The Dreaming Stone


Any article entitled “Go” is likely to make a typical Christian reader think of the NT-verses “Go into all the world …” (Matt 28:19) or “Go, for I will send you …” (Acts 22:21). The title is not intentionally meant to be misleading for it is actually about the Chinese board game called “Go” that has been much in the news and has provoked a flurry of recent media interest in artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, it is a perfect example of some of the issues raised in chapters 4 and 5 of my book “Science and the Knowledge of God”.

In the last generation the subject called “the philosophy of mind” has been prominent in academic Philosophy Departments. This involves studies of mental events, mental functions and properties, and the nature of consciousness. In 1997 much was made by the media of the defeat of Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion at that time, by IBM’s machine Deep Blue in a six match series. Suggestions were then made that the silicon brain was catching up with the biological and some fairly wild predictions were made about the future of humanity in a computer dominated world. This type of excitement dissipates rapidly but in the past month this has been rekindled by the sequence of matches that were held at the board game “Go” between the program AlphaGo, created by Google’s artificial intelligence company DeepMind, and Lee Se-dol of South Korea, the most recent world champion. AlphaGo’s 4-1 win against Mr. Lee surprised most enthusiasts and commentators who had predicted that AlphaGo needed some more years to play against both itself and other humans to reach the level of, and then master, the best human player.

“Go” is an abstract strategy board game for two players played by placing black and white stones on the intersections on a 19 x 19 grid of lines in which the aim is to surround more territory than one’s opponent. The game originated in ancient China more than 2,500 years ago, and is one of the oldest board games played today. It was considered to be one of the four essential arts of a cultured Chinese scholar in antiquity. Unlike some card games, all information is available to both players but it has a complexity much greater than chess because the number of possible moves is many times greater. AlphaGo’s win has highlighted the recent advances in both hard computing and in AI-strategy programming.

In the last 30-40 years there has been a major scientific push towards the ultimate goal of simulating the human brain by computational means. Work on the definition of the mind has come into much sharper focus in the last generation through attempts to create artificial intelligence (AI) or thinking machines in computer science in what is more generally called the ‘cognitive sciences’. It has also heavily influenced the subjects of evolutionary psychology and neuro-biology.

In chapter 4 of my book “Science and the Knowledge of God” I have attempted to summarize some of the ideas that have driven this branch of the sciences. Artificial intelligence poses three questions that respectively reflect the divergent interests of AI researchers, philosophers and cognitive scientists:

  1. Can a machine act intelligently? Can it solve any problem a person would by thinking?
  2. Can a machine have a mind, mental states and consciousness in the same sense humans do? Can it feel?
  3. Are human intelligence and machine intelligence the same? Is the human brain essentially a computer?

With respect to DeepMind’s achievement in writing the AlphaGo software, it is perhaps natural that the media have concentrated on possible future economic changes driven by AI. Two MIT Professors, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, have had huge hits with their 2011 and 2013 e-books “Race Against the Machine” and “The Second Machine Age”. They argued that the digital revolution is accelerating innovation and driving productivity to such a degree that smart machines are now replacing even white-collar workers. Many blue-collar jobs were replaced years ago so the erosion of the white-collar work-force is, economically speaking, not necessarily good news.

Economic consequences are one thing but ambitious goals to redefine the nature of humanity are another. In chapter 5 of my book I ask the question what it means to have a mind with respect to both the human but also with respect to the God of the Bible. Does He have a mind in the sense that we, as humans, can understand? How do we interpret biblical statements that tell us of his attributes with respect to this topic? Unless we insist on our complete humanity, body and mind, being made in the image of God, we are leaving out an essential part of the whole by ignoring the mind. Moreover, if we ignore the nature of the human mind in the sense discussed above we are ceding ground to those who insist that human brain is reproducible and that machine and human intelligence are essentially the same, with (dry) silicon and (wet) biological software set on the same level.