Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Artificial robot hand touch human hand

Can AI Replace the Need for Belief in God?

Oxford mathematician contends that science should increase our respect for what God has created and allowed us to do

John Lennox. author of 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (2020), is not only an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University but also pastoral advisor to Green Templeton College at Oxford. In a podcast, “Does Revelation Talk About Artificial Intelligence?”, he discusses with Robert J. Marks, director of the Walter Bradley Institute, the title question: “Can AI replace the need for belief in God?”

Selections from the transcript are provided below: (The complete downloadable transcript may be found following the Show Notes and Resources)

Robert J. Marks (right): Let’s talk about the theological implications of AI. You have a reputation, not only as a mathematician, but a Christian apologist. And I wanted to go into some of the apologetics that you gave in the book and how it relates to some of the modern perceptions of artificial intelligence. Generally, how will technical advances affect the way in which people, either believers or non-believers, think of God?

John Lennox: Well, sometimes technological development has a very positive effect because if, like myself, you believe that God is the intelligence behind the universe, that he’s made human beings in his image, so that we are to a certain extent creative and we can produce this technology. Then the existence of the technology and the need for science itself is evidence that there is a God behind it all. So that is a positive development.

And I welcome it because, as a scientist in that sense, I have always felt that one of the strongest evidences for there being a God behind the universe is the fact that we can do science and the universe is mathematically intelligible. So that gives me a huge impulse to do the subject that I’ve spent my life doing. How AI will affect that? I don’t know. Because the more we understand of how things work, I look at it this way, then the more I can admire the ability of God to produce all this potentiality.

Just as the more I know of engineering, the more I can admire the genius of a Rolls-Royce, Rolls and Royce who produced the beautiful engines of their motor cars. But of course the development of technology is always two-edged. I often say artificial intelligence is a bit like a knife. You can use a knife to do surgery and save people’s lives. You can also use it to stab them to death. So we mustn’t be naive about just saying that everything is wonderful because it isn’t.

Robert J. Marks: Interesting. The development of science is said by some to replace the need for a belief in God. Wherein I think you could also look at sciences as exposing how great God is. Do you think that that is going to be the case with artificial intelligence?

John Lennox (right): Well, I just don’t know, but I spent most of my life contending with people that think that science replaces God. And I see that as a very foolish argument really. It’s like saying that if you understand how a Ford motor car works, you don’t need to believe in Henry Ford. It’s a confusion between different kinds of explanation. And I often say to people, look, the God explanation, no more competes with the scientific explanation than Henry Ford competes with the law of internal combustion to explain a motor car engine.

And in fact, you need both levels of explanation, the scientific one and the one in terms of the creative agency of God to give you a complete explanation. And so it’s been clear to me for many years that a lot of the heat could be taken out of this science versus God thing if people only could realize that explanation comes at different levels.

Robert J. Marks: There’s a guy and we talked about this offline a little bit, and you said you didn’t know about it, but I’d like your comment on it. His name is Levandowski, a Silicon Valley wunderkind and he founded an AI church. So AI is founding churches now, people that worship AI. The name of his church was Way of the Future.

The AI Church claims that human minds will soon be uploaded into a computer and thereby achieve immortality. This is old news. Christianity has offered the path to immortality for thousands of years.

We are told that AI software itself will someday write better and better software so as to achieve superintelligence. This is also old news. The Judeo-Christian faiths have known about a superintelligence for a long time. It’s a characteristic of God.

Although there are other holy works, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is the Bible of the AI church. Kurzweil’s work is built on the foundation of faith in AI, from which he offers us provocative, speculative, and hyperbolic prophecies. His predictions are often so far in the future that they escape any immediate scrutiny.

Anthony Levandowski, a self-driving car wunderkind and founder of the Way of the Future is the Apostle Paul of the AI Church. In an epistle to the IRS for tax exemption, he offered his equivalent of the Apostles’ Creed: “[The AI Church believes in] the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Robert J. Marks, “The idol with feet of silicon” at Mind Matters News (February 3, 2019)

Robert J. Marks: You see any chance that Levandowski’s church will ever catch on?

John Lennox: Not really, but this is the first time I’ve heard of it so I would need to think about it. But you see, I would be initially very skeptical of these kind of churches for very clever and specially trained people because the real church is formed of all kinds of people. And the gospel is accessible to the most simple people and a God that’s based on AI is a God that’s a product of technology. It sounds a little bit like the Tower of Babel in the ancient world and it’s far too small for me to believe in anything like that.

He thinks it’s expanding the mind. Actually it’s contracting the mind because AI hasn’t reached anything like the state of let’s say, constructing a conscious entity, and God is a conscious entity who spoke the universe into existence. So their God is far too small and anyway, I would be fascinated to know what their doctrine of salvation is and eternal life. Although I can guess that eternal life will come when they upload their weary brains onto silicon and somehow they exist forever, which is another transition that I very much doubt.

Note: Levandowski may be in some sort of transition himself:

Anthony Levandowski co-founded Waymo and built the Google “self-driving” car. (Uber also hired, and then fired, Levandowski. He’s accused of going to work at Uber with, uh, Google company secrets.) Levandowski’s belief in AI was so strong that he founded a “church” — Way of the Future — devoted to AI.

But he appears to be changing his mind. Not only does the Way of the Future site no longer mention “god,” Levandowski may have gone apostate on self-driving cars.

The Information covered a panel discussion on autonomous vehicles that included Levandowski. We learn from a report of his new found faith in humans

Brendan Dixon, “True believer loses faith in fully self-driving cars” at Mind Matters News (June 24, 2019)

Robert J. Marks: You mentioned the idea of obtaining immortality. That’s a common theme in many religions and that’s certainly a theme that you mentioned that’s in the AI religion. Well, I think the answer’s obvious, but let me ask you anyway. What is the solution to immortality in Christianity?

John Lennox: Well, perhaps the best way to discuss this is to put it in the context of Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book, Homo Deus. And in it, he says that, “There are going to be two major agenda items for the 21st century.” The first one is that we’ll solve the problem of physical death. And I quote, “Every tactical problem has a tactical solution. We don’t need to wait for the second coming in order to overcome death.” So he’s aware of Christian hope there.

But then secondly, once we’ve overcome the need to die, he says carefully that, “Humans will still die, but they won’t have to die.” Once we overcome this problem of mortality, then the next item, the second major item will be the intensification of the pursuit of human happiness. And that agenda involves changing our biochemistry, re-engineering bodies and minds so that we shall re-engineer homo sapiens so that they can enjoy everlasting pleasure. That’s what he says.

And he finishes, having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods and turn Homo sapiens into Homo Deus, but think in terms of Greek gods. So there are two agenda items, one solve the problem of physical death and reach immortality and you are right. This has been a topic, not only in many religions and many mythologies. And it goes right back to the book of Genesis where we are told a fascinating account of human beings being tempted to reach after godhood and the enemy tempts them by saying, “If you eat that fruit of that particular tree, you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

So there’s the origin of the twisted notion of Homo Deus. Now the ironic thing to my mind is this. Here are these people trying to like Harari to solve the problem of physical death, but they’re too late. It has already been solved because Jesus Christ was raised by the power of God from the dead. So God has got a solution to the problem of physical death. And the message of the Christian gospel is of course that anybody who repents of the mess they’ve made of their own life and the lives of others, and trust Christ for salvation receives eternal life. And therefore they will be resurrected from the dead.

So we don’t need to worry what happens to our brains nor do we need to hope that they can be uploaded onto silicon. So that’s the first thing.

And the second thing is that he’s searching to intensify human happiness by reengineering our bodies and minds. Now, the very interesting thing is that part of the Christian hope is that the true Home Deus, that is, Christ himself, will return and will raise us from the dead and we will be transformed. That’s the real upgrade for which there’s strong evidence as contrasted with Harari’s hope.

So within Christianity, you have both sides of this thing and you’ve got a credible solution. And that was one of the major motivations for me writing this book, because I thought, “Look, if people in the world are prepared to take seriously scenarios like Tegmark’s and those of other people, why don’t we have a look again at a scenario that most people know very little about?” And that is the biblical view of death and the solution of the problem of mortality. And also the question of the transmutation of human bodies in the resurrection. These are hugely important topics, it seems to me.

Note: Harari’s hope does not, for example, include free will:

… Harari will have none of this unscientific “free will” nonsense:

“Unfortunately, ‘free will’ isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.”

Michael Egnor, “Is free will a dangerous myth?” at Mind Matters News

Robert J. Marks: There’s another parallel, interestingly, between AI and Christianity on super intelligence that you address. Could you elaborate on that?

John Lennox: Well, I don’t know what particularly you mean, but one of the ironic things is that you could characterize AGI as human beings trying to reach up to God and achieve a super intelligence that way. The Christian message is the exact opposite. It talks about God becoming man in Jesus Christ, who then through what he does in his life, death, resurrection, Ascension, and return, deals with all these questions at a far deeper level. So the parallels are very strong and therefore I feel that they can be used to advantage to help us to explain what the Christian message is.

Next: Do some passages in the Book of Revelation appear to talk about AI?

You may also enjoy:

In Dan Brown’s AI hype novel, the hero stumbles onto God. Not clear that was supposed to happen but stories do get away on their authors at times… John Lennox: Utterly fascinating. Someone who’s trying to bring down religion by the use of AI is actually heightening evidence for the existence of God.

Show Notes

  • 00:25 | Introducing Dr. John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University
  • 00:57 | The theological implications of artificial intelligence
  • 03:26 | Can science replace God?
  • 04:58 | An AI church?
  • 07:44 | Obtaining immortality
  • 12:41 | Superintelligence
  • 13:42 | Revelation and artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

  • 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity website
  • John Lennox’s website
  • 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity at Amazon
  • John Polkinghorne at Wikipedia
  • Anthony Levandowski at Wikipedia
  • Interview with Anthony Levandowski about Way of the Future at Wired
  • Homo Deus by Yuval Harari at Amazon
  • Max Tegmark at Wikipedia

Podcast Transcript Download

Mind Matters News

Breaking and noteworthy news from the exciting world of natural and artificial intelligence at MindMatters.ai.

Can AI Replace the Need for Belief in God?