Professor Margaret Boden 
Not Gizmos, but Ghosts: AI & the Mind


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Cambridge Muslim College; training the next generation of Muslim thinkers.  

  بسم الله الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله واله وصحبه ومن والاه

So we come to the second in our lectures about the best story - the Siraaj, The Chosen One, ARABIC Salallahu Alayhi Wasalam - and we were reflecting last time on how these world historical events - these Kairos moments, these linchpins in the human story - after which nothing anywhere is going to be the same again; the reason indeed for our existence, for our names, for our culture, for our commitment for this institution, for our presence here - tend to be the greatest stories of mankind. You really find such drama, such suspense, such operatically intense characters in the life of Winston Churchill, for instance - or (UNCLEAR) , or Ramesses III - when we are dealing with people who are sent inspired to reestablish the vertical, rather than reconfigure the horizontal aspect of human existence. We are looking at something that draws out of us depths and heights, and creates a sense of the richness of the fullness of the human condition.  

The characters that we see in this great operatic saga are archetypes for characters that are present within us all - as a part of the greatness of Homer, perhaps; part of the greatness of Shakespeare - in that we are given insights in a timeless way into certain possibilities. Certain exemplars of envy, of rage, of dispossession, of bereavement, of Hope, of sacrifice. Certain human possibilities ARABIC , good and negative, which enable us to perceive something of the depth and the height of the mysterious miracle of the human condition. It's important for us to 'get' this today, because ours is an age in which emotion has taken the place of a real savouring of the miraculous depth of the human experience. The miracle of consciousness itself; no longer particularly perceived as a miracle. Artificial intelligence may, we are told, create a better form of ourselves; but this humanity, this depth, this richness which bespeaks the fact that human beings are in God's image, and that when ARABIC breathed something of his spirit into Adam, that sign quality of (UNCLEAR) Adam is no longer seen. Instead, we perceive perverse, intensified consumerised manipulations of the theme - the obsession with looks, the obsession with dieting, the obsession with the surface of the human condition - and behind the scenes, an increasing confusion as to what it is to be human. What are we for, if anything; what is gender, what is life, what is meaning? All of these things are falling into a state of mass confusion, so we all experience this as part of our modernity; and when we get back to these great ancient stories, we are reminded whatever we make of the stories -  whatever you make of Othello or Macbeth or whatever it might be - you're reminded that there is in the fact of being human, a certain kind of symphonic completeness that modernity doesn't know what to do with. Part of the necessity for religion in today's world is that it gives us really the only way back to being part of a full humanity. Religion can be aberrant, however; it can be modernised insofar as it seeks merely to be emotional - to be about them versus us - to be about the surface of things - is my hijab right, is my beard correct, I look different to those people - sometimes we can modernise our Islam by focusing on those identity issues, but that is just part of the contamination which we experience as people who breathe the airs of modernity.  

We already got a sense last time as to the magnificence of the backdrop, the severe austere splendour of the scenery of Arabia itself. The grandeur, the desolation - the spiritual evocativeness of the scenery and the props of this great drama - and we also saw the tragedy and the majesty of the human types that are appearing on this landscape, which is a contested zone between the Abrahamic determination to be fully human and the natural human inclination to follow the short-term dispositions of the ego. The universal quest for God in the Abrahamic mode, in which all human beings are seen as being truly from a single source; and hence actually or potentially brothers and sisters, with whom one can fully empathise - the beginnings of universal values - and on the other hand, the wild rampant tribalism of Arabia, stronger there than about anywhere else that we know of; where all that mattered in terms of your human worth with whether you belong to ARABIC or ARABIC or ARABIC - or some sub-branch of that - and that defined entirely your identity.  This polarity between the liberation granted by the vertical contrasts in this great drama, with the chains placed upon human flowering by the psychological subjection to the tribe - to the same, to the polarisation of human beings. 'Them versus us', which would determine everything in terms of who you could fight with, who you could marry with, who you could trade with, who you could talk to, whose grazing lands you could share; it was their life, the ARABIC jahiliyyah were about that. It is the divine wisdom, no doubt, that on that great Shakespearean dramatical backdrop this particular story of one man in a small town in Arabia - who came to engender, as it were, all of us, and irrevocably changed the shape of history - against that majestic, tragic, contested backdrop that he walks the stage of history.  

Now as part of this, we saw that in this contested stressed spiritual landscape of Arabia, we had on the one hand the Arabian insistence that religion was 'our thing'; cosa nostra, if you like. 'We had our idol, you had your idol; and yes, we could have these artificial truces in which we could do business with each other, at certain festivals and certain sanctuaries - and particularly at the ARABIC Kaaba, and we came together for the ARABIC Hajj - and all of the idols were in some nice momentary interfaith conference around the Kaaba itself, and we could all hug and do business. But essentially, religion was a cause of division and brokenness; but there are Abrahamic memory - being a memory of fulfilment and being real - of the capacity to empathise with people who were not oneself. The Abraham who had migrated from his own people and from his own father - from that which his father symbolised in terms of the idols - into the great unknown, in which ultimately he was taken up by the divine providence; and this hidden seed planted in the dry soil of Arabia, which took long, long centuries before it would germinate in the divine wisdom. That that libereratory message - that actually, I can transcend this horrible web of obsessions about respectability and what's right, and what my aunties would say - and liberate oneself from that dark oppressiveness, was always remembered by a few. There are always some dissidents, sometimes at the outskirts of society; sometimes people who are disappointed, who've been kicked around; sometimes people from the heart of society who don't like a social contract that is entirely based on honour, respect, doing what's right for the family; which is ultimately, let us say, the ethos of the mafia. How about that, to use a twentieth-century familiar image; the Arabian chief is Marlon Brando, Don Corleone, and he can be really honourable. The family for him, he would sacrifice his life for it in a moment, and he really wants his granddaughters to marry into honourable families; and he's always talking about his grandfather, and the great things that his grandfather did, and how he'll never go away from the way of his grandfather. All of that omertà honour, it's a kind of virtue. The Arabs called it ARABIC; 'virtus', manly virtue. The word virtue in English comes from the Latin word being a man, vir. It's a honourable thing; but as with the feminine principle, it can be subverted into something really subversive. So also the masculine thing can become the Mafia Don, who is kind to his dog and would die for his daughter, and for whom family honour is above everything else; but who is very happy to arrange for the stabbing to death or the strangling of the hit men from the tribe in in New Jersey.  

Arabia was like that; that's a possibility in human beings. Honour through vendetta - through ARABIC - which is experienced ultimately as extremely oppressive, because you're trapped in it. Once you're in there, once you're initiated - you're a consigliere or whatever, a boss, a captain in the Mafia - you're kind of stuck in it, because your whole life is dictated to by this false code of honour, revenge, the family. And the possibility of a higher ethos? Not really there. Watch The Sopranos, you'll see the same thing; compare Abū Lahab to Tony Soprano - how good he is to his family, how he's always talking about family honor and all of that - and yet he has somebody who insulted his daughter in a bar suffocated and thrown into the Jersey river, and it doesn't keep him awake at night. That's the ARABIC jahiliyyah of the Arabs, it's an eternal human possibility; and it is a possibility amongst us today. ARABIC has ongoing lessons for us, because very often we see the same thing in Muslim culture, which are intensely tribalised, intensely tribalised. It's the honor of the family that actually matters to so many of the old ARABIC gents who run the mosque committees. They establish this ARABIC, or this ARABIC, and they create this mosque which in practice is for people who are (UNCLEAR) 'Sympetes' of a particular type; and then the Sympetes of the other type builds their ARABIC down the road which is a little bit higher, and they don't go to each other's mosques, and intermarriage is going to be a big human issue. It's all ARABIC, brother; but the reality is that it's the ARABIC tribalism, and that's what matters to them.  

This is an issue for those who care about the spread of Islam in this country. Think about the early Muslims and we'll see something of this liberation that they experienced; coming into Islam after that incredibly intense world of 'them and us' and tribal honor, and the pecking order and status, and into the space of Islam where you could be praying at the feet of ARABIC - the Abyssinian right in front of you as you made your ARABIC; and it was really a revolution, and it was the hearts that came together, incredible liberation that those mostly young people felt - and then opposing it, the old forces. What we have in British Islam today unfortunately, is that there are people who are attracted to the Abrahamic light; the ARABIC aren't going to help them. Back then in the ARABIC, you could go to ARABIC and be embraced, and be fully part of that; but the ARABIC Masjid in Britain today is not the house of ARABIC al Arkham. Afraid not.  

My first experience in a mosque in the UK, after taking my ARABIC Shahada feeling all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; "I'll go and see my brothers at the Field Gate Mosque in in Whitechapel", near Liverpool Street Station. I thought ARABIC "Mashallah, I'll go in"; and so I go in - and back then it's a slightly scruffier place than it is today - and I go into this space, and as these old guys look at me and I go and I pray they're watching. They don't talk, they watch and they watch and they watch - and somebody scuttles up behind me, puts a little ARABIC on my head while I'm praying - and then as I go, another old guy comes and says "Are you Muslim? " He's just watched me praying, my ARABIC, my ARABIC; "Are you Muslim? " That's the tragedy of British Islam; and if we read the ARABIC properly, we can see how much we've sunk and why our problems are so catastrophic, because the ARABIC outcome is not there. But the new Muslim - or the person coming back to Islam, or the person who just wants the beauty of the Abrahamic Fellowship, and the idea that ARABIC Lillahil Allah makes us really able to be real with each other, rather than subject to this crippling weight of honour codes - you're unlikely to find it, because the mosques are intensely racialised spaces, the most racialised spaces in British society. Shopping centres aren't, multiplex cinemas aren't, Parliament isn't; but the mosque is racially separate. This is a tragedy for our community; a convert who I was speaking to - English guy, new to Islam - wanted to marry this girl from the subcontinent, and it turned out that the parents flipped out so much - because they wanted her to marry somebody who was from their world; wasn't praying, but was from their world - and the mother said that she would stop taking her medications, and would die for the shame of it; if her daughter continued and married this person who wasn't from that particular ARABIC or ARABIC or ARABIC or whatever it was. That's where we are now; we are in the state of ARABIC jahiliya, but subversively we wave the flag of Islam above it. That is the cause of many of our discomforts in our community; why are so many the young people becoming amoral, ending up in prisons? Why is that when old people are building the ARABIC Masjids, young people are in strange ways? It's because the young people have not been brought up with a moral code, but only with this honor code; doesn't seem to make sense, it's like being brought up in the Mafia. 

 

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