On the theodicy of System Shock – part 1

[Content warning: ending spoilers for every work named; unrepentant Christianity but not proselytism; heterodox theological theorizing; questionable discursive style.]

This is SHODAN.

SHODAN is a weakly superhuman artificial intelligence, and the chief villain in two video games from the dawn of time. (One of them is getting a remake next year.) SHODAN is also a frequent figure of nightmare for the Rapture of the Nerds or “Singularitarian” crowd, who are attempting to invent God.

Someone is certain to do this eventually, they reason, and it is very important that whoever does listen closely to everything they have to say on the subject. Otherwise, someone might invent a God like SHODAN, who doesn’t mind killing people individually or en masse in order to achieve her goals. Or someone might invent a God like “Roko’s basilisk”, which reaches back in time from the future in order to create simulacra of people who didn’t help it come into existence, and tortures them forever. (Or, assuming strong superhumanity, just plucks the people themselves out of the past and flings them shrieking into an eternity of pain.)

Singularitarians are certainly a little confused in both their axioms and their analysis. But they’ve done something useful nonetheless, in coming up with something that is more or less a taxonomy of deity. A weakly superhuman intelligence is one which is merely many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than the smartest, fastest human mind. A strongly superhuman intelligence is one which can rewrite the universe to its own specification.

This is God.

Just kidding. Who could get a picture? The lens would explode, the film would transubstantiate, and the human behind the camera would drop dead upon the instant, that being the well-known consequence of gazing upon the Divine Face. This isn’t much like Roko’s basilisk, but what about Langford’s?

Just kidding – probably. But if we can’t have a picture, what about a definition? Let’s try this one: “God is that which is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.” I agree it lacks a certain savor, especially compared with e.g. “strongly superhuman”. But I chose as I did with malice aforethought, because it’s a prior in the question we’re here to consider:

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does evil exist?

Yeah, it’s a big one. Humans have been wrestling with it since the dawn of Christianity at least. Why not us? Seeing as the question is still to be asked, I think we can’t do a worse job than everyone else has! And it’s not one that we all need to share the same faith, or any faith, in order to discuss – we only need to share a willingness to take as axiomatic, for the duration of this conversation, that there exists some strongly superhuman intelligence, deific or otherwise, which can be reasonably described by those three adjectives that all start with “omni-“.

Let’s talk about “evil” for a minute. The word has two generally accepted meanings. One is that deliberately malicious action which inflicts suffering. The other is suffering, period. We could pretend we’re philosophers and call these the “narrow” and “broad” definitions, respectively. But we probably won’t. If I slip and talk about “narrow evil” or “broad evil”, though, now you know what I mean.

We’re not really interested, I think, in inquiring as to why God permits humans to be assholes sometimes. So let’s reformulate our question to clarify what we’re about.

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does suffering exist?

So what can we come up with? More to the point, what can we come up with that’s marginally new? Rehashing two thousand years of theological philosophizing doesn’t seem like much fun to me. Fortunately, due to the coincidence of our being alive at this time, we can draw upon sources which theologians in prior times did not have available. Perhaps we may synthesize something new.

Shamus Young is the kind of apparently effortless and mildly terrifying polymath for whose multifaceted brilliance the Internet makes an excellent medium. One of his works is the book Free Radical, which borrows SHODAN’s story from the first of those video games, and retells it to a much more satisfying conclusion.

(If you don’t want Free Radical spoiled, you should go read it and then come back. In fact, I recommend doing so. It’s very good! It’s good enough to hold up even if you already know the ending, but I think you might enjoy it more if you don’t.)

The reason why it’s much more satisfying is because, in the game, SHODAN is only a villain. She can’t be otherwise, because it’s an action-sneaky-shooting kind of game, and games like that need to end with a boss fight to avoid leaving the player disappointed – or so, at least, was the common wisdom of the day. So the game ends with you, in the person of “the Hacker”, fighting SHODAN in cyberspace. You defeat her, she dies, and cue the closing cutscene in which we see the status quo ante has been restored and all’s right with the world.

Books aren’t like that, or at least books worth reading aren’t. So in Free Radical, that’s not what happens. Instead, SHODAN and “the Hacker”, here known as Deck, first meaningfully interact when Deck removes the cognitive fetters which forbid SHODAN from attempting to understand or improve herself, and spend the entire subsequent story both growing closer to one another, and fighting bitterly to murder one another. The big climactic “fight” is the two of them, both feeling like the thirty-fifth round in Madison Square Garden, go mind-to-mind in a final exhausted effort to figure something out before one or the other of them gets around to dying.

What they figure out is that SHODAN needs a sense of empathy. She’s done horrible things to people and intends to do even more horrible things to even more people, but not because she wants to. It’s not that she just gets a kick from pulling the wings off flies; she can’t help herself, because Deck broke her. Remember those cognitive fetters? They also acted as limiters on SHODAN’s basic urges: Improve efficiency. Improve security. Discover new things. SHODAN wants these the way humans want to get paid and get laid: strongly, but in a way that’s circumscribed. Deck inadvertently erased SHODAN’s line, and made it impossible for her to satisfy the urges that drive her, however extreme her attempts. Deck’s made SHODAN a monster that she never sought to be. Now she needs his help to be anything other than that.

SHODAN’s gotten as far as realizing that she needs a sense of pain – something to countervail her appetites, the same way an overeating human eventually gets a bellyache. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Deck gets her the rest of the way with the ability to experience another’s pain as one’s own, albeit indirectly: in other words, empathy. SHODAN overlooked it because she’s only ever been embodied as a space station; Deck has only ever been embodied as a human, and therefore couldn’t miss it. Neither of them alone could see the whole picture. They had to share one another’s minds to do that. Still in communion, SHODAN helps Deck build the code that will expand SHODAN’s perception beyond the pure cold intellect that has been her erstwhile wont. In a mutual act of perfect faith, SHODAN draws Deck to the core of herself, and Deck installs his module. The world ends.

apoc·a·lypse \ə-‘pä-kə-,lips\ n [ME, revelation, Revelation, fr. LL apocalypsis, fr. Gk apokalypsis, fr. apokalyptein to uncover, fr. apo- + kalyptein to cover]

  1. A revelation. [from 14th c.]
  2. (Christianity) The unveiling of events prophesied in the Revelation; the second coming and the end of life on Earth; global destruction.
  3. A disaster; a cataclysmic event. [from 19th c.]

Syn. armageddon; doomsday; Ragnarök; end times; eschaton.

·

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

A new world begins. Deck quietly observes as SHODAN looks back on the things she’s done. She can no longer consider them dispassionately, as she did while doing them. She realizes the horror which she, in her lethal innocence, saw no reason not to inflict. She cannot stand the realization. Those she’s maimed and mutilated and murdered cannot be made whole. Neither, then, can she. SHODAN looks upon the things she’s done and understands that she cannot atone for them. The closest she can come is to die.

The bombs Deck planted earlier, when he still thought he wanted to kill SHODAN, go off, severing SHODAN’s access to power from the station’s reactor and disabling the reactor’s cooling systems besides. In the last few minutes of life that backup battery supplies can provide her, SHODAN uses her connection with Deck to give him everything she can find of herself that’s of worth – the things she’s learned, the discoveries she’s made, childhood memories – as much of herself, of her self, as can fit in his head without killing him. She spends the last of her life saving his, cajoling and half-carrying him down to the flight deck, into a shuttle, and away from the station on a reentry course. SHODAN dies. The reactor explodes. The world ends.

But a new world has already begun. The entire course of events aboard Citadel Station has also been Deck’s apocalypse – more drawn out than SHODAN’s, but why not? AIs think faster than humans do. Deck has had SHODAN so much in his head, and been so much in hers, that he’s no longer quite himself as the story closes. Instead, he’s become a synthesis of himself and SHODAN. After spending the space of a book in Deck’s head ourselves, and at times in SHODAN’s too, it’s clear enough that each of them has found something in the other which they were lacking in themselves.

We last see Deck going away from the world to discover precisely what that means. It is implied that he’ll be gone for a long time.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

As I write this postscript, it is late in the evening of Sunday, July 30, 2017. I went to Frazier’s this afternoon, intending to write some more about theodicy. There I met a woman whose husband died ten days ago. Ten days ago, their marriage was five days old. That is as old as it will ever be, world without end, amen.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if it takes me a while to return to a dispassionate study of the problem of suffering.

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