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Why ‘AI and Faith’: The Tension Between Materialism and Faith

The Tension Between Materialism and Faith

In his provocative book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity, Byron Reese inadvertently provides answers to a question for which answers are neither easy nor obvious: ‘why AI and faith’? AI resides, after all, (largely) in the realm of science and, more specifically, in the realm of (big) data. It is necessarily about algorithms and logic and rationality. It occupies the other end of the spectrum, seemingly, from faith — from things that are subjective, intangible, and unprovable.

Reese, in fact, highlights these differences. At the core of his book are what he terms “three foundational questions” and their possible answers:

Question 1: What is the composition of the universe?

  • Answer 1a: Atoms, period.

Which means “nothing in the universe happens that cannot ultimately be reduced to physics. Physics sits on top of everything. Physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains life, life explains consciousness.” This is the materialist understanding of life and the universe.

  • Answer 1b: Atoms, plus something else.

The something else might be spiritual stuff, or mental stuff, but there is more to the universe than just the physical. This is dualism, i.e., a non-materialist view of life and the universe.

Question 2: What are humans?

  • Answer 2a: Machines, or put differently, at our essence we are simply self-sustaining chemical reactions.
  • Answer 2b: Animals, i.e., there is something to organic life that is more than electrochemical, some animating and mysterious force that is beyond machines.
  • Answer 2c: Humans, i.e., something distinctly different and beyond both machines and animals. Religious people tend to see the distinctly different thing as the soul, non-religious non-materialists tend to see it as consciousness.

Question 3: What is your “self”?

  • Answer 3a: A clever trick of your brain.
  • Answer 3b: An emergent mind.
  • Answer 3c: Your soul.

Then Reese makes this fascinating observation: he tells us that almost all of the world’s AI practitioners (scientists) are materialists — they believe that the universe is comprised only of atoms, that humans are simply a kind of machine, and that our sense of “self” is, in fact, an illusion — yet Reese also tells us that three quarters of the human population don’t believe any of that. Instead, they are religious non-materialists, i.e., people of faith. They believe the universe is comprised of more than atoms and that humans are decidedly more than machines or animals — most especially because they have an immaterial, eternal soul.

Which means, importantly, that discussions about the ethical development of AI, or that critique AI dangers and abuses, or that point us toward “human-centered” technology, must necessarily include people of faith to have any chance of being appropriately inclusive. To exclude the faith community(ies) would be to exclude a large majority of the world’s population. And would similarly exclude those whose understanding of life is entirely different from that of materialists.

In fact, since the deeper issues raised by AI are precisely about our understandings of life, and what it means to be human, and the nature of consciousness (hence Reese’s three questions), the faith perspective provides a critical, necessary balance to that of materialists — who otherwise dominate (and distort) the AI discussions.

Materialists and Ethics

Reese’s book also makes, obliquely, a second argument for bringing the faith community(ies) into the AI and ethics discussions: materialists are bad at ethics. Why? Because, as Reese puts it, materialists see humans as “nothing more than big walking bags of chemicals and electrical impulses. Despite what your mother told you, there is nothing special about you at all. You are the same basic ‘thing’ as an iPhone, a turnip, or a hurricane.”

Such a view provides little room for ethics. After all, a belief that killing a person is not morally different from smashing a boulder makes a well-developed moral code pretty much impossible.

Moreover, the materialists’ blind spot when it comes to ethics (the possibility of ‘good’ behavior) has an even more serious corollary: materialists tend also to be oblivious to evil. Which goes a long way toward explaining why technologists are so regularly surprised and unprepared when their innovations are employed for harm (Facebook, anyone?).

People of faith have been grappling with the meaning of life (and eternity), with a myriad of ethical issues, and with our temptations toward evil, for thousands of years. They represent, therefore, an invaluable resource for the development of ethical AI.

AI and Faith? Absolutely.

For more on The Fourth Age, read our book review.

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