The world is rapidly changing, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. One big reason for this acute acceleration is technology in general. Yet a specific concern we will discuss in this post is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it influences our everyday lives. Now is an opportune time for Christians to talk about their relationship to AI, because in my view, the technologies that we use are quickly becoming a web that we can’t escape. For many, technology tends to always be with them (e.g., our smartphones), and retreat is difficult merely because they’ve become so used to some technologies that they can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine life without them. Accordingly, the central question I seek to help you answer in this episode is: Can I find a life of faith within a world of amplified human possibility? In answering this question, I will attempt to construct a basic biblical worldview of AI so that whatever path the future takes, you will be equipped with foundational guiding principles. I will also provide a basic explanation of the secular worldview behind transhumanism as well as the challenges it poses for one who holds a biblical worldview. On the one hand, no technology is inherently good or bad, but it can fall into a moral category contingent upon an agent with intent. On the other hand, technology always advances faster than its ethics.
There are those who may think to themselves that the Bible has nothing to say about AI. That would be incorrect. In His Word, the Lord has provided to us everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1:3). So yes, while the words “AI,” “computer” or “technology” may not appear in the Scriptures, the Lord has supplied us with timeless principles by which we may live. And it is prudent for all Christians to think biblically about modern technology, because if our thoughts are not biblically informed, the world will never be slack in trying to put godless ideas into our heads. In fact, the Bible speaks highly of those individuals who can interpret current trends with a lens of divine truth. As it says in I Chronicles 12:32:
From the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do, their chiefs were two hundred; and all their kinsmen were at their command. (italics mine)
And as it says in I Thessalonians 5:21-22:
[E]xamine everything; hold firmly to that which is good, abstain from every form of evil. (italics mine)
What we are called to as Christians, then, is to examine technology and AI carefully so that we may understand the times and know what to do.
Defining Terms & Current Concerns
Many people have a general idea of what technology is already, but for our purposes, we will define it as anything that augments human ability.
And what is AI? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, artificial intelligence is:
- A branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers
- The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior
It’s important to note that in the world of computer science, there is a distinction between narrow AI and general AI. Narrow AI typically focuses on doing just one thing, like an app that can show you the best way to navigate through the city or a digital assistant that can answer the questions you ask it. The focus of this technology is narrow in that a program is designed to do one thing, not many things. Hence, a program that drives a car can’t translate languages, and a program that suggests products based on your internet searches can’t develop novel medicine. In contrast to narrow AI, general AI is what many people may think of when the term “AI” is used: a machine that mimics human intelligence and thus—in theory—is capable of doing many things. When people think of a super-intelligent computer that “thinks” for itself and makes autonomous decisions, that’s general AI.
There are some who fear general AI because they think that once we create a machine that’s smarter than us, it will revolt against us. This is where the book 2084 proves valuable. 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity was written by Dr. John C. Lennox, who is a Christian, an apologist and a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. In his book, he paints a clear picture of where humanity is and where we are likely going in terms of technological enhancement and AI. Lennox also delineates between scientific facts and more speculative claims. He writes:
Most of the successes so far in AI have to do with building systems that do one thing that normally takes human intelligence to implement. However, on the more speculative side—certainly at the moment—there is great interest in the vastly more ambitious quest to build systems that can do all that human intelligence can do, that is, artificial general intelligence (AGI), which some think will surpass human intelligence within a relatively short time, certainly by 2084 or even earlier, according to some speculations. Some imagine that AGI, if we ever get there, will function as a god, while others, as a totalitarian despot.
Lennox goes on to note that in talking about AI, many use language that makes machine systems sound more capable than they are, with such words as “learning,” “planning” or “reasoning.” In fact, to use the word “intelligence” to describe inanimate machinery is a big stretch in many cases. The reality is that, according to Lennox, the technologies that are beginning to worry people are actually not that intelligent. Their power lies not in the fact that they can think and reason but rather in their ability to handle large amounts of data and detect patterns.
It is therefore important to understand that when the general public hears about machines “learning” or about a new algorithm that can “reason” to solve problems, we have to be careful not to mistake a simulation that gives the appearance of intelligence with the real thing. Simulation is not duplication. A helpful way to make this idea concrete is an analogy called the Chinese Room Experiment developed by Berkeley philosopher John Searle. Here is the explanation according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a 1980 article by American philosopher John Searle. It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he sends appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.
In this thought exercise, Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between himself and the computer. Each simply follows a program, step by step. So, if a real person provides “input” and asks the computer a question in Mandarin (i.e., slipping characters under the door), a program can put together data, detect a pattern and produce an appropriate response (i.e., slipping characters back under the door). This reply would give the appearance of intelligence and persuade the human user that he or she is having an intelligent conversation. But the catch is that Searle doesn’t know or speak Mandarin. He therefore doesn’t understand the characters he is putting back under the door. To him, the Chinese symbols are gobbledygook and are devoid of meaning. Consequently, he is certainly not having a conversation, because he doesn’t know what is being said. Thus, Searle argues, just as he doesn’t understand, a computer would not be able to understand the conversation either. The conclusion to be drawn is that AI executing a program cannot have a mind, understanding or consciousness regardless of how intelligent or human-like the system may seem. A real mind results from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes, but simulation is not duplication. It is thus one thing to say our brains function like a computer; it is another thing to say our brains are computers.
To build upon this, Dr. Lennox makes an important point with regard to information, which is that it denotes meaning beyond its physical medium. For example, the word “beef” is composed of ink on paper (or pixels on a screen), but the information of what a cow is and how it tastes transcends paper and ink. Information is not material. Hence, the immateriality of information presents an insurmountable barrier to the construction of a machine that can consciously understand in meaningful ways. A machine may be able to recognize an English word (what it is), but it has no understanding of what it means.
Seen this way, current AI is not intelligent per se but rather is really good (and getting better) at doing what it has been programmed to do. So, according to 2084, if you’re worried super-intelligent machines are about to rise up against humanity, don’t be. In his book, Lennox quotes mathematician Hannah Fry, who provides a classic comment:
For the time being worrying about evil AI is a bit like worrying about overcrowding on Mars. Maybe one day we’ll get to the point where computer intelligence surpasses human intelligence, but we’re nowhere near it yet. Frankly, we’re still quite a long way away from creating hedgehog-level intelligence. So far, no one’s even managed to get past worm.
Where Is AI Going? & Future Concerns
So, if that gives us a very brief and broad assessment of what AI is and some current concerns, then where are we headed in the future? Again Lennox writes:
Research in [AI] has taken two main directions. Broadly speaking, firstly, there is the attempt to understand human reasoning and thought processes by modeling them using computer technology, and, secondly, there is the study of human behavior and the attempt to construct machinery that will imitate it. The difference is important—it is one thing to make a machine that can simulate, say, a human hand lifting an object; it is a completely different thing to make a machine that can simulate the thoughts of a human when he or she is lifting an object. It is much easier to do the first than the second, and if utility is all that is required, then the first is all that is necessary.
For the Christian, I don’t think there are any weighty theological issues at stake when they live in a world in which machines can imitate a human hand lifting an object. However, for the Christian who lives in a world where men strive to make machines that can simulate the thoughts of a human when he or she is lifting an object, there are many weighty theological issues at stake. For example, which thoughts are being programmed into the machine? What is the worldview of the programmers who are programming thoughts? If they have a godless worldview, then would not the machine be made in the image of its creator? How can ethics be developed in a system that is itself devoid of heart, soul and mind? What might a robot do if it can’t be fully controlled? Will it do more than lift objects? Answers to many of these questions are beyond my current understanding of the world. The one thing I do know is that machines are not people, and machines will never be people. Why? Because real people are made by the Creator in His image. Machines are made by creations. Machines can thus never rise to the level of an image-bearer of God.
Additionally, as we learned from the Chinese Room Experiment, it is evident that to AI, what we regard as “goals,” “principles” and “values” don’t matter, because, to the system, they don’t mean anything. In order for these things to matter, the machine must be moral, and machines can’t be moral because they are not people. Even if a machine were to follow a particular code of ethics, it wouldn’t be ethical to the machine. Right or wrong would not exist; what would exist are codes for behavior programmed into it by its designers. Looking ahead to the future of AI, then, it ought not to be our propensity to blindly depend on amoral machines that don’t have a concrete understanding of the real world. My biggest concern is that people will be deluded into thinking that machines are sentient and autonomous when in fact they are ordered (or programmed) to commit evil at the bidding of their masters. “The AI did it” thus becomes a convenient scapegoat for immorality.
Where Do We Come From?
We now have a general idea of where AI is going. And AI, of course, is a creation of a creation. Let us now go to the Scriptures to discover our origins.
Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person. (Genesis 2:7)
Here in Genesis 2:7, we learn where we come from and, more specifically, where our intelligence comes from. We, as human beings, come from God. And we’re not just lumps of clay that superficially resemble our Maker on the outside; we are made in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27), which means we are like Him in some finite ways: for example, we are living persons with minds that can think and acquire and use knowledge. Our divinely gifted intelligence is evidenced by the fact that we have the ability of language, that we have free will, are industrious and creative and that we are moral creatures. The moral dimension of human intelligence is particularly characteristic because, according to Professor of Cognitive Science Margaret Ann Boden:
The fundamental difference between human and artificial intelligence: one cares, the other does not.
Human beings were created by the Lord. It is therefore impossible to define a person without first referring to God. The point here is that, according to the Bible, life—and thus intelligence—is not assembled from the ground up, like going from silicon, microchips and algorithms to a sentient robot. What Genesis 2:7 tells us is that real life is created top-down from a transcendent God: our creation required divine effort. God first formed us from the organic matter in the ground, and then He breathed into us. It is then that man became a living, conscious and intelligent person. No God, no life. Hence, according to the Bible, this is how intelligence is made: by divine intelligent design and power. You cannot, according to the Scriptures, create intelligence without divine input. So, then, why do men think they can create intelligence all by themselves? They strive to create (artificial) intelligence by using non-organic matter and human intelligent design and technology. This is folly because it attempts to usurp natural law.
But let us not forget that not only life but all of creation has its origin in the Lord. In fact, according to the Scriptures, God created several laws in the universe to point us back to its super-intelligent divine origin. One such “law of creation” is that all intelligence in the universe comes from the intelligence of God. Many are likely already familiar with other laws of creation, such as the law of gravity and the speed of light. In other words, there are regularities in the universe because of a Regulator who made it that way. After all, the laws of creation neither cause anything nor create anything; they only explain the world to us by describing its regularities. As Lennox writes:
This universe bears the signature of its superintelligent divine origins in its law-like behavior, in its rational intelligibility, in the information-rich macromolecules in our DNA, and in the informational structure of intricate physiological mechanisms responsible for, for example, the migration of birds and fish, and in our human capacities for thought and language, feelings and relationships.
Consequently, in seeking a biblical answer to the origin of human intelligence, we see there are profound implications for AI. What has previously been exposited from Genesis 2:7 is a theistic worldview of where intelligent beings come from. In contrast, in an atheistic worldview, humans are neither special nor made in the image and likeness of God; what we come from are blind evolutionary forces that managed to organize globules of particles into we now call a person. It is thus consistent with this atheistic worldview that if blind evolutionary forces can produce human-level general intelligence, then of course human-level general intelligence can design artificial intelligence. However, a bottom-up atheistic worldview of human intelligence always raises the nagging question (a doubt that Darwin classically expressed): Are the convictions of man’s mind trustworthy if they have been developed from lower animals, without intelligent design and an ultimate standard of truth?
Subsequently, I would even go as far as to say that creating artificial general intelligence cannot and will not happen, because it violates a creation mandate. A creature cannot override the Creator’s rules. Just as you cannot make a conscious, intelligent person without God, you cannot make a conscious, intelligent machine with man alone.
For some, creating artificial general intelligence (AGI) is desirable because it equates to creating a god in our image. For some, the creation of AGI would fulfill a burning desire to “become like God” (Genesis 3:5) with the false promises of superintelligence, omnipresence and vastly augmented human possibilities. But let us not forget that it was the devil himself who first suggested that we could “become like God.” And let us also not forget what happened to humanity when they substituted God’s truth for the devil’s lies. Satan is still whispering in the ears of many, but instead of the fruit of a tree, it is technology that is the instrument of temptation.
As was said, AI inherently is neither virtuous nor sinful but can be made so based on an agent with intent. Thus, for some, a great temptation is to worship technology and what man has wrought with his own hands. This false religion is just another form of works-righteousness. A god from a machine is attractive simply because it seemingly escapes God’s holiness and deludes man into thinking that he can ascend and be like the Most High. I am no prophet, but I believe that one of the great temptations for humankind in the 21st century will be the deification of AI and the exaltation of technology into a functional savior. The creed “trust the AI” is alluring because it communicates the heart desire of Christless salvation. Truly, the gospel of technology is just a modern iteration of the false gospel that “man can save man.” Yet technology can never accomplish salvation, and no amount of innovation can satisfy the heart. Only Christ can do both.
One specific way in which technology seeks to act as a functional savior is in the transhumanist movement, which is a parallel quest for AGI. Transhumanism is unlike medicine that seeks to care for the sick; rather, it seeks to “improve” or “upgrade” the healthy. Think of an individual with hardware installed in their body that makes them part person, part machine: for example, a humanoid with robotic limbs that increase physical strength or an eye implant that augments vision. Yet the idea that we ought to “upgrade” the healthy with technology is based on two false assumptions: one, that bodily decay and death are merely biological problems that can be fixed with technical solutions; and two, that what God has gifted—bodily life—is not adequate and needs to be improved upon. The first assumption denies the biblical reality that bodily decay and death are ultimately a spiritual (sin) problem. Consequently, the resolution never be technical and will always be spiritual: through the atonement of Christ on the Cross. With the second assumption, people deny God’s sovereignty, wisdom and the creation mandate, and so man must rebel and re-create man according to his wishes. Ironically, when man seeks to “improve” by substituting parts of himself with a machine, he becomes less human. The “improvement” of man thus equates to the abolition of man. The core sin that animates transhumanism is lust of the flesh: in other words, a desire for biological life that transcends reconciliation with God. This lust also misses the point that this temporal, earthly body is finite and will one day be no more. The transhumanists have inverted biblical wisdom when they believe that the present matters more than eternity.
Our Great Hope
So, can Christians find a life of faith within a world of amplified human possibility? Of course they can. Let us not forget that by His common grace, God is the one who makes human technology possible (Genesis 4:17-22). God is also directing all things (and this includes technology), so absolutely nothing falls outside of His providence. This means that for Christians, we can use technology for righteous purposes. We are the living agents who can use AI with a God-glorifying intent. This also means we ought not to have an irrational fear of AGI or what is labeled AGI. Why? Because God is sovereign. And He has already determined when and how history will end, whether that involves AGI or not.
Furthermore, for the person who lives by faith, their ultimate trust is never in technology. They also do not lust for the creation of AGI, because we already know One who is greater: God Himself, who is all-knowing (Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:28; I John 3:20), all-powerful (Job 42:2; Matthew 19:26; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 19:6) and omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-10; Proverbs 15:3; Jeremiah 23:24). God was never made by human hands but is uncreated and eternal (Psalm 90:2; Revelation 1:8). Yes, men may seek to create an artificial superintelligence, but true superintelligence is God Himself. We ultimately don’t need AGI’s wisdom, because holy omniscience has given us divine wisdom that doesn’t bubble up from down below but has descended from heaven (Isaiah 55:8-9). The Superintelligence has already spoken to us in His Word, but many just don’t bother to listen.
Sin has so corrupted creation that all human beings can look at themselves and at the world around them and recognize that something is wrong. So, in responding to transhumanism, Christians can agree that yes, humans do need to be “fixed.” But that “augmentation” is not a biological problem that can be fixed with human technology. It is a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution that is produced by God. That solution is wrought by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, in causing people to be born again. Regeneration opens the eyes of the heart to see that Christ is of ultimate importance.
The ideal picture of humanity is not a cyborg with Superman-like powers. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of what a person ought to be. He is the goal. And for those who trust in Him, what He has promised is that, one day, all of His elect will be “upgraded” into perfect sinless bodies that will not decay or break down. He is also the One who will make this world anew. This marvelous act will not come about by human works; it will come about by a supernatural miracle (Revelation 21:1-8). Hence, the only perfect reality that will demand no improvement is one that is sinless. The pursuit of eternal life ends with Christ, who has already told us that He is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26; cf. John 6:40; Romans 8:11; I Thessalonians 4:14; Peter 1:3).
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal