The arrival of ChatGPT has everyone abuzz about the power of artificial intelligence. Could it transform the world into a paradise, or just as easily allow the machines to take over and usher in our doom?
It’s true that any new technology can be misunderstood or abused. I worry the most about how malicious actors (especially hackers) will abuse the new AI. I also know that the good guys are already working on AI countermeasures to these abuses. Still, there is real uncertainty about the impact of any new technology. Whatever the concerns and uncertainty, there’s one age-old attitude about technology that we should not treat as rational grounds for pessimism.
A telling example of this archaic attitude bubbled back to the surface in a Wall Street Journal column about AI by Peggy Noonan: “Something bad is going to happen. I believe those creating, fueling and funding it want, possibly unconsciously, to be God and on some level think they are God.” Noonan fails to offer any real evidence for her estimate of the unconscious desires of tech leaders. But she does cite the book of Genesis and St. Augustine to back up her contention that technological pride goeth before a fall.
What is “playing god” — and is there any reason to think that there is something actually dangerous about it?
Charges of “playing God” have been hurled at major technological developments for centuries. Recently we’ve heard it in protest against genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization. In the nineteenth century, religious critics even opposed the use of anesthesia on similar grounds. Citing other passages of Genesis, they argued that God had ordained women to suffer through childbirth — who are scientists to defy his will? Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after hearing of Galvani’s experiments applying electricity to dead frogs, concerned over how human endeavor could “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
What do all of these cases have in common? All involved the use of scientific knowledge to better understand and thereby to control the forces of nature, in order to improve human life. If that’s “playing God,” it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t play God more often.
The reason there’s a veneer of plausibility to the idea that playing God can bring about disaster is that people can play with forces of nature they don’t adequately understand. For instance, Walter Freeman heavily promoted the use of the transorbital lobotomy to treat mental disorders in the U.S., often in defiance of lackluster results and the criticism of his more experienced peers who knew he did not have the relevant surgical expertise to make it an outpatient procedure. The result was hundreds of unnecessary deaths and even more people rendered mentally incapacitated. Freeman’s problem wasn’t “playing God,” it was criminally foolhardy ignorance.
Yet the real target of the “playing God” charge is not foolish ignorance. You can see this in Noonan’s article, which is dripping with contempt for the value of knowledge. For instance, there’s no intellectually serious reason one could have for thinking Bill Gates “half mad” for being a voracious reader (or for thinking that in sharing his book recommendations he thinks other people are “poor dopes”).
What’s more significant is Noonan’s invocation of the Adam and Eve story from Genesis. The way she retells it is revealing: “God told them not to eat the fruit of the tree, but the serpent told Eve no harm would come if she did, that she’d become like God, knowing all.” It would be foolish to want to know everything. But Noonan expects you, poor dope, not to notice how she has fudged the story to make Adam’s choice look especially foolish. What the Serpent actually tells Eve is that eating of the tree will give her knowledge of good and evil. Isn’t this knowledge that any honest, conscientious person should want to acquire? Try to imagine the perverse conception of sin in which it’s “playing God” to pursue even this knowledge, and this is the original sin that dooms mankind.
The reason Noonan cites St. Augustine is to give his definition of pride as “the craving for undue exaltation,” playing to the idea that the problem with pride is foolish conceit. But in the section of City of God where Augustine says this (Book XIV, Chapter 13), the only reason he regards Adam’s choice as “undue” exaltation is that Adam has disobeyed God’s command.
Ayn Rand once observed a commonality among religious stories like that of Adam (and Prometheus, Phaethon, Icarus, the Tower of Babel, etc.). In these stories, “pride as a sin is always the pride of the mind, that is, reason.” She suggests that they portray pride as a moral conceit, an unearned belief in one’s own goodness. But in reality, they hate the pride that an independent thinker takes in “the absolutism of one’s own rational judgment, the reliance on one’s own ‘unaided’ intellect.”'The pioneers of human knowledge aren’t “playing God.” They aren’t playing at anything. They’re working to learn more about and improve our world.' Click To Tweet
The real root of the idea that prideful “playing God” is a sin is a purely religious superstition, the idea that independent thinking in pursuit of knowledge of the world is an affront to some higher power’s demand for blind faith.
It’s in the name of such a superstition that Noonan and kindred AI doomsayers want to regulate an innovative new technology that has already added enormous value to human life, and promises to add even more. It’s an absurd position.
The truth is that the pioneers of human knowledge aren’t “playing God.” They aren’t playing at anything. They’re working to learn more about and improve our world. We should follow their example, not resort to age-old religious attitudes that harbor envy for those who dare to know.