Artificial Intelligence, Humanity and The Problem of Suffering

One of the most regular questions we get asked in schools by students is, 'If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why would he allow suffering in the world?' 

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This week, I have had the privilege of delivering assemblies with every year group at Verulam School, addressing the Christian perspective on evil and suffering. Out of 222 questions the students submitted about the issue in preparation for my assemblies, the majority were asking this very question - sometimes generally and sometimes about more specific types of suffering (see the word art displayed here). 

To help answer this question from a Christian perspective I wanted to reflect on what it means to be human.

With artificial intelligence growing in sophistication and science fiction becoming more and more a reality, in our lifetime we may get to the point where artificial intelligence looks human, thinks like a human, moves like a human, does jobs like a human (and probably to a better standard) - but even if this was the case, would it be alive? Could it ever be human? Or is there something about us that is and will always be different?

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Are we just a machine? Is our DNA simply an algorithm or code like in AI?

Personally, I don’t think AI can ever be human and I firmly believe humans are not just machines. 

The picture in the top right of this slide taken from the assembly depicts Adam, the first human in The Bible. The account of creation says that God created everything, including humans. Genesis 2:7 says God formed Adam from the dust. There is no debate that humans are physical beings, made up of combinations of atoms, elements, DNA etc. but are we more than that?

The Biblical account continues with God breathing life into him. Maybe this breath was consciousness, maybe conscience - a moral compass that helps us know right from wrong, maybe it was the ability to feel emotions such as love and joy, maybe it was the thing, a soul perhaps, that makes us unique, distinct from each other and vastly distinct from any form of artificial intelligence. Maybe it was and is the breath of God that makes us truly human.

I imagine most of you know the Adam and Eve story but in the garden, God gave them everything they needed. It was paradise but in amongst the trees that they could eat from, there was one they couldn’t and the consequences of eating from it were severe. It begs the question: why would God even have that tree there? Why would he allow them to make that mistake? 

But perhaps there is another aspect of our humanity that is revealed here - choice or free will. Part of being human is to grapple on the one hand with the desire to do good, show love and compassion and on the other hand, the desire for power, influence over people and selfish pleasures. 

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Unlike AI, which cannot go against its makers wishes (at least if the algorithms are correct), I believe God created us with that freedom - that freedom to reject him, to go against his wishes and instructions. I believe it is that freedom that stops us just being machines and makes us truly alive.

God giving us free will could well be the greatest act of love he could show us in creation and unfortunately the consequence of it was that evil and suffering entered into the world. We now experience a series of broken relationships (between humanity & the world, humanity & God, humanity & each other and humanity & ourselves) which I believe explain every possible example of suffering we could ever face.

God has an ultimate solution, but why does God allow suffering in this life? Maybe it’s to allow us to have the freedom to be truly human.

Geoff