AI is here.
And it’s filling my very human head.
I know this as a college lecturer. Whether I entirely endorse the practice or not, my students are regularly using ChatGPT to write their papers.
AI (artificial intelligence) is also at Science for the Church. Ed was the author (a term that’s imprecise in this instance) of a newsletter on the crucifixion of Christ, which was generated by AI. And it was one of your favorite pieces from 2023!
AI is in my own research with the faith-science discussion group I convene monthly at my house, the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science. The Triad has just launched a series of monthly discussions on AI and faith, many around Noreen Herzfeld’s new book (more on that in a moment).
Of course, not all questions about AI have been or will be answered. One of them is: what is the definition of AI? The meaning of the term “artificial intelligence” has morphed since the brilliant Cambridge University educated mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing formulated his famous “Turing Test” in 1950. AI is no longer defined as an assessment of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from, or equivalent to, that of a human. Now it seems to describe, in the common parlance, when computers act like they’re thinking. Or to be just slightly more precise, “the ability of a machine to display human-like capabilities such as reasoning, learning, planning and creativity.”
What Does it Mean to be Human?
Neurotrauma psychologist Leonard Matheson has reminded me that we don’t really know artificial intelligence unless we know what it means to have human cognition because, given the Turing Test example, AI is supposed to mirror how we think.
The key question that AI requires us to ask then is this: What does it mean to be human? I’ve been reading The Artifice of Intelligence by Herzfeld, whom I’ve just interviewed and will be in next week’s newsletter. She makes fascinating connections around Karl Barth’s view of friendship. Since we are created for relationships, this is a good place to focus because we know that being human means being in relationship.
Herzfeld said (and I fully agree): “A Christian theology centered in our relationship—with God, neighbor, self—is necessarily an embodied theology.” For that reason alone, it seems that AI cannot entirely replace human relationships. We need embodiment—here’s where our evolutionary history and the wisdom of the Bible agree.
- Science for the Church is building out our resources on AI.
- Here’s a video of an interview with Noreen Herzfeld about AI and relationships.
- Herfeld’s ideas are developed much further in her new book, The Artifice of Intelligence: Divine and Human Relationship in a Robotic Age.
- You can find one Christian ministry-based use of AI at Text Jesus.
- Since AI is intended to mirror how humans think, the most fascinating paper I’ve read in a long time comes from Harris Wiseman on “slow knowing”—the kind of knowing he concludes that AI cannot do but that’s essential for our spiritual life.
But Can We Be Fooled?
While I align with Herzfeld’s perspective that AI cannot replace genuine human relationships, it raises a fascinating dilemma, specifically the potential for AI to convincingly emulate human interactions.
Can AI simulate relationships in a way that resonates with us, even if we cognitively recognize their artificiality? In The Matrix, a film all about an alternative reality created by artificial intelligence of the Matrix, the character Cypher says this, while eating a steak, “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?” [Takes a bite of steak] “Ignorance is bliss.” Steaks aren’t literally friends, of course, but human enjoyment may outweigh our desire to know whether relationships are real, or—to use Noreen’s term—simply “artifice.”
I recently found an amusing but also somewhat troubling app, Text Jesus, which offers answers to our spiritual questions. “Embark on a spiritual journey,” its website tells us, “and engage in enlightening conversations with Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and a multitude of other revered figures from the Bible.” I found this troubling because I personally want a real encounter with God through worship, prayer, reading Scripture, or service, but it’s possible that the app’s users don’t care they’re being fed AI-generated divine answers as long as it feels like God is talking.
This raises profound ethical and existential questions. If AI can expertly mimic human and divine encounters, does it matter if we are aware of its artifice? Can the illusion of connection offer a form of enjoyment, even if it’s rooted in ignorance?
God with Skin in the Game
My conviction, like Herzfeld’s, is that there is a critical divide between the real and virtual, and it’s centered on embodiment. We as a church certainly have much to learn from our emerging encounters with AI. It will help with alleviating disease, which has always been central to the church’s mission. It will create questions for adult discipleship classes or Sunday School. It will solve innumerable things I can’t even imagine.
AI is a beneficial tool, but it cannot be ultimate. Our faith as Christ-followers is in the body. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul in Phil. 2:5-11, telling us that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness.” Paul asserts that Christ took the very nature of a humankind who serves, that Jesus is God with skin on. That—as the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright concludes—is “the perfect self-expression of the true God.”
Or to quote Barth: “The meaning of [Christ’s] deity—the only true deity in the New Testament sense—cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute, non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ.”
The Church in the Flesh
I’ll conclude with a final word from Herzfeld, “AIs are machines, not living things. They can be precious resources when used well. But they are tools and nothing more.”
In a world dying for real relationships—where over half of our country is deeply lonely (which is partly caused by our use of technology)—let us then not forget something: We, who are in the human flesh that Christ the Word took up (John 1:14)—we can be a sign of goodness and hope in the world in a way that AI never can be.