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And Now… Can AI Have Mystical Experiences?

A philosopher wonders whether technology could be part of some bigger plan to enable us to perceive other dimensions

Remember A.I. Jesus? He’s so last week. We’re now told that AI in general might have a mystical side.

A professor of Philosophy, Classics, Religion, and Environmental Studies tells us that “Technology could be part of some bigger plan to enable us to perceive other dimensions.” But he asks, “will we believe our machines when that happens?” Specifically, he wonders, What if your Siri claimed to have had a spiritual experience, or, as he puts it a “deeper-than-5G connection”?:

As our machines come closer to being able to imitate the processes of our own minds, Pascal’s story raises some important questions. First, can a machine have a private experience that is important to the machine but that it is reluctant to talk about with others? Second, could a machine have a private experience of the divine? Third, could that experience make a machine into something like a prophet?

David O’Hara, “The Mystical Side of A.I.” at One Zero Medium

Okay. Each “what if?” scenario above leads us further from any likely reality.

David O’Hara makes clear that he does not claiming that there is a God or any spiritual reality. He is saying that, assuming there were, machines may help us find them:

Humility demands we recognize that we don’t have the final picture of reality. The more our technology has advanced, the more it has allowed us to see beyond the limits nature imposed upon our ability to see the world in all its detail…

As our technology grows, it allows us to “see” deeper and deeper into the structure of the natural world. Is it possible that just as technology that imitated the eye has allowed us to see what the eye could not see, so technology that imitates the mind will allow us to perceive what the mind cannot perceive?

David O’Hara, “The Mystical Side of A.I.” at One Zero Medium

Wait a minute. Our technology allows us to perceive things our physical senses cannot perceive. It does not allow us to perceive spiritual realities that no human faculty—or any enhancement of that faculty—can perceive in our present state. Indeed, the traditional view is that in a sinful state, one cannot see God and remain alive, except by an act of divine mercy.

Most traditional theists would say that we are not talking about what Dr. O’Hara seems to think we are talking about.

He goes on: “In simple terms, could a machine see a God that remains invisible to us?”

No.

“And what would happen if a robot claimed to have a mystical experience?”

We would assume that it was programmed in a way that would result in such a claim. Next question?

What if time flows in more than one direction, but we can only perceive it flowing in the direction we call “forwards?” Or what if we have neighbors who dwell in other dimensions, but we fail to see them because we simply lack the mental or preceptory apparatus for doing so? We might be missing out on a lot of what’s going on around us.

David O’Hara, “The Mystical Side of A.I.” at One Zero Medium

Ah yes. The what if? game again. The person who raises these questions doesn’t provide us with any way to tell. There might be intelligent aliens six thousand light years away. Or maybe not. Or there might be another universe in which 2+2 make 5. Or maybe not…

No one who takes issues in spirituality—or on any other topic—seriously bothers much with such undecidable propositions. At times, the philosopher doesn’t seem to understand what mystics are talking about:

Maybe machines can perceive what we cannot. We know they can help us perceive the natural world; what if they could help us perceive those dimensions that we call the supernatural? Perhaps those dimensions aren’t supernatural, but just inaccessible to those of us whose idea of what counts as natural is limited by our bodily senses.

David O’Hara, “The Mystical Side of A.I.” at One Zero Medium

If an apparent experience of a dimension beyond nature turns out to be a natural event, artificial intelligence might conceivably shed some light on it. But if an experience is truly outside of nature, then there is no reason to believe that. For example, Paul the Apostle (pictured above), who was himself a mystic, writes,

“However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (1 Cor. 9–10a)

Paul obviously doesn’t mean that a human being doesn’t understand it but maybe a machine would. He means that it is outside of all natural experience, in a world outside time, chance, and change. If a machine could understand it, it isn’t that type of experience.

Dr. O’Hara is, however, undeterred:

If that’s the case, perhaps robots could give us new perspectives on some of the big problems we have been wrestling with for millennia. Maybe they could accelerate human progress. Maybe there are ethical principles that are the “rules” of the ethical ecosystem that we live in, rules that we have failed to perceive because we’ve lacked the lenses we’ve needed — until now. Maybe we have evolved to this point so that we could make a machine that could perceive what until now only a scattered few poets, prophets, mystics, and daring scientists have seen.

David O’Hara, “The Mystical Side of A.I.” at One Zero Medium

So he acknowledges that no such conscious machines exist but insists, “What if God does exist and has been slowly guiding us to make machines that would help us to discover God just as our lenses eventually helped us to see stars and atoms?” Ah yes, that undecidable what if? series again.

Because O’Hara is agnostic about whether there even is a God, he does not need to take seriously questions theists would have. For example: Why should we believe that God has a plan to enable machines we invented to see eternal—as opposed to natural—realities that have been withheld from humans?

The short answer from that perspective is, no reason whatever. A longer answer might be that the Scriptures, to name one principle source, are full of advice about how to get closer to God. The most common reason people don’t succeed is that they don’t take the advice. It’s very similar to what happens in the natural world of medicine, where many people would have better health if they simply took accepted, longstanding medical advice. But they don’t. In both cases, artificial intelligence is irrelevant to the problem.


You may also enjoy: A.I. Jesus Sputters from the King James Bible. The developer emphasizes that the program is a purely human creation. Possibly tongue-in-cheek, Durendal thinks his creation is the right sort of religion for humans and robots over the next few millennia.

and

Common reasons for dismissing miracles are mistaken, study shows. Religious people are more likely to say they’ve experience a miracle but they aren’t the only ones who do. Educated and well-to-do people are just as likely to be part of the 57% who say they have experienced a miracle as poor and uneducated ones


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And Now… Can AI Have Mystical Experiences?