Humainity Episode 4: AI and Religion

Humainity Episode 4: AI and Religion

There's fast AI and there's slow AI. Fast AI is the one that's going to cure cancer by the end of this year and get us to Mars by the middle of the next one. Or maybe not, for hype tends to be decades ahead of substance. Slow AI, on the other hand, is about a generational shift in the use of technology, one that will take at least a couple of years to make an impact and a decade or more to become universal. That's what happened with mobile telephony and before that, the internet.

Slow AI also helps us think about aspects of AI well removed from the hype. Like, how will AI influence religion? Will priests write sermons using AI? Can AI replace religious authorities when it comes to the interpretation of texts?

The guru figure's charisma is crucial in the religious traditions originating in the Indian subcontinent - like how Zen says it is a 'special transmission outside the scriptures.' That's the heart of of the religious magic. And maybe that will be the thing that will be hardest to replicate because human beings are essential to that sense of transmission. In contrast, knowing how to read and having access to texts and so forth was something accessible only to the few, but that might become more widely accessible in comparison with charisma.If you have to invest in being a scholar, And worry that AI would replace you and invest in being a charismatic religious figure, it might be that the scales are being tipped towards the charismatic figure.

Richard Russell and I talk about these issues and more in this week’s podcast.

One of the surprising twists in this episode was how we were able to test out ChatGPT in real time. I asked ChatGPT to interpret a famous line from 1 Corinthians:

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God

This is what the AI said:

Yes, that's a passage from the New Testament, specifically from 1 Corinthians 10:31.

The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian church to address various issues they were facing. In this particular section, he's discussing the matter of food sacrificed to idols and the Christian's freedom in Christ. Paul encourages the believers in Corinth to be considerate of their fellow believers' consciences and not to do anything that might cause them to stumble in their faith.

The broader principle captured in this verse is that whatever Christians do, whether it's something as mundane as eating and drinking or any other action in life, it should be done in a way that brings glory to God. This is a call to live a life that reflects the values and character of God in every aspect.

Not bad, but not too profound either. I then asked it to give me a different interpretation:

Certainly! The beauty of scripture is that it can be multifaceted, offering multiple layers of meaning and application. Here's another interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:31:

Holistic Worship and Mindfulness:

"Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God."

This passage can be seen as a call to holistic worship. It suggests that every aspect of our lives, even the seemingly mundane tasks like eating and drinking, can be acts of worship when done with the right intent. It's a reminder that God is interested not just in our religious rituals or Sunday worship but in our everyday lives. When we're mindful of God's presence and glory in everything we do, even the simplest actions can become sacred.

Additionally, this interpretation emphasizes the idea of mindfulness and intentionality. It's a prompt for believers to be fully present in each moment, making conscious decisions to glorify God through their actions. This level of mindfulness can lead to a more meaningful connection with the divine and a deeper appreciation of life's everyday blessings.

In this light, 1 Corinthians 10:31 is not just about avoiding wrongdoing; it's about actively seeking ways to turn every action, no matter how small, into an offering of love and gratitude to God.

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I liked the shift away from avoiding wrongdoing to actively seeking ways to show gratitude to God. Even an agnostic can adopt that mindset if they replace God with life. But it gets really interesting when asked how a famous Christian figure (I chose St. Francis of Assisi) would interpret that line.

While we can't know for certain what St. Francis of Assisi would say about any particular Bible passage, given that he lived in the 12th and 13th centuries and left no explicit commentary on this specific verse, we can make an educated inference based on his life, teachings, and values.

St. Francis of Assisi is best known for his deep love of nature, commitment to poverty, and his focus on living a simple life closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus.

If St. Francis were to reflect on 1 Corinthians 10:31, "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God," he might say:

1. Simplicity and Intentionality: St. Francis might emphasize the importance of doing everything, even the most basic of tasks like eating and drinking, with intentionality and simplicity. For him, the smallest actions could be acts of worship if done with pure intent.

2. Communion with Creation: Given his profound connection with nature, he might interpret "eating" and "drinking" not just as acts of sustenance but also as acts of communion with God's creation. Every meal can be a reminder of the interconnectedness of all living things and a moment to appreciate the beauty and bounty of the Earth.

3. Humility: Francis might also focus on humility. Doing everything for the "glory of God" could be a reminder to act not for personal recognition or gain but in humble service to a higher purpose or greater good.

4. Brotherhood and Universal Kinship: Expanding the notion of doing everything for the glory of God, St. Francis, who referred to the sun as "Brother Sun" and the moon as "Sister Moon," might suggest that in every action, we should consider our universal kinship with all of creation, treating all beings and things with reverence.

In essence, while St. Francis would likely align with the traditional Christian understanding of the verse, his unique approach to spirituality would also infuse it with themes of simplicity, humility, and a deep appreciation for the natural world and all its inhabitants.

There's something magical about a technology that helps us see a text from so many different points of view. Yes, it can confabulate and hallucinate, but the magic remains even after I make allowances for those sins. We are unaccustomed to these conceptual shifts. The emergence of machine-generated ideas, a phenomenon that imitates our most human qualities, leaves us in a state of unease. It's a novel experience, feeling this peculiar intertwining of humanity and machine.

The Guru Turing test

Imagine lay practitioner in a congregation with a living guru figure. They ask questions of the guru (online) and the guru answers them.

Let's assume that you can train an LLM to the recorded corpus of the living guru's speeches and pass the LLM's responses through voice and video synthesis (both of which are available because this is a public figure with plenty of appearances).

The test goes as follows: the practitioner asks a question and in one case the guru answers them live on video and in the other case, a synthesized response comes from the LLM passed through voice and video synthesis. Let's also assume both the videos are set in the same location.

Then the LLM has passed the Guru Turing Test if the majority of practitioners can't tell the difference between the human guru and the LLM version.

Let me conclude not with a single prediction, but rather by presenting two contrasting possibilities. One possibility clearly emerges – a relentless search for what is fundamentally human in the aspects that present-day technology, in this case, AI, cannot replicate. A concerted pull away from the mechanistic world, yearning for a human essence untouched by artificiality. Conversely, a different vision unfolds. Perhaps what will define our humanity is not in separation but in unity, in the extraordinary achievements born from the collaboration between humans and AI.

The first is akin to scaling the heights of Mount Everest without the aid of oxygen tanks, a human endeavor unaided by machinery. The second mirrors the journey to Mars in a spacecraft, a testament to human ingenuity amplified by technological advancement.

Both are visions of ascent.

The future holds this ambiguity, revealing paths that either diverge in a quest for 'pure humanity' or a harmonious dance of humans and machines.

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Planetary Thought: How our lives are intertwined with the lives of other beings on this planet, our only home.