Life in the Uncanny Valley
I’ve been reading a new collection of essays by Lawrence Weschler, a writer who regularly reflects on art, science, and culture in The New Yorker and other publications. His new book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative, opens with an essay about the difficulty of digitally animating a human face. It turns out that, as close as digital animation gets to replicating all the muscle movements and structures of the human face, it still cannot get there entirely. Digital animators call this distance between the real human face and computer approximations of it the “uncanny valley”. We know it’s almost right but not quite. And we don’t entirely know why.
Weschler makes a convincing argument that living in the uncanny valley is a condition of being human. In putting forward this case, he appeals to an dispute between two great Medieval Christian thinkers.
In the Middle Ages, the great Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) posited that you could attain a knowledge of God by just cataloging, in Weschler’s words, “everything—books, rocks, flowers, human emotions—so that by the end you have cataloged all of God’s creations.” The great German Cardinal and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) countered Aquinas with a geometrical concept. In Weschler’s words,
So Cusa, who is a mathematician, says: “Well, I suppose that’s a bit like an n-sided polygon inside of a circle.” In other words, you take a triangle inside of a circle, and you keep adding sides to it, and the more sides you add the closer it comes to being a circle. And yet, at the same time, you keep getting further away, because a circle only has one “side,” one line, and here you’ve got a million lines and angles. Cusa was the one to come up with this concept that at a certain point, you have to make a leap of faith–from the n-sided polygon to the circle, say. And that leap of faith is accomplished through grace, which is to say, for free. [Lawrence Weschler discussing Uncanny Valley in a radio interview]
In other words: Thomas Aquinas thought that we could get to God (compared to a perfect circle) by adding up all of God’s creatures and attributes. Nicholas of Cusa also compared God to that circle but concluded that all we would ever achieve from our own efforts would not be a true description of God (the circle) but a very close approximation that would still be a polyhedron with a million sides and angles. For Cusa, the relationship of God and theology is like the relation of the human face to a digital animation of it. The distance between the two may be small, but it’s an uncanny valley. You and I can never prove or disprove God through our own calculations. We have, finally, to walk or leap or run across the valley to get there.
Where I find Weschler’s essay most meaningful is the implications he sees in the uncanny valley for the human condition. Try as we might, we can never achieve absolute certainty about God or about anything else. We can take a gradual series of steps toward the truth, but in the end we all have to embrace the truth more as an act of faith than as an act of knowledge. As long as I am alive in the world, I will have to live with the disparity between what I know is true and what I believe is true. . As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
This understanding of the provisional nature of all truth ought to help us evaluate the absolutist pretensions of human systems claiming to know how things really are. If these systems are led by faith, political, or cultural figures, and they insist on one version of truth that excludes all others, they assuage our anxiety at the expense of our freedom. Whether they like it or not, even these systems must dwell, with the rest of us, in the uncanny valley, in the gap between what we can know and what we can hope.
God has given us each other as companions as we traverse the uncanny valley. Instead of lamenting the ambiguity of life’s processes and possibilities, let us rejoice in the fellowship and celebrate the mystery toward which we travel both individually and together.