Contemporary Western culture is disillusioned. Under the mainstream narrative of materialism, moderns struggle to connect their lives with a transcendent meaning beyond the self. In the United States, we enjoy a level of privilege and wealth foreign to the majority of prior generations, and yet we see “deaths of despair,” frightening rates of anxiety and depression, and heightened political tensions.
None of this is news to you, I’m guessing. I’ve personally written a variation of that paragraph in other articles a number of times. The question behind our collective disillusionment is, frankly, why? Why do we struggle to make something of our lives? Why do we enjoy technological and scientific progress but lack the moral and cultural means to enjoy those benefits rightly? A number of factors might be cited, but on a fundamental level, according to the philosopher of technology and culture Brandon Rickabaugh, our disillusionment stems in large part from our loss of the idea of a soul. If we’re just bodies bumping around waiting to expire, not even the greatest advances in technology and science can soothe the existential angst.
Disillusioned by Materialism
Rickabaugh is co-author with Biola philosopher J.P. Moreland of an upcoming book titled The Substance of Consciousness: A Comprehensive Defense of Contemporary Substance Dualism (Wiley Blackwell, 2023). The book, slated for release this October, argues for the existence of the soul and rejects the notion that humans are no more than their bodies. Despite the reign of materialistic thinking in philosophy, more thinkers are starting to rekindle an interest in consciousness, mental properties, and panpsychism–the belief that all of nature contains some level of awareness. Thus, it’s a great opportunity to re-establish substance dualism as the best, most tried and true explanation for the complexity of human experience. Beyond the book, Rickabaugh has spoken and written widely on the subject of consciousness and the soul. A few months ago, he gave a lecture at Westmont College titled “Mechanizing Ourselves to Death: The Human Soul and Cultural Disillusionment,” where he discussed many of these issues in detail. Riffing off Neil Postman’s classic cultural analysis Amusing Ourselves to Death, Rickabaugh investigates the ways human beings have fared under the deadening ideology of materialism. “Here’s my thesis,” said Rickabaugh. “We have mechanized ourselves to death. Literally. And the only way out of this is a return to reality, the reality of the human soul.”
He goes on to clarify what he means by mechanization:
By mechanization I mean we’ve abandoned the human person, the human soul, for a vision of ourselves that’s reduceable and not much more than aggregates of impersonal systems and collections of data. If you mechanize a person in a culture, the culture and the person become dead and disillusioned. And so our recovery from that is to return to our understanding of the [human person] as an integrated whole that can be best or perhaps only be accounted by…the human soul.
Humans Are Not Machines
He goes on later in the lecture to note how the mechanization of human life and society is culminating with the development of artificial intelligence. If we are no more than “machines made of meat,” it gets tough trying to defend our uniqueness in the cosmos. In fact, it becomes impossible. Computerized intelligence is inevitably regarded as an enhanced replacement for human beings. We’ve lost the notion of the soul and an accurate understanding of personhood. He also thinks AI is a natural offshoot of the internet and social media. Rickabaugh continues,
The internet, if you think about what it is, is essentially a technology that limits the availability of knowledge. You might not think that’s what it is because it seems like it’s an open book, but it’s not–it’s highly selected and tells you and informs you of where you should go to look for what’s good for you and others, but also who’s the reliable source to get it, and then what’s the appropriate means of getting that into you as knowledge.
Rickabaugh notes how Plato worried that even writing could be a form of mechanization, prompting people to “outsource their memories” to the page. That might sound extreme, but the principle applies perfectly to what we’re seeing with digital technology. How much memory, connection, and capital do we store on our phones? And how has that affected our ability to think, love, and work without the aid of the machine? Technologies, then, are not value-neutral. They “express a vision for what a person is,” in Rickabaugh’s words. And that modern vision, sadly, is depersonalized. Rickabaugh is additionally concerned about AI’s growing application in the mental health sector. Chatbots have already been used to try and address people’s anxiety and depression; because he takes mental health seriously, Rickabaugh worries that AI is actually worsening the problem instead of alleviating it. Human persons need to be seen by other persons, not inanimate computing codes.
Now more than ever, perhaps, it’s important to declare that humans aren’t machines. We are not computers made of flesh and blood. Materialism fails to account for the depth of the human person, and insightful folks like Brandon Rickabaugh and J.P. Moreland are speaking up about it.