Comparisons with AI raise questions about the uniqueness of our brains

The human brain or an organic machine?
The human brain or an organic machine?
Is the human brain a learning machine, a complex information-processing device, or something else Andrew Shepherd asks. Over recent months, following the release of Chat GPT in late 2022, there has been significant conversation about the emerging technology of artificial intelligence (AI).

Discussion within universities has mainly consisted of the pragmatic: is it possible or desirable to prevent students using Chat GPT and other AI tools in their studies? In broader society many have noted the positive contributions this technology already offers: medical diagnosis and vaccine development; tracking of illegal fishing and human trafficking; tackling the complex problems of climate change and biodiversity loss.

However, at the same time, significant concerns have been raised, including by the technology’s creators. As well as anxieties over the impact of AI on human employment, others have pointed to the potential for AI to be weaponised for example, developing and spreading fake information, and strengthening nefarious forms of surveillance.

Utilised accordingly, this technology could perpetuate and exacerbate existing social issues: social polarisation and fragmentation; inequality; racial injustice; in the worst-case-scenario, some fear its misuse may contribute to economic/societal collapse.

These issues are critical and require deeper reflection, but here, my concern is more basic. That is, what does this new emerging technology of large language models (LLMs) and machine-learning reveal to us about our contemporary conception of what it means to be human? The use of the metaphor ‘‘artificial intelligence’’ drawing an analogy between the work performed by digital algorithms and the cognitive activity performed by the human brain is indicative of the way in which today we grant a seeming equivalence between human-made computers and human brains themselves.

Super-computers processing enormous quantities of complex information are said to be ‘‘learning’’, while neuroscientists characterise the human brain as complex ‘‘information-processing devices’’.

In his 2021 book, Neuromatic, religious studies scholar John Lardas Modern notes the increasing fascination with the human brain within Western culture. For Modern, the exponential development of cognitive psychology and neuroscience is indicative of broader cultural shift: an introspective and secular turn, an attempt to definitively locate all that makes us human including spirituality and morality within the brain.

Within this simplified framing it is unsurprising that the brain is thought of as an ‘‘organic machine’ and that computers come to be understood as ‘‘artificially intelligent’’, replicating human brains.

One cannot deny the important insights that cognitive psychology and neuroscience offer regarding aspects of the human experience specifically, how our brains function. But can the richness, depth, breadth and profundity of the human experience be boiled down to the electrical charges within the neural circuitry of our brains?

Is the sum of what it means to be human reducible to the information-processing capacity and ability of our brains? Does the modern cognitive revolution and the advancing claims of neuroscience offer, ultimately, an updated version of Cartesianism? ‘‘I think therefore I am’’: humanity conceived of as atomised individuals, disconnected from any larger reality other than ones own scepticism.

Last weekend we celebrated Matariki. Looking to the night skies to observe the rising of the nine stars of Matariki is a practice within Te Ao Maori connecting participants to whakapapa to one’s tupuna (ancestors); to one’s immediate whanau (those recently deceased and those present); and to te taiao (the natural world of land, waterways, other creatures). Truth emerges not from radical separation and scepticism but rather from an attentiveness to, and encounter with, a broader reality. To be human here is conceived not as a thinking individual, living inside one’s own head, disconnected from the world, but as an embodied being, embedded in a vast, enduring cosmos.

The Judeo-Christian tradition offers similar wisdom. Faced with the unfathomable mystery of human life in particular, and his own suffering, Job finds relief from his isolating introspection, and the well-meaning but misguided interrogation of his friends, by looking outside himself to a form of wisdom and truth discovered in the natural world (Job 12:7-12).

Later, Jesus will issue the same instructions to his disciples, calling them to pay attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26-28; Luke 12:24-27). Likewise, for the Psalmist, looking upwards to the heavens is profoundly reorientating. Human integrity and dignity is founded not upon the Psalmists’ solipsism but rather upon an external, transcendent valuation.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you [God] have made them a little lower than the divine beings, and crowned them with glory and honour.

(Psalm 8:3-5)

In our contemporary world, spellbound by the allure of technology, in which the ‘‘virtual’’ threatens to devour actual reality, data is the new gold, and where humans are at risk of being diminished to information-processing machines and computers elevated to ‘‘intelligent entities’’, these ancient, pre-scientific traditions offer important counterbalancing accounts of the world.

They remind us that the remarkable wonder and mystery of reality cannot be reduced to pure, abstracted data-sets. And, as significant, while our brains are powerful information-processing units, we are not machines.

Dr Andrew Shepherd is a senior lecturer in theology and public issues in the theology programme, University of Otago.