The Image of God and Human Nature in an Age of Artificial Intelligence and Androids
Today Christians cannot avoid questions about human nature. Abortion rights mean that all of us get to answer the question, “What is a human person?” The right to same-sex marriage and debates about the rights of transgender people mean all of us face the question, “What is sexual identity?” Darwinism implies that the very idea of a fixed human nature is mistaken and asks us how we can hold on to the notion. Transhumanism goes even further than Darwinism with promises of immortality and super-intelligence in exchange for a non-biological existence, which forces us to ask whether the concept of “human” might be on its way to oblivion. Then there is robotics, whose challenge is illustrated nicely by theologian Robert Jenson:
Suppose a robot were constructed that in general behaved intelligently, and when asked “Do you believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” responded, without explicit antecedent programming, “I believe, and ask God to help my unbelief.” Should the church thereupon baptize it?1
The question about baptism entails asking about such a robot, “Is she human?”
Many Christians think about such questions by invoking the “image of God.” A fundamental claim of the Scriptures is that God made human creatures in his image, after his likeness. This means that human beings are creatures; that God made them with a particular nature; that God made them with special responsibilities; that God made them male and female.
It is easy to see where Christians may go with this. Since God made them in his own image, all human creatures have a definite nature and an inviolable dignity. Therefore we should value the lives of all who are human, including the unborn. We also should understand sexual identity as part of the created order and not a matter of personal choice. And we should identify human beings as embodied living creatures, not “software” and not “machine.”
But things aren’t that simple. Such conclusions are too often reached by begging the questions, not dealing with them. Who said that “male” and “female” are clear and obvious notions? Why does “human” mean “embodied”? And so on. Moreover, the image of God itself is a controversial premise. Some object that the concept has been used to justify exploiting nature and for oppressing women. Others regard it as reflecting a primitive anthropocentrism that modern science has dispelled. Still others point out that Christians themselves do not agree about what the image of God is.
Theologically, the last point is the most important. Many Christians understand the image of God as something essential to the human constitution, usually rationality. To lack this is to lack humanity itself. The Lutheran tradition, however, has understood the image of God as original righteousness, that is, knowledge, fear, love, and trust of God. This righteousness was lost in the Fall and restored through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
The differences can be resolved to an important extent. But we would do well to learn from the fact of these differences. Each of these conceptions arose and flourished because each dealt with particular problems. One can be traced to the second century and Christian conflicts with gnosticism, the other (the Lutheran) to debates over sin, grace, and justification. Our situation is different from both of those, and it calls for fresh thinking about human creatures and for renewed thinking about Christian identity.
In my view, science and technology raise the deepest theological challenges. I don’t mean to play down the cultural and political challenges, but only to speak about that which I am most qualified to say anything.
Science shows that we can no longer take human uniqueness for granted. What distinguishes human beings from “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”? Modern biology would say that differences are only matters of degree and organization. And, thanks to neurosciences, today there is no easy recourse to the “soul” or the “mind” to set humanity apart from other animals.
Technology has made artificial intelligence and androids plausible possibilities. They are not imminent, and perhaps the hurdles will prove to be much too high. For good reasons consciousness is called the “hard problem” and meaning the “really hard problem.”2 But just in case the problems aren’t too difficult, we should prepare for a parishioner approaching her pastor and asking about the implications of having her mind downloaded and for a student wondering if he can marry an android. It isn’t even crazy to contemplate the robot seeking baptism. What would you say? “You’re not human”? Wouldn’t a robot capable of seeking baptism be wise enough to respond, “What’s a human?”
We should be ready with good answers. More than that, we should prepare our students, friends, and family with ways to give good answers themselves.
1. Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 2003), 16.
2. David Chalmers is credited with calling consciousness the “hard problem.” See David J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: (1995): 200–219. Following this, Owen Flanagan has called meaning the “really hard problem.” See Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).
Joel P. Okamoto
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri