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Dying Monkeys, Design Machines by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Essay

Dying Monkeys, Design Machines

In his prophetic book, Jerusalem, William Blake writes concerning a “tradition that Man contained in his limbs all animals … and they were separated from him by cruel sacrifices.”

We may explore what it means to say that we contained all animals within ourselves, as well as what manner of sacrifices could rend them from us.

For Blake, there is a difference between the cruel and the contemplative (or “mental”) sacrifice: “The return of Israel is a return to mental sacrifice and war. Take up the cross.” 

To follow Jesus, Blake tells us, is to engage in the right kind of sacrifice: “mental sacrifice,” taking up the cross. Of course, the cross is an animal sacrifice: it is the offering of the lamb. But this mental—which is to say, inward—offering, is a laying down of our own animal self. Having defeated the chaotic and predatory element in ourselves, we may see the world around us, including nature and its denizens, as a harmony of which we are a microcosm. The “animals” are “contained in [our] limbs.”

In contrast, the “cruel sacrifices” that led to our viewing animals as separate from us would correspond to what Blake calls the “Druidical Age,” an era of bloody cults which blighted the earth. Here, animals were offered up to idols in return for favour, and pain was inflicted upon them. The good of our “limbs” was no longer sought. Instead, they were sacrificed for the good of man’s executive function, so to speak, a vain ego and its pursuits. 

Today, the Druidical Age has resumed. Animals do not appear as manifestations of cosmic forces of which we are the microcosm (the lion as symbol for human regality, the horse for steadfastness, the cow for bountifulness, etc.). Rather, they are mere resources. 

But, to what idol have we offered them? What has taken the place of the God Blake would have us give ourselves to in “mental sacrifice?” 

For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible. And what would you be paid with? What would your price be, for aiding this thing to free itself and grow?

So writes William Gibson, father of the cyberpunk genre, in his Neuromancer, a novel whose first draft was produced on a type-writer, but which predicted (and perhaps continues to predict) much of what the Internet would come to be.

This latter-day satanic conjuration occurs in the context of the emergence into the novel’s world of a self-directed Artificial Intelligence. For his part, Elon Musk has used the same metaphor to describe AI: 

With Artificial Intelligence we are summoning a demon, you know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like, yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out.

He elaborated further on Joe Rogan’s podcast, 

If you look at automotive regulations, how long did it take for seat belts to be required? The automobile industry fought seat belts, I think for more than a decade … this time frame is not relevant to AI. You can’t take 10 years from the point at which it becomes dangerous. It’s too late.

Concerning a time frame, he said, “It’s out of control. People call it a singularity … it’s hard to predict,” adding, “it could be terrible and it could be great. It’s not clear. But one thing is for sure, we will not control it.”

Those last few words express modernity’s characteristic determinism, capturing the sombre tone of faith, a faith in progress and in fated historical unfoldment through economic forces. Fatalism takes the place of genuine depth. This is not to doubt Musk’s sincerity in addressing these questions, only to point out his doing so within predictably narrow parameters. 

Musk then discussed the possibilities of being replaced by, or merging with, AI:

The merge scenario with AI is the one that seems like probably the best … if you can’t beat it, join it … From a long-term existential standpoint, that’s the purpose of Neuralink: to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI. Because we have a bandwidth problem. You just can’t communicate through your fingers because it’s too slow.

By “communicate through your fingers,” Musk means that typing represents too slow an output-speed for humans to interface fruitfully with AI. 

This link between AI and Neuralink is important. Musk is working to embed technology in our brain—an innovation in its own right, rendering cyberspace more accessible to, and more able to access, biology. Indeed, across traditions, the demonic—an image to which Musk has had recourse—is frequently presented as wanting to join with and possess human persons. 

And it seems the joining of technology with biology has already begun demanding sacrifice: 

The startup that Elon Musk founded to implant computer chips in people’s brains has admitted that it killed eight monkeys during research experiments. The revelation comes in response to a legal complaint from a group that opposes medical testing on animals.

We should allow ourselves to feel the full brunt of our age, to be arrested by the weighty significance of its works. The limp flesh of those creatures wretched enough to have fallen into the sacrificial circle of Neuralink’s brain-interface technology testing, like offerings to Blake’s neo-Druidical Age, provide an opportunity for such contemplation. But, per Gibson’s question, what is our price “for aiding this thing to free itself and grow?”

Comfort, perhaps. Or convenience. But the problem with eliminating drudgery, both mental and physical menial labour, is that the “scaffold” of the human person, so to speak, might need these lower-order skills in order to hold up higher, reflexive, or complex functions. If such skills atrophy, we may find a general impoverishment of subjectivity (memorization and the outsourcing of memory to Google is an obvious example of this). 

We may also cite security as the purpose of AI: increasing our survivability. The question then becomes why producing complex, “future-proofing” risk assessments should require that we allow our technology to self-direct and to direct our biology. 

Perhaps there is something beyond comfort and security. Perhaps transcendence. To answer Gibson, we ask technology to give us what we offer to give it—a new life. Or perhaps we are asking for the opposite of what we are offering. We would give it flesh, the sacrificed flesh of monkeys, but if Blake is to be heeded and animals are symbols of our humanity, the sacrifice of those creatures—no doubt chosen for their morphological similarity to us—would stand for our own flesh: our own body and natural instincts, modified into a new identity, in the image of a new idol. 

We are exchanging flesh for fleshlessness, our bodies for the chance to live as though we had none. A perverted image of spirit, of escape from materiality. Deviated transcendence. This is our price. Like burning down the house so that the whole sky might be our roof. 

Determinism (which is to say, fatalism) of any sort (economic, geographic, technological) is contrary to conservatism or value-ethics. It runs counter to the idea that we should conform ourselves and our surroundings to moral principles and a prior vision of ‘The Good.’ 

The momentum of history can, indeed, appear irresistible. But a fundamental lesson of spiritual struggle (we need only attend to the lives of the saints) is that society, external circumstances, the instincts of the body, and the fears of the mind might, at some point, all conspire against us. They may all seem to exclude the possibility of true human flourishing, of a morally satisfactory outcome, of beauty. And yet we should hold our will apart from them and refuse to acquiesce; faith, even a mustard seed’s worth, is more valuable than all the forces of mere contingent necessity. 

The techno-determinists who see no escape from the AI “singularity” are playing a game called religion. These singularity fatalists have glimpsed the coming of a god and feel quite sure that he is impossible to resist. Their acquiescence to the ‘merging’ with AI that Musk discusses strikes us with its poverty of imagination and lack of virile verve. 

We have here a limp acceptance of a bizarre future scenario that is, at the same time, hubristic in the extreme—Silicon Valley engineers prophesying (and actively working towards) the alteration of a human form borne by billions of people over our species’ history. Engineers, knowing what they know, blithely unlettered in the rest (the Metaphysical Principles of Proclus; ibn-Sina’s arguments for God; the symbolism of Persianate miniatures; the fruits of Taoist alchemy; etc.), steeped in the aesthetic-intellectual climate of western postmodernity, pass judgement and come to conclusions with regard to the human project as such.

The god whose coming they have seen is a mere parody, a deviated, groping intuition of transcendence, and his followers hold to a truncated understanding of human nature. We should look to the deeper waters genuine religious tradition makes available to us, and oppose their fatalism and arrogance with the humble heroism of faith, and faithfulness to form, human integrity, and dignity.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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