From Artificial Intelligence To Science In The Church: An Interview with John Lennox, Part Two

Regent Interface recently interviewed Professor John Lennox, a Mathematician at Oxford University (emeritus) and an internationally renowned speaker and author on science and religion. The second part of this interview explores Prof. Lennox’s recent work on Artificial Intelligence and his views of how church leaders and church congregations might carry on meaningful conversations about science.

The interview was conducted by David Raimundo, the Regent Interface project assistant and a current student in Regent College’s Master of Arts in Theological Studies. David holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Lisbon and his theological interests include epistemology and to the interplay of science and theology.

David Raimundo: You have recently published a book on Artificial Intelligence named 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity together with a series of videos on the same subject produced by Zondervan. I believe this opens up a new front in your apologetics work, one that is intentionally addressed to believers and non-believers alike. What is the main motivation that leads you to reflect on AI and what is the central goal of the book and video series?

My motivation derived from an invitation that I got from Christian leaders in London who said: “Would you address the question of Artificial Intelligence and what it is to be a human being?” My first thought was “No, I don’t regard myself as any expert in this.” But they insisted, they said: “We need a Biblical view on this.” So I decided to work on it and very rapidly I discovered that this was a very important and interesting thing for me, even from a mathematical perspective. And there is a lot of interest among the public since this is an area that concerns people.

The motivation was that there are aspects of AI, by which I mean AGI (Artificial General Intelligence, the quest for super-intelligence) which are often full of hype and science fiction but which raise the fundamental question of what it means to be a human being. Christians need to address this question and non-Christians also need to hear what Christianity has to say before they too rapidly dismiss Christianity. The Christian and biblical worldview gives human beings a unique value and dignity as being made in the image of God. And what we are getting is the attempt to remake human beings in the image of… well, of whom? Of certain scientists, perhaps.

Having read C. S. Lewis for many years, I realized that he had seen this in 1940 when he wrote The Abolition of Man and then followed it up with a science fiction book called That Hideous Strength. And I thought that, once again, this needs to be written about. I discovered then that people are very confused concerning the meaning of AI. So I decided to write the book fairly comprehensively to explain what narrow AI is, what it does, what it does positively, as well as its negative side. For instance, I saw a generation of young people who are being taught by some older people that AI is dangerous and that they shouldn’t get involved in it. But I want to say that there are different aspects to it. If you are a bright young Christian who is a scientist, this is an area where you can make a real contribution, though you also need to be prepared to think through the ethics of what you are doing. So young people don’t need to run away from it, because there is excellent work being done, in medicine, for example.

Still, the ethical side of it is hugely important. It has to do with the question of the value of a human being under such things as surveillance technologies. Narrow AI, which is already being used (not AGI), is being used, on the one hand, to recognize criminals, which might be a good thing, but also to suppress minority populations, which is a horrific thing. George Orwell’s 1984 is coming through, that’s why I titled the book 2084 to be provocative.

I also wanted to gear it into biblical teaching. This is quite unusual, since Christians don’t often write on these issues; they will instead quote the Book of Revelation, for example. But I took that risk and it seems to have paid off. So the goal of the book is: first, to inform people; secondly, to encourage them to engage in conversation and if they are scientists to really think about the implications of what they are doing and what they think a human being is and how they can maintain a biblical worldview in the face of transhumanist pressure to simply regard humans as being at a certain evolutionary stage, ready for an upgrading by biological and non-biological cyborg technologies.

The challenge posed by transhumanism and the question of what a human being is are also widely addressed at Regent College. These questions have also been explored through our Interface lectures in the past. In this sense, I hope your book on AI will be of interest to our readers and to our community.

Alongside Artificial Intelligence, is there another scientific or technological recent development that can become extremely relevant to the science-and-religion debate? Perhaps some area in which you might plan to do some work in in the near future?

Not really, because AI is not just one technology. Rather, it’s a huge number of technologies. For example, surveillance is one huge area which works in two main directions: there are surveillance techniques used to suppress people, to monitor them, to be intrusive, and this raises questions of human rights and human dignity; but there is also surveillance capitalism, the way in which we are trapped on our smartphones, the information that is being harvested without our permission or our knowledge and being sold to companies, and that raises big ethical problems as to what is being done with our private information. I think it is in this area that we are going to see most of the technology. Some other people would say that the more serious technology is automated warfare and the invention of drone swarms, which are being highly developed for military purposes.

In almost every area of life, AI has forced its way in and millions, billions and trillions of dollars are going to be spent on it. I can’t think of another technology as pervasive as this. The difficulty is all the technologies today tend to be merged into this whole area, even though individually they may not actually be AI. AI is an umbrella conception so that’s where I would say a lot of things are going to be challenging for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Of course one might want to look at other things that Christians need to take seriously, such as global warming, what we are doing to the planet in terms of pollution and the whole question of migration. These are also huge issues, and we need to be thinking about it all.

We shall move now to our final set of questions regarding the church and its ministry. This interview is made possible through the support of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and particularly through Science for Seminaries, a Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program which focuses on promoting scientific literacy within ministry education.

Could you point out one or two scientific issues which, in your opinion, are greatly relevant in the context of ministry education? I.e. issues that every future church leader should have on their radar even if in a cursory way?

Well, let me tell you that there was a survey done in the UK some years ago, an analysis of why people are leaving churches, and the main reason by far was because churches are not answering people’s questions. I think, therefore, that every church leader needs to ask themselves this question: “Am I seriously addressing the questions that are asked by people who attend my church?” Some of those questions have to do with science and many church leaders are understandably afraid of science since they are not scientifically literate. Those church leaders need to be honest about that and they need to engage the scientifically-trained people in their congregations and get them involved.

That leads me to a follow-up question. At Regent College we have a mix of students preparing for ministry and also students committed to the marketplace, including careers in the sciences. Do you have any suggestions of how these scientists can cooperate with their congregations to promote sound views of science in the Christian context?

Yes, as I was saying, church leaders need to get the scientifically-trained people in their congregations involved. For a Christian scientist, the way to begin is, I think, to sit down for a couple of evenings or a week and write out a talk that integrates your Christianity with your scientific discipline. I have suggested this to many younger Christian scientists and I do not mean that they should write down what they do as a scientist on the one hand, and their testimony on the other hand, as two disconnected pieces. Rather, my suggestion is that one should reflect on how thinking as a Christian influences one’s science and vice-versa; in other words, one should try to build a bridge from one’s science to one’s Christianity (or, more generally, to one’s professional work, whatever it is). So, if you are a Christian scientist, write it out, get rid of the jargon, and then ask your pastor if you could possibly speak to a youth group or a small group of people. Get their questions, write the questions down, think hard about the answers, then you will soon have two talks, and then maybe four talks and so on.

I have found that people come back to me after years and say that that was the best thing anyone ever said to them. Because otherwise people get overwhelmed. They say “Look, I have read a hundred apologetic books but I don’t remember any of it.” Well, of course not, because none of it has answered questions that are real to you. So I suggest to people, including pastors as well, that you need to be listening to what folks around you are asking. I was taught when I was young that I have got two ears and one mouth and that I ought to use it in proportion!

Another thing that I would say is a quite serious mistake is the idea that apologetics is a subdivision of Philosophy 101, a discipline reserved only for very highly intelligent Christians. This is totally wrong! I don’t use the word apologetics for that reason. The word apologetics is not an English word, it’s the transliteration of the Greek word apologia. If this word had been translated instead of transliterated, it would be defense. That would have made much more sense, because if you use the word apologetics today, people will either think that you are apologizing for Christianity or they will think that you are a very clever person. However, Paul is the one about whom this word is used most often in the New Testament and, when Paul gives his apologia, the number one instance is his experience of conversion on the Damascus Road. So, number one on our apologia list ought to be our experience of God. Yes, it is also important to answer questions according to our own ability and understanding, but our experience matters a lot. I think the best definition of apologetics is “persuasive evangelism.”

I have actually written a little book for students, mainly to get them into this, called Have No Fear. One of the biggest problems in all that we have been talking about is that Christians are afraid, they don’t know where or how to start, so I wrote that little book to help young people in that regards.

The next thing, though, is this: in the science-and-religion debate there are arguments that depend on the exact knowledge of science, but there are also even more important arguments that anybody can understand that depend on the nature of science. My book Can Science Explain Everything? was written to deal with this topic and to give folks basic arguments that anybody can understand, even if they have not had a scientific education. Those are arguments that I count as very important.

Perhaps we can conclude with a sample of those arguments. Could you list 2-3 foundational truths concerning the science-and-religion debate that all church leaders should know and uphold in view of their role as pastors and preachers?

First of all, they can make clear that the debate is not about science versus God. This debate, in the Western context, is a discussion between two worldviews—atheism and theism—and there are scientists on both sides. I often use this analogy: the Nobel Prize for Physics was won by Peter Higgs, a Scottish atheist, and it was also won by William Phillips, an American believer. What divides those men is not their Physics, since they both won the Nobel Prize. What divides them is their worldview! This is hugely important because Richard Dawkins and co. have given the world the impression that the debate is between science, on the one hand, and God, on the other. But it is not. The debate is between atheism and theism and there are very bright scientists on both sides. So, the real question is, where does science sit? Does it favour atheism or does it favour theism? This needs to be made clear from pulpits and everywhere else, otherwise the so-called conflict model keeps going on and on. And this can be explained by any Pastor.

Secondly, they can assert that science is powerful but also limited. Science is not the same as rationality. History, Literature, Philosophy, Theology are all rational disciplines but they are not the Natural Sciences and we need to make that clear. And anybody can make that clear! Science cannot explain everything, that’s the whole point of my book, and that is something people can explain, if necessary recommending further resources.

Church leaders and believers in general can also uphold simple points on how science deals mainly with the “why?” and “how?” questions of function, but it cannot deal with the questions of purpose, ethics and meaning, which are the most important questions of all. These are some of the things that I would want to emphasize, offering simple arguments that people can use without being embarrassed of their own lack of scientific knowledge. These arguments are mostly a question of applied common sense.

Thank you, Professor Lennox, I especially like the idea of having pastors and Christian scientists working together to offer answers to the concrete and contextual questions arising in the congregation. I also think that it is helpful to conclude with the reminder that science is limited in its scope and in the type of questions it can address. After a conversation that touched some complex issues we can come back to an image that you refer to in your book Can Science Explain Everything? on whether science can answer the questions of a child. It can certainly answer to some of those questions but not to all of them.

Yes, that is a reference to a remark made by Nobel Prize winner for Medicine Sir Peter Medawar, on the inability of science to answer childlike elementary questions. Many people don’t recognize it. The big threat in academia today and in the Western world is scientism, the idea that science is the only way to truth.

The lecture series by Prof. Lennox on Artificial Intelligence is available here. In addition to his work on Artificial Intelligence, in 2020 Prof. Lennox also published a book called Where is God in a Coronavirus World? A launching interview with Regent College’s President Dr. Jeff Greenman is available on the Regent College YouTube Channel.

In the first part of this interview, Prof. Lennox talks about his work as a mathematician and about his approach to the science-and-religion debate which is grounded on the premise of the intelligibility of the universe.

John Lennox
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