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Through the Human Lens: The Millions Interviews Meghan O’Gieblyn

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While it is an admittedly high bar, I’m most drawn to nonfiction books where I feel surrounded by the writer’s manner of thought; I am not merely given an argument, but I am made to experience a mind. God, Human, Animal, Machine, the new book by Meghan O’Gieblyn, is that type of book: an intellectual journey that is generous and generative. I paused the book often to take notes, to ponder O’Gieblyn’s wise and unusual perspectives on big questions, and to even track down her fascinating miscellany (I’m happy that I followed her trail to find the curious essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat” by Thomas Nagel. Great writers, I believe, send us reading.)

Perhaps what I love most about her work is that O’Gieblyn reveals that old, even ancient concerns remain absolutely immediate—unavoidable, perhaps. “Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition,” she writes, “we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.” 

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award for nonfiction. She has written for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Bookforum, n+1, The Point, The Believer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and is a columnist for Wired. She has received three Pushcart Prizes for her writing.

We spoke about how metaphor sustains language, our stubborn search for meaning, and what it means to be human in a transhuman world.

The Millions: The subtitle of your book contains the word “metaphor,” and you include lines of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Richard Brautigan. You also share a wonderful quote from the philosopher Gillian Rose, who described the act of writing as “a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control.” What does language—and perhaps language at its most poetic—offer us in our search for meaning? Is language ultimately helpful or harmful in our pursuit of truth?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I don’t think we can understand the world, at least on a conceptual level, without language. And you could argue that this language is always poetic, if you define that term broadly, as in “reliant on metaphor.” I’m thinking of the research that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson did in the early 1980s that found that all languages are built on spatial metaphors we learn as children, from our interactions in the world. When we envision the continuum of time, with the future lying “ahead” of us, and the past “behind” us, that’s a metaphor, even though we don’t often recognize it as such. It’s difficult to imagine being able to conceive of time without that visual metaphor. Their work, incidentally, ended up inspiring a lot of work in robotics because it suggested that in order for machines to develop conscious thought, they’d have to interact with the world and understand spatial relationships—you can’t just have a brain in a vat.

In the book, I’m primarily interested in technological metaphors, particularly those we use to describe ourselves as humans, like the mechanistic idea that humans are machines, or the more contemporary notion that the mind is a computer. Those metaphors are obviously useful in our attempts to understand ourselves. The mind-as-computer-metaphor has been crucial to both cognitive science and artificial intelligence. But a kind of slippage frequently occurs, where people forget that these are metaphors and begin to take them literally. You now have people working in AI who insist that their systems are actually thinking, or that they understand—words that used to be put in quotation marks. Nobody consciously decided that the metaphor would become literal; it just happened, little by little. It’s not unlike how certain passages in religious texts that were once understood metaphorically are taken literally by later generations. As a writer, I’m both fascinated and unnerved by those moments where language seems to slip out of my control. Every writer has experienced this at some point. You call upon an image that turns out, later on, to be the perfect metaphor for the point you’re making. Or you realize you’ve written something much smarter than what you set out to argue. It recalls the old poststructuralist point that we don’t speak language, it speaks us. Language, like all technologies, is constantly at risk of escaping our control. 

TM: There’s an interesting and generative tension in this book between the personal and the scholarly, the self and the analytical. You consider your time studying theology at a fundamentalist college as a formative part of your life: an experience that contributed to you leaving the Christian faith and worldview. I found myself drawn to your sense (and prose) in these personal moments, and then pulled again by your confession of sorts later: “As soon as I opened a small aperture into my life, people became less interested in the ideas I was discussing than in my personal story and my perspective as someone who was formerly religious.” How do you feel now, as this book is making its way into the world? Do you want to allow this aperture of the personal to grow or to shrink, as it relates to your analytical and philosophical discussions? 

MO: I’ve always felt that tension, as a writer, between the subjective and the objective approach. On one hand, personal writing is often considered less serious than journalism or criticism; that’s always there in the back of my mind. On the other hand, I have a hard time making sense of ideas without filtering them through the lens of the “I.” I think that’s true of all writers, to some extent, even those who don’t write explicitly in the first person. And when we distrust an argument, as readers, it’s often because we suspect the author has some personal axe to grind, or is writing in bad faith. It’s hard to avoid the personal, even when it’s not there, overtly, on the page. 

Throughout the process of writing this book, I struggled to maintain the right balance between the personal and analytical. When I write essays, that balance usually feels intuitive, but in this case, I couldn’t get it right. I kept resisting the use of the “I.” I teach writing, and I often tell my students that craft problems are often content problems in disguise; they tend to enact the very tensions that you’re writing about (or refusing to write about) and can clue you into the story’s larger themes. That’s what happened with this book. There was a certain point during the writing process when it occurred to me that this problem mirrored one of the underlying intellectual concerns of the book, which is the tension between the subjective and the objective points of view. Many of the fields I was writing about—consciousness, artificial intelligence, physics—have reached an impasse over these two ways of seeing the world. We can observe consciousness clearly from the first-person point of view, but from the objective vantage of science, it doesn’t exist. In quantum physics, there’s the observer problem, where the physicist sees one thing, and scientific instruments register something different. Some contemporary philosophers have argued that these problems come down to the fact that we’re not accounting for the subjective vantage. And that’s ultimately the problem I had to come to terms with during the writing process. I was stuck because I wasn’t thinking about what was at stake for me, or why I became interested in these questions. That tension immediately resolved when I put more of my own story in the book.  

TM: “For the medieval person,” you write, “the cosmos was fundamentally comprehensible: it was a rational system constructed by a rational God, the same intelligence who constructed our minds.” The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin makes several appearances in your book; he strikes me as one whose radical, creative visions assume a certain neatness of construction. In the past year, I’ve been taken by the arguments of his contemporary, Fr. Raymond Nogar, who wrote: “My chief opposition to the vision of Father Teilhard is that it resembles far too much the Thomistic synthesis, and that it is, basically, too archaic to satisfy the demands of our contemporaries. The trouble with the world of Father Teilhard, as I understand it, is not that it is strange, but that it is not strange enough.” Nogar thought that Teilhard believed in “the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy…His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” How might a Lord of the Absurd—or perhaps simply the Absurd—connect to your investigations into how we seek meaning and patterns in the world?

MO: Nogar’s observation that Teilhard’s cosmos is “not strange enough” reminds me of something Niels Bohr once said to another physicist, after a lecture. He said, basically, that everyone agreed that the physicist’s theory was crazy but the question was “whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” I’m interested in this idea that there are truths that remain absurd or paradoxical to human understanding. It’s a problem I encountered in my theology courses in Bible school, where I was first introduced to the nominalist idea that God’s morality, or his sense of justice, is far beyond human understanding—and perhaps even arbitrary. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a fairly modern view of God, one that arose in the late medieval period. The God I’d believed in growing up, the one who appeared in Sunday school lessons, was a lot more like the God of Aquinas, which is to say an entity that could be rationally understood, and whose world was similarly orderly and comprehensible. I’d always believed that my conscience was a reflection of some larger moral order in the universe. But in my courses, we were reading theologians who insisted that morality was based on nothing more than the sovereign will of God—the implication being that it could diverge from our intuitive sense of morality, or even strike us as alien. 

What’s interesting is that modern physics presents the same problem. When you begin looking at the world on the quantum level, it becomes clear that our notion of time, of cause-and-effect—basically everything that allows the world to be comprehensible—exists mostly in our minds, not in the world itself. Reality is governed by all sorts of absurd phenomenon that we can’t explain, like the observer effect or spooky action at a distance. I’m always baffled when self-professed “rationalists” object to the supernatural claims of religion—that a virgin could give birth, that God could be three persons. Modern science contains just as much mind-bending absurdity. It too requires that we take paradox on faith. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, argues, in fact, that it’s precisely the “illogical” nature of the incarnation that makes it more likely to be true because it’s not something humans could have easily made up. “It has not the suspicious a priori lucidity of Pantheism or of Newtonian physics,” he writes. “It has the seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic character which modern science is slowly teaching us to put up with in this willful universe.”

TM:  “Perhaps the real illusion,” you write, “is our persistent hope that science will be able to explain consciousness one day.” I loved how God, Human, Animal, Machine feels like the work of a seeker from first word to final—your skepticism is fueled, seemingly, by a sense of wonder about the world; a respect for the complexity of consciousness (human, digital, and otherwise). You write early in the book that “It’s true that I have come to see myself more or less as a machine.” What type of machine are you? What is your function?

MO: That line is a little tongue-in-cheek, given that nobody really accepts that they’re a machine. (At least I don’t think they do.) But there are important differences between how I view myself now and how I viewed myself when I was a Christian. I am much more likely today to resort to purely quantitative or physical explanations of my behavior and mental states. If I’m feeling depressed, I immediately think about how much sleep I got the night before, or whether I’ve exercised. If I lash out at someone, it’s because I probably need a sandwich. I think most of us rely on these purely physical explanations because they can be objectively observed and quantified (we can now track our calorie-intakes, our heart rates, and our REM cycles on our phones). Whereas our mental lives—what we spend our time thinking about, what we value, and why—are difficult to talk about. Or maybe they don’t seem like a convincing causal force. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the fact that consciousness can’t be accounted for by science. There’s a persistent refrain in academic circles that we in the modern West overvalue our subjectivity, that we believe our minds are more real than our bodies. To me, that feels like one of those instances where the objection has become the consensus. The academic conclusions have trickled down into mainstream culture, such that it’s difficult, even in everyday life, believe that our minds are real.  

TM: You write about those who wonder whether we exist within a simulation, and it feels connected to what Hopkins once conjectured about the inscape of the world: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” This resembles what you write about Jesus:  “When his disciples asked whether he was the son of God, he answered, ‘Who do you say I am?’ as though the faith of the observer determined whether he was human or divine.” In a world that increasingly feels anatheist—seeking God after God—how do we seek to answer the question that Jesus poses? Does the question still resonate in a transhuman world?

MO: I love that Hopkins line, and the reflexivity it describes. If I remember the context correctly, he was talking about how the intrinsic beauty of the natural world bespeaks design and purpose. Even though I no longer believe in a divine creator, I find it very difficult to resist seeing the world as a created object, especially in those moments that involve wonder, or the sublime. I don’t think that’s unusual as we might assume among atheists. Maybe that’s why theories like the Simulation Hypothesis—the argument that we’re living in a computer program created by future-humans—are so compelling. It satisfies our desire to see the world as containing a larger purpose or telos.

The objection, of course, is that we’re simply anthropomorphizing. We ourselves are creators, so we see the world as a created object. Not only that, we see it as precisely the kind of technology that we ourselves recently created—a giant computer. Both science and religion rest on a tension between the anthropomorphic and the transcendent. We can’t help but see the world in terms of the human, to see it in our own image, and this often leads to error. There are commands in many traditions against applying human qualities to God. And the scientific method is designed to keep us from sullying our inquiries with subjective beliefs and assumptions. But then whenever we try to go beyond the human, we encounter absurdity and paradox. 

What I still find compelling about Christianity—and maybe what it can teach us, in an anatheist world—is that it acknowledges this tension is an essential part of being human. The incarnation is a recognition, in a way, that we can’t escape our human vantage, that God had to come down and become flesh so that we could understand. You see that especially in Christ’s parables, stories that are rooted in the human world, but that nevertheless contain these insane paradoxes that are beyond this world. Going back to Niels Bohr: he once said that all the major religions of the world rely on parables and kaons because the gap between the human and transcendent realms can only be bridged by seemingly contradictory statements. I suspect there’s some validity to this, that paradox is connected to truth. This is becoming especially clear as we glean more and more information about the world. We now have so much data, we need AI systems to process it because our understanding and our scientific theories begin to break down when faced with that level of complexity. But I’m skeptical of the notion that we have to build bigger, more sophisticated machines that can comprehend a world that transcends our understanding. We have to find a way to understand the world on our own terms, through the lens of the human. 

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