Speech by Professor Tomáš Halík on the Topic of Values in the Digital Age

In the Jewish ghetto of Prague lived in the 16th century the famous Talmudic scholar Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who, according to a legend, was the maker of the golem, an artificial man. One of these legends, much older than the legend of Prague, says that the first golem was constructed by one of the prophets who wanted to glorify the creative power of God. On its forehead the golem had the inscription JHWH Elohim Emeth – God is the Truth. However, according to a legend, the golem scratched off the letter Aleph and the inscription changed its meaning: JHWH Elohim meth – God is dead. This is perhaps the first version of this famous phrase, long before Nietzsche. The Golem then became an uncontrollable destructive force.

A commentary on this legend tells the story of the builder of Seville who taught his art to his two students. But when they mastered the art of building, they replaced their master, rendering him useless. The meaning of the story is this: the man who can construct life, an artificial man, an artificial intelligence, becomes a god-creator himself; he makes God, his creator, useless, replaces him, takes him out of the game. God is dead. But the progress continues – the animated machine, artificial life, AI, can replace man, his creator, make him useless, take him out of the game. Even Nietzsche knew this: after the death of God comes the end of man. The superman is coming. Will digital technology play the role of this superman? Will it become a golem, emancipated from its creator like man?

A similar motif appears in the play by Karel Čapek, one of the fathers of the science fiction, in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots; the Czech word “robot” became an international term thanks to Čapek’s play). Robots, artificial people, rebel against people. But the end of the play is optimistic: the robots show human feelings, empathy, love. The machine becomes human.

Today we often hear the phrase: Machines are beginning to resemble humans – and humans are beginning to resemble machines. We are fascinated by the possibilities that artificial intelligence offers to humans, but at the same time there is growing concern about the possibility of its misuse. Will digital technology, this postmodern golem, this superhuman, escape human control? AI is currently the ultimate product of technology, human intelligence, and creativity. It gives us quick and easy access to many of the values that are high on the value ladder of our Western civilization. This brings us to the question of values.

In our time, the understanding of reality has undergone a profound change, a paradigmatic shift: from a materialistic perspective, where reality is reduced to its physical components, to an information-centered perspective. The convergence of sciences such as quantum physics and neuroscience is leading to a holistic approach that transcends the limitations of materialism. Quantum mechanics introduced the idea that information is the essential component of reality.  Information is not just a by-product of the matter, but an intrinsic aspect of the fabric of the universe. Information is the most precious article on the global market.

AI has the ability to collect and sort information in a way that far exceeds the capacity of the human brain. It stands to reason that we will be happy to leave more and more of our activities to the competence of our increasingly powerful assistant. Will the master-slave dialectic described by Hegel and Marx emerge in the relationship between humans and digital technology? If we consider performance and efficiency as the driving force of the movement of history, we are already preparing for the domination of technology over humans and acknowledging its legitimacy.

The development of digital technology is not only a challenge to consider the future benefits and dangers of this development, but also a challenge to rethink the philosophical question of who is man and what is the proprium humanum, the fundamental pillar of humanity, of human identity. What is it that the machine (technology) cannot do, that we cannot expect it to do, that we cannot delegate to it, that we must not give up? Perhaps these are values that we overlook and underestimate in our fascination with the power of technology.

What tends to be highly valued about digital technology is the incredible speed with which it responds to our questions and desires. But this is also what I find most suspicious about AI. AI is incapable of what I consider to be the most valuable human quality – a contemplative approach to reality. AI is incapable of pausing, of meditating, of immersing itself in the depth and silence where the transition from quantity to quality takes place, where something radically new is born.

Technology cannot cross the threshold between production and creation, between the problem as a challenge to be solved and the mystery as a challenge to be adored. Technology can provide us with entertainment, but not with joy; it can provide us with knowledge, but not with wisdom. It can provide us with many bases for rational decision-making, but it cannot replace conscience.

Perhaps the drama of the relationship between man and machine lies in that one letter in the inscription on the golem’s forehead, the alef. This one letter distinguishes two basic human orientations, two basic attitudes towards reality, which are expressed in two short sentences: God is the Truth and God is dead. The letter alef makes the difference between the words truth and death. Nietzsche announced the time after the death of God. Today we take another step in the same direction: we speak of the death of truth, of a post-truth, post-factual time.

In a time of constant change, of wars, revolutions and the mixing of cultures, confidence in the great words that mark the core values of our civilization, including the word truth, has been shaken. We cannot return before this experience. We cannot return to the world of old unshaken certainties. No ideology, political or religious, no institution, no state or church can claim a monopoly on the possession of truth. Truth, like the other core values of our civilization, does not live in the unchanging, immovable Platonic realm of ideas. Truth, like the other core values of our civilization, is relational.  

Relationalism and perspectivism are not to be confused with moral relativism and noetic nihilism. They are as far from that as they are from the old metaphysical realism. A Relationalist, unlike a relativist, does not doubt the existence and value of truth. However, he doubts the ability of anyone – including himself – to fully comprehend the truth. His way of seeking truth is self-critical, is a constant self-transcendence, a profound transformation.

I am convinced that what makes a person human, what establishes human identity, is precisely the capacity for self-transcendence, transformation, which the New Testament expresses by the word metanoia (translated as change of mind, repentance, conversion). Metanoia can take various forms. For the robots of Karl Čapek, this self-transcendence was the love of one for another; by this change, the animated machine was transformed into a human being.  I am convinced that love is the value by which man can imitate God, but by which a golem or artificial intelligence cannot imitate man.

Truth cannot be possessed, but it is not possible to resign ourselves to the search for it. Meaning – the significance of phenomena and propositions – is revealed in context. On the path of the search for truth and meaning, we discover ever new and wider contexts, crossing ever new horizons. We must never succumb to the illusion that we have already reached the ultimate goal.

The Omega Point, from which we can see the whole, the total context, is the eschatological goal. On the way to it we need eschatological patience. The Christian tradition knows three kinds of this patience, this constant openness to the mystery of the whole – it calls them faith, love and hope. This way was good enough for our ancestors, and it is good enough for me.

Tomáš Halík
Professor at Charles University and President to the Czech Christian Academy

The speech was delivered at the Aspen Annual Conference 2023.

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