In search of the real thing
Amid the din surrounding artificial intelligence, I keep thinking about two other words: authentic humanity. Many touchstones come to mind, among them:
—The life of my paternal grandmother, who died in 2019. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, she exclaimed “Good! Maybe we’ll start to live together again!”
—A 2013 conversation in the hull of a World Vision boat with a Brazilian woman whose family lives along the Rio Negro in Amazonas. Faced with grave threat due to the ruthless advance of corporate agriculture, they decided to stay and fight for their region. “No one leaves here,” she told her husband when he wavered.
—The thought of our oldest son beginning to teach himself Japanese while living alone during the pandemic. He did so with such satisfaction and sense of vocation that he moved to Japan this past August.
—The making and remaking of a team-taught course called Invitation to the Humanities—”HUM 103”—over the past twenty years. It is dedicated, as the gateway course in the core curriculum at the college where I teach, to asking the question What is the good life? The teachers who make this class possible spend as much time together each week as we do with our students.
It’s a challenge of daunting proportions to consider the relation of such realities to those represented by arbitrary assemblages of letters—CBS. FBI. NFL. IRS. And to these we’ve added AI. These lettered groupings signal control over massive quantities of precious things: labor, capital, government, earth, language. Crucially, though, AI takes its place alongside these colossi not as an equal but as their servant—the ultimate tool, so ultimate that to call it “tool” is to deceive. There is no comparison between what AI can accomplish and, say, a drill. That difference in potency is enough to have scared the godfather of AI himself, Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, into resigning his perch at Google to warn the world’s leaders of AI’s catastrophic possibilities.
Wise people have, of course, long warned us of our momentous historical course. As he was watching Europe struggle in the mid-1940s to recover from an unprecedented assault of brutal power, the philosopher of technology and lay theologian Jacques Ellul, who had been part of the French Resistance, sounded a cry: “We need a rediscovery of the meaning of human activity, of the relation between means and ends, of their true place in a world which is given up to the love of power, to disorder, to the pride based on a sense of limitless power over the external world.”
Ellul knew then, as we know today, that we can’t afford to hope Apple and Meta and Amazon and Ford and Cargill and Visa, now supplemented by the power of AI, are going somehow to lead us into the rediscovery of what it means to be human. Their power is having other kinds of effects. If you have any doubt, consider the words of a first-year Geneva student in the fall of 2018. “I came to college for job training,” he wrote. “I came primarily to learn things that would make me marketable. All of my friends that go to college, no exceptions, see themselves as and want to become products.” This was a graduate of a Christian high school and a member of our honors program.
We need another vision of human formation. And we need institutional networks dedicated to working out how to achieve it. For Christian institutions, this will require that we begin not with numbers (and the disciplines centered on them) but with the Word. The Gospel of John’s opening line—“In the beginning was the Word”—is the most radical of claims. It tells us that in God’s cosmos power does not have the final word. Rather, it exists to serve the ends of wisdom. On this view power, to be legitimate, must always be in service of human wellbeing, and in ultimate service of what Augustine, in a moment of visionary brilliance, called “the commonweal of cosmic beauty.”
Whatever the pragmatic necessities and humane possibilities of AI might yet prove to be, to cede our thinking and speaking to the mere algorithmic ordering of meaning is to cede reality itself. Artificial intelligence is just the latest manifestation of a political-economic leviathan that is fostering something far more troubling: artificial humanity—which is to say, exploited humanity. Against this we need a new Resistance, launched from places that exist to teach us how both to speak and live in ways that yield the scent of the real. The truest test of any intellectual tradition: Are its adherents entering the ancient flow of language in ways that lead to convincing instantiations of the meaning of human?
Merriam-Webster declared “authentic” its 2023 word of the year. “Lookups for the word are routinely heavy on the dictionary company’s site,” one of its editors explained, “but were boosted to new heights throughout the year.” If our yearning for authenticity leads us to the dictionary, perhaps there is hope it will lead us into books as well, and to those communities whose survival depends on them—including the community we yet call America.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.
Image generated with AI ∙ January 28, 2024 at 7:56 PM