AI, Transhumanism & the Question of the Person

Today, we are pulled in many different directions on what it means to be human. On one hand, a radical constructivism rules: I choose and build my identity, and for you to use any category to describe me that I have not chosen is an offense and affront. From this perspective, there really is not anything solid that determines what it means to be human, and we can build ourselves into whatever we want. Yet, on the other hand, we construct arguments and movements based on a shared humanity. Furthermore, as we develop more and more sophisticated technology, we cannot help but begin to refer to these technologies as though they bear some marks of what it means to be human. Our digital assistants have names, we use smart robots to provide companionship to the elderly, and we exult at how “intelligent” (a human-oriented trait) our systems are becoming, whether it is the artificial intelligence (AI) built into a thermostat or a robot. When it comes to ourselves, we want to determine our humanity, but when it comes to our machines, we are quick to use static human traits in order to describe the greatness of the works of our hands.

Our technological creations pull in multiple directions at our doctrine of humanity. A robust doctrine of humanity will give us a foundation from which to address these challenges, but these challenges will also affect—or perhaps infect—our understanding of what it means to be human. A basic understanding of AI (“fake humans”) and transhumanism (“future humans”) will press a variety of challenges onto our theological anthropology, both in what it means to be human and how we might consider and pursue human flourishing in light of these developments.

Where do we go from here? There are many possible routes to address AI, transhumanism, and the challenges and opportunities they raise from a Christian perspective. We could talk about the imago Dei in Genesis, the prohibition of idolatry throughout the Bible, the prophetic call for justice, Jesus’s teachings on caring for the marginalized, or the Great Commission’s charge to make disciples.

But what about considering personhood, seeking a better understanding of how we can know a person when we “see” one? This idea can help us notice the difference between humans and artificial intelligences, as well as the false promises of transhumanism. While we’re used to the language of personhood in a theological context, its use in a secular context is already growing in significance in relation to these challenges.

Secular approaches to AI and transhumanism have to make a call on what it means to be a person, because they must explain whether AIs should be considered persons, and they must also explain how some radical extensions of “life” would still be the same “person.” But they actually lack the ability to provide a solid definition. They lack this because they refuse to allow God to speak, and they also lack it because they are pulled in opposite directions. Techno-utopians insist on essential definitions of things like “intelligence,” but they resist any essential definition of “human” or “person,” because the whole transhumanist project is built on exceeding and improving everything, which resists the idea of preserving any “essence.”

As Christians, we must develop a strong doctrine of humanity not only to guide our use of particular technologies for ourselves (the temptations associated with transhumanism) but also in how we consider, evaluate, and “treat” emerging technologies (AI).

One article cannot provide a robust enough treatment of the doctrine of humanity. But we can start, and we can point in directions of further development. I would like to propose one quick litmus test question for evaluating whether or not something is or is not a person. Can it make or break a covenant with God? To be a person is to be one who can enter covenant with God. Or, perhaps we might say, to be a person means to be able to exist in obedience or disobedience to the Triune God. (Angelic persons, then, fit into this, without our having to determine some sort of “angelic covenant.”) As Michael Horton puts it, “Can there be any doubt that human beings are uniquely suited among the creation to be covenant partners with God?”[1] If we develop our understanding of the image of God into a series of capabilities, we might very well see that AI can replicate many of them. Some sort of transhumanist intelligence built off a copy of a biological brain might also be able to replicate some. But does that make either of those things into persons? I do not think so, because personhood is ultimately given by God, the Creator, to those he calls into relationship with himself for his glory. We can only acknowledge that we have received this gift; we cannot create it ourselves.

We could also recast this litmus test with the question the Gospel writers put before us, reminding us that Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” While an AI might be able to answer with facts, or even repeat statements that sound like praise, only a person can give and live by Thomas’s later exclamation: “My Lord and My God.”

Jacob Shatzer is course development director at the BibleMesh Institute and associate dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University. This post is excerpted from an article in the Southwestern Journal of Theology.

[1] Michael Horton, “Image and Office: Human Personhood and the Covenant,” in Personal Identity in Theological Perspective, ed. Richard Lints, Michael S. Horton, Mark R. Talbot (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 184.