Does theology help makes sense of Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already all-pervasive in our daily lives. From social media algorithms, to medical equipment detecting heart conditions. But the ‘robots’ in our lives look very different from the robots imagined in science fiction: they look like servers hidden away in secure buildings, and for most of us they look like our computer screen. But it is clear that they are not something of the future—they are already here.

Last week I was one of a panel of three on national Irish radio (RTE 1) discussing the challenge of Artificial Intelligence on their weekly programme Leap of Faith. The link to the broadcast can be found below. It was both a little daunting but also a privilege to be able to engage with others who were expert in their field.

Some of the key themes emerging for me included:

The way that AI often imitates the phenomena of human intelligence, rather than human intelligence as such. It is all to easy to think that, because systems mimic what humans do, they are somehow becoming human. Christian theology will also resist the reduction of human life to the phenomena that make that life up.

AI and other technological enhancements are predicated on the idea that creaturely finitude (our human limitations) are only problems to be overcome, and that human happiness consists in overcoming them. Christian theology believes that fulfilment can be found within our limitations as creatures.

Many people will look to the theological idea of the human soul, but in fact Christian theology has always gone further than that to understand human life as embodied—we are ‘psychosomatic unities’, body-soul creatures whose inner life cannot be separated from our outer, bodily life.

Moral and ethical reflection is always needed, since AI never deploys itself, but is always deployed by humans with particular ends in mind. AI might not be developed with the idea of harm in mind, but we humans who deploy it are lazy, selfish and greedy, and that will always shape how AI is actually used in society. Often the questions around AI come back to the three issues of money, sex and power, but just in a technological expression.

The universal effect of technological development is the removal of barriers and inhibitions to human agency—the elimination of ‘friction’. The key question is: which human activities would we like to make easier, and for which human activities is it good that there is difficulty and resistance?

A key ethical conviction proposed around the use of AI is that the humans affected should always be the ends or goal of the technology, and not merely the means used to reach another goal. Unless you think that (for example) Facebook was developed with the purely altruistic goal of improving human relationships, then it is clear that that ethical test was failed a long time ago.

Here is the blurb for the programme:

On the Leap of Faith this week, Artifical Intelligence is considered by some as the greatest threat to religion since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species.  On tonight’s programme, as robots and AI enter our homes and our lives we explore the ethics that govern their interactions with us and how the human creation of such intelligence fits into theology.

The guests on tonight’s programme are Rev Dr Ian Paul, Theologian, author and a member of the Church of England’s general synod; Professor Barry O’Sullivan University College Cork and President of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence; and Dr Mary Aiken, Cyberpsychologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at UCD.

You can listen to the programme by clicking through from this page. (You will need to enable pop-up windows and use of Adobe Flash on your browser.)

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7 thoughts on “Does theology help makes sense of Artificial Intelligence?”

  1. Very interesting Ian, thank you. It took me back to my notes from a TV documentary on AI some years ago. Two researchers were reflecting on the challenge of creating something with genuine intelligence – able to think, learn and choose for itself. ‘If you want the agent to be free – to be autonomous – and not just a computer program you have written for it’, said one, ‘then you have to let it go, let it explore for itself and learn for itself’. The other agreed and suggested this might be how God creates a world of real freedom and choice. ‘It’s only when the creator has let go of the system that the system can count as having free will. God couldn’t have programmed us in detail. He had to use evolution because only that puts enough distance between God’s intention and my intention for my acts to turn out to be free.’

  2. Hi Paul. My name is Alan Moss and I am a recently ordained deacon in the church of England based in East London.
    I have just come across your blogs and I am really interested in your study of digital media and AI. I have just completed my Master’s degree at St Mellitus in West London and my dissertation was on digital natives, theological anthropology and how a theological understanding of embodiment might inform contemporary Christian leadership.

    I would love to continue my study and research of that subject and digital development in general and wondered if I could speak with you about your research at some point and please?

  3. Thank you, Ian, some useful thought starters.

    I hope that in the fullness of time you will write more on this; also on UBI (Universal Basic Income).

    I see in the medium term many unskilled jobs disappearing because of AI / robotics / automation. Therefore, it may become essential for economies like the UK to introduce some form of UBI.

  4. Hi Ian
    Have you read Karen O’Donnell’s journal article ‘Performing the Imago Dei: human enhancement, artificial intelligence and optative image bearing’? International Journal for the Study of The Christian Church, June 2018.

  5. The physical version of naturalism (physicalism) asserts that the only things that exist are matter and energy, space and time. One AI aim is to create an electronic model of the human brain – to exactly replicate all the nodes and connections and chemical and physical operations and electrical impulses found in a mature undamaged human brain. From a physicalist point of view there would be no difference at all between this model and the living brain. Would such a model be able to prove Pythagoras’ Theorem of the squares on sides of a right-angled triangle?
    That proof is quite straightforward (O-level maths). When a human works through the steps in that proof everyone agrees that physical and chemical and electrical events are taking place in the brain and we experience a conviction of absolute certainty that the theorem is true for all the infinite number of right-angled triangles. Two questions arise: would the electronic model experience that conviction of absolute certainty? And – is it credible that such a conviction of absolute certainty can be fully accounted for by physical, chemical and electrical events, which is all that a physicalist world-view can put forward to account for such certainty. This is a version of C S Lewis’ argument from reason. As I see it the only two plausible world-views are Naturalism and Theism. I think the argument from reason refutes Naturalism – at least the physicalist version of it.
    Phil Almond


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