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Q: I heard you talk about “sacred captcha” in a video recently but I’m not entirely clear what that means…
Well, I guess that counts as a question.
SACRED CAPTCHA is a fanciful idea that popped unbidden into the clutches of my febrile brain tentacles during the fourth episode of an ongoing multi-podcast trialogue between John Vervaeke, Brendan Graham Dempsey & myself. Each new episode rotates between our podcasts on the topic of exploring issues surrounding the “scaling up” of the Religion-that-is-not-a-Religion (RnR).
Scaling up means to think about larger, intergenerational, multi-community and more culturally impactful (but still authentic) versions of RnR. If we were to set ourselves the goal of socially amplifying the circulation of scientifically-vetted and philosophically current ecologies of wisdom practices — then there are many significant questions with which we must begin to wrestle.
What is the institutional analogy to an ecology practices?
How can we get the benefits of religious dynamics without corruption, irrationality or partisan dogmatism?
What sorts of communication would be acceptable and useful to all kinds of different existing faith communities, secular communities & different cognitive and developmental capacities?
Can we leverage emerging technologies?
What role will narrative, myth & art play?
Is there any operational overlap between self-correcting, layered, complex systems in biological and cognitive contexts & religious networks when they are performing at their healthiest and most useful?
What do humans consider a trustworthy source for developmental and transformational suggestions? Why?
That’s the background.
One of the several recurrent conclusions we’ve drawn collaboratively is that any such endeavor will have to harness the power of trans-conscious intelligences such as collective collaborative human networks, artificial intelligence & subconscious adaptive complexity. None of us, using our “waking state brains,” can figure out what everybody else needs in terms of providing participatory contexts for cultivating skills that address what John calls the Meaning Crisis.
It was in the middle of a discussion on these particular themes when I suddenly thought of CAPTCHA.
Officially, is an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. If you use the internets at all then you’ve probably run into smeared letters, distorted numbers and collections of pictures that will presumably prove that you are not a robot. We need some way to make sure that you are really a human user trying to access a webpage and not a swarm of bots ready to hack the system at incalculable speeds. But the mere fact of human identity is not the only thing that these “tests” are capturing.
They are also used to train artificial intelligence.
Here’s how that works. Our human brains are very good at recognizing all kinds of abstract patterns in different contexts. Pretty early in life we develop skill in detecting the concept TREE whether that means a baby sapling Monkey Puzzle tree or a full grown coconut palm in the tropics, lumber being sliced up in a spray of sawdust or a child’s crude green triangle. Visually these forms do not have much in common and our ability to know what we’re looking at depends on a lot of experiential background information. So in order to help computers learn to “know” things we have to give them lots of starting information. How? Just ask millions of humans to click on all the trees or buses or sharks or homes in a quasi-randomized cluster of images. This is how it learns.
So what if you wanted to teach it about sacredness?
Sacredness involves a sense of superlative meaningfulness. Holiness is an abstract radiance and transformative suggestiveness that allows us to orient on a certain place, object, person or vicinity in order to personally and collectively attune ourselves to the context of enhanced salience, amplified meaning & the activation of self-transcending (and self-becoming) modes of psychosocial neurophysiology. Obviously that’s a pretty hard concept to explain to a machine — but maybe you don’t have to explain?
Perhaps you could just feed it millions of diverse human feelings by simply asking people to click on “whatever looks holy.”
In the process it would acquire an astonishing set of cross-cultural data about the generalized human notion of trustworthy, pragmatic, symbolic and aspirational encounters with wisdom, restoration & transformation. And — who knows? — perhaps it would be enough data to begin automating programs to produce entirely new forms that satisfy our evolved parameters for holiness?
If you imagine the whole set of trillions of possible images, concepts and settings that might cultivate a sense of attunement-to-wisdom-and-deeper-meaning in humans well, what percentage of those do you think our last few thousand years of social evolution has discovered? We might only have scratched the surface…
Now, clearly I am not — as Brendan sensibly worried — trying to take religion out of human hands and entrust it to the machines. However, we should be trying to think innovatively about how to take our already existing “cyborg” partnership between humans and their tools to the next level that can benefit us in terms of meaning-making, wellbeing, sane enchantment and rich collaborative mobilization.
Are you human?