Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 18, 2023


AI systems like ChatGPT have a lot of people worried, but I just bumped into a story about a group who wouldn't have occurred to me -- pastors.

Apparently, there's been a sudden spike of interest in (and concern over) the use of ChatGPT for sermon-writing.  As you might imagine, the uneasiness creative people feel about AI producing prose, poetry, art, and music is amplified a hundredfold when the issue starts to encroach on religion.

The article is well worth a thorough read, and I won't steal the writer's thunder except to mention a handful of quotes from pastors to give you the all-too-predictable flavor of their responses to AI-generated sermons:

  • It lacks a soul -- I don't know how else to say it.  (Hershael York, Southern Baptist)
  • ChatGPT might be really great at sounding intelligent, but the question is, can it be empathetic?  And that, not yet at least, it can’t. (Joshua Franklin, Orthodox Jewish)
  • While the facts are correct, there’s something deeper missing.  AI cannot understand community and inclusivity and how important these things are in creating church.  (Rachael Keefe, United Church of Christ)
  • When we listen to the Word preached, we are hearing not just a word about God but a word from God.  Such life-altering news needs to be delivered by a human, in person.  A chatbot can research.  A chatbot can write.  Perhaps a chatbot can even orate.  But a chatbot can’t preach. (Russell Moore, Southern Baptist)
To make my own stance clear right from the get-go, I'm what the philosophers call a de facto atheist -- I'm not a hundred percent sure there's no higher power (mostly because I'm not a hundred percent sure of anything), but the complete lack of hard evidence tilts me in the direction of disbelief.  As far as spiritual concerns, like the existence of a soul (or at least "something more" than our physical being), I'm an agnostic.  There is a great deal of weird shit out there that might be explainable by virtue of some sort of non-materialistic model -- but it might just as well have to do with a combination of our own flawed cognitive processes and incomplete understanding of science.  (If you have five minutes, watch this video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder about why quantum wackiness doesn't support the existence of souls.  I'm not as convinced as she is, but wherever you're starting, belief-wise, it'll get you thinking.)

Apropos of AI, this lands me squarely in Alan Turing's camp.  How on earth am I supposed to judge if a particular AI system "really is intelligent" other than its output -- given that I don't have any access to the inner workings of another human's brain, and barely have access to my own?  The only way to judge intelligence is by what you see externally.  So is ChatGPT intelligent?  In my opinion, the question is honestly not so much difficult as it is meaningless.  It implies that intelligence is some kind of either-or, a threshold that you cross irrevocably, whereas it really seems to be more like a gradually-shifting gray area.  Coming up with a final answer regarding ChatGPT (or any other AI) is drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and then arguing over which side of that line something falls.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons mikemacmarketing, Artificial Intelligence & AI & Machine Learning - 30212411048, CC BY 2.0]

Interestingly, one person on the r/atheism subreddit asked ChatGPT if it wanted to buy his soul.  Here's how it responded:
I'm sorry, but as an AI language model, I don't have the ability to buy or own anything, including souls.  Moreover, the concept of selling one's soul is often used in literature or mythology, but in reality, it's not a valid transaction that can be made.  Your soul is a metaphysical concept that is not subject to exchange or monetary value.  It's important to focus on living a meaningful and fulfilling life rather than trying to sell or trade something that's intangible and invaluable.
I'm not sure whether to laugh or shudder.

In any case, you can understand why the pastors are concerned, given that they don't share my agnosticism over souls and spirits and whatnot, and the prevailing attitude is that there is a qualitative difference between human intelligence and any potential artificial intelligence, no matter how clever it gets.  They're backed into a corner; presented with a sermon written by ChatGPT, they have no choice but to claim that it "lacks a soul" -- because, after all, they think the computer it came from lacks one, too.

Me, I wonder how accurate that view would turn out to be.  It'd be interesting to run a Turing-test-style experiment on some pastors -- give them a bunch of sermons, half of them written by qualified pastors and half written by ChatGPT, and see if they really could detect the lack of soul in the ones from AI.  I suspect that, like all too many other AI applications, we're getting to the point that it'd be a damned difficult determination.  And if they couldn't figure it out, what then?  I'm reminded of the quote from Spock in the James Blish novel Spock Must Die: "A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

Given the rate at which this is all moving forward, we're embarking upon an interesting time.  Although I'm not religious, I empathize with the pastors' dismay; I have a strong sense that the fiction I write has some ineffable something that an AI could never emulate.  But how much of that certainty is simply fear?  I'm not sure my "oh, no, an AI won't ever be able to write a novel like I can" is any different from Reverend Moore's statement that "a chatbot can't preach."  We all get territorial about different things, perhaps, and fight like hell to keep those boundaries secure.  Maybe at heart, the fervor of the religious and the passion of the creatives are really manifestations of the same thing.

I wonder what ChatGPT would have to say about that.


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