It goes without saying that the current generation of Christians faces cultural and sociological challenges unlike those of any generation previous. The current mass societal confusion in the West over basic questions of biology and morality was virtually unthinkable only ten years ago, and yet the Church now finds herself in the unenviable position of evangelizing a culture that refuses to answer honestly the question, “What is a woman?”
Unfortunately, many churches in the West are woefully unprepared to confront the present tidal wave of cultural change. Caught without the full armor of God, these churches either join the culture in surfing the wave or end up crushed beneath the tidal flood. The latter category includes churches stuck in outdated models of ministry from an age when Christianity was still culturally dominant. As a result, they are unprepared to minister to a new generation struggling with the most basic questions of human sexuality and ontology.
Without a proper frame of reference, we (the Church) will be blind to the most relevant issues facing ministry today; we will apply outdated solutions to the problems we perceive; and when we finally speak to the world around us, we will find ourselves speaking a totally different language from the people we are trying to reach.
A church stuck in the “old way of doing things” is like a farmer trying to harvest wheat with a fishing net – ignorance of the task at hand leaves him without the right tools for the job, and no amount of good intentions will bring the crop in.
It is therefore important for the Church to continually look forward in prayer to understand as best we can the cultural trends coming our way, that we may faithfully prepare the next generation, and each other, to do the work of ministry.
One such trend for thinking Christians to consider is not specifically cultural but instead technological, though the two are closely intertwined. This is the trend of artificial intelligence (AI), a field progressing far more rapidly than many realize.
Developments in AI
Artificial intelligence, broadly speaking, is the theory and development of computer systems that simulate human intelligence. These systems typically use algorithms to “train” on a vast set of information in order to “learn” how to perform a specific task. In many cases, such systems are called “neural networks,” because, as the name implies, they are designed to make associations similar to how the human brain works.
Lately, groundbreaking developments in AI have come fast and furious. AI technology has been trained to produce original works of poetry, in the style of famous authors like William Shakespeare or Robert Frost. The University of Oxford Union recently held a “debate” which featured an original speech written by an AI Winston Churchill. In each example, the AI program produced a written work in the style of the respective author which had never before existed.
AI technology has also been used in image generators, which create original pictures from a string of text. The most popular such program, called “DALL-E” (its name a mix between the famous artist, Dali, and the Pixar robot, Wall-E), produces a series of original images (of varying quality) given any descriptive word or phrase by the user. A different AI text-to-image generator (called “Midjourney”) recently made headlines for winning an art competition at the Colorado State Fair – against human artists. Granted, AI-generated work needs to be curated by humans, but it does not change the fact that this nascent technology is going to have worldview implications far beyond anything we could have possibly imagined even in recent years.
It was one thing when IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at his own game. But what are we to make of computers encroaching into the realm of art? The artists cry out, “Creativity was supposed to be a human characteristic. It was supposed to belong to us!” Like it or not, technology will continue to improve at completing certain tasks with blinding efficiency, and artificial intelligence will continue to improve at mimicking human behaviors. How are we to respond to a world in which the line between man and machine gets blurrier by the day?
Faced with this question, Christians should neither give in nor panic. The chorus of people claiming AI sentience will continue to grow louder. In July, for example, Google fired one of its engineers who was evaluating an AI chat bot after he became convinced the program was in fact sentient. He was convinced the machine had gained consciousness. But did it, really?
The Thoughtful Christian Response
As with all issues, Christians must instead have the discipline to think critically about the AI question. This discipline requires us to examine every argument in light of Holy Scripture and Church Authority. In this way, the thoughtful Christian approach to the worldview issues of artificial intelligence, foreign and intimidating though the subject may be, is no different than how the Undivided Church has faced the confusion of every new generation: by affirming only that which is consistent with Biblical morality, upheld by Church Tradition throughout the centuries, and rooted in the principles of God’s created order.
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end…Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., 2258
On that same token, the modern issues we face are often merely new flavors of ancient questions. The AI question facing the next generation of Christians traces a direct line to the question at the heart of the perennial abortion argument: What is a human life?
Those who will argue for the sentience and personhood of AI technologies will do so on the basis of raw intelligence and self awareness – the same argument used to deny the humanity of the pre-born, the disabled, and the elderly. It is a utilitarian argument which tenuously posits that humanity is defined by the ability to perceive and learn, to think and to question one’s existence, and to proclaim one’s own autonomy and value to the world. By that definition, a machine that learns to do all those things as well as a human being must itself be “sentient.”
But what of the child in the womb, or the boy with a crippling terminal disability, or the woman in a coma, or one’s grandmother with dementia? How are they to advocate for their own humanity? How are they to compete with the AI system which is trained to offer the entire wealth of human knowledge in defense of its own sentience? Prepare for machines to be humanized at the same time that marginalized people are increasingly de-humanized.
Only the Church can offer a steadfast defense of “the dignity and freedom of every human life, from conception to natural death,” as put forward in our 2021 Common Prayer Book. This defense stands on the foundation of Sacred Scripture; as the LORD says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Here is where Christians can confidently draw their line in the sand. Human life is defined not by earthly potential, nor by personal autonomy, nor even by mere consciousness. Human life is ultimately defined by our intrinsic value as the most precious work of God’s creation, designed by Him, for relationship with Him.
To borrow from our brothers in the Catholic Church: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., 2258).
Artificial intelligence can never be truly sentient, nor truly human, because it will never posses the divine spark, the mark of God’s image sealed in our hearts – that is, the soul of man. AI will certainly progress to the point where machines can imitate human behavior with near perfection and surpass us in tasks once thought to belong exclusively to the human domain. Indeed, this has already happened countless times over the last century.
The advance of AI technology is not inherently bad. In fact, it will surely bring about untold improvements to human life, just as with previous technological revolutions. The warning for the Church is to be sober and watchful, so as to not be deceived by the chances and changes of life. Those specific chances and changes, brought about in no small part by technological advancement (and the misuse of technology), are more than could ever be discussed in one sitting, but our witness to a culture in chaos must always rest in God’s eternal and unchanging Truth. Churches which uphold the truth, beauty, and value of the imago Dei – the image of God – will always cut through the noise of the world around them.