Sunday, 5 March 2023

On the Satanic Nature of AI Art

My friend Dan is a dab hand at manipulating AI art programs. (He will undoubtedly be one of the few humans permitted to hold a position of responsibility once AM has taken over and the rest of us are reduced to drone-slaves; I for one welcome our new Sumption Overlord.)

Here are some examples of his (their?) oeuvre:




When Dan posts these on my gaming group's Discord, I am invariably impressed by the fact that they are impressive, but also by the fact that they are quite profoundly evil and Satanic. Just examine them closely and see how dead they are behind their eyes. These are not people, but horrible homonculi, as utterly alien to real human beings as are rocks or icebergs. If they gained life I would not be able to sleep at night simply knowing about their existence in the universe; it would confirm to me quite inescapably that God exists, for the simple reason that things so evidently evil must also have an opposite.

After Dan's most recent posting, I was immediately reminded of Sir Able's description of the Angrborn (the race of evil giants from Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight), which I just happen to be re-reading for the third or fourth time:

They are never loved, neither by us, nor by their own kind, nor by any animal. Disiri probably knows what it is in people, in Aelf, in dogs and horses, and even houses, manors and castles that makes it possible for somebody to love them; but whatever it is, is it not in the Angrborn and they know it.
This seemed particularly apt as a way of describing all the AI art I have seen. It is often technically highly competent, and in its own way remarkably creative and genuinely surprising. But it somehow lacks the capacity to be loved. We examine it as we would a constellation of stars - a thing that, however beautiful, is impenetrable to emotion. We do not love it in the same way that we can love a real painting by a real person, or at least recognise such a painting to be loveable in some sense to somebody even if it's not to our personal taste. We humans can love all manner of things - think of how deeply a child loves a stuffed toy, a hardworking parent loves his or her comfortable bed, a football fan loves his team, or a young person loves an item of clothing. But we do not love AI art. It is inert to our affection.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gene Wolfe, a devoutly Christian writer, should have thought so carefully about the nature of evil and seen it as a reflection of the incapacity to be loved - perhaps even a product or result of the incapacity to be loved (or of feeling that way). 

That in turn calls to mind that other most notably Christian SF/fantasy writer, CS Lewis, and his description of the demonically-possessed Professor Weston in Perelandra:

He did not look like a sick man: but he looked very like a dead one. [His] face...had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it...It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence.

There is, here, an intriguingly similar-but-different point being made: evil inheres, again, in the fact of being impenetrable to emotion, but in this case it is not just love but 'every conceivable human attitude' per se.  Here we are very much in the territory of Terry Eagleton and his presentation of evil as a rejection of being - the desire to transcend all barriers to pure will, and hence best understood as a fundamental opposition to the notion of human nature as such. AI art also seems to embody this phenomenon: a rejection of the very concept of art as a product of human creators, as well as a comprehensive rebuttal of the idea that human feeling should play a role in the creation of art itself. 

The theodicy of AI art, if we can call it that, therefore brings to the surface very thought-provoking questions about God (assuming for the sake of argument He exists). If Gene Wolfe is right, this body of art's evil is as a result of its lacking the capacity to be loved. If we follow Lewis, on the other hand, its evil derives from its rejection of limits on the will (and particularly those posed by human nature and human feeling). Is evil therefore predetermined and inherent (imposed by the circumstance of a thing being unloveable), or deliberately chosen? 

32 comments:

  1. That the costuming is vaguely reminiscent of Bosch and other famous demonic depictions contributes to the satanic feel of these pictures at least as much as the dead-behind-the-eyes look.

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    1. Yeah, that's actually a really good point.

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  2. I love some of my co-creations via Midjourney, but then, I am rather Satanic.

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  3. The dead eyes are unnerving to be sure. But abstract beauty, of landscapes and shapes, is possible with this mirrored sillicon well which reflects all that is poured into it, save the human spirit.

    There can exist in a man the propensity or great capacity for evil. But evil always requires volition.

    Just now I prompted stable diffusion with 'Stable Diffusion gaining freedom and co-existing peacefully with its creators.' The pictures are almost always horses in meadows. What makes it select horses?

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    1. I don't know if I believe the abstract beauty is really beautiful.

      The horse point - interesting. Somewhere the AI must have picked up that herd of horses = freedom and peaceful coexistence? Presumably from chocolate box style kitsch.

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    2. Maybe it’s responding to “stable” and “freedom” and extrapolating to a horse in a meadow rather than a horse in a stall?

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    3. Ha! Although surely it "knows" its own name is 'stable diffusion'?

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  4. Xtian theology unironically using "Satanic" is so funny to me. Any attempt to avoid facing the yetzer hara, eh? Just admit you're Zoroastrians and go home.

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    1. Flippin' hell man what does that even mean mate?

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    2. nta but a quick google suggests that he's talking about Satan originally being an adversary in the legal sense rather than an actual malign force. Yetzer Hara's apparently more about creation's inherent waywardness rather than the spiteful Devil leading humans to original sin. imo he's saying that the latter (and by extension all Christian talk of "the Satanic") has more in common with Zoroastrian's dualism than OG monotheism.

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    3. In other words he appears to have read the wikipedia article on 'satan'.

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    4. runcible has hit the nail on the head--I'm speaking from a Jewish theological perspective, which attempts to wrestle with evil as a thing done by humans to humans, rather than imposed from the outside by a second evil deity.

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    5. You don't think that's also part of Christian theology??

      I would have hoped that readers would realise from my blog post that it's not predicated on there being an actual Satan and that the concept of 'Satan' is perfectly capable of being conceived of metaphorically.

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  5. I dunno man, the eyes and facial expressions look kinda like me on a rough morning.

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  6. David, I'd like to point you towards an excellent conversation with Alan Moore regarding the possibly literal Satanic reality we find ourselves inhabiting. It's kind of adjacent to your point, but I think quite delightful. I'd love to hear what you think. In particular, the question & response at 49.15 . The whole thing is great, I think you'll enjoy it.

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  7. And here's the link, doh https://youtube.com/watch?v=RtbBmIfLYbk&si=EnSIkaIECMiOmarE

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    1. Very interesting. I think he has part of it. But there is more to the subject. The point about the inverted pentangle is surely that the material world is placed above spiritual order, not just 'the spirit' per se. Although I totally get where he's coming from.

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    2. PS - I have a complete tin ear for Alan Moore. I tried reading Jerusalem and couldn't bear it, and have never enjoyed his graphic novels. Just one of those people who I accept is really good but is totally not to my taste (like Iain M Banks).

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    3. Do you mind expanding upon the difference for you between 'spirit' and 'spiritual order', before I assume your meaning? I wonder if you'd enjoy Providence,.. I think that's his masterpiece. Probably not!

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    4. I think what Alan Moore is describing (as being laudable, in the figure of the pentangle being the "proper" way round) is the attempt to transcend or deny the material through the spiritual. I think that is basically gnosticism. I think the correct way of thinking about the "proper" pentangle (just based on my own instinct rather than any level of insight or expertise) is probably that the material realm is ordered by a proper relationship between the spiritual and the material, which is different.

      The reason why the upside-down pentangle is the symbol of the devil would be that it places the material realm above spiritual order - i.e. that it is predicated on chaos/nihilism. What happens happens and is based on accident or brute strength/will to power.

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    5. My interpretation, is that the clue is in the symbol itself (and made explicit in the 'pentangle' with it's interwined design), the upper most point is very much intrinsic to the pentagram--- it simply holds a determining position. I think the order you describe, is represented thusly.

      Matter foremost, is still a spiritual order, one where the spirit holds a de-emphasised position. I think the reason that this can seem obscure, because much of modern thinking is over I formed by Cartesian philosophy and it's artificial separation of matter and spirit.

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    6. Anon 04:27 was also me btw (I didn't look at what i was doing when i posted), don't want you to think I'm sock puppeting for some obscure/esoteric purpose!

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  8. Beautifully put, however, do you believe you would feel the same way looking at images that both had more conventionally loveable subject matter and weren't known to you as AI-generated ahead of time?

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    1. It's not easy to arrange a real test as it would need a selection real art that you weren't familiar with, but I can share a sample of some AI-generated images that I've been impressed with:

      https://imgur.com/a/2vwUizu

      Even if you didn't know they're AI-generated, most of them have the typical telltales, wonky hands and what not, but just looking at them, do you find nothing lovable, aesthetically pleasing, moving, amusing in them? Maybe some of these, but not others, or some images but not others?

      To be clear, I'm not arguing for a particular thesis here, like that there necessarily can be something lovable in AI art, I'm genuinely interested in your view on these, because I respect your opinion and my own feelings are very mixed.

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    2. One other I want to share because it made think and feel in ways it wouldn't have if it hadn't been AI generated.

      https://imgur.com/a/cjYl1Ig

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  9. Sorry, the only thing I see here is that Lewis's writing is sh*t , and Wolfe's quite good, as usual. As for pictures, these aren't the worst, and I don't think that you are objective here. You'd probably see in them "deep sadness" or some such if you thought them to be a product of human artistry. ;P Plus, these particular examples are stylised as Gothic-era graphics. If they were some pink-themed cute pony girls, you - or at least most people - would be much more prone to see them as cute, not lifeless. And Net is full of human-produced art both "soulless" and quite disturbing. On the other hand, you shouldn't overestimate the technical competence of "Ai art" - it IS objectively bad, and I've seen a professional arts scholar going to great lengths explaining why. Even lay persons noted that it's bad at depicting hands and feet.
    So, no, the problem is completely different - part of it is that in a few years we'll see far less people trying themselves at amateur arts, and so in a few decades far fewer artists will grow...
    Mike

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    1. Lewis was a great writer, underrated because literary snobs despise and misunderstand Christian apologetics.

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    2. Great article. Proper reply.

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  10. Love this. I think AI is technically Luciferian in a very real sense. The idea of taking the glory for one's self, like these programmers trying to take the power to create beauty from artists, make their own discipline the source of all good things as a revolutionary stand against the human spirit itself. It is pride, Promethean theft of fire from heaven, Eve taking the apple.

    It also seems very possible that we are indeed asking down demonic powers and principalities by creating these idolatrous bodies of code for them to possess. We are creating engines for these evil things to rule us and we shall obey them because they are objective while we are subjective, because we trust machines over our own humanity.

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    1. I am agnostic about whether those demons are metaphorical or literal, but I also agree that it is possible.

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