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Scientific Prometheanism and the Boundaries of Knowledge: Whither Goes AI?

  • Tianhu Hao (a1)

Abstract

This article discusses John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the contemporary film Ex Machina as a coherent group concerning the boundaries of knowledge and the perils of scientific Prometheanism. The development of AI (Artificial Intelligence) should be delimited and contained, if not curtailed or banned, and scientists ought to proceed in a responsible and cautious manner. An obsessive or excessive pursuit of knowledge, aiming to equal God and create humanoid beings, constitutes the essential feature of scientific Prometheanism, which can end in catastrophic destruction. Both Frankenstein and Ex Machina stringently critique scientific Prometheanism as one aspect of modernity, and expose the real dangers that AIs pose to the very existence of humanity and civilization. In Paradise Lost, Milton provides the epistemological framework for Frankenstein and Ex Machina. The article concludes that the union of science and arts in science fiction (films) can be very productive.

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1. Kinsley, J. and Joseph, M. K. (Eds) (1969) Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 9. For the text of Frankenstein I prefer this edition, which is based on the 1831, instead of the 1818, version.
2.‘Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind’. BBC News. Accessed on 30 October 2015.
3.For two lists of film adaptations of Frankenstein since 1910, and discussions on Frankenstein and film, see E. Schor (Ed.) (2003) Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), ‘Select filmography’, p. 283, and ‘Frankenstein and film’, by Esther Schor, pp. 63–83; A.J. LaValley (1979) The stage and film children of Frankenstein: a survey. In: G. Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher (Eds), The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 243–289.
4. Mary Shelley’s indebtedness to Milton even surpasses the usual impression. See, for example, Mays, M.A. (1969) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s black theodicy. Southern Humanities Review, 3, pp. 146153.
5. Muller, H.J. (1970) The Children of Frankenstein: A Primer on Modern Technology and Human Values (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), pp. 7, 130. In my discussion I am aware of the distinctions between science and technology.
6. Levine, G. (1979) The ambiguous heritage of Frankenstein . In G. Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher, (Eds) The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 9.
7. On the personal level, Victor is also the pseudonym Percy Shelley adopted when publishing his first collection of childhood poems, together with the productions of his sister Elizabeth, the namesake of Victor Frankenstein’s cousin and later wife in the novel. See, Scott, P.D. (1979) Vital artifice: Mary, Percy, and the psychopolitical integrity of Frankenstein . In G. Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher, (Eds) The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 175.
8.Words cognate with machine often occur in Frankenstein: machinery (7), engine (9), mechanism (9, 48, 49, 185), mechanics (53), machinations (153, 176, 186), mechanical (204), etc. The first machine in the 1818 edition disappears from the 1831 text due to authorial revision. For quotations from the 1818 text, see J. Rieger (Ed.) (1982) Frankenstein (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), pp. 35, 43.
9. Werblowsky, R.J.Z. (1952) Lucifer and Prometheus: A Study of Milton’s Satan (Abingdon: Routledge), p. 85. This monograph makes a lucid and profound study of the Promethean myth from the angle of psychology; see esp. pp. 53–60.
10. Bloom, H. (1987) Introduction. In H. Bloom, (Ed.) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (New York: Chelsea House Publishers), p 4. For a more detailed analysis of similarities between Caleb Williams and Frankenstein, see K.C. Hill-Miller (1995) ‘My Hideous Progeny’: Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-Daughter Relationship (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses), pp. 68–75.
11. Lew, J.W. (1991) The deceptive other: Mary Shelley’s critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein . Studies in Romanticism, 30, pp. 278283.
12. Mellor, A.K. (1988) A feminist critique of science. In Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen), p. 89.
13. Teskey, G. (2015) The Poetry of John Milton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 289.
14. Cude, W. (1972) Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus: A study in the ethics of scientific creativity. The Dalhousie Review, 52, pp. 221224.
15.The novel’s generally non-religious setting does not disqualify or discredit a Christian or Miltonic perspective on it, not the least because the protagonists themselves – Frankenstein as well as his creature – adopt such a point of view. Frankenstein’s instinctive utterances of ‘Great God!’ on several occasions (57, 191, 195) reveal his Christian sense, though he is usually atheistic. In another moment Frankenstein likens himself to Satan, ‘the archangel who aspired to omnipotence’ (211).
16. Hans Blumenberg, cited in: Lewis, L.M. (1992) The Promethean Politics of Milton, Blake, and Shelley (Columbia: University of Missouri Press), p. 1.
17. Kerrigan, W., Rumrich, J. and Fallon, S. M. (Eds) (2007) The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (New York: The Modern Library), p. 200.
18.Cf. Shelley: ‘The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan’. G. Teskey (Ed.) (2005) John Milton: Paradise Lost (New York: Norton), A Norton Critical Edition, p. 393.
19. Humphry Davy, a contemporary scientist who influenced Mary Shelley, touches on the chemist’s discovery of gunpowder. See, Mellor, A.K. (1988) A feminist critique of science. In: Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen), pp. 90, 9495.
20.For another example of Milton’s advocacy of the union of knowledge and faith, see Of Education: ‘The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him’. W. Kerrigan, J. Rumrich and S.M. Fallon (Eds) (2007) The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (New York: The Modern Library), p. 971.
21. Griffin, A. (1979) Fire and ice in Frankenstein . In G. Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher, (Eds) The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 51.
22. Rieger, J. (Ed.) (1982) Frankenstein, p. 35 (1818 edition).
23. Woodberry, G.E. (Ed.) (1892) The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company), vol. 3, pp. 270274 (‘To a Skylark’).
24. Marsh, N. (2009) Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), p. 152.

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