Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been very much in the news of late. Some of you may have seen the program The AI Race on ABC TV last week. The rise of AI, from driverless cars to personal assistants, is being heralded as a new horizon for the human race at least equal to if not more challenging that the industrial revolution. Some see great dangers ahead, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking; others see nothing but glorious opportunity, such as Mark Zuckerberg. The claim is that no one will be unaffected. The biggest issue perhaps is just who will turn AI to their own advantage, and what values will be guiding them in doing that.
As I watched the program I could not but help think that we human beings are having a mirror held up to us with AI, challenging us to come to terms with just what sort of beings we really are. We are creating intelligent machines whose intelligence could come to dominate us, ‘gods’ in our own image, who might come back and bite us?. The prevailing ‘scientific’ understanding is that we are but intelligent machines ourselves, made of physical matter formed by chance in a purposeless universe. Is this not what we are now creating with AI? Is this our nemesis? Or is the prevailing scientific view wrong; are we rather creatures of mind and spirit whose time has come to stand up and truly claim our heritage?
Science began as a way of determining what is objectively true about ourselves and the world around us. It is a method of enquiry. It made a distinction between what is objective from what is subjective, a process that could be ensured if our understanding could be reduced to mathematical formulae, or as close to them as possible. Science removed the subjective from the pursuit of knowledge as a central part of its method. Eventually the subjective became something not really real, except in physical terms. Reality was made up of material matter only, which had just happened to form itself by chance into intelligent matter. Our subjective experience is really the machinations of physical entities; spiritual mind is really only physical brain. Although this view was seriously challenged by philosophers and some scientists, it has not only prevailed but has become seriously dominant. The effect on our culture has been enormous, particularly in the fields of medicine and education. At a popular level it reached a zenith with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which he challenged the aeons of subjective experience and reflection, denying it all through a particular interpretation of evolutionary theory, Neo Darwinism. The whole of life in Dawkins’ view can be satisfactorily explained and understood as evolved matter. Not only is religion a complete aberration, thoughts and experience about any possible entity in the universe apart from matter is delusionary. His confidence in what he believes, which he considers unassailable knowledge, seems to know no bounds.
But there are other voices which need to be heard at a popular level, particularly now AI has caught the popular imagination. One of these is the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. His central point is that a materialist neo Darwinian conception of nature cannot account for subjective experience. His critique is not about whether God exists or not. It is about who we are as human beings. Mind is not reducible to physical matter, and he explains just why this is so. Neo Darwinism sells us seriously short. Our self conception as it stands in a culture so influenced by neo Darwinism is seriously inadequate to meet the challenge of AI. If we are only machines, there is no place for us to stand and assert any essential difference from the AI machines we are creating.
But an even more telling challenge has come from another scientist, Rupert Sheldrake. He has written a counter to Dawkins’ The God Delusion with his own The Science Delusion. Let me quote from the publicity material around his book. “The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. In this book, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, one of the world’s most innovative scientists, shows science is being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them; freer, more interesting, and more fun. According to the dogmas of science, all reality is material or physical. The world is a machine, made up of dead matter. Nature is purposeless. Consciousness is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. Free will is an illusion. God exists only as an idea in human minds, imprisoned within our skulls. But should science be a belief-system, or a method of enquiry? Sheldrake shows that the materialist ideology is moribund; under its sway, increasingly expensive research is reaping diminishing returns. In the skeptical spirit of true science, Sheldrake turns the ten fundamental dogmas of materialism into exciting questions, and shows how all of them open up startling new possibilities. The Science Delusion will radically change your view of what is possible, and give you new hope for the world”.
I am suggesting that the phenomenon of AI should be raising the enormous question about our spirituality vis a vis our materiality. This is not so much a question about whether there is God or not; rather are we more than our material bodies. Are we fundamentally mind and spirit, and should we not be asserting this in our culture in a way that challenges the materialistic science of the neo Darwinists, and what has flowed from this?
Most scientists in their work don’t raise this fundamental question? They just apply the scientific method to their particular line of enquiry. What I am writing here is not about science as a method of enquiry. This is about some scientists making a world view out of their beliefs that they claim are knowledge, but which are in fact dogmas, dogmas held to as tightly as any religious dogma has ever been held. Some commentators have called such supposedly scientific world view scientism. This would make Richard Dawkins and those around him scientismists. Do we have AI to thank for really raising this central question and issue in a way we can no longer ignore?
Come and join the discussion about AI and the issue I am raising on Saturday 19th at 4.30pm for 5.00pm at Open Sanctuary. There will be people there who know something about both AI and Rupert Sheldrake.