Paolo Benanti (Catholic Press Photo)

"Hey Bing, what's the meaning of everything?"

The question of religious meaning in the face of artificial intelligence. For Professor Paolo Benanti, "the remarkable thing is not the more or less sensible answer, but that humans still have that question.
Stefano Filippi

The temptation is irresistible: to ask an artificial intelligence chat room the question that Fr. Giussani calls "the question of religious sense," namely, "what is the meaning of everything?" Bing's response is polite but disappointing: "I am sorry but I did not quite understand your question. Could you please give me more details or better contextualize your request? Thank you!" Is there a link between artificial intelligence and religious sense? Can this "integral aspect of man’s behaviour in all times that tends to affect all human activity" (in Giussani's words) be helped by the tools of technology that are going to replace an increasing number of intellectual and operational functions hitherto considered typical of human activity? This was a provocation for Fr. Paolo Benanti, 49, a Franciscan of the Third Order Regular and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University where he works on ethics, bioethics and ethics of technologies.

Is artificial intelligence a help or an obstacle in the search for answers to the big questions of meaning?
I would try to avoid mistakes that have been made in the past, that is, to go against Galileo's telescope because you cannot see God. In my opinion, within the question posed to the chat, the problem is the question, not the answer.

What do you mean?
Galileo told us that how the sky works is one matter, another matter is how you get to the sky. Presumably, if man asks Bing what the point of everything is, the remarkable thing is not Bing's more or less sensible answer, but that man still has that question in the time of Bing.

That is, the persistence of questions of meaning is what makes the difference between man and machine.
Yes. That does not detract from the fact that humans can settle for the wrong answers, or can dull the meaning-or the sting-of those questions. These questions should not be asked to artificial intelligence. In fact, we have turned artificial intelligence into an idol, and the Bible is very aware of idols. We have settled for pieces of marble that are silent and do not speak, we can do it even more with these simulacra that seem to emit human sounds. The problem, I insist, is in the heart of man prostrate before a new calf, which is not of gold but of silicon.

Artificial intelligence, however, is not an obstacle to ultimate questions.
In itself, nothing guarantees that it is an obstacle just as nothing guarantees that it is a facilitator. The problem, I repeat, arises in the human heart, and that is the religious sense. Otherwise we empower things, we anthropomorphize them, and we go astray. As Fr. Giussani says, believing in God has as a premise taking the human condition seriously. Since man is capax Dei, as the Church fathers said, then there is a need for this stance. It takes the human. Now, linked not to artificial intelligences but to some currents of thought prevalent today, especially some strands of post-humanism, it is believed that we can do without man. If Grotius reasoned etsi Deus non daretur, that is, as if God were not given, a contemporary of ours might reason etsi homo non daretur. This, however, is not a problem of artificial intelligence, but of your position with respect to the human. And so, not being able to discuss, or recognize, the difference between something that works and someone who exists, it becomes clear that the question asked by someone who exists no longer finds meaning. One cannot ask a technical tool such as artificial intelligence to answer questions about life any more than one could ask Galileo's telescope to reveal God. That would be an anti-realist stance.

Are we headed toward a mechanization of human experience?
Mechanization is already an interpretation that some people give to this technology. For example, I do not think that those who do office work and use a computer for their tasks are "mechanizing." Just as I do not think a worker on the assembly line who sees his life less in danger because some production processes are carried out by robots instead of him perceives a mechanization of himself. True, there is a point where the question of meaning arises, where we wonder what we can do with all that we can do technically. It is here that we touch the final causes such as freedom, the broader and deeper categories of being human. Can I do everything that technology allows me to do? A hammer by itself doesn't move, doesn't hurt anybody. Sure, I can wield it to hit someone, but the problem is me, not the hammer. If we talk about meaning, that always lies in the human side of the relationship.

Read also - Flooding: signs of hope for life

A trivial example: delegating the search for the right road to a GPS navigator can cause people to lose memory capacity. It means that technology can atrophy certain human faculties. Is the religious sense also at risk of weakening in the age of artificial intelligence?
The question of meaning is a question of why here and now. It is true that machines can intervene in our abilities to solve problems. You give the example of GPS, but it is also common experience to forget phone numbers once stored on a cell phone. To say, however, that the ability to navigate space or memorize numbers is equivalent to the question of meaning, is something we cannot affirm or think, since it would mean that it could affect our human nature. And that is unthinkable. We are humans and remain humans. This does not guarantee that we ask the questions of meaning and experience the struggle or spiritual challenge of finding the answers. But our human nature is not changed.