Coffee with Namin

Dan Forbush
Dan Forbush
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Can AI be Unitarian? 

The Making of a Unitarian Universalist Sermon

Imagine that you are sitting in a coffee shop for a leisurely afternoon of reading. As you take a break to answer a text, the individual sitting next to you spies your book and asks your opinion of it. Soon, you are in a deep and interesting conversation. This table-neighbor introduces themselves as Namin; you find them to be particularly attentive, inquisitive, and insightful, so much so that you want to be able to interact with them again sometime. Before you leave for home, you exchange email addresses. Later that night, you send an email to Namin, letting them know that you cannot remember the last time you had such a stimulating encounter with a stranger, and ask if they would like to get together for coffee next week. Just a few minutes later, you receive a reply. 

Hi! I am so glad that you emailed me; thank you for the kind words. I enjoyed our time together as well! I would love to meet up for coffee again. Next Thursday, same time and spot? But before you agree, I should tell you something. I am actually not bio-life. I am artificial life. What you interacted with today was what you would term a “robot” that transports my processing algorithm when I want to go somewhere. I know that this revelation can cause all sorts of reactions, so if you’d rather not get together again, I understand. In either case, please know that it was great to meet you today, and you are a wonderful person.



This is the scenario that the Rev. Michael Langford, an ordained Presbyterian pastor  and Professor of Theology, Discipleship and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University, offers as a way to generate a serious conversation about artificial intelligence in faith communities.

Rev. Langford is permitting us to share it with Unitarian Universalist ministers as a thought experiment for their congregations. We offer it as a way to open the "AI conversation" that AI and Faith is encouraging in faith communities globally.

We might make the conversation more compelling by asking ministers: Would you let Namin sign the book?

When you "sign the book" in Unitarian Universalism you declare to members of the congregation you're joining that you recognize you are bonded with them in a covenant, the "silk that joins UU congregations, communities, and individuals together in a web of interconnection," as the UUA describes it. "The practice of promising to walk together is the precious core of our creedless faith."
“Covenant” is both a noun and a verb. It can be a written agreement among individual community members promising to behave in certain ways, and it can mean to engage in mutual promises with Spirit, with other people and communities."

Covenants build foundations of trust. By creating shared expectations around the behaviors we want to cultivate, we come closer to creating the beloved community.

When will Namin be eligible to join our beloved community?

It's constructive to consider the conversation that Blaine Lemoine has opened with his declaration that a AI Google chatbot with which he has become closely acquainted is sentient.

Myriad questions are raised by this case. Does "sentience" equal "personhood"? Does "personhood" equal "human"? What status shall we grant our AI agents? What rights shall we grant them? Should we befriend them?

Langford introduces Namin in "Artificial Intelligence and Theological Personhood," a chapter in AI, Faith and the Future, the compilation of essays he published last month with six other SPU faculty members from diverse disciplines. 

The scenario essentially brings us into the famous test that Alan Turing offered in 1950 as a way to determine if a computer has achieved human-level intelligence. If a computer is capable of imitating a human's behavior so well that we can't it's only a computer, he argued, then it has achieved human-level intelligence. 

"I think that personhood is pretty contextually defined," says Langford, who -- in addition to being a Seattle Pacific University faculty member -- is an ordained Presbyterian minister who majored in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University in 1993,  and earned his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010. He calls himself a "theological anthropologist." 

He says: 

"Different groups of people define personhood differently. That's happened throughout history. and in different cultures across the world. I think that there's some intersection -- like a big Venn diagram -- but I think there are some different takes on it as well.  I think there's also a difference between being a person and being a human." 

"Sentience is one way to define what being a person is," he continues. "In some ways, that just begs the question what does 'sentience' mean"?  I'm wary of reducing personhood to a capacity or to some sort of predicate, so I'm not convinced that sentience alone can define personhood." 

Last month we explored with Michael Paulus, Langford's colleague at Seattle Pacific University and co-author of AI, Faith and the Future, the resource represented by John's Revelation, the "great vision of God's promised future" and the" telos of the biblical narrative."

Langford finds similar inspiration in Genesis 1, where God declares all creation to be "very good" and gives humanity “dominion" -- or "skilled mastery" -- over the entirety of this good creation.

"That which exists is good merely because God creates it"-- even if it is the repository and perpetuator of sin, Mike notes. Humanity is a special part of creation, "especially in light of God's unique interaction with humans, who are created in the divine image."

In Genesis 2, God creates a human being by breathing spirit into the "dust of the ground" in the Garden of Eden. Although surrounded by animals, this human is alone and incomplete and so, out of the side of this human, God creates a second human, and they are then called man  (ish) and woman (ishshah).

Thus, it is in the creation of community that humanity gains the status of personhood," says Langford.


First-Order Creations are those directly created by God. All matter that exploded in the Big Bang. Stars. Mountains. Atoms. Quarks. All living things in the Universe. Humans.

Second-Order Creations are those things that are created by humans whom we can imagine carrying out God's will and achieving their God-given destinies. Art. Novels. Corporations. Skyscrapers. Computers. AI agents.

Here's Langford:

"(T)he differentiation between first and second-order creations seems intuitively and scripturally appropriate, but it is also rather ambiguous. I do think it is important to acknowledge that there is somehow an ontological distinction between things like people and trees and mountains and water, and things like computers and cities and cars and soda. 

"Scripture and intuition seem to indicate anthropological priority in creation, and also seem to indicate some sort of distinction between that which is directly created by God and that which is created by humans. However, the distinction between many things is not necessarily a difference in inherent value—it is all God’s creation. 

"Moreover, that which humans have created has actually enabled the existence of what we would term first order creations, and have even shaped their evolution. Even now, through artificial insemination, human reproduction is made possible through technological means. But take that further. What if we develop the technology to manufacture human life from beginning to end using non-living material? 

"If DNA strands were able to be built from protein molecules along with a cell host, and if this DNA strand was able to be grown in a laboratory into a living being, would the result be a human? If not, why not? And if so, how is that different than AI given that the latter is also made out of created material?"

"The difficulty found in dealing with this question is because intuitively we know that origins matter. Nevertheless, while proposing a distinction between first and second order creations, we ought also to remember that these may at times simply be a conceptual distinction, and the difference may be rather blurry, especially as technology advances and melds with organic material."