Excerpted from “Approaching Anthropology: Considering an Age of AI”
I’m a philosopher by academic training. I did my doctoral work in philosophy of logic. I teach logic almost every spring semester at Bethlehem College to second semester freshmen, and I teach logic the way that it has been taught for over two thousand years, primarily by studying how words are used in everyday natural language, particular words like “so” and “thus” and “since” and “because.” By studying the relationships between propositions that use these words, I teach students how we are able to see how good reasoning should go and how to avoid bad reasoning. But most logic courses today offered in colleges and universities do not primarily follow this approach. Rather, logic in most of these courses has become a mathematical discipline of reducing natural language to symbols and formulae and then recognizing and performing certain formal manipulations on these formulae. Instead of analyzing arguments in natural languages, most logic courses seek to reduce human reasoning to proofs in order to evaluably test arguments as valid or coherent. Mathematical logic can be a highly technical field, and one that I think is a very worthwhile one to study for certain purposes. But after having seen students become quite adept at formal, mathematical logic, I can testify that most such students rarely become better reasoners or thinkers. What they become good at is a technique, the technical manipulation of formulae according to certain rules. Studying formal mathematical logic may make someone a good computer programmer; but it does not usually make someone better at everyday human reasoning.
As the late theologian Jacques Ellul suggests, technique encourages people to think of vocation primarily in terms of technique. Before entering into academic philosophy, I did my undergraduate degree in theology, and my first master’s degree was in divinity. Before going into philosophy, I was initially pursuing education in order to be a pastor. And one of the things that was very popular in ministry circles in the 1980s and 1990s—and I suspect that this is still true in some theology schools—was seeking out programs or methods for doing effective “church growth.” Many of these programs and methodologies I found insightful and helpful for evangelism and ministry. But in my experience, I found that one of the expectations that was beginning to be laid on young pastors and up and coming ministers was that one should primarily seek to be an effective pastor or evangelist. And in order to do that, one needed to master certain sociological, psychological and managerial methods. Again, I think there were some helpful things for pastors to learn from these areas. But in becoming good at church growth techniques, sometimes things like teaching good theology and what it means to be a good shepherd to actual people in the real world got lost in the mix. Pastoral preparation was clearly being thought of in terms of what Ellul calls technique: it was be presented as a professional vocation that seemed to primarily focus upon technical expertise. John Piper wrote on this issue two decades ago in his book, aptly named, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. In his 2013 updated version of that book he wrote:
Nothing has happened in the last ten years to make me think this book is less needed. In fact, instead of going away, the pressure to “professionalize” the pastorate has morphed and strengthened. Among younger pastors the talk is less about therapeutic and managerial professionalization and more about communication or contextualization. The language of “professionalization” is seldom used in these regards, but the quiet pressure felt by many pastors is: Be as good as the professional media folks, especially the cool anti-heroes and the most subtle comedians.
But this phenomenon of professionalization has bled over into all sorts of fields, and I think this is largely due to how technique has become the dominant way of thinking about education, especially higher education. Being involved with student recruitment at Bethlehem, one of the many questions I often hear from prospective students, and especially parents, is: What can my kid do with a degree from Bethlehem? I don’t think that’s a bad question, nor do I think it’s unimportant. But it has unfortunately become the dominant question for higher education institutions. Historically schools were always first and foremost committed to the goal of shaping people for all of life. But for almost two centuries now, it’s clear that most people think about higher education as simply preparing them for one slice of their life, namely the professional career.
And this passive acceptance of technique can be seen even in many of our expectations about other things. It seems to me that we often expect professionalism simply because we cannot fathom a non-technical alternative. For example, when people are experiencing deep and hard struggles in their lives, and when they are wise enough to know that they need help, the first immediate inference they people often make is the need to seek out a professional counselor. Now I praise God for people with such expertise. But what exactly did people do before psychology and biblical counseling degrees existed? And why do we now immediately think about seeking out professionals for almost any type of perceived need today? Were mentally troubled people completely without hope before Freud came along? I find that hard to believe. And I find it sad that we think that difficult situations always require technique.
Note that none of these examples I’ve given rely especially upon technology per se, or as we usually perceive that term. Nevertheless, I think these are all examples of technique in that what seems to be most highly prized or valued is technical mastery, and this is part of what both Berry and Ellul see as problematic for human flourishing. And moreover, it seems to me that this is nothing new. In Genesis 11, we are told about the building of the Tower of Babel, when “the whole earth had one language” (vs. 1) and when the peoples of the world came together with the following plan: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (vs. 4). Given their stated goal, this is clearly not some altruistic feat of engineering but a hubristic attempt to be like God. And thus we are told a few verses later that Yahweh came down and “confused” their language such that they could no longer continue to work together and thus were unable in go on to bolder technological blasphemies. Technique is not new, and as the Bible suggests here, it comes from a deeply problematic place in the human heart. But what does any of this have to do with AI? A recent online article reported the following:
Suppose I told you that in 10 years, the world as you know it will be over. You will live in a sort of paradise. You won’t get sick or age, or die. Eternal life will be yours! Even better, your mind will be blissfully free of uncertainty—you’ll have access to perfect knowledge. Oh, and you’ll no longer be stuck on Earth. Instead, you can live up in the heavens.
If I told you all this, would you assume that I was a religious preacher or an AI researcher?
Either one would be a pretty solid guess.
The more you listen to Silicon Valley’s discourse around AI, the more you hear echoes of religion. That’s because a lot of the excitement about building a superintelligent machine comes down to recycled religious ideas. Most secular technologies who are building AI just don’t recognize that.
This may sound like an excerpt from a religious website. But it’s actually an article from Vox.com and I think it shows that many people are seeing something problematic in what the purveyors of AI are seeking to sell us. But, as I’ve been making the case this evening, AI is not really some drastic new thing, but just the latest “unfolding along a longstanding techno-cultural trajectory” of what Ellul called technique: a worldview that we’ve been habituated to and still continue to perpetuate. And if AI is indeed part of this trajectory of technique that focuses so highly upon efficiency, then I think we should pause to think about how AI, or any sort of feat of technique, should or should not be used in our lives.
…One more suggestion as I close, and this comes by way of Jacques Ellul. He said: “This does not mean that technical work should not be done, or that it is useless. No, the point is that everyone does this kind of work, and it has no meaning if it is not guided, accompanied, and sustained by another work, one that Christians alone can do and yet often do not.” According to Ellul, what is the one work that Christians alone can do that makes technical work meaningful? It may seem overly simplistic, but Ellul suggests that Christians need to be primarily about the business of prayer. How does prayer disallow us from making technical work, including working with AI, not become technique, the problematic worldview that goes back to at least the Tower of Babel? It seems to me that in prayer we are doing exactly the opposite of what technique is encouraging us not to do: that is, humble ourselves and rely more upon God. As writer and researcher Matthew Crawford as observed: “For several hundred years now, the ideal self of the West has been striving to secure freedom by rendering the external world pliable by its will.” He’s right for that is the way of technique; but prayer for the Christian is not a striving for freedom to enforce our will, but rather a resting in the freedom and will of Christ. In short, prayer is one of the major ways that can make us more human. And that is probably the most intelligent thing I’ve said this evening.
James McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology