“If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to an unfortunate regression to a form of barbarianism dictated by the law of the strongest.”..

Pope Francis – ‘Conference on The Common’, ‘Good in the Digital Age’ – Rome, 27 September 2019

Slowly but surely, the Catholic Church has been inching towards greater engagement with the concepts and realities of artificial intelligence.  For some years now it has played a constructive role in UN-inspired efforts to consider the banning of certain forms of lethal autonomous weapon systems.  It has offered welcome dialogue on the social implications of the impact of robotics on labor markets and sought to widen debate on the potential negative direction of life sciences and genetic research and experimentation.

That the Catholic Church should seek to better appreciate and engage with the potential consequences of AI is unsurprising.  One could argue that since the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, the Church has had an uneasy relationship with so-called modernity and technology.  Modern philosophers and social commentators have targeted the closed systems of faith upon which the Catholic Church is built, believing it incapable of accommodating evolutionary forms of thinking and societal progress.

Indeed, the famous encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, ‘AETERNI PATRIS’ of 1879, which heralded the Church’s endeavor to confront the modernity and technology of the day, called upon the Church’s paramount thinker, both philosopher and theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas and which in turn led to a building of philosophical ramparts manned by ‘Thomists’ and the clerical hierarchy.

The rejection of much of this ‘neo-scholastic’ approach to philosophy was all but complete by the time of Vatican II in the early 1960s, although supporters of Thomism clearly felt that what had been discarded was less the system of Thomas Aquinas and more the varied interpretations of his thinking and with it some interesting perspectives on what it means to be human.  Efforts at sounding warnings about the behavior of mankind and the impact of technology, together forging a ‘tyranny of relativism’, seemed to have been left to Catholic philosophers like Karol Woytila and Joseph Ratzinger – both of whom went on to become head of the Catholic Church in turn.

Interestingly, could the views of Thomas Aquinas once more be resuscitated to support Church thinkers as they engage with what passes for current philosophy and modernity and the societal impact of the latest forms of technology?

Maybe it is not such a surprise that Aquinas can speak to us today from the thirteenth century.  The medieval ‘schoolman’ could not have conceived of artificial intelligence and the panoply of technical advancements we take for granted.  He did, however, know a great deal about what made us human, the importance of reason as well as faith, the concepts of intellect and the necessity of truth.

Link the above features of Aquinas’s search for understanding of the individual to the efforts of technologists to go beyond man’s physical intellect, structure and physiology – the move to a post-human future – and you are philosophically right in Aquinas territory.  The latter’s recognition and underlining of the importance of ethics should not be ignored or undervalued in the quest for ethical AI built on data ethics.

Even should AI exploration and research take us beyond the physical realm and expand our models of cognition to the hypothetical world of sentient machines inspired by super neural networks, Aquinas is there to pose some tricky questions.  What is the purpose of such technologies?  Does man envisage non-corporeal intelligence as a modern form of angel?  The creation and purpose of humanity that Aquinas understood brings us back to closed systems or at least a creation with a recognizable purpose.  Can the same be said of those who seek or sponsor the so-called ‘singularity’?

Seeking to use Aquinas to find answers about the future of AI and the development of certain emergent technologies is not a vacuous exercise in ‘back to the future theology’.  Given the terrible destruction of mankind in ‘modern times’, especially both world wars and the advent of nuclear weapons, all inspired by man-made ideologies and philosophies and its associated technological progress, is it any wonder that the Catholic Church might have misgivings about some directions of our AI future?  

In 1998, the then Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical FIDES ET RATIO, called for the Church and in particular Catholic philosophers to engage in public debate with the then current philosophy and the dominant scientific traditions.  Pope Francis and before him, Pope Benedict have since echoed that call.  

Perhaps the time is right, therefore, for greater public debate on the role of AI and its impact on human reason and destiny.  As our societies globally are shaped by numerous technical innovations, many of them exceedingly beneficial – but not all – then more transparency and debate is a clear public good and should that debate be aided by the thoughts and words of a medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, then so be it.