- 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.
- 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