What makes humans unique, and is this uniqueness a matter of degree or a qualitative difference? Is it our intelligence, language ability and consciousness? As Christians, we argue that we hold a special place in creation because we are made in the image of God. Two areas of research approach this question from very different directions.
Computer science is making great strides in developing artificial systems that mimic many of humans’ more unique abilities and put them into general use. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are all devices that respond to voice commands and provide verbal information. In the lab, programs can successfully compete in formal debates with humans or even write like humans. Artificial intelligence programs now teach themselves to play complex games like Go and chess better than our best human players. In my February column, I talked about a program that can determine how proteins fold with remarkable accuracy much more quickly than humans can. And, in many places, companies are working on making self-driving cars with considerable success. Will computers become conscious in the future? Advances in computer science are decreasing the divide between humans and machines.
In another research area, scientists find animals with abilities that mimic skills that were once thought to be solely human. While these abilities’ scale may be more limited, it is starting to appear as if we differ only in degree, not in kind. Researchers have focused on birds’ ability as they seem to be like those of higher primates despite being biologically far removed from mammals. Alex, a gray parrot trained by Irene Pepperberg, was argued to have the mental capabilities of a four-year-old child. Crows can do tasks that suggest aspects of consciousness. Frans de Waal has long argued that primates experience many of the same emotions as humans and engage in social behaviour that mimic human interactions.
What are we to make of these advances in comparative cognition and computer science about our place in God’s creation plan? Do they undercut the theology of being made in the image of God? Some may want to defend humans’ separation from the rest of creation and doubt that computers will acquire, or that animals have, true human abilities. However, an argument can be made that both these areas support a richer understanding of how God has structured his creation and the abilities he has given us.
God says in Genesis 1:26b “let them have dominion over. . .,” which suggests a difference in responsibility, not a difference in kind, just as a king was not different from a farmer but rather had differing obligations. Note also that humans did not get a unique day of creation but were created the same day as animals. The famous passage in John (3:16) does not refer to God’s love of humans but rather his love for the whole world. If we follow and expand this line of reasoning, then the richness of God’s creation makes it possible to think of animals as having many of the same abilities and capabilities as humans, perhaps in some domains exceeding what humans can do.
If we are created in some limited manner in God’s image, we should have many of his abilities. In that case, it is also possible we may have some of God’s creativity as the creator of the universe in all its diversity. Thus, our success in building computer programs that mimic and sometimes come to surpass human abilities may be an aspect of our image-bearing.
However, there is a dark side to our ability that requires our prayers and concern. In Genesis 11:6, in the tower of Babel’s story, God says, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” As our technology and abilities progress, the darker aspects of our brokenness also become more evident. Each technological advance can be helpful and simultaneously harmful, and we need the redemption offered in Jesus to see the difference and avoid the evil.