Way back four years ago, I posted the first part of what I thought would be a series on robots, artificial, and theology. I guess life got in the way of that but given I’m doing some writing on AI at the moment and that things like ChatGPT and Bard are all the rage, it’s time to reboot the series and jot a few more thoughts down. First up, though, check out the original 2019 post which sketched some of the early theological and religious thinking on AI and robots.
One of the things that I think has generated widespread discussion about artificially intelligent systems is that people see them as transgressing boundaries that we believe make us distinctly human. The ability to understand colloquial language, create artistic works such as images and music, solve mathematical problems and many other things can be disturbing – perhaps in the same way that Copernican astronomy or Darwinian evolution relocated humanity’s place in the universe.
Many of these anxieties can be traced back to particular understandings of the essential core that defines human beings, sometimes called the locus humanus (cf. Gregory Peterson’s Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (2003): 124ff). Typically, this is denoted by a set of attributes that human beings alone are said to possess, such as the religious concept of an immortal soul, or a collection of psychological attributes such as reason, language, consciousness and self-consciousness. Any creature or creation that demonstrates these types of behaviour seems to have transgressed some indeterminate boundary and entered into the domain of human beings.
This is further exacerbated by various understandings of human personhood present at any one time in broader society. In a parallel conversation to artificial intelligence concerning genetically-modified organisms, Celia Deane-Drummond, Robin Grove-White, and Bronislaw Szerszynski, made this point some 20 or so years ago. Here different understandings of what it means to be human, including genetic understandings, are pressured by the human ability to manipulate what is seen as immutably defining nature.
It seems conceivable that the intensity of current controversies around genetically modified crops and foods arises in part from the fact that, in their regulation in the public domain, conflicting ontologies of the person are making themselves felt in the politics of everyday life.Celia Deane-Drummond, Robin Grove-White, and Bronislaw Szerszynski, “Genetically Modified Theology: The Religious Dimensions of Public Concerns About Agricultural Biotechnology,” Studies in Christian Ethics 14, no. 2 (2001): 27.
Perhaps one of the most unsettling things people find about these computer systems is that they seem, at times, to be more human than humans (or even super-human). Whether or not consciousness is actually manifest, the intelligent artefacts may perform as if they are conscious, leading some to assert, such as Ray Kurzweil that:
Sometime early in the next century, the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within several decades, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so.Ray Kurzweil, “The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine,” Scientific American Presents 10, no. 3 (1999): 56.
This potential relationality, in whatever form it might appear, prompted Matt Rossano to comment on how thinking about community might be a starting point for engaging with artificial intelligence from the context of religion. He says in a 2001 journal article:
The purpose of the preceding sections has been to establish both an empirical and a scriptural basis for the ways that religion and the brain are intimately interconnected with community. Religion evolved in service to community cohesion and stability, and this is well reflected in the expressions and teachings of sacred scripture. As the brain evolved, it provided the capacity for individuals to engage in complex social interactions and relationships. If community is of central concern to both religion and the brain, then when searching for a firm moral basis on which to judge the emerging technologies of artificial intelligence, religion should concentrate on the consequences to community. Put bluntly, a purpose (maybe the purpose) of the human brain is to allow for the establishment and maintenance of long-term relationships with other human beings. The success of these relationships is critical to individuals in their singular interests for happiness, success, and security; and it is critical to human societies at a broader level so that they can be stable, supportive, healthy environments in which individuals can thrive. Religion has traditionally been one of the frameworks upon which a healthy adaptive society has been constructed. A concern for maintaining healthy communities should motivate religion to a thoughtful, bold, and widely defensible critique of the advances and potentials of AI.Matt J. Rossano, “Artificial Intelligence, Religion, and Community Concern,” Zygon 36, no. 1 (2001): 65.
So while many of the questions that have emerged in the past year might seem novel, they have been considered over a reasonable amount of time. The difference is that much of the technology has moved from being a thought experiment to being partially realised. For those seeking to explore how their faith connects to this world, there is a lot of work to be done at both academic and popular levels.