6 min read

The moral machine: algorithms that give a window into the soul

In TikTok’s algorithm Graham Tomlin saw something that got him thinking. Could it lead to moral health rather than harm?

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A abstract grid of colourful cubes with arrows, crosses and cubes, viewed from above and at an angle
Champ Panupong Techawongthawon's illustration of artificial intelligence.
Google DeepMind on Unsplash.

A few years ago, I was thinking of buying a camera for my wife as a birthday present. I lazily browsed a couple of websites to check out the options. Then something odd started to happen. Somehow, my laptop seemed to think this was a good idea and sprang into action. Whenever I went onto Amazon, Ebay or any other website selling stuff, it kept pushing adverts for cameras at me. Canon or Nikon? Point and Shoot or DSLR? How did it know? Could it read my mind?

It was the first time I noticed the power of the algorithm.

A bit later on, thinking I ought to get up to speed with the regions of social media that I had little clue about, I opened up TikTok and started to swipe upwards (apparently that seemed to be the way to do it). This time I was determined not to like or unlike anything, follow anyone or be followed by anyone. Yet mysteriously, it still worked out what I liked and kept pushing short, addictive videos at me, enticing clips of football, mountains and music along with other random stuff mixed in. How did it know me so well?

It is as old as the hills. The algorithm simply takes the desires of your heart and amplifies them.

Of course, better informed people than me know how all this works. The algorithm figures out which accounts you follow, any comments you’ve posted, clips you’ve liked or shared, and in particular, videos you watched all the way to the end. So, if you linger over a video, it knows you like it. If you rush on quickly to the next one, it makes a mental note that you’re not so keen.

It all feels a little sinister, yet very clever. You often read dark theories of social media, and the way it is re-wiring our brains. Yet when you look a little closer, it is as old as the hills. The algorithm simply takes the desires of your heart and amplifies them. So, if you like or linger over certain videos expressing a particular cultural or political opinion it will send you more of the same. The result is we get confirmed in our own frameworks which never get challenged by others. It's part of why we are so polarised as societies these days. When you ask why ‘the other side’ cannot see the obvious truth that you see, the answer is that they literally don’t see it. They don't see it because the algorithm doesn't feed them the same things as it feeds you.

As a result, TikTok or Facebook is an alarming mirror into the soul – see what it sends you and it just may be that it tells you more about yourself than you would like to know.  

Social media like TikTok, Facebook and Twitter (or X)  learn to recognise what your heart really desires (not just what you say you do). They notice what you linger over, what catches your fancy and sends you more of the same. They are, apparently, studiously neutral on moral questions. They seem to have no moral designs on you to school or form your soul in particular ways, but are simply a reflection of your own longings. What TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and the others all do is to propel you further in the moral direction in which you are already headed. Which for most of us, is not a great idea.

Now of course there would be howls of protest if TikTok announced a moral code – that it was about to encourage virtue and discourage vice by deliberately sending us improving videos, material that the mysterious people who run it think is good for us. And that is not because we think virtue is bad and vice is good, but because we can’t decide on what virtues we want to encourage or what vices to stamp out. We draw a line at cruelty to children and extreme violence, but not much else. It is also because we hold as sacrosanct the freedom of the (adult) individual to choose his or her own way in life, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.

Such sites are examplars and vehicles of expressive individualism – not just in the myriads of people who show off their dance moves, sing their songs or act out half-funny scenes on a golf course, but in that they confirm me in me my own wishes. They don’t tell me what to want. But they give me more of what I want. As a result, TikTok or Facebook is an alarming mirror into the soul – see what it sends you and it just may be that it tells you more about yourself than you would like to know.

It matters what we feed our souls with. It matters what stories we allow ourselves to be told.  

Such sites appear to be morally neutral. They don’t seem to aim to educate or form you in any particular direction. Or at least they are supposed not to. But of course nothing is entirely neutral.

Funnily enough, it’s not how we bring up children, or educate ourselves. When we bring up a child, most of us have some kind of vague or not so vague moral code in mind. We reward kind and helpful behaviour, and we punish selfish and mean actions. We don’t tend to give more of the same to a child who has eaten the first half of the packet of biscuits, or encourage a brother to hit his sister yet again. We have a goal of some form of moral formation in mind.

Yet, despite our confusion over which virtues to encourage, we need some kind of moral guidance for our wandering and flawed hearts, linked to eyes that are tempted to feast on things that fascinate but are not good for us. Like a glutton who cannot stop eating, even if these sites don’t themselves push extreme violence, pornography, aggression, they offer enough of the soft version of these to draw you in. And it’s not hard to find sites that will take you deeper into the darkness. And those sites will already know the way you are thinking and desiring and are ready to pull you in deeper into the mire.

The problem is not so much with the algorithm. It is with us. Netflix’s documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ quotes an alarming statistic - that fake news spreads six times faster than the truth. The reason is not hard to find. We are fascinated by the sensational and alarming rather than something a little more ordinary yet which happens to be true. As one person in the documentary put it: “The internet has a bias towards false information. Because false information makes more money. The truth is boring.”

The moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender wrote:

“Successful moral education requires a community which does not hesitate to inculcate virtue in the young, which does not settle for the discordant opinions of alternative visions of the good, which worries about what the stories of its poets teach.”

It matters what we feed our souls with. It matters what stories we allow ourselves to be told.

The purveyors of social media are not innocent in this as they do exploit our worst tendencies, but in the end they simply confirm us in our own moral confusion. Yet it does point up the problem in the liberal ideal of leaving ethical decisions entirely up to the individual, to give entirely free choice without any guidance, because with our crooked hearts, it will always end up feeding the darker sides of our characters without a corresponding pull in the other direction, something which Christians called divine Grace.

St Paul wrote to the small group of Christians in Philippi, surrounded by the highly sexualised and violent culture of the Roman empire: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I’m not saying don’t watch TikTok. But here’s an idea. Why not try to make it into a morally forming version of what you want to be, not what you are? Exercise a bit of moral direction yourself. If you see a video which you know in your conscience is not good, or is spreading lies, swipe it away quickly. If you see something positive, dwell on it.

If you approach it this way, you might just be able to persuade the algorithm to shape you in good ways and not the bad. It could become a means of growing in goodness, but only if you want it to be.

7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.