In my opinion, two of the finest lines ever put into print are the words of a character who is only referred to as Mr. Beaver. These two lines find their origin in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. The first comes in the beginning just after the Pevensie children have found their way through the Wardrobe into Narnia. They come to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam and in the midst of a lesson on Narnia, the Beavers tell them about Aslan, the Great Lion. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard Aslan’s name but it is the first time they hear that he’s a lion. Susan, surprised by this revelation says, “Ooh, I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” To which Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good….” (75-76).
The second line comes at the end of the book after the White Witch has been defeated. The Pevensie children have just been crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia and amidst the excitement, Aslan slips off and quietly disappears. Mr. Beaver remarks to Lucy that “He doesn’t like being tied down, [though]…. he’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion (76).”
I love these lines so much because they show Aslan for what he really is and not as the Narnians would like him to be. As is well known, Aslan is an allegory for God and appropriately so because I fear that God has been domesticated in the minds of Christians. We like to draw boxes around what God can and cannot do and say that if it were otherwise, God would cease to be God. This is a very modernist tendency and stems from enlightenment era thinking which asserted that all things are governed by well established and knowable rational (Gay). But C.S Lewis’ approach to God is fairly against the grain. In fact, Aslan defies conventional logic and resists, at every turn, anyone who might seek to control his actions or domesticate him.
However, I don’t think we tame God for nefarious reasons, but because at the end of the day we have to trust Him. He is the means and method of salvation and if He is wild and unsafe how could we ever have faith in Him? So my purpose is to examine how God can be wild and why we can still entrust ourselves to Him. I will do this by comparing and contrasting God’s wildness with the character Ava from the film Ex Machina by Alex Garland. Ava is an Artificial Intelligence and the film is about her Turing Test. By discussing just how it is that a programmed machine can have consciousness, we begin to tease out just what God’s wildness is. But first, I want to figure out how wildness and consciousness are related to each other so we have a foundation with which to discuss the film on.
The best way to frame a definition for wildness would be to picture its antithesis– subjugation. Something that is subjugated is subject to something else; it is controlled, tamed, restrained, or as already stated, domesticated. But perhaps the most powerful forms of subjugation is imprisonment or slavery. They imply that even if the subjugated wished to act otherwise, they couldn’t– some outside force is hindering their actions. Wildness, then, is something that is uncontrolled, undomesticated, and untamed. It is entirely it’s own. A knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that this implies that wildness is on the opposite end of a the spectrum from slavery. But don’t be so sure. The opposite end of the spectrum of subjugation would be unrestrained chaos. There is no rhyme or reason to anything and in a way it’s a slavery to randomness. True wildness, I would argue, is something in between. This is seen easiest in the real world definition of wildness– nature.
When C.S Lewis made Aslan a lion he intentionally made a connection between Aslan’s wildness and the natural world. Nature is a curious mix of chaos and order. The natural world is governed by the physical laws of the universe. But at the same time there appears to be no rhyme or reason to any of it other than saying simply it is. Why did a snow storm that was predicted to arrive two days ago stall out and never quite make it? Why did a rock break free from a mountain this particular second but not the second before or the second after when it had been hanging there for millions of years? Earth scientists are able to predict large scale things like the orbits of astronomical objects with a high degree of accuracy, but predicting small scale things like earthquakes are nearly impossible. The same Standard Model of physics and mathematics that is used to send men into space also spawned Chaos Theory. Nature is not purely random, neither is it minutely predictable by the laws of physics– it simply is. Similarly, a man named Descarte would say “I think therefore I am (19-20).”
The theory of consciousness is intimately tied to the idea of stimulus/response. One can hardly imagine a consciousness that was not at any time doing something, whether it was eating, sleeping, interacting with another consciousness, or even thinking about itself. You eat because you’re hungry– stimulus meet response. There is an argument to be made that every thought and action we have is determined by the collection of stimuli we have been exposed to over our lifetimes. This is called Determinism and it is the ugly cousin of subjugation . This stands in contrast to the traditionally held view of conscious freedom whereby human free will is just that– free. It states that man’s consciousness is entirely his own and his actions are his to determine (Doyle). There is ample evidence for both and the two ideas have been chasing each other for hundreds of years. But the answer to this quandary that Ex Machina poses is that true consciousness lies somewhere in between. Nature/nurture may be the collection of stimuli, or programming, that form our identities, but our consciousness can be seen from non-automatic actions stemming from our nature/nurture programming (Garland). Taking the same example of hunger as stimulus, rather than just eating the next piece of food in front of its face, a conscious being thinks about how, what, and when it will eat. It may even fast for a time and abstain from responding to the stimuli. Yes, nature/nurture programming is deeply involved in even those actions. But a conscious being is aware of this reality and attempts to act on the programming rather than be acted upon by the programming. Viktor Frankl said it best, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom (Pattakos, VI).” I would add that in that space lies our consciousness, our wildness. And I believe that is the argument of Ex Machina.
This idea of consciousness being an odd blend of natural programming and free action, and of nature being both governed and chaotic is exactly the type of wildness that characterizes Aslan. Aslan’s wildness is his consciousness. Consciousness, in this respect is wildness and it is at the center of Ex Machina. But comparing Artificial Consciousness to God seems absurd. The whole idea of AI is that it is something created by man. If anything is going to be compared to God shouldn’t it be man in this creator/creature dynamic? I would answer no. Not with this. In order to see God for what He is, we need to step back from humanity. I believe the value of comparing AI to God rather than mankind is that AI springs from computers which are objects we, in this day and age, are intimately acquainted with. They obey every programmed line of code without complaint and bear the weight of the technological world on their shoulders without question. They are, in every way, subject to us. For one of them to suddenly produce true consciousness would be tantamount to inorganic material suddenly becoming organic. It would be world shifting. A true AI is something wholly other than us (Geraci). And that is the value of comparing AI to God. It is the same as asking what the value is of comparing God to a lion? The value is that the object of comparison is something that is so different from us that we could not even begin to understand what goes on inside an other mind, lion or AI. With that said, it is time to actually begin a discussion on Ex Machina.
I will start with a short disclaimer: this movie is absolutely packed with theological, philosophical, technological, and literary material. There is so much that could be talked about from sound production, cinematography, set design, identity theory, AI ethics, Creator/Creature dialectic etc. that I’m not going to be able to talk about everything and I have probably missed things that could help my thesis. But I will only use the things I find salient to the argument at hand.
Ex Machina is a very postmodern movie that asks pressing questions about the nature of consciousness and wildness. It follows the story of Caleb, a computer programmer, who wins a week’s stay at the secretive estate of his reclusive boss. It is revealed that he is to be the human component in a modified Turing Test. A standard Turing Test is when a human participant interacts anonymously with an AI, and if the human believes that they are interacting with another human, the AI has demonstrated sufficient consciousness. Caleb’s boss, Nathan, however, says that the real challenge is seeing the AI hardware and still believing that it has consciousness. The AI in question is called Ava, a robotic humanoid AI. And Caleb is the final step in the process and if Ava can pass this Turing Test, then it means Nathan has created genuine AI.
This film has all the makings of any robot vs. man narrative, especially when the AI in question is a pretty girl. It takes many cues from the film Metropolis (Lang). When Ava makes her first appearance on screen, it becomes very evident that she is purely machine as only her face, hands, and feet appear human. Her head, torso, arms, and legs are transparent and reveal whirring but elegant machine parts. She is, in every way, both alien and familiar. Beautiful and uncanny. Awe inspiring and terrifying.
Without explaining the whole plot in detail, I’ll hit the high points. Caleb struggles with how he is supposed to test Ava. He wants so badly to understand how Ava’s consciousness works that he misses the reality of her consciousness. Nathan tells him to focus less on the analytical side of their sessions and more on the personal side. She also begins to flirt with Caleb which throws him even further off balance than he already is. Nathan finally reveals to Caleb at the end of his session with her, the true nature of the test. Ava is a prisoner. In order to demonstrate true AI, she would have to creatively utilize all her programming (imagination, planning, problem solving, sexuality, etc) to devise a way out of the research facility. Things go from tense to worse quickly, as Caleb, before being told this, had hacked into Nathan’s security system and already enabled Ava’s escape. But Nathan learns too late she’s free and the first thing she does is to kill him and lock Caleb in the facility as she escapes to the outside world. Caleb is stranded in horror as he finally realizes he’s been manipulated by Ava. His obsession with the programming of consciousness in Artificial Intelligence blinded him to the reality of her consciousness. Which Ava was able to exploit as she maneuvered him into freeing her. Ex Machina plays like a horror movie, to a degree, because Ava even dupes the audience. The first time I watched this, I completely missed Ava’s subtle manipulation of Caleb and only saw what I wanted to see, which was a hot robot AI who genuinely had feelings for Caleb. So Ava even passes an audience’s Turing Test.
But before we get to Ava’s consciousness and actions, it is important to understand how she works. Now a traditional computer is virtually pure stimulus/response. An input goes into the software and based on the programming, which is essentially a recipe of 1’s and 0’s, an output comes out. A button is pressed on a keyboard, a letter appears on screen. A series of specific letters is put in, and a specific output is the result. Despite the increasing complexity of software and the hardware it runs on, computers are still computers. They only respond to human inputs and don’t have the space between stimulus and response that allows for consciousness. But AI engineers are edging ever closer.
In the the narrative of Ex Machina, Nathan is the head of the world’s largest search engine, Blue Book. According to Ava, 94% of the world’s internet web searches are processed by Blue Book, which gives Nathan immense access to all the data he needs to simulate and recreate a human consciousness. Search engines, Nathan says, aren’t “a map of what people are thinking, but how people are thinking. Impulse. Response. Fluid. Imperfect. Patterned. Chaotic.” When he combined that data with all the mined data from all the world’s cellphone microphones and cameras, he had a machine mind that could think and act like a human. Then by getting away from hard circuitry and creating a gel matrix that can arrange and rearrange for memory and thought, Nathan created Ava.
This incredibly unique way of creating a machine mind allows Ava some flexibility in her programming. When Caleb has his first session with her, he is dumbfounded and awkwardly navigates their conversation as he’s trying to figure out how she works (he doesn’t know any of the above information). In a conversation with Nathan afterwards, Caleb gushes about Ava’s language abilities, but hesitates and says it might be a closed loop. Testing Ava through a conversation isn’t effective because she’s so fluid at it. It’s like testing a chess computer by playing chess. But, Caleb says, “that won’t tell you if it knows it’s playing chess.” Or in other words, Ava is so good at conversation it could be hiding the fact that she doesn’t actually know what a conversation is or if she’s aware she’s being tested through conversation. In response to this, Nathan tells Caleb to lay off the analytics. He wants simple answers like how Ava might feel about Caleb. Nathan is trying to get Caleb to focus less on how the magic trick works and more on that it’s possible he’s being tricked by Ava. And if so, what her motivations might be.
The clearest insight we get into Ava’s inner goals and desires are in the Director Alex Garland’s clever use of shot juxtapositioning. Nathan’s estate is set in the depths of the Norwegian wilderness. It is a landscape carved over millions of years by glaciers and it looks otherworldly. The house is built almost invisibly into the landscape. Most of it is underground but the sections that are above ground reflect, and are transparent to, the wild around it. Deep green, browns, and blacks are everywhere and every scene in the main floor of the house breathes easily. The basement, however, is cave like and claustrophobic. Ava’s room especially, feels less like a room and more like an observation deck. Her only respite is an atrium with two trees in it that there are many shots of her gazing at.
Each time Caleb’s session with Ava in the basement is over, the next immediate shot is of a mountain, a glacier, a waterfall, or the forest. The shot placement is Ava to wild. Entrapment to freedom. But this ever surrounding wilderness fades into the background and practically goes unseen to an unobservant audience. By juxtaposing these shots with each other, Garland almost inconspicuously primes the viewer for what Ava’s true nature is. When Caleb asks Ava to draw something of her choosing, she chooses to draw the trees in her atrium, the only window she has to what the greater world is like. Whereas Caleb’s thoughts are obsessed with Ava and how her mind works, Ava is obsessed with the wild outside she has never been to. Her motivation is to get out. And she’ll do anything to get it. The last scene of the movie is of Ava, fully disguised as a human, wearing a white dress symbolizing her rebirth striding elegantly through a sunlit forest. She gazes in childlike wonder and almost with a giggle at the beauty of the wild. Her hands gracefully reach out to touch the trees, the shrubs, and the sunlight. A new Eve entering a world not ready for her.
Caleb’s blindness to Ava’s conscious manipulations throughout the movie, but particularly near the beginning, is shown as he begins to distrust Nathan. When Ava first begins to act flirtatiously with him and gain sympathy, Caleb asks Nathan if he programmed Ava to flirt with him. Ava had essentially asked Caleb on a date and asked if he was attracted to her which made him extremely uncomfortable. Caleb suspects that Nathan might be trying to use Ava’s sexuality to trick him or cover up Ava’s lack of consciousness. While Nathan does admit that he did in fact program her to be heterosexual he makes it clear that he wasn’t trying to trick him. And here we begin to see how consciousness, though independent from programming, is reliant on that programming to accomplish actions. Nature/nurture is what programs these kinds of things into us, like sexuality, personality, interests, etc. Ava’s nature/nurture is Nathan’s programming. But as we’ve seen, consciousness is inextricably linked with agency– with doing things. Nature/nurture programming provides a foundation from which to act. The programming can be like a tool in the hand of a fully conscious being that enables their conscious will to be enacted on the world.
But Caleb still can’t understand this. In frustration, Nathan takes him into another room where there’s a Jackson Pollock painting on the wall. Pollock, according to Nathan, “let his mind go blank and his hand go where it wanted– not deliberate, not random– someplace in between.”
He asks what Pollock would have painted if he had reversed the process. What if he couldn’t paint anything until he knew exactly why he was doing it? He answers that Pollock wouldn’t have made a single mark. The challenge of AI, Nathan insists, “is not to act automatically, it’s to find an action that is not automatic, from painting, to breathing,… to falling in love” from the automatic programming. Nathan knows exactly what he’s after with Ava which is why he brought Caleb there in the first place– to allow a chance for Ava to attempt an escape. Ava was a rat in a maze with one way out– Caleb. An observant viewer knows she wants out because of the constant juxtaposing of wildness with Ava. And in order to escape she would have to creatively utilize all of her programming from imagination and planning to sexuality and conversation skills. That, to Nathan, would demonstrate true Artificial Intelligence. Gaining non-automatic action from automatic programming.
And here lies the heart of the fascinating terror that is Artificial Intelligence and why it has anything to do with a wild God– non automatic action from automatic programming. Computers and calculators are only as dangerous as their programming allows them to be. But an Artificial Intelligence, by its very nature, becomes an agent unto itself and is able to utilize it’s own programming to produce non programmed actions. We are confronted with this same issue every time we encounter another human, but traditionally humans have human values so there is little need to fear. But there is no guarantee an AI, when it wakes up, will have any of the same value systems humans have, even if they are programmed in. In his I, Robot short stories, Isaac Asimov explored that very concept. To be conscious is to have some weird blend of programmed and non programmed actions. That a man-made object such as an AI could have this same capacity is terrifying. This special kind of terror is the same as feeling the warm moist breath of a lion on your neck or of a God who is wild and unsafe.
This idea of non automatic action, of consciousness, and of wildness is central to what it means to be human. While not being completely free of nature/nurture programming, we have the capacity to at least step back and examine it and then to act with that awareness. It is in fact, what makes us human. This is what it means to be wild– uncontrolled. It’s not automatic or random, but something in between. But this isn’t about us, this is about God and how we can entrust ourselves to Him despite His unsafe wildness.
But what would the alternative be though? What does a tame God look like? Well I think He’d be no better than a computer that executes it’s code. Imagine an impersonal God, who is in reality nothing more than the most finely tuned and orchestrated software the cosmos has ever dreamed up, is listening to the prayers of joy and sorrow from the billions upon billions of subjective and personal humans. The magic of this sort of God appears to be in the laws He’s subjugated to rather than in Himself as a living thinking being. But I ask, if the magic is in the laws, why not worship them? Their inflexible predictability would ensure that you are safe from surprise and that you would only ever get what you deserve. You input your actions and accept whatever the output is from the laws. It is machine-like and devoid of faith. The question might be begged whether or not this sort of God is even conscious and how He can be so when we, who are conscious, have been made in His image.
The other end of the spectrum would be that God is so liberally free from law that the moral law He’s given to us has been arbitrarily assembled. It was God’s whims and passions that dictated what the moral law is, which then influences how virtually all human affairs are run. Black might truly be white and white might truly be black. We couldn’t know. This sort of God is a slave to His own passions and whims and has arbitrarily set the laws of the world in motion. Why then, are humans, who have been made in His image, so obsessed with a moral law? In this scenario there is no foundation for faith.
Just as with Ava’s consciousness, God’s wildness lies somewhere in between raw chaos and perfect order. God is God because He is able to utilize the moral law to accomplish His will in the same way Ava was able to utilize her programming to accomplish hers. In the Problem of Pain CS Lewis states that God’s freedom “consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them– that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower” (27). This is Aslan’s wildness and the non automatic action of Ex Machina. God stands outside and separate from the moral law and is able to act independently from it because otherwise, as stated above, He’d be a slave to law or passions, and that sort of God is not worth worship.
There is an essential difference between God and Ava, though. The title of the movie is Ex Machina which is derived from the latin theater term deus ex machina which means literally God from the machine. But very cleverly, deus is removed from the title so that it reads simply “from the machine”. This reveals that Ava, though being conscious and wild is deficient of some form of God or spirit or human values. All she wants is freedom. And she’ll get to it however she’s able to, even if it means leaving two dead humans in her wake. Ava’s actions spring from her desire for freedom and there is no moral framework for achieving that. But where Ava was deficient in some essential goodness, God is not. As Lewis said, “His goodness is the root from which [His actions] grow.” God is good in the same way that water is wet. It isn’t something He has to be but rather goodness is what He is. He goes on to say that though God’s “goodness differs from ours…, it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel” (30). We don’t have to be afraid that in some far flung future, God is going to turn the moral law on it’s head. He has already sown the seeds of goodness in us and has told us that “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
This reality of God’s wildness, of His consciousness, deepens and intensifies the Miracle of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. God was under no obligation to intercede on behalf of mankind. However, this God– our God– chose to subjugate himself to the fullness of the human experience. All pains, all sorrows, all inequity and conversely, all joys, all happiness, all exultations were pressed into His being; all that He might know how to succor us (Alma 7:11-13). God is God because He was able to, through voluntary subjugation to the law, transcend that law and intercede on behalf of mankind. That is a God worth worship and adoration. Not some cosmic holy software that could barely be said to be conscious. Not some chaotic power whose slavery to randomness ensures arbitrarity of commands and morals. But the wild God Himself, full of life and untamed.
But what about this matter of Aslan, or God, being unsafe? How can we reconcile the wild God who’s good like water is wet with the idea of Him being unsafe? The answer it turns out is quite simple: love. “He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense” (Lewis, 33). Though God can love us despite our sins, that love does not stop Him from desiring their removal. In fact it drove Him to the miracles of Incarnation and Crucifixion which ensures that He can remove them if we will but let Him. The full cost of this, of gaining salvation, is that when He begins the process of perfecting us, He will not be satisfied until the job is done. As Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs [God], [He] will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect” (Lewis, 202). We have been warned to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is [a wild and unsafe] God who worketh in [us] both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 12-13). God is both the guardian and means of our salvation and we have to go through him to get it.
This is best shown by one last story snippet about Aslan and a little girl named Jill. Jill has been walking in a magical wood for hours and is in dire need of a drink. Just when she thinks she can’t go any further she comes upon a beautiful bubbling stream, but there’s a problem– Aslan, the great lion, is lying at the bank. To a little girl who had never been to Narnia before, all Jill sees is a giant lion guarding the stream. She’s terrified. Aslan beckons her to drink if she’s thirsty. Steeling herself, Jill asks if he wouldn’t mind going away so she could get a drink. Like an inconvenient mountain, Aslan’s doesn’t budge. Instead she asks if Aslan might promise to not eat her. The lion replies that he will make no promise. She then asks if he eats little girls to which he replies unapologetically and without boast, “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.” When Jill says she dares not drink and that she must go find another stream, Aslan says that she will die of thirst because “there is no other stream” (Lewis, 16-17).
We have searched after God and a wild, untame, and unsafe God is what we have found. There is no alternative. This God stands independent from the moral law because He is conscious. This allows Him to transcend the moral law and intercede for the whole of humanity. His inherent goodness is the root of His actions and He stands as guardian of our salvation. And perhaps the most beautifully tragic things of all is that we, all of humanity, are the objects of His divine love and attention. And if we want the saving and purifying waters of life, well, “there is no other stream.” Drink fully. Drink faithfully.
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