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A Bigger Tent: ‘What’s Faith Got to do with It?’

What does artificial intelligence have to with religious faith? Why might those with religious faith have a special interest in AI? I think the most helpful place to begin the explanation is by addressing the common confusion that AI and faith concerns can be reduced to or subsumed by ethical concerns.

This confusion is not surprising. First of all, it is common to frame faith concerns in ethical terms in order to make them more palatable to a secular audience. And to be clear, religious faith and ethics do have important overlap. For one thing, religious faith is sometimes a motivation for ethical reasoning and action. And more substantively, religious faith plays an important role, and arguably even the essential role, in justifying claims of natural equality. Natural equality, unlike equality under the law, is a claim about how we are related to each other by nature, prior to any social intervention. Ethical traditions inspired by Genesis, John Locke, the American Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and MLK Jr, depend on the claim that we are made equal through our createdness. This certainly appears to be nothing other than an ethical claim based on a religious claim.

However, without downplaying the importance of these roles, the majority of ethical values are not essentially religious: respect for autonomy, acknowledgment of the pain of others, equality under the law, prioritizing the cultivation of trust and virtue. The result is that we must admit that while people of faith may feel a special reason to worry about the ethics of AI, the ethics of AI is already a vastly huge literature that would exist without the concerns or additions of faith groups.

But this does not diminish the important potential contributions of faith traditions to AI – and conversely, I would say it underscores the unique contributions that may be provided by faith groups. In the president of Microsoft’s well-known book, Tools and Weapons, Brad Smith issues a call: “Ultimately, a global conversation about ethical principles for artificial intelligence will require an even bigger tent. There will need to be seats at the table not only for technologists, governments, NGOs, and educators, but for philosophers and representatives of the world’s many religions” (208).

The question is, what is the ‘bigger tent’ here? Does he mean that we should include others, such as members of faith groups, to give new perspectives on the same issues? Or does the idea of a bigger tent involve bringing in new voices that will raise new issues?

Without completely excluding the former possibility, I would say that the momentum for a group such as AI & Faith lies in the latter interpretation. That is, people of faith make the tent bigger by expanding the traditional ethical concerns.

Ethics is primarily concerned with harms and benefits to human well-being – what individuals or groups are harmed/benefited, what kinds of harms/benefits, and how to remedy those harms/enhance the benefits.

Religious faith is extremely broad and deep and so it is not possible to specify “what it is about,” but two features of any major religion are both its claims about human nature and about how humans are connected to what it real. And here is the most basic difference – the ethics of AI is concerned with harms and benefits of AI on human well-being, while faith will naturally be concerned with potential impacts of AI on human connection, and human nature. This is not to say that discussions of harms will not overlap discussions of connections and nature – it fact, they inevitably will. And so this is, in fact, a third important way that ethics and faith will overlap. But it will always be important to never let one conversation subsume the other.

And so first of all, faith traditions must be aware of how artificial intelligence could change human connections. The connections we are thinking of can be listed: our connection to God, to others, to the natural world, and even to our own labor. All of these connections are being shaped and influenced by AI.

Secondly, there is now plenty of evidence that AI is having an impact on human consciousness, as well as on our conception of embodied existence, which are both best classified as claims about human nature. This is another way that faith is directly relevant to AI.

But is it truly necessary to drag faith into this? Can’t I be concerned with, for example, my connection to the natural world from a purely secular perspective? The answer is that of course you can, but our richest faith traditions have been exploring human nature and these same human connections for millennia. The connection between us and God is obviously the domain of faith, but any of the connections listed above receive extensive treatment in faith traditions. So while it is possible to continue the quest to understand human connection and human nature in a secular way, to do so without acknowledging the multiple millennia head start that major faith traditions have in thinking about these areas is simply arrogant.

Artificial intelligence and faith must work to understand each other.

Nathan Colaner, Ph.D

is a senior instructor in the Departments of Management and Philosophy at Seattle University, focusing on business ethics with particular research emphasis on big data management and business use of artificial intelligence. He has been instrumental in the formation of the University’s new Center for Science and Innovation.

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