Trapped in Moloch

Our Emotional Participation in the World
English Translation
0:00
0:00
Audio Test:
Essay
Published On:

October 23, 2023

Featuring:
Daniel Schmachtenberger
Categories of Inquiry:
Tags
Issue:
Ausgabe 40/2023
|
October 2023
Auf der KIppe
Explore this Issue

Only a god or goddess can save us

How do we explain the fact that we humans are creating what we don't actually want - the destruction of ecological systems, the climate catastrophe and now the exponentially developing AI? The term Moloch is often used to explain this. But how does an ancient Phoenician deity help us to understand today's crises?

When I was interviewing Daniel Schmachtenberger for this issue, we were talking about the human motives behind runaway AI and he said one word, almost to himself: Moloch. I remembered Moloch from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. The God of the Old Testament spoke out against the worship of Moloch to whom children were sacrificed.

But why would Daniel utter his name in our conversation about ChatGPT and the new AI Large Language Models?

I found a podcast with Daniel and Liv Boeree, entitled “Misalignment, AI, & Moloch.” And then, as I searched further, Moloch began to show his fearsome head in many forums discussing AI and the metacrisis (or polycrises) that humanity has brought upon ourselves.

Why?

Because Moloch is a way to bring into awareness the destructive forces that we humans are caught in. How can one explain that although no one—at least no one in their right mind—wants the destruction of the biosphere or the advent of nuclear war or a system of punishing competition that feeds inequality and so on, we collectively are creating the conditions for all of this to happen? We are, in fact, sacrificing a generation of children to the relentless god of competition and capitalism: Moloch.

While this may seem farfetched, I have come to realize that the invocation of Moloch is helpful to us. It clarifies how, even in the structure of our identities, we have become caught by Moloch. And in that, it opens pathways to response that each of us can take.

Please become a member to access evolve Magazine articles.

Only a god or goddess can save us

How do we explain the fact that we humans are creating what we don't actually want - the destruction of ecological systems, the climate catastrophe and now the exponentially developing AI? The term Moloch is often used to explain this. But how does an ancient Phoenician deity help us to understand today's crises?

When I was interviewing Daniel Schmachtenberger for this issue, we were talking about the human motives behind runaway AI and he said one word, almost to himself: Moloch. I remembered Moloch from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. The God of the Old Testament spoke out against the worship of Moloch to whom children were sacrificed.

But why would Daniel utter his name in our conversation about ChatGPT and the new AI Large Language Models?

I found a podcast with Daniel and Liv Boeree, entitled “Misalignment, AI, & Moloch.” And then, as I searched further, Moloch began to show his fearsome head in many forums discussing AI and the metacrisis (or polycrises) that humanity has brought upon ourselves.

Why?

Because Moloch is a way to bring into awareness the destructive forces that we humans are caught in. How can one explain that although no one—at least no one in their right mind—wants the destruction of the biosphere or the advent of nuclear war or a system of punishing competition that feeds inequality and so on, we collectively are creating the conditions for all of this to happen? We are, in fact, sacrificing a generation of children to the relentless god of competition and capitalism: Moloch.

While this may seem farfetched, I have come to realize that the invocation of Moloch is helpful to us. It clarifies how, even in the structure of our identities, we have become caught by Moloch. And in that, it opens pathways to response that each of us can take.

The Origins of Moloch

Some five thousand years ago, during the Bronza Age, Moloch was one of the gods worshipped by the Phoenicians, a Semitic tribe that some call the first capitalists. Their prowess as traders and sailors enabled them to colonize peoples across the Mediterranean, such as Carthage, Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. The Phoenicians are credited with introducing money, credit, interest, and profit—supporting a culture that valued entrepreneurial drive, innovation, and competition. They created the first alphabetic language, systems of measurement, and coinage. Of course, at best, the Phoenicians practiced a proto-capitalism, without aspects such as the market philosophy that drives the markets today.

Moloch, a deity of fertility and war, appears to get his name from a combination of the consonants for the word “god” and the vowels of “shame.” A medieval French rabbi, Schlomo Yitzchaki, described Moloch as a bronze statue with a bull’s head, man’s body, and arms outstretched over a fire that is often in his belly. Sometimes he has the head of a bearded man and carries a thunderbolt. His name and features vary, but one continuity is the practice of child sacrifice.

Surprisingly, given that taxing the wealthy is becoming a taboo in our time, Moloch “demanded” the sacrifice of the first-born child of every wealthy or noble family, at least. In times of difficulty, such as war or drought, many more children were sacrificed to appease the god. As the Phoenicians conquered one people after another, the cult of Moloch spread. Sometimes, as with the Carthaginians, the practice of child sacrifice was pursued aggressively.


»Moloch has enjoyed a career in modernity.«

One of the ways that we know about Moloch comes from the condemnation of child sacrifice in the Old Testament. In the books of Leviticus, Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God warns against the practice. The passages in these books of the Bible refer to a “tophet,” a special bronze statue of the deity that was internally lit by a fire into which children were thrown. Images of Moloch with a bull’s head and a child in his belly are found from the early Bronze Age through medieval times.

Modern Moloch

Moloch has enjoyed a career in modernity, lit by the fires of capitalism. In the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, an ode to a dear friend confined to a psychiatric hospital, he laments that “the best minds of [his] generation” have been “destroyed by madness.” In the second part of the poem, he declares the cause in one stanza after another that begins: Moloch!

As he writes in one stanza:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

But what does Moloch actually mean? Obviously, we are not talking about an actual demon deity.

Scott Alexander, the pseudonym for a psychiatrist and blogger, in his 2014 article, “Meditations on Moloch,” notes that “It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.”

We all are making choices in a system that rewards self-interest to the detriment of everyone. But no one can stop, because stopping would mean one’s demise. This is called a multipolar trap. In the context of competitive capitalism and politics, our lives are riddled with them.

The arms race is an example of a multipolar trap. Even if everyone wants peace, the lack of trust between nations means that, rather than investing in education or healthcare, nations need to invest in arms, including nuclear weapons, to protect from the possibility of attack from the others. If a nation doesn’t have the resources to do this, it has to develop alliances with the powers that do in ways that create further division and mistrust. The proliferation of all these deadly instruments, in a situation of ever-eroding trust, makes war even more likely.

This is true of air and water pollution, and anything to do with the commons. As Alexander writes, “companies in an economic environment of sufficiently intense competition are forced to abandon all values except optimizing-for-profit or else be outcompeted by companies that optimized for profit better and so can sell the same service at a lower price.” So, good-bye living wages, good healthcare and education, forests and natural landscapes, clean water and air. Hello to toxic waste, pollution, worker exploitation, and concrete. Taken to a global scale, the result is brutal: human degradation on every level from DNA on up along with the degradation of all forms of life and their biosystems. “Business practices are set by Moloch,” writes Alexander, “no one else has any choice in the matter.”

»We are using powers that we do not understand or control.«

These impacts are not simply, or even mostly, the result of “bad actors.” It is not that, to paraphrase Sting, the Russians (or capitalists or…fill in the blank) don’t love their children, too. But that making choices to survive and thrive in a zero-sum competitive system leads inevitably to eviscerating life-oriented values and, eventually, sacrificing the children.

So, who is Moloch? Alexander responds: “Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.

“He always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I can grant you power.”

AI Because I Can

In a surprising and brilliant podcast by Joshua Schrei on “The Emerald,” he asked ChatGPT which myth or legend resonates most with the situation that humanity is in now with the emergence of these Large Language Models (like ChatGPT). What was the first answer? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In other words, we are using powers that we do not understand or control that are likely to destroy us. And we have no wise Sorcerer to rescue us.

Listening to the responses of persons like Daniel Schmachtenberger, the concern at the release of Open AI’s LLM, Chat GPT, was that there was no supervision, no guardrails, no collective coordination to ensure that the magic of this AI would be rooted in the best that humanity has to offer. Instead, the release—followed in rapid succession by other LLMs being prematurely brought to market—was a clear example of a multipolar trap. To bring in another mythic reference, they opened Pandora’s box. 

In a Moloch-driven capitalist society, the curiosity of the bright young man leads him to hack into forbidden territory because that’s where you find the thrill, the fame, the money, the power—the materialistic purpose. We do it because we can—and if I don’t do it, then someone else will. So, I will do everything to get there first.

I am referring here to young men, not to blame them or toss them in the toxic masculinity wastebin, but to make a point about how Moloch shapes our identities. Modernity divided society into two different spheres with two different moral imperatives. The feminine sphere of home upheld the medieval Christian values of service, chastity, thrift, obedience, and faith. This sphere of homemaking and caretaking stood in opposition to the masculine sphere of business and politics. It was understood that men would be locked in a Darwinian survival struggle that would necessarily lead them to cultivate the opposite of Christian values—self-interest and competition. The middle-class home was a place of order and calm, made possible through men’s labor, that assuaged men’s souls.

Well, needless to say, that is over—for many different reasons. Yet men’s, and women’s, identities bear the imprint of modernity’s past. But now the only context left for any of us in our pluralistic society is the competitive market. The Christian values assigned to women have been savaged by market values and consumerism. Add to this a new competition—one between generations of men—and the result is that there are no grown-ups in the room. The giddy speed of technological advance in the digital world, culminating with LLMs like ChatGTP, leaves older, perhaps more steady, hands struggling to update their smartphones. The teen boys who spent countless hours trying to defeat Moloch in video games like Diablo II or Mortal Kombat X are now his unwitting accomplices. The adolescent cry because I can also says there’s no one to stop me. 

There are no wise sorcerers in the tech world; there are only apprentices. I am not speaking about their technical know-how (although the fact that they do not understand how these LLMs learn is sobering). I am referring to their understanding of power, deeper human values, and the importance of self-restraint. Think about it: Mark Zuckerberg? Jeff Bezos? Elon Musk? Do any of these guys seem wise? Smart, clever, technically brilliant, yes. But not wise in a way that can help us to not sacrifice our children to Moloch.

As Joshus Schrei suggests in his podcast, the myth of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a story between generations, about sons without the guidance of wise fathers. In our postmodern culture, so much attention has been paid to women and the need to bring forth feminine values. So true. But has this emphasis become too narrow and divisive? Is it the duty of the state to be an all-nurturing mother who punishes anyone who makes her children feel unsafe? Ironically, at the same time, as a society, we’ve left a generation or two of boys in the basement in front of a screen flickering with garish images of orcs and porn. And young men and women are moving further apart: young men are twice as likely to have an animated AI chatbot “girlfriend” than young women are. The only one served by this development is Moloch.

Getting Beyond Moloch

want to, to be fundamentally a problem of coordination and cooperation. The coordination capacity of AI has the power to work for Moloch or for us humans and the lives of our children. That is what makes it so tantalizing and so dangerous. Everybody all together all at once would have to decide to stop putting competition before collaboration for the sake of the common good. Given how far-fetched that is, are we doomed?

Not necessarily. There are social structures that have coordinated human beings so that we cooperate. “Social codes, gentlemens’ agreements, industrial guilds, criminal organizations, traditions, friendships, schools, corporations, and religions are all coordinating institutions that keep us out of traps by changing our incentives,” Scott Alexander notes. Our identities as men and women have been shaped by all of these.

Coordination and cooperation sound rather dull but they imply connection and belonging. Perhaps something like home. I am not talking about the nuclear family or traditional values but a deep sense of being here. It’s a kind of self-love that is not narcissistic but expresses gratitude for being alive. Because most deeply, our identities have been profoundly shaped by love—and the lack of it.

Love is something that AI cannot do. Nor can it care. The forces of Moloch have trampled on both romantic love and parental love—turning both into competitive consumer games. However, Love is something that we can reclaim as uniquely ours. We need a god of Love, again. Because it has happened before in human history—enough to slow Moloch down for centuries.

Yet as long as Moloch can offer his demonic deal to sell our values for power and destroy our children’s futures, humanity is his. “As long as the offer’s open,” says Scott Alexander, “it will be irresistible. So we need to close the offer. Only another god can kill Moloch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.” Or her.

Author:
Dr. Elizabeth Debold
Share this article: