Wiser Than the Machine: The Value of Classical Christian Education in an Age of Artificial Intelligence
By Michael Collender and Jonathan Shaw.
Veritas Press, 2024.
Paperback, 125 pages, $9.95.

Reviewed by Isaiah Flair

For decades, books and movies have speculated about a future era of intelligent machines. That era has arrived, with the advent of artificial intelligence. A.I. answers questions, controls devices, writes essays, and much more. Its impact took a quantum leap in 2023. Whether this was a leap forward or a leap backward is something that only time will tell. A.I. will only ever be an imitation of life, not life itself, but it is an imitation with rapidly expanding influence. 

Wiser Than the Machine endeavors to address how Christian students can prosper as people, even as A.I.’s prevalence increases. 

The book sets the stage by acknowledging recent artificial intelligence developments and many people’s concerns about them. It tells an interesting story about LaMDA, which stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, and which was the basis for the chatbot Bard. An engineer claimed that LaMDA “had become sentient, and under the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution was a person with rights.” 

Some would say that an engineer attributing sentience to a machine speaks more to the importance of the engineer getting out of the computer lab and taking an occasional walk than it speaks to the actual capabilities of the machine, but a lot of people lent credence to the claim. While those people ought to limit their viewership of Terminator movies henceforth, the engineer sought to bolster the claim by posting a transcript of his chat with the allegedly sentient machine. The transcript showed the machine using phrases like “I feel” and “I want,” which were represented by some as establishing that the machine had feelings and was therefore sentient.  

A capable imitation of life is, ultimately, still only an imitation. The real question is the extent to which that imitation will be a benefit and the extent to which that imitation will be a source of new challenges. 

The authors of Wiser Than The Machine note that some of the biggest names in technology are at odds about that question, with Elon Musk having said that A.I. presents a more significant danger than nuclear warheads, and other tech leaders having characterized A.I. as a purely positive development. Of note, Musk co-founded OpenAI with Peter Thiel and others, and OpenAI is the progenitor of the A.I. program ChatGPT, which has remarkable abilities. Using the internet as its instantly researchable knowledge base, it can write poetry, stories, articles, and even the code for software apps. 

With that background about A.I. in place, the book addresses how AI affects the education of Christian students. One way is that parents and students want to understand how they must prepare for careers that directly or indirectly involve A.I. 

Yet, as important as that may seem, a more important consideration is how schools can teach students to focus on the value of connecting with other human beings instead of disproportionately focusing on electronics. Society has been wrestling with successive iterations of that challenge for a long time. Men and women of older generations wisely reminisce about how they used to play outside as children, getting fresh air and happily playing active games like Kick the Can and Capture the Flag. That resulted in lasting friendships, enduring good health, and a lot of classic old-fashioned fun. 

In contrast, some 21st-century students spend much of their time morosely staring at a screen and interacting with soulless software. This results in profoundly altered social dynamics and adverse health effects, especially emotionally. The juxtaposition of how students of the past spent their free time and how many students of the modern era spend their free time clearly illustrates that not all change is good. 

Another interesting consideration raised in the book concerns human nature and how artificial intelligence can make students doubt their value and their place in the world. Christian schools are well-positioned to address this, as they teach students Christian understandings of themselves and the world around them. Students need to be taught what they, as human beings, uniquely bring to the world. 

The book makes a start towards addressing that by saying that students should be guided in the development of wisdom, and positing that an exploration of wisdom’s nature will lead students to understand the value that they have and that A.I. does not have. With that goal in mind, the authors of the book define wisdom as recognizing and making things of intrinsic worth. In accordance with that definition, wisdom requires understanding the intrinsic worth of things in a fully human way, by looking at things through the lens of values. Only human beings can do that.

A.I. can not do that because the ability to have values and practice them is uniquely human. A.I. can not love God, self, others, goodness, beauty, or truth. Human beings can and do when they accept the mission to do so. Guiding students on that mission is a key benefit of Christian education, and that benefit is more important than ever in the age of A.I. 

The book makes another astute point when it says that some people in the modern world are “making a strong effort to define goodness, truth, and beauty without reference to God.” Essentially, those people are trying to divorce the wonder of the created from the wondrous nature of the Creator, as though the water flowing in a mountain stream could be divorced from its source and continue to flow. 

The authors write, “God made the world and reveals himself in what He created.” In support of this, they quote Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — His eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

The authors affirm their understanding of the verse: “God is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty. God made us to see Him through the things He created.” This is an important lesson for Christian schools to teach students. It informs them about God’s nature and encourages them to admire and foster beauty in the world that exists beyond the realm of machines. 

Isaiah Flair is a content creator and marketing strategist who lives in the Pacific Northwest, between the evergreen forests and the sea.

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