McDonald’s River of Gods (AI)

As noted in my previous post, Ian McDonald’s book River of Gods deals with a number of religious topics. One is that of the intersection, and in fact concurrence of Artificial Intelligence and Divinity. This is nothing new in Science Fiction, but McDonald gives the topos a special and particularly interesting treatment.

In the book humans have developed AIs (he calls them aeais, which gives them further numinous character) that so far surpass humans that they are for all intents and purposes gods. The only difference is that they are so different in nature from human beings (being without bodies and being able to copy themselves at will) that they can hardly understand them.  Of course, humans get scared of their creations, outlaw them and hunt them down. So much for the plot.

What is most interesting from a religious (as opposed to IT) perspective is that the concept of a “god” can be so easily shifted onto what is in the end a computer program. And this says much more, i think, about our idea of a god than it does about AI. A god is (at least for McDonald, but he is obviously using widely held views) whatever is much bigger and stronger than we are, regardless if we created it ourselves or not. (Note that this is not the christian definition of a god as whatever we worship/serve.)

So what does this mean about the future of our concept of a god? I think we can learn from McDonald that a god is not actually what we might think it is. We might sooner than later want to call “god” some things that we might never have imagined – i.e. we might need to go from looking for something that fits our idea of a god (the standard proofs of gods existence do this) to calling a god something that fits our idea of what one is like. In the first case god is nothing new (he was there all along waiting for us to find him); in the second case, he might well be brand-spanking new.

A second thought about these AI gods is that they fit much better into a polytheistic worldview than a theistic one. In effect McDonald sees the future as polytheistic. Granted, his new god are not as transcendent as the old ones used to be, but a polytheistic world always is monist anyhow (the gods are part of the world, not external to it). River of Gods offers us a bunch of more or less mortal, very un-human gods that neither create worlds nor mess around with humans (overly much). But the concept of a god remains very useful though much modified, and in that at least i presume McDonald is right on the (future’s) money.

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One Comment to “McDonald’s River of Gods (AI)”

  1. Historically, the concept of god has usually been tied up with creation as well.

    So maybe we need to split the “god” concept in two – one to describe the greater forces and causal relationships that made things the way they are; and one to describe what you’re talking about here. The former might be filled by something like Spinoza’s god, or maybe it’ll turn out that we can do without it altogether; and the latter may be something that turns up in the future.

    Having said that, there must be a point at which the term “god” becomes so different to its classical definition that it’d be more straightforward to call it something else entirely.

    Sounds like an interesting book, anyway. Onto the Amazon wishlist it goes. 🙂

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