Douglas Adams on artificial gods

BoingBoing links to a podcast of a speech Douglas Adams gave in 1998. Here is an excerpt of a (somewhat poor quality) recording:

 So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!

To me it seems like Adams is saying that our old gods solved a cognitive and evolutionary problem and that we need to figure out, now that the old gods don’t do the trick any more for us scientifically-minded types, how to solve those still existing problems with new ideas. Apparently he thinks the new ideas will, unsurprisingly, resemble the old ones, only that they will be artificial this time around.

What is particularly interesting about Adams’ point of view is that it is practical – and not theoretical. Adams is not trying to figure out if it is TRUE that “God exists” or “God does not exist” (he obviously believes the latter to be more true). He is asking “How useful is the idea of God?” and his answer is surprisingly more positive than much of what we hear today. In effect, Adams, the comic, is doing biology much better than a Dawkins is, because evolution does not care in the end if something is true or not – it only cares how well it works and how to improve it. And that is precisely what Adams is suggesting. If the idea of a gigantic clockmaker doesn’t really work for us any longer, let’s fix it – not throw it away! Amen.

Link to transcript, Link to MP3


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