The biblical story of the Fall, when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden for having made the choice (however persuaded) to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, exposed humanity’s innate hunger for knowledge. Since then humans have been on an insatiable journey to know it all. Given that the source of wisdom existed in Paradise, it is clear that knowledge is not in itself inherently good or bad, but the faults are revealed in its pursuit. The steps one takes in attaining information, the choices one makes on the way, the decisions as to how one uses the power of that expanded intelligence, and the responsibility one has for the stewardship of that information are subject to (moral if not also divine) judgment.
In the 1656 years between the Fall to the Flood, knowledge rapidly increased and eventually technology emerged. The more one learned, the more one was able to do, and the more one was able to build on that learning. Thus, one pursued learning in order to accomplish – and know – that much more. In that timeframe, while not perhaps at the speed of Moore’s law, but quickly, humans “built cities, cattle ranches, composed and played music, and discovered metallurgy, including how to make alloys such as brass.”. The development of these capabilities, and the increase in knowledge, allowed humans to broaden their skills significantly- for purposes either noble or ignoble. In fact, as the human population increased, the evidence of both good and evil outcomes grew correspondingly. Humans crafted tools of metal for use in farming but also for weapons. The creative art of lying, cheating, and stealing was also perfected. In choosing for themselves, humanity bore on itself the responsibility and the consequences of their actions and their creation.
The biblical account of the great Flood describes the destruction of the earth as the ultimate consequence of humanity’s unbridled activity. In their attempt to know more, do more, and have more, humans disregarded the impact of their actions on each other and on the world around them. God’s choice to destroy the earth and those in it was a result of human “wickedness and sin.” While not explained in detail, the activities in which humanity was engaging were a far cry from the self-sufficient paradise God had intended for them. Instead, from the first transgression, i.e., from the very moment that man and woman reached for more, humans took control of their own lives, created their own universe, and advanced to cross transhuman boundaries even as they gave their daughters to the “sons of God” in marriage. And the world around them collapsed.
Clearly, the human desire not just to achieve but to conquer limitations is woven into the human soul. When God said, “let us make humanity in our own image,” placing human beings in the world to rule over, order, classify, develop, and unfold the potential which we have been given, “God set human beings as rulers over the earth so that we could be cultivators and stewards of creation.” Not having learned the lessons of the long-lost inundated generations, humanity continued to reach for more. Just a few years later, humans said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” Once again, humanity advanced in technology. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” In the evolution of human capacity and innovation, the natural and voracious drive to achieve continued to outpace humanity’s equally essential obligation for stewardship and responsibility.
Consider more recent advancements. Since the creation of the first robot, commonly understood to be Leonard da Vinci’s mechanical knight, inventors across the globe have worked to design automata for both practical function and entertainment. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century served to accelerate mechanical and automotive development as new machinery increased the speed of manufacturing and the quality of production. New advances in transportation and communication evolved at exponential rates. The impacts on human society were significant, allowing for better standards of living and increased opportunities for employment. But these innovations were not without their unfavorable, even devastating, effects. Industry brought people into the cities to find jobs, which led to an urban tsunami, flooding towns with both people and the resultant sewage, sanitation, and health issues. Outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus were all consequences of the sudden opportunities never before available. The rest of creation was equally doomed as urbanization hastened environmental pollution, the destruction of forests, and the extinction of many varieties of animals and plants.
Now, often considered the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the more recent advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and transhumanism, are poised to follow the same fated path.
represents a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technology advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. These advances are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.
New knowledge, artificial or otherwise, as already stated, is not in itself good or bad, but, as from the beginning, its pursuit must answer to a strict standard of purpose, subject itself to reasonable restriction, and reveal its ultimate value. If AI, for example, for all its exceptional contributions to health care, safety, and information, is allowed to advance to the point where it escapes human jurisdiction, or humanity, in its predilection toward automation bias, turns all decisions over to computers, in other words, if humans fail to steward their own insatiable hunger for knowledge and allow AI to move forward without constraint (moral or ethical), then the outcome imperils the very thing humans are singularly capable of and responsible for – safeguarding the welfare of creation. The flood waters are already rising. The speed of technological advances and machine learning, i.e., the built-in algorithms that enable machines to use past experience to improve the execution of their tasks, and the risks already being taken by marrying human endeavor with transhuman powers portend a flood of unanticipated consequences with irretrievable effect.
The lessons history has provided from the very beginning of creation are even more critical today. The human appetite for knowledge, without equal regard to the possibility of good and evil outcomes, combined with humanity’s tenacity to reach beyond human boundaries, has proven to be destructive and permanent. Perhaps the pursuit worth taking with even more vigor is for the knowledge of decency and righteousness. Noah and his family were spared the flood because they “found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” The Fall included Noah in its embrace, so he was not without blame, but he acknowledged that there was a larger narrative of which he was not just a part, but a vital contributor. And it was because of this, creation was redeemed.
Humanity, despite its innate predilection for self-augmentation, its insatiable appetite for more information and more capability, and its myopic ambition, ought to yield itself to a more noble purpose: to use that energy and drive to participate in the preservation and stewardship of the divine creation. Indeed, when humanity was given dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the animals of the land, there was command given only to humans, who were to be the stewards of these resources as an equal partner with the Creator himself. Herein do we find grace. The thirst for knowledge has been given to stimulate humanity’s resourcefulness in this very endeavor. Equally, humanity, unlike any other creature, is endowed with the capacity for virtue designed to enable each person to participate in the divine purpose for creation. Failure to do so risks an inundation of unimagined and devastating consequences. The redemption of this world is, once again, subject to our choice.
Margaret Grun Kibben, DMin
Rear Admiral (retired), U.S. Navy
Owner, Virtue in Practice, LLC