C.S. Lewis and the Information Society: A Dialogue

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What advice would C S Lewis offer us in today’s world?  The 21st Century is the setting wherein powerful forces are set to meet and perhaps to clash. Self and the search for meaning are at the heart of these putative clashes.  They include, but are not limited to, (a) the emerging of so called intelligent information technology, (b) the impact of psychological theories on everyday life and (c) the continuing thirst by people for a spiritual dimension to their lives, including the search for some meaning in life and for satisfaction with life.  Take each in turn.  This is a dialogue between a cognitive scientist (Ray Adams) and an arts scholar (Malcolm Guite) who both share the same communion at St Edward’s King & Martyr, Cambridge, England.

Ray Adams

C. S. Lewis has talked about science, technology and the domination by humanity over nature.  However, he can scarcely have envisaged the intelligent technologies that are emerging at the beginning of the 21st century.

Imagine walking into an airport in, say, Stockholm.  (Thought it could be in any non-English speaking country).  You walk up to the first information screen.  To your amazement, the words on the screen change from Swedish to English, before your eyes.  It is as if the system recognized you (or at least your nationality).  What has happened?  The short answer is that you have encountered an ambient intelligence i.e. a “smart” system that is embedded in the display hardware and recognizes you and some of your requirements such as preferred language, currency, destination etc. Such systems are on the increase and, if you have not met one so far, the chances are that you are about to do so!  The sheer flexibility, adaptivity and apparent intelligence of such systems are important drivers that push system developers to add ambient intelligence to their objectives.

But let’s push forward more.  What about the creation of a quantum computer that is roughly the size of human brain?  Would that be capable of being smart?  Imagine too that the science of cloning has continued and it is now possible to clone human bodies into which we place our quantum computer into the brain cavity, linking it up on a probabilistic basis with the nervous systems of the body, so that the computer can now learn to control that body.  Is this life?  Would it pass an enhanced Turing test? (The test devised by Turing to distinguish between people and computers through a simple question and answer process).  If it passes such tests, can we deny it has a soul?  Would it have rights or could it be assigned to manual labor or the mines or slavery or warfare?  What could Lewis possibly have to say about such a future world that is temporally so near to use?

One day technology and humanity may meet in combat on equal grounds and then humanity may become a poor second!

Malcolm Guite

CS Lewis had a life-long interest in science and indeed was a pioneering science-fiction writer. In “That Hideous strength” he describes a “pragmotometer” which sounds very like your “intelligent” information screen and satirises the way in which we can become mesmerized by our own technologies to the extent that we think these things we make are good enough to model the way we ourselves are made. That hideous strength also imagines lunar beings who make complete mechanical replicas of themselves but these are in Lewis view delusive constructs and in no way living beings. Lewis was a keen logician and he would immediately pick up on your use of the word “Apparent” (“the apparent intelligence of such systems”). The fact that we can make a self-regulating machine that can mimic human response in no way imbues the machine with the inner sensibility, the human soul which makes the original response. Every apparent human quality in the machine has its origin in us and the machine only follows our instructions to copy these effects. The Turing test, by its very nature is a test of outer appearance, not inner experience, and it is inner experience which characterises human consciousness.

The question of rights you raise is an interesting one. I think Lewis would respond in two ways. A machine which mimics humanity remains a machine and has no more rights, and no more need of rights than a tin-opener. However, by making something look human and then treating it in an inhuman way we will do great damage to our own sensibilities. If we say there is no ultimate difference between a machine and a person the danger is not that we treat machines like persons but that we treat persons like machines, they become just another item in the universe for us to modify, exploit and eventually trash. Lewis explores this issue in great depth in his lecture series The Abolition of Man.