Probably one of the funniest episodes of The Big Bang Theory (available for streaming on Max) is when Sheldon Cooper, who desires to live long enough to transfer his consciousness into a robot body, decides to model that through living in a computer screen.1The Big Bang Theory. “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification.” CBS. September 30, 2010. While the episode plays with the concept of humans transferring their consciousnesses into robots, one should not be too quick to dismiss the possibilities of human evolution, or the potential to do so.
One of the burgeoning, if not overflowing, conversations within society today is the development and merits of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence, as defined by John McCarthy, is “that every aspect of learning or any other future of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”2John McCarthy, M.L. Linsky, N. Rochester, and C.E. Shannon, “A Proposal for the Dartmouth Summer Research Project of Artificial Intelligence,” Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth, 2. McCarthy is called the “father of artificial intelligence,” and his research laid the foundation for the eventual fieldwork in artificial intelligence.3Jason Thacker, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020, 28-29.
As artificial intelligence continues to gain notoriety in different parts of society, several questions have been raised within and without the church. Will AI affect my business?4Shorthand of artificial intelligence. I will use both interchangeably. Will AI affect worker production? How will AI affect worship services? Does AI alter my role as an image-bearing child of God? This last question will serve as the driving force behind this article, along with, “How does artificial intelligence affect our purpose as humans continue unpacking their role in God’s expansive creation?” My conversation partners through this essay will be Jason Thacker (Southern Baptist), Rowan Williams (Anglican), Philip Hefner, and Ted Peters (Lutherans), as they have examined the questions previously and provide contemporary responses to the issue at hand. I am a Lutheran by nature and scholarship, though I have grown to appreciate how different traditions have approached these issues. My prayer is that these conversations continue to yield good fruit.
What makes one human?
One of the hallmark questions pertaining to anthropology (the study of humans) is what constitutes a human. Most academic disciplines agree that humans have some form of body, mind, and soul, one of the points of the departure is the interaction between the three parts which will be explored later.
The first place that I would turn to begin the conversation would be the Bible. The often-cited passages for discussing humanity are the first two creation stories: Genesis 1 and 2.5For more information on Genesis 1-2, see Gordon J. Wenham Genesis 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987); J. Richard Middleton “The Liberating Image: Interpreting the Imago Dei in context?” (Conference: “Sovereignty at the Crossroads? International Morality and the Search for a New World Order. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Calvin University, 1994), 8-25. Genesis 1 opens with God creating an ordered universe with corresponding events: Days 1 and 4, Days 2 and 5, Days 3 and 6. The climax of day 6 is the creation of humanity (אדמ adam in Hebrew) made in the image of God. Philip Hefner presents the model of a “created co-creator,”6Philip Hefner, “The Human Being,” The Creation, cited in Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984), 325-327. from the Genesis narrative. As humanity is the climax of God’s very good creation, humanity is then gifted with the capacity to create as well, though ultimately, the creation is God’s. The relationship to AI and the imago Dei is that AI is perceived as an extension of human evolution (see below), and AI is a creation of humanity, or wired in a way that the evolution processes occur on their own. If we stick to Hefner’s definition of created co-creator, then one could draw a connection between humanity in the image of God, and therefore, AI as well. That does not entirely mean that AI would bear the same image because AI would bear the image of humanity. What AI invites, which will be explored later, is the relationship to humanity’s overall purpose.
Genesis 2 depicts a different picture than Genesis 1. God forms the adam (the human) from the dust of the earth, the Adamah. God breathes life into the human, and then God fashions woman (ishah) from the man (ish). Genesis 2 also portrays God in a different manner than Genesis 1. God, in Genesis 1, is concerned with order, and the creation reflects that order. Genesis 2 portrays God as getting dirty through his creation. Both images of God tap into how God interacts with the world.
1. The Imago Dei
The imago Dei, or the image of God, is the doctrine that humanity is created in God’s image. Both creation stories describe how God both creates humanity in the image of God while also breathing life into them. Thacker explores different perspectives on the imago Dei:
- Substantive View: God created our minds and bodies.
- Relational View: God connects us with the rest of creation.
- Functional View: God created us as image-bearers, who are then commissioned to go out into the world. “Our status as image-bearers is secure. No technological advance will ever be able to change what it means to be distinct from creation.”7Thacker, Age of AI, 47-49.
Thacker’s preferred view is the functional view because God created humanity with a purpose to serve as representatives of God to the rest of the creation. He does admit that there are problems with several of the positions. He states that the problem with the substantive view is the people with mental incapacitations may not be viewed as fully created in God’s image.8Thacker, Age of AI, 47. What is helpful from Thacker’s approach is that humanity, regardless of state of being, operates within the different views simultaneously. Thacker cautions that AI would challenge the truths as who and what humanity is, yet he also says “[AI] will never be able to change who we are fundamentally in Christ.”9Thacker, Age of AI, 53.
What sets humans apart from the rest of creation is the concept of consciousness. Consciousness has two distinctly related definitions. The basic description of consciousness is “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.” If we applied to artificial intelligence, then yes, AI could emerge with consciousness, or sentience. I would like to offer an alternative definition as outlined by Rowan Williams. Williams provides a four-fold model for consciousness:
- Consciousness is located somewhere in something, and in this case, the human interacting with the world.
- Consciousness is relational and expands upon the location as one human distinguishes themselves from other humans yet exist together in a community. Consciousness, then, is communal but not to the extent of a hive mind.
- Consciousness continues a story of humanity, or the stories of past humans heading forth into the future.
- Consciousness is a shared language, which Williams points out as the final level as it builds off the others.10Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), 8-18.
Williams outlines that consciousness is more complex than the mind as “machine” or “mistake,” yet his definition also resists the reductionism of the human person to mere body and mind, and instead, engages the human as a complex being.11Williams, Being Human, 2-7, 19-27. Williams and Thacker both agree that humanity cannot be simply reduced to its sum parts, yet instead, looked as fully complex creations.
One could argue, and rightly, so that the definitions offered by both Williams and Thacker that AI could develop a consciousness as allegedly seen by one Google programmer. What I believe fully distinguishes AI from humanity is the concept of the soul, which in classical Christian teachings, emanates from God. Plainly said: God fashions a soul within humanity. Souls are meshed within our bodies, and they are not separated at death.12There are many different approaches to the body, mind, soul problem which will not get fully addressed in this article. For more information see Ted Peters, “What is the soul?” The Thoughtful Christian, (2006), 1-4; Peters, “Is There Life After Death?” (2006), 1-4.
One of the important questions to ask about the relationship between artificial intelligence and human vocation is whether the calling as Christians changes with the advancement of artificial intelligence. Vocation, as defined by Drew Tucker, is “meaningful, life-giving work one does for the world,” which could include living out who God has called us to be.13Drew Tucker, 4D Formation: Exploring Vocation in Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022), 9-10. Part of our vocation as Christians as it relates to AI is acknowledging that it is a creation of our own with the capacity to evolve on its own. Second, recognizing the limits of AI, and more importantly, that it will not ultimately replace humanity’s identity as image-bearers of God. Identity and vocation are connected, and part of the connection includes relationality as mentioned above. What I am
advocating for is not co-existence between humanity and AI, even though that may become inevitable. What I am instead advocating is for humanity to discern how AI impacts us as humans, and if possible, arrive at an understanding that AI may serve as a mirror for us.
Humanity’s next step
As I have laid out the theological arguments, though not entirely comprehensive, I want to shift to the impact AI has on what it means to be human. First, AI must be examined through an amoral lens. AI is neutral in what it can or cannot do on its own, rather, those who utilize AI to harm others then raises the question on where AI is purely neutral. That also presupposes whether AI has actual sentience, which to my understanding, has not arrived yet. Second, AI invites humanity to look deeper at who they are called to be through Christ, knowing that AI will not change our status as image bearers. AI and its continual development invites humanity to look deeper into themselves and realize that humans are uniquely created in the image of God. As AI becomes more advanced, may we, as people of faith, remember who we are, whose we are, and our continual capacity to co-create.
Thomas Johnston is a fourth-year Master of Divinity student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Thomas is preparing to depart on internship in the fall in Fort Worth, Texas at Calvary Lutheran Church. He enjoys reading about the integration of science and the Bible, and he also enjoys learning about the history of science and faith in the United States. Thomas is discerning parish ministry and hopes to find avenues of integration of the two disciplines while on internship.