Outline of an Unknowable God, question three

We’re getting pretty close to having built an omniscient mind of our own, or so we think. The attachment of sensors to all sorts of things, billions of people feeding data to Facebook and Google and Apple, even more billions using cell phones that track our location, creating a treasure trove of data. Some — a select few — integrate and algorithmically analyze that data for patterns. All that data analysis points towards a depth and breadth of knowledge about people that we’ve not had before. Predictive analytics is what the field is called, because the algorithms let institutions make predictions about behavior – who will buy something, where a crime might be committed. We’ve had the ability to use data to predict things for 200 years; we now have more data and better algorithms, and can predict more things.

It feels vaguely like the algorithm meisters will be able to read our diaries, to know things about us that no one is supposed to know. That feels like it violates a moral law of some type, the type C.S. Lewis starts off Mere Christianity with, “that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way.”
Statistics provide probabilities, not Truth. Predictive analytics is not predestination, the idea that God knows the course of our life before we are born. Every time we think we know it all, some cocky Nobel Laureate at Long Term Capital Management or a quant at Lehman Brothers threaten to send the world economy back into the Stone Age. Despite such malignant miscalculations, market values have begun to dislodge moral ones, writes Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, in his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy. “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed,” Sandel writes. “It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

“We’re a figure-it-out culture,” says David B. Burrell, a priest and theologian who in 1986 published Knowing the Unknowable God. “That becomes our paradigm for knowing: to know something is to circumscribe it, to comprehend it, to get our mind around and therefore to domesticate it.”

He pauses and chuckles. “Try to figure out your spouse. You’re in big trouble!”

People of all stripes know better than to pigeonhole their spouse. Many of those people will nonetheless prefer not to accept moral values. Market values may seem objective. But people make markets. Is it a good thing to replace morals with markets?

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