Does Siri Exist?

05.07.2017

We have a pretty complicated Ark at Herzl-Ner Tamid. To get to the Torah, we have to get past two sets of double doors and a curtain with a draw string. And, legend has it that in the days of Rabbi Rose one poor man got so confused that he actually got trapped behind the curtain inside the Ark.

Someone closed the curtain while he was still inside the Ark. And, he couldn’t find his way out. So, the whole congregation could see a figure from the inside poking around, trying to find the drawstring that would open the curtain.  And, when Rabbi Rose noticed what was happening, without missing a beat, he said, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

That line, of course, is a famous quote from The Wizard of Oz. After a long journey, Dorothy and her friends finally stood face to face with the powerful Wizard of Oz who spoke with a booming voice from behind a curtain.  Accidentally, the curtain was pulled back to reveal that there was no wizard behind the curtain, but an ordinary man, a flim flam man.

So, the bad news for Dorothy was that there was no Wizard who could magically give the lion a heart or the tin man a brain. But, the good news was that Dorothy and her companions didn’t need the Wizard—because the magic was inside of them. No Wizard could give the lion courage. But, he could find it within himself.

Yuval Harari in his new book Homo Deus says this was the revolution of humanism. Modern science pulled back the curtain, and lo and behold, there was no God who could magically grant our wishes. In previous generations, if we wanted answers to life’s most vexing problems, we journeyed to Jerusalem to the Temple, and behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies was a God who had all the answers.

No more. Now, the journey we make is inside ourselves. Deep inside of us is our authentic self. Like the High Priest, only I have access to my authentic self. And, by peeling back the layers of my own Holy of Holies, I will know what I must do.

So, humanism didn’t destroy the curtain. It just shifted it. According to liberal humanism, nothing in the universe is mysterious. Everything is simple cause and effect. It doesn’t rain because God wills it to rain. It rains because the laws of nature say it must. There is only one exception to this rule. And, that is the human being. According to humanism, we are not explainable. At our heart, we are a mystery. We are free.

Well, that was true until now. But, not anymore, according to Harrari. The curtain has been pulled back once again. The first time, it revealed that God wasn’t there. This time, it has revealed that we aren’t there. And, who is responsible? Siri.

And, you will say to me: Siri! Siri doesn’t exist. Siri is just an algorithm. And, I will say to you: “What do you mean Siri doesn’t exist? She talks to me every day. She has such a calm, reassuring voice. And, she is so smart. If I want directions, Siri tells me where to go. If I want the name of a great veggie restaurant in the neighborhood, I ask Siri.”

But, you will say to me, “Don’t be silly. Siri is just an algorithm. She is just a sophisticated piece of software, programmed to sound like she has consciousness and real thoughts.”  And, Harari will say to you and to me: “What makes you think you are any different than Siri? You speak? Siri also speaks. You make choices? Siri also makes choices. You say “Siri isn’t real? I say the same about you and about me.”

Once upon a time, we could take comfort in the thought that unlike all the other creatures of the earth, we are more than software. We could not be explained. Scientists can predict what a lion will do because of his hard wiring. But, we human beings are free. We are not predictable.

But, in a recent study by Facebook, 86,000 volunteers completed a hundred-item personality questionnaire. The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes—which webpages, images and clips the tagged with their Like button. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, and spouses.

The algorithm only needed ten likes to outperform work colleagues. It needed 70 likes to outperform friends. And, it needed 300 likes to outperform spouses. In other words, if you clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or wife!

So much for our unpredictability! It is a scary thought to think none of our actions are meaningful, that we do not choose, that ‘we’ don’t even exist! But, Siri taketh away and Siri giveth. For while Siri has raised the possibility that we are not free, Siri has also shown us that the notion that we are free is purely a matter of faith. No religion, no freedom.

In fact, Siri has helped us arrive at the most important insight of religious faith: that, like God, at our core we are unknowable. And, because we are unknowable, we are free. And, because we are free, we can love. The alternative is that we are just software.

Today’s parasha, Acharey Mot, describes the entry of the Kohen Gadol/the High Priest into the Holy of Holies once a year only to pronounce the Holy Name of God. You know, it’s strange. Everywhere in the Bible, God talks about God’s desire to be known. And, yet God hides in the Holy of Holies and doesn’t seem to want to be known. What’s this all about?

Through its teaching about God, the Torah is talking about us. We want to be mysterious. We don’t want to be completely known, because we want to remain forever intriguing. We want other people to continue to search for us, to get to know us better. If we’re figured out, the game is over.

That’s why all love stories are elaborate games of hide and seek. That’s why a woman wears a veil on her wedding day—not so other men won’t see her, but so her husband will never think he really knows her—but, he will never stop trying. That’s why a woman circles her beloved at a Jewish wedding. She is entering level by level the circles of intimacy surrounding his soul. Since circles represent eternity, she will never arrive—but she will never stop seeking.

That’s why Shabbat begins with a game of hide and seek. We cover our eyes before we light the candles. Then we open our eyes, and voila—the Shabbat has begun. That’s because Shabbat is about discovering new layers of each others’ souls, layers which are alluring to us precisely because they are hidden.

And, that’s why we study the Torah portion each week. We’ve seen that portion a hundred times before. But, we are assuming that there is something hidden inside that familiar face that we have yet to discover. And, the theory is, if a sacred text can surprise us, so can a person!

And, this hide and seek game has very important implications for our behavior. The worst thing we can do to another person is to assume we know them completely. And, we do this all the time. We assume we know exactly what another person’s political opinions are. So, there is no point in having a conversation with her. She is nothing more than an algorithm, spitting out predictable responses.

We assume we have people figured out based on their race, their religion, their age, their appearance, and a host of other factors. But, I have found that in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, the most touching moments have been when someone has said something that I did not expect. And, I think of those moments as something of a miracle. Maybe that’s what a miracle really is—the possibility that we can surprise each other in touching ways.

This is the most important lesson religion can teach us. We worship an unknowable God because instinctively we realize that our own unknowability is at the core of our freedom. It’s the mystery at the core of life that makes the future truly open, that makes hope more than an illusion. Without that mystery there is no falling in love, no unexpected act of kindness. There is no courage—only calculation.

Perhaps one day, we’ll create a version of Siri that can feel anger, disappointment and tenderness. When we do, like God, we’ll know the joy and and perplexity of having created a creature that we cannot fully understand, cannot control, and wouldn’t want to.