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Taking on God in Course VI

Guest Column J. Ryan Bender

There's something new this term in Course VI: Christianity. The Lord works in mysterious ways and, if Postdoctoral Associate Anne Foerst is correct, he motivates much of the work in the field of artificial intelligence. Foerst's class, entitled God and Computers (6.915), is a new offering with the not-so-innocent intent of exploring the relationship between AI and Christian myth.

Recently, there has been a torrent of debate within AI circles over whether God and Computers ought to be offered. The debate began with an e-mail from Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Marvin L. Minsky, one of the founders of AI, to several other AI researchers. Minsky called the course an "evangelical enterprise" that wrongly treats AI as a myth rather than a goal. A heated exchange of e-mail flames ensued involving people both inside and outside AI. The debate concerned the value of God and Computers, its appropriateness for Course VI, and its evangelical intentions. One of Minsky's students, Pushpinder Singh G, even wrote to the head of the department, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Paul L. Penfield, imploring him to remove God and Computers from the curriculum. Penfield responded saying that God and Computers is a "welcome addition" to the department's mostly technical offerings. He denied that the subject is an evangelical enterprise, even while he admitted that "the primary religious framework of 6.915 will be Judeo-Christian."

Is God and Computers an evangelical enterprise? Judging by its description in the MIT Bulletin, it certainly appears to be. Students "will analyze the meaning of the Christian symbols of life after death and resurrection and will show which explanations and solutions Christianity offers for humankind's daily problems and sufferings."

As far as I know, Christianity has no solution to humankind's daily problems and sufferings. Indeed, Christianity caused centuries of suffering by stifling technological progress.

That point aside, a more salient question is, why is Christian doctrine relevant to AI at all? The subject description for God and Computers makes no reference to real AI problems. Perhaps this is because the course instructor is a theologian and not an AI researcher.

Anne Foerst herself is a research fellow at the Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Lutheran minister. While that may be an unusual background for a position at the MIT AI Lab, she has found her niche nevertheless. Using her knowledge of theology, she seeks to "trace out hidden myths within AI." That is, she seeks to uncover the secret motives of AI researchers, such as "the hubrisic wish to be like God" and the dream of "imitating God's creative powers."

Foerst's analysis pretentiously and presumptuously psychologizes AI researchers. She claims that AI researchers harbor an unspoken wish "to be like God" and imitate "God's creative powers." A warning to all AI types at MIT: Anne Foerst knows your secret motives. She knows why you have dreams of creating an artificial intelligence: It's because you wish you were the Christian God. She understands your minds better than you do, and she sees your true intentions through all your scientific jargon. All rules of evidence, logic and proof are suspended, for Foerst has special access to your subconscious. She knows that you are motivated by Christian mythology to do AI.

Fond of discussing Christian myth, Foerst explains that "these myths and symbols lose their richness and power when taken literally but unfold their wisdom within Judeo-Christian tradition." In other words, Judeo-Christian dogma is literally meaningless, but makes sense to those afflicted with the set of pathologies collectively known as religious faith.

The absurd babble coming from the Christian mystics has absolutely nothing to do with the problems faced by artificial intelligence researchers. These mystics, possessed by faith and suspicious of reason, have nothing useful to contribute to the AI endeavor except the mindless drivel of religion. God and Computers has no place in Course VI and is an insult to MIT. This Institute, one of the last bastions of rational thought, ought to leave the evangelists on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue.

Anne Foerst's perverse convolution of AI and Christianity is disturbing, to say the least. Mixing one of mankind's greatest goals with the myth of the Fall and concepts of sin and estrangement is more than just an attempt to endow AI with Christian meaning. It is an attempt to sully the grand vision of AI itself and the "hubris" of those who are working to attain that vision. The myth of the Fall (the Edenic myth of Adam and Eve, who fell from God's grace upon eating from the tree of knowledge) is Christianity's declaration of war on science. Nietzsche's analysis of this myth is dead-on: "Science makes godlike - it is all over with priests and gods when man becomes scientific. The moral is that science is forbidden as such; it alone is forbidden. Science is the first sin, the seed of all sin, the original sin. This alone is morality. Thou shalt not know' - the rest follows."

If you want further insights into Christianity and the secret motives of AI researchers, Anne Foerst's class has much to offer you. The real problems of AI, however, will require productive thought and effort to be overcome.

J. Ryan Bender is a member of the Class of 2000.