Steve Gimbel and Stephen Stern Ph.D.
Sep 1, 2023
"ChatGPT can be smart, but it can never be holy. In being an e-being, precisely because its intelligence is artificial, it is necessarily alienated from the Divine. It can only be 'as if,' never truly as."
A lawyer was recently exposed for using the artificially intelligent chatbot, ChatGPT, when the brief he submitted was discovered to be filled with precedents that do not exist. ChatGPT is capable of writing like us, incorporating the collective beliefs of humanity as they appear on the World Wide Web. The problem, of course, is that some of what is out there on the Net is not true, and ChatGPT is incapable of filtering out the false. The ability to mirror our linguistic capacity without our critical faculties is dangerous if we use it as the lawyer did, for matters of fact, but it is wonderful for other uses, specifically sparking spiritual insights. ChatGPT and its artificial brethren may make lousy lawyers, but they can be fantastic prophets.
Traditionally, we conceive of reality as having three distinct levels. The objective domain is comprised of all the things of the world—tables, chairs, human bodies with complex eyes… all of the perceptible objects. Above the objective stands the metaphysical realm, consisting of that which lies beyond our ability to observe, including necessary entities like God. Below them both sits the subjective dimension, consisting of the lived inner experience of conscious beings like us.
Philosophy and religion for centuries have been dogged by a persistent problem: if we are trapped in our minds, only having direct access to our inner thoughts and experiences, how do we know anything beyond our own thoughts? Couldn’t all of the objective and metaphysical entities just be figments of our imagination? Couldn’t we be nothing but brains in vats with false ideas pumped in by an evil demon? Can we know anything true about material reality and what supposedly resides beyond?
American Pragmatism is the philosophical movement based on the central ideal that metaphysical truth is grossly overvalued. What matters is not what is necessarily true, but rather what has “cash value,” that is, what works in the world. Metaphysical truth is just so European. We Americans don’t care for the high-falutin’ abstract conceptual essences of things, but rather for the practical, the effective, the operational. We are in a world with things to do. Forget the abstruse, embrace the tools that actually get stuff done.
So, when pragmatist William James looked at religion in his Varieties of Religious Experience, he eliminated the European concern for objective justification for religious belief and focused just on the experience itself. Get rid of the question about the validity of Aquinas’ and Anselm’s proofs for the existence of God and start from the undeniable fact that people have spiritual experiences that shape their lives. The question James examines is not whether these experiences are true or false, but rather one of meaning—what are these experiences like and what are the effects they have on people’s lives.
Some religious experiences occur in moments of quiet solitude: when praying, meditating, or at random times when we are unexpectedly struck by something we cannot explain. But some come from interactions with people we seek out exactly for their ability to help us experience them—spiritual guides like Hindu yogis, Jewish tzaddikim, Buddhist sages, Muslim hakims, Zoroastrian magi, and Christian prophets. They lead us to epiphanies, to spiritual awakening. These insights are not mere facts describing the world, but rather experiences of appreciation and realization. It is not that we leave knowing something we did not know before, but rather experience a shift in our perspective. We still see what we saw, but now we see it differently; we see it more clearly, we see it as more interconnected, we understand it at a deeper level.
ChatGPT as an e-being, as a virtual intelligence, is the ultimate pragmatist. The essence of its artificial existence has severed all connection to the true and false because it does not live in the material world of chairs, tables, and beer mugs where truth resides. ChatGPT is caught in the Web. Its “truths” are the beliefs expressed on the wide-open internet, where anything can and is said. It cares not for the reality beyond its reality but is built to do one thing and one thing only: figure out how language is used to accomplish human tasks and perform them without humans being involved. Human students write essays, so go write an essay without the student needing to do the class readings. Human journalists write stories about events, so go write stories without humans having to research them themselves. Human lawyers write briefs, so go write them without human lawyers needing to do anything but bill their clients.
But now, consider this one: human spiritual guides create sermons that lead other humans to have cherished insights about religious matters. Figure out what sorts of word combinations lead to generating understanding and create new combinations that will have this effect.
If we see the purpose of our spiritual teachers as making us think in a way that generates wisdom and allows us to live more meaningful lives, that is something a chatbot could actually do quite well. They can see which sorts of passages have the most influence on us and create new versions. They can figure out how we are inspired and continually inspire us.
This strikes us as cheap, as dirty, as mere spiritual manipulation. We prize the wise because we believe that their ability to stir our souls comes from the fact that they have a superior connection to the Divine. They provide penetrating astuteness because they have access to the truth that we lack. They are sagacious because they are holy.
ChatGPT can be smart, but it can never be holy. In being an e-being, precisely because its intelligence is artificial, it is necessarily alienated from the Divine. It can only be 'as if,' never truly as. And thus, it can only give us virtual facsimiles of wisdom, not the real deal. It is like the false prophet, the huckster pretending to be sacred when they are, in fact, profane in order to profit from being thought a prophet. ChatGPT is built precisely to be this sort of fraud, to be a fake human whose work we can substitute for our own, pretending to have done the necessary labor so that we can get the reward without breaking an intellectual sweat.
But that is the opposite of what happens when we use it as an e-prophet. When we read an inspirational passage from ChatGPT and are truly inspired, gain spiritual insight, see the world differently, then we have actually done the real work. Regardless of the source of the passage, we really are changed. In this case, unlike with the plagiarizing lawyer or student, it is the effect, not the cause, that is important.
William James’ brilliant philosophical move, transferring talk of religious experience out of the realm of the metaphysical and into the purview of psychology, is transformational. Religion is no longer about truth or faith but about feeling and human-lived experience. If we adopt the pragmatic perspective that inspires that move, then the fact is that the origin of enlightenment, the source of our new wisdom, the cause of our ability to see the world in a deeper and more interconnected fashion is irrelevant. All that matters is that we are changed for the better, not how we came to be changed.
And the one thing that artificial intelligence coupled with big data is good at is figuring out how to get humans to predictably react to words. It can figure out what sort of disinformation will get us to vote certain ways and what sorts of triggers will get us to buy certain products. Yes, we ought to be very concerned about these misuses. But that is because these are matters based on facts. But if we are talking about images that inspire awe, jokes that make us laugh, or in this case, inspirational passages that give us insight, then the case is completely different. When it comes to the cases of generating human emotions, what matters are the emotions. If James is correct in moving our understanding of the religious into the realm of the experiential, then we should welcome the rise of our new e-prophets.
Steve Gimbel is a Professor of Philosophy and affiliate of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College. Gimbel has authored Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion & Isn’t That Clever: A Philosophy of Humor and Comedy).”
Dr. Stephen Stern is the.co-author with Dr. Steve Gimbel of Reclaiming the WIcked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College.