This writeup came out of a much longer paper I wrote about some of the theological responses to AI and the related brain sciences. What follows is one of the issues I have looked at, but more might come.
Relationality, AI, and imago Dei
One of the primary concepts of Christianity is the idea that the human being is an image of God, an imago Dei . This idea is rooted in the Book of Genesis, which tells the story of God’s creation of human beings in God’s image. Insofar as the imago Dei is taken to be a foundational assumption of Christian theology, what are the implications of AI for this concept? In what sense are human beings images of God? If the human being is an image of God, and the human being creates an intelligent being in the image of emself, would this being also be an imago Dei? All these questions spring from the intersection between the theological understanding of human beings as images of God and the typical position of AI research that ascribes a certain “creatorhood” to human beings. Anne Foerst’s description of the assumption of isomorphism in AI research becomes more meaningful in light of the theological concept of the imago Dei.*
Various theological accounts of the imago Dei have been given based on specific abilities or sets of abilities that are apparently unique to human beings. Although these accounts have already been substantially damaged by the findings of science and their impact on the notion of human specialness, many theologians still explain the imago Dei as a collection of qualities that reflect qualities of God. These qualities are generally what might be called “mental” abilities, or are related to mental life in an important way—they include rationality, emotion, the desire for understanding, etc. However, the advent of strong AI is potentially problematic for these kinds of explanations. Since AI aspires to create entities that are isomorphic to human beings in their mental abilities, it would seem that it might be possible to “manufacture” an imago Dei.
In an effort to escape from this problematic scenario, while at the same time maintaining her strong commitment to the embodied AI movement of which she is a part, Foerst offers a picture of the imago Dei that is not based anything in particular about human nature. There is no aspect of humanity that makes us the image of God. Rather, she understands the imago Dei as a symbol of a particular relationality. The image of God “cannot be identified with particular skills and abilities but is God’s promise to start and maintain a relationship with humans.” 1 Drawing on Martin Luther and Oswald Bayer, she characterizes “God’s affirmation of the image of god as performative.”2 Foerst is using the word “performative” in the sense established by linguist and philosopher John L. Austin, that of “a speech act which constitutes a new reality.” 3 According to Foerst, when God says I promise you!, God creates a previously nonexistent relationship with each individual human being. Therefore, the extent to which a human being is an imago Dei parallels the degree to which to which a human being accepts this relationship and what it entails.”4
Foerst, instead of rejecting a mechanistic understanding of human nature, embraces it alongside the “story” told by the affirmation of the image of God. Human beings are unique in the sense that they have a unique relationship with God based on their acceptance of the performative promise of God. But in this sense, there is no reason why artificial beings could not also enjoy this relationship, were they sufficiently intelligent to understand such a promise. Foerst accepts this possibility on the grounds that it seems presumptuous to deny the status of imago Dei or personhood to a creature that seems in all ways capable of accepting the promise of God. Instead of reflecting on “why a machine can never become like us,” she proposes that theologians instead consider “the question of what might be the conditions under which God would accept such a creature as God’s child.” 5
But Foerst is not the only thinker to emphasize the importance of relationality to the imago Dei. In fact, most contemporary biblical scholars “espouse functional or relational interpretations, views of the human person that are dynamic” as opposed to the ability-based interpretations alluded to above. 6 One such view, according to Ian Barbour, is the position that the imago Dei “refers to the relation of human beings to God and indicates their potentiality for reflecting God’s purposes for the world.” 7 Barbour gives this relational, functionalist account as a way of characterizing the imago Dei as a state of possibility or responsibility—it is Barbour’s somewhat heterodox way of accounting for the idea of sin. Like Foerst, Barbour believes that the imago Dei is some sort of commitment made by God to human beings. Necessarily, then, human beings have an essential element of responsibility to God. If the imago Dei is relational and constitutes an obligation to God, sin or the Tillichian concept of “estrangement” are the results of a failure to fulfill this obligation. Barbour writes, “Sin in all its forms is a violation of relationships.” 8 These relational and functionalist pictures of the imago Dei are emblematic of contemporary theological attempts to “make room” for the possibility of artificially intelligent beings as new images of God.
*Foerst writes that virtually all work in AI is informed and underpinned by the assumption that machines and persons are potentially isomorphic.
1 Anne Foerst, “Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God,” Zygon 33 (March 1998), 105.
4 Ibid., 105-106.
5 Anne Foerst, “Robot: Child of God,” KurzweilAI.net. http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0180.html Originally published March 2000 as a chapter in the book God for the 21st Century. Published on KurzweilAI.net 9 May 2001.
6 Noreen Herzfeld, “Creating in our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God,” Zygon 37 (June 2002), 306.
7 Ian G. Barbour, “Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Nature: Theological and Philosophical Reflections,” Zygon 34 (September 1999), 364.
8 Ibid., 365.