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The great discarnation

The ontology of the work of AI and its hermeneutical insignificance

“I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you.”

Russell Hoban. Riddley Walker.

In his 1954 short story The Great Automatic Grammatizator, Roald Dahl toys with the possibility that a machine will be invented to do the job of a writer far better and quicker than any writer can. Because writers are unable to compete with this machine, they end up licencing their names to publishers. They promise not to produce any work of their own while the publishers use their names to sell books. Towards the end of the story, we discover that the storyteller is one of the last writers refusing to sell out. He can no longer meet the material needs of his own children because he isn’t making enough money. And so, as he draws his story to a close, he wonders if, for the sake of holding onto the last shreds of human creativity, he will have the courage to let his children starve.

Groff Conklin’s assessment of this story, also published in 1954, is likely to seem somewhat naïve now. He describes it as “an awe-inspiring fantasy-satire ... an unforgettable bit of biting nonsense.” But Dahl’s so-called fantasy-satire is looking less nonsensical and more real by the minute. So-called Artificial Intelligence, which I would prefer to call Inhuman Psuedo-Intelligence, has improved so much recently that it is not difficult to think that it poses a threat even to creative people and to creativity itself.

Certainly, as my friend Kit Wilson has brilliantly explored in his rather grim assessment of what generative AI means for our imaginations, we seem more than destined to exit the “Age of Writing” and enter the “Age of Prompting and Editing.” I share Kit’s pessimism. I do not think it would be wise to underestimate how AI will contribute to the erosion of the imagination. As Kit writes,

“Our intellects, without proper exercise, will atrophy. Human culture will descend into a pernicious feedback loop: AI regurgitates for us whatever information it can scrape from the web, we then feed the edited results back into the internet, and the bots feast once again on what they’ve more or less just excreted.”

This assessment is spot-on. Still, I do have a dim hope that the shadow cast by this dark advent may also prove the existence of a light that will continue to shine as we forge our way forward.

McLuhan points out in his 1964 book Understanding Media that what he calls automation does not have merely univocal consequences. It is true that new technologies may replicate and replace certain functions performed by people, and this is likely to bring about a crisis. However, a crisis implies not only a time of difficulty but also a time of decision. And McLuhan notes that decision-making is not eradicated at all by new technologies. There is no inevitability as long as we’re willing to contemplate what’s happening. After all, any new technology will transform the environment in such a way that old technologies gain new meanings and new potentialities. Old media can be re-envisioned and recovered as a result of the new.

The threat of the new may in fact help us to rediscover the real value of the old. The arrival of the technology of the car onto the world’s stage, for example, did not simply stop people from riding horses or from using horse-drawn carriages. The way people engaged with horses and horse-drawn carriages changed. Similarly, in recent history, vinyl records, thought by many to have been obsolesced by CDs and mp3s and music streaming, have made an astonishing comeback. Similarly, the arrival of the computer did not eradicate hand-lettering, penmanship, and calligraphy; it gave such things a unique new value, possibly even a deeper and greater value. And these are by no means the only examples of what David Sax has called the revenge of analogue.

Well, what I am hoping for is something like a revenge of real creativity. A better word than revenge would be resurrection. I am hoping for a revival of the creative spirit and perhaps AI can even contribute in some way to such a revival, even if only by functioning as a kind of determinate negation or counter-environment. But such a resurrection would require a renewed sense of what creativity is and especially of how it differs at a fundamental level from inputting prompts into a machine and then editing the results. Very simply put, the relationship between human creativity and AI is a bit like the difference between living in a certain city and looking at pictures of that city from elsewhere. The difference is between knowing something in a deeply experiential way and merely knowing about something.

Anyway, creativity has already been under threat for some time now. This has been true even prior to the arrival of AI which mimics human creativity. In recent years, a trend has emerged that tends to reduce creativity to a set of neat little formulas, perhaps as a way to give false hope to mediocre creators that it’s not so hard to be creative after all. It doesn’t matter which creative field you’re in, you will find resources everywhere that explain what you’re doing as reducible to a set of predictable coordinates. These can be helpful but they can also dupe people into thinking that human creativity is really a lot like what AI does. One particularly famous and glaring example of this is Kirby Ferguson’s famous suggestion that creativity is simply the result of copying, transforming and combining existing materials. In this view, creativity is merely a kind of patchworking and remixing activity. To be creative, as this suggests, all you have to do is bend a few things out of shape and stitch them together with other bent-out-of-shape things. If that is the case, then, of course, a computer can do it!

On the surface, Ferguson’s formula makes intuitive sense. Think for a moment of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus. 43. It is easy to suggest that the entire thing is really the result of copying, transforming, and combining existing elements. Paganini’s original theme is copied, then endlessly transformed and combined with new harmonies. But those who listen with their hearts and not just with their heads are unlikely to find such an explanation satisfactory. This is not only because the composition is so complex but because the explanation doesn’t fit our experience of the composition. We also know, deep in our bones, that Rachmaninov himself did not experience the process of inventing that marvel as merely running through such a formula.

On reflection, Ferguson’s explanation sounds less like an explanation and more like an insult to the creative mind. Try explaining Rachmaninov’s other compositions in a similar way, and soon you will sound like a buffoon. It’s worse than that, actually. Try explaining the work of Dostoevsky or van Gogh or Tarkovsky in a similar way, and soon you will realise that you sound like a liar. Chesterton very perceptively joked that Sherlock Holmes is a logical person as imagined by an illogical person; and it seems to me, by analogy, that only an uncreative person could imagine creativity as reducible to copying, transforming, and combining. To use Iain McGilchrist’s terms, such a formulaic vision of creativity is the result of the left hemisphere of the brain trying to give an account of what the right hemisphere of the brain is up to—without having any clue about what it is really up to.

Such a simplistic view of creativity is probably the result of a general modern obsession with method—a general modern tendency to overvalue the left hemisphere. Method is essentially dualistic, the result of a nominalist and Cartesian divorce of the richness of human experience from abstracted and consciously articulated thoughts. It results from something like the psychological phenomenon of presentification, where a specific result is kept in mind while the entire complex process that leads up to that result is forgotten. One consequence of the obsession with method is that only self-conscious connections are granted relevance and value. But to accept this is to deny our very nature and our very depths. It is, in the case of creative work, to reduce creativity to its most obvious results. Creativity thus becomes not a why and a how, which is what it is, but a mere what. It becomes a product. And as a product, it fits rather nicely within the neoliberal logic that would place the entire human experience at the mercy of efficient utilitarian market imperatives.

But as I’ve just said, creativity, in its very essence, is a why and a how. It is the process, built on a deep desire to create. We are clued into its ontology when we look at something like the act of play, as Gadamer does in his masterwork Truth and Method. Play is only truly play when the player gets lost in play. This is not about frivolity or escapism. This is not about fleeting curiosity or mere diversion. The player takes the game quite seriously, although he is aware that it is just a game. He allows himself to be absorbed in the process. He becomes immersed in it, given over to the flow of being and becoming. It is not just that he is playing the game. In a very real sense, he experiences being played by the game. He may very well be possessed by it. He is gathered up in it just as it gathers up the world around it. He is transformed by the game. On completing the game, he therefore can’t merely smirk at the quirky result of his input, as someone does when looking at the results of ChatGPT. Similarly, he can’t shrug it off as a nonevent, as if nothing has happened. It is too meaningful to allow such non-commital nonchalance, although its meaning may remain implicit. It is likely that, by the end of the game, he won’t be able to fully explain what has taken place. He knows something has occurred even if he cannot say exactly what he knows.

There is a constant dialogue involved in the process of play. There is a to-and-fro movement that endlessly renews itself. The play itself is renewed. In this, there is what Gadamer calls the “primacy of play over the consciousness of the player.” The play cannot be reduced to the subjectivity of the creative subject. The subject cannot stand over and against the object he is creating the way you might stand over and against an AI while inputting prompts and getting a response. The creator is not merely in charge of a range of elements in front of him, separate from him. He is not merely waiting to judge whether the outcome meets his expectations. He is involved. He is being created as much as he is creating. Judgment is involved, of course. But the act of creation is predominantly about the happening of happenings and the being of beings. Ontologically speaking, creation is more primal than the subjectivity of the creator.

This is nicely captured in Heidegger’s observation that the artwork originates the artist just as much as the artist originates the artwork. This circularity is inescapable; it is in this circularity that meaning is found. Indeed, more than meaning arises in the play and in creativity. The happening of truth is there too, as the fuel that fires the meaning. Good creative work of even the most fantastical and seemingly outlandish kind always ends up resonating with us most when it has a revelatory dimension. It brings out into the light what was hidden in the dark. I should say that this is not just about creators like writers and artists but also about those who enjoy the work of such creators. It applies to those who admire their work and pay attention. To love creative work is to end up co-discovering meaning and truth with its creators, and with others who find meaning in what they do. Being an appreciator is therefore also a creative act. But the richness of this participation is not achievable if we reduce ourselves to being mere prompters and editors and passive observers of mere products.

Most notably, in play, there is always a risk. The same goes for creativity. “The game itself is a risk for the player,” says Gadamer. To remove all danger from the game is to exit the game. It is perhaps to refuse to play the game. The presence of risk and danger makes the game and creativity alluring. The fact that the game is drenched in indeterminacy and speaks of the real possibility of failure is what makes it worth playing. Every creator knows this. To set out to create anything is to know risk. There is the risk, for instance, that the work will not live up to its potential, or the risk of letting an audience down, or the risk of too many miscommunications in the dialogue between creator, creation, and world. In the end, the value of risking even failure is that truth is discovered and lived in creativity itself. Truth emerges even from error, as Hegel perceives. Yes, we can and do hope for a good outcome. But the outcome is not the primary event, even if the play is never quite free of a sense of teleology.

I think of Russell Hoban’s observation, in one of his last interviews, that it is dangerous for any novelist to set out to convey a message. What is vital for the creative soul is to be owned by an idea, to allow it to place us under its spell, to work itself out through us. No doubt, a message will emerge out of the world of creation. But in the end, it is the formal cause that carries the full meaning of creation, not the efficient cause. Certainly, this is more mysterious than the description of creativity as copying, transforming, and combining. But the fact that there is a mystery here is a sign that we have truth as well. Truth is not reducible to our propositions. Creativity is not reducible to our formulas.

To further clarify how creativity differs from what AI does, it is helpful to think of the distinction that Gadamer makes between a copy and picture. A copy, which AI represents, essentially implies diminishing what was present in the thing being copied. It is a dilution of the real. On this matter, Walter Benjamin writes about how mechanical reproductions tend to remove the aura from the original, and it is not difficult to know what he means. We end up with something that looks like the original but feels less significant. One has only to think of a silly little fridge magnet of the Mona Lisa or some other great artwork. We recognise the copy as a copy. The little magnet is unquestionably not the original. It has been unworlded, displaced, and removed from everything that would ground its meaning. The aura is gone. The so-called creative work of AI always has this feeling about it. It is unlikely that any of us will marvel at its results for long, and one reason is that much of the best of what generative AI does is still related to efficiency and functionality and not to being itself. The novelty soon wears off. It does not invite contemplation in the way that creativity itself does.

In contrast with the copy in its artificiality, a picture represents the original much in the way an orchestra represents a composition. Unlike the copy, the picture diminishes nothing; instead, it expands the meaning of the original and intensifies it even as it communes and participates with it. The picture can even be said to complete the original. Without the orchestra playing the composition, the composition does not come alive. The picture is fundamentally enworlded; it “contains an indissoluble connection with its world.” Of course, there are very good copies, copies that may get close to the original. Arguably there is value in this. But the approximation that the copy achieves has a limit beyond which it cannot go. It cannot reveal the being of things in the way that a picture does.

Human creativity is what it is because human consciousness is enworlded. Human consciousness is situated. My consciousness is this point of view, much deeper than what I can articulate but which I can and must attempt to articulate anyway. My consciousness is this particular perspective on this world we share. In contrast, Inhuman Pseudo-Intelligence exists in programmes operating from no specific position, no particular point-of-view, no specific set of experiences, and no concrete and felt sense of the world. It does not know what it does and says because it is undead. We evaluate its products as the results of its unconsciousness and marvel more at the human beings behind the programming.

As this last point suggests, human consciousness is also essentially relational, and so it is aware of its own internal dialogue even as it engages in conversations with others. We live in a shallow age, I know, and so people often mistakenly judge others and themselves as if they have no real inwardness. But we are built with a profound capacity to empathise; to consider the many hidden dimensions of the minds of strangers. We do not merely exchange words with them, we inhabit them, just as they inhabit us. We play together; we live in this drama together, we create this story that is this life and this world. We are this drama. We are incapable of standing outside it or over and against it, although we may elect to believe otherwise. There is nothing of such a deep way of dwelling with AI. I doubt there ever will be, no matter how proficient and convincing the simulation gets. By endlessly replicating representational schemas, AI cannot even begin to get close to approximating the human mind; and it can only continue to fail to tug at the strings of the human heart.

Ultimately, AI fails to be concerned with the only thing that really matters. I have suggested that all genuine creativity pursues truth; it seeks out revelation. While not all creative work achieves this fully, this remains its ground and its true telos. Sadly, many people with creative capacities abandon the call that would ground them and their work. But the loving call of truth still compels us to create. Creativity endlessly circles around the possibility of disclosures and epiphanies. It remains ever open to the revelatory. One of the dominant concerns that hovers over all AI nowadays is the legitimate worry not just that we will be replaced but that we are moving ever closer to living in a world in which deception has entirely replaced reality. Already the pervasive collective unconscious is possessed by this worry. Copies seem to far outnumber pictures. It is no surprise that with every dialectical sublation as AI develops, the deception only deepens. The natural telos of AI is to perfect the copy. The final Absolute will not be Big Truth but the Total Simulacrum, behind which no truth can be discerned.

I can’t help escape the significance of the fact that I am reflecting on this subject so close to Christmas, a time that speaks of the Incarnation of the Word; the Creator takes on flesh and blood and dwells in our midst. Christ perfectly represents God, and perfectly represents humanity. He is true God and true man, with neither aspect of his nature diluted by the other and both existing in a perfect, nonrivalrous union. He is the archetype of all creativity in that he lives what he has made, and thus completes it. He is both beyond and within the drama. He is played by his creation but he ordains the play. He does not stand at a distance and offer prompts and edits. He offers us himself. I know, of course, that this is the theological and metaphysical frame that I live within and it may differ from yours. But it stands as a defiant and brilliant contrast to what AI is and does. AI shows the opposite. It shows a continuous removal of the Word from the World—a great discarnation. And this shows us an ever-widening gap between what is articulated and what is true. This is precisely the rub. The artificiality of this Inhuman Pseudo-Intelligence is not built on a concern with revelations and unconcealments. It reveals its programming, not the truth of being. It is therefore not insignificant that the main benefits of AI are articulated along utilitarian lines. It is functional. Creativity should never succumb to such brutal and impersonal logic.

I do not doubt, however, that AI can become another tool for creators. It can be especially useful to those who understand and live out the truly incarnational nature of the play of creation. It will be a small and occasional tool for the creative mind. But the moment it dominates, the goal of creativity, namely the disclosure of being and of truth, will be lost. The experience of creation will be denied its fullness. Already, we have too much bad art; too much work rests in the formulaic. We definitely do not need machines to replicate the worst of what lazy, inattentive, unreflective creators produce. What we need is people who are willing to linger, contemplate, and dwell on things long enough to allow themselves to be transformed by a deep and ongoing revelation of the truth. We need creative people who have the courage to take risks. What we need, what I truly hope for, is a revival of the creative spirit.