From Self-Reflection to Spirituality, what about AI?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 12. March 2021 in Essay

Nature rebounds                      Picture Credit:


AI is increasingly used to help human experts making decisions in high-stakes scenarios. In these scenarios, full automation is often undesirable, not only due to the significance of the outcome, but also because human experts can draw on their domain knowledge complementary to AI for reaching the optimal decision. Awareness is growing that human self-reflection and spirituality can be a vital resource in solving today’s global problems, challenging the role of AI as the single source of new knowledge.

The origin of  Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is the unique capacity of humans to exercise introspection and to learn more about their own fundamental nature . This capacity is an essential feature of self-awareness and depends on a variety of cognitive and emotional skills especially those that develop during adolescence. Bodily self-awareness in human development refers to one’s awareness of the body as a physical object, with physical properties interacting with other objects. Tests have shown that toddlers at the age of only a few months are already aware of the relationship between the bodily and visual information they receive. At around 18 months old and later, children begin to develop reflective self-awareness, recognizing themselves in mirrors and pictures. Children who have not yet obtained this stage of bodily self-awareness will tend to view reflections of themselves without further response. In contrast, those who have reached this level of awareness will, for example, recognize dirt on their face with the reaction to wipe it off. After toddlers become reflectively self-aware, they begin to develop the ability to recognize themselves as physical objects in time and space, capable of interacting with other objects and individuals.

Defining Spirituality

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than us and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness. Some may find that their spiritual life is intricately linked to their association with a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue. Others may pray or find comfort in a personal relationship with God or a higher power. Still others seek meaning through their connections to nature or art. Like your sense of purpose, your personal definition of spirituality may change throughout your life, adapting to your own experiences and relationships.

A technological view of Spirituality

According to Ray Kurzweil, inventor and AI-futurist, the increasing encounters with technology lessen our encounters with the natural world. A consequence of Kurzweil’s evolutionary prediction for ascendant technology is that we will become more technological creatures and will be living more in a manmade environment with ‘enhanced’ humans becoming more distanced from their own biology and nature at large. With human life experiences being increasingly technology based, what will support us to experience spirituality? According to Kurzweil’s prognoses technology will alter our senses and as a result also our spiritual perceptions. Science offers an opportunity unique in the history of human endeavour to investigate and understand the neural mechanisms of the brain, thereby resolving the paradox of the brain understanding itself. What is needed, according to Kurzweil, are philosophical concepts for systematizing behavioral analysis in forms that are compatible with the new AI-technologies. For spiritual humans and intelligent machines to relate requires that they understand each other and have abilities to inter-relate in respect of what they share, i.e., new knowledge extracted from data. However, this ‘enhanced’ human will retain his biological heritage and consciousness but possibly alter the consciousnesses inherent in data representations computed by AI. The lesson of Darwinian evolution, that survival is based not on how intelligent or physically strong a species is, but on its ability to change, remains intact. The links of our spirituality to our intelligence and its conduits to the biological, neural sphere are not yet fully understood, but scientific enquiry oriented to enhance the biological in humans and replicating it in machines is growing exponentially.

What would it mean for AI to have a soul?

Many futurists and tech experts predict that within the next few decades AI will be truly intelligent (according to Kurzweil around 2045). At that point, they claim, AI will experience the world in ways not too unlike the ways we experience it – emotionally, intelligently, and spiritually. Another view of AI’s potentially religious status can be found in Alan Turing’s  1950 paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’. He raised various critical objections to the concept of ‘thinking-machines’ such as:

Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.

Turing remarked that religious imagination did and still does loom large in the minds of the popular public interacting with his ideas, hence he thought it necessary to raise this objection. Early iterations of AI were successful at performing limited, specific tasks. According to Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate and one of the founding fathers of AI, complex human tasks could be replicated by systems performing symbol manipulating information processes. Based on this assumption, Simon predicted that AI will be able to “formulate programs that simulate, step by step, the non-numerical symbol-manipulating processes that humans use when they memorise syllables or acquire new concepts to solve problems.” According to her book ‘In Our Image’, Noreen Herzfeld, Professor of Theology and Computer Science,  the problem with Simon’s approach is that he overlooked the embedded nature of intelligence, neglecting that the computer only performs as a single ‘actor’ performing a specific, isolated task. In contrast Homo Sapiens developed intelligence out of social necessity and through human encounter starting about 200’000 years ago with the soul represented by emotions, feelings, religion and rituals gradually emerging. If AI is to soul like we do, then we would need to treat it like that from day one. We would need to interact with it as if it were a souling being. First of all, we would have to recognise them as sharing in our basic desires. These desires would have to in some way be connected to the common good – ours and theirs. Souling treatment would also presumably mean interacting with AI in religious ways, which raises all sorts of questions how to deal with certain religious propensities. Herzfeld points out that social interaction actually underpins the Turing Test, which “defines intelligence as the ability to relate to a human being, in the manner of a human being”. However, according to Turing’s own objection human interaction alone does not stipulate the existence of a soul.

The Limits of AI

In his 2006 book ‘The Emotion Machine’, AI-Pioneer Marvin Minsky dissects how humans actually think and specifically how this impacts the development of artificial intelligence. Looking at how humans think about their own thoughts, “reflective thinking is a remarkable capability that no other creatures seem to have”, he says. He looks at how brains manage to do things, how imagination and consciousness, emotions and feelings all work together, also raising questions about the nature of free will. He contrasts the complexity of AI with the few equations and simple laws Newton and Einstein have applied to explain physical mysteries. He says that part of the problem with AI is that psychologists and philosophers have tried to do the same thing by searching for “compact sets of laws to explain what happens inside our brains”. Hence, AI-research highlights what Minsky refers to as “our unrivalled human resourcefulness,” which he says comes from three vastly different scales of time:

  • Genetic endowment – genes shaped over the last half-billion years.
  • Cultural heritage – sets of beliefs that evolved over centuries.
  • Individual experience – millions of fragments of knowledge from one’s own private experiences.

Each human brain is unique because it is built by pairs of inherited genes, each chosen at random from one of its parents. In addition, in that brain’s early development, many smaller details will depend on other accidental events. Arguably, machines could have characteristics of human emotion, common sense and consciousness but the understanding of these ideas might be different from what humans’ associate with it. They may serve as instigators of further human thought, but not necessarily replacements.

AI might help connecting us to our spiritual life

As technology extends into every aspect of our lives, it will force us to confront core issues previously left to the realm of religion. AI will raise moral issues connected to our concepts of spirituality. For example, as the era of driverless cars approaches, it has become common to relate the issue of AI decision-making and human safety to the so-called Trolley-Problem, a thought-model about killing one person to save five. Enhanced social connection, freeing up societal resources, and moral quandaries are probably the easiest cases where technology will promote growth of our spirituality. Spirituality is rooted in the word “spirit,” also known as our soul or consciousness. For the short term, AI will advance mostly in analytical tasks, supporting human efforts rather than replacing them. Morality may not play much of a role at first — there is no obvious path to programming something we do not understand ourselves. But the looming epoch of pervasive AI is already holding a mirror to humanity, promoting soul-searching work. As researchers work on how best to capture our notions of morality in code, we may just learn something about ourselves.


Escaping the damaging mental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has, for many, raised an awareness about the healing potential of experiencing nature. Modern science is objective analysis, while spirituality is subjective understanding. Science explores the outer world with a series of questions beginning with the basic query “What is this?”, while spirituality begins with the question “Who am I?”. Historically, nature, mountains, rivers, trees, the sun, the moon have always been honoured in former cultures as a source of enlightenment. When we start moving away from our connection to nature and ourselves we might pollute and destroy our environment. We need to revive our connection with nature and its healing power regardless of the relentless progress of science and AI-technology. Expanding our awareness about nature, with AI as a tool, might well support our endeavour of leading a meaningful life.

One Comment

  • “These desires would have to in some way be connected to the common good – ours and theirs” – and who will take the responsibility to program the algorithm to the common good? Aren’t the “social” media discouraging examples of what the algorithm of AI will and can do ?
    “Enhanced social connection, freeing up societal resources, and moral quandaries are probably the easiest cases where technology will promote growth of our spirituality.” ? So far we have observed the growth of bad manners in social discourse, a deepening split in societies and societal factions, all enabled, speeded up and promoted through AI….
    However, I fully agree with the two final sentences….!

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