Cultivating Wisdom for the Age of AI

By Jason Thacker

It seems like nearly every day we hear something new about artificial intelligence (AI). We are inundated with news stories about how this technology is (and will continue) to revolutionize nearly every aspect of our lives. From new applications of these tools to grave concerns about its continued use throughout our society, AI seems to be constantly changing and at times it feels like our ethics about its use fall far behind our pace of innovation.

When Christians approach the vital questions of the wise use of AI in our homes, communities, and government, we must first slow down and ask some deep questions rather than simply be blown by the winds of hype or the dystopian fear that is so prevalent in these discussions. The questions we are asking ourselves today aren’t all that new per se as humanity has always asked questions of what is good, just, and right. But today we are simply asking these age-old questions in light of new opportunities.

AI is not a far off phenomenon that the Church can simply keep at arm’s length, nor should we view it as some existential threat to human civilization. We are indeed living in the middle of a widespread societal revolution, but God’s word can buoy us amid the waves of innovation as it points us back to our creator and reminds us of what it really means to be human, especially in an age of advanced machines. Instead of uncritically embracing or rejecting these tools, we need to cultivate a posture of wisdom and virtue rooted in the reality of these tools and how they are shaping every aspect of our lives.

One of the key questions we must ask when faced with any significant ethical challenge is what something is and how it is altering our view of the world around us as we consider what to do about it. We must consider the question of should we use these tools and for what purpose rather than simply can we. Answering these questions will require Christians to slow down in an age of speed and convenience as we seek to harness these tools for the love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).

What is AI?

Computer scientist and self-proclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil once wrote that “if all the AI systems decided to go on strike tomorrow, our civilization would be crippled: we couldn’t get money from our bank, and indeed, our money would disappear; communication, transportation, and manufacturing would all grind to a halt.” While some may think this is a bit overstated, Kurzweil is correct in that these tools undergird so much of our contemporary society. AI is a technology that we each use every day whether we know it or not.

AI can be defined as the ability of a machine to perform human-like tasks. Now this definition is quite broad and encompasses a host of different tools in the field of computer science and technology. When most people today think of AI, our minds tend to oscillate between two distinct visions of AI. On one hand, many of us think about AI in terms of the devices we each have and use like our smartphones, smart-home technology, and recently things like generative AI (GenAI) tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Gemini, GrammarlyGo, and Bing Co-Pilot. On the other hand, some dream of things like humanoid robots, conscious machines, and much more. Part of cultivating wisdom then is to define some terms as we seek to cut through so much of the noise surrounding these tools. There are three main ways of thinking about the nature of AI and what is possible.

First, narrow AI is a type/level of AI that seeks to mimic or imitate some narrowly defined human tasks whether that be adjusting the temperature of your home based on the weather and other factors or predicting what type of news stories rise to the top of your news feeds on social media. These narrow AI tools are commonplace in our society today and can be extremely useful, even though they are very complex in ethical terms. Every form of AI that has ever been created—from the most rudimentary ideas spawning from the 1956 Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence, where the term AI was first coined, to the highly complex and impressive feats of generative AI systems today—are examples of narrow AI. This type of AI tends to be more focused on specific use cases of AI, where a system traditionally does one or a handful of things well rather than taking on a sense of general or human-like intelligence.

Second, many today dream about creating broad AI or artificial general intelligence (AGI). This form of AI is purely hypothetical at this point. Many leading philosophers and computer scientists do not think it is actually possible for us to create a human level artificial intelligence system. Broad AI or AGI is thought to be a pipe dream given that many understand that human beings are not simply material creatures but have both a soul and body. Even though advanced AI techniques may already convincingly mimic or imitate general human abilities, this doesn’t entail that they are like us as humans despite their complexity and imitation.

Third, building off of the dream of AGI some believe that with future innovations and breakthroughs, humanity will one day be able to create AI tools that far surpass human abilities in the general sense and we will be able to reach the level of artificial superintelligence (ASI). This vision of AI is more akin to a God-like AI system that far outpaces human abilities taking on superhuman abilities. ASI or superintelligence is the sci-fi dystopian future in which humans are subjugated by our own creations. While much more can be said about these visions of AI, it must be noted that the latter two (AGI and ASI) are often rooted in a more materialist worldview/philosophy that sees all of reality as mere matter where there is no appeal to (and often no need for) a transcendent, theistic framework.

How are these tools shaping us?

One of the most ironic things about this age of AI is that in our conversations about these tools we tend to humanize our machines and at the same time dehumanize ourselves. Undergirding these tendencies is a distinct vision of humanity that is at odds with the Christian faith. We develop and use these tools in ways that cause us to ask questions about what these tools might become, to humanize our machines with vain sci-fi dreams of AGI/ASI yet at the same time dehumanize ourselves seeing ourselves as merely the sum of our parts in a very materialistic framework devoid of human uniqueness.

Nothing is truly neutral, especially technologies like AI. These tools are indeed shaping us and our worldview in countless, yet subtle ways. One of these ways is how we understand what it means to be human which directly affects how we develop, use, and think about the future of these tools. Today the question of what it means to be human is one of the most important questions that one can ask about the many ethical challenges we face in the public square. This question is central to a wide range of moral and apologetical questions as our vision of humanity ranging from technology and AI to questions of justice and sexuality/gender. 

Routinely in our society we base the value of humanity on the things we do rather than who we are and AI can exacerbate these beliefs given what these tools can do. Both inside and outside the Church, the value of a human life is often dependent on things like our rational capacities, creativity, use of language, awareness, relationality, and even the jobs we perform. These attribute/capacity based theories of human identity/dignity can even be applied to the ongoing discussions of how we define the image of God in theological circles.

As Christians, we must ask ourselves if the value of humanity is rooted in the mere presence of these attributes/capacities. Is the value of human being the same if these attributes are not present, whether that be the child in the womb, a person who suffers from various cognitive or physical disabilities, or even someone in the last days of their life that is unable to manifest these things? Scripture teaches us that human value is not seen in the things we do or the capacities we have, but in the fact that we are human beings made in the very image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). And no machine—no matter how advanced—can alter that reality.

Where do we go from here?

Governments, business, education institutions, and families all around the world are waking up to the reality of these tools and how they are fundamentally reshaping how we view the world around us and how we understand what it means to be human. While these questions about the proper and just development and use of AI are complex and challenging, Christians must seek to apply the wisdom that God graciously gives to us about how we are to live no matter the circumstances that we face.

Rooted in the image of God, we must focus on the development and use of these tools in a human dignity centered framework and remember just because we can do something does not mean that we should. We must ask ourselves what is most important in life and what our overall goal as a society is to be. If our goal is efficiency at all costs, then that will shape the tools we use and for what ends. If our goal is profit and shoring up the bottom line, then we will naturally pursue the most profitable route even if that overrides the dignity of those whom we are called to serve. But if our goal is the good life for all rooted in God’s glory, then we will seek to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves above all, recognizing the dignity and worth of every person as an image bearer of our creator God (Matt. 22:37-39).

Whether we are thinking about the role of AI in the office, on the battlefield, or even in the home or classroom, as Carl Henry once wrote, the Christian ethic rooted in the “love of another” should help guide everything about our interaction with these tools in a way that seeks to uphold the dignity of all people and bring glory to God through our creativity, work, and governance. We need not fear the future and we must not stick our heads in the sand. AI is not a flash in the pan and is affecting all of our lives and those whom we love. Let’s engage these questions with wisdom rooted in God’s revelation of himself and what it means to image him as his creatures.

Published April 15, 2024

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College and Southern Seminary. He also is a senior fellow and director of the research institute at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author or editor of several volumes including The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society, and A Student’s Guide to Social Media. He is also co-editor of the nine volume Essentials in Christian Ethics series with B&H Academic.