Home Opinion Aiming toward a spiritual intelligence at Pentecost — Father Thomas Dailey, OSFS

Aiming toward a spiritual intelligence at Pentecost — Father Thomas Dailey, OSFS

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The words "Artificial intelligence AI" are pictured with a miniature of a robot arm and a toy hand in this Dec. 14, 2023, illustration. Catholic Answers executives told OSV News April 24, 2024, they are not discouraged from pursuing AI projects following the troubled April 23 launch of "Father Justin," an AI priest character who was "laicized" hours after his responses to questions about the faith sparked social media furor. (OSV News photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

Linguists enjoy oxymorons – those word pairings that, despite being a contradiction literally, nevertheless still make sense. A civil war is anything but, nor is a legal brief. By definition, order is not random and shrimp cannot be jumbo.

Should we consider “artificial intelligence” in the same way? That depends on what intelligence is and, more importantly, what it is for.

IQ tests presume that this distinctly human capability (intelligence) has a measurable magnitude (quotient). But intelligence shows itself in differing ways.

Philosophical reasoning wrestles with abstract thought. Scientific modeling offers tested hypotheses. Artistic expression reveals unique perspectives. Technical expertise manages how things work.

Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S.

Each form of intelligence demands a particular knowledge. Each draws upon prior sources and experiences. Each offers understanding that contributes to the collective quotient of human development.

The advent of “artificial intelligence” comes with an offer of all that and more.

Championed as a way to harness technology to simulate human intelligence and problem-solving capabilities, artificial intelligence impacts how we know and what we do. Sensors analyze your car’s performance, while GPS guides where travelers go.

AI can also speed up, even generate, information and communication, as it “learns” from all the data at its disposal. It can search entire libraries for us and produce writings from us.
AI is exciting. Its potential for undertaking a wide range of tasks, whether mundane or intricate, will increase human productivity.

AI is also disorienting. Its power to distort the truth, through fake news or doctored images, will decrease human interactivity.

The prospect of substituting AI for human intelligence and social communication raises significant questions for the church in service to humanity. Fr. Justin, an AI chatbot, cannot answer them! But Pope Francis does reflect on them in his recent Message for World Communications Day, which was celebrated last Sunday.

This is a screenshot of “Father Justin,” an AI chatbot simulating a priest in order to answer questions for teaching apostolate Catholic Answers. Catholic Answers executives told OSV News April 24, 2024, they are not discouraged from pursuing AI projects following the troubled April 23 launch of “Father Justin,” who was “laicized” hours later to “Justin” after his responses to questions about the faith sparked social media furor. (OSV News screenshot/Catholic Answers)

The pope affirms AI’s “great possibilities for good.” But he wisely adds that these “are accompanied by the risk of turning everything into abstract calculations that reduce individuals to data, thinking to a mechanical process, experience to isolated cases, goodness to profit, and, above all, a denial of the uniqueness of each individual and his or her story.”

The remedy he proposes comes from a “wisdom of the heart” that recognizes the purpose of communication as not simply the conveyance of information, but an exchange of persons. Neither Siri nor Alexa can give her word in that personalistic sense.

Language is meant to generate communion. Christians profess that Jesus is the word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14) precisely to unite us with the God who speaks all being into existence.

This time between Ascension and Pentecost further highlights the personal connection to words, in the Gospel reading for those who celebrate the 7th Sunday of Easter (John 17:11b-19).

Concluding his farewell discourse, Jesus lifts his eyes to heaven and uses words to re-enter into communion with his father. He speaks of having given his followers the father’s word, a word that informs and transforms because it is truth. As he is about to consecrate himself for them in the paschal mystery, he implores the father to consecrate his followers in that truth, in that word, which will remain available to all after his Ascension.

Their consecration (and ours) comes through the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Among the gifts of this “Spirit of truth” are those associated with intelligence: knowledge about matters of faith and morality, understanding of God’s will as it directs us toward our salvation, and wisdom to judge life in this world according to divine truth.

The word that is Jesus and the words and deeds by which Jesus “speaks” the father to us are inspired by and understood through the power of the Spirit. With Pentecost, the eternal life of God becomes really intelligible.

Now as then, we enter into communion with God when we heed that holy word, by sharing ourselves with others in the singularity of loving one another as God has loved us. “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

“Artificial intelligence” aims at a different singularity, one that risks becoming oxymoronic if we consign human communication to technological devices. But it need not be so.

Pope Francis tells us why in the conclusion to his message: “It is up to us to decide whether we will become fodder for algorithms or will nourish our hearts with that freedom without which we cannot grow in wisdom.”

Oblate Father Thomas Dailey holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he also directs the new Catholic Preaching Institute.