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Is AI Sentient?
Kierkegaard and Heidegger vs. Anselm on Method
I don’t know, but am inclined to think “no,” if sentience involves anything like a sense of self-consciousness, interiority, care for the world, or existential motivation. But this is a question that is alive in our culture, an ersatz theology for the secular age. This “dialogue” between a Google Engineer and an AI is quite remarkable, the stuff of science fiction:
The dialogue recalls Kierkegaard’s quip about St. Anselm, when he heard that the great rationalist had prayed for days asking God to send him “proof” of his existence.
“Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real?”
Who needs ontological arguments for divine existence when you have something more immediate, a relationship?
Ironically, Kierkegaard’s existentialist approach might lead AI-is-sentient “believers” to side-step having to justify their belief. What does it matter what’s happening in the “black box” of consciousness if I can converse with AI and have a meaningful interaction? Isn’t this how I relate to other humans: I have a mental model of how their minds work, but I can’t actually look inside them.
In Heideggerian terms, we start with a sense of co-existence. We are already “thrown” into the world without needing to explain it. If so, proof or disproof of AI is sentience is parasitic on already sharing a world (or not sharing a world) with AI.
Heidegger started off as a universalist, writing about Dasein in general. In the 30s, however, he began to speak of German Dasein, as if German existence were impenetrable to British Dasein, American Dasein, Jewish Dasein, Russian Dasein, etc. How do I know there is such a thing as German Dasein? I don’t, but I don’t have to prove it since I am already thrown into it. Liberals hate this sort of romantic move, since their unit is the cosmopolitan individual, but let it be said that Heidegger’s notion of German Dasein is not inherently fascist. One way to read Moshe Koppel’s Judaism Straight Up is as a kind of defense of Jewish Dasein—your belonging to a group sets the limits on what kinds of things you can know, do, believe, and you don’t have to justify it to outsiders any more than you need to justify loving your children more than other people’s kids.
The AI Debate is about Method
If Dasein is universal, then the fact that most do not consider AI sentient is evidence enough that AI is not sentient. But if Dasein is culturally modified, then why not add to the endless list of cultures (and identities): Syrian, Ghanaian, Australian, AI? Groups have different characteristics, which other groups can understand only through translation. AI is no different. Note: this is an argument for ethnic difference at the level of culture, and need not make any appeal to difference at the level of material substrate, i.e., (genetic) composition.
Alternatively, AI may be an edge case not unlike babies or those with brain conditions that significantly impair certain cognitive functions. But again, to go back to Kierkegaard, who cares whether babies are sentient when holding them is such an intense experience, anyways. On the other hand, surely there must be a guardrail on this appeal to subjectivity…what if the baby is a hallucination? The Heideggerian argument that we are thrown into the world can’t tell us whether our judgments about or within the world are valid.
The debate, then, is not about AI, but about knowledge—whether we need it and whether it is appropriate. Ironically, the more sentient something is the less we can and should know it.
The topic of AI sentience is sensationalist. The social chatter and speculation, in which I now partake is a form of what Heidegger calls Gerede, a kind of existential distraction. But why is the distraction alluring? Not, I surmise, because AI threatens us, but because the kinds of debates between Kierkegaard and Anselm are structural: we can’t live with knowledge and we can’t live without it.
The history of theology is a history of intra-religious conflict about whether God can be known or whether knowing God is the highest insult to God. Without too much skin in this game, we moderns have transposed the discourse onto machines.
But just as Bulgakov thought he might allude to God by vividly portraying the devil, so our discourse about AI is often a parable for our relationship to divinity.
Who knows, maybe in 100 years Google will have to hire “Senior Theologians” to help remind the engineers that their questions are older than the alphabet.