Searching for meaning and purpose in a world of artificial intelligenceApril 5, 2017
What will become of man when he renders himself useless through robotics and artificial intelligence? This is the topic of discussion with best-selling author and influencer of the influencers, Yuval Harari. Below is a long excerpt from an interview at Vox, but it is worth reading for the sheer number of existential questions addressed. At the heart of this discussion are the questions of purpose and meaning. What does it mean to be human? What is life and what is life’s purpose?
In this particular section, Harari is responding to a possible future where, at least in the privileged portion of the world, the elite manage “the problem of economic irrelevance through a massive societal distraction machine.” Dystopia? Maybe, but also now within reach.
Yes, I think the other problem with AI taking over is not the economic problem, but really the problem of meaning — if you don’t have a job anymore and, say, the government provides you with universal basic income or something, the big problem is how do you find meaning in life? What do you do all day?
Here, the best answers so far we’ve got is drugs and computer games. People will regulate more and more their moods with all kinds of biochemicals, and they will engage more and more with three-dimensional virtual realities.
This idea of humans finding meaning in virtual reality games is actually not a new idea. It’s a very old idea. We have been finding meaning in virtual reality games for thousands of years. We’ve just called it religion until now.
You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don’t really exist, but you believe these rules, and for your entire life you try to follow the rules. If you’re Christian, then if you do this, you get points. If you sin, you lose points. If by the time you finish the game when you’re dead, you gained enough points, you get up to the next level. You go to heaven.
He goes on to say we have been inventing these games of distraction for thousands of years and virtual reality (VR) will just be another method to do so. Now, we we will create our heavens and hells with technology instead of religion.
The scenario presented may seem like a sci-fi story, but these realities are knocking on our door. And as Michael Graham wrote for us in a guest post here, technology advances faster than our law, theology or ethics. We needed to be thinking about these questions and engaging imagineers with ethical conversations about these things 15 years ago. But here we are today very much needing to play catch-up with a conversation outpacing many Christians.
If you read Harari’s answer again you’ll see possibly the worst description of Christianity ever. We will get to that. But first, as our society considers the moral repercussions of AI or VR, our starting point for the discussion is already one of confusion.
We don’t know what it means to be human anymore because we have forgotten or rejected whose we are.
If God is nothing more than a construction of the human mind, then yes, Harari’s assessment is logical. He is echoing a view that humans use religion as nothing more than a “opium for the masses” as Karl Marx, the founder of Communism argued. Man created religion to escape meaninglessness— just as man created work, entertainment or pleasure (ie, drugs and video games reference).
What it means to be human, whether that belief is overtly stated in the culture or just a part of the water in which we swim, is often one of value to the greater whole. Your usefulness to society determines your value. This same mentality plays out in the treatment of people with disabilities, the vulnerable or the “unwanted” child. So, if our economic usefulness is replaced by smarter, faster “super intelligence” and robots, then what will give man meaning?
The Christian worldview answers the question about the meaning of human life with reference to the reality and glory of God. The Westminster catechism’s very first question and answer are:
The purpose of life is not to be a human doing as a human being in right relationship to the God who Is. Romans 11 concludes, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” It’s not about me, it’s about God. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whether I’m eating or drinking or working, 1 Corinthians 10:31 reminds us, “do all to the glory of God.”
Our value and meaning is intrinsic. It’s about our identity in relationship to the One who gave it to us— our Creator God.
Work and productivity, then, are not our chief end nor are they ideas and past-times we created. In the garden, pre-Fall, God commanded Adam to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Right from the beginning God set forth a definition of human flourishing for our good and His glory. Work is part of our enjoyment of Him and His creation. We hold up everything— technological advancement included— to what God declared good.
When sin entered the world, just like everything else, work was tarnished and broken. It is no wonder we have made work our god instead of the Creator.
This misunderstanding of work and meaning is connected to Harari’s horrible description of Christianity as a “points” system. In this version— which is no Christianity at all— there is no grace. No cross. No justification by faith. No enjoyment of the empty tomb or Christ’s victory over sin and death on our behalf. There is instead, human effort to attain a prize.
Where does Harari get the flawed idea that Christianity is a system of moral law-keeping? Often that is the very image Christians project to the world. Attendance, bible reading, giving and service can be part of accountability or they can become point systems through which some are rewarded for outward behaviors that may have nothing to do with actual discipleship. But keeping score puts things into managed control and control is something we very much like to think we have. Sadly, this reduces a relationship with Christ to a religion of men— deserving the mockery of critics like Harari.
Let’s be mirrors reflecting the Truth about purpose and meaning. Our culture desperately needs it.
The time to have the conversation about the nature, meaning and purpose of human life is now. Technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and bio-medical advances may be pushing the conversation to the forefront culturally, but the answers to the questions are unchanging— and we have those answers!
We must be beacons of the hope that comes from anchoring our purpose and meaning where it is meant to be found— in glorifying our Creator and enjoying Him.
We must be employers and employees who declare the goodness of work as something commissioned by God rather than a god which rules our lives and dictates our worth.
And we must be Christians who bear witness to the truth of the gospel— which looks nothing like a complicated points system. It is a grace from God, through faith in Christ alone.
Now is the time. The secular humanistic vision is dystopian. It offers no hope and no satisfactory answers to the most fundamental questions of life. Jesus, on the other hand, came that we might have life and have it to the full— including meaningful, productive work as an expression of the creative power at work within us as human beings made in the image of a God.
Apply: Check out the Faith and Work Network if you want to fully integrate the inseparable spheres of faith and work.