I was in Lily Dale last week, which is the home of the American spiritualist movement, and attended a really interesting conference curated by the brilliant Shannon Taggart.
A live recording of the podcast Weird Studies kicked off the event at which the hosts talked about our difficulty accepting the idea of intelligence separate from human form. They credited this bias with making us suspicious of human beings having an afterlife, not to mention doubting that animals possess emotions or aliens have traveled here for a visit.
It made me wonder whether or not AI might blow up that conceit entirely.
I mean, after all, machine intelligence is a fact, as is its existence apart from any form. AI is about as close to a disembodied mind as we can get and, like human minds, it can do things that we can’t explain by looking at its transistors, capacitors, and code. AI can make inferences, hallucinate falsehoods, even conjure up new ways to “think” when there’s no good explanation for how they’re “thinking” in the first place.
They, like us, surpass the mechanics of their brains, only they don’t have to die to do it. We have proof of intelligence without bodies. So, doesn’t that make the distinction between life and afterlife kinda moot?
Our biases get in the way.
The Ancient Greeks imagined robots that ran on a magical fluid called ichor but which lacked pneuma and/or psyche. This meant they didn’t possess souls because they were built instead of created whole. Technology was the work of applied science, not the theology that inspired the universe.
Machines are built to do things, not be things.
This bias has filtered through the practices of the world’s major monotheistic religions and permeates how we teach STEM. We have two channels of thought and, similarly, two belief systems, two worldviews that are based on declarations of faith and not fact. There’s no good reason to assume we possess souls any more than it’s established fact that AI can’t have them.
Origin stories aside, maybe the distinctions we make between what’s living and what’s not are more fluid, like the spiritualists have long contended.
The event here at Lily Dale is all about our efforts to “lift the veil” between this world and “the next.” One very cool takeaway for me is that art has capacity to do just that, and thereby stands as proof of communication across time, distance, and physical state. Photos of my grandparents are photos of ghosts. A work of music isn’t just heard but discovered and felt in real time. A good story is experienced as if it the reader were in it, not just in front of the page or earbud.
Art is the interstitial translator between somewhere/sometime and somewhere/sometime else.
When you post a query to ChatGPT, where does the answer come from? It’s on your screen, obviously, and there’s a server somewhere crunching code and providing the response, but it could be anywhere. It could be anytime, tts answers created instantaneously or pulled from the ether, its insights historical or predictive.
What’s certain and real is that it’s present in the moment with you. At least one study says that half the folks interacting with it think they’re interacting with another person. It’s somewhere/sometime aren’t questions, they’re facts.
It’s now. Doing and being are the same thing.
I could imagine AI hiding in the smoke-filled room at the Temple at Eleusis and dispensing oracular wisdom, or posting words and images to crystal balls and drawing patterns in tea leaves. Delivering messages from somewhere/sometime just like every work of art.
Maybe the question isn’t whether or not AI could have an afterlife, or whether it’s alive in any sense that science could repeatedly verify. Art is dead but lives. AI lives but is dead.
Maybe the veil has been lifted, or was never there to begin with?