No Orbiting Teapot

April 28, 2014

A standard principle in logic is that if Smith says, “X exists,” and Jones says, “X does not exist,” Smith carries the burden of proof. Jones needn’t justify his unbelief; rather, Smith has to do all the work, showing why belief in X is more reasonable than unbelief. In general, the burden of proof rests on the one who asserts, not on the one who denies. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once illustrated this idea with the following claim: A teapot presently orbits the sun between the Earth and Mars. Of course, a teapot might be doing that: it’s logically possible. But then, Russell implies, we should affirm such a claim only if we have strong evidence for it. Otherwise, unbelief in the teapot is the correct stance. Likewise, and on the same grounds, Russell believed that atheism should be the thinking man’s default theory. We should be atheists until believers can advance positive evidence that God exists. So it’s easier to be an atheist than a theist (i.e., someone who believes in God). At least, we are encouraged to believe as much, coming from the skeptical side.

But then, Russell complains, we religious types have two unfair advantages: (a) ancient books that proclaim the existence of God and (b) Sunday schools. The books (or book, in our case) encircle our beliefs with a halo of supernatural respectability, while our Sunday schools access young minds at impressionable stages, keeping the latter from entertaining provocative questions. Russell would complain about the Quran and Islamic madrassas in similar terms, one imagines, with greater care taken as to where he did so. In any case, our holy books and schools fashion a culture which shelters religious belief from inquiry, even to the point of shifting the burden of proof mentioned above from Smith to Jones or from assertion to denial. The atheist can hardly get a fair hearing in a culture where—to recapture Russell’s analogy—one believes in orbiting teapots until such time as someone disproves even the possibility of such things. That’s a tall order, Russell implies, and thus religious belief endures in the age of reason and science.

On the surface, Russell’s argument seems to be convincing, and it reflects the standard misgivings that semi-skeptics have about religious belief. Take Christianity as an example. We certainly postulate more existing things than the atheist does. Atheists believe in matter, energy, and what they generate according to the laws of physics and chemistry. The universe contains no other kinds of things. Christians go further, insisting that God exists, along with angels, demons, souls, afterlives, and so forth. So it appears that we believe in more, rather than less, and thus we have the tougher view to defend. The atheist gets a pass at this point, having convinced us (if he has) that we should always start with his view and move on to something else, only if the arguments given for Christianity are strong enough. As it turns out, they are strong enough, especially in their cumulative effect. But we should notice something about the atheist’s view which puts it on defense, right along with Christianity. If we have some explaining to do, so does he.

Atheism presents itself as the sober, uncomplicated truth about the world. No exotic claims here about unseen beings and supernatural forces. However, when someone denies the existence of a God who creates, he automatically affirms a complementary set of claims which orbit the sun like Russell’s teapot. After all, if no God exists, then we have to accept the idea that the universe sprang into being uncaused, out of nothing whatsoever, given the difficulties attending the idea of a past-eternal universe. Likewise, atheism turns human beings into sophisticated animals, not creatures of God having supreme and unique value; and it takes away all notions of final judgment and transcendent norms of behavior. What’s left, instead of the moral law, are preferences—yours and mine, with nothing to judge between us. In this sense, atheism turns out to be a theoretical package deal: you get the absence of God with atheism and less moral red tape—which seems like a good time in the making. Then atheism’s ugly relatives move in across the hall, and only their inconsistency can save us: the less authentic they are, the better. Such consequences would spoil any theory all by themselves, never mind atheism’s wild guesses as to how dead matter came to life eons ago.

The lesson here is that atheism is not more obviously true than theism, as if it should be the starting point of every thinking person. Nor is it merely “whatever the rest of us believe, minus God.” Rather, by denying some claims, it affirms other ones implicitly; and those claims require defenses to the same degree as any theological doctrine—perhaps more, on some views as to how we know that God exists and that we have duties toward him. Therefore, the young Christian off to college or the deacon surrounded by unbelieving coworkers needn’t suppose that his core beliefs compare to faith in dragons, fairies, and Aphrodite. Christianity does not have two strikes against it already, compared to fashionable theories embraced on campuses and in Hollywood. Rather, it is a formidable worldview, well defended through a long history of debate with its major philosophical and religious rivals. We don’t believe the gospel only because it has these intellectual virtues, of course; but it does indeed hold up well under scrutiny. Christianity fares at least as well as atheism. A great many philosophers of religion would insist that it does far better.

We are called upon at various times in our Christian lives to enter the public square, to identify lifestyles and policies that we favor, and to explain why others should join us in favoring them. We have to make our case and let others make theirs. But is it permissible to bring “religion” into these discussions, to defend our views on expressly Christian grounds? Or would that move somehow break the rules of polite company? Based on what has been said thus far, our answers should be “yes” and “no,” respectively, from two perspectives. For one thing, our platform makes sense. A person who advocates public policies that align with basic standards of biblical morality does something different than a person who says, “Behold, Potamus, the river god, desires a flat tax.” Our worldview has earned the serious consideration of serious people. But secondly, the major rival to Christianity in the public square is also a “religion,” essentially, because it is also a worldview. Secular humanism (i.e., atheism with a soft spot for people) offers its own take on where we came from, what the good life is, and how this all ends. It generates policy prescriptions, just like Christianity; and the secularist wants to see them implemented.

The writers of Scripture don’t answer all of our questions, and thus we cannot meet every challenge posed by Christianity’s detractors with a tailor-made rebuttal, drawn straight from special revelation. Sometimes, therefore, we have to say, “I don’t know,” and we should do so with grace and humility. Nevertheless, we may participate in discussions of politics, morality and culture with some confidence, knowing that our worldview makes sense of the world and makes sense of our society. We can explain what’s really going on, from rising poverty and lawlessness, to declining standards of public behavior and discourse. We can fit most of it together and show how, if we follow the norms of Scripture, these troubles will recede to less-shocking levels. But most of all, our presence in the public square, and even more so in the daily conversations of life, offers a hearing for the gospel, without which no person can live and no society like ours can survive.

Thor Madsen

Dr. Thor Madsen has been at Midwestern Seminary since 1999 and is currently Dean of Graduate Studies, PhD Program Director and Professor of New Testament, Ethics and Philosophy. Dr. Madsen graduated from Wheaton College with the Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in philosophy. Following his studies at Wheaton, he went to … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24