Christians in Westworld


I’m surprised to find myself this month involved in the same discussion with different people in separate venues. The topic is AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the theological/ethical implications of the emergence of conscious/self-aware robots. What would that say about what consciousness is? Would it be a de facto proof of what philosophers call the computational model of conscious (that all conscious states are reducible to non-conscious, pre-intentional, material processes in the brain)? What would AI say about what it means to be a human being? How would it effect our understanding of the image of God freely bestowed by God upon human beings?

Deep waters.

I want to share a reply I gave to one person who asked me about this. I’m floating this out for comments and am still in process myself. But I confess I don’t at all feel threatened by the possibility of computer’s achieving conscious states, though I agree with David Bentley Hart that it’s impossible. But I don’t know that one can demonstrate its impossibility the way one demonstrates that 2 + 3 = 4 and not 7, and so remove all rational grounds for doubt. My reply reads:

Back to your concern re: AI. I think you were especially concerned about ethics and epistemology – not knowing how to treat an instance of AI that was indistinguishable from a human being.

David Hart doesn’t think conscious/self-aware AI is achievable. Whatever complex forms of (so-called) behavior computers are able to achieve, it never rises to the level of conscious self-awareness. We’ve talked about Hart’s reasons. I agree with him. And for the sake of argument, let’s say Hart is right. But let’s also say we can’t know he’s right, i.e. we can’t absolutely foreclose upon the possibility that he’s wrong. And let’s also assume technology is able to produce robots who simulate the conscious experience of human beings. I’m just thinking out loud.

So – back to your question. What dilemmas does this present us with? Let’s imagine the worst – let’s go with full-on Cylons who can copulate with human beings and bear half-breed children. I want to explore one possible answer, and that answer is: So what? Given a Christian worldview, God is transcendent and life-affirming. Why can’t we be unconditionally life-affirming in whatever circumstances we find ourselves given our limitations and ignorance?

Even in circumstances where we know we’re relating to what is other than human, we still ‘care’, ‘love’, and ‘converse’ in some measure. My cat Sheba is all over me right now. I talk to her. I ask her questions: Ya hungry? How was your day? Feeling OK? Wanna play? We all engage our pets on this level. But what are we doing? It’s like part of being human is the desire to humanize everything. And not just sentient creatures like Sheba. I also talk to the fruit trees and flowers I plant whenever I water then (in a St. Francis sort of way!) Am I insane? Don’t think so. We could get into the details and ask at one point does addressing and showing kindness to less than human conversation partners become enmeshed with recognizing and conversing with God who is present in all things sustaining them, but that wouldn’t itself answer our question.

So if we possess a worldview that is life-affirming and benevolent to all life forms – what’s the problem with us making room for Cylons? Will God fault us for being more generous than he is? Will he fault us for extending relations to life-forms that do not in fact engage us on the deepest metaphysical level which only God can discern? Is that kind of misrelation a devaluation of things? To be indifferent and cruel to lesser beings (however we view that) is still inhumane.

There may be a hidden contradiction in this scenario. Assuming Hart is correct but we can’t prove it, and assuming we can inter-breed with Cylons and bear a new species of intelligent being – what would the status of my half-breed kids be to God? I mean, do I get to heaven someday only to discover that my Cylon wife and half-breed kids literally ‘no longer exist’ since they were just batteries in great packaging? What if I didn’t know my wife was a Cylon who didn’t qualify? That would be a total bummer – because it would mean a huge part of my loving and giving essentially disappears and is unredeemed by God. Relations that constituted my life’s joys end up not being a part of my continuing story with God. That would suck. But (for the sake of argument) it would only suck because I thought it was something else. So here I want to explore the answer: So what? What fault is there in assuming the highest and best of whatever ‘other’ is before me, an ‘other’ whose deepest irreducible teleology I’m incapable of discerning?

Again, I’m just thinking out loud. I don’t think debates over the possibility of AI are beside the point. I’m just wondering what we could discover about the possibility if we approached it by assuming it was true then going from there. Would we not be able to live in the present moment and offer unconditional love, to whomever or whatever, in the best and highest mode of expression that we are capable of?

I’m not sure I see a problem here. If Cylons really are possible, so be it. It wouldn’t disprove the existence of God. But if we imagine God unable to handle Cylons were they to come along, we’re imaging a non-existent God, not the transcendent ground of all being who is able to weave together whatever our technologies throw at him and do so without tragic remainder. Remember, God is the summum bonum, the highest good and greatest beatitude and as such the end/telos of all things. So whatever comes to be is possible, and whatever being is possible derives its possibility from God. If Westworld is possible (since we’re imagining it so for the sake of argument), then God would be God in Westworld just like he is in ours,  for there is no imagining ourselves outside the transcendent reach and goodness of God, no conceivable world in which I could find myself unable to relate to myself and the world around me in ways that reflect the life-affirming goodness and grace of God. If that world happens to include AI, so what?

4 comments on “Christians in Westworld

  1. Interesting thoughts Tom. Part of the AI discussion that I find somewhat odd is the insistence on collapsing consciousness into intelligence. But, that’s not exactly to the point. I have a fairly open ontology, so if something can exist it either does or will at some point – including Cylons (I could really step into the weird on this but I’ll refrain for now). But, I also hold to a fairly strong view of sovereignty. My hunch is that God is keeping us from interacting with other conscious beings (cyborgs, space lobsters, etc.) in the present age as much for their good as for ours. As a race, we have not yet been brought to sufficient moral and spiritual maturity to do anything but damage other conscious beings. But, what’s mist interesting about Westworld is how deeply it studies human consciousness. At some level I think that they are on to the similarity between consciousness and fiction – it’s almost like out minds (among other things) are complex narrative processors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    Random thought:

    Maybe this theistic view of consciousness is already out there. I don’t know. But what if we imagine it this way: You’ve got radio waves/signals that travel about us all the time. But only the right hardware configuration/antenna will pick them up. Let’s call the radio waves the universal, abiding sentient presence of God. Let’s say human beings are the radios. We have just the right configuration to receive what God is saying/doing, etc. What makes our connection to God special in the end is not us, it’s the signal itself. That is, radios don’t “produce” the signal or the content/music, etc, they participate in it.

    So if computers came along that really did reproduce the ‘created context’ we call the brain – in all its requisite complexity – then so what if computers also were then able to pick up the same signals we pick up (of God). This is not computational? A computational model of the music that radios produce would reduce the music to the computations. There would be nothing outside the material computations that accounts for the music. But that’s obviously false. The music doesn’t come from the circuitry even though there will always be an observable ‘correlation’ between circuitry and the music we hear. Likewise, human conscious experience is not computational because the content of consciousness (and the semiotic, intentional structure of rationality itself) can be reduced to the material, pre-inentional chemistry of the brain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been chewing on the point you raise for a couple of days, and I have been listening to DBH’s lectures on consciousness. I have often wondered exactly the same thing you have, namely if we aren’t in some way consciousness receptors with the physical capacity to process conscious information. I can’t quite remember the passages in Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, but the connection between Logos and logoi might be worth revisiting, because they connect this to Image in Christ which it the basis for image in man. From the standpoint of cognition, I think our brains are much like the hardware, and consciousness like software. However, I am hesitant to push that too far because it implies a kind of Cartesian dualism that I don’t think is supported in Scripture or in the best of the theological witness of the church.

      All to say, whether or not we have the capacity to create a ‘consciousness receptor’ in the form of a machine doesn’t entail that that machine would be conscious. I think that it would have to be conferred extra nos. All that the machine could do is process discrete information, and likely couldn’t attain to the self-aware “I” (first-person) narrative framework even if, like Westworld assumes, we tried to create it. To put it into Tolkienian terms, consciousness seems as if it belongs to Illuvatar’s secret fire that lies beyond creaturely capacity to either understand or wield.


      • Tom says:

        Great points, Jed. I tend to agree. I don’t like the idea that God is passive with respect to hypostatic (personal) relations that involve the creaturely reflection of his image. I’d like to say that in the final instance, the ‘personal’ nature of creaturely participation in God is something accomplished by God’s free invite – if you know what I mean – and that precisely because we’re talking about fully personal relations. In the end, God decides when are where he gives himself to creatures on that level.

        Liked by 1 person

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