Functional Atheism is a term I first heard about thirty years ago from writer and conference leader Parker Palmer. He described a functional atheist as someone who says they believe in God but lives as though God doesn’t exist. I have held on to the term for these many years, because it applies to so many of us who claim to be believers. It certainly does to me.
I am a recovering functional atheist. I repeatedly tell myself that I have enough intelligence, energy, relationships, focus – and electronic devices, that I can get by on my own. And with the advent – and the rapid advancement, of Artificial Intelligence, our electronic devices now have the capacity to not only guide, but govern our lives. To solve what have been unsolvable problems. The functional atheist in me often says – with no small amount of compassion, that I will give God a break. God shouldn’t need to worry about me. After all, God has much bigger and urgent issues to deal with: climate change, Ukraine, gun violence, polarization, the next potential pandemic – and who knows what else or what’s next. And with faster, accessible and almost magical devices at my disposal, I can create the illusion that I am in control.
It is an illusion which often has me worried. As are an increasing number of technical experts – many of whom have long abandoned any belief in a divine being; because of the potential for AI to make some serious, if not planet- threatening mistakes. As I understand it, AI has the ability to evaluate a nuclear threat, and respond in milliseconds with the full array of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And the machine’s judgment could be wrong – and unleash unimaginable devastation. All based on a miscalculation – not a mathematical or scientific mistake, but a human one.
Which is what has me worried. AI is evolving faster than we can keep up with it. AI seeks to learn more — and compute, write and create ever faster on what it is learning. The algorithms which are foundational to the ongoing development of Artificial Intelligence are not able to create space for vulnerability or mystery – which are integral and ineffable components of what it means to be human.
While in seminary forty-five years ago, I took a class on medical ethics, attended by medical and divinity students. One of the professors, a physician, posed a question: if medicine had advanced to the point that it could produce a medication that could cure any and all diseases, how would we go about distributing it? A confounding triage question, which raises no end of ethical challenges. But some of us took issue with the premise of the question itself: that it would be the ultimate hubris to think that science could develop an elixir that could cure any malady. To be able, in effect, not just to play God, but in effect to become God. And to think that we will be able to step out of our humanity.
It seems to me, with the unrestricted development of AI, that we are approaching that level of hubris. That the more confident and competent we become, the less likely we will want – or be able, to factor in vulnerability and mystery. Vulnerability can certainly be minimized, but it will never be erased. Much as we might like to think otherwise, at some point we will all die, an event which confirms our vulnerability. Mystery can often be explained, but there will always be moments that defy explanation. The origin of the universe and the existence of suffering will always be shrouded in mystery.
Science and technology will continue to refine and expand the capacity of Artificial Intelligence. That is essential to their respective missions. In the wake of this technological expansion, it becomes even more critical for us as humans, to put some restrictions on AI’s development, yes, but more importantly, to remind ourselves of our inherent vulnerability; and that even the smartest among us – which may end up being a computer program, cannot fully explain what it means to be alive.
AI poses an opportunity – and challenge, for us to claim and own the basic ingredients of what it means to be human, which inevitably contain vulnerabilities and mysteries that the most sophisticated technology will never be able to master.
Claiming our vulnerability and mystery may turn out to be our saving grace.