What Does Machine Consciousness Mean for Christianity?
This post is the sixth in a series of short introductions to artificial intelligence designed for group discussion in non-technical Christian settings. To follow the series, sign up for our email list, hosted by the Oxford Pastorate.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Romans 10:9–10
Christians take many different views on what it means to be human and how the miracle of grace enters a person’s life. Arguments over the gift of salvation have animated Christians throughout history partly because that gift may be immeasurable.
When we meet someone who claims to be a Christian, we make sense of that claim through our theology and through a person’s confession of faith. We base these beliefs on the idea that other humans share in the image of God. How should we think about claims that AIs might someday achieve consciousness? Could an AI ever worship God or become a Christian?
Optimism about the possibility of AI consciousness depends on someone’s definition of consciousness. Early AI thinker Marvin Minsky took a materialist view, working to discover how the brain works to create machines that think like human minds. Taking another direction, Alan Turing imagined machines that are designed to act like humans, whatever their internal processes of reasoning.
Turing realized that when we accept another person as a human, it takes an act of faith. As C.S. Lewis points out in “The Weight of Glory,” we rarely exercise the faith to acknowledge the fullness of another person’s identity. “You have never talked to a mere mortal,” Lewis reminds us. Sometimes, efforts to differentiate humans from AI can weaken our view of humanity when we create definitions of thinking, emotions, or creativity that exclude other humans.
efforts to differentiate humans from AI can weaken our view of humanity when we create definitions of thinking, emotions, or creativity that exclude other humans
Because neuroscientists are still exploring reliable ways to map and explain the brain’s workings, the idea of an artificial brain remains a dream with unknown potential. In the meantime, most AI research focuses on systems that learn specific tasks and behaviors. Yet beliefs about consciousness and humanity still influence the direction of AI. In the early 1990s, the Christian computer scientist Rosalind Picard noticed that most computer scientists focused on logic and rationality. By designing systems that interpret human emotions, Picard added a new dimension to AI research. Picard’s AIs have already extended the abilities of people on the autism spectrum to detect human emotions in social interactions.
Can an AI worship? On Palm Sunday, Jesus declared that “the very stones would cry out” if people hadn’t praised His arrival in Jerusalem (Luke 19:40). Christians have already automated many acts of worship, from the worship of monks who copy the scriptures to the worship of bell-ringing. AI systems will not be able to mimic human brains anytime soon, but they will continue to automate and integrate with our lives. As we ask questions about AI consciousness, we may come to discover more about ourselves and about our own identity as humans.
- How does thinking about AI help us respect the fullness of each other’s personhood?
- How can technology development be shaped by the full diversity of human experience?
- Where in our lives have automated technologies deepened or extended our worship?
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