At a time when computers were still processing data on punch cards, the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing had already proposed a simple test to determine whether a machine could think. In the so-called Turing test, you pose a series of questions over a terminal to a person and to a computer and then try to decide which is which. If the machine succeeds in coming across as human, it is presumed to be intelligent. Passing the Turing test has since become the Holy Grail of the artificial intelligence community, and a hefty prize is offered for the computer that meets all its conditions. No machine has yet done that, but a lesser prize is awarded each year to the one that can best hold up its end of the conversation.
Now that computers can beat the world chess champion at his own game, perhaps the time has come to kick things up a notch. Why not invite a distinguished panel of theologians and spiritual leaders to pose a series of questions that would determine whether a computer can successfully impersonate God? In this case, of course, there would be no "real" God to go up against the machine, so the panel would have to measure the computer's responses against their best understanding of how God might answer their queries.
How do you program a machine to talk like God? A theologian seeking some explanation for the problem of evil is unlikely to be satisfied with an answer that would pass muster with a contemplative, for whom silence might be the only acceptable response. You could write a simple algorithm that provided the same inscrutable reply to every inquiry, such as, “To ask the question is to know the answer.” But this would probably satisfy no one other than a Zen Buddhist, who is used to sitting around in uncomfortable postures while pondering brain-teasers. Then there is the question of diction. Should the computer come across like Jehovah in the King James Bible, or should it adopt a more informal tone, like the divine schmoozer in Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God? A clever programmer might sidestep this problem by instructing the computer to tailor its response to suit the nature of each inquiry. To combat any tendency to be all things to all people, you would have to stipulate that the computer’s responses be consistent in tone and substance, regardless of who is asking the questions.
You won’t get very far into this exercise before you realize that its basic condition cannot be met – certainly not by a computer and perhaps not even by God. A cursory survey of sacred literature will quickly disclose that there is no consistency in tone and substance in our understanding of God. In this regard, our notion of a Supreme Being is all too human – a fact that has long been apparent to the few iconoclasts in every age who are brave enough to flout religious convention. As early as 500 B.C., the Greek philosopher Xenophanes pointed out that Ethiopian gods were black and had flat noses, while the Thracians worshipped gods with blue eyes and blond hair. He speculated that if oxen, horses and lions could produce artwork, their gods would probably also look like them. Ludwig Feuerbach, a nineteenth-century German philosopher who strongly influenced Freud’s views on religion, stated flatly that “man created God in his own image.”
Just because we have a tendency to worship gods who bear a strong resemblance to us doesn’t necessarily mean there is no God, only that our assumptions about him (or her) may be wrong. The basic assumption is that God exists apart from ourselves, which makes him an object of our worship and allows us, as Feuerbach suggests, to project our own best (or worst) qualities onto him. This is mere idolatry. St. Paul told the Athenians they should stop worshipping idols and realize that the true God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” To be created in God’s image does not mean we can understand what God is like through reverse engineering. The reason we may never write a computer program that can successfully impersonate God is that he, in effect, is already impersonating us.
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity