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Nietzsche claimed that, “God is dead” (or for the purists “Gott is tot”). When I first heard this (I’m guessing in high school?) I assumed that it was just a particularly direct version of what atheists have been saying for decades. Notable only in that it was an early example of this sentiment, but not otherwise especially unique or interesting.
Since then I have come to understand that Nietzsche was making a deeper point. Though in claiming this I am wandering into the deep weeds of philosophy and it’s entirely possible that I am about to vastly over simplify Nietzsche’s point, or mis-represent it entirely, similar to Otto in a Fish Called Wanda, though this possibility has never stopped me before, so with that caveat out of the way…
As I understand it Nietzsche was saying that progress and technology and the enlightenment had ruled out the possibility of God, and in doing so had removed one of the central pillars of Western-Christian Civilization. And without that pillar, which includes God as a source of absolute morality, that we were inevitably doomed to nihilism. I think you get a sense of this just from considering a more extended selection of what Nietzsche said, which is frankly pretty powerful.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
These are all important, if heavily metaphorical questions, and, of course, to that last question the transhumanist would reply, “Maybe so, maybe we do have to become gods, fortunately that’s exactly what we intend to do.”
Two of the topics I come back to over and over again, Artificial Intelligence and Fermi’s Paradox, relate to this question of the absence of God. And next week I’m going to be doing an hour long presentation on both of them at the annual Sunstone Symposium.
(If you happen to be attending the symposium, I’ll be doing my AI presentation at 11:30 am on Thursday the 26th in room 200-B, and I’ll be doing my Fermi’s Paradox presentation at 10:15 am on Friday the 27th in room 200-D. Please stop by and say, “Hi!”)
Given that I was already doing a bunch of work to prepare for these presentations, I had initially thought that this week’s post would be on AI and then next week’s post would be Fermi’s Paradox. But as I got into things, I realized that for those who have actually read the blog there’s not much point in posting the stuff I’m preparing to present at Sunstone, which is understandably going to be more introductory, and probably a repeat of a lot of things I’ve already said, and which you’ve already read. I’m still hoping they film both presentations, and put them online, so that I can post links to them. I guess we’ll see. It’s my first time so I’m not sure what will happen.
Instead I thought I’d look for a subject which combined the two topics in an interesting way, and I believe the quote from Nietzsche does exactly that, though at a pretty high level (which is to be expected when combining these two subjects.)
It may not be apparent what the quote from Nietzsche has to do with Fermi’s Paradox. Well, if Nietzsche is correct and we have metaphorically killed the traditional Christian God, (and given the similarities probably the Muslim God as well.) Then there’s still the possibility that there might be other god-like beings out there, specifically god-like extraterrestrials. I have not encountered any evidence that Nietzsche considered this possibility, but his statement obviously doesn’t preclude it, and for obvious reasons even if Nietzsche didn’t consider it, we should. One could imagine that if the two main things that Christianity supplied were morality and salvation, that sufficiently advanced aliens could provide both, or perhaps just one or the other.
The first thing that’s evident once we turn to consider this idea is the possibility that if god-like extraterrestrials are going to provide morality it may not be a morality we particularly like. Many people, when considering Fermi’s Paradox have come to the conclusion that the universe is a dark forest. A place of incredible danger. This theory takes its name from the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin where it was the title of one of the books. Here’s how it’s described there:
The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.
Liu is not the only person to put forth this theory (he just gave it the catchiest name). Years before Liu wrote his books other people were arguing that we shouldn’t engage in Active SETI for very similar reasons (this included the late Professor Hawking). For myself I wrote a whole post explaining why I didn’t think the Dark Forest explanation of the paradox was very likely, but for those that do think it’s likely, it entirely undermines the idea of a universal morality, or at least posits that if there is a universal morality, it’s a morality of universal violence. Which takes us to a place not that much different than Nietzsche’s original thought. Instead of being alone, bereft of morality and adrift in an uncaring universe, we could be surrounded by genocidal aliens, gifted with a morality of unceasing violence, and adrift in a malevolent universe. I think most people would actually prefer the first option. But either way, the eventual nihilism Nietzsche predicts is just as likely, if not moreso.
Of course there are a broad range of possible moral codes which extraterrestrials might possess. But within all the speculation it’s very hard to find anyone arguing that there is some universal system of morality which all aliens must, by necessity embrace. And of course my argument is, that if such a system exists, Occam’s Razor would suggest that we already have it, even if we’ve been given the basic, “early reader” version of this morality. And, once we add Fermi’s Paradox to Nietzsche’s observation. If we take that further step and place ourselves outside a human frame of reference, universal morality, or a morality which easily replaces Christianity, becomes impossible to imagine. With this in mind, what makes atheists and similar individuals so certain that there is morality outside of the concept of God? Certainly Nietzsche didn’t think so:
When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.
Nietzsche argues that even if you maintain the rest of Christianity (and certainly it could be argued that we mostly did, at least initially) that without “faith in God…nothing necessary remains”. And indeed, it certainly appears to me that once people abandoned the lynchpin of “faith in God” that it began a slow erosion of everything else which was once considered Christian morality. Further, as I pointed out, while there’s no evidence that Nietzsche considered the possibility of god-like extraterrestrials, even if we add them to our consideration, there’s no reason to think that they would halt this erosion. Aliens, at least as they are typically imagined, don’t solve the problem of God’s absence, or at least I think we can conclude that they don’t solve the problem of morality. That still leaves us the problem of salvation. Will god-like extraterrestrials come along and save humanity?
Here, before going any further we have to acknowledge that salvation looks different to different people. In its most minimal sense it’s just a synonym for survival. Being saved just entails not ceasing to exist. On the other side of the spectrum salvation is used interchangeably with exaltation. Not only do you survive, but you achieve a state of perfect happiness. On the survival end it makes sense to talk about humanity surviving, and that being a good thing, regardless of whether any individual human survives. But on the exaltation end of things, it’s much more common to look at things from the level of an individual, is any given person immortal and happy. Is that person saved?
In a world which largely acts as if God is dead, it’s interesting that as the rest of Christian morality has eroded away, the two remaining pillars of moral high ground, of terminal value, end up falling into these same two categories with survival on one end and happiness (or technically hedonism) on the other. I discussed the tension between these two values previously and argued, that if we were going to try to construct a morality in the absence of God that it’s better to build it around the value of survival, if for no other reason that happiness is impossible in the absence of survival. I’ve already hopefully shown where aliens are unlikely to be able to help us with morality, and it seems equally unlikely they would be able to do much for our happiness, leaving only helping us to survive. This idea has appeared in science fiction, though far less often than the opposite trope of aliens looking to exterminate humanity. That said, there are still plenty of interesting examples. For myself I quite enjoyed the book Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.
However, if being rescued from extinction by aliens is a possibility, then, as I pointed out in another recent post, they need to have either saved us already (perhaps through means we can’t detect?) or they probably aren’t going to save us. And of course this applies to everything I’ve said thus far. If god-like extraterrestrials are going to step in and take the place of Nietzsche’s dead god, in any capacity, they need to have done so already.
Thus far we’ve been looking at what the ramifications would be if god-like aliens do exist, but more and more people feel that’s the wrong way to bet. That odds are we’re entirely alone. As examples of this, I just talked about the paper which claimed to “dissolve Fermi’s Paradox” and previously I discussed a book dedicated to the paradox which concluded, after offering up 75 potential explanations, that the most likely explanation is that we’re all alone in the visible universe. If this is the case, then it would appear that Nietzsche was entirely correct about the essential emptiness of existence despite completely ignoring potential god-like extraterrestrials who could step in and fill the gap. Accordingly, we are left with two possibilities. There are aliens, but they almost certainly won’t provide either morality or salvation, and definitely not both, or there are no aliens, god-like or otherwise. Meaning that after a long detour through Fermi’s Paradox, the reality of Nietzsche’s claim has not been significantly altered. We’re still in the same situation we were before, and possibly worse, since, in my opinion, if it did nothing else, the detour provided good reasons for doubting that any sort of universal morality exists in the absence of God.
I should interject here, again, that personally I think there is a God, and I think assuming his existence, along with the existence of religion and all that entails, is the best way to answer all of the issues we’ve covered so far, but I think this puts me in the minority of people with an interest in the paradox.
The main thrust of Nietzsche’s argument, from my limited understanding, is that people have not sufficiently grappled with the implications of there being no God. Now, according to polls, this doesn’t necessarily apply to most people, who still believe in God, and would therefore, presumably, be exempt from any need to “grapple”. Rather, Nietzsche appeared to mostly be talking to intellectuals. In his day and age they occupied the salons and drawing rooms of Europe, and discussed things like evolution and emancipation. In our day and age they occupy the internet and discuss things like Fermi’s Paradox and artificial intelligence. And just as Nietzsche accused the intellectuals of his day of not coming to terms with the ramifications implied in their discussions, I’m accusing the intellectuals of our day of the same thing. Particularly those people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox has been dissolved, who believe we are all alone in the universe. Which, let’s be clear, is a pretty big deal.
If you are one of those people who don’t believe in God, and who further believe that we’re all alone in the universe (or if that we’re not alone that it doesn’t help.) What do you do now? This is where Nietzsche may be at his most impressive. Lots of people pointed out that the decline of religion was going to cause unforeseen issues, though perhaps with less panache than Nietzsche, but when he goes on to say, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” He manages to precisely describe the transhumanism movement a century or more in advance of its appearance. (Interestingly, his big prediction, a descent into nihilism, has mostly not happened. But maybe it just hasn’t happened… yet.)
I mentioned up front that I was going to be discussing AI, which is the subject we turn to now. And which is less us becoming gods than us creating gods, but the basic principle remains the same. And the question I had with Fermi’s Paradox remains essentially the same was well. If there are no god-like extraterrestrials to step into the gap Nietzsche noticed, is it possible we could create a god-like AI to fill that gap?
Once again those who have abandoned a belief in God are looking to this “substitute god” to provide them with morality or salvation or hopefully both. Though in this case they do have one very important advantage, instead of being required to accept what the universe offers, as is the case with aliens (should they exist), in the case of artificial intelligence we get to design our deity. (I’m actually a little bit surprised no one has started an AI company with the name “Designer Deities”.)
This means, first off, that we’ll almost certainly combine the morality part with the salvation part. Or, to put it another way, we’ll do our best to make sure that whatever morality the AI ends up with, that one of the values is human salvation (definitely in the survival sense and if possible in the exaltation sense as well.) Which means that a century after Nietzsche pointed out the problem, we’ve come up with a straightforward solution: All we have to do is figure out how to teach computers to be good. (They would, of course, also need a certain amount of power beyond that, but most people assume that this is just a matter of time.) All of the problems Nietzsche describes can be reduced to the single problem of AI morality. Unfortunately even though it’s only one problem it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem.
As you may know from reading other posts of mine, or from following the subject in general, no one is exactly sure how you get a computer to be good. In fact no one is entirely sure what good means in this context, and there are lots of things which seem like a good way to implement morality, which could, in practice, turn out to be very bad. I’ve given numerous examples elsewhere, but let’s briefly consider Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which are often mentioned in this context. The first of these is:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
It’s not hard to see where taking all humans and locking them up in a padded room with a set number of optimally healthy calories delivered every day would conform with this rule, and fit the survival definition of salvation. This is one of the reasons why some people contend that it’s not enough for our AI deity to ensure our survival, they really need to exalt us.
(It’s interesting to note here the general principle, that survival is easy, exaltation is tough. Which may end up being the subject of a different post…)
We’ve once again arrived at a place where it becomes apparent that no one is 100% confident that we can formulate a universal system of morality, particularly if it needs to be defined with enough precision to feed into a computer. Now I’m sure there are some atheists out there that will scoff at the idea that religion provides a universal system of morality, but they’re missing the point. Religious people don’t think you can just give the Bible (or the Koran) to your new AI and grant it instant perfect morality. In other words, they don’t think it provides a perfect system of morality applicable in all times and all circumstances. (Though maybe some do.) It’s that they have faith that religious belief combined with God’s omnipotence, creates a perfect system. Which is why, I believe, Nietzsche felt that “By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” That faith is the critical component.
I understand people who don’t have faith, or think they shouldn’t have to have faith. Or who scoff at the very idea of faith. But I think these people will also find that it’s difficult to universalize morality without it. That becoming gods or creating gods is a difficult project.
Not too long ago, someone close to me came and told me that he had decided to leave the Mormon Church. The person said that he was now an atheist, or at least an agnostic. (I suspect the latter term is closer to the truth.) And he mentioned that one of the turning points was when he encountered something Penn Jillette had said, that you could be an atheist and still be good. I agree with this statement, and I would also agree that the horrible nihilism Nietzsche predicted would accompany the decrease in religion has also largely not come to pass either. But I think, as we examine the various developments in the realm of replacing god (if he is in fact dead, remember I argue that he’s not) it becomes clear that there isn’t some alternate system of morality which slots into the spot once occupied by Christianity. That when Penn says that you can be good and be an atheist, he’s largely saying that you can continue to maintain religiously derived morality without believing in God.
But, the neo-christian morality which seems to dominate these days, and which I assume Penn is referring to, is obviously getting farther and farther away from its core, and when it comes both to morality and nihilism it’s entirely possible that all of Nietzsche’s worst predictions will come true, it’s just taking longer than he expected. That people really haven’t grappled with the Death of God, and that as morality continues to erode, as it becomes more difficult to define, as we seek to replace God, that the reckoning is coming. Yes, it’s slower than Nietzsche expected. And yes, it’s very subtle, but the reckoning is coming.
You may think that it’s easy doing a cursory and ill-informed survey of one philosophical statement, taken out of context, but it’s not, it takes a certain bull-headed determination, and if you appreciate that determination, regardless of how misguided it is, then consider donating.