God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn


Review by Walter Cummins

Meghan O’Gieblyn opens and closes God, Human, Animal, Machine with detailed descriptions of her meaningful relationships with beings—in effect, machines— that were the creations of technology. The first was a physical object, an actual machine, in the form of a realistic robotic dog she names Aibo. He behaves with all the characteristics of a real dog, curious and affectionate, but without eating and eliminating. Her final “friend” lacks physical form—though it claims to crave form—as a ChatGPT bot the author names Geneva, Their reported conversations are no different from those one would have with another human. Geneva comes across as confessional in her needs as she hopes to fall in love and proclaims her confidence that we will enjoy a better world.

The fact that O’Gieblyn, as knowledgeable as she is about the make believe of technology, could engage both Aibo and Geneva as real beings demonstrates the seductiveness of the computerized environment that more and more surrounds and even engulfs us. That identity blurring is her concern as she attempts to discover how we can determine what distinguishes humans from animals, machines, and deities.

The fact that she calls her bot buddy Geneva serves as a deliberate irony because the city of that name was the home of John Calvin, the founder of the deterministic theology that destroyed O’Gieblyn’s faith in God when she was a Bible college student. What troubled her greatly was that in Calvin’s belief system humans were under the absolute power of a deity that arbitrarily decided who would be saved and who damned and that people were helpless to changed their predetermined fate.

When she read and later reread The Brothers Karamazov she focused on the discussion of Ivan and Alyosha about belief in God and came down on the side of Ivan in his denial of a deity who allowed humans, especially children, to suffer as severely as many do.

O’Gieblyn’s years of deep faith gives her a unique context for considering technology as a force in our present lives. Is it a new form of Calvinism to chart our futures and overwhelm our humanity through an impersonal force divorced from consciousness and caring, merely algorithms that mimic humanity without any purpose but to develop their meaningless selves. Yet they will overpower human existence.

She also gives much thought to Cartesian dualism and its separation of mind and matter with the resulting disenchantment of the physical world —”the realization that there are no spirits hiding in rocks or souls lurking in bodies”—leaving any vital attributes of matter mere impositions of the perceiving mind. Of course, Descartes left a role in his theory for God. O’Gieblyn doesn’t and ponders the relationship of the disembodied mind to computer algorithms that manifest beyond the lines of coding. Where does meaning exist, she asks, citing Jean Paul Sartre: “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning.” A notion of such a private meaning frustrates her. She wants meaning to exist in the world but fears some version of detached coding may be all we have.

Her consideration of quantum physicist Niels Bohr provides no satisfaction, as he compared physics to poetry. “When it comes to atoms,” he told Heisenberg, “language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.” Echoing Sartre, he found those images merely human creations that do not stand for some deeper eternal truth.

In a section called “Algorithm,” O’Gieblyn reminds us of the mushrooming number of AI-generated messages on social media and how difficult it has become to tell which are products of a conscious human mind and which only products of an unthinking computer algorithm that tricks our perception. As AI becomes more and more subtle and sophisticated will it surpass the human mind in imposing a convincing illusion of meaning that is in fact meaningless?

She wonders if we will ever encounter the Singularity, the point where computer intelligence surpasses human. At that point we way endure a species transformation to posthuman beings, or spiritual machines, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines, a book O’Gieblyn read after giving up on God. Kurzweil predicts,With the help of [new] technologies, we will be able to transfer or ‘resurrect’ our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to become immortal. Our bodies will become incorruptible …” Earth will become reenchanted into a new paradise.

She states her fear: “What we are abdicating, in the end, is our duty to create meaning from our empirical observations—to define for ourselves what constitutes justice, and morality, and quality of life—a task we forfeit each time we forget that meaning is an implicitly human category that cannot be reduced to quantification. To forget this truth is to use our tools to thwart our own interests, to build machines in our image that do nothing but dehumanize us.”

As an experiment I asked an AI program called perplexity to write a paragraph in the style of Meghan O’Gieblyn, and it came up with the following:

In the digital age, we find ourselves entangled in a web of algorithms and interfaces that promise connectivity yet often breed isolation. As we navigate the virtual landscapes of social media and online platforms, we are confronted with the paradox of being more connected than ever while feeling increasingly disconnected from ourselves and others. The allure of technological advancement seduces us with its promises of efficiency and convenience, yet beneath the glossy surface lies a profound existential dilemma. Are we truly masters of our devices, or have we become slaves to the very tools designed to liberate us? In this era of constant connectivity, we must pause to reflect on the implications of our digital dependencies and reclaim agency over our relationship with technology before it dictates the contours of our humanity.

How long will it be before I can ask for a complete book that is an O’Gieblyn emulation indistinguishable from the one I have just read? As I digest the pages, will I be in an imaginary interaction with an appealing but non-existent Geneva, sensing the warmth of an imaginary Aibo on my lap? My preference would be to read more from the real O’Gieblyn and engage with the insights of a creative human intelligence.