In the The Contrarian Corner sections of this web page I'll be expressing views on topics relating to the computers, electronic media, and the digital culture generally that don't necessarily match, or even are opposed to, "the prevailing wisdom."
[The term "contrarian" derives from the 17th century, when it meant "... a person who takes a contrary position or attitude; specifically: an investor who buys shares of stock when most others are selling and sells when others are buying...". -- From Merriam-Webster.]
This article is based on a paper presented at the conference: Identity, Formation, Dignity: The impacts of Artificial Intelligence upon Jewish and Christian Understandings of Personhood, 30 April - 2 May 1998, sponsored by: Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT, The Boston Theological Institute and the Center for Faith & Science Exchange.
The stated aim of this conference on Identity, Formation, Dignity is to draw artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive science into dialogue with theology on the nature of personhood. Confidence is expressed that AI and cognitive science on the one hand and theology on the other have "much to say to each other." Especially, the preamble to the conference cites the desire to establish "...a dialogue of mutual enrichment in which scholars in both fields are able to rely on the expertise and experience of the other."
This aim and hope are laudable. Dialogue often aids mutual understanding, even where ultimate agreement is not achieved. And, that latter point is the point of this paper, namely that AI and theology--in their "strong" versions--cannot agree on what constitutes human personhood as their views ultimately are diametrically opposed. To see why that is so, it is important to examine what essentially is a clash of claims about what a person is.
Remarking on how contempory computer science is of "two minds" about artificial intelligence (AI), computer scientist Selmer Bringsjord notes:
"Some computer scientists believe in so-called 'Strong' AI, which holds that all human thought is algorithmic, that is, it can be broken down into a series of mathematical operations. What logically follows, they contend, is that AI engineers will replicate the human mind and create a genuinely self-conscious robot replete with feelings and emotions. Others embrace 'Weak' AI, the notion that human thought can only be simulated in a computational device. If they are right, future robots may exhibit much of the behavior of persons, but none of these robots will ever be a person; their inner life will be as empty as a rock's." (Bringsjord, 1998, pp. 23-24.)
The key distinction is between replication vs. simulation. Not all workers in AI are engaged in aims and activities which directly impinge upon "personhood." Systems for medical diagnosis, robots for work in hazardous environments (e.g., to enter and study volcanoes), autonomous vehicles that drive along highways--such efforts involve Weak AI in that, while attempting to simulate the kinds of intelligence that humans exhibit, that they do not aspire to replicate the human, and accordingly are non-threatening to notions of human uniqueness.
In contrast, Strong AI seeks to demonstrate functional equivalence with humans. Success along such lines implies that humans are not necessarily more complex than AI artifacts, and thus not necessarily the work of divine hands, i.e., creatures of God. By implication as well, the AI workers who succeed in replicating humans would be in effect equivalent to God, or to what people once took God to be--their creator.
As regards "consciousness" -- an inner sense of self-awareness--and the possession of a "soul"--a non-material component of the self, Strong AI would hold that its creations have as much consciousness and soul as you and I have, i. e., not much. "Consciousness" and "soul" would be revealed as empty concepts, the former being epiphenomenal to neuronal activity, the latter being sheer fiction. Finally, the human brain being considered the most complex entity in the known universe, then the construction of its functional equivalent is necessarily the ultimate human intellectual achievement. We would be compelled to acknowledge 1) workers in Strong AI as the smartest people ever, and 2) that materialism holds the truth about people, not theology--especially not the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is important to note that AI is not a science in the sense that, say chemistry and physics, are; that is, AI is not objective study of the natural world. Rather, it is a technology concerned with the fabrication of artifacts. Thus, any clash between AI and theology is not a reflection of the classic antagonism between science and religion, but--where Strong AI is contrasted with Strong theology--rather a clash between human pretension and what traditionally has been taken as God's exclusive province: the creation of life.
Even the classic antagonism between science and religion is subject to misconstrual. The difficulty comes with the identification of science--the use of reason and observation to gain knowledge of the natural world--exclusively with materialism: the doctrine that all phenomena can be exhaustively accounted for in terms of physical matter. In Strong AI, we clearly see an a priori philosophical commitment to materialism in operation.
Catholic writer Paul Johnson recounts how he was attending a 1994 Oxford conference on medical ethics during which one of the speakers used the phrase "the sanctity of human life." Johnson goes on:
Another, a dauntingly clever philosopher, interjected: 'Now wait a moment - let's look at that expression, "the sanctity of life." You may be right. Perhaps human life is sacred to us. But I don't know it as a fact. Prove it to me. Why should human life be sacred? (Johnson, Paul, 1996, p. 117. Italics in original.)
Johnson was taken aback:
I found this a chilling moment, and many of those to whom I have described the incident found it chilling too. I had always thought that the sanctity of life was one of those 'truths' which sensible men and women 'hold to be self-evident". It did not need to be proved. It just was... (ibid., p. 117.)
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the sanctity of human life does not derive from a syllogism, but because human life is in the image of God. Scripture states that "God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). But, just what does it mean to be created in the image of God? The first chapter of Guide for the Perplexed, written by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides (1135-1204) examines the word Tzelem from Genesis 1:26 and usually translated as "form" or "likeness,"; that meaning, according to Judaic scholar Leon Roth, is that "...man has something in him of the divine intelligence...". Sharing in that divine intelligence places upon mankind the responsibility of "walking in the divine way" by keeping the moral virtues (Roth, pp. 170-172).
The Christian, as heir through Christ to the Old Testament covenant, accepts this rootedness of personhood in the Divine. Then, in the New Testament, Jesus is revealed as divine. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks of his disciples (Matthew, 16:15); the reply of Peter, affirmed by Jesus, is "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." That Jesus in his humanity is as well in the image of God is made clear by Jesus himself when his disciple Philip asks: "Lord, let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied." Jesus replies: "Have I been with you all this time, Phillip...and you still do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father...". There is no more definitive statement in the Gospels that the human form of Jesus is itself in the image of God, the image that all humans share.
Thus, "Strong theology" in the Judeo-Christian tradition would ground the sacredness of human personhood in its being in the image of God, as well as in its inimitable and exclusive origins in the creative act of the Godhead. On this latter point, we may note that while humans do themselves generate human life through having offspring, it is a "begetting" not a "creating"--theologically, a critical distinction. Relevant here is the wording of the Nicene Creed concerning Jesus as Son of God: "...true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father...". Human procreation, even "cloning," is that of drawing life from life or begetting ("omnia viva ex vivo"), not the creation of life either ex nihilio or from non-living matter, which only God can do.
The essence of the New Testament, of Christianity, is this: Christ is risen. St. Paul is emphatic on this point; if it is not true, then Christianity is empty (I Corinthians 15:12-19). For Christians, the Resurrection of Christ is the central fact of human history, or it is nothing. In contrast to such "Strong theology," some branches of Christianity tend to hedge on the divinity of Jesus, even holding that the Resurrection was not a real event, but something that occurred only in the minds of the apostles. On such a view, Jesus would perhaps rank as a "great ethical teacher" along with Socrates, Gandhi, Buddha, Martin Luther King, and perhaps others, but beyond that would not be unique or special.
Clearly, a clash between Weak AI and Weak Theology is a non-clash. Nothing is at stake. As neither side makes a statement that is necessarily inconsistent with what the other side holds, either side lives in peace with the other.
A couple of the speakers in the Fall 1997 lecture series at MIT on God and Computers (Foerst, 1997) voiced positions that, in some sense, were equivalent to this kind of opposition. One speaker talked of how he essentially "wore two hats." One hat was that of the pragmatic working scientist, the other the "off the job" hat of the person in family and societal life. This strategy of keeping the apart the two worlds of science and theology is carried out in name of efficiency in living, but essentially finesses the issue by deciding not to face it.
The other speaker, an avowed atheist, talked of how he intellectually thought of people as machines or collections of machines, but regarded members of his family as "people." Again, an avoidance of the issue by somehow "crossing the street" when an potentially opposing thought is approaching.
A clash between Strong AI vs. Weak theology or between Weak AI vs. Strong theology is, again, a non-clash. Simply, the more assertive side "wins" in the sense of having its way unimpeded by the other. It is only the counterpoint between Strong AI and Strong theology on defining issues that is potentially interesting and generative of meaningful dialogue.
One such defining issue that both Strong AI and Strong theology have a vital stake in is that of the meaning of death, and our personal fate. The intimation from AI is that we may eventually have some kind of immortality in silicon by the "downloading" of the information in our brains onto silicon ships. We would then live forever, or at least as long as the conditions of our galaxy or the universe would provide the material substrate for our silicon existence (Cf. Moravec, 1988).
Another version is that of our consciousness merging with a kind of super-mind (Cf. Dyson); our individuality would be compromised, but we would yet live on as merged in a higher, more inclusive consciousness. This version is reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of the individual consciousness disappearing as a raindrop into the ocean, or, as one poet put it, "a pulse in the eternal mind...".
Personal immortality does not figure largely in Judaism (Roth, 1966), but is of course central to Christianity. The immortality promised in Christianity is not that simply of more time in our current mode of existence but that of being "raised to new life." A refrain in Eastern Orthodoxy concerning the crucifixion is "...dying, You destroyed death." Death, the nemesis of humankind, has been transformed by the sacrifice of Jesus into the doorway to everlasting life, a new level of existence (Arseniev, 1963). In particular, it is the end of time as we ordinarily experience time. Some Christian writers such as L'Engle have characterized their intuition of time in eternity as not merely one moment after another (time as kronos)--the species of time presumably offered by AI's brain-to-silicon downloading--but time such as experienced by the saint in contemplation, the artist at work, the child at play (time as kairos) (L'Engle, 1980, pp. 93-99).
Theology, to function as "Strong theology" in dialogue with Strong AI, will need be thick-skinned. A case in point is the withering barrage of negative email projected at Dr. Anne Foerst upon her setting up a course on God and Computers at MIT in Fall 1997 (Ribadeneira, 1997; Wright, 1997). Another case in point is the near total absence of the "G-word" (God) in the presentations of the ten speakers participating in a related lecture series on God and computers: minds, machines, and metaphysics, also set up by Dr. Foerst (Foerst, 1997).
Even at a religion-sponsored institution, proponents of Strong theology are in dire need of the courage of their convictions. An extreme case is that of Georgetown University, the nation's oldest Catholic University (founded 1789), recently deciding that it is all right to display crucifixes in its classrooms (Ribadeneira, 1998). This rescinding of a 1960's era attempt to "mainstream in American academic life" was precipitated by recent student rallies and petitions to restore these representations of what to believing Christians is the central event in human history.
Theology can well take heart when it considers how the three great materialistic anti-religious "isms" of the 19th and 20th centuries--Marxism, Freudianism, and Darwinism--have fared, and are faring. The experiment in Marxism that was the Soviet Union has collapsed. Freudianism has faded, with social science revealing the destructive aspects of "value-free" living and the health-conferring effects of a religious outlook (Glynn, pp. 57 et seq.). Darwinism, though, yet flourishes in the public square despite accumulating evidence and convincing argument that it is seriously flawed and in all probability outright wrong. Prominent among so-called neo-Darwinists is Richard Dawkins (Dawkins, 1996, 1986), the subtitle of whose book The Blind Watchmaker is why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. Too, popular science journalism , e.g., in National Geographic (Monastersky, 1998) and in PBS television specials, etc., yet continue to characterize human life as having emerged of its own accord from the proverbial "primordial soup"--evolved, sprung up, spontaneously erupted-- all without intervention by a creating agent (read: God). The days of Darwinism may well be numbered, however, what with its increasingly apparent lack of support from the fossil record and its understandable, albeit fatal, innocence concerning new findings of "irreducible complexity" in cellular microbiology that support design, not chance (Cf. Phillip Johnson, 1997, 1993; Behe, 1996).
While Strong theology may have to bear up under what often is utter disdain from the Strong AI camp, AI may be well-advised on its part to learn to be creatively humble. Since its inception several decades ago, the self-proclaimed promises of AI have all too often, even consistently, outrun the reality of what it has been able to deliver. While AI proponents of immortality through downloading of minds from flesh to silicon wax rhapsodic--in unmistakably religious metaphors (Cf. Noble, 1997, chap. 10.), the extremely modest achievements and outlook of bionics should give pause; repair of spinal cord injuries is still over the horizon, while meaningful and coherent linkage of computer circuitry with more central brain processes is yet vanishingly distant, perhaps impossible.
If either or both of AI and theology take "soft" positions, then certainly they can live in peace with one another. An AI which is content to produce useful artifacts (like welding robots and medical diagnostic programs) and does not aspire to build artificial humans presents no challenge to theology. A theology which is relativistic, broadly "inclusive," which makes no special claims about people being made in the image of God or about the status of its central figure (e.g., Christ was a "great teacher," but not necessarily divine) would be a matter of indifference to AI. However, a "strong" AI which claims its machines not only exhibit intelligent behavior but "have" minds, which not only exhibit emotional behavior but "have" emotions, and which have "souls" or at least as much of a "soul" as do people (not much...), presents a clear challenge to a "strong" theology which claims that people are to be distinguished from any artifact no matter how seemingly clever.
Theology and science are compatible insofar as by science is meant the rational and systematic inquiry concerning the objective world, but incompatible where the scientist has an a priori commitment to materialism and, in practicing science, is seeking to establish an exclusively material basis for human life and mind.
AI as militant atheism and materialism can well dialogue with Strong theology, each to reveal their positions and stances, but at root are incompatible. There is no mutual ground for real agreement.
What can Strong AI say to theology? Right now it is either silent, or it says that: 1) people are not unique as regards consciousness and thought, that machines can have those qualities (whatever those qualities might be) as well as people; 2) immortality, in the sense of prolonging our current mode of life, will be accomplished by the transfer of identity and consciousness to machines; 3) machines will evolve and be immortal, while the human species will die out (Cf. Noble, 1997, chap. 10).
While it is that dialogue between Strong AI and Strong theology which may be the most meaningful and most profitable, the prospect of agreement is probably not there. They say very different things about what people are. Agreement, should it occur at all, may well be to agree to disagree. But that is all right. The great benefit from discussion--and that discussion well ought to occur--is the clarifying and sharpening of the respective positions so at least there can be mutual understanding of where the two sides stand.
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