- Some thoughts on artificial intelligence in relation to theological anthropology
On Feb 3, 2017, Jonathan Merritt published “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” in The Atlantic. Merritt suggests that “AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.” Merritt’s argument is built on several, not entirely consistent presuppositions, and it is only their confluence that makes AI an alleged potential problem. These presuppositions are: The idea that a soul is a “component” of a human being. The idea that the defining trait of human beings is our intelligence. The idea that a collection of algorithms could become the same sort of being that humans are if we just make the algorithms sophisticated enough. The idea that “salvation” means the preservation of the human soul beyond death. Presuppostion (1) is one possible interpretation of what a soul is in Christian theology, and even the dominant one during the medieval and early modern periods, but hardly the only one. In today’s theology (and more importantly, since we are thinking in terms of futurology here, tomorrow’s theology) that interpretation is considered dubious at best. Presupposition (2) isn’t a Christian notion to begin with. It’s a modern Western notion, born out of and feeding back into our technologically driven cultural narrative. Presupposition (3) presupposes (2) and adds the belief that the human mind is at its root a complex math equation calculating itself. Leaving aside the question of whether there’s any good reason to think that it is true (I don’t think there is), this idea not only makes intellect the defining human trait, but reduces the human being to the human mind. Finally, presupposition (4) is rejected by many Christian theologians, as Merritt himself acknowledges. And as Merritt appears to recognize, if one understands salvation in terms of the redemptive, eschatological transformation of creation as a whole, AI does not pose a grave theological problem. If a self-aware AI ever became a reality, it would simply be another participating component in God’s overall creation that is to be redeemed. It is worth noting that (1) and (2) are actually inconsistent unless and until one adds (3). If the soul (whatever that is) is a component of the human being, then it isn’t what defines a human being any more than a thumb or a vestigial appendix is, for the very simple reason that it’s a part, not the whole. Adding (3) implies that the human being is “really” just the human mind. That makes it possible to reconcile (1) and (2), but only at the cost of treating the human body as superfluous to the definition of the human being and ultimately something that could be set aside without any significant effect on the “real” human being. Of course, the idea that body and spirit are distinguishable and even separable has a long (and fraught) history within Christian theology. If one treats spirit, soul, and (in a further step) mind as synonymous, then one can open the way for the idea that human mind = human being—although just opening the way is still not enough to justify taking the step. But suppose one does think there is reason to take that step. To reduce the human being to only the human mind in this way is, of course, a reduction. Every orthodox Christian theologian, even those medievals most fixated on the enjoyment of the Beatific Vision by disembodied Christians in the afterlife, still insisted that the physical resurrection of the body had to take place in order for the salvation of the complete human being to occur. Indeed, Christian theology has a word for the idea that the human body is ultimately superfluous to the human being: heresy.1 1 To be clear, I am not calling Jonathan Merritt a heretic. He is just being inconsistent in his ideas and presuppositions. I expect that if pressed, Merritt would acknowledge that the human body is integral to the human being. Rejecting any of (1) through (4) would make AI a non-threat to Christian theology. But in the case of presupposition (3), not only can we reject it, but we must reject it. Christian theology insists that human beings are not just human minds. It might be fun to imagine human minds being swapped between bodies, or “digitally copied,” or, reaching further back, reincarnated, but it isn’t a Christian idea. Since the idea that artificial intelligences could become beings commensurate with human beings in religiously significant ways is based on a concept of humanity that Christian theology would reject—and indeed, already explicitly has rejected—it doesn’t seem that any AI development could ever amount to a threat to its consistency the way Merritt supposes it would. Put simply, Christianity would first need to abandon utterly the concept of physical resurrection before the development of AI could even pose a theological conundrum, let alone a threat.
- “Us” and “them” in political theology(published )
A few days ago, Steve Hamilton asked: If we were to explore it, what is the political theology or public theology of the Vineyard movement? I replied thus: It is probably no surprise that my initial response is to suggest that the word “the” is problematic in that question! But that just means that exploring it would be all the more interesting. :) With @Thomas John Creedy, it seems to me that focus on issues of the common good, justice, and poverty relief are likely to be central themes in any Vineyard political theology. Something I’ve often found myself wondering, though, is how much that takes the form of seeking to help “them/the world/society out there” and how much it takes the form of seeking to help “us/everyone/our society.” Oftentimes Christians speak of ourselves in contradistinction to those we seek to help, whether this be in terms of helping (those) poor people, providing prophetic/ethical/whatever guidance to the surrounding society (outside the church), or what have you. Other times we will speak in terms of identification with whatever and whoever we want to see the betterment of, so that the poor aren’t “them” but “us,” or that the society in need of justice is our society, etc. And sometimes we will try to do both at once by talking about solidarity with whomever. Now, both contradistinction and identification can be used well or badly in developing a political theology, so I’m not suggesting that one of these is good and the other is bad. Rather, it seems to me that each will produce its own sort of political theology with its own strengths and weaknesses. My curiosity is to learn what sorts of political theology are used in the Vineyard in which contexts, when, and by whom. Is there a difference between, say, the political theology of an inner-city Vineyard, a Vineyard in a prosperous small town, and a Vineyard in a struggling small town? What about the political theology articulated by an AVC’s national leadership in comparison to the political theologies articulated by local congregations? What about between AVC’s in different nations? How do the commonly shared values work out in these different contexts, what does that mean, and what does that imply for how we all (collectively and severally) ought to move forward in this area in the future?
- On hearing God(published )
Hi Chris. Reading your thoughts and questions here and thinking back to our conversation the other night, I think I’m starting to get a better sense of where you are coming from and what you are trying to wrestle with. Hopefully this will be helpful. :) In Western culture (meaning, basically, European and European-derived culture), we have tended for the last several centuries to think of our world as having two “levels” or “spheres” or whatever: the natural and the supernatural. Some people think of these two spheres as overlapping or interacting a lot, some think that they do so only a little, some think that virtually never do, and some even think that the supernatural level doesn’t exist at all (this would include atheists, for example). In most Pentecostal and charismatic circles, this two-storey view of reality is the starting point for understanding how God interacts with us. Pentecostals and charismatics will insist that there is lots of interaction between the natural and the supernatural, and therefore that we should seek to interact with God supernaturally as much as we can. In this way of thinking about things, revelation from God obviously needs to be categorized as a supernatural event, an intervention in which something crosses over from God’s side into our side. Hearing God, therefore, should be a strange experience. One should be able to recognize “the real deal” in part by the how it is weird and doesn’t feel like our natural ways of perceiving, thinking, knowing, learning, etc. The Pentecostal understanding of receiving the gift of tongues, in which it is thought of as a distinct event when a person has this spiritual ability bestowed on them that they would not naturally have otherwise, is an example of how this plays out. However, this two-storey view of reality is actually very problematic for Christian faith and practice. Among (many!) other problems, it creates a relentless pressure towards expecting that God’s interactions with us will be rare and fleeting. If we consider God’s actions to be essentially alien to the natural world, then they are by definition abnormal and unusual. But Jesus didn’t think that God’s interactions with people were unusual. He taught his disciples to expect that God would interact with them, and that this would be NORMAL for them. Why? Because material and spiritual were not two separate sorts of reality existing in different realms or planes of existence or whatever; rather, they were simply aspects of one, single, unified reality. The Holy Spirit’s coming to the disciples was remarkable not because it indicated a metaphysical change, but because it indicated a relational change. The God from whom we had been estranged by our sin was now no longer a stranger to us. He has begun interacting with us all with a new intimacy and closeness, and so his people have begun to experience his Spirit with us in a way unlike before. This isn’t an incursion of the supernatural into the natural world, but a reconciliation with the God who has always been all around us. So, God’s interactions with us, including the sorts of interaction that we usually describe as him speaking to us, are how things are supposed to work. We human beings were made for this sort interaction from the very beginning. Our physical and mental processes are designed precisely AS the way for us to interact with God. He always intended to interact with us using the equipment he gave us, and as we become reconciled to him, he does that. So, imaginative impressions (e.g. visions and dreams), reading and pondering (say, the Bible, but also other things), experiencing stuff for ourselves, listening to the stories and wisdom of those who have gone before us in the Christian journey, and all the other human things we do to learn are EXACTLY how we learn from God. Heck, even when God does some astounding thing—burning bush, dramatic healing, pillar of fire in the desert, whatever—we still have to perceive and understand it with the same physical and cognitive faculties that we use to perceive and understand the presence and meaning of a hamburger on a plate. It is based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that the Vineyard adopted the practice of using expressions like, “I’m seeing this image…” or, “I think God wants to say…” when sharing what we feel God is revealing to us. We know that we are all of us in the process of learning to hear him well, and that even though he speaks infallibly we are fallible listeners. It is also based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that we say, “Everyone gets to play,” meaning that everyone can hear from God, pray for God to act, and participate in whatever God is up to. All human beings have the natural capacity to interact with God. We need only be reconciled with him and start relating to him in an interactive way. The upshot is that learning to hear God isn’t about him overriding or bypassing our normal ways of knowing, but about learning to recognize his guidance, direction, and revelation in what we see, think, imagine, hear, and feel. It is a matter of the content, not the form.
- Holy Spirit
- image of God
- Against the notion of “left” and “right” in social and theological discourse, updated (published )
If I could, I would eradicate the entire “left–right” conceptual structure from public discourse (and theological discourse!). It is ridiculously reductionistic. Ridiculously. Stupidly. Crazily. Horrifyingly. It is my belief that the “left–right” metaphor is itself one of the worst causes of problems in Western social and theological discourse—a deeper problem than any “threat” posed by the ideas of “the other guys” (whomever that may be). This is because the left–right conceptual structure reduces all the diversity and complexity of human thought down to “positions.” The worst form occurs when “left” and “right” are understood as two camps into which all human beings must be categorized. In this conceptualization, it is typically assumed that camp allegiance will determine one’s views on everything. It is as though every question were reducible to “Which is your favourite colour, red or blue?!” When people want to take a more nuanced approach, they will switch to the metaphor of a spectrum, with “left” and “right” defining poles one can range between. The spectrum metaphor is something of an improvement over the camp metaphor, but still not actually very good. It lets us add the idea of moderate or centrist positions, but it still assumes that one’s views on everything will more or less coincide at one position along this spectrum. Occasionally one will encounter someone wanting to get really sophisticated by laying out a two-dimensional grid, where each axis is a left–right spectrum of its own. Maybe one is on the right regarding social mores but on the left regarding economic policy, for example. Again, this is a marginal improvement, but still inadequate. It is just thinking wrongly in higher resolution. We could continue to multiply the number of axes until we reached an n-dimensional grid to map everyone onto, where n is the number of possible questions people could take differing views on. This might seem like it would solve the problem, since the complexity would begin to approximate reality, but it actually wouldn’t. Aside from the fact that the heuristic value would decrease as the number of axes increased, this would not really address the fundamental problem inherent in the spectrum metaphor: people’s thoughts on anything can virtually never be accurately described as “positions” which could be arranged in a line. People think in dynamic, ongoing, complex, patterned processes involving multi-faceted interactions with a plethora of internal and external influences, related ideas, circumstances, and needs. Our ideas on any one question are organically linked to ideas we have about other things. This means tendencies can and do emerge, but it also means that our ideas are always on the move, always growing and changing, forever forming new connections and, when necessary, letting old, unhelpful connections die. Our ideas are contextual and environmentally conditioned. If we want to generalize from individual people’s ideas to larger trends in a population, the diverse, contextualized, complex ways we think are far more important than the “position” we happen to have at a given moment. It is the patterns and trajectories, in all their glorious diversity, that get to the heart of things, so we need to speak in terms of patterns and trajectories, not “positions.” Moreover, by defining people in terms of “positions” (i.e. their current answers to whatever question we are using as our criterion for categorizing them), we create labelled groups who can then, inevitably, be set over against each other as “Us vs. Them.” At that point, no one listens any more. We cut ourselves off from hearing how others think—that is, from learning about their way—because we are trained to believe that the answer they currently happen to hold regarding The Great Defining Question makes them anathema. So sure, ideological purists need to stop screaming that their end of the left–right dyad is the One Right Position. But merely setting up a centre position as a third contestant for the title of being the One Right Position won’t really do anything. Eliminate the dyad itself, and replace it with something more complex, more dynamic, and more interactive. Instead of camps, or spectrums, or multi-axis graphs, I suggest that we would do better to use another metaphor: the concept of a way. Different people follow different patterns of thought that carry them along certain trajectories. For one person, some thought-paths will be well-worn, some lightly travelled, some will be paved, some will be superhighways, and some will be unknown and uncrossed. For another, that unknown path will a well-travelled one, and that superhighway will be a trackless bog. Given these differences, when these two people set out to find answers to the same initial question, they are likely to use different ways of thinking to do so. They will follow different paths of reasoning, taking different turns based on different presuppositions and different notions of what a “good” answer should even be. Even in the case where they reach a mutually agreeable provisional answer (after all, all our answers are always provisional), they will have reached that answer for different reasons. On another question, the same patterns of reasoning may very well end up leading them to two very different answers. If we ever really want to understand one another, learn from one another, perhaps find ways to live even a modicum more peacefully and collaboratively with one another, we should stop trying to reduce one another’s thoughts down to “positions” that can be pegged as “left” or “right” or even “centrist.” Instead, we should start asking one another how we each think about the questions at hand and why we each draw the connections we do. That’s the path to understanding and wisdom.
- “Aid” for “developing” nations and Western ideological imposition(published )
In reply to this post by Michael Raburn regarding international aid to Africa: Very interesting. One of the points the author makes, regarding the debilitating effects of governmental corruption, gets close to what appears to be the heart of all this problem, but doesn’t quite state it. It is this: most everything that is “wrong” in the “developing world” is the result of the imposition of culturally alien standards and structures onto these people and their societies. At the most abstract level, the very notion that they are “developing” is a (patronizing) imposition of Western values onto other cultures; their societies and economies don’t work like our industrialized and urbanized ones do, so they are “behind” us on The One, True, Universal Scale of Human Development. But what if we were to think of these cultures and their corresponding socioeconomic structures as simply “different” rather than “developing”? What if living in a hut with a tatched roof, or being a nomadic herder were recognized as the perfectly valid ways of living that they really are? It is only when we show up and over centuries of forcible domination tell them again and again that their own ways of life are deficient and they should aspire to emulate our civilization (as opposed to pursuing the organic, ongoing development of their own) that they then come to think of themselves that way. But once the notion that the Western way is the better way has taken root in other cultures, the problems become entrenched. Several concrete examples of how this works out come to mind: 1) Famines in the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Famines are not natural phenomena, but rather culturally created ones. *Droughts* are natural phenomena, but when a society of nomadic herders faces a drought in one area, they just take their flocks and herds to another area. For a famine to occur, people have to be tied down to a particular plot of land and unable to cross borders into non-drought-stricken areas when a drought comes. The imposition of the idea of land ownership, territorial borders, and other such concepts derived from agricultural societies, is what has caused famines in these traditionally nomadic civilizations. 2) Urban slums. These happen because people think they can find a “better life” in the city. Why? Because the definition of “better” is derived from Western ideals. But Western urbanization took shape naturally over time as a result of the ongoing cultural changes in our societies. We developed the cultural, social, economic, and physical structures necessary for this way of life in an ongoing “feedback loop” between those four different levels, such that the cultural values, social and economic systems, and physical infrastructure all worked (more or less) together. In “developing” countries, on the other hand, the physical and economic structures of Western civilization are being grafted onto cultural and social structures that are fundamantally different. The mismatch means that the system doesn’t work as expected; there aren’t jobs available for all these people because the demand for their labour isn’t there because the demand for the kind of economic goods and services that Western-style urban economies are suited to create isn’t sufficient. 3) Political corruption. The imposition of democracy, which arose out of centuries of cultural development in Western civilization, onto other cultures has usually resulted in rampant corruption for a fairly simple reason: the power structures of democracy don’t fit with the indigenous social structures and cultural values of these societies. When your culture has always been a tribal one, for example, where gaining leadership was a matter of seniority and demonstrated wisdom and relations with others outside the tribe was conducted in terms of clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them” as the primary social reality (i.e. you are a member of your tribe, not an individual, and you act in solidarity with your tribe and for the collective benefit of your tribe), democracy and its attendant power structures don’t fit. Voting for someone who is not part of one’s own tribe is *betrayal*, not thoughtful political engagement. It is culturally expected that a person with power or wealth will use that to the advantage of his or her tribesmen; to not do so is morally dubious. But when a democratic system is put in place that grants the election winners power and access to the wealth of an entire country, the combination of these cultural values and norms with such power structures virtually inevitably results in state-wide power and wealth imbalances, selective enforcement of policies, and exploitation of those who are not part of one’s own tribe in favour of those who are. If we really want to help, we should mostly focus on helping people set aside our foreign systems and ideas that we have previously imposed on them, and encourage them to develop new systems of their own, based on their own cultural values, history, and social and environmental contexts. “Aid” won’t be the issue any more; engagement with a respected and self-sufficient Other will be.