The Limits of “A.I.” and “A.S.”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

In our home, Judy is Keeper of the Clock. So last Saturday night, as she settled into bed, she reached over and dutifully “sprung ahead,” that is, moved the clock forward one hour to launch us into Daylight Saving Time. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize that the new clock she had bought was a “smart clock,” and it was programmed to do the resetting automatically. So, probably around 2 am, the clock set itself forward another hour. The result was that the Keeper of the Clock was rudely awakened an hour earlier than she intended. The Keeper’s companion slept right through the embarrassing episode, but the Keeper herself was irreversibly awake for the day.

Have you bought one of these marvels? You bring it home from the store, take it from the box, plug it in, and PRESTO!— the clock sets itself to exactly the right time! It’s magic! Or technology, which often seems like magic. These devices receive signals from satellites in orbit, just as GPS systems on modern cars do. As soon as they are plugged in, they are in touch with a super-accurate master clock under the supervision of the United States Naval Observatory. Inside the tiny home clock there is also a 100-year chip programmed to reset the clock with the start and end of Daylight Saving Time in a given geographical area. This is how the Keeper of the Clock in the Van Alstine household has been made obsolete.

But there are problems. One disappointed owner of a new clock wrote in an on-line complaint, “My smart clock reset itself a day early, so it isn’t so smart after all.” That may have been an isolated glitch, but a more important challenge came with Congress’ passage of the Energy Act of 2005, which extended Daylight Saving Time by several weeks. Owners of clocks which had the old chips were forced to follow a complicated process before their not-so-smart clocks could get into synch with the new reality.

Smart Clocks are one expression of an increasingly important factor in modern life, known as Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Based on sound scientific studies of how the human brain works and a sometimes blind faith in the apparently limitless potential of computer technology, an exciting field of study has been emerging. We can now fantasize a life in which we are served and coddled by robots of all sorts, each one possessing the Artificial Intelligence to do its job, but (and this is important) not enough intelligence to challenge or outsmart us! That latter scenario is the subject of horror movies.

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So it occurred to me there might be a parallel in the ability of the ever-inventive human race to develop all forms of Artificial Spirituality (A.S.). Paul wrote about how, before they discover True Spirituality through Christ, people often try to build an Artificial Spirituality by “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Colossians 2:8). I’ve always been intrigued by these “elemental spirits of the universe,” wondering what they are. Paul also mentions them in Colossians 2:20 and Galatians 4:3. Now I have an idea. They are the spiritual equivalents of the satellites involved in a Global Positioning System, invisible entities that mimic the God who created them, spinning around in a pattern that seems to signify something. By guiding on them, humans can develop a kind of shadow meaning for their lives that may make them think they are experiencing the real thing.

But just as Smart Clocks, with their Artificial Intelligence, are not really that smart, Artificial Spirituality, in the many forms it takes, is not really that spiritual.