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LaMDA and the (lack of) body

  • 05 July 2022
  Just over a fortnight ago Google suspended Blake Lemoine, an engineer for Google’s AI organisation, for publicly claiming a computer chatbot he was working on is sentient and thinks and reasons like a human being. Lemoine published conversations he had with Google’s language model for dialogue applications (LaMDA). The publicity surrounding the suspension has raised questions about the development of ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI). The conversation that has followed raises even more questions about our shared understanding of what it means to be conscious and sentient, and how we understand what it is to be a self, in a community of selves.

One of the things that has most struck me about the discussion is how much it has relegated the place of the body in human consciousness to something incidental. This has been evident in the ways much general commentary has focused on all the things human beings won’t have to do with their bodies should AI develop to do such work for us. There’s also been little consideration given to just how hard it is for human beings, living very much in our bodies, to understand what it would mean for a disembodied entity to have consciousness, and associated sentience.

Christian theologians and philosophers have grappled over time with the relations between body, mind, and soul. The precise relations remain unsettled in that dialogue, but this only tends to suggest how sticky the relations are. Christian thought has at times found easier answers in a Neo-Platonism that prioritises the soul at the expense of the body. More recent theological philosophy has sought a greater integration. Often this has been based on growing scientific understanding of anthropology and our material environment.

In his book Jesus and the Cosmos the late Australian theologian Denis Edwards draws out the approach of the mid-20th century Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner SJ in considering how a deeper understanding of ‘the cosmos’ shapes our understanding of Jesus and of our own humanity. Far from confirming a separation between body and spirit, Edwards writes, ‘The unity of the human person is of such a kind that the theologian can say that an existential cleavage between body and soul is actually impossible. We cannot encounter a separated body or a separated soul.’

Edwards is a Christian theologian, but he is grappling with an evolutionary anthropology that seeks to take seriously our materiality and our unified consciousness, not as separate but rather inherently