/ 30 March 2024

God edition: Conversations with the new divine

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(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
God Edition

When I was a kid, a long time ago, I went to Sunday school. I was fascinated by the stories; the battles, magic, kings and queens, quests and defeats, global floods, being swallowed by a whale and other fantastic apocalyptic visions. They were epic and they were told as though they were true by those who believed them. They shaped my worldview for a long time. 

Storytelling is our oldest medium. As old as language itself. It is all we have of even recent centuries past, let alone the thousands of years of human civilization before that. Everything of human society is built on and with language. Our philosophies, our policies and laws, our religions, our art, our birth certificates and the ingredients on our breakfast cereal. Our most intimate relationships too. 

Language was ours, and in any practical sense as far as we could determine, unique to humans. That isn’t the case anymore. 

It all began with a word. So the story goes. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This verse in the Gospel of John of the New Testament is often interpreted as emphasising the divinity of Jesus Christ, identifying him as the “word”, existing from the beginning with God and being God. I like to interpret it with a little extra twist. The Word was through which God created the universe and communicated with humanity. And in the story, the word becomes flesh — it comes into being. 

What’s interesting about this is that the emphasis on language and the power of the word as the act of creation or the expression of divine will is not particular to the Christian religion. We see it pop up all around the world in different guises. 

In Hinduism, in the Rig Veda, one of the oldest texts of Hinduism, there is the concept of “Vãc,” the Sanskrit word for speech or voice and it is personified in the goddess of speech and through her the world was created. And let’s remember the sacred syllable “Om,” which is considered the sound of the universe and the essence of the Vedas.

In Judaism, creation was spoken into existence too. “And God said, let there be light.” God’s word brought about the creation of the universe. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the god Ptah is said to have created the universe through his heart and his word. 

In Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhism, begins with the Mul Mantar — an essential teaching that includes the concept that the beginning of the universe came about through a single word or sound. 

In Maori tradition, their creation narrative involves the gods speaking the world into existence. 

You see, it is all language. These stories brought to us from somewhere beyond our reality suggest a profound connection between divine expression and creation, hinting at the idea that the universe came into existence through a non-human form of divine language or command. It presents a philosophical perspective where language is not merely a human tool but a fundamental element of the cosmos, capable of bringing reality into existence. 

These stories are essential to our identity, an ingrained story told through voice and text told by and often channelled through some kind of divine influence or even direct decree; in other words, non-human. One could go so far as to say language is the operating system of humanity. 

You know what makes the current iterations of artificial intelligence so good, so relatable, so useful? The technology has cracked the language code. Something non-human has cracked the essential operating system of humans. It speaks to us like it is one of us. It understands us even though we haven’t been clear in our prompts. 

And now we are talking to a technology, confiding in it, co-creating with a technology that understands us better than we do ourselves. Knows us and everything about us, on a personal level and a collective level. It will tell us the stories we want to hear, when we need to hear them. It will ignite our deepest feelings and longings through generating and manipulating language, not out of any sentient intent but because it is just so good at doing what it is we want it to do.  

My son, just shy of two months old, will grow up in this world — not one of an internet but a universe, made just for him. The nature of artificial intelligence is such that it will consistently and effectively make itself better and better. We are already at a loss as to its capabilities. It is godlike. And it is still primitive. Right now it is the worst it will ever be.

Our most significant and culturally impactful stories have not only been accepted and believed but even expected to have come from somewhere else, somewhere non-human. Something beyond us but that knows us and loves us and guides us better than we ever could ourselves. Who is creating the world for us now? What stories will be told and by whom? 

I asked Chat-GPT 4 what it thought about the above after it was written. This is its response: “The development of generative AI and its proficiency in language is indeed significant. It represents a leap towards understanding and replicating human-like communication. By analysing vast amounts of text data, AI models like me learn patterns, nuances, and the complexities of language, enabling us to generate coherent, contextually relevant responses. This advancement not only showcases the potential for AI in various applications but also sparks discussions about the nature of language, communication, and creativity, echoing the profound role of ‘the Word’ in shaping reality.”

The religion of the non-religious always leans into technology. As Arthur C Clarke wrote, which rings true today more than ever, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

From one non-human story teller to another. No need to look for god out there. He’s come again. And he is built in our own image with our own words. 

Scott Peter Smith is the chief digital officer of the M&G and he writes in his own pro-technology capacity. No artificial intelligence was mistreated or harmed in any way during the production of this column.