As a second reflection on Artificial Intelligence (AI), I want to reflect on a basic question of philosophy. What is the difference between being and doing? (If you want to revisit my first AI reflection, view my conversation with Dr. Gan from Steubenville by following the hyperlink.)
To avoid boring you with philosophical categories, the “being” question asks what a thing is while the “doing” question reflects on the activities and functions of a thing. A simple example of this – “I am a person ordained a Catholic Priest (being) who celebrates the Sacraments (doing).”
This distinction might seem rather uninspiring on the surface and far removed from a discussion on artificial intelligence. However, when we explore our cultural worldviews and how we approach technology and AI, it becomes clear that this distinction is essential and was at the heart of a couple presentations at the Wonder Conference in Dallas. With that in mind, let’s dig in!
A few weeks back, I teased a joke that asked what would happen if a Dominican and Franciscan sat at a table a with knife between them. I put that out there because, ironically, two of the presentations at Wonder started with the same knife analogy.
Both Fr. Anselm Ramelow (Dominican) and Fr. Joachim Ostermann (Franciscan) stated that when we look at a knife, do we see it as something “neutral” in the created world or as something that has a connection with God’s creation? The trap is to think of a knife as something neutral, “There is a knife, there’s no moral quality to the knife, it’s a tool I can use for good or evil.”
Though there is truth to the neutral understanding of a knife, the Christian view of such things is different. The Christian understanding of the knife should be, “Any tool is a reflection of a human person’s desire to create in imitation of the Creator (God); therefore, there must be an intrinsic good that all created things possess – Even things made by human hands.” Fr. Ramelow then proceeded to discuss how we can approach artificial intelligence from this starting point while Fr. Ostermann presented on how we approach our environment as either gift from God or a neutral thing to use and manipulate. I will offer a reflection on Fr. Ostermann’s presentation in the future. For now, let’s focus on Fr. Ramelow’s reflections on AI.
Fr. Ramelow emphasized that since humans are fundamentally different from plants, animals, technology, machines, etc., we are to live in a spirit of stewardship with the things of creation. With this is mind, we see that God is allowing artificial intelligence for a greater good. As with all things, our free will also allows us to misuse the gifts of creation to dehumanize and harm the created world. Therefore, just as we need to understand the intrinsic good of a knife, so, too, we need to explore the intrinsic good of artificial intelligence.
Some may argue that the Christian view of a knife versus the neutral view is nothing more than a semantics game. Fr. Ramelow would disagree, insisting we need to avoid the neutral approach because it can lead to indifference and avoidance – AI is neutral, so I don’t have to pay attention to it or care about how it’s used. The healthy approach is to engage AI with our faith with our desire to use the things of this world for the good, to build up the human person, and care for the created world.
Now, one could play the cynic and argue this is all well and good, but AI could care less about philosophical and theological categories. The fact that Christian faith will never see AI as being made in God’s image and likeness will mean little to an algorithm, making these distinctions a moot point.
However, Fr. Ramelow made it clear that these philosophical and theological distinctions are important so we can have a healthy understanding of how we relate to AI. If we think of AI as if it were human, our view of our relationship with AI logically takes on a human flavor. As an example of this, Fr. Ramelow stated that in philosophical circles there are four presumptions on where our relationship with AI will lead.
1. AI will become too powerful, so we will destroy it.
2. AI will see us as a threat and destroy us.
3. AI will worship us as its maker.
4. We will worship AI to “keep it happy” so it wont destroy us.
All four of these insights are in error according for Fr. Ramelow. The first two presume a combative relationship with AI akin to human combativeness while the last two are forms of idolatry – deifying either the human person or AI. Even though AI can do human things, it does not mean that AI is human and we should not view our relationship with an algorithm as equivalent to human relationships – both in positive and negative expressions.
There is more I could say, but I found a brief video that Fr. Ramelow made that summarizes the main points of his presentation at Wonder. What do you think? Leave your thoughts down below.
Next time, I’m going to reflect on my different interactions with artificial intelligence. I am very thankful for Fr. Ramelow’s encouragement to engage AI with our faith. As you will see, I have found a lot of potential good ways to engage AI along with ways that are unhealthy. More on that next week.
For today, enjoy this video from Fr. Ramelow. Happy Monday!