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  • Writer's pictureS.A. Fisher

Of Orcs and AI

Made vs. Created and the Nature of Orcs


J.R.R. Tolkien's stories are deeply rooted in Thomistic metaphysics and Christian theology, where the distinction between "made" and "created" is pivotal. This distinction underscores the nature of goodness, creation, corruption, and the intrinsic limitations of evil. The dichotomy between making and creating is most vividly illustrated through the origins and nature of orcs, the monstrous foot soldiers of Middle-earth's dark lords.


Creation: The Divine Act


In Tolkien's world, true creation, or creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), is the exclusive province of Eru Ilúvatar, the supreme deity. This act of creation involves bringing something into existence that possesses the Flame Imperishable (or the Secret Fire), which grants true life, free will, and inherent goodness. Beings created by Eru Ilúvatar, such as the Ainur (angelic beings), elves, and men, are imbued with this divine spark, making them fundamentally good and capable of independent existence and moral choice.

From The Silmarillion:


"Therefore Ilúvatar may not only send forth the Flame Imperishable into the Void, but he may also bestow it to others, who may then sub-create, though only as permitted by Ilúvatar"​​.

Making: The Act of Sub-creation


In contrast, the Valar and other beings can engage in making or sub-creation, which involves shaping or manipulating pre-existing matter. They cannot infuse these creations with the Flame Imperishable. A notable example is Aulë, one of the Valar, who crafted the Dwarves. Initially, these beings were mere automatons, moving only according to Aulë's thoughts. It was only when Eru Ilúvatar chose to bestow them with the Flame Imperishable that the Dwarves gained true life and independence. This story illustrates the fundamental difference between divine creation and sub-creation: the former grants true life and free will, while the latter lacks these essential qualities until blessed by Eru. Tolkien clarifies this distinction in his letters:


"They [the Valar] shared in [the World’s] 'making'—but only on the same terms as we 'make' a work of art or story. The realization of it, the gift to it of a created reality of the same grade as their own, was the act of the One God"​​.

Orcs: The Corruption of Creation


The origin of orcs in Tolkien’s mythos serves as a poignant example of the difference between making and creating. According to various writings, orcs were not created by Morgoth or Sauron but were made by corrupting pre-existing beings. In "The Silmarillion," it is suggested that orcs were originally elves who were captured, tortured, and perverted by Morgoth's malevolent influence. This corruption transformed them into beings of evil, stripped of their original grace and beauty. In Morgoth's Ring we find:


"It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile."​​.

Tolkien emphasizes that orcs, though rational and capable of independent thought, lack the divine spark of the Flame Imperishable. This absence signifies that while Morgoth could mar and twist the creations of Eru, he could not create life himself. In Flame Imperishable, Tolkien is quoted as saying:

"Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord 'created' Trolls and Orcs. He says he 'made' them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements"​​.

Aspect

Elves

Men

Orcs

Essence

Created with inherent goodness and free will. Their essence is tied to beauty, longevity, and a deep connection to nature and creation.

Created with inherent goodness and free will. Their essence includes mortality, adaptability, and a dynamic nature.

Originally, corrupted elves or men, or made from slime and heat, theessence has been radically distorted and corrupted by evil. Their essence now reflects malevolence, subservience, and a perversion of their original nature.

Existence

Given existence by Eru Ilúvatar, independent and autonomous. Their being is fully realized with a true purpose aligned with their essence.

Given existence by Eru Ilúvatar, independent and autonomous. Their being is dynamic, capable of growth, and change, and is fully realized.

Their existence is subjugated to the will of their corrupt masters (Morgoth or Sauron). While they have real, physical existence, it is dependent on the malevolent forces that control them.

Autonomy

High degree of moral autonomy, capable of making independent choices and pursuing their own paths.

High degree of moral autonomy, capable of making independent choices and pursuing their own paths.

Almost entirely controlled by their evil masters, reflecting their corrupted essence and dependent existence.

Connection to Eru

Directly created by Eru with the Flame Imperishable, giving them true life and free will.

Directly created by Eru with the Flame Imperishable, giving them true life and free will.

Not created by Eru but rather made by corrupting pre-existing beings or materials. They lack the Flame Imperishable, highlighting their dependent and perverted nature.

Philosophical Implication

Represent the ideal of Tolkien's metaphysical and theological views, embodying true creation and the perfect blend of essence and existence.

Embody the dynamic and adaptable nature of true creation with a perfect blend of essence and existence, according to Aquinas's philosophy.

Serve as an example of how essence and existence can be corrupted and diminished by evil. Their existence is real but heavily dependent and perverted, lacking true autonomy and the Flame Imperishable.


Philosophical and Theological Implications


The distinction between made and created has profound implications in Tolkien’s universe. It aligns with Christian theology, reflecting the belief in a singular, omnipotent Creator who alone can grant true life. This distinction underscores the inherent limitations of evil: it is parasitic, relying on the corruption of what is good rather than generating new existence.

Orcs epitomize this concept. They are beings made through corruption, reflecting the perversion of creation. Their existence as fundamentally corrupted creatures illustrates the limits of Morgoth’s and Sauron’s power. They can induce suffering and manipulate life, but they cannot originate a true life that burns with the Flame Imperishable. This underscores a central theme in Tolkien’s works: the resilience of good and the ultimate impotence of evil to truly create.


On Artificial Intelligence


This leads us to Artificial Intelligence. Modern large language models (LLMs) and artificial intelligence systems, despite their sophisticated capabilities, are constructs without true volition or understanding. Basically, an LLM is an advanced version of autocomplete. These systems operate on vast datasets and algorithms designed to predict and generate human-like text (or audio or images), but they lack genuine consciousness, intent, and moral agency. Unlike beings created with the divine spark in Tolkien's world, LLMs do not possess free will or intrinsic purpose; they are tools made by humans to process and mimic patterns. Some commentators have even referred to AI as an alien intelligence, a shoggoth with a human face, meaning that while the text may look humanlike, in reality, it originated not from a human but from an unknowable, formless alien process, which is the LLM.


"Well, we're fooled by their fluency, right? We just assume that if a system is fluent in manipulating language, then it has all the characteristics of human intelligence. But that impression is false." --Yann Lecun​​ on the Lex Fridman podcast #416

The outputs of an LLM are determined not by experience, education, and emotion but by the data and programming they receive, reflecting the biases and limitations inherent in their design. This underscores the crucial distinction between artificial constructs and beings endowed with the Flame Imperishable, with true life and volition. Parents, for instance, should think carefully about giving a child unbridled access to an LLM which has no discernible ethics. The AI is a soulless, thoughtless machine built by human researchers, much like an orc is designed by Sauron simply to act as an instrument of his evil desires. The ethical and philosophical results of deploying such constructs into our society is staggering indeed.


The AI is only the Tool of the Maker


Of course, while the analogy between LLMs and Orcs highlights the artificial nature and purpose-driven creation of both, there are clear and fundamental differences in moral intent and potential for ethical use. LLMs are not (as far as we know) inherently evil constructs. They seem to be neutral tools that reflect the intentions of their creators and users. As such, the focus should be on ensuring that AI development and deployment are guided by ethical principles to maximize their benefits and minimize potential harm. That said, as with social media, we may come to regret the technology and wish to fling it back into Mordor's fire.


Conclusion


Tolkien's distinction between made and created is a metaphysical aspect of Middle Earth. It emphasizes the unique power of Eru Ilúvatar's true creation and the corruptive nature of evil. The orcs symbolize this dichotomy, illustrating how evil can distort but not create. This concept resonates in modern large language models and AI systems, which lack genuine consciousness and moral agency despite their advanced capabilities. Orcs and contemporary LLMs demonstrate the ethical implications of using such technologies and serve to enrich the philosophical depth of Tolkien's work.

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