Tag Archives: Augustine of Hippo

AI and Religion

March 2018 Pulse

Reader’s Question: How would you envision pastoral ministry in an age of robots with Artificial Intelligence.

I would like to broaden the question by examining some of the ways in which AI could impact religion, and the issues and questions this might raise.

In September 2017, The Guardian reported that Anthony Levandowski, the engineer in Silicon Valley behind Google’s Waymo, has founded a new techno-religious pseudo-cult called ‘Way of the Future’, dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence.

According to some sources, the mission of this ‘church’ is ‘to develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society’. In his apocalyptic vision of AI, the autonomous cars guru does not only envision that AI will bring improvements to human lives but that it will one day demand our worship when it acquires ‘godlike’ qualities (e.g., omniscience).

There is little doubt that AI would become more and more ubiquitous in our world as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a neologism coined by Klaus Schwab – marches relentlessly on. From mobile supercomputing to intelligent robots to autonomous weapons, AI is set to impact society in many and varied ways.

Scholars maintain that there are two types of AI. What is mostly used today is narrow or weak AI, designed to perform specific tasks such as internet searches or driving a car. But many researchers hope to create general or strong AI that has the capacity to outperform humans in every single cognitive task – although some have questioned if this is in fact possible.

Authors like Russell Bjork have argued that creating machines with strong AI can potentially have an idolatrous outcome as they might usurp the place of God himself. In her article entitled, ‘Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God’ Noreen Herzfeld perceptively points out that ‘If we hope to find in AI that other with whom we can share our being and responsibilities, then we will have created a stand-in for God in our own image’.

Thus, we enter into a dangerous and dehumanising bind: we create machines with superior intelligence and then worship them as our new gods, thereby becoming enslaved by the very things we have fashioned in our own image.

Writers like Cody Volkers have compared this desire to develop strong AI with the creation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). But this attempt, Volker rightly asserts, will only end in failure and judgement.

‘When humanity grasps for God-like status’, Volker writes, ‘it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure – and judgement’.

Another side to this debate about the impact on AI on religion has to do with the possibility of creating robots in the future that display such intelligence and humanlike emotions that they are even regarded as sentient entities.

Robots with weak AI are already in high demand. For example, in 2014 a Japanese company created a companion robot called ‘Pepper’, equipped with weak AI. Pepper went on sale in 2015, and it was reported that within one minute, the initial 1,000 units were sold out.

Companion robots and robots that are designed to take care of the elderly have sparked a discussion in some circles about whether one could envision a day when intelligent robots would replace pastors. Some scientists debate the possibility of not just programming a robot with general rules of ethics, but with specific Christian values as well.

Rev Christopher J. Benek, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association believe that a robot with ‘the passion of a Billy Graham and the justice implications of a Martin Luther King and the theological consideration of an Augustine’ would gain a large following.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Benek mooted the idea of robot preachers that could ‘use the inflection and verbal prowess of a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther King and the compassion of Mother Teresa’. ‘That would allow people’s needs to be met because a lot of times we pastors can’t do that’, he adds.

This discussion brings us to the question of what constitutes personhood. Can a robot with super intelligence and that is able to display humanlike emotions be said to be a person? Or, to put the same question differently, can we say that such robots have souls?

Philosophers who argue that personhood may be said to be present when a set of qualities or capabilities – e.g., reason and emotion – are evident would be inclined to believe that machines displaying them can be said to be persons or possessing personhood.

This view, however, is mistaken. In the first place, intelligent autonomous robots that display human traits are in essence only machines that are programmed in this way.

It would therefore be a mistake to conclude that such a robot could be the bearer of the image of God. Only human beings are created by God to be the kind of creatures that by divine grace can reflect their Creator. Only human beings are created with the capacity to be in fellowship with their Creator and with each other.

Thus, a robot with super intelligence that displays human emotions can utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer (perhaps in 50 languages!), but it cannot pray.

In similar vein, the robot that appears to be able to provide sensitive ‘pastoral’ counsel is in fact unable to establish a real relationship with his counselee, since social robots do not experience emotions (the ‘emotions’ it displays are merely simulacrum of human emotions, not the real thing). And according to John Redstone, the empathy that people have with social robots is nothing but a perceptual illusion.

Put differently, the relationship between a human being and a super-intelligent and autonomous robot will always be an I-It relationship. It can never be an I-Thou relationship.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Good Life

February 2018 Pulse 

I think it is true to say that every single human being – irrespective of his or her cultural background or worldview – is in pursuit of the good life. But when we probe what exactly is meant by ‘the good life’, we will get radically different answers.

For people who have been nurtured by a culture that has come in the grips of secularism and materialism, the good life is often defined in terms of affluence and prosperity. Put differently, the good life is viewed in terms of enjoying and benefitting from the best goods that modern society can offer.

Eschewing religion, modern secularists and humanists further insist that the good life is not the gift of a benevolent deity, but something which human beings have the power to achieve.

Commenting on the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, B. Ledewitz writes in his book Hallowed Secularism: ‘Traditional religion is seen as no longer adequate for that task but that is because the manifesto sees man as himself responsible for the achievement of the good life, which he has the power to accomplish’.

Ancient philosophers like Aristotle have perceptively pointed out that although people generally spend much time and energy pursuing wealth, success and power, these are ultimately not really the things that they want for themselves.

They strive to acquire these things only because they will give them something that they really want. And this ‘something’, this ultimate good, according to these ancient thinkers is happiness.

The happiness (Greek: eudemonia) that Aristotle – and before him Plato and Socrates – speaks of is not the fleeting and momentary feeling of pleasure that we moderns often associate with the word. Rather, it is a state of being that is at once rich and long lasting.

For Aristotle, such happiness can only be achieved by strenuous and even courageous effort. For some, it will take an entire lifetime. But as Aristotle was well aware, for many it is a goal that will remain distant, for some people are simply not suited to experience happiness in the full sense.

Although the great Christian writer, Augustine, who lived many centuries after Aristotle appreciated the philosopher’s understanding of the good life, his approach differed significantly. This is because Augustine’s vision of the good life was shaped by what the Bible and the Christian tradition have to say about God and our relationship with him.

In fact Augustine goes so far as to argue that no one is able to achieve the good life simply by striving after the goals set by pagan philosophers such as Aristotle. This not only shows the fundamental differences between Augustine’s understanding and approach from that of Aristotle. It also highlights the fact that for the theologian, Aristotle’s approach is ultimately inadequate because it fails to put into the equation an indispensable factor.

That factor is God. For Augustine, the good life is not focused on our aspirations and dreams. Rather it has to do with God and his purpose for our lives. Put differently, while Aristotle’s approach to the good life may be described as anthropocentric, Augustine’s approach is uncompromisingly theocentric.

For Aristotle, the good life is attained bit by bit, piece by piece as we negotiate not just our changing circumstances but also our desires and aspirations. For Augustine, however, the good life has to do foremost with our relationship with God. The good life is only possible and can only be sustained as long as rational creatures continue in this vital relationship.

This means that all our other loves must be understood in light of our prior and complete love for God. This means that our greater love for God must define and determine all our other loves. Our relationships must be disciplined and ordered by our relationship with God.

Augustine warns that even good and noble things can distract us from loving God. Furthermore, for Christians even the virtues that the ancient philosophers (before Augustine) valorise must not be understood in abstraction from our love for God.

‘Temperance is love preserving itself whole and entire for God. Fortitude (courage) is love readily enduring all things for God. Justice is love that serves only God and, for this reason, correctly governs other things that ate subject to a human being’, writes Augustine.

This brings us to the radicalness of the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life. Because Christian happiness is not based on our circumstances and achievements but on faith in God, it is not easily affected by the storms of life.

The Christian can ‘rejoice in the Lord, always’ (Philiphians 4:4). He or she can ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The radicalness of the Christian understanding is again presented in the provocative and counterintuitive statements of Jesus in the famous Beatitudes. Here, Jesus turns our understanding of happiness on its head when he declares that the meek, the merciful, the persecuted will be blessed or happy (Greek: makarios).

The good life, the life of blessedness and happiness, has to do not with the goods and comforts we can enjoy. Rather it has to do with the extent to which we, like Jesus, are willing to do the will of God our Father.

Such obedience to God often translates into serving our neighbours, especially those in need. Thus, the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life is never inward looking and self-serving. Rather a good life is lived with due consideration to the well being of others around us.

This is articulated simply and movingly in a second century document, the Epistle to Diognetus:

But happiness is not to be found in dominating one’s fellows, or in wanting to have more than his weaker brethren, or in possessing riches and riding rough-shod over his inferiors. No one can become an imitator of God like that, for such things are wholly alien to his greatness. But if a man will shoulder another’s burden; if he is ready to supply another’s need from his own abundance; if, by sharing the blessings he has received from God with those who are in want, he himself becomes a good to those who receive his bounty – such a man is indeed an imitator of God.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.