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Technology and AI in the Life of the Christian

That technology has a fundamental impact on the average American’s life is indisputable.  

From our cell phones to smart watches to ChatGPT, technology and artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere. We’re spending more time consumed with technology and less time personally interacting with other people. One study, for instance, revealed that 68% of teens think devices prevent them from engaging in “real conversations” with others.[1] Advances in AI and transhumanism are leading us to question human identity and humanity’s future. How are we to assess all this from a Christian perspective? Let’s begin by taking a look at AI and its limits and then consider the transhumanist vision and what it means to be human. 

Technology & AI

Technology is, of course, not inherently bad. As with most things, it can be used for good or for evil. We must, therefore, apply wisdom when using technology. This is also true when it comes to AI: “AI is neither an aberration to be abandoned, nor a utopian dream to be pursued at all costs. Rather, like all technology, it is a powerful tool that must be controlled by a shared ethical framework and accurate vision of human value, dignity, and exceptionalism.”[2] 

What exactly is AI? One description is “an emerging field of technology defined as nonbiological intelligence, where a machine is programmed to accomplish complex goals by applying knowledge to the task at hand.”[3] Its presence is pervasive in our culture today, from search platforms to social media feeds to smart-home devices. AI provides valuable assistance in many regards: with digital assistants like Alexa, with medicine (e.g., developing new drugs, the use of robotics in surgical operations, identifying medical issues), and with language translation, to name a few. 

But there are downsides to the prevalence of AI as well: the threat of job losses as machines increasingly replace humans, the dangers surrounding the development of autonomous weapons, and the harvesting of data and decrease in personal and corporate privacy. Another threat to consider is the loss of human dignity, identity, and value. Will AI ever become self-aware, and if so, should it be granted the same rights as humans? Let’s consider. 

AI’s Limits

Advancements in AI are impressive. AI systems are mimicking human characteristics with increasing frequency; however, they don’t possess these inherently. AI systems use natural-language processing and machine-learning algorithms to mimic human qualities. While these continue improving, they won’t lead to self-awareness. Professor of electrical and computer engineering Robert J. Marks explains, “Computers only do what they’re programmed by humans to do, and those programs are all algorithms — step-by-step procedures contributing to the performance of some task…anything non-algorithmic is non-computable and beyond the reach of AI.”[4] AI is only capable of doing what it’s been programmed by people to do.

Although AI seems increasingly human-like, Marks argues, “there are some human characteristics outside the reach of AI.”[5] Such characteristics include sensory perceptions, emotions (e.g, love, compassion, sadness, anger, hope), creativity, sentience, and understanding. Another is “situational awareness” — “the ability to attend to a certain context and respond accordingly. People can read situations, adjust to their errors, and use humor to lighten the tension,” whereas AI can’t.[6] AI mimics and even surpasses human abilities in certain respects, but there are some things beyond the reach of AI. 

Some argue that consciousness will eventually emerge as code becomes more complex. There is indeed consciousness in the mind of the human programmer but, according to Marks  “consciousness does not reside in the code itself, and it doesn’t emerge from the code.”[7] Scientists can’t explain how consciousness originates; rather, it’s a commitment to naturalism — the idea that the physical universe is all there is — that fuels this line of thinking. This reveals another assumption inherent in the notion that AI will eventually become sentient: that the mind can be reduced to the purely physical.[8]

Transhumanism 

This brings us to another related topic: transhumanism —  “a broadly defined intellectual and cultural movement that seeks to transform the human condition through science and technology. Its audacious futuristic plan is for human beings to reach an exponentially greater step in evolutionary development called the ‘posthuman’ state.”[9] The transhumanist vision entails humanity taking control of their own evolution through advancements in technology, forming a “posthuman,” immortal state, culminating in a utopian future free from pain and suffering. 

This vision arises from a naturalistic worldview in which humans are thought to be the chance result of an unguided evolutionary process, and human consciousness is understood in purely physical terms as a byproduct of the brain. Transhumanism serves as a sort of “materialistic eschatology (destiny of humankind),” as biochemist Fazale Rana and philosopher Kenneth Samples put it. “Instead of looking to the cross as the means of our salvation and placing our hope for the future in Christ’s return,” Rana and Samples write, “many people regard science and technology as their savior and humanity’s only hope.”[10] 

But we can see that Christianity shares common ground with transhumanism. We recognize a shared desire for immortality (Eccl. 3:11) and a future free from pain and suffering. In a sense, “transhumanism expresses the fundamental needs of the human heart” and presents us with a unique opportunity to share the gospel.[11] The desire of the transhumanist vision is truly satisfied by the hope that’s found in the gospel. God offers us salvation and everlasting life with him in the new heavens and new earth, where there’ll be no more pain or suffering (Rev. 21:4). Our hope, contrary to transhumanism, is not restricted to the natural world — a fallen, broken world full of people who do wrong (Rom. 3:10-18). More, transhumanism, in contrast to the Christian worldview, fails to deal with our moral failure and won’t be able to attain its utopian vision of the future.

While it offers a bridge to share the gospel, transhumanism has its dangers. Discussions of AI and transhumanism ultimately lead us to the question of who we are as human beings.

What It Means to Be Human

Humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). As such, all humans are inherently valuable, worthy of respect and dignity. Being made in God’s image, humans have characteristics that resemble, although imperfectly, the characteristics of God, and are therefore uniquely distinct from all other creatures. These characteristics consist of intellectual, moral, spiritual, and relational components.[12]

Now, humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects — no less so with AI systems. Rana argues this arises from our “theory-of-mind capacity.” In other words, “As human beings, we recognize that other people have minds just like ours…[and] we anticipate what others are thinking and feeling. But we can’t turn off our theory-of-mind abilities. And as a consequence, we attribute human qualities to animals and machines.”[13] AI systems may seem to be self-aware, but this is largely because we anthropomorphize them. We think and describe such systems in human-like ways and terms. But we should exercise caution, for “Without a robust understanding of the image of God and our true identity found in Christ, we will blur the lines between man and machine in ways that deny our dignity and devalue our neighbor.”[14] People are made in God’s image, technology isn’t. When it comes to transhumanism and upgrading our bodies or creating a “posthuman” state, we’ll need to think carefully and ethically about the consequences. 

Connection

Let’s focus on one aspect of what it means to be human: our relational capacity. While AI tends to be anthropomorphized and chatbots like ChatGPT offer human-like discussions, people were made for true relationship with God and other people (Gen. 2:18). People need community. AI can’t truly satisfy this desire; “silicone and electronics will never fill that hole in our hearts.”[15] 

In a sense, technology can offer more connectivity, yet studies are finding higher perceptions of isolation and lack of personal connection and social engagement. Indeed, Barna research found that “Younger generations see a paradox in which tech simultaneously connects and disconnects them from their peers.” According to the 2020 study, “teens largely prefer in-person to online activities, [yet] they admit to often spending more time in the digital realm than in the real world. While they wish they could engage with the real world, their devices usually win.”[16] Similarly, a worldwide study found that “While young adults feel very in tune with events around the world, they also feel disconnected from the people closest to them. They are craving support and personal relationships.”[17] In a world of increased connectivity through tech and advanced human-like AI, people are experiencing less connection. There’s a felt need for personal connection and relationship with others. 

So, what are we to do? One solution is to have a familial or communal set of disciplines surrounding the use of technology. For instance, make simple changes like planning device-free mealtimes with family or friends, taking Sabbath breaks from tech, or removing devices from bedrooms. Studies reveal that teens largely favor having restrictions set around their technology use.[18] People can set reasonable boundaries around technology and make intentional efforts to stay connected. As one writer admits, “At the end of a long day of skimming online information, it’s not a mindless Netflix binge that I need; it’s reconnection with the real world and real people.”[19] Let’s be intentional about not foregoing meeting together (Heb. 10:25).

Closing Thoughts

The apostle Paul writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead” (2 Tim. 2:8). “This is the key to real hope,” Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox says. “Death is not the end: it is a fact of history that Jesus rose from the dead.”[20] Our future, our eternity is secure because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have no reason to fear whatever the future holds or whatever advancements are made in technology. Remember, you “were ransomed…not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). God saved us — humans — by paying the price for us himself. We’re meant to have friendship with him and with others; technology can’t replace this. AI is impressive, to be sure, but it has its limits. And we find that the transhumanist vision offers us opportunity to share the gospel. Paul doesn’t “urge believers to withdraw from the world but encourages them to live productive lives in society as model citizens and Christian witnesses.”[21] In the same way, we can be wise in our use of technology today, actively engaging in the discussion surrounding AI and transhumanism, acknowledging the benefits of these technologies while thinking carefully about the consequences. 

References

  1. “Technology Promises Connection, but Gen Z Sees a Paradox,” Barna, November 18, 2020, accessed April 29, 2023, https://www.barna.com/research/teens-devices-connection/. 
  2. John Stonestreet and Kasey Leander, “Should AI be Shut Down?,” Breakpoint, April 23, 2023, accessed April 25, 2023, https://breakpoint.org/should-ai-be-shut-down/. 
  3. Jason Thacker, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Thrive, 2020), 23-24.
  4. Robert J. Marks, Non-Computable You: What You Do That Artificial Intelligence Never Will (Seattle: Discovery Institute, 2022), 17-18.
  5. Marks, Non-Computable You, 353.
  6. Peter Biles, “What Can’t A.I. Do? Quite A Lot, Actually,” Mind Matters, February 3, 2023, accessed April 29, 2023, https://mindmatters.ai/2023/02/what-cant-a-i-do-quite-a-lot-actually/.
  7. Marks, Non-Computable You, 21.
  8. For further reading, see J.P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters (Chicago: Moody, 2014).
  9. Fazale Rana with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism (Covina, CA: RTB, 2019), 194.
  10. Rana with Samples, Humans 2.0, 206.
  11. Rana with Samples, Humans 2.0, 221.
  12. There are three views regarding what it means for humanity to be made in the image of God: the resemblance view, the relational view, and the representative view. What’s described here is the resemblance view. According to the relational view, the “image of God” is a title given to humanity because we have a unique relationship with God. In the representative view, humanity has the responsibility of functioning as God’s representatives on Earth and are to serve as stewards and caretakers for creation. These three views aren’t mutually exclusive. Rana with Samples, Humans 2.0, 164.
  13. Fazale Rana, “Does Development of Artificial Intelligence Undermine Human Exceptionalism?” Reasons to Believe, January 17, 2018, accessed April 29, 2023, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/does-development-of-artificial-intelligence-undermine-human-exceptionalism.
  14. Thacker, The Age of AI, 44.
  15. Thacker, The Age of AI, 94.
  16. “Technology Promises Connection.”
  17. “Key Findings,” The Connected Generation, 2020, accessed April 29, 2023, https://theconnectedgeneration.com/key-findings/. 
  18. “Technology Promises Connection.”
  19. Peter Biles, “Awash in a Sea of Digital Information,” Mind Matters, February 8, 2023, accessed April 29, 2023, https://mindmatters.ai/2023/02/drowning-in-a-sea-of-digital-information/. 
  20. John C. Lennox, 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020), 222. Lennox, 2084, 224.

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