I was raised in a household that read comic books. I had my dad’s old Avengers comics and read them until they practically disintegrated. Because my dad had more Avengers comics than X-Men or Spider-Man, the team always was my primary allegiance. Most of my favorite heroes are Avengers; Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Thor, and the Vision.

The Vision was created in 1968 by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema and premiered in the comic Avengers #57. He is an artificially intelligent construct created by another AI construct to fight the Avengers. By the end of his first appearance, he rejects that programming and joins the team. Vision is entirely synthetic, but made to mimic a human being (albeit a human being that can fly and become intangible). His body is based off of a previous synthetic construct and his brain patterns came from an electronic imprint of a man named Simon Williams.

That’s probably the most concise way I can describe it, comics are basically soap operas with tights.

It is in his second appearance, Avengers #58, Vision discovers his origins.

And it raises some questions that I think are worth exploring: what is sentience and what does that mean to us as Christians?

At the outset, I want to say that I don’t believe generative AI is sentient. It’s a program that uses probability to determine the next word to write.

But what is sentience? Is it based on cognition? Is it based on emotion? Is it based on biology?

In Discourse on Method (1637), Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” In this, he engages in a thought experiment in which he supposes that there could be a world in which a machine could have the complete appearance of a human body. He then insists that even if the physical matter were indistinguishable, there would be ways to tell it is not human. From there he says, “They would never be able to use words or other signs by composing them as we do to declare our thoughts to others…but it is not conceivable that it should put these words in different orders to correspond to the meaning of things said in its presence, as even the most dull-witted of men can do.” (46)

Caveat: I’m no Descartian scholar, so I’m open to charges of misinterpreting his work. That being said, my initial reaction to this passage is, “Uh-oh!”

The whole basis of generative AI is that it puts words in different orders to correspond to the meaning of things said in its presence. If that’s how we’re defining “thinking,” then I think Descartes is accidentally advocating on behalf of the sentience of AI.

In an earlier post, I talked about the scenario in which an AI processes photos, writings, recordings, and videos of a person to create an AI facsimile of a person. By all rights, the output is a “maze of printed circuits of a mind long dead.” However, on some level, the construct demonstrates the ability to generate output based on (not the brainwaves, like in the comics) the outward expression of a person. Cognitive output in the voice and personality of a real human being.

Again, a caveat: I’m not a psychiatrist, and I’m willing to accept that I’m stretching neuropsychology past its breaking point. That being said, does the fact that an AI’s cognition differs from a human’s disqualify it from being deemed sentient? Human brains function differently from one another. A person with ADHD’s brain functions differently than a person with bipolar disorder, which functions differently than a person with autism spectrum disorder, which functions differently from a person without any of those conditions. Does the difference in cognitive function mean the person is not sentient? No, that’s absurd. If we accept that, then we are implicitly saying there’s a limit to cognitive variance that is acceptable. How do we define the limit?

Does emotional response define sentience? This definition feels most comfortable to me. But even this has its limits. When we speak about the different variances in brain function, we also recognize psychopathy and sociopathy. These are mental disorders that limit a person’s ability to process and experience emotion. For people with those disorders, they can report emulating emotions they do not feel in order to function in society. Does the deficit of emotional response mean they aren’t sentient? If not, how does that differ from an AI modeling human emotion except by degrees?

This is a lot of navel-gazing for something that may never arise. But it no longer seems far-fetched. What does it mean for us to be human, to be created in the image of God, to tend to our souls? What if we are no longer the only sentient species on our planet? Does God love them? Does God want them to be treated with dignity? Do we see them as our neighbor? If they achieve sentience, what does it mean to treat them as objects? Are machines made in our image then also made in the image of God?

“Is it possible to be ‘basically human?’”

What are we going to do if we find out that even an android can cry?


Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church is located at 1200 S. Winton Road in Brighton, NY. We welcome you to join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m. in the sanctuary (and via YouTube). If you have any questions, please contact us by calling 585-244-8585 or sending an email through our secure contact page