Faith & Science
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In a recent conversation about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Catholic workplace, somebody raised a question about the theological significance of outsourcing a fundamental human capacity like critical thinking to a computer application like ChatGPT. The basic concern was that, by asking ChatGPT to do some of our thinking for us, we would slowly lose something essential and God-given: our capacity to think deeply and reflectively on a topic in order to arrive at a new understanding and insight.

This is a legitimate concern. However, what the question made me realize is how often we fail to set this capacity to think deeply and reflectively in its “right order.” Thomas Aquinas taught that all things, when rightly ordered, point us toward God. What he meant by this is basically that the ultimate motivation for what we do ought to be to know and love God. When we make something less than God our ultimate motivation, we have not rightly ordered our desires or intentions and have made an idol of the thing we sought in place of God.

Let me give a practical example to help illustrate what this means. It’s not uncommon for parents to encourage their children to study to become a medical doctor. They try to motivate their children to undertake the many grueling years of study necessary to qualify as a doctor by pointing out the promise of job stability, a generous income, and social prestige. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with desiring any of these things, surely the more Christian motivation for becoming a doctor would be because you want to use your intellectual and physical gifts to serve others, where this service is an expression of your love for God and God’s creation.

What is the relevance of all of this for our capacity to think critically and reflectively? I sense that, in the last generation or so, we have commodified this capacity. We have made an idol of it. We talk about critical thinking as if it is a means to getting a good job, being productive, and making money. In this context, using AI almost seems like a way to cheat in order to get ahead.

But what if the problem is that we have not put this capacity for thinking deeply and reflectively in its “right order”? What if its primary function is not to make us successful? One of the things we learn from the saints is that our prayer life depends upon us exercising this capacity. It is in prayer that we think deeply and reflectively about who God is, who we are, and how we are called to respond to the Gospel in the concrete circumstances of our lives. In other words, our capacity for critical thinking is meant to help us know and love God in more profound ways. Therefore, it is in prayer that we must first and most often engage in critical reflection.

If God endowed us with the capacity to think deeply and reflectively so that we can know and love him, then what is the point of flexing this metaphorical muscle in other circumstances, such as in school or on the job? Quite simply, we do it so that our prayer life, our life with God, will be better. Not so that we can be successful or make others think we are clever. An example from the world of sports may help us understand this. Athletes do not only practice their specific sport, they also cross-train, testing their strength, stamina, and reflexes in a variety of circumstances. They don’t do this to show off. They cross-train in order to elevate their athletic performance when it counts.

For Christians, prayer is “when it counts.” The advent of technologies like ChatGPT should motivate all of us to double down on our practice of prayer. Likewise, leaders and ministers in the Church should help people learn how the saints taught us to pray. Once we have set our capacity to think deeply and reflectively in its “right order,” we will be better able to discern how and when to use something like ChatGPT most effectively and for the greater glory of God. And that will be exercising our critical thinking.

Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.