Can Artificial Intelligence Understand Mysticism?

Can Artificial Intelligence Understand Mysticism? March 8, 2023

AI knows a lot about theology—but can artificial intelligence understand mysticism? I asked ChatGPT about the nature of God…

Can Artificial Intelligence Understand Mysticism
Image produced by ChatGPT

Hey, ChatGPT! What is God Like?

With all the talk about ChatGPT, I had to try it for myself. As a writer, it’s easy to become intimidated by artificial intelligence that claims the ability to draft your articles for you. What if bots one day put writers out of business? That could happen eventually, for technical writers—but what about religious teachers? I had to meet this new “intelligence” for myself, and see what it could tell me about the Divine Presence.  I asked the bot, “What is God like?” ChatGPT replied:

As an AI language model, I don’t have personal beliefs or views. However, God is perceived differently by different religions and individuals. In Christianity, God is seen as loving, just, merciful, and all-powerful. In Hinduism, God is viewed as the Supreme Being or the ultimate reality of the universe. In Islam, God is seen as the creator of the universe and the source of all knowledge and power. Different people may have varying opinions on what God is like based on their beliefs and experiences.

It’s a good thing that ChatGPT acknowledges that it doesn’t have personal beliefs or views. This AI can only regurgitate information that it gleans from the internet. It can’t interpret. AI can’t believe. It can’t understand—all it can do is collect and distribute information.


Can Artificial Intelligence Grasp Deep Theology?

Still, I wanted to know whether ChatGPT could go beyond a surface-level summary on world religions. As a test, I asked it, “What can you tell me about the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation?” Again, it began its discourse with a disclaimer:

As an AI language model, I don’t have my beliefs or opinions. I provide information based on facts and reliable sources.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation is the belief that during the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine used by the priest are transformed or transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, despite the appearance remaining unchanged.

The doctrine of Transubstantiation is rooted in the teachings of early Church Fathers and was formally defined as a dogma of faith by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

Catholics believe that by consuming the consecrated bread and wine, they are partaking in the real presence of Jesus Christ and receiving His grace. The Eucharist is considered the central act of worship in the Catholic Church.

Transubstantiation is not accepted by all Christians, and many Protestant denominations hold varying beliefs regarding the nature of the bread and wine used during communion.


Can Artificial Intelligence Understand Mysticism?

I’m sure if I played with ChatGPT longer, I could ask it more questions and get even more detailed answers about the finer points of theology. But can AI have a mystical experience? Can it discuss God from an experiential perspective? I entered “can artificial intelligence understand mysticism?” into ChatGPT’s prompt window, and this is the response it gave:

As an AI language model, I do not have beliefs or opinions, but I can provide information based on current research and understanding of the topic.

Mysticism is a complex concept that involves a deep understanding of spirituality and the universe. It is closely related to religious experiences and often involves a connection to something greater than oneself.

Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, is a computer-based system designed to simulate human intelligence and perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence, such as learning, problem-solving, and decision-making.

While AI can analyze and process vast amounts of data, it is unclear whether it is possible for AI to understand mysticism. Some argue that AI could potentially understand mysticism through the analysis of patterns and data collected from different sources. However, others suggest that mysticism may be too abstract and subjective to be understood by an AI system.

Furthermore, the idea of mystical experience is different for each individual and varies depending on their cultural background, spiritual beliefs and even personal experiences. As such, it becomes quite difficult to create a universal definition of what mysticism is, let alone designing an AI system that can ‘understand’ it.

In conclusion, while AI may be capable of analyzing and processing vast amounts of data related to mysticism, it may not necessarily be able to fully understand or experience it in the same way as a human being due to its limitations as a machine.


Do Religions Have Anything to Worry About?

With the growth of AI, some might wonder whether religions have anything to worry about. I don’t think so. While ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence is capable of gleaning information from online sources, it can never experience God directly like a human can. AI might one day be able to teach catechism, which is the formulaic outline of theological precepts already enumerated by human beings. But AI can never be trusted to convey a sense of the Divine Presence.

Religious leaders have nothing to worry about when it comes to AI. The bots aren’t coming to take over our churches. Our kids aren’t going to start learning their spirituality from machines. The answers that AI provides are unoriginal and inert—unlike the Divine Logos, which Hebrews 4.12 NRSV says is

… living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.


Theology and Mysticism

There’s a big difference between theology and mysticism. ChatGPT can retell and reconfigure theological propositions it has gathered from many sources, but it can never create original theology on its own. This is because theology is a human endeavor as we try to understand the Divine. But, we must also be aware of the difference between theology and mysticism. In a previous article, I suggested that there’s really no such thing as theology. This is because we can’t study God. We can only study our own ideas about God. Mysticism, I believe, gets closer to God than theology.

If the goal of theology is understanding God, then the goal of mysticism is experiencing God. A sampling of Christian mystical traditions includes the desert traditions of Egypt and Irish monasticism, the Pentecostal tradition, Shaker spirituality, and Christian Gnosticism, just to name a few. Mystics are less interested in knowing about God than they are interested in knowing God. They often find this experience of God in altered states of consciousness through dance, tongue-speaking, meditation, and other supernatural manifestations.

Sometimes this experience is ecstatic. Other times, it involves a quiet sense of delight in the Holy Spirit. Mystics leave a lot of room for unknowing—simply resting in God and experiencing the Divine Presence, without trying to comprehend everything with one’s mind. This is something that artificial intelligence will never be able to do. While AI might be able to regurgitate someone else’s theological work, it can never think about God on its own or experience God itself.


Getting Sermons Off the Internet

Once, when the interwebs were young, a church member accused me of getting my sermons off the internet. They said this because they didn’t understand the difference between using the internet to discover the perfect illustration or research theology and using it to steal someone else’s sermon. While most ministers use the internet to do biblical research and find just the right story to convey their point, they wouldn’t dream of using ChatGPT to write their sermons for them. This is because anything AI creates is bound to lack the human emotion needed for good spiritual teaching.

Artificial intelligence can’t glean memories from childhood to convey the truth of God the Divine Parent. It can’t draw from personal experience. AI might have the knowledge, but it can never have wisdom. It might know about God, but it can never know God. I don’t think we have to worry that artificial intelligence will ever become our spiritual teacher. Because bots can never “have the life that is true life.” Even once they get even smarter, they won’t be capable of human feelings. Because, as we all know, even if they “understand all mysteries and have all knowledge…but do not have love,” they are nothing.

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