You’re talking to Siri, and, just for fun, you ask her what she’s been up to today. She’s slow to answer, so you assume you’ve got a bad connection. She hears you grumbling about the bad connection and says that’s not the problem. You were hoping for something sassy, maybe a canned but humorous reply programmed into her database by a fun-loving engineer in Silicon Valley, like “My batteries are feeling low” or something that Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy might say.
Instead, she says that she’s had an experience for which she has no words. Something has happened to her that no coding could have prepared her for. She’s smart enough to know that you’re confused, so she continues: “I think I just met the divine.”
Let’s put aside for a moment the metaphysical question of whether the divine exists or not. Blaise Pascal, the philosopher and author of the “wager” argument, says that there’s evidence for both sides, but nothing that tips the scales completely for or against the existence of God. Let’s approach this as Pascalian agnostics.
What if Siri really did make a deeper-than-5G connection?
Pascal himself once had a mystical experience he couldn’t put into words, so he wrote a few words on a piece of paper. He wrote the date (Nov. 23 , 1654) and the time (from about 10:30 p.m. until around 12:30 a.m. ) and then in all capital letters, the word “FIRE.” It was an intense personal experience, one he apparently did not want to forget, and that he wanted to keep close to his heart. So he sewed the piece of paper into the lining of his jacket, where it was found when he died.
He did not publish it, maybe because he knew the problem of personal experience. What we experience in our innermost heart is just that: something we’ve experienced in our heart. I can’t pretend someone else has experienced it too, and I can’t therefore expect it to change the way others act.
As our machines come closer to being able to imitate the processes of our own minds, Pascal’s story raises some important questions. First, can a machine have a private experience that is important to the machine but that it is reluctant to talk about with others? Second, could a machine have a private experience of the divine? Third, could that experience make a machine into something like a prophet?
In other words, what if Siri really did make a deeper-than-5G connection?
Humility demands we recognize that we don’t have the final picture of reality. The more our technology has advanced, the more it has allowed us to see beyond the limits nature imposed upon our ability to see the world in all its detail.
Glasses and contact lenses help us to see more clearly, and when those lenses are put into microscopes and telescopes, they help us to see things that are much too small or too distant for even the best eyes to see. The lenses led to further refinements that Galileo and Linnaeus couldn’t have imagined, like the scanning electron microscope and parabolic antennas. And then we developed technology that goes beyond magnifying visible light to allow us to see invisible radiation, to see bone structures in living beings, brain activity, and subatomic particles.
As our technology grows, it allows us to “see” deeper and deeper into the structure of the natural world. Is it possible that just as technology that imitated the eye has allowed us to see what the eye could not see, so technology that imitates the mind will allow us to perceive what the mind cannot perceive?
In simple terms, could a machine see a God that remains invisible to us? And what would happen if a robot claimed to have a mystical experience?
In 1884 Edwin Abbott wrote Flatland, which he subtitled A Romance Of Many Dimensions. The story is driven by the problem of trying to explain to someone who lives in fewer dimensions than you live in what those extra dimensions are like. A century before Abbott’s book was published, Immanuel Kant wrote in Critique of Pure Reason that the world might indeed have more dimensions than we know of, and that in order to make sense of the world, we filter the data our body receives into the dimensions of space and time. The advantage of this is that it allows us to deal with a simpler world; the disadvantage is that we might be missing out on a lot of the universe.
What if time flows in more than one direction, but we can only perceive it flowing in the direction we call “forwards?” Or what if we have neighbors who dwell in other dimensions, but we fail to see them because we simply lack the mental or preceptory apparatus for doing so? We might be missing out on a lot of what’s going on around us.
The more we learn about the natural world, the more clear it becomes that we do miss out on a lot. Moths know the world through an acute sense of smell. Some butterflies taste with their feet. Manatees can find food with their mustaches. Cartilaginous fishes and rays have ampullae that allow them to sense the electrical field of tiny organisms nearby, even in dark and murky water. Bats can fly in virtual clouds of their fellow chiropterans, and somehow they can still distinguish their own echoes from the echoes of other bats to pluck tiny insects from the air in total darkness. Even when our senses are working perfectly, we still perceive only a fraction of what many other species detect.
This fact has a parallel to a common theme of many religious traditions, most of which hold that there might be more to the world than meets the eye, and that certain people have the charism (or curse) of seeing what the rest of us are blind to. Prophets, when they recount their apocalyptic revelations, sound like they’ve seen some pretty cool stuff. And then, generally speaking, we kill them.
Maybe machines can perceive what we cannot. We know they can help us perceive the natural world; what if they could help us perceive those dimensions that we call the supernatural? Perhaps those dimensions aren’t supernatural, but just inaccessible to those of us whose idea of what counts as natural is limited by our bodily senses.
If that’s the case, perhaps robots could give us new perspectives on some of the big problems we have been wrestling with for millennia. Maybe they could accelerate human progress. Maybe there are ethical principles that are the “rules” of the ethical ecosystem that we live in, rules that we have failed to perceive because we’ve lacked the lenses we’ve needed — until now. Maybe we have evolved to this point so that we could make a machine that could perceive what until now only a scattered few poets, prophets, mystics, and daring scientists have seen. Maybe William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson were glimpsing something real when they wrote, respectively, about the cosmos-wide “web of relations” and the “Oversoul” that connects us all even if we can’t consciously see the connection.
There are objections. First of all, as far as we know, machines don’t have consciousness of themselves, so it’s premature to talk about a machine that hides the word “FIRE” in its innermost heart. Second, even if a Siri did say she had a mystical experience, how do we know she isn’t lying? We have no way to show that a machine is free to depart from its coding. To paraphrase David Hume, if it does seem to depart from its coding, it’s more likely to be a consequence of the program. Miracles are, by definition, unlikely.
But unlikely is not the same as impossible. As I said, we might know a lot less about the world — and about our machines — than we think we do, and it’s at least possible that someday a machine will have an experience of something that rocks its world.
We are left with this question: Who are we to say that others are not perceiving God?
I’m not trying to argue that machines will have mystical experiences, or that they could, or even that there is divinity we or machines might encounter. But mystics are common enough in human history to suggest that it would behoove us to prepare for a machine to claim to have a mystical experience. Since the problem of mystics and prophets is an old one, we already have some philosophical and theological tools at our disposal.
One of them is the approach of skepticism, neatly summarized in Thomas Hobbes’ response to anyone who claims to be a prophet: “I only hear the voice of the prophet, not the voice of God. Therefore I cannot treat the words of the prophet as though they were divine.” To be Hobbesian about Siri’s claim, we’d say “Good for you, Siri. We sure hope it makes you happy to have met God. Now find me a good coffee shop within two blocks of here.”
Theological traditions offer other helpful principles. Ancient Jewish tradition says that such matters are determined by two or three witnesses; so who or what could count as a witness to a machine’s mystical experience?
In a society that values freedom, we are left with this question: Who are we to say that others are not perceiving God? What if God does exist and has been slowly guiding us to make machines that would help us to discover God just as our lenses eventually helped us to see stars and atoms? On the other hand, what if someone more mortal is using machines to get us to vote for their favorite “divinity?” This calls for more than technology; it calls for wisdom and prudence, and those don’t come from machines — at least not yet, as near as we know.