In a recent podcast of ID the Future at the COSM conference in Seattle, Catholic University business studies prof Jay Richards looks at Ray Kurzweil’s “sunny” version of strong AI (computers are smarter than us and will take over but don’t worry), as per his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) vs. the pessimistic version (“Skynet” wakes up).
In a discussion with Andrew McDiarmid, Richards argues the opposite view, namely that human beings possess something beyond the purely material, something even the most powerful computers will never possess.
Jay Richards: (08:45) If you are a materialist who thinks we are purely the result of these blind, material processes, you have something to worry about [with computers taking over]. I sympathize. It makes sense. On the other hand, if you go the other way, either you have prior theological commitment, you say no, human beings are material–spiritual hybrids, we’re not just material beings.
Or, if you’re just thinking commonsensically, what is the thing you know most directly as a person? Well, you have direct access to your existence as an agent. You experience directly what it means sometimes to be coerced, sometimes what it means to choose things freely. When you treat people as if they are morally culpable for their actions, you’re assuming they’re a free agent, right, that could do otherwise? So you already actually believe that we’re more than mere matter or more than mere machine.
So my argument would be, look, everyone, whether atheist or Christian or whatever, actually already knows that we are more than machines, we’re intelligent agents. So if you start that way, you would ask, what would need to be true about reality in order for that to be possible? If you start there, you can look at machines and say, okay, let’s be open-minded about what these things can achieve but you don’t need to worry that machines are going to replace us because they’re not what we are…
Turning to a discussion of The Age of Spiritual Machines:
Jay Richards: He’s challenging the idea that technology is mere tools and he’s right insofar as we don’t just make tools but tools also shape us. Once you learn to read, for instance, in literate cultures we tend not to remember things as well as pre-literature cultures. We get nearsighted as we read text. We are being changed somewhat by our screens. And in that sense, it’s more than tools. There’s a feedback between us and the tools.
But his statement is ultimately a kind of metaphysical claim because what he is really saying effectively is that there is this long process of cosmic evolution that started in the physical world, the inorganic physical world, and there was an inflection point where it went to the biological stage, which has lasted, say four billion years… and what humans are is, we’re essentially this last stage of biological evolution and the beginning of the next stage, which is technological evolution. So you see how he sort of tied this together in this grand cosmic vision. We’re right at the cusp. We’re the last installment of the biological evolution. We are the ones who are bringing about our successors and so, essentially, technology will take over from here.
Well, that is quite an arresting vision but I think that your mind is running away from you if you think about technology in that way. I mean, the reality is that every piece of technology that has ever existed has been created by human beings applying their ingenuity to the material world around them and transforming it.
I actually think that the Christian theological context explains this much better. If you think that human beings are part of the material world, made from the dust of the earth and the breath of God, so yes, we are material beings but we are also spiritual beings. So if we are made in the image of this creative God that when we apply our minds to this material world, we have the capacity to create things that were not there before.
Also, don’t miss: Jay Richards: A short argument against the materialist account of the mind. You can simply picture yourself eating a chocolate ice cream sundae
Background on the gods of modern technology: Tales of an invented god