Engineering Illusions Part I: Religion and Technology — II

An Insider’s Take on the Tech Industry

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Delusions of Godlike Grandeur

Centuries before the advent of SXSW and A.I sermons by tech CEOs, Descartes continued his investigations of mind-body duality. The prevalent ‘mechanical philosophy’ of the time led him to seek a complete understanding of the physical interactions between mind and body. The mechanical philosophy held that the world can be understood as a machine, built by the super-engineer in the heavens. Hence, its constitution was not unlike various mechanical machines and contraptions of the day. These machines were fully explainable, and there were no occult phenomena that controlled the devices. For instance, if a gear turned, it could be determined that a lever pushed on a shaft that turned the gear, and so on. The belief was that the world and all its physical phenomena could also be fully explained without evoking any mysterious forces. Two principle components in the world waiting to be understood and reconciled were mind and body. Galileo formulated the criteria for intelligibility as being able to “duplicate [all posits] by means of appropriate artificial devices.” It would be honoring God if the world was made fully intelligible.

Manifest Destiny: Divine Intelligence and Divine Life

In 1956, a pivotal Artificial Intelligence (A.I) conference was convened at Dartmouth. A groundbreaking event in A.I research, the conference brought together luminaries who would eventually go on to lead A.I programs at various research institutions. John McCarthy of MIT, the organizer, later established Stanford’s A.I program. Allen Newell and Herbert Simon led the A.I program at Carnegie-Mellon University. Marvin Minsky directed MIT’s A.I program. Also present among these architects was Claude Shannon, who along with English mathematician Alan Turing, developed the theoretical principles for the design of the electronic computer and its application to the study of A.I.

Technological Transcendence

In the ninth century, Carolingian philosopher and theologian Johannes Scotus Erigena was the first to propound the august nature of the useful arts as a means of salvation. Sufficient intellectual deliberation and cultural infusion led to the stamping of the term ‘mechanical arts,’ referring to the collection of applied techniques to achieve various practical ends. Mechanical arts would later be replaced by terms such as ‘useful arts’ and ‘technology.’ Erigena’s formulations led to a “boldly innovative and spiritually promising reconceptualization of the arts” that “signaled a turning point in the ideological history of technology,” noted Noble. As Pope John Paul II would repeat much later in 1981, “Science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.”

The Perfect Cell

Few fields better encapsulate in their history and practice the search for divine perfection than biotechnology. Early efforts in the study of life first strove to understand the mechanisms of life and conceive of techniques and machines that would improve the activities of living beings. The early pious practitioners of these arts sought to study and then recast life itself — hence, in the deed, honoring the creations of God. American author Edward Bellamy wrote in his nineteenth century utopian work Looking Backward, “The betterment of mankind from generation to generation, physically, mentally, morally, is recognized as the one great object supremely worthy of effort and of sacrifice. We believe the race for the first time to have entered on the realization of God’s ideal of it, and each generation must now be a step upward.”

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Writing about politics, philosophy, technology and current affairs. Questioning ideologies of power and discussing alternatives. Twitter: @ap_prose

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Tech Insider

Writing about politics, philosophy, technology and current affairs. Questioning ideologies of power and discussing alternatives. Twitter: @ap_prose