Artifical Intelligence: Tool or Takeover? | Fr. Patrick Briscoe & Fr. Bonaventure Chapman

April 18, 2024

Fr. Patrick: This is Father Patrick Briscoe. 

Fr. Bonaventure: And this is Father Bonaventure Chapman. 

Fr. Patrick: Welcome to Godsplaining. Thanks to all who support us. If you enjoy the show, please consider making a monthly donation to our project on Patreon. Be sure to like and subscribe to Godsplaining wherever you listen to your podcasts. This is an important episode of Godsplaining. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Unlike most.  

Fr. Patrick: Every episode of Godsplaining is important, but this one is more important than the others. Yeah, exactly. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Oh, okay.  

Fr. Patrick: You know, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yeah, George Orwell, of course.  

Fr. Patrick: Yes, so this is an episode about my deepest Orwellian fears, which are that the computers are gonna take over everything and human beings are going to be eliminated, which is to say we’re talking about AI. 

Fr. Bonaventure: That’s right. 

Fr. Patrick: So Father Bonaventure, as we were sitting here before the show, I opened up ChatGPT and I asked it, what is Godsplaining? 

Fr. Bonaventure: Oh, great, what does it say? 

Fr. Patrick: And it told me, “Godsplaining is a portmanteau of God and explaining, similar in structure to the more widely known term, “mansplaining”. It refers to an act of explaining religious concepts, theology, or spiritual beliefs in a condescending or oversimplified way…”

Fr. Bonaventure: Oh, that’s us, yeah. 

Fr. Patrick: “…this term is often used in a critical context, implying that the explainer is speaking about religious matters in a manner that is patronizing or overly simplistic, possibly underestimating the listener’s own understanding or beliefs.” 

Fr. Bonaventure: Wow. 

Fr. Patrick: So apparently it’s a thing, you know, according to ChatGPT.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Or ChatGPT just made that up. 

Fr. Patrick: Correct, it will in fact lie to you, as we know. So then I asked it, I asked ChatGPT, I said, “is it a podcast?” And it said, “Yes, Godsplaining is indeed a podcast. It’s hosted by five Dominican friars of the province of St. Joseph.”

Fr. Bonaventure: Oh, it knows about us. 

Fr. Patrick: “In this podcast, they delve into various topics encompassing philosophical, theological, cultural aspects, and more. The podcast aims to present ideas from the church’s tradition and to apply them to life’s most urgent questions, offering insight and discussion on a range of subjects related to faith and contemporary life.”

Fr. Bonaventure: Right, and then the question is, how does that relate to the opening definition? (laughing) 

Fr. Patrick: And then I said, “Do the friars do that well?” 

Fr. Bonaventure: Uh-huh. 

Fr. Patrick: And it said, “As an AI language model, I don’t have personal opinions or the ability to listen to podcasts…” 

Fr. Bonaventure: Yeah, just fact and value distinction, okay.  

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, exactly. “…however, I could provide some general insights based on the concept of the God’s planning podcast and typical listener feedback for such programs.”  

Fr. Bonaventure: Oh, right. 

Fr. Patrick: Meaning it just generated a bunch of nonsense, yeah. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Yeah, okay, that’s great. 

Fr. Patrick: So there we are. ChatGPT knows what we are and is talking about us, at least when I ask about us.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yeah, it’s, you know… 

Fr. Patrick: So we can talk about it.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yes, and this is a newer thing, although AI’s been around. I mean, I remember when I first showed up, gosh, maybe I was in high school or something, or maybe I was in college, but they had an AI thing that you could go and you could ask a question. I think it was in college, maybe. So this is the early 2000s. And you go to this website and you could ask this AI thing questions and it would kind of give you pod responses. You could have conversations with it, but it was not that impressive. It’s a bit like when videophone first appeared. Technology generally appears, has its first run, it plants seeds, and then it shows up again some numbers of years later. So videophones were, I remember in the late ’90s, they were going to be the biggest thing in the world. All your phones can have video, little links to them. You’re gonna be calling people by their faces. Movies would have this. And it just didn’t take off. But of course, videophones with FaceTime did take off. And I notice on college campuses, students are often talking on their phones to other people they’re calling. During the time when Father Gregory was writing his dissertation, we would FaceTime on Sundays. And instead of listening to someone’s voice, it was nice to actually see someone and talk to them face to face, you could say. And Zoom meetings, of course, do this sort of thing. So videophones didn’t take off initially, but actually now, not the same as regular, but it might be the case that you will just, when you have an opportunity, just to speak face to face with someone. So videophones came of age, you could say, 20 years later, 30 years later. I think it’s similar with AI, ’cause that first run of AI was not that impressive or interesting, I didn’t see what you could do with the applications, it was just kind of a fun piece. And there was AI in terms of conversational informational interface. But now, maybe it was last spring or something, with chat GTP and generative AI, large language models, learning models. Boom, AI came out in force. And from every field, it seems like this is now something people have to reckon with and deal with. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, so I think what you’ve said there is very important to understand that this is not something that just appeared yesterday. There have been various AI programs that have been developed and have been, people have been using them for some time. And the impact of this is going to be something that we’re going to have to reckon with. There was a bit of a controversy this fall with Sports Illustrated because researchers demonstrated that Sports Illustrated had generated fake journalists. So these were AI-generated journalists that don’t exist, that were writing AI-generated articles about sports. And that controversy was interesting to me because people didn’t care.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yep, yeah.  

Fr. Patrick: They didn’t care.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yeah, well, you might have thought that actually, when you read Sports Illustrated journal articles, you’re not reading to have a conversation with that person. You’re just trying to get information. So actually, why should it matter that it’s not written by a human? I think the difference, and we’ll get into this, this points up to a bigger issue about what it means to be human and why actually we care a lot more about being human than we let on, because we haven’t had to deal with the possible replacement of being human. Like transhumanism has really not been an issue, and our humanity has not been threatened at its essence until really getting close now.  

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point. So at the outset of the conversation, the thing that I wanted to underscore is that, yeah, this has been incorporated into our world and that there are plenty of uses that are not disconcerting to people at large, including things that I thought would be. I thought people would be up in arms that there were these faux sports journalists, but people weren’t. And overall, I know Sports Illustrated is continuing to do this, and I’m sure they will because there’s money to be made. So I think that as we begin the conversation about artificial intelligence and the way that it’s being incorporated in our everyday life, the thing that we have to recognize is that we did hit a major shift, something like you’re proposing with the way that the iPhone changed the past history of video calling. We’ve hit that moment…

Fr. Bonaventure: I think that’s right. 

Fr. Patrick: …with software programs like ChatGBT that are language learning models that can freely converse with you, this is a new moment. It can do something different. 

Fr. Bonaventure: And also, and everyone has different experiences with this depending on their life, their professions, and what they’re doing, but for me as a teacher, for instance, it comes in with student essays and such, and it’s been a long time since a student wrote an essay by hand with no assistance of anything else, books, anything like that. That’s just a different essay, right? There’s been Wikipedia, there’s been, you can ask different things, there’s always been this, but there has been a shift with AI because AI will generate essays entirely from scratch. Well, and it requires you to prompt, so it’s essay engineering prompts. And what’s interesting to me was in grading these things, it’s not so much that I worry about finding these, which ones which, but the experience of actually grading a non-human product, right? So before, compare the difference between plagiarism and AI plagiarism, which is not plagiarism. The AI generator isn’t taking it from anywhere else. That’s why you can’t catch it with most sensors, like Turnitin or Safeassign or something. It has a harder time catching AI because it can’t show you exactly where this thing is from, this quote or what have you. It’s not from anywhere. It’s also harder to prove that someone has generated this piece, not themselves, because you can’t point to, yeah, you got this from this other person’s essay or from this page. Because it’s generating from scratch. But the interesting part to me was in reading these things is when I read someone who’s plagiarized, I’ve done this plenty of times, and whenever you teach in college, you’re gonna read plagiarized. If it doesn’t have to be turned in, students will plagiarize and it’s just how it goes. Welcome to the world. So this is, I’m never surprised by this. And you look, and it’s not as offensive to me. It doesn’t feel as offensive to me because you just, I’m gonna get you, I’ve clearly got you covered. And to be honest, oftentimes when you’re plagiarizing from good sources, so actually it’s better. I’m happy to read a quote from a famous philosopher that you’ve passed off as one of your own. Because I’ve learned something from that philosopher. That’s good. It’s actually helping me, you’re gonna get in trouble, and I’ve actually been educated instead of reading your prose. So it’s good, I’m great. This one though, I had one of these cases, and I was reading this thing, and it was offensive. And not in the sense of someone had cheated me or tried to pass off something. That’s what plagiarism does. But actually I was being forced to read something that wasn’t human. And I did not expect, and I’ve asked some other professors how they feel about this, we all came to the same thing. It was something that it was, I didn’t wanna finish it. Like because I wasn’t reading any actual thought, even though there are plenty of words, I wasn’t reading any thoughts there. They were just symbols. Whereas it turns out like an essay, even a plagiarist essay, is a human product. It’s an action of human agency. And there’s no agency here, nothing at all. And I was surprised to feel that, but it raised bigger questions to me about wow, this is a new shift and has lots of ramifications on what it means to be human. Which I wouldn’t have thought before. 

Fr. Patrick: And so here you’ve hit on something that’s central for our thinking about every kind of technology. And here I mean technology in the broadest sense of the word, the wheel for example. The development of fire. 

Fr. Bonaventure: A lighter whatever. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, and the life of man. Because invention in so far as it makes our lives better is a laudable thing because all of these things, all of these technologies, as I’m using the word, are aids. Are tools, are supplements…

Fr. Bonaventure: Instruments. 

Fr. Patrick: …are instruments, exactly. And they’re things that are used by human beings for human beings. But in the case of the new advance that we’ve made with AI with this kind of language learning model as you’re suggesting, it seems that we’re getting to a point where this is not a tool in some way. Where it’s its own thing. Is that true? Do you think that’s true that this is getting outside of, this is crossing beyond how we usually use tools into something that is a different kind of thing? – 

Fr. Bonaventure: It has what I would call pseudo-agency. 

Fr. Patrick: Yes, okay. That’s a good distinction. 

Fr. Bonaventure: So I think technology is used in craft, of course, techne, is developing something to extend one’s agency. So we develop, we create a hammer, which is a simple technology, because it allows us to extend the ability to impose force on something. I can punch nails, but it damages me and it’s not very productive. But I can hammer a nail, and I’m using it. The hammer doesn’t work by itself. It needs an agent, so it extends the instrument, an extension of my own agency, and it develops that. And this is the point of technology in crafts. Speeds up things, makes things more efficient, which we sometimes say, “oh, efficiency is a problem”, but no, efficiency just is extending our agency so that we can be more human. But there is a point where technology can threaten to replace, to not extend one’s agency, but replace one’s agency. Now, a hammer can’t really replace your agency, ’cause it requires your agency, your activity to make it work. But you can imagine a sort of smart hammer or something that kind of goes ahead and looks for nails, kind of hammers them by itself. And you think that’s kind of still silly. Okay, fair enough. Because hammering is not really that close to our agency as humans. A human is not just a hammer, right? We’re knowers and lovers. But the thing with AI is it is this self-generating and has this pseudo-agency such that you can start to treat it like it has its own motive force, its own self-movement, and it can start to do your job. And not just your job of particular things like getting this assignment in or something, but actually do the job of being a human, which is thinking and loving. And so they haven’t yet come up with AI that haven’t replaced the loving thing. I assume maybe they’ll figure this out. But for the knowledge component, this thing is starting to say, “hey, you don’t need to use me to accelerate your knowledge, you can actually have me replace you knowing something.” And this is like the Sports Illustrated article. I’m gonna replace, I’m not gonna help a human to write an article. I’m gonna replace a human to write an article. That’s a big shift. 

Fr. Patrick: Right, so insofar as the point you made about loving, of course AI can talk romantically to you. It can say all kinds of tender-sounding-ish things. But insofar as it doesn’t have a will, it can’t choose the good of another over itself. 

Fr. Bonaventure: It won’t produce children with you. 

Fr. Patrick: Yes, exactly. 

Fr. Bonaventure: So use a very simple case of loving. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, exactly. Like the core…

Fr. Bonaventure: Or giving me a hug, like I think a computer might eventually, but… 

Fr. Patrick: And I think this is really a threat. So there are a couple projects being developed in the church right now that are kind of interesting. Like one is a Chat Catechism where it’s a Chat GBT type-based model where you can interact with AI and this thing will tell you whatever you wanna know about the Catholic faith. So it’s just a catechism that talks to you. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Control F, but it talks more, yeah. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, exactly. Like okay, so anyone can search a PDF of the catechism. But now this thing will just do it for you and it’ll be a little bit more user-friendly and I suppose this module will be developed and we can put it on parish websites throughout the world. That will not bring people to the Church the way that a priest does. And I’m radically convicted of that. Not just because it won’t drink a beer with you in a bar the way that a priest does or because it can’t preach the way that a priest can out of the experiences of his life and his own experience of God’s love. But it won’t minister to you in the name of Jesus Christ the way that a priest does. So there’s all kinds of levels here at stake, right? Our humanity, the way that that humanity was brought up in the working of our redemption and the way that that humanity brought up in the working of our redemption was conformed to Christ sacramentally in the nature of the priesthood. You know, there are real things at stake here for Catholics that have to be distinguished as separate from whatever chatbots are going to be inventing. You know, these things are in progress now. They will be out there shortly. And I think we’re going to experience very quickly the limits of them. Because being a Christian as Pope Benedict says, right? Isn’t a matter of adopting a set of ideas but having an encounter with Jesus Christ. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Yes. Well, I think, and it’d be important to say discover the limits of them. What we mean is we need to realize the limits of what they can do, not in their technical ability. There may be almost no limits on that. 

Fr. Patrick: Yes, oh, absolutely. 

Fr. Bonaventure: But in the limits of what we are attempting to allow it to do. So this is a replacement of humanity as opposed to the augmentation of humanity. So if I can be, do I have time to be a little Heideggerian about this?  

Fr. Patrick: Let’s go, yeah, let’s do it. 

Fr. Bonaventure: So I think, so part of the title of the episode, ‘Questions Concerning Technology’, is taken from a 1953 lecture essay that Heidegger gave. Martin Heidegger is a German philosopher in the 20th century. Thought deeply about these issues of technology and what it means to be a human being. Dasein, the existential analytic, blah, blah, blah, blah. But he saw the problem of technology and he saw, in a sense he’s helpful because he saw it’s inevitable. So deeply ingrained in the Western mindset is efficiency and techne. This is in a way, and of course in the Greeks of Aristotle, techne is sometimes just knowledge. And yet it’s also craft and skill. So these are, the drive to technology, this sort of thing, is inherent in the notion of Western science and our kind of knowing about the world. But his concern is that technology at some point, as inevitable as it is, starts to reframe, he calls it. So, ‘gestell’ is the in-framing sense, the kind of setting up a frame that replaces a non-technological frame, a human frame, you could say. So he has, I’ll just read a little quote about this that I think is pertinent. It’s a beautiful essay in general. And one of his more intelligible ones, it’s actually readable, yeah, he says, “The threat to man (the technology) does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology…”, so you could have the sense of technology as, oh, it’s gonna replace us and bomb us. And you hear this sometimes with AI. And I don’t know if that’s really credible. That’s not the most interesting one. That could destroy humans. But it won’t destroy our humanity. He says, “…the actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence”, (this is the technology point), “…the rule of in-framing, (that’s the kind of viewpoint of what technology does, it replaces us), threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.” What does that mean? It means that with technology, the danger is that we will re-understand ourselves as passive recipients of the goings-on of the world as opposed to active agents and players, adres, to actually work. We actually do things and use technology. And instead, we flip. Technology will in-frame us such that we become the instruments of the technology. This, I think, in small ways, not to freak out about emails or anything is, but we can already see this. When I’m typing into text or something or email, it’s presenting to me possibilities of how to carry on with the sentence. It’s telling me already what I ought to say or what I might say or what I generally say or something. And it’s easy to let this thing start to fill in, and the more you let it fill in, well, eventually, what happens here? It’s no longer me doing the writing and me doing the choosing. I’m now just the kind of necessary condition of technology doing all of the work. So I haven’t allowed it to augment me. There’s a point, this switch, where I no longer allow technology and AI to augment my activity, but now it replaces my human activity. 

Fr. Patrick: Yeah, and I think that, to your point about this passive, the way that we’re engaging reality in a passive way, I think we can also see this, not just in the way that AI is modifying how we use things like email, but we’re seeing this modification of how human beings recreate with Netflix, because it’s so easy to go and to turn on this basically limitless world of entertainment where all the screen does is just throw something at you and you can just sit in front of it. 

Fr. Bonaventure: As opposed to reading a book or doing something, yes. 

Fr. Patrick: Smoking a pipe.  

Fr. Bonaventure: Yep, exactly. 

Fr. Patrick: Having a conversation with another human being. 

Fr. Bonaventure: Yes, exactly. And I think the, so the threat, when you said it’s gonna destroy humanity is, I think Heidegger has the good point about this, that it’s not humanity qua humans, like individual humans, but it is very serious that the essence of what it means to be human, which is to be a rational actor, a rational actor, it’s going to replace not only our rationality in the sense of telling us what it is to know and to have knowledge, replace that so that we just, we don’t actually try to grab knowledge and know things anymore. We just grab random facts and then we spit them out. But also more and more fundamentally, the actor part, the agency aspect, I think it subtly undermines that. So it does threaten, as all technology always did, but now because of its power, brings up the essence of technology, which is the threatening of the essence of humanity. Again, non-nuclear holocaust sense, but actually in the metaphysical sense of we’ll forget who we are as humans. And that means that this limit thing that realizes the limitations, we might not know its limitations because we’ll have forgotten that we are humans and what it means to be a human is to actually act. It’s possible, of course, that it raises the real question and the good, this the old Felix Kolpa, I suppose, is that we realize, you know, I do care that a human wrote that. Not because of, it’s not made up or, but because I care, humans ought to do things. Or I do care that this wasn’t from this, came out from this, or that I wrote, made this myself, that I chose to do this, as opposed to it kind of deciding what to do for me. So it makes clear what it is to be a human. And the question is can we rise to the occasion to embrace that and realize that our essence is being threatened here in subtle ways, nonetheless in real ways that could change how we exist. Not to be too dire or Heideggerian or this, but I think it’s a problem. I think it’s, and Christ came to save and He was an actor and our salvation is dependent on us being responsive to Him as actors in grace. It needs to be, we are agents, right, to others and to God and God to us by bringing us out. So this is a, it’s a threat to not only humanity, but also the fundamental message of Christianity. It’s not just a gnostic kind of event, but rather an act of love that has a choice involved. Because as you say, AI is just, it doesn’t do choice. It might do knowledge. So this could be a Franciscan over Dominican victory. It turns out knowledge is just kind of a passive thing, but it doesn’t do choice. It just can’t do it. But we might think, well, we get close enough with it, so we don’t really need choice anymore. Ah, that’ll be dire. 

Fr. Patrick: Hopefully, friends, you’re leaving this episode with more questions rather than answers insofar as we’ve prompted you to be reflective on the ways that we interface with these things and to really deeply consider what they mean and how we’re integrating them in our lives. Because ultimately, as Fr. Bonaventure is saying, this is going to impact the way we relate to our God. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Godsplaining, If you like our podcast, please follow us on Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok. Like, subscribe, and leave a five-star review. If you’d like to donate to our podcast through Patreon, follow the link in the description. You can also find in our show notes links to shop Godsplaining merch to get information on upcoming “God’s Planning” events and a showcase of new AI-generated Godsplaining art. Maybe. No promises. As always, friends, we appreciate your prayers for us because prayer is something that only a human being can do. We ask that you continue to pray for us and know that we’re praying for you. God bless.