Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Thematic: Theological Variations

Enchantments of the One and Zero Mirror

Is media now considered sacred?

Antón Barba-Kay

Bruce Rolff/Alamy Stock Photos.

It can be rightly claimed that nothing in the world better represents [creation ex nihilo], indeed almost proves it, than the origin of number in the manner represented here, where, by the use simply of unity and zero or nothing, all numbers originate.

—Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716)

And God said, “01101100 01100101 01110100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01101100 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100”—and there was light.

—Genesis 1:3

One of the surprises of the Information Age is the extent to which earlier thinkers anticipated and worked through its distinctive paradoxes. The best literary fiction about the Internet remains that of E.M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Pynchon. Its most penetrating cultural criticism was turned out by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. But much of the most rigorous theorizing about it was completed much earlier still—by medieval and early modern philosophers.

Digital criticism now routinely mobilizes into action long-dormant theological arguments from Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Nicolas Malebranche, George Berkeley, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. How do angels communicate knowledge without embodied senses (social media)? How do we know that we are not living in a divine or demonic simulation (the metaverse)? What is the difference between a human being and cunning clockwork (AI)? And in what sense does the soul survive the body (data immortality)? Some of the motivation for these analogies stems from the realization that what were once flights of suppositious fancy have become our day-to-day. The contrast between local sense and global info-Babel. Or the uncanny omens that give us the feeling that our devices are tracking, gazing at, and responding to us. Or the progressive digestion of all experience into data.

Whereas the most progressive Lumières of early modernity might have wagered that the very notion of the “self” or “soul” would have withered away by now, the ghost in the machine has—in one of those dialectical plot twists that revert enlightenment into superstition—only waxed stronger. Our interface has accentuated the difference between discarnate data and fleshed-out “reality”; the complete accessibility of all information has only whetted our appetite for “experiences”; the digital simulation of all traits has made us all the more sensitive to their “authenticity.” So while we remain committed monists in theory, we are dualists in grudging practice. No longer sure where we stand, we find ourselves stranded on the pluriversal mystifications of ether, 5G-quintessence, avatar, and cloud. (Can you prove that the Internet exists? Can it prove that you do?)

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