Saturday, June 9, 2018

Musings on AI as an Existential Threat to Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an existential threat to the existing norms of religion, legitimacy and politics since AI, unlike human intelligence, lacks adequate moral and political parameters of legitimacy.  Henry Kissinger has asked:
           What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines—machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? [Is] it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? [Are] we at the edge of a new phase of human history?    
In a historical context, Kissinger considers the current Internet Age the successor to the Age of Reason and Age of Religion, and AI the culmination of the Internet Age:

           Heretofore, the technological advance that most altered the course of modern history was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed the search for empirical knowledge to supplant liturgical doctrine, and the Age of Reason to gradually supersede the Age of Religion. Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order.
           But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.
          The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.  

Will humankind forfeit control of the future in the new age of AI?  What will be the standards of legitimacy that constrain AI when it relies entirely on data to make its decisions?  Kissinger acknowledges the challenge of AI to philosophical and political norms of legitimacy, and for people of faith, religion rather than philosophy provides their standards of legitimacy.
The spiritual forces of good and evil that permeate religion and motivate human decisions cannot be reduced to data that can be programmed into AI.  The love of God and neighbor in the greatest commandment expresses the ultimate good in Christian morality, and the compassion at the heart of that altruistic love cannot be reduced to data and computerized.

The term AI has rightly been criticized as an oxymoron.  True intelligence is based on more than data that can be programmed into a computer.  It requires wisdom that is unique to humanity, and religion has long been a repository of both wisdom and spiritual truths.  Good decisions must be based on spiritual truths that are beyond human knowledge as well as truths revealed by advances in knowledge that have dispelled ancient truths of religion.

American democracy is a conundrum that pits individual wants and rights against providing for the common good.  The Christian religion has long provided a spiritual context and moral standards of legitimacy to resolve those complex and conflicting issues of competition and cooperation that characterize American culture.  AI lacks the spiritual context to do that.

Robotics and AI can vastly improve the quality of life, but to do so they must have moral parameters derived from religion that defy quantification.  For religion to survive as a primary source of morality in the era of AI, it must recognize the need to apply its moral standards to the stewardship of democracy and a politics of reconciliation--but it has failed to do so.

Without the moral parameters of human wisdom imbued with spirituality, the evolution of AI as a superior form of intelligence creates an existential threat to the moral foundations of religion and politics.  That threat should be a wake-up call for Americans to reexamine and reshape their religion, standards of legitimacy and politics to meet the challenge of AI.


On Henry Kissinger’s views on the dilemma of AI and how the Enlightenment ends, see
Jake Jenkins has reported on the (holy) ghost in the machine: Catholic thinkers tackle the ethics of artificial intelligence.  Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, questioned whether the phrase “artificial intelligence” is an oxymoron.  Sister Ilia Delio, head of the science and theology focused Omega Center, has said that “Pope Francis is absolutely right in raising the bar of our attention to technology, but first, the church has to adapt its theology to meet the needs of a world in evolution.  The difficulty with the church is that technology, like everything else, runs on the principles of evolution. Evolution runs on the principle of greater complexification, and that’s where the church is resistant.” On the moral quandaries of AI in matters of military legitimacy, such as Google assisting the U.S. military use machine learning to analyze drone footage, Professor Levi Checketts has observed “There’s a very strong moral question about whether (AI-assisted weapon systems) can be used to wage a just war.  Should a machine be making decisions on the battlefield for human beings? Will a machine be able to follow the responsibilities of just-war theory?” Seventy years ago, Catholic theologians had to re-evaluate the just-war concept after nuclear weapons were developed, and Checketts said AI could force a similar re-examination of Catholic principles about violence. Professor David Chiang remains skeptical whether “strong AI” will ever truly rival a living person, saying “As a Catholic I don’t believe that so-called artificial intelligence will ever be intelligent,” although he acknowledged, “It’s really an article of faith for me (rather) than a well-worked-out philosophical position.”  Checketts noted that Aquinas and other classical Christian thinkers have put intelligence at the center of personhood, and asked, “Can AI can be baptized. That really complicates common theology.” As for robot persons, Delio is dubious: “The key issue here is one of freedom,” she said. “And that, I think, only belongs to organic biological human personhood. To be called into a relationship and to respond to that relationship is still … unique to the human person as an image of God.” See

After a speech-making graduation season, Danielle Allen opined on the limits of artificial intelligence: “[It is] transforming our economy, but is light years from being able to guide our culture. It can navigate our cars, but not us. And, of course, only we can choose the destination. For both of these things, I’m still placing my biggest bets on human intelligence.  See

On recent mixed reviews on the commercial future of self-driving cars as the latest development in AI, see Recent crashes have shaken public’s confidence in self-driving cars, at; and GM and Softbank are putting $3 billion into self-driving cars; Self-driving cars will change your life more than you can ever imagine. See
See also Wymo’s fleet of self-driving minivans is about to get 100 times bigger at

For an imaginative and exciting Sci-Fi account of AI in a para-military context, see Patrick Hemstreet, The God Wave, Harper Voyager, 2016.

Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/1/15): Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (Atheism)
(6/7/15): The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(7/23/16): Reconciliation and Reality
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/3/16): Righteous Anger in Religion and Politics
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
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(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

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