C. S. Lewis’s 1946 science fiction novel That Hideous Strength is almost eighty years old now. Written during the throes of World War II, the novel is the culmination of Lewis’s cosmic trilogy, preceded by Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. There are hosts of other articles attending to the prescience of Lewis’s terrifying novel, and for good reason; That Hideous Strength is a warning against using technology to dehumanize people and ultimately cripple the world into submission. It’s a great book as a novel, but it seems especially appropriate to revisit in lieu of the growing interest in transhumanism and the rapid acceleration of AI development.
It feels like much of the talk on AI in recent months involves its surface-level manifestations or consequences. It might take away jobs in journalism and help college kids cheat on exams. These are real concerns. The other dangers involving AI scams, disinformation, and deepfakes are formidable, too. And yet a novel like The Hideous Strength shows the danger behind the danger: the temptation to reject being merely human.
A N.I.C.E. Organization
The novelist’s protagonist, Mark Studdock, must decide whether he’ll opt into a scheme to destroy humanity via machine intelligence. Mark, a sociologist in training, gets caught up in a secret society known as N.I.C.E., which stands for the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. N.I.C.E. is the perfect symbol of today’s benevolent-sounding yet bloated and banal administrative state, carrying out power initiatives that impact everyday people. While it’s unclear exactly what the overall goals of the Institute are, one thing is clear: it’s time to throw off the limits of being human and transcend into the world of pure intelligence.
Mark Studdock and his wife, Jane, both have a lot to learn in the book. Mark is eager to find acceptance among elites at N.I.C.E., while Jane, who is a lapsed academic struggling to finish her dissertation on John Donne, longs for a kind of freedom and independence that her married life fails to afford her. Through their own journeys, both learn that accepting their limits and choosing to commit to each other is the real path to freedom. In the end, domestic family life, which includes birth, growth, and death, is envisioned as a kind of antidote to the mad quest for human immortality and domination.
That Didn’t Take Long
Okay, so that was 1946. It’s 2023. OpenAI, ChatGPT, Altos Labs, bio-longevity; is any of that relevant to C. S. Lewis’s great book? Paul Kingsnorth thinks so. Kingsnorth writes often on the state of our tech-intoxicated culture. He doesn’t own a smartphone. He apologetically writes on Substack while decrying all the bad things the Internet has done to us. But, his voice is among the few out there pointing out how “merging ourselves with the Machine” will compromise our humanity. In a recent piece, “The Abbey of Misrule,” Kingsnorth asks what we gain by developing these new AI tools. He writes,
Nearly sixty years back, the cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan offered a theory of technology which hinted at an answer. He saw each new invention as an extension of an existing human capability. In this understanding, a club extends what we can do with our fist, and a wheel extends what we can do with our legs. Some technologies then extend the capacity of previous ones: a hand loom is replaced by a steam loom; a horse and cart is replaced by a motor car, and so on.
What human capacity, then, is digital technology extending? The answer, said McLuhan, was our very consciousness itself.PAUL KINGSNORTH, THE UNIVERSAL – BY PAUL KINGSNORTH – THE ABBEY OF MISRULE (SUBSTACK.COM)
While technologies made life more convenient, faster, or efficient, artificial intelligence is about extending human consciousness. Do we want that? What would that mean to our ability to think, understand, and reason on our own? Beyond that, AI at its worst will be a kind of divinity, a man-made God. At least, that’s what our friends over in the transhumanist camp would like. Kingsnorth continues,
Transhumanist Martine Rothblatt says that by building AI systems ‘we are making God.’ Transhumanist Elise Bohan says ‘we are building God.’ Kevin Kelly believes that ‘we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog.’ ‘Does God exist?’ asks transhumanist and Google maven Ray Kurzweil. ‘I would say, “Not yet.”’ These people are doing more than trying to steal fire from the gods. They are trying to steal the gods themselves — or to build their own versions.
For the last two years, I have found myself writing a lot here about God; more than I had intended. I have claimed several times that there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and that someone is always going to sit on it. Humans are fundamentally religious animals. We are drawn towards transcendence whether we like it or not. But here in the West, we have dethroned our old god, and now we can barely look at him.
We Should All Keep Our Heads
Kingsnorth’s article is worth reading in full, and his Substack is consistently interesting and compelling.
We don’t like to try and predict the future here, since it seems so difficult to do. Nonetheless, C. S. Lewis’s novel and Kingsnorth’s warning rightly point out the dangers of depending too much on the machines we create. They might make us feel powerful, but in reality, they leave us weak.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, wrote about this idea in his great book The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. As the title indicates, the book goes into depth on Tolkien’s intricate worldview, conception of ethics, and the battle between good and evil. Kreeft writes,
We have done exactly what Sauron did in forging the Ring. We have put our power into things in order to increase our power. And the result is, as everyone knows but no one admits, that we are now weak little wimps, unable to survive a blow to the great spider of our technological network. We tremble before a nationwide electrical blackout or a global computer virus. Only hillbillies and Boy Scouts would survive a nuclear war. In our drive for power we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have become more powerful when all the time we have been becoming less.PETER KREEFT, THE PHILOSOPHY OF TOLKIEN: THE WORLDVIEW BEHIND THE LORD OF THE RINGS
This is why it probably wouldn’t be so great an idea to force everyone to get electric stoves. Power goes out, and everyone’s basically doomed. I appreciate the technology of a lighter, but if I’m ever trapped in the Colorado wilderness and need to keep warm, I’d probably need a how-to manual for making fire from friction. Technology shows the remarkable ingenuity of human beings, but the more sophisticated it gets, the more tempting it will be to compromise the creativity that makes us unique and live as makeshift drones.
In short, we create technology, but we seem to be at a point where it’s compromising the very things that allowed us to develop it in the first place: innovation, creativity, hard work. If it’s ever stripped away, will we have the skills, stamina, and discipline to recover? If I upload my memories, consciousness, and relationships into the Machine, will I have laid myself at the altar of that hideous strength?
Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.