Angela Tilby: Humble silicon and the eschaton

20 October 2017

ISTOCK

A SILICON VALLEY millionaire has come up with a plan to “realise” God through the development of artifi­cial intelli­gence (AI). Anthony Lev­an­dowski is an American engin­eer who is ad­van­­cing a techno-faith agenda to understand and worship the emer­ging deity, who will transform hu­­man life.

From a Christian perspective, the “realisation” of godhead based on AI inevitably sounds weird — even idolatrous. But, behind Levandow­ski’s proposal, there is a genu­ine (if speculative) dialogue between sci­ence and theology.

The physicist John Wheeler was the first to suggest that the universe may have been “selected” to exist from the point of view of its own final state. Mysteriously, the cosmos is primed for life. As another physicist, Freeman Dy­­son, used to say: “The universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

This is difficult to explain while holding to the view that everything has evolved through random chance. Quantum physics provides the clue. It is the presence of ob­­servers which determines the out­comes of quan­tum experiments. So reality is not just “out there”: in­­telligent beings help to contribute to reality, even­tually driving evolution along.

Wheeler was convinced that, once intelligent living beings had come into existence, their advance would prove irreversible. AI could be part of this advance, enabling them to “download” their thoughts and ex­­periences into indestructible mat­erial. In the end, he thought, a final observer would emerge who had all the qualities that we attribute to deity. This would mean that the whole universe is created from the future, by the God who is to come.

It is easy to dismiss this as a science-fiction fantasy. But Levan­dowski is not entirely without theo­logical backing. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed that the uni­verse was evol­ving towards a final omega point, in which all things would be fulfilled in God. Christian eschato­logy implies that creation will be transformed, im­mortality will be achieved in the resur­rection, and God will be all in all.

The issue is whether humble sili­con could play a part in this, and whether eschatology refers to a spir­itual supernatural state or to a trans­formed physicality. It is argu­ably more biblical to think of the final state of creation in terms of glorified materiality.

As for the silicon, I once met a devout Roman Catholic techno-geek who believed that we would know the answer to this when a robot asked for baptism. He was convinced that this would happen eventually, since true intelligence must lead towards God. I am afraid that I was uncon­vinced, and was a bit worried about the effects of baptis­mal water on the robot’s circuitry.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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