Re-membering the personhood of god in the age of Artificial intelligence
Dr. Christina Bieber Lake
Professor of English
Like it or not, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to stay. So are its inevitable metaphysical questions such as, “what is the difference between someone and something?” Consequently, there has never been a more important time for the Church to emphasize the personhood of a God who creates persons. Persons were not created in the image of an idea or a brain. Paul tells us instead that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God, and that all things—including persons—were created through him and for him. What does that mean in the age of AI?
First, it means that Antonio Damasio’s account of the emergence of the self—what philosophers call robust first-person consciousness—is dangerously misleading.
Countless creatures for millions of years have had active minds happening in their brains, but only after those brains developed a protagonist capable of bearing witness did consciousness begin. . . Understanding how the brain produces that something extra, the protagonist we carry around and call self, or me, or I, is an important goal of the neurobiology of consciousness.1
This is neurocentrism: the increasingly prevalent idea that the self is a brain because it was produced by the brain. But Paul’s account defies neurocentrism. All persons have been created as a unity of body and soul, born, not just made, because Jesus was begotten, not made. Jesus is the firstborn (prototokos) of creation and the firstborn from the dead. Theologians have long struggled with prototokos here because of the need to emphasize that Jesus was not created. But in our age of neurocentrism, “firstborn” insists that a birthed body, not a manufactured brain, is a mysterious part of the package. Jesus’s birth proves that our embodied personhood is fundamental to who we are—and that our embodied personhood is fundamentally glorious.
Being born with a human body is no small thing. At the heart of the gnostic heresy lies the idea that embodiment necessarily degrades spirituality. Technognosticism inculcates the same contempt. But birth, the Incarnation insists, is an irreducible part of human experience, which means we must ask what fleshy bodies give us that is so important. Part of the answer is emotion. Ironically, Damasio admits that emotions start in the body, but then seems to forget what that means when he insists on the brain’s supposed power to produce the self. That emotions begin in the body means that only embodied creatures can be considered to have emotions. Although AI can be considered to think, it cannot be considered to feel anything. If it cannot feel anything, it cannot reasonably be said to desire or love anything, either.
This is where our science fiction has misled us. In warning against scientific hubris, science-fiction writers have been too quick to grant AI a full range of human emotions and desires—usually self-serving, malicious ones. In 2001: a Space Odyssey, Hal becomes enraged and murderous; in Ex Machina, Ava feels trapped and wants to escape. But this behavior makes no sense, because such motivation makes no sense without emotion. Why should a machine feel lack or restlessness? Why should a machine desire anything at all? There is no answer to this question because the universe was created by a personal God who delights in beings of all kinds, not by an idea. Persons were created by a suffering Savior out of love, not by the accidental arrangement of molecules.
The fact that Western culture seems bent on flattening the glorious possibilities of the image-bearing human person into an accidental product of the brain would be funny if it weren’t so terrifying. The terror comes directly from the ramifications of depersonalization. If personhood is defined by intelligence and information patterns instead of divinely-gifted birth into a human family, there is no reason to protect any particular person at all. What we do to the least of those among us—actions that Christ declared we do to him—will be of no significance. A culture without a reason to dignify all persons will become, inevitably, a culture of death.
For more on this topic, see Christina Bieber Lake’s Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of PersonhoodProphets of the Posthuman
Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Vintage, 2012), 17.