January 21, 2022

Is Science the New Spiritualism?

An Adventist theologian and scientist discuss the future of consciousness and the afterlife

Gerald A. Klingbeil and Daniel Bruneau

Joshua Barbeau, a 33-year-old freelance writer living close to Toronto, Canada, struggled for eight years to cope with the death of his fiancée, Jessica Pereira, from a rare liver disease.[1] Joshua grappled with anxiety and depression and had lived even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in quasi-isolation. On September 23, 2020, he logged on to a new website, called Project December, that used artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots to conduct chat-like conversations with humans. Created by Jason Rohrer, a San Francisco Bay Area programmer, Project December used GPT-3, one of the most powerful A.I. language engines built, yet unavailable to the public, to program chatbots capable of engaging conversations with humans. The GPT-3’s map is assembled from the analysis of a half trillion words, including the complete text of Wikipedia, billions of web pages, and thousands of books representing much of the Western literary canon.

That night in September Barbeau created a new bot, naming it Jessica Pereira. The software asked him to include a quick sample of something that “person” may say and an intro paragraph describing the roles the human and the chatbot were expected to play. The first conversation lasted for the next 10 hours and continued in shorter bursts during the following months.

Barbeau couldn’t believe how real the conversations with “Jessica” felt. It just sounded like her. “It’s unprecedented,” he later said of Project December. “There’s nothing else that exists like it right now, short of psychics and mediums that are trying to take advantage of people. But that’s not the same thing at all.”[2]

Since each chatbot has only a limited life, measured in units invested in it when creating them, Barbeau knew that this would be a transitory experience. He knew intellectually that it was an AI-powered chatbot responding to his questions and conversation, but it felt more real by the minute. He often cried as he shared with “Jessica.” On March 3, 2021, Barbeau had his final “conversation” with Jessica—just before her battery moved into the red zone. There were no final goodbyes.

The Power of Death—Overcome?

Death, especially the death of a loved one, has a way of turning our lives upside down. We hurt, we feel pain, we grieve the person, and often wish we could be given another chance—to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry”—to connect once again with that person.

People have dealt with death differently throughout history. Many cultures and religions around the world include spiritual specialists who seek to connect the living with the dead. The idea of the “immortality of the soul” is language familiar to many Christians, but the concept is ever-present, using distinct terminology, in most religious traditions. All these traditions and cultures have bought into the first lie that the serpent whispered to enthralled Eve in the Garden: “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Ever since that moment humanity has struggled to understand the essence of life and the reality of death.

Neuroscientists and software programmers are working feverishly to find ways to upload our minds to a computer (or the cloud) in order to create “immortality.” In 2016, the BBC produced a TV documentary called The Immortalist: Uploading the Mind to a Computer, which included interviews with leading neuroscientists working in that budding field.[3] Most scientists would, at least, suggest that this type of “immortality” is a theoretical possibility, even though we don’t yet really know how the 86 billion neurons in our brain really generate our mind.

Companies such as the Silicon Valley startup Nectome bet on the viability of preserving human memory as a business model that may be the next big thing venture capitalists will throw their money at.[4] The idea of retrieving consciousness in the future by unfreezing the brain of someone who has died and mapping all the synaptic connections and uploading them to a type of supercomputer is considered a feasible possibility.

Faced with sadness and loss, we are often drawn to those who consider science and technology a possible avenue offering answers that respond to our most existential questions about life and death—and immortality.

Adventists and Death

We don’t have to spend too much time in front of a TV screen to recognize the enticing attraction of spiritualism offering answers to our questions regarding death. This type of spiritualism is not limited to witches, magicians, and demons. Spiritualism 2.0 is more palpable, feels familiar, and fits right into the twenty-first century. Many blockbuster movies and TV shows tell us again and again that we can connect to those we have lost, while we live in a world that is technologically extremely advanced. God’s archenemy seems to have accomplished the feat of connecting a modern Western worldview with ideas often associated with a prescientific worldview. How else can we explain the attraction of spiritualistic ideas clothed in modern garbs to people who have been raised in a paradigm elevating reason and science to quasi-religious status?

What do Adventists really believe about immortality or life after death? The 2017-2018 Global Church Member Survey, commissioned by the General Conference, offers a bag of curiously mixed data regarding this question. Of the more than 55,000 global member responses, 89 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “When people die, their bodily remains decay, and they have no consciousness or activity until they are resurrected” (Q42.11).[5] That question seems to correctly reflect the biblical concept that there is nothing beyond death and that the dead “know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). Similarly, only 13 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The dead have powers with and influence the living” (Q42.23), while 82 percent disagreed with that concept. However, when confronted with the statement “The soul is a separate, spiritual part of a person and lives on after death” (Q42.03), more than 40 percent agreed, strongly agreed, or were not sure about this statement. Forty percent represents a significant part of the church that seems to have bought in (or, at least, isn’t sure about) the concept of the immortality of the soul, an idea not found in Scripture and a broad avenue leading to spiritualism.

This in turn opens doors to being deceived by those claiming—either experientially or scientifically—that there is life after death before resurrection morning when Scripture tells us that Jesus will raise those who have fallen asleep in Him to life eternal (1 Thess. 4:14-17).

Ellen White’s famous statement describing a time before the return of Jesus makes more sense when we look at the data: “Through the two great errors, the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, Satan will bring the people under his deceptions. While the former lays the foundation of spiritualism, the latter creates a bond of sympathy with Rome.”[6] Adventists have always recognized the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath within the context of last-day events. But what about the more subtle challenges involved in the idea of the immortality of the soul as we consider a biblical anthropology and worldview?

Is Science the Real Problem?

If you’re alive in 2022, chances are high that you were raised in a cultural context dominated by a secular scientific worldview based on the foundational work of Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle. A scientific worldview postulates the primacy of science and attempts to understand reality via scientific methods. We measure, we count, we observe, we look for cause and effect, and we deduct. Evolution offers the metanarrative of this worldview and is presupposed as scientists seek to make sense of the world. Problems are resolved by careful research using the scientific methods at our disposal. Ultimately, this scientific worldview is a closed system, for there doesn’t seem to be space for God in it—at least that seems to be the common perception in main-stream science.

Does that mean that Christians (including Adventists) who hold a biblical worldview are science deniers or don’t use scientific methods? Not at all! They believe in natural laws, scientific research, and evidence-based argumentation. Adventists earn PhDs, work for NASA, participate in major research initiatives, and engage in scientific discussion. A biblical worldview, however, goes beyond the closed system idea of a scientific worldview and includes God as Creator and the one who established the laws governing our universe.[7] It’s not a system closed to God.

So if science is not the problem, why are we posing the question of a link between science and spiritualism (or paranormal realities)? The issue at stake is not science but worldview. A secular scientific worldview devoid of a reference to God is setting us up for spiritualism. We are first trained to recognize that there is no evidence for the supernatural, that life on this earth came into being by chance over billions of years where the strong survived the weak. Seeing is believing. The only evidence that is reliable can be seen, measured, counted, or whatever other scientific method seems appropriate.

But then we experience something that can be described only as “supernatural.” A near-death experience with a bright light and a voice talking to us, an apparent encounter with a deceased loved one who talks to us, or anything that contradicts our scientific worldview suddenly knocks us down. We are stunned; we are vulnerable; we have no filter system that helps us to appropriately recognize the reality of God, as well as the spiritual battles between good and evil that rage all around us. That’s the back door to spiritualism in a scientific worldview.

Changing worldviews is complex. A biblical worldview in the twenty-first century is countercultural and goes beyond rational acceptance and intellectual agreement. Day by day we are hammered by media that subscribe to distinct worldviews.

Ultimately, like the birth of a newborn baby, the Christian has to be born again (see John 3). We need God’s Spirit to effect this transformation daily. It’s the work of a lifetime—and it requires our daily surrender.

Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review Ministries. He holds a doctoral degree in ancient Near Eastern studies and has published widely in his field. Daniel Bruneau has a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction and serves as creative director for Adventist Review Ministries.

PULLQUOTE:


[1] The introductory story is based on Jason Fagone, “The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of AI,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2021, online at https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/2021/jessica-simulation-artificial-intelligence/.

[2]Ibid.

[3] See https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35786771.

[4] See https://nectome.com./

[5] See Karl G. D. Bailey et al., “Meta-analysis Final Report of the 2017-2018 Global Church Member Survey” (2019), pp. 42,  43, online at https://tinyurl.com/43hv3mrv

[6] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 588.

[7] I have noted more fully the characteristics of a biblical worldview in Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Through a Glass Darkly.   . . : Rediscovering the Biblical Worldview,” Adventist Review, September 2020), pp. 28-31. I would suggest seven key elements of a biblical worldview, including (1) the recognition of God’s existence, (2) God as Creator, (3) the power and importance of community, (4) the recognition of God’s acts in history, (5) the reality of sin, (6) the human need for a Savior, and (7) the perspective of a cosmic conflict.

Gerald A. Klingbeil and Daniel Bruneau
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