Acton Institute Powerblog

Artificial Intelligence: A contribution or detriment to human flourishing?

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Free weekly Acton Newsletter

In my recent book, Artificial Humanity. An Essay  on the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (2019, IF Press),  I  analyze several interesting aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) from a philosophical, anthropological and even ‘futuristic’ point of view.

My intention throughout the book is to keep the reader grounded in real expectations about AI and its integration with rational, intelligent and free human living in comparison with so-called “advanced” machine learning.

Therefore,  I ask fundamental questions as guidance to readers who have followed or even joined  the feverish pitch for more artificial intelligence: “What is meant by AI?”; “What is the nature of intelligence and where does it come from?”; “What do we mean by ‘transhumanism’ and is it possible?”; and  “What is  and common sense reasoning?” What are the limits and ends of both human and machine ‘learning’” ?

The relationship between man and machine has fascinated people ever since the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where we are warned about the unintended consequences of the use and development of technology.  Yet, while scrutinizing AI, one other profound question emerges as a natural result: “What makes us truly human?”

Easy answer:  it is rational intelligence and free-willed action.  In other words, in our acts of human decision and freely chosen acts – including all the consequences, for good or evil –are what designate us as particularly human.

During the book’s various presentations since last October, I have frequently proposed philosophical discussion  about human nature itself in  light of existing and future technologies that seek to improve human cognition, memory and in general intelligent choice and strategic thinking.

Almost univocally, theorists working in the field of AI have identified a very relevant distinction, despite the aids of machine learning or even experimental ‘bionic’ implants by neurosurgeons in nervous systems: a sufficiently complex AI system can only at the very best choose among options. No AI system can actually decide,  because essential to making a decision is having a will – a capacity for willfulness. Will technology help humanity to grow in virtue and flourish, or will it hamper and constrain that which makes us human? Is the transhumanist movement favoring true human flourishing or does it lessen that which constitutes human nature? Can humanity integrate technological advancements while placing people at the center? Will powerful market forces drive how we use technology and AI?

These are now all valid questions, but fundamental anthropological and metaphysical differences between inanimate machines and animate intelligent human beings have been examined extensively since Aristotle’s De Anima and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

Therefore my book’s arguments are divided into the following critical Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments about intelligence, meaning, learning, the soul and consciousness as well as the pitfalls of futuristic pessimism/optimism and some fictional beliefs and false hopes regarding transhumanism.

AI as a type of intelligence essentially different from human intelligence.

What does the word ‘intelligence’ convey? There are several types of intelligences in nature, primarily animal intelligence and human intelligence, which differ essentially. Intelligence is denoted by behavior: we witness certain behavior and deduce that an intelligence produced that behavior. In this perspective, we can conclude the same thing concerning machine behavior.

AI and meaning

For human intelligence, ‘meaning’ is essential for understanding. Machines, as of yet,  do not convey or transmit meanings and therefore how could ‘understand’ anything? Machines  exhibit behavior that we humans perceive as understanding and this may in fact, come with risks for humanity.

AI and consciousness

Most philosophers and cognitive scientists agree that we really do not know what ‘consciousness’ is. We experience it, and we understand when we see it, but it is difficult to explain it scientifically. Neuroscientists tend to reduce it to an epiphenomenon of the physical brain, i.e., that all mental states are reducible to brain states. Such reductionism leaves many unanswered questions on the table.

AI and the soul

Although the soul today is predominantly explored within a religious context, the notion finds its roots in ancient Greek philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. The soul is the life principle of an animate object, the reason why it is alive. In fact, ‘animate’ comes from the Latin word for soul, anima, and is used to denote the difference between what is alive (animate) and what is not (inanimate). Although similar to the notion of consciousness, what does “ensoulment” mean for human beings? What could it mean for advanced digital technology? Could a sufficiently advanced AI become “ensouled”?

AI and the end of the human race

Popular movies over the past twenty years attempt to be prophetic in warning us that the machines will eventually destroy the human race. Through a mentality of ‘us against them’, many blockbuster hits have delighted moviegoers since 2001. A Space Odyssey of 1968 to the Terminator series more recently, with many movies in between. It is natural that human beings fear what they do not fully understand, and perceive advanced digital technology as a threat, yet is Hollywood’s prophetic voice a realistic one?

AI and transhumanism

Instead of an “us against them” mentality, the intellectual movement known as ‘transhumanism’ sees a marriage between digital technology and human biology. From this point of view, human beings will become ever more like cyborgs, utilizing AI and digital technology to enhance themselves on many levels.

To read on-line reviews and purchase a copy of Fr. Philip Larrey’s Artificial Humanity. An Essay on the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence,  please go here.

Photo: Storyblocks rights free.

Enjoy the article?

Click below to view our latest and most popular posts!

Read More

Fr. Philip Larrey Professor of Epistemology and Logic, Pontifical Lateran University