Digital Idolatry

Computers Are Idols in a Strange New Religion

Nothing But Motion

When the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), wrote his 1651 political treatise, Leviathan, he had become convinced that human emotion is explicable by the same forces that govern the rotations of the planets, namely motion. In chapter 6 of the book, Hobbes declared that phenomena like our appetites, aversion, delight, and trouble are “but the appearance.” By this he meant that these things are not truly real. What is “really within us” is “only motion.” In fact, there is, in his own words, “nothing but motion.”

Such a theory may strike us as bizarre, although in the mid 17th century it was not. According to the scientific theories then dominant, everything in the world is explicable in terms of matter in motion. The new physics implicated a type of religion of motion. When Newton published his Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis over 30 years after Leviathan, the enthusiasm to apply physics to every area of life intensified to a pitch of feverish excitement that has lingered, in some quarters, even down to the present (though of course contemporary physics is no longer motion-centric).

While Hobbes was mistaken, it was an understandable mistake. As the scientists and philosophers of his day teased out the implications of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, there was a giddy expectation that physics might provide a comprehensive and unified understanding of everything, even human experience. According to the atomic theory of the day, all change, relations, and conditions act like billiard balls bouncing off each other according to the same fixed laws of motion that govern the rotation of the planets.

I bring up Hobbes because the parallels with our own time are striking. Today there is a sense of giddiness about the computer. Hobbes posited that only motion is real and everything else mere appearance; today many thinkers posit that only the computer is truly real, and everything else is mere appearance.

Nothing But Computer

The computer-centric worldview takes various forms. It can be seen in the metaphysics of figures like Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, and David Chalmers, who treat the difference between human and artificial intelligence as quantitative rather than qualitative. It can be seen in the anthropology of the Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has spilled much ink arguing that humans are merely informational organisms. And it can be seen in the way digitization has become the new alchemy, believed to possess transformational potential rivaling the aspirations of any ancient magician or alchemist. It is this last aspect that lends the project of digitization a quasi-religious aspect.

Is Reality Real?

This computer-centric worldview also surfaces in the wildly popular simulation hypothesis, a theory positing that our minds and the entire world might actually be a computer simulation. Within simulation theory, consciousness functions rather like motion did for Hobbes. We are really conscious, but that’s all we are; the material world is an illusion because we are all living in the Matrix.

There now exists an entire discourse of scholarly papers exploring simulation theory and its philosophical implications, published in such prestigious outlets as the Journal of Consciousness Studies, the Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal of Evolution and Technology. For many, the simulation hypothesis is no longer merely an hypothesis: in 2018, Elon Musk told Joe Rogan he thinks that given any technological improvement at all, it is "most likely we're in a simulation," and later added that there is only a one in a billion chance we're not living in a simulation. In an article for The New Yorker Tad Friend explained that billionaires are even paying people to help them get out of the simulation.

Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.

Simulation Theory and the Religion of the Computer

The idea that a digitized version of consciousness could be the ultimate principle behind reality might seem strange, but it makes sense in our particular cultural moment. Simulation theory became plausible as soon as we began imagining that computers could explain everything, just as Hobbes's reductionistic psychology became plausible after Europeans began imagining that motion could explain everything. But while Hobbes never turned motion into a religion, simulation theory has a spiritual component, since it offers its votaries a complete package that includes ethics, eschatology, iconography, and liturgics (more about all that in a minute).

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, discussed what he called "the religion of the simulation" in an interview with Lex Fridman three weeks ago.  “I’m certainly willing to believe,” Altman told Fridman, “that consciousness is somehow the fundamental substrate and we’re all just in the dream, or the simulation, or whatever.” Altman went on to compare the religion of the simulation to Brahman, a variant of Hinduism which also posits a single principle as the explanation-of-everything.

In this religion of the simulation, the computer has become the central icon, while the computer’s language (including its mysterious symbols that, thanks to machine learning, often remain opaque to human penetration) functions as the central liturgical texts. And like all the great religions, it is not merely descriptive (explaining how we got here and why reality appears as it does) but also prescriptive (telling us what we need to do and what is the eschatological goal we should be striving to reach).

Within this religion of the computer, the eschatological goal can be summarized by one word: merge. Merge is the digital counterpart to what Christians call theosis or sanctification, except in this case it is not man becoming like God, but man becoming like the machine—in fact, merging with it.

Of course, if simulation theory is true then humans are already merged with computers; what we call consciousness is really just part of a computer game. Yet in practice there seems to be an “already” and a “not yet”: only by transcending our illusory bodies and having our minds uploaded to the cloud can the eschatology of the merge finally be consummated. Again from Altman:

“The merge has begun—and a merge is our best scenario. Any version without a merge will have conflict: we enslave the A.I. or it enslaves us. The full-on-crazy version of the merge is we get our brains uploaded into the cloud. I’d love that...

We need to level up humans, because our descendants will either conquer the galaxy or extinguish consciousness in the universe forever. What a time to be alive!” (Cited in the New Yorker article, "Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny.")

This isn't some science fiction guy saying this, but a person Time Magazine identified as one of the most influential people in the world right now. He is influential because, through his company OpenAI, he is planning a certain type of future for the human race.

Even Crazy Ideas Have Consequences

Hobbes' theory of motion, though a relic of his period, had lasting consequences. Leviathan was concerned with the social contract theory of government—a hugely influential piece of 17th century chicanery that metastasized into our current political order to cause untold damage. But given the restricted assumptions of 17th century physics, the social contract theory possessed a semblance of plausibility at the time. From Mary Midgley:

"The idea that people are solitary, self-contained, indeed selfish individuals, who wouldn't be connected to their neighbours at all if they didn't happen to have made a contract, looked rational because it reflected the atomic theory of the day, a theory that similarly reduced matter to hard, impenetrable, disconnected atoms like billiard balls. The two patterns, of political and scientific atomism, seemed to strengthen each other, and, for some time, each appeared as the only truly rational and scientific pattern of understanding in its own sphere." (The Myths We Live By, p.13)

The social contract may have been a false idea, an unfortunate side-effect of reductionist physics, yet it had lasting social, economic, and political consequences.

Similarly today. The engineers that are working to merge us with computers are at least as misguided as Hobbes, but don't under-estimate the lasting influence their mistakes could have for the world. Bad assumptions can have long-lasting side-effects. Do not go gently into the type of world they are trying to design for us.

In future articles, we will explore specific perspections of the good life implicated by the idolatry of the computer.

Further Reading

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. In addition to working as a ghost-writer, his work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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