The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, November 2, 2023

It’s Thursday, November 2, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak Send Dueling Messages on AI: Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy or Doomsday Technology? We Might Soon Find Out

Well, it came in at about 20,000 words, that is the executive order issued by the President of the United States on the issue of artificial intelligence. And it is written in bureaucratic language right down to the title, which is, “Safe, Secure and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence.” If anything, the document doesn’t look like it was written by artificial intelligence. As a matter of fact, it looks like it was written by a presidential administration in order to serve the needs of a federal bureaucracy. In other words, it’s not pretty. Now we can understand that the president needed to put out some kind of guidelines because the biggest issue of our day in terms of technology right now is the emergence of artificial intelligence.

We’ll be having to look at this over a period of months and years because this evolving technology is clearly something that poses a definitional threat to humanity. Definitional, because we’re using the word intelligence and using the word intelligence invokes humanity. But this isn’t human, this is artificial, thus artificial intelligence. Now, before we go any further, let me just say that as Christians, we understand that human beings being made in the image of God are unique. And the word unique is categorical, you can’t be a little bit unique, you’re either unique or you’re not. In this case, the biblical worldview underlines the fact that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. At the same time, we do understand that there is a form of intelligence that is given to other creatures. We refer to intelligent life, and by that we don’t mean only human intelligence.

We often speak of our dogs as being smart, although we have to put that in brackets. Our cats think themselves to be smart. We have to put that in brackets too. We are told that on a scale of intelligence, porpoises or dolphins, as they’re often called, end up very high, elephants also, other forms of even intelligent life, less so. But the Christian worldview makes the distinctions, the most crucial distinction between the creator and creation, but another absolutely vital distinction between the creature made in God’s image and all other creatures. But there is no doubt that what’s being called artificial intelligence is scaring even the people who have developed it. Some of the most important innovators in artificial intelligence are the ones calling on the government, both in the United States and around the world to do something. But at the same time, we understand that even as the United States and China are the leading nations when it comes to artificial intelligence right now, Britain, as we will discuss, is attempting to become the third nation in a triad of innovators on artificial intelligence.

But we are looking at something that isn’t even particularly well-defined right now, but just about everyone close to artificial intelligence is sure that it presents a grave and great threat to humanity. That’s why the White House put out the statement. Remember the title? It’s awkward, but it includes a lot of words we’re looking for here, “Safe, secure and trustworthy development and use of artificial intelligence.” As I said, there’s about 20,000 words and we are grasping around in every dimension of life, whether it’s in the economy and big business, whether it’s higher education and academia, it’s cultural creatives and Hollywood and writers and all the rest. There are those who are estimating that something like 80% of all existing jobs could be made obsolete by artificial intelligence. Is that true or is that false? Well, we should be accustomed to the fact that Draconian fears often accompany major technological leaps, but sometimes they also turn out to be justified. In this case, we simply don’t know yet.

But in worldview analysis, something very interesting is happening, and on the one hand what’s happening is that governments are being called upon to take action. The action by the Biden Administration came because you had major corporations, you had major political forces, you had the military and others saying, “There needs to be a national policy.” A little footnote here that national policy isn’t going to mean something in an international situation. If other nations do not cooperate, it’s very unlikely China will cooperate with any restriction. But we’ll leave that conversation for another time. Right now, I don’t so much want to look at the United States as compared to China as to look at the United States as compared to Britain. Because now you have two English-speaking nations, two free market nations or at least in some sense capitalist nations and you’re looking at electoral democracies.

We have common moral concerns, but as you will note over the last several days, we don’t have a common approach to this. The White House put out that statement about the policies required to make artificial intelligence safe, secure and trustworthy. At the very same time at Bletchley Park, one of the most historic sites given to technology and intelligence in British history, you had a gathering of people who were called together by the British government under the authority of Parliament and ultimately with the cooperation and leadership of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the major theme coming out of the British gathering was, we need to avoid the end of the Earth, we need to avoid doomsday, we need to avoid the end of humanity. As major media such as The Washington Post turned out, you had two major initiatives undertaken by two English-speaking nations that share a basic governmental commitment and foundational commitment to liberty and on the one hand, you had the President of the United States talking about making artificial intelligence safe and secure and trustworthy, while the British Prime Minister was saying, “Look, this could amount to doomsday.”

Those are two completely incommensurate approaches. And as you’re looking at this, you recognize that no one at this point really knows which is sure. Now Christians understand that doomsday is going to be brought about by the ultimate judgment of God on The Day of the Lord, but nonetheless, we do understand and we affirm the fact that technological issues, technological dangers can get wildly out of control and can threaten human dignity. That’s clear on a number of issues Christians have understood for a century or so now. But as you are considering this issue from either side of the Atlantic, it’s clear that there are those who are saying, “Look, we need to go carefully on artificial intelligence. We need to be aware of the dangers, we need to put in place safeguards.” While on the other side of the Atlantic they’re saying, “Safeguards? What safeguards? This could mean the end of humanity. You set this thing loose and it could destroy human dignity. It could create an artificial intelligence that could continually improve itself to the point that it makes human intelligence something far lesser and thus endangered.”

Those who understand science fiction, and by the way, science fiction can go off into completely unhealthy and irrelevant directions, but the origins of science fiction really came from those who were operating from a concern that the modern age would unleash evils the human beings would not be able to control. Or you would have human beings explore where they had never explored before and come into contact with creatures we would rather not meet. Another theme of early science fiction was not so much that we would go where we would meet creatures we would rather not meet, but rather that some of those creatures, instead of us traveling to them, they would travel to us and pose basically the same danger, but this time on planet Earth. A final theme had to do with a laboratory and experimentation that would simply go out of control, that somehow something that was supposedly managed within the context of a laboratory would break out. All of these warned against some form of human hubris or some reminder that the world, the cosmos, can be a very dangerous place.

Both of these have solid biblical grounding. My point is not to look at science fiction, but rather to say that even in science fiction, you see warnings that are grounded in reality. The techno optimists, by the way, in terms of worldview, they are those who say, “Look, every new technology comes with those who quibble, they’re doomsayers, they’re naysayers. But eventually the technology’s going to win, so human beings had better celebrate it, get out of the way and frankly invest in the companies that are going to make the biggest profits off this technology.” Meanwhile, you have the techno pessimists who say, “Ever since the invention of the wheel, things have basically gone downhill.” No pun intended there, by the way. But the techno pessimists are concerned that many of these technologies come with costs that even now resist calculation. And like the experiment that gets out of control in the laboratory and breaks out of the laboratory, these technologies may break out of their bonds and boundaries as well.

That’s true. We do understand that some of these technologies, some of these innovations, some things like artificial intelligence offer grave dangers. Now they offer some good things as well. As a matter of fact, there have been experiments undertaken of late indicating that artificial intelligence may detect cancers, for example, at an early stage before human intelligence can notice the development of the same malignancies. That could lead to the saving of many lives. On the other hand, there are things that could be a lot more boring that artificial intelligence might be able to do, including fulfilling a lot of mundane tasks and doing so without the necessity of a human being staring at a screen or clicking on the keyboard. But that remains to be seen, in the meantime you do have this distinction between the two sides of the Atlantic. The Biden Administration looking at the same technology says, “We need to make certain we’re handling this.”

In Great Britain, there is a much graver warning and the kind of doomsday scenarios you might imagine are being openly discussed and they were at the conference recently held at Bletchley Park. So Bletchley Park, why is that historic? Why is that so significant? It is because that was the secret laboratory, the location where the British code breakers were working, cracking the Enigma code undertaken by the Germans and basically decrypting their encryption. It was a big development. It was one of the major developments that led to the Allied victory in World War II. And it was also very important because it turned out a number of scientists and innovators who did later change many major technologies–you had figures such as Alan Turing, the topic of much cultural conversation and even Hollywood interest in recent days. The British Prime Minister knew exactly what he was doing when he put this conference at that site.

But the difference in approach on the two sides of the Atlantic really is a big story. A team of reporters for The Washington Post reported this way: “Sunak,” that’s the British Prime Minister, “has focused his rhetoric on doomsday scenarios, warning in a speech Thursday of an extreme though unlikely possibility that humanity could lose control of AI, artificial intelligence, completely. The White House meanwhile has focused its efforts on tangible problems, issuing a sweeping new executive order that aims to prevent the technology from exacerbating bias, displacing workers and undermining national security.” Now, who’s right in this case, both in tone and in substance? The Prime Minister of Great Britain or the President of the United States? The fact is we may know quite quickly.

Part II

Is Social Media Addiction the Real Problem for Teens? The Debate Over “Addiction” Points to a Major Moral Problem

But next, as we’re thinking about human beings and technology, the Christian worldview and our understanding of the technological challenge, Matt Richtel offered a report in The New York Times or the headline asking, Is Social Media Addictive? He went on to say, “Here’s what the science says.”

Now, the background of this is the fact that you had 41 states and the District of Columbia–in most cases, it was the attorney general of the respective state –filed suit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. And of course the central claim is that Facebook or Meta, “Knowingly used features on its platforms to cause children to use them compulsively, even as the company said that its social media sites were safe for young people.” In the statement made by the attorneys general, they said, “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit.”

Well, there is no doubt that its motive is profit, that’s not news, that’s also not a matter for a lawsuit. The fact is that they’re charging the company with doing something like creating compelling, perhaps even compulsive, perhaps even addictive temptations for children, teenagers, and frankly for others as well. The article asked the question, is social media addictive? Now, my interest in this is not so much in answering the question, is social media addictive? My initial and deepest question here is why would it matter to us that the word addictive would apply or not? I think in one sense this is where Christians need to detect in this language the fact that we are now living in a therapeutic age where people want some kind of psychiatric or medical diagnosis for what we understand is basically a moral problem.

Is social media addictive? Well, I’m not even sure who can answer that question because definitions of addiction come down not only to matters of therapy but matters of ideology as well. But is there a moral dimension when it comes to children, teenagers, and let’s be honest, anyone using social media? Does this innovation threaten to control us rather than we controlling our own behavior? Well, Matt Richtel raises the issue of the lawsuit and then he asks the question, what makes social media so compelling? He goes to the experts, that’s the way you expect this to go now and we understand the word expert is itself a debatable term. That’s another signal that you have some kind of expertise that’s supposedly being invoked here.

But the point is you had one psychologist who’s the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in Connecticut. He said that one of the signs of addiction is what he called, “Intermittent reinforcement.” That’s the tendency of social media to, “Create the idea that a user could get a reward at any time.” But you’re looking at people who argue, “Look, this is about serotonin, this is about hormones, this is about chemical levels. And social media can create the experience where people just want to see this and then they want to see that. They’re afraid of getting behind, they’re afraid of losing social capital and social status. Teenagers in particular are endangered here. Adolescents have this incredible need to know exactly what their peers are about and what their peers think of them at all times. Social media just plays into this, but is it addictive?”

Later in the article we are told, “Dr. Michael Rich, the Director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, said he discouraged the use of the word addiction because the internet of use effectively and with limits was not merely useful but also essential to everyday life. ‘I prefer the term problematic internet media use.’ He said.” As the reporter says, “it’s a term that has gained currency in recent years.” So dear parents, families, Christian leaders, perhaps you need to have that hard conversation about problematic internet media use. Is it pointing to a compulsion? Does that compulsion point to an addiction? That’s debatable. But my point to parents and to all Christians including Christian teenagers and young people, my argument is this, whether it’s addictive or not is not the most important moral question. We understand that we as human beings are given to overusing rather than using. We are given to over experience rather than experience. We’re given to hungers that create appetites that just lead to further compulsions. And frankly, we don’t have to ask the experts if there’s a moral issue here, all we have to do is interrogate our own hearts.

All we have to do is understand the power of social media. All we have to do is see lives young and old that are wounded by things that are said, who are hounded by people who shouldn’t be even in a relationship, much less having that kind of online communication in what’s described as social media. We’re talking about things that Christians really don’t need a medical vocabulary to discuss. And I want to notice carefully here, I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as internet addiction. I am not a medical doctor, but I am saying this as a moral theologian. I am saying addiction is not the most important moral issue. And frankly, in whatever case, addiction may apply, it is not completely independent of moral concerns. That’s another one of the conceits, another one of the false arguments of the modern age is that if you medicalize a problem, you remove all the moral imperatives, all the moral context, all the moral substance, even all the moral responsibility.

I think we know that’s not true. It’s not true when it comes to the internet, frankly, it’s not true when it comes to the other behaviors that are often diagnosed as some kind of syndrome, some kind of pattern or some kind of addiction. But we also need to warn ourselves as Christians about the use of too many words to explain something that’s really pretty simple. If you have to clinically describe something as problematic internet media use–and people by the way are probably going to refer to it with some kind of acronym like PIMU–the reality is you have become at least, in some sense, a part of the problem.

It’s not an acronym that is our problem, it’s indeed not social media that represents our problem. The problem is the human heart, the problem is the fact that we will give ourselves to all kinds of things that do not deserve as much time and attention as we would give to them. The fact is we are social creatures and that can bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst in us, online and in person.

You might put it in another way. We are a society apparently addicted to the idea of addiction. That’s not saying addiction’s not real. Sometimes it’s physical physiological, but often it is simply used far too widely in our society to try to move from a moral issue to a merely medical issue, and that’s a move that Christians need to detect and avoid.

Part III

Who Really Holds the ‘Extreme’ Position in Abortion? Virginia Republicans Attempt to Shift the Discourse

Finally, we shift to an even more important moral issue and that’s the issue of abortion. And we’re going to look at arguments being made by Virginia Republicans. Now, what they’re trying to do is to get around so much of the political opposition and the political gains made by the pro-abortion movement. As the pro-abortion movement in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, reversing Roe, have been pretty successful in presenting pro-lifers as extremists. Now, Virginia Republicans are trying to turn the table. Trip Gabriel of The New York Times offers us a report, the headline, Virginia Republicans Look to Neutralize Abortion as an Election Issue. But I would argue they’re not just trying to neutralize it, they’re trying to flip it from what politicians think is a negative in terms of electoral impact to a positive. And it underlines the importance of moral language.

So for example, Virginia Republicans are now calling for a 15-week ban, that is to say a ban on 15 weeks of gestation, a ban on abortion that would save the lives of so many of the unborn. And you’re looking at a state that unlike most other southern states, really doesn’t have much in terms of pro-life legislation. But the Virginia Republicans are arguing that that position, that is to say a ban on abortion after 15 weeks with certain exemptions, that that’s a common sense approach to abortion as contrasted with the pro-abortion Democrats who they say are now holding to a support no limits position.

Now, this is where many of us have pointed out that it is not the pro-life position that’s extreme, it’s the pro-abortion position that’s extreme. And even as you have in Kentucky, for example, a Kentucky governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, who’s generally pro-abortion, he says he would support some limits on abortion and then he just vaguely points to something like Roe v. Wade. But the real extremism is in the Democratic Party where routinely now you have proposals for no limits on abortion. That’s an even more extreme position than Roe and that’s the truly extreme position. But nonetheless, they’ve been very rhetorically successful in opposing pro-lifers and Republican candidates and pro-life initiatives at the state level by arguing that the positions held by the pro-lifers, that position is extreme. So this language is very interesting. These Virginia Republicans are calling a ban at 15 weeks common sense and the position of the Democrats as supporting no limits.

What they recognize there is that the vast majority of Americans do believe there should be some appropriate limits on abortion even if they don’t hold anything like a consistent pro-life position. It’s interesting to see that the argument here is that a ban at 15 weeks, it is reasonable and common sense. Now, what we’re looking at, of course, is a situation in which those of us who hold to a pro-life position can’t be satisfied with legal abortion at any stage. We can’t be satisfied with a law that would protect some unborn lives, but not all unborn lives. But here’s where we need to understand the word satisfied or the sense that our work is completed, because that doesn’t mean that we should not support interim measures that would save many of the unborn, at 15 weeks, probably most of the unborn, at six weeks, certainly most of the unborn detected, that is in terms of gestation.

The reality is that we should never say that our goal is anything less than a total ban on all abortions. In terms of elective abortions. That is, we’re talking about abortions that are chosen by women because they want to terminate an inconvenient pregnancy. And so understanding that that’s the big moral problem in abortion, we need to understand that there is no way for us to stop short. But whether our goal is, say, the recovery of sanity on marriage or pushing back on the larger LGBTQ agenda or preserving unborn human life, there are incremental steps that are not wrong. And especially when you look at the fact that right now the American public, and this is true in most states, not thankfully in all states, but it’s true in most states, that you do not have yet a pro-life consensus that’s anywhere near one that can turn elections, change constitutional language and just give the legislative and total political systemic support to the pro-life cause to defend the unborn at every stage of development from fertilization until natural death.

That’s one of the issues we just have to face. Human dignity, the sanctity of human life extends all the way from fertilization to the end of natural life. And at every point, Christians must contend for the full dignity of every single human being and for the fact that every single human being is made in God’s image and thus possesses the gift of life, which is to be protected and respected by all others. Now, there are several issues who need to isolate here. Number one, is it ever right to stop short of a full ban on abortion? The answer is yes. If we’re talking about a specific piece of legislation or we’re talking about a specific court case, specific language in terms of a constitutional amendment. Is it right however to stop short of telling everyone everywhere that our goal is the total elimination of elective abortion? The answer to that is no. That would not be right.

It is not right to be dishonest. It is not right to, in any way, betray the cause of human dignity and our Christian responsibility by suggesting that somehow we can settle for less. But we do understand that politics is a moving target. We understand that time represents a dual challenge to us. Because we understand that political time and our own personal time do not always coincide. Sometimes we have to make the gains we can in a certain political context and come back the next time armed with hopefully reinforcements in terms of newly elected persons who hold to our worldview and also conversions when it comes to this kind of issue, persuasions when it comes to the dignity and sanctity of human life, when it comes neighbor by neighbor, fellow citizen to citizen.

The battle for the unborn is not won only inside or outside an abortion clinic. It’s not won only inside or outside a federal or state courthouse. It is won in the human heart and that’s where we have to press our case. While acknowledging all times honestly, that our ultimate goal is nothing less than the total elimination of elective abortion in the United States of America. And there are those who would say that that position is extreme but rightly understood in a moral sense, it is the pro-abortion argument that is extreme. But extreme here is not the only operative word, it’s not even the most important word. The pro-abortion, pro-choice position, whatever you want to declare it, is not just extreme, it’s morally wrong, it’s morally abhorrent. It is totally unbiblical and opposed to the plan and purposes of God. That’s language that just might not make it to most electoral contests, but that’s the kind of language Christians need to speak to each other and know in our hearts that we mean it and we’re not moving.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Charlottesville, Virginia, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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