent, perhaps even in our lifetime.
So why have I chosen to upcycle this sermon for this year? There was an article in a British newspaper that caught my eye. ‘Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.’
The article discusses a new religious initiative spearheaded by a controversial robotics engineer and entrepreneur called Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski had previously made a name for himself as an engineer who built his own self-driving Toyota Prius, among other things. Now it seems that the engineer is launching another controversial venture: a religious non-profit corporation called ‘Way of the Future’. The Guardian reports that this organization’s mission is ‘to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.” This theological type of Singularity, predicted by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ seems to come on the heels of our ever-increasing technological sophistication.
Levandowski is not the first to make this philosophical jump: there is an entire branch of thought dedicated, in varying degrees, to these questions of human or technological apotheosis called ‘transhumanism’. Transhumanism is a broad body of thought that believes the human race can escape its biological and cognitive limitations through scientific and technological means. There is even a religious subdivision known as Christian Transhumanism. Enthusiasts speculate that one day we will be able to upload the content of our brains into super computers, while other innovators and scientists, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking view these developments ominously. After all, what does it mean to create our own AI god? If we rebuild God in our own image, then does that mean our humanity is being rebuilt too?
Whether Levandowski’s ‘Way of the Future’ is pie-in-the-sky or carries any philosophical currency remains to be seen. It might be the flight of fancy of an eccentric inventor or it might forebode a paradigm shift in our religious and scientific thinking. These are complex, opaque and difficult issues to grapple with, especially from the perspective of conventional, mainstream religion. Yet, this is not a reason to shy away from creative pondering and reinterpretation – quite the opposite. The Creation Story invites us to wrestle existentially with what it means to be human and what it means to be Divine and what the consequences could be if and when those lines are blurred.
Modernity often likes to posit that our primitive, Bronze Age myths have no more relevance in these post-Enlightenment times of empiricism and peer-review. Perhaps, however, as we move into a post-Post-Enlightenment era, we may find that as we humans dream of electronic gods, our Torah can help us ask wise, deep, sensitive, intelligent questions.
The Adam and Eve story is not just a story of ambition and disobedience. It is a story that speaks of curiosity, adventure, fear, death, longing, intimacy, impulse control, the powerful and powerless. What does it mean to be left behind? To seek to touch Eternity and be banished from it? To want to tap into Infinity only to be burned with the ultimate consequence?
As I positioned last year, Adam and Eve’s narrative can be read as our tradition’s earliest speculative futurology. The Book of Genesis does not fear change, growth or innovation. Our tradition does not fear knowledge and questioning but embraces it. The absolute ethical imperative that comes with this is that we always place ‘Tzelem Elohim’ – the Divine Image – at the heart of our contemplation. Religion in the 21st century is not being relegated to the philosophical dustbin of history; quite the contrary. As our humanity is being redefined by technology, economy and ecology, we are called to be our sibling’s keepers and to be more human than ever.