Late Antiquity Christian Insights for AI: an anthropological approach (Part 1)

The contrast in the title above between the 4th century of the Roman Empire and the AI debates in our 21st century is highlighted on purpose. This article addresses atemporal and universal topics, with which humans are engaged throughout history in all cultures, such as human nature, mind, soul, body, consciousness, happiness, meaning of life, faith, spirituality, God, afterlife, etc.  Technological disruptions are always moments when these questions become even more significant as they challenge the status quo of the societal organization and determine a change in values, attitudes and behaviors at a large scale.

While these topics are usually analyzed within specific cultural and socio-historical contexts, they also resonate across the centuries, offering new understandings at each stage of human development.  AI and Faith, of which I am a Founding Member, asserts that ancient wisdom in the form of the world’s major religions, has an important role to play in the current debate over the adoption of technology deploying artificial intelligence.  As a scholar trained in economics and theology, and a lover of the work of the early Church Fathers of the 4th Century, I wholeheartedly agree.

I seek in this article to make that case based on the theological study of Patristics, the branch of Christian theology that deals with the lives, writings, and doctrines of the early Christian theologians.  This article builds a bridge between the patristic literature from the 4th century AD and today’s questioning of AI and society, and more specifically, on AI and faith.  I contend that human nature is at the center of AI ethics and want to explore the impact of AI[1] on human society through an anthropological perspective as developed by patristic scholars.  This article is the first installment of a projected three parts.

 

1) Faith should be a crucial determinant in adopting AI

As a matter of fact, people of faith as well as religious institutions today are facing new ethical and religious questions as a result of the generalized introduction of AI in all sectors of activity and all spheres of life, work, family, health, etc. People of faith and religious institutions are looking for answers to unprecedented questions of how AI is impacting their faith and whether and how it is possible to align AI with their beliefs and values. The extent to which people of faith adopt AI-powered technologies ought to be determined by the way in which they, working in a multidisciplinary fashion with theologians and technologists,  answer these questions. From this point of view, neither the field of AI nor the faiths have easy and simple answers.  The debate is wide open.  This paper is part of a phenomenon I call “The Agora of Faith and AI”.

 

2) Patristics is directly relevant to the AI Ethics Debate

I seek in this article to offer insights from the “golden age” of Christianity, more specifically from the Late Antiquity period when Christian faith started to crystallize its main values and beliefs and significantly impacted the life of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire[2].  There are two reasons why I believe Patristics is called to play a significant role in the way Christianity relates to AI.

First, Late Antiquity  is called the “golden age” of Christianity because of the excellence and the richness of theological contributions made by the early Church Fathers, who were among the most respected intellectuals of their time. They provided a deep, complex, and yet clear understanding of Christian faith not only for their contemporaries but for the whole of Christianity throughout the centuries.  By combining biblical hermeneutics, Greek philosophy, and holy life, the early Church Fathers addressed difficult theological and societal questions that can inspire today’s debate on how AI is transforming our societies. I believe patristics is the “gold standard” of Christian theology, and it provides a vital reference in time and space that can help move Christian thinking on AI forward.

Second,  Patristics should  play a significant role in  questioning the role of AI in society because  of its ability to use a sophisticated philosophical vocabulary to express Christian positions. We are used to thinking that early Christians knew the texts of the Bible and were accustomed to draw upon these sacred texts when facing a dilemma related to faith. The reality was completely different. The canon of the Bible was finalized only by the end of the 4th century and major theological questions were controversial and debated during the ecumenical councils (the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the divine and human nature of Christ, etc.). The majority of educated Christians followed a classical Greek education on philosophy, mainly Stoicism, the art of rhetoric, the diatribe, etc. The background of educated Christians from the 4th century looked much more like the life  of a graduate from an Ivy League university today  than that of a graduate student from a theological seminary. The Christian audience in Antioch (present day southeast of Turkey) or Constantinople (present day Istanbul), just to take the example of Saint John Chrysostom, wanted to understand Christian faith. They were trained in Greek philosophy, in using reason, logic and arguments to demonstrate and/or adhere to a point of view, but they lacked access that we have today to religious texts and to many other tools to read and interpret them.

In one sense, the preacher from the 4th Century had a much more difficult task than those of our digital era, because through his own words, he had to in effect supply the religious texts and interpretive tools.  In the 4th Century , the erudition and expertise of the preacher was determinant in providing an oral theology.

But in another sense, the 4th century preacher’s role is increasingly like that of a theologian today addressing creators of technology.  He had to use the educational and philosophical background of his audience to introduce Christian faith beliefs and values in a social and historical context that was not necessarily Christian and not always open to Christian faith. Such is the culture in much of the technology world today as well.  Thus, patristic writings are well positioned to inspire the debates Christians and non-Christians have on AI and its impact.

 

3) A common anthropological approach

Patristics and AI have a common focus: the human being and her betterment. The specific debates of early Christian faith over the divinity and humanity of Christ as well as the Theology of Incarnation and the Theology of Theosis developed by the early Church Fathers brought this anthropological approach to their understanding and interpretation of early church texts. Likewise, the primary concern of the AI Ethics debate is whether it will benefit human flourishing or lead to destruction.   Hence, drawing on ancient texts to inspire the debates surrounding AI in society is not only valuable but could open new avenues of thought and propose original solutions to ethical dilemmas surrounding AI.

Moreover, the patristic literature was composed by the best intellectuals of that time in the Roman Empire. They excelled in  classical Greek philosophy, rhetoric,  diatribe, etc. and they were at the heart of political, economic and social life of their time.  This  makes their writings a firsthand source of information and a worthy partner of dialogue for any intellectual from the 21st Century.

 

Next Up

In Part 2, I will offer a method by which patristic texts can inspire debates on AI and its impact on the human being at individual and societal level.   In so doing,  I  would like to introduce you to the writings of Saint John Chrysostom (IVth century, Antioch and Constantinople). He was the last great rhetor of the ancient world, the Golden Mouth whose work represents the richest collection of manuscripts and translations we inherited from Early Christianity.

Saint John Chrysostom ‘s influence was not only geographically broad, his writings were very quickly  translated into numerous languages far beyond Antioch and Constantinople.  He was highly influential in his own time but his work also has continued  to impact Christian theology for more than 1,600 years. More recently, the influence of his work has moved beyond theology and into new fields such psychology, social psychology, cognitive sciences, economics, management, etc.[3]

I don’t know what voices from our current day debate on human nature and AI will still be listened to in the next 1,600 years, but John Chrysostom is a safe bet from this point of view. Hence, inviting him to the AI round table can only benefit the actual discussions on AI Ethics, AI Regulation, AI Societal Impact, AI Labor, AI Health, etc. Part 2 will address such issues as the composition of  human nature, the mind, soul and body, the role of the nous ( gr.) in discernment, what is consciousness, singularity, identity, human flourishing, the meaning of work, etc. All these aspects are central questions to the AI Ethics community, and  ones in which I hope to show the anthropological analysis I propose, based on the scholars from Late Antiquity, could inspire and guide actual debates on the role these new technologies should play in society.

 

[1]  While it is difficult to define AI, here are some very good resources among many others : AI-Definitions-HAI.pdf (stanford.edu), Defining AI | One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) (stanford.edu). For events on AI, among the best ones are: NeurIPS: Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, AI World Congress 2020, The AI Summit, the IEEE Conference, to name only a few.

[2] See Peter Brown’s fundamental contribution to the field. Peter Brown | Department of History (princeton.edu) and some of his books: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967/2000) , The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (1971/1989), The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (1981), Society & the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982), The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988), Power and Persuasion: Towards a Christian Empire (1992), Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman world (1995), The Rise of Western Christendom (1996/2003), Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2002), Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West 350–550 AD (2012), The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (2015), Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity (2016).

[3]  For works on John Chrysostom see Wendy Mayer and Chris de Wet (eds), Revisioning John Chrysostom: New Approaches New Perspectives, Leiden: Brill, 2019, and Doru Costache and Mario Baghos (eds), John Chrysostom: Past, Present, Future, AIOCS Press, 2017. 6 Markus Vinzent (ed.) and Yannis Papadogiannakis (ed.), Emotions, SP, vol. 83-9, 2017, Nicoleta Acatrinei, 2008, “Saint Jean Chrysostom and Homo Oeconomicus”, Orthodox Research Institute, USA, Nicoleta Acatrinei, 2017, “Perspective of Saint John Chrysostom for the VUCA world. An Integrative Mindfulness Program to cope with the managerial challenges in a VUCA world. ”, in Managing VUCA Through Integrative Self-Management (pp.27-43), Springer, Management for Professionals, Editors: Sharda S. Nandram and Puneet K. Bindlish. DOI:10.1007/978-3-319-52231-9_3.

For conferences and state of the research on Saint John Chrysostom see :
1) for resources in French, see the research group lead by Prof. Guillaume Bady, Director Sources Chrétiennes, University of Lyon.
2) for resources in English, see Prof. Markus Vinzent, King’s College London, one of the Directors of the International Conference on Patristic Studies, University of Oxford, Editor of Studia Patrisica.
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