Artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and rival salvations

Watching a seated cat ride across the living room carpet on top of a Roomba is cute because the cat is cute; not because the vacuum cleaner is intelligent. Much of what we call artificial intelligence (AI) or machine intelligence is so common that it prompts at best only a yawn. “Ain’t that right, Alexa?”

Da Vinci surgical robots daily save lives from prostate cancer. IBM’s TV quiz show winner, Watson, can now be rented to speed up business transactions and to add delight to Fantasy Football.

Pre-schoolers integrate their very thought processes with Mindcraft’s Sandbox Video Game. AI is by no means alien, strange, or even new anymore.

Techies around the water cooler at Google and Microsoft talk constantly about the ethics of AI. Whew! Glad someone is concerned about the ethics of technology.

But, what about the distinctive theological issues?

AI prompts questions. If AI is actually intelligent does it have a self? Or, even a soul? Should we baptize intelligent robots?

Will advancing technology make God obsolete?

And, what about the promise made by transhumanists that we can upload our minds into the computer cloud and enjoy cybernetic immortality? Would digital salvation replace the biblical promise of salvation by grace? With technology can we get along without God, or actually turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus?

“Do our technologies threaten religion itself?” asks theologian and computer scientist Noreen Herzfeld. “We used to believe in the power of God. Have we replaced that belief with a belief in the power of our own technologies?” Does transhumanism count as a new religious movement replete with an alternative soteriology?

Is Artificial Intelligence really intelligent?

Before we turn to the theological issues, the first thing to note is that artificial intelligence isn’t. That’s right. Despite the advertising value of the word ‘intelligence,’ smart machines have not to date been developed that warrant this label. No lab has manufactured artificial general intelligence (AGI). Oh, yes, computers can calculate at breathtaking speed. But, in the end, a computer is just a bucket of code. It does not have a self. It does not possess a soul. There’s nobody home. And any attempt at baptizing one might lead to a shorted circuit.

This implies that our cell phone or laptop is not likely to attain personhood with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

But, then, what about the extravagant promises touted by the transhumanists? The transhumanists assume that our human mind is like software, lodged in our body as the hardware. This means, we could live in our minds without our bodies. In principle, we could upload our minds into the computer cloud and retain all our knowledge, wisdom, and selfhood. We could live everlastingly in digital form. Unless, of course, someone accidently unplugs our CPU.

When philosopher René Descartes suggested something like this three centuries ago, it looked like our souls could be extracted from our bodies and we could then live on in disembodied form. I call this extraction a soulechtomy. Is this good theology?

Can we extract our intelligence from our body?

Human intelligence, curiously, seems so fully integrated into our physical bodies that it’s difficult to conceive of a disembodied mind. Our spiritual tradition, of course, has long pitted the spirit against the flesh. But this strife between spirit and flesh is a moral strife. Not an ontology.

So, this tradition might mislead us if we think we could possibly exist asarkos, apart from the body that we are. For this reason, Christians have frequently rejected the idea of a soulechtomy, an extraction of the soul from the body to live in a bodiless heaven. Rather, Christians have emphasized that salvation includes resurrection of the body. We look forward to an eschatological resurrection into a transformed world, into the new creation. This notion of resurrection suggests two things: first, that our intelligent minds are integrated into our physical make-up and, second, that it is the whole person — body, soul, spirit — that is subject to redemption.

AI and IA: utopia or extinction?

The transhumanist vision of the future gives us mixed messages: both utopia and extinction. On the one hand, utopia. Transhumanists invite us to increase our intelligence through intelligence amplification (IA or deep brain computer chip implants) en route to uploading our minds into the computer cloud. Digital consciousness would be everlasting, eternal.

On the other hand, extinction. H+ or Humanity Plus strives to render the present human species extinct and replace it with a posthuman superintelligence. Transhumanists press their science and technology toward evolving ever higher and higher superintelligence. Finally, this evolution will lead to a posthuman species. Our species will go extinct. The new superintelligent species will take over. We Homo sapiens will have sacrificed ourselves for our evolutionary children. Is this laudable?

In Berkeley, some scholars are huddling in a corner to test the compatibility or incompatibility of transhumanist claims with Christian thinking about divine grace and the promise of redemption. Our group: Theologians Testing Transhumanism. We are still scratching our heads and wondering.

The Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA), in contrast, is ready to make a commitment. CTA invites science and faith to work together to create a radically better future. Reformed theologian Ronald Cole-Turner operates a website, Theology Plus, with the byline: “Theology Engaging Science and Technology.” Despite the apparent threat of AI and the rival soteriology proffered by transhumanism, some Christians are seeking partnership and cooperation between faith and the advancing technologies.

Conclusion

Where do the categories of non-human intelligence and posthuman superintelligence fit in the Christian conceptual framework? How about anti-anthropocentrism? Anti-anthropocentrism seems to be the theological rage these days in eco-theology and eco-ethics. Might anti-anthropocentrism apply here too? Shall we treat AI robots with the same level of dignity we ascribe to other animals and the biosphere? Shall we sacrifice Homo sapiens in order to treat with dignity a posthuman successor species? This is not the path I wish to follow.

It is my recommendation that we should enjoy the gadgets but remain wary of the promise of salvation through technology. Like every other human enterprise, the impact of advancing technology will be ambiguous. AI is already being developed by the world’s militaries for surveillance, drone bombing, and killer robots. No technology has the power to overcome human sin. If anything, AI in the hands of drug cartels, terrorists, and governments should give us nightmares.

I’m certainly glad to hear that those computer techies around the water cooler are concerned about ethics.

Ted Peters

Ted Peters is a pastor in the ELCA and Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. He is author of God – The World’s Future (Fortress, 3rd ed., 2015) and editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF Press, 2019). More of Peter’s work can be found on his website, TedsTimelyTake.com.

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