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AI & Atheism. AI : Mind without Mysticism Atheism : Life, the Universe, and Everything without Mysticism. Conciliatory Preface. Religious beliefs are a very significant and personal aspect of one’s world view.

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AI & Atheism

AI: Mind without Mysticism

Atheism: Life, the Universe, and Everything without Mysticism

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Conciliatory Preface

  • Religious beliefs are a very significant and personal aspect of one’s world view.

  • Every individual must be free to make up their own mind about religion without undue coercion from any educational or governmental authority.

    • I condemn and decry our own governor's approval and promotion of constitutionally illegal prayer at mandatory school events.

  • As long as one does not contaminate one’s scientific hypotheses with un-falsifiable supernatural explanations, one can be a devout theist and an effective, productive scientist.

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Science and Religion Disjoint??

  • Science and religion have been claimed to be compatible since they address different issues (S. Gould, The Rocks of Ages)

    • Science is about “The ages of rocks”

      • Predictive theories of the material world.

    • Religion is about “The Rock of Ages”

      • Spirituality and morality.

  • Tell that to Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and other scientists that have been persecuted, despised, defamed, repressed, censored, criticized and/or ignored because their science conflicted with prevailing religious beliefs.

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My Own Incompatible Experience

  • I was raised as a devout Catholic with 8 years of parochial, religious education.

  • I became an atheist because, as I learned more and more about science, I found scientific explanations for physical, psychological, and ethical/moral phenomena much more believable and compelling.

  • My beliefs about materialism and atheism are a fairly important component of why I believe (strong) AI must be possible.

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Science (and AI) vs. Religion

  • One of the original motivations for religion was to provide explanations of phenomenon that are now the province of scientific explanations.

  • Many psychological phenomena that are traditionally explained with spiritual, non-physical causes are now the province of computational (AI) explanations.

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The History of Religion and Science



Thunder and Lightening


Atmospheric Electrical Discharge

Origin of Species


Evolution by Natural Selection

Origin of Humans


Evolution by Natural Selection

Origin of the Universe


Big Bang

Origin of Life


Molecular Evolution







Free Will



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Explaining Away

  • When evidence for one explanation increases, evidence for other competing explanations decreases.

  • A form of common-sense reasoning that is formalized in AI as abductive and Bayesian inference.

  • Bayesian formalization demonstrates that “explaining away” is a mathematically sound and correct form of inference.

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Big Bang

Big Bang





A Bayes-Net View of Science and Religion


Big Bang



Origin of


Origin of


Origin of




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Bayesian Priors

  • Belief in any proposition depends on its prior probability.

  • A priori, belief in the existence of entities should have very low priors (Occam’s razor); otherwise, what prevents belief in a proliferation of entities?

  • I don’t believe in God for the same reason I don’t believe in other entities that have no real explanatory power.

    • Fairies

    • Unicorns

    • Santa Claus

    • Easter bunny

    • etc.

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Laplace, Napoleon, and God

  • Upon the completion of his magnum opus Exposition du système du monde, Laplace is said to have had the following conversation with Napoleon:

    • Napoleon: “You have written this huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe.”

    • Laplace: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”

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Dualism vs. Materialism

  • Dualism: The belief that mind, consciousness, cognition, and intelligence are separate and distinct from the material world and cannot be explained as purely physical processes.

    • Rene Descartes was a dualist who believed that the mind made contact with the physical body through the pineal gland at the back of the brain.

  • Materialism: The belief that mind, consciousness, cognition, and intelligence are physical processes that can be explained through normal scientific investigation of the material world.

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AI  Materialism  Atheism

  • Strong AI seems to imply materialism.

    • If purely physical, deterministic machines can be intelligent, then mind is a physical phenomenon.

  • Materialism seems to imply atheism.

    • If the human mind is a purely physical phenomenon (Minsky’s “meat machine”), then there is no immaterial soul or spiritual free-will.

  • Atheism seems to imply materialism.

    • If there is no spiritual world, then mind must be a physical phenomenon.

  • Materialism seems to imply strong AI.

    • If mind is a physical process and computers can emulate any physical process (strong Church-Turing thesis), then AI must be possible.

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Are Religion and Strong AI Compatible?

  • If all behavior is the result of physical causes in the material world, then there is no metaphysical free will.

  • Without dualism, how does human behavior and morality relate to a non-material God?

  • If a truly artificially intelligent agent was created, then what would be its religious/spiritual/moral standing in relation to God?

  • Would we be “playing God” and thereby offend religious sensibilities by creating such a being?

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Scientific Explanations of Religion

  • Religion is a ubiquitous phenomenon in human culture that itself requires explanation.

  • Religion may arise from “spiritual” experiences that have a neurobiological basis.

    • V.S. Ramachandran, Phantoms in the Brain, Chap. 9 “God and the Limbic System”

  • Religion may arise from various cognitive biases of human inference and belief.

    • P. Boyer, Religion Explained.

  • Religion may have evolved biologically and culturally to reinforce adaptive social behavior.

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  • AI provides scientific explanations for phenomena that were previously part of the province of religion.

  • Belief in AI decreases belief in religion due to “explaining away,” a theoretically justified form of inference.

  • AI  Materialism  Atheism

  • It is difficult to reconcile belief in strong AI with traditional religious ideas of free-will and moral responsibility.