Good Friday: the death of gods and living with AI

StableDiffusion: “salvador dali crucifixion AI looking from above”

As you’ll perhaps have picked up from reading the book (grab a signed copy here), or hearing me speak about it at recent launch events, the title ‘God-like’ comes from an article written by the UK government’s AI safety lead who urged for ‘a pause in the race to god-like AI’ in an article for the Financial Times.

The problem is, as I try to plot in the book, that race for god-like technologies is one so ancient that it’s perhaps a central part of what it means to be human. If you’ve read Sapiens and/or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (or, far better, my book Getting High 😉 ), you’ll know that there’s a decent argument that generating gods – transcendent, super-human forces – has made us who we are.

In this sense, the book is unashamedly a work of theology – and a warning that if we lose our ability to talk theologically – critiquing ideas and structures that are ‘beyond’ and in the realm of the Lacanian ‘Big Other’ (l’Autre) – then we risk being left vulnerable to the atomising and colonising forces of big tech.

My own argument in Getting High is that consciousness is experienced as a kind of trauma: it is so extraordinary that we desperately seek to abdicate responsibility for it to some higher being. The problem with this is that – rather than turning towards belief in the divine making us better people – what tends to happen is that our humanity is reduced because we serve the Big Other’s ‘higher’ demands, rather than getting on with loving our neighbours.

However, the picture is complicated by the fact that – just as we abdicate responsibility for our miraculous consciousness – at the same time we have this morbid fascination with creating a conscious entity ourselves, itself a ‘god-like’ act.

The book is a history of some of these attempts to animate super-human creations. From Frankenstein, Dr Faustus, Oppenheimer… to an Italian monk burned at the stake in 1600 for claiming to have invented a device that allowed him to know all things, the book is a wild ride through some of these boundary-crossing endeavours…and the complex consequences that have followed.

eBut the book is more than this. My past work in the ‘radical theology’ tradition has been about how, in order to be more human to one another, we need to learn to turn away from the Big Other. What I argue in Getting High is that there’s a ritual of this embedded within an atheist form of Christianity, where the crucifixion on Good Friday – renacted through the mass – is a putting to death of the divine impulse.

Stable Diffusion: “mass performed by AI bread wine church” – no, really, AI has no gender/racial issues at all!

The key line in the communion/eucharist/mass is, having broken the body of Christ and poured out the blood, and ingested these, the gathered community says ‘we are the body of Christ.’ God has died. There is no-body. If god-like things are to be done – justice, mercy, love for the poor – then it is up to us to do them.

What I’ve understood in writing this new book is that these ideas come to their fullest fruition when applied to AI, precisely because AI is the closest we’ve got to creating a god-like force. So our survival alongside this extraordinary feat of creation is going to require us to perform this ritual of putting to death the god-like, dehumanising reflex deep within us.

How can this happen in practice?

The central core of the book is that it can only be done at the meso level of physical communities. It can’t happen at the micro, because this loses the essential requirement of the distribution of the power structure that is being broken, and lacks interaction with those who are ‘other’ – who are not simply our closest connections.

But neither can it happen at the macro level. The system at this scale is so vast that we lose any sense of physical interaction with a community of people, the ‘village’ scale (linked to Dunbar’s number of ~150 people).

Yet it is precisely this meso level of physical encounter that has been hollowed out by the digitalisation of our experience, and the atomisation of our relationships algorithmically mediated in social media.

This is the battleground. As I write towards the end of the book:

We risk becoming vulnerable if we allow ourselves to be subjugated by this god-like structure. But if we find ways to commit to the meso, the very opposite can be true. It is these structures that get us beyond the five-year cycles of party politics; it is having workers raised to company boards (rather than huge block shareholdings by hedge funds interested only in profits) that allows long-term planning to keep firms healthy.

In their original forms, these post-crucifixion communities – St Paul wrote – cut across divides of slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile, worker and manager, to create new modes of belonging. It wasn’t about tearing down the Temple (action aimed at the macro) or quietly quitting (action at the micro level)… this was about a different structure of trust, one rooted in love for the other. It was about a commitment to human flourishing, a return to our essential agency as people in relationship to one another, our shared capabilities to take action in the world and create a more just, more equal and more peaceable place.

To use Professor Ben Ansell’s phrase from his 2023 Reith Lectures, these meso structures were places of solidarity:
“To move beyond our disagreements, we’re going to need some kind of social glue, and that glue is solidarity. Solidarity is about an ‘us’, about a shared fate, about a common humanity, about developing and nurturing a collective identity where what befalls you affects me and vice versa.”

Solidarity. That is the hope of crucifixion, of a world where we have developed the means by which we might still flourish while god-like technologies continue to spring up around us. And they will, because whatever happens on Friday, our human nature will always work acts of resurrection by Sunday.

For some that might be called church. For others, a rotary club, or a trades union, or community group or a worker council. The point is, we meet and encounter people not strictly close to us, experience alterity and learn to trust and be trusted in spaces not mediated algorithmically and that are not data-driven.

In an age of AI, this will be a political act. But that’s the path: learning to put to death that god-like urge by learning to reencounter people, grow empathy and care. That’s what I call a ‘good’ Friday.

Wishing you a happy Easter weekend x

Grab a copy of the book here, or limited edition signed copies from my local bookshop here.