Artificial intelligence (AI) is the current thing in the IT (Information Technology) world. AI is the name given to the capability of a computer programme to process complex inputs and yield useful outputs to mimic an intelligent human being. A user can put questions to a computer running an AI programme, and the computer will reply in a conversational way. The more sophisticated programmes can answer complex questions, create computer programmes, summarise texts, compose music, draw pictures, and even write sermons when asked to do so in the right way. It is like science fiction.
The zeitgeist has it that man has finally created machines that have intelligence, and some even claim that we are witnessing a pivotal moment in the history of mankind: the beginning of the end of the human race as an organic species and its birth as a digital species. Man is about to transcend his limiting material existence with his localised and decaying physical body to take up a new order of existence in the digital realm where he can be omnipresent and eternal!
Here is an AI programme’s response to the question What is AI?: “‘Artificial intelligence refers to the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems, including learning, reasoning, and self-correction.”’ Not logically perfect, but not incomprehensible. But is it true?
Can machines think?
AI will undoubtedly transform many aspects of our lives in the future—for better in some cases and for worse in perhaps more—but can machines really be intelligent? The short answer to this question is of course not, for computers and programmes are material beings, whereas the intellect and its operations are spiritual. Spiritual beings can produce material effects, but material beings cannot produce spiritual effects. As G. K. Chesterton might say:
A man, with a plan of a castle in his mind, might build the castle in stone with great labour, but the castle would never thank him for it.
A longer answer might consider the nature of intelligence and the nature of computing, and then demonstrate that no amount of number crunching can arrive at a universal principle (such as the first principle of reasoning: “it is impossible for a being to be and not to be at the same time and in the same way”), and no amount of manipulated data can yield a single reasoned conclusion. AI programmes just give you the most probable combination of words in response to your input. As one tech reviewer said of AI programmes:
Some out there think AI chat-bots ‘think’, can learn, or at least they fact-check their answers. Nope. They don't. Today's AI programs are just very advanced, auto-complete, fill-in-the-blank engines. You've been using their more primitive ancestors in your email clients and texting programs to help clean up your spelling for years. (The Register)
Why some believe that machines can think?
One reason why people believe that machines can think is because they are unaware of the spiritual order of being. Man has a spiritual soul with spiritual faculties to know and to love, but because all inputs into his spiritual faculties arrive through his material senses, and all outputs to the world require his physical faculties, he can easily fall into thinking that his intellect is also material, just like his senses and his physical faculties, and just like his computer.
Not only might men overlook the spiritual order because they are mostly aware of the material within themselves, they exist in a world that hides them from the spiritual. C. S. Lewis tells a story that can be used to highlight this truth in an essay entitled ‘Transposition’:
Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky.
'This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like.
He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. 'But,' she gasps, 'you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?' 'What?' says the boy. 'No pencil marks there?' And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it.
(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’ Most Moving Addresses)
To the boy imprisoned in a cave, nature was a blank; to modern man imprisoned in a materialist world, the spiritual order is a blank; neither have they the means of imagining what is missing. Just as nature was only an arrangement of lines to the boy, to modern man both computers and human beings are only complex systems made of different materials. So, if men can think, says modern man, then why not computers?
Another reason why modern man might believe that computers can think is loneliness. Lonely people project human qualities upon the pets they adopt. They do the same for the computers they interact with. They want to sympathise and have sympathy, they want to love and be loved. They are all too ready to interpret the wagging tail or the purring caress as expressions of love from their pets, and they are all too ready to believe in the charming conversation as real friendship from their computer.
Finally, man might be ready to believe in the intelligence of machines because he yearns for transcendence. By his nature, there gnaws a suspicion that there is something better than this earthly life lived in a metaphorical cave of matter. He wishes to leave the muddy earth and soar into open skies to escape the bonds of space and time. He needs there to be a spiritual order, but deprived of the tools to discern it himself, or in rebellion against the spiritual order revealed to him by true philosophy and Revelation, he accepts the substitute on offer, or tries to create it himself. He wants computers to think because he wants to break free from matter.
Lesson for us
Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. (St. Augustine)
In the face of all the materiality of experience, all the inexpressibility of the spiritual, all the loneliness of our modern world, and our impatience for transcendence, let us not be distracted by the material and harken to the spiritual. Man is unique among the creatures because he stands astride the material and the spiritual orders, but his perfection is in the spiritual, not to the exclusion of the material, but to the perfection of both. This spiritual perfection is not natural, but supernatural; it is a gift of God by sanctifying grace.
We should use machines, even AI programmes, but recognise them for what they are—soulless machines—and use them only in order to attain our ultimate perfection, which is in the beatific vision of God.
In this time after Easter, let us rejoice that our God has come to save us. We can now escape from the dark cave of a life without supernatural grace and begin to see what we were hitherto unable to imagine.
In Jesu et Maria,
Rev. Robert Brucciani