The theology and philosophy of the Atlantic article “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” proves that it was all downhill after the schoolmen in the sad twilight of the Middle Ages adopted nominalism. Almost nothing has been right since, and little can be saved.
It’s best to step through and answer the misconceptions one at a time.
While most theologians aren’t paying it much attention, some technologists are convinced that artificial intelligence is on an inevitable path toward autonomy. How far away this may be depends on whom you ask, but the trajectory raises some fundamental questions for Christianity—as well as religion broadly conceived, though for this article I’m going to stick to the faith tradition I know best. In fact, AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
False. Technologists are fooling themselves because of a false metaphysics into thinking computers will become rational creatures like man. AI can never be a “threat” to Christian theology. And it is also false that Darwin’s theory, old or new, is a threat. That some Christians think it is results from accepting the same errors atheists make about evolution. (Of course, bad or false theories of any kind are a threat to individual sanity always.)
Despite AI’s promise, certain thinkers are deeply concerned about a time when machines might become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Stephen Hawking told the BBC in 2014. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”
These thinkers are wrong. Computers are programmed to say what they were told to say. They take input, even input from unpredictable exterior processes, and produce output based on that input in directed ways. They are machines. They are not alive. They do not possess souls as living things do.
Souls are the forms of living things. They are not entities inside living things that are extractable from them. They are not ghosts in machines. They are not aetherous. Souls in men are not made of material stuff. Our intellects are not material. Men have free will, and thus can sin. Machines do not have free will and cannot sin. Men’s souls are corrupt from birth. A computer never has a soul.
History lends credibility to this prediction, given that many major scientific advances have had religious impacts. When Galileo promoted heliocentrism in the 1600s, it famously challenged traditional Christian interpretations of certain Bible passages, which seemed to teach that the earth was the center of the universe. When Charles Darwin popularized the theory of natural selection in the 1800s, it challenged traditional Christian beliefs about the origins of life. The trend has continued with modern genetics and climatology.
That some erred in thinking the Bible specified the location of planet earth, vis-à-vis the universe as a whole, only proves that people make mistakes—and that people correct them. Religion in this way is self-correcting. About the origins of life, well, as of this writing nobody knows how that came about. Even supposing somebody does figure out how, whatever explanation is discovered will not in any way challenge Christian beliefs. Good grief, how could it? That some biological-chemical reaction is discovered to behave in a certain way only means that God set up the universe so that biological-chemical reaction behaves in that certain way. The reason why the universe is the way it is is because it was caused to be that way by something. That something could not be nothing or “blind” laws—those “laws” also had to have causes. The only ultimate explanation is God.
…Christians have mostly understood the soul to be a uniquely human element, an internal and eternal component that animates our spiritual sides. The notion originates from the creation narrative in the biblical book of Genesis, where God “created human beings in God’s own image.” In the story, God forms Adam, the first human, out of dust and breathes life into his nostrils to make him, literally, “a living soul.” Christians believe that all humans since that time similarly possess God’s image and a soul.
But what exactly is a soul? St. Augustine, the early Christian philosopher, once observed that “I have therefore found nothing certain about the origin of the soul in the canonical scriptures.” And Mike McHargue, a self-described Christian mystic and author of Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found it Again Through Science, believes that the rise of AI would draw out the ambiguities in the ways that many Christians have defined terms like “consciousness” and “soul.”
“Those in religious contexts don’t know precisely what a soul is,” McHargue says.
Painting Saint Augustine as some kind of soul skeptic is absurd. And McHargue is wrong. Since Aristotle, we have known what a soul is. And Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived hundreds of years after Augustine, wrote at great length about what the soul is. Only it seems McHargue, and the Atlantic writer, haven’t read Aquinas.
…consider technologies such as in vitro fertilization and genetic cloning. Intelligent life is created by humans in each case, but presumably many Christians would agree that those beings have a soul.” If you have a soul and you create a physical copy of yourself, you assume your physical copy also has a soul,” says McHargue. “But if we learn to digitally encode a human brain, then AI would be a digital version of ourselves. If you create a digital copy, does your digital copy also have a soul?”
This is true. Killing a human life inside a mother, or in a test tube, is killing a being with a soul. The rest is false. We are not our minds; we are not our brains. We are not just our bodies. We are a body plus intellect and will, and we are alive. Making a copy of the brain, presuming such a thing is possible, which now it is not and is now as far from being possible as having Richard Dawkins convert to Catholicism, would not result in a new man. The copy would have no more animation than would a yodeling pickle.
“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” Christopher Benek, an associate pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Florida with degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, told Gizmodo in 2015. “It’s redemption of all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”
Men require redemption because they are born with a broken essence, i.e. soul, that requires fixing. Man also sins, and sins are free acts against God’s law. A machine is not alive, does not have free will, and cannot sin, therefore it is not in need of redemption.
The Christian Bible never anticipates non-human intelligence, much less addresses the questions and concern it creates. It does, however, teach that God has established a special relationship with humans that is unique among all creatures.
False. The Bible has plenty to say about non-human intelligences. Angels we have heard on high, anybody? Has the writer never heard of Satan? What the Bible doesn’t mention, and which nobody knows to be true, is whether other physical-rational beings exist in the universe. And if they did, nobody knows whether they would stand in need of redemption. It is true God has a unique relationship with men, because, at the least, God created men in His image.
Russell Bjork, a professor at the evangelical Gordon College who is cautious about broadening the Christian understanding of personhood to include AI, argues in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, ‘What makes humans special is not what humanity is, but rather it is God’s relationship to us based on his purpose for making us.'”
False. Men are special because of what humanity is, as just discussed.
Kelly, McHargue, and McGrath all are convinced that most traditional theologians today aren’t engaged enough in conversations like this because they’re stuck rehashing old questions instead of focusing on the coming ones. McHargue notes that questions about AI and theology are some of the most common that he receives from listeners of his popular “Ask Science Mike” and “The Liturgist” podcasts. “Any non-biological, non-human intelligence will present a greater challenge to religion and human philosophy than anything else in our entire history combine,” he claims. “Nothing else will raise that level of upheaval, and collective trauma as the moment we first encounter it.”
False. The upheaval of Christ’s crucifixion outweighed any possible press release claiming that a computer has developed free will. Such a release is surely coming. It will be based on some kind of error, like a Turing test (which says nothing about intellects or free will) or whatever, and the only question is how quickly the error will be exposed.
The author of the article in its course was pleased to say, “There are no easy answers for Christians willing to entertain these questions.” We can now see that this is not so. There were plenty of easy answers.