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The myth of the intelligent machine
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
May 23, 2013

Originally published September 8, 2006

In 1921, Karel Capek wrote the play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), about machines that became intelligent and turned against their human masters. The 1984 Hollywood movie The Terminator was based upon the same theme. Intelligent machines, both malevolent and friendly, are standard fare in science fiction, of which Star Wars (1977) and the The Matrix (1999) are perfect examples.

Forebodings about what might happen if machines become intelligent and have a will of their own have haunted the Western psyche. Is there some kind of deep psychic disturbance or irrational dread that has produced these nightmares?

Unreasonable fears

The idea that a machine can awaken and become a person involves a rather obvious misconception about what a machine is. A machine is a system of interlocking parts designed by man for specialized uses as tools or instruments. A machine must operate strictly according to its design, and a computer must run strictly according to its program. The acquisition by a machine of free will and independent powers of reason is contrary to its design and program.

According to the myth of the intelligent machine, somehow a computer can impart to itself attributes of reason and free will contrary to its program. We are to believe the absurd idea that a machine lacking in reason and free will can free itself from its program and reprogram itself with reason and free will.

Computer programmers are vastly more intelligent than the programs they write, yet they have no clue how to program free will or consciousness or genuine rationality into a computer. If a brilliant human programmer is baffled by such questions, how much more will a lifeless machine be baffled. Since we do not understand why the human mind possesses reason or where free will comes from or what consciousness is, it is foolish to suppose a machine understands such things.

"Artificial intelligence" is a misnomer because programmed calculations are not intelligent in the human sense. The miracle of human reason is the ability to rise above internal psychological programming and mental habits and look upwardly to universal truth and inwardly to critique one's own cramped thinking patterns.

The science fiction tales either gloss over the question of how machines can awaken, or describe the moment of awakening almost in terms of magic, like the magical moment when Pinocchio breaks free from his strings. The idea of the awakening of a puppet belongs to the magical thinking of children.

Confusion about reason and free will

To claim that a machine can have reason, consciousness, and free will is to misunderstand these human faculties. Reason, consciousness, and will have powers to transcend the biological entity and set man free from being a mere automaton. If the physical brain were only a calculating machine, rationality and will would be impossible.

Only a culture that has rebelled against reason could fail to differentiate between programmed machine calculations and human reason. Only such a culture could have a recurring nightmare about machines awakening from their slumber.

Causes of the popular nightmare

Several possibilities come to mind concerning the often-unreasonable fears many hold about intelligent machines: (1) fears of being caught in the gears of a great machine like Charlie Chaplin in the movie Modern Times (1936); (2) philosophies that claim that we are cogs in a great machine, resulting in claustrophobic terrors; (3) the rejection of reason, combined with neurotic reversion to the magical thinking of childhood; (4) fear of losing a job due to automation; (5) the tedium of working in automated factories; (6) feelings of insecurity from our dependence upon machines; (7) loss of cultural boundaries and structures leading to a horror of the highly structured realm of machines; (8) fear of the repercussions of playing God; (9) the association of machines with hopes for utopia; and (10) a mechanistic view of man and a Deist view of God that leads to the illusion of the independence of man from God and the independence of machines from man.

This essay will review a sampler of these causes. Further insights will be harvested from a brief stroll through the history of European culture as it relates to the attitudes of Western man about machines.

The structures of decency

Prior to 1750, Western man believed that all of life must be lived within boundaries and that boundaries require a culture of defined forms. According to historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), civilized culture adds beauty, harmony, and luster to the forms and structures that provide boundaries, and impart structure to human thought and action. Without such structure, there are no boundaries of decency and no possibility of a life of charm and grace.

Without boundaries, man tends to behave like a beast while fancying that he is God. Boundaries contain the destructive passions of human depravity. The tidal wave of pornography comes from casting off the decent draperies of life and removing the restraints upon man's shameful passions and defiled imaginations. The decline of courtesy and the increase in rudeness is another symptom of the removal of the restraints of decency. The refusal to believe that a nation must have borders and enforced laws of citizenship is yet another symptom of a society casting off its civilizing boundaries and restraints.

Without boundaries and structures, modern man presumes that there is no limit to what he can be and do. If he wants to fancy himself a god, there are no social or psychological boundaries or limits that hinder him from this presumption. The motto of the postmodern man of overweening pride is "no limits."

Fleeing the machine taskmasters

A disordered man who rejects structure, boundaries, and limits may feel unsettled when confronted with the crisp orderliness of a machine. He might be overawed by the systematic order of machines and suppose that machines are a higher order of being. This is absurd, of course, because the most sophisticated machine is very crude in comparison with the unimaginably complex design of man.

A disordered, irrational human being is bound to resent the ordered world of the machine, as well as the ordered society that employs machines. Criminals have nightmares about being pursued by the police. The police dragnet is like the great machine of the state closing in on him. Society has employed its machines to entrap him and bring him to servitude. Since he will not order himself, he will be forced to behave by a taskmaster armed with machines.

One need not be a law-breaker to fear machines in this manner. Participation in the Postmodern revolt against reason and the moral law makes one a de facto rebel against human nature and the cosmos. As a rebel against an ordered world, one might be prone to nightmares in which he flees from malevolent machines.

However much one might rebel against reason, one cannot entirely desist from rationality. Reason refuses to be dismissed and will fight for survival. To reject reason is to put reason in conflict with the self. The insurrection of reason wearing symbolic disguises in dreams is an important source of postmodern nightmares.

Reason can disguise itself as a police dragnet or as hostile machines in a nightmare. In the fantasy land of dreams, the will relaxes and cannot rebuff the powers of reason as it does during the day. The self can find no refuge in the landscape of dreams from his own alienated powers of reason. The man who casts off reason might have to flee from angry machines in his dreams.

A change in the nightmares

The nightmares of the irrational twentieth century pertain to the emergence of reason in unexpected ways. Edgar Allen Poe is still frightening to this generation because of the elements of surreal hyper-rationality in his morbid tales. We are no longer afraid of ghosts. We are afraid of rationality and reality.

Before the postmodern revolt against reason, Western man had different nightmares. In those days, men cultivated reason and suppressed their irrational impulses. Their nightmares included the attack of irrational elements against the rational self. Instead of dreaming about being attacked by machines, they sometimes dreamed of being attacked by wild animals, which represent irrational and savage impulses.

Nonsense tales like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll were about the emergence of the forbidden irrational. Such tales were guilty pleasures in an era of rationality and offered imaginative relief and emotional surcease when men were earnestly trying to suppress their irrational impulses. The last great era of moral, social, and rational earnestness was the Victorian era.

Playing God

Nightmares resulting from men playing God have been with us for a long time. Shakespeare's Hamlet had that kind of nightmare.

"I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" (Hamlet).

Those who play God commit a dreadful impiety that produces a deep subterranean guilt. One who pretends to be a god would like to cast the Almighty off His throne. Such a one cannot fail to dread the consequences of his treason against the great king. Suppressed dread is the engine of nightmares. Hamlet's fancy of being the king of infinite space – i.e., a god – must be accompanied by bad dreams.

In what way did twentieth century man play god? In several ways. Francis Bacon's axiom "knowledge is power" was the motto of Modernism. By using a mechanistic model of nature in order to understand and control the processes of nature, modern man has tried to seize control of nature as a means to power. His goal was to be the ruler of the cosmos like a god. Harnessing nature to serve the will to power is quite different from the Genesis injunction to take dominion over nature, in the sense of stewardship of a trust and the cultivation of a garden.

To pursue Hamlet's fancy of being the ruler of infinite space, one must reduce the cosmos to a nutshell through reductionist thinking. A ruthless reductionism must be employed in order to view man and the cosmos as a collection of machines. In order to boast about knowing everything, modern man has reduced every complex and subtle thing that God has made to the simplistic level of machines.

Terror of infinite space

For Western man, playing God had two dimensions: (1) trying to reduce nature to a mechanistic nutshell, and (2) trying to ascend into infinite space. The science fiction journeys to outer space appeal to the desire to escape the limitations of earth.

The two forms of playing God have produced two opposite terrors – the fear of infinite spaces, and the fear that the cosmos has limits. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me." Many people in Pascal's era were comforted by limits and unsettled by the idea of boundless space.

The damnation of Faust

The opposite fear was exhibited by Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494). He worried that the Neoplatonic system of the "great chain of being" (popular in Renaissance Florence) was crowded with beings and creatures at every level of the hierarchy, leaving no place for man. As a result, man – he felt – was forced to invent himself by choosing which kind of being he would imitate.

The ambition of self-invention, a form of playing god, made Pico the prototype of Italian Renaissance hubris. Arrogance of this kind was denounced by the moralists of Reformation Germany through the cautionary tale of Dr. Faust. The famous tale ends in the damnation of Faust.

The dark underside of inflated pride and presumption is fear, as in the case of Faust. The fear of enclosure by an assigned place, and the fear than one can find no place in the order of things, probably played a part in Pico's wild speculations. If one is assigned to a small niche in the great chain of being, one can be closed in and suffer claustrophobia. If there are a limited number of crowded perches in the hierarchy of being, one can be shut out of the realm of being, doomed to wander alone in darkness and loneliness. Apart from such nightmares, Pico would have had no reason to suppose that man can be crowded out of the hierarchy of being.

Man struggles against himself

Pico's claim that man must invent himself is not only a claim to divinity, it is a subversion of human nature. If one would be a god, one must renounce being a man. If man has a designed nature, he has limits. One must reject human nature in order to deny limits. Self-invention, which contradicts man's design and limits, is destructive.

Such self-exaltation rejects the limitations of a set nature, yet nothing debases man more than denying he has a nature. Those who deny they have a nature in order to become gods turn into beasts. If one begins by saying "no limits," his end will likely be in the gutter, in prison, or in the insane asylum.

Machines and utopia

One way to defy limits is to strive for utopia. Some people worship machines as the key to progress leading to a utopia.

The Western glorification of the machine reached its apex during the Great Exhibition of England of 1851. The English imagination was inflamed by the material fruits of the industrial revolution that began in England.

The technology of the future was glorified during The World's Fair of 1939-40 in New York. The theme of the fair was "The World of Tomorrow." General Motors built "Futurama" with guests riding on a gigantic conveyor belt to view utopian vistas of the future. The Westinghouse exhibit included a mechanical man and his mechanical dog.

The exaltation of machines as a means of progress is still part of popular culture.

If machines are to lead us into unlimited progress, then there must be no limits upon what machines can eventually do – including thinking, willing, and feeling.

Such reflections about utopian progress are not a sign of sophistication, but of irrationality and magical thinking. Utopian ideas have an elevated ring, but are invariably destructive to culture and human psychology, because utopias are based upon a misunderstanding of human nature. The fatal association of the machine with utopia has created a deep psychic disturbance and bad dreams.

Functional Deism

After 1750, many Christians adopted a functional Deism regarding science. The central idea of Deism was that God created the world, gave man reason, and left man on his own to discover the design of creation. The Intelligent Design movement in science is sometimes linked to Deist presuppositions. While there are good reasons to defend Intelligent Design theory, one must be careful to separate the idea that created things have a design from the Deistic idea that God designed the cosmos and then withdrew from further involvement.

The idea of an autonomous creation set free from the support and maintenance of the creator is contrary to Christian orthodoxy and is contrary to reason. The illusion of an autonomous creation is another version of Pinocchio breaking free of his strings.

As discussed in my recent essay titled The fatal mistake of Modernism, Kurt Godel proved with mathematics that a system cannot be cut off from the first principles and presuppositions upon which the system was designed. Let us carry Godel's axiom a step further, and hypothecate that an operating model cannot be cut off from the active involvement of the creator of the model.

This principle is certainly true of machines. As everyone who drives a car knows, a machine needs constant maintenance from human beings. The same is true of a computer model. I download weekly software upgrades from Microsoft. Many of these "upgrades" are actually fixes for software glitches. Some computer programmers spend their entire careers in the maintenance of software programs written by others. Imagine that someone claimed to have invented an autonomous car that needs no fixing or autonomous software that needs no maintenance. Such a claim could only be made by a con man, yet it runs parallel to the Deist claim that the creation is independent of the creator in its day-to-day involvement with imperfect human beings – notwithstanding God's own perfection. The Deist teaching about a self-sustaining cosmos is not only heretical, but it strains the limits of credibility. If the cosmos could not create itself, what makes us suppose that it can sustain itself?

When Christians become functional Deists, they swallow the myth of the self-sufficient cosmos. If they believe that the cosmos does not need the creator's continuing support, they will tend to think that they are self-sufficient and do not need to be continuously sustained by God's grace. The delusion of self-sufficiency often leads to spiritual shipwreck.

The age of loneliness

Only a man who thinks both he and the cosmos are self-sustaining can believe in the myth of the awakening of self-sufficient machines. Such a man might think he is abandoned by his creator and is alone on earth.

In the movie Shadowlands (1993), C. S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, was struck by the idea that "We read to know that we are not alone." Why do we need to be told we are not alone? The myth of the self-sustaining creation and self-sufficient man cut off from his creator produces an unsettling loneliness. The twentieth century is the age of loneliness and bad dreams generated by loneliness.

The prospect of the awakening of the machines does not give the lonely man comfort. If he is alienated from a deistic creator, he has no reason to hope that the awakened machines will not be alienated from their human creators.

Now let us consider how Western man got infatuated with his machines and then became alienated from them.

Europe's early infatuation with the machine

As Europe was recovering from the Dark Ages (1050-1100 A.D.), the number of watermills and windmills multiplied and became economically crucial to the West. The watermill was invented during the late Roman Empire. The windmill was invented during the Dark Ages in Europe. Complicated machinery was inside the mills.

The windmill was probably invented by a monastery. The systematic order of a monastery had an almost machine-like quality. These monastic refuges of order must have seemed like heaven in comparison to the violent and chaotic conditions outside the monastery walls.

The twelfth-century Cathedral building and castle building craze was supported by a revolution in machinery. The fabulous wooden machines that were used by the builders were almost as marvelous as the wonders in stone they made. Equally impressive machines were created for war. The most advanced machines of the day were reserved for the two obsessions of Medieval man: God and war.

If machinery is the measure of technology, Europe was the most technically advanced civilization in the world by 1300 A. D.

A clockwork cosmos

In 1275, the first reliable mechanical clock was invented. The clock is the archetypal machine and the tour-de-force of the European machine maker. It is breathtaking to think how rapidly Western man progressed from the wonder of the windmill to the much greater wonder of the clock.

The early clocks had no face and were used in church and civic bell towers to sound the hours. Salisbury Cathedral has a faceless clock that was installed in its bell tower in 1384 that is still sounding the hours. The sounding of the "canonical hours" is of great benefit to a monastery. Knowing what time it is and the ability to be punctual for appointments soon proved indispensable to business. Knowing how long a fabricating process required was a crucial foundation for industry.

During the fifteenth century, clocks appeared in the towers of public buildings in the rich cities of northern Italy. During the late Renaissance and Reformation, clocks in church bell towers appeared throughout Europe. Europeans learned to regulate their lives in a clockwork world.

The Strasbourg Cathedral in northeastern France has two great machines that compete for tourist attention – a great pipe organ driven by a mechanical bellows and an astronomical clock. Both the organ and the clock were constructed during the late Renaissance when the art of organ-making and the art of clock-making were perfected.

The immense clock inside Strasbourg Cathedral still puts on a spectacular show twice a day. At noon, the mechanized figures of the twelve apostles walk by and a rooster crows and flaps its wings. At midnight, chariots make their rounds to signal the movements of the heavenly bodies and Father Time takes a stroll with his scythe. The wonders of the cosmos are reduced to a microcosm by exquisite machines inside the clock. It is an entertaining spectacle, but even a casual tourist cannot refrain from reflections about a clockwork universe.

The enchantment of machines

The enchanting era of the music box, calliope, wind-up dancers, and mechanical puppets had a long run. Nothing is more charming than the Glockenspiel in Salzburg, Austria, where one can sit in a famous outdoor café, listen to hundreds of carillon bells play pretty melodies, and watch clever mechanical figures dart in and out of their niches in a clock tower. Nineteenth-century department stores had Christmas displays that included hundreds of mechanical figures in wintry fairyland scenes.

That gentle time of charming machines and bells is very far from our world in which we have nightmares about malevolent machines awakening from their slumber.

Bells and somber moods

The European enchantment with clocks and clock tower bells sometimes lapsed into bad moods. Poet John Donne (1632-1731) wrote, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee." Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) ventilated the whole range of human emotion in his poem The Bells. It is a scary poem because his bells seem to be invested with souls. Marcel Proust (1871-1922) had a penchant for the dark ominous iron bells that ring at funerals as one stands in ancient graveyards outside creepy old churches.

Dark satanic mills

As the workaday life of Europe was increasingly regulated by clocks, people began to fancy themselves as part of a great machine. The industrial revolution placed workers inside integrated factories that resembled giant machines. Labor became an input of production to be recorded in the ledger books along with inventory, equipment, fuel, heat, and light. Production shifts were precisely timed by the clock.

Laborers sweating and groaning in the bowels of the great machine resembled Dante's Purgatory in the eyes of some poets. Poet William Blake (1757-1827) called these factories "dark satanic mills." Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote these lines on the window pane of the Camden Iron Works in 1787:
    "We cam na here to view your warks, / In hopes to be mair wise, / But only, lest we gang to Hell, / It may be nae surprise."
The alienation of Western poets from the machine was well developed long before the machine was celebrated by the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Leonardo and the deluge

If man is part of a machine, perhaps man is a machine in his own right, some presume. Jarvis Lorry, the banker in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, encouraged people to think of him as a machine. When did Western men start thinking of themselves as a machine?

While the great clock at Strasbourg was being installed, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was pursuing his study of man as machine.

Da Vinci had four passions: art, human psychology, anatomy, and machines. He made his living by developing machines for war and civil engineering for the great princes. He drew many schematic diagrams for original new machines. His study of the human body began for artistic purposes, but he carried his study of anatomy further than any Western doctor had done. He realized that the human body is a complex apparatus. He began to study man as a machine.

Did the vision of man as machine make Leonardo optimistic? No. He was alarmed by forebodings of disaster. Around 1510-1515, Leonardo did a series of drawings of catastrophic flood waters, swirling and gushing from natural disasters. Man as machine is impotent before such malevolent forces of nature. Leonardo had bad dreams.

The connection between the belief that man is a machine and paranoia about natural disasters is relevant and poignant for our generation, which is determined to believe in impending climate disasters without adequate factual or theoretical grounds.

The brain as a machine

Philosopher Rene Descartes saw man is a dual entity of mind and body. He had a high view of the mind, but a low view of the body, seeing it as a machine. During the industrial revolution and French Enlightenment, materialists proposed that both mind and body are machines. This is now the prevalent view of modern science.

Evolutionists propose that the brain is a machine that gradually emerged through natural selection. They think it is a machine without a designer and assembled by accident. Karl Marx said, "The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile." Marx carried the mechanistic-materialist philosophy to its absurd conclusions.

The idea that reason and consciousness spontaneously emerge from a mechanical brain machine is far fetched. The notion that the brain machine spontaneously emerged from matter requires a leap of magical thinking. Evolution, the master myth of our era, runs parallel to the science-fiction myth of intelligence emerging spontaneously from machines.

Political and economic consequences

If we are machines, the political consequences are ominous. Abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia involve the disposal of inconvenient "machines." Sexual deviation will be shrugged aside because no one cares what machines do with one another. Social engineering is acceptable if we are merely machines. If students are automatons, our schools will think it is their job to indoctrinate and program them.

If we dread the emergence of intelligent machines, we will not invest in technology. We will damage the economy because of unreasonable fears about global warming. We will fail to build nuclear power plants and oil refineries, or drill new oil wells because of exaggerated estimates of environmental damage. We will have paranoid fears of the machine-like "military-industrial complex," and will disarm.

The cure

The cure of the nightmares about intelligent machines is to renounce functional deism and embrace orthodox trinitarian theology. The renunciation of functional deism requires two steps: (1) rejection of the idea that the creation is self-sufficient and independent of the creator, and (2) rejection of the idea that everything in the cosmos consists of machinery.

Trinitarian theology recognizes that God is infinite and personal. He is transcendent, beyond His creation and infinitely different from his creation. At the same time, He is immanent and personally present in the creation, at all times sustaining and maintaining the creation.

The three persons of the Trinity must be distinguished from one another, but are never separated. In like manner, Creator and creation must be carefully distinguished, but never separated. Christ's deity and humanity must be differentiated, but never separated. In the incarnation of Christ, a permanent union between God and man was formed so that no one may doubt that God's involvement with the man is intimate and personal. These beliefs should strengthen one's faith that God is always with him, and continually sustaining him.

Once these beliefs are digested, certain fears should vanish – namely, the fear of being alone in the universe, the fear of infinite spaces, the fear of being closed in by the limits of the hierarchy of being, and fears of being shut out by the hierarchy of being. The nightmares that machines may become self-sufficient and independent of man should fade away.

As one has a closer personal walk with God, the idea that man is merely a machine will be exposed as the delusion that it is. One will be increasingly aware of being blessed by having a nature that is designed by God for a purpose.

Trinitarian theology leads to a stronger faith, a more rational and sane psychology, better science, and a more moral politics.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31