Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Heads in the Heavens (or in Hell)

April 5th, 2024 | 45 min read

By Brewer Eberly

Let our formulas find your soul. We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind), marshal feed and force (our machines will) to design you a perfect love—or (better still) a perfect lust. O how glorious! Glorious! A brand-new need is born. Now we possess you! (You’ll own that. You’ll own that.) Now we possess you! (You’ll own that in time.) Now we will build you an endlessly upward world, reach in your pocket, embrace you for all you’re worth. Is that wrong? Isn’t this what you want? Amen.

-- Vienna Teng, The Hymn of Acxiom

The Library of Babel was first imagined as a short story by librarian Jorge Luis Borges in 1941 before being reimagined as a search engine by Jonathan Basile in 2015. It features a seemingly endless library of rooms containing books with every possible combination of 1,312,000 letters, commas, periods, and spaces. The online version currently holds every combination of 3,200 characters.

Once complete, it will contain “every book that ever has been written, and every book that ever could be—including every play, every song, every scientific paper, every legal decision, every constitution, every piece of scripture, and so on. At present it contains ... about 104677 books.” The opening paragraph of this essay is located on page 287 of the promising title “txjn,xa,” nestled safely in subsection “nrr06hxtmsu082e4sn6ggs6wu48z6t...-w3-s5-v27.”

There is a similar version of the Library of Babel for images—an online archive of every possible combination of pixels with 416 rows and 640 columns. It currently holds 10961755 unique images. (To put all this in perspective, there are only 1082 atoms in the observable universe.) The Babel Image Archives contain “portraits of every person who ever lived at every moment in their life, digitized versions of every work of art ever created, even those lost to history, as well as every work of art which ever could be created [including] photographs of your own birth, wedding, and funeral.”

The Library of Babel extends the intelligence of “Man Immortal and Man Ubiquitous,” as the villains put it in That Hideous Strength, the closing book of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy—his “fairytale for grown-ups” that has enjoyed well-deserved call-backs over the last year for its portrayal of a technocratic state bewitched by scientism and artifice. That Hideous Strength was drafted two years after Borges published The Library of Babel and famously draws its own title from a description of the shadow of the tower of Babel. Both Borges and Lewis examine false promises of perpetuity—temptations toward immortal and ubiquitous intelligence—what the comedian Bo Burnham called “anything and everything all of the time.”

In the case of Borges’ library this ends up being a whole lot of nothing. The overwhelming majority of the Library of Babel is useless and cyclical gibberish—not so much a library as a very very large haystack. It is, in the end, just a powerful mathematical parlor trick, reminiscent of the strange rabbit holes of language one encounters in the grammatically correct but ridiculous sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

Among the seemingly infinite sea of meaningless noise in the Babel library are—it is whispered—the untold treasures of poetry not yet penned, the final words you will say on your deathbed, and the mysterious and rumored “Vindications”—books which tempt at a perfect defense for every evil mankind has wrought and the secret keys to secure our immortality:

Thousands of the greedy ... rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proffered dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts ... Others went mad ... The Vindications exist ... but the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.

This kind of intelligence can be radically impractical. No one finds a needle in this haystack. And if one does discover something, the gleanings are rarely intelligent at all, but a kind of invitation to gluttony, greed, and madness. As video essayist Michael Stevens put it when reflecting on Borges’ library: “Just because it can be made doesn’t mean it has been said.” Like the prompts required for ChatGPT, the practical utility—let alone the meaning—depends on the quality of the human contribution. Otherwise, this kind of intelligence is, well, buffaloing (confusing, frightening, deceiving).

In the spirit of joining a conversation with Paul Kingsnorth in “AI Demonic” and recently Casey Shutt in “AI and the Forces of Darkness,” I worry we are in a similar situation as these poor pilgrims seeking their Vindications. For the last year or so I’ve thought that to invoke such language as “dark curses” and “dark forces”—let alone “demonic”—was exaggerated, fickle, and alarmist.

Now I’m not so sure. I worry with Kingsnorth and Shutt that we are seeking divine stairways in dangerous places, blind to the treacherous variations that are already upon us. C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward argues in Planet Narnia that one of Lewis’s key purposes in That Hideous Strength was to show that technically identical words have “diametrically opposed meanings depending on the spiritual state of the speaker.” The Babel Archives may claim all possible words. But the meaning depends not only on the quality of the human input but on the spiritual health of the speaker (or in this case, the spiritual lifelessness of the machine). Lewis feared that if we ignore this, we do not escape the curse of Babel but “redouble” it. As he put it, “The devils are unmaking language.”[1]

As a family physician and mere Christian, I wonder and worry what our enchantments with these kinds of decontextualized storehouses of information mean for my patients, neighbors, and sons. As Chair of Research in Technology Ethics Jason Thacker put it, intelligence is “not good, not bad, and definitely not neutral.” I won’t go so far as to say we are already possessed, but I would say we are seduced by artificial intelligence, sodden with it, playing fast and loose with its spiritual impact. We are sick in the head, as it were—distracted from the embodied needs of our neighbors—and therefore vulnerable to darkness and devils.

Sick with Intelligence

“Hit ‘em with a little bit of dopamine to keep em lookin’
every second they’ll be second guessin’ trying to meet the
expectation of the age of information the simulation
will be so convincing they’ll forget that they’re alive.”

-- Arcadian Wild, Dopamine

“Babel” is often translated as “confusion” but can also mean “gate of god.” “The whole earth had one language and the same words,” says Genesis 11. Man was eager to build “a tower with its top in the heavens.” John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, points out that the tower of Babel wasn’t even meant to be climbed or inhabited. Like other ziggurats in ancient context, it was meant to suggest “the head in the heavens” and the hope that God would come down—not necessarily so that we might worship Him, but to have a god “in our pocket.”

Consider how the base design of the user interface for our screens, which tempt toward endless intelligence, is that of a scrolling infinite feed rather than left-to-right swiping. Books require slow, lateral moves (matching the slightly horizontal framing of human eyesight as we apprehend the world). Infinite swiping in a downward motion is based on the design of slot machines. It’s hard not to read into that a desire to yet again swipe God down from the cloud so that we might control him—a jinn in our pocket.

“The head in the heavens” is also a telling phrase. In C. S. Lewis’s essay “Men Without Chests” in The Abolition of Man (the non-fiction version of That Hideous Strength), Lewis introduces a philosophical model of the human person which includes the head, the chest, and the belly. Lewis argued that the chest or heart is the mediator between the cold rationalism of the brain and the hot emotions of the gut. He believed the chest—the liaison of virtue—is what makes us human.[2]

The Library of Babel, tower of Babel, and wonder of AI each risk another step toward prioritizing the head, prioritizing a certain moral vision of reality that renders persons without hands or hearts.

We are ensouled creatures—neither pure spirit nor pure animal. To be pure gut is to be an animal. To be pure mind is to be a spirit. Pure intelligence, then, carries a kind of supernatural timbre, wonderfully imagined in the angelic and “hypersomatic” planetary intelligences of Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. But to draw on Michael Ward again, we assume more head and more intelligence means an ascension to angelic light, forgetting that demons are pure spirits too.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy (a deep inspiration for Lewis’s own imagination), a demon drags the Franciscan friar Guido da Montefeltro to hell for fraudulent counsel after deceiving the pope, who promised he could absolve his sins before Guido had actually committed them. The demon cries out: “Perhaps you didn’t reckon I’d be versed in logic!” As Robert and Jean Hollander note in their wonderful commentary on this passage, Dante argues elsewhere that demons cannot philosophize because they lack the basic requirement of love.[3] They can exercise true logic but cannot practice true philosophy—the love of wisdom. Demons can have a pure head, of sorts, but no heart.

I haven’t been able to confirm this quote, but I remember reading years ago about the gig economy and a well-known tech executive saying in an interview, “here we are looking for a head without a body.” I immediately thought of the Saracen’s Head in That Hideous Strength—a scientist’s head severed from its body and reanimated by machines. This head without belly or chest is set up to be the future god of Man Immortal and Man Ubiquitous. And in the end, this head without hands or heart becomes a conduit for the demonic.

In some ways this is the latest version of an old story: the desire not only to be like God, but to control God. Not only putting a god in our pocket but becoming what we worship. As Psalm 135 says of idols: “They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.”

It is a disturbing idea—to become like the very idols of intelligence we create—vague, bloated, just making stuff up, and ultimately speechless, blind, deaf, and breathless. This is of course exactly what happens to Lewis’s villains in the final chapters of That Hideous Strength, chattering demonic gibberish as they bow naked before the Saracen’s head and are decapitated, destroyed, or devoured themselves.

In an age awash with burnout and in desperate need of a renewed attention to moral formation, I worry about the spiritual consequences of redoubling an attention to the kind of intelligence encountered in prompt-driven AI or The Library of Babel. Take my profession: modern medicine, which clearly needs a recovery of the chest—its heart and practical wisdom—let alone a reminder that humans are creatures, not computers.

Consider the well-documented “labeling phenomenon” or “nocebo effect.” In low back pain cases, for example, patients who are given labels for X-ray findings that are otherwise irrelevant or subclinical may manifest symptoms that were not there prior to learning this information. Naming carries a kind of power. A little learning can be a dangerous thing.

This is one reason wise primary care docs do not send every patient through the so-called “truth-tube” of the MRI once a year. Discerning clinicians aren’t being stingy when they hesitate to “test everything.” To get technical for a moment, despite bodily presence and the physical exam seemingly falling out of favor during post-pandemic telemedicine, the k-stats for a chest radiography, CT scan, angiography, MRI, endoscopy, and pathology are similar to those observed for bedside physical signs.[4] Medical educators are thankfully giving the embodied wisdom of the physical exam renewed attention.

For healers and patients alike, there is a hypochondria of attention that develops when flooded with disembodied information, lichenifying intelligence like scar tissue built up from a curiously scrolling thumb. Neil Postman called it the “great loop of impotence” in Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which we become sodden with decontextualized intelligence we can’t do anything about.

When I counsel patients on social media, I try to riff a little on all of this—not just the correlation between smartphone use and depression made popular by documentaries like The Social Dilemma—but my concern that there are real practical and spiritual consequences to how patients seek information in an captivating, overpromising, and unshepherded information environment. I’ve observed that patients struggle to find peace in the madhouse of this “new empire of science and technology,” as Eugene McCarraher writes in The Enchantments of Mammon, dealing as it does in currencies of “counterfeit enchantments, works of human participation in the power of divinity that wrought malevolence in the guise of good.”[5]

Anthony Esolen writes in Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child that we are stupefied by “information without form... illiterate because [we] have learned to read.”[6] For younger patients especially, who may consider language generators and influencers amusing but otherwise harmless, I remind them that to “influence” finds it origins in the movement of the planets and the stars. It is where the word “influenza” comes from.[7] To follow an influencer is, in a forgotten sense, to invite a kind of sickness.

I share this influenza. I want to know everything. On good days this impulse drives me to be still and know God, who I understand as a Christian to be the stillpoint of Truth itself. But on bad days it leaves me restless, proud, greedy, congested, buffaloed, and ultimately afraid, flitting about between databases and resources like a hungry and chattering seagull—reading many pages but not reading them. As the physician John Stone wrote in his adaptation of the poem Guadeamus Igitur, delivered to new physicians in 1983: “For there may be no answer / and you will know too little again / or there will be an answer and you will know too much / forever / For you will look smart and feel ignorant / and the patient will not know which day it is for you.”

Decontextualized storehouses of intelligence are not only seductive and sickening, they have a way of conflating intelligence with security and practical action—confusing expectations, vocations, duties, relationships. In other words, they behave very much like idols. And like all idols, they do not need their diapers changed. They don’t call you in the middle of the night to ask about nausea. They do not sweat, defecate, or spill urine on the floor. They do not need prayer or food or rest or beauty. They behave. They mind their own business and look good on the shelf. They are as reliable and easily put away as the calculator in the desk drawer. Only in this case the calculator may want to reach in your pocket and embrace you for all you’re worth.

Bodies, on the other hand—real patients and persons—are never just heads on a shelf. They have aches and pains and delights and longings. They grow cold, change color, seek comfort. Human bodies break down and break bread. It is that embodiment—the Christian vision of the incarnation—which offers abiding resistance against whatever curses or dark forces the towers and libraries of Babel may proffer. In other words, they resist vaults and mazes of intelligence and root understanding in the particular demands of particular persons. It is telling that when my wife finds me lost in my head at the dinner table, she will say “come back to us.” And in that grounded particularity, she blessedly tethers my wandering head to my heart and hands.

William Osler, the father of modern medicine, said “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.” I wonder what it might look like for medicine to recover its heart and put the head back in its proper place. In accompanying those who are known by their chests and hands, we might find the kind of counterbalance we need to consider the head well, learning a proper relationship not only to intelligence but to God, neighbor, and self.

Gentle Logic

“The best day of my life ... was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head. ... What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular ...I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. ... To look was enough.”

-- Douglas E. Harding, “On Having No Head”

I’m not making an argument that we should stop thinking or cease seeking intelligence, so much as to come back to the kind of knowing and recognition that happens around the dinner table, when real persons, with hands and bellies, resist the demonic vision of the human person as a pure head. As theologian and former mental health nurse John Swinton argues in Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, there is a bias of “hypercognition and neuromania” not only in medicine but in the church that can be very difficult to resist.[8] The mind takes on an almost transcendent position in a culture that holds intelligence in such high regard. Under this idolatry of the impressive mind—often linked to a memorable command of language and rhetoric—we undermine those whose intelligence is not impressive: children, the mentally frail, folks with intellectual disabilities, dementia, or traumatic brain injury. Healers lose the patience—let alone the practices of neighborly love—to know and accompany the kind of inarticulacy and fragility that often comes with vulnerability, poverty, disability, or simply being sick. Parishioners lose the kind of practices that welcome and re-member those in their congregation who will never be able to recite the creed or intellectually assent to Christian propositions.

When I was a medical student as a part of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, I was transformed by my time at a place called Reality Ministries, a place where adults with and without disabilities gather under a spirit of friendship and belonging. I met friends there who could not be described in good faith as intelligent, but they were deeply wise and faithful in ways I still struggle to articulate. When I entered Reality, I fancied myself like Dante’s demon—“versed in logic”—and discovered in this community the humbling logic of those versed in love.

One thing I can say is that I got out of my head. I learned to be still. I thought I was going to help the sick with my intelligent insights and all my medical and theological knowledge, and it was my newfound friends who ended up healing me as the sick one in the room, who needed a quieting of the mind and a renewal of heart. This community resists what the Green Lady in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra rejected as “an alongside world which had no reality.” In Reality I learned to be silent and listen and to find that to behold and to sing is enough.

 I even encountered folks who were using text-generators and speech computers to communicate well before ChatGPT. Not only was what they had to say often profound and deeply moving, these friends had a way of communicating in their very presence and silent attention that depended little on the intelligence of that generated text or artificial voice. There was a deeper magic at work.

Critics have at times found Reality’s model of ministry and friendship bewildering, politely wondering if it is all that efficient or even logical. But as a friend from Reality put it to me, they practice something that is not just beautiful but “gently logical.” Their very name—Reality—seems to glow all the more in a season of intelligence marked by the adjective “artificial.”

Closing Vindications

Digital beauty banishes any negativity of the non-identical. It only permits consumable, usable differences. ... The digital world, in a manner of speaking, is a world that the humans have coated over with their own retina. This humanly net-worked world produces a permanent self-mirroring. The closer the net is woven, the more thoroughly the world shields itself against the other ... in this digital inwardness there can be no sense of wonder. The only thing human beings still like are themselves.[9]

-- Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty

Reality Ministries just hosted a forum to celebrate “The Beauty of the Gospel: Exploring What It Means to be Human.” In that forum they connected what it means to be human with a deep recognition of persons made in the image of God, resisting models of the human persons based on industry, efficiency, productivity, or indeed intelligence. Reality roots their pursuit of beauty in the conviction that those with and without disability teach us something profound about what it means to be a friend, neighbor, and human being—sorely needed reminders as we stumble in the stacks and shadows of the towers and libraries of Babel. For Reality, the deepest mystery of human life is not found in a database but found in the truth that our lives are hidden in Christ. The Library of Babel may hold every word that has or ever will be written, but it cannot and does not hold the Word made flesh.

I’ll close here by sharing that I’ve only used ChatGPT three times. I asked it to write me something beautiful and it didn’t understand, requiring more specificity. I then asked it to write me a single beautiful sentence, which I didn’t write down because I wasn’t planning to write this essay, the sentence was not beautiful, and I truly cannot remember it. Finally, I asked ChatGPT to write me a single beautiful sentence about hope. It said something about a flower emerging from concrete. It did not, for example, say anything like this sentence written by my friend, poet and pediatrician Brian Volck:

we live into a common hope that later
hands and eyes might build upon our work,
and the refining fire willingly reentered
may render yet some small, enduring beauty
though rising tides devour the settled coast
and untold treasures rot in derelict tombs.[10]

I know it’s low-hanging fruit to pick on the aesthetic strengths of ChatGPT, especially at the close of an essay when it is in vogue to surprise the reader with the gotcha-reveal that the sentences they’ve been reading were generated by AI. But this inability to generate beauty gives me hope that our longings for the hidden and small and enduring still matter. It is the difference between what is most likely to get the job done and the poetic impulse, which seeks a single lost word when 99 other words might do. It is the difference between intelligence and love.

Dante moves quickly past Satan in Canto 34 of Inferno. There is a great lesson in that. The dark forces are ultimately as boring as “txjn,xa.” While they shouldn’t be ignored, there are brighter mountains ahead, visible on the shores of the real work. Here is a spirit of intelligence that refuses to release itself from the gentle and the lowly, where bodies break and yearn. It is not the ubiquitous or immortal intelligence, the sickness of seeking untold treasures rotting in digital tombs, but the common and eternal hope taught at the bedside and the dinner table, where later hands and eyes might build upon our work—that heaven will be in our head and heart and hands—that we might recognize Reality when we see it.


[1] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2010), 143–149.

[2] Michael Ward, After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man” (Word on Fire Academic, 2021), 79–82.

[3] Dante, Convivio III.xiii.2, cited in Robert and Jean Hollander, The Inferno: A Verse Translation (Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2002), 511.

[4] Steven McGee, Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis, 4th Edition (Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2017), 27.

[5] Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Belknap Press, 2019), 36.

[6] Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010), 208.

[7] Ward, Planet Narnia, 26, 115.

[8] John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship (Baylor University Press, 2016), 12.

[9] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, Daniel Steuer, trans. (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 26.

[10] Brian Volck, “The View from Chora,” In “The Long Defeat: Peoples, Practices, and Poems in a Changing World,” Personal correspondence, April 30, 2023.