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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

What Can Natural Law Do?

March 5th, 2024 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

Recently OpenAI announced a new product called Sora that can generate video from text descriptions provided by a human user. Here's the demo video OpenAI released at the launch:

So far, OpenAI hasn't released this for public testing and if you think for a moment there is an obvious reason why: The moment they do it will almost instantly become the biggest generator of pornographic material on the internet.

Now I want to propose a scenario that is not at all implausible given the technology we currently possess: Combine Apple VisionPro, Sora, and something like the various AI girlfriend tools. One version of the coming sexual dystopia will involve someone using AI to generate a girlfriend, then using Sora to create pornographic content featuring that girlfriend, and then consuming that content via Apple VisionPro. This sort of simulation will be far more devastating than traditional pornography both because there will be an illusion of human connection with the AI girlfriend and because the use of something like Sora would allow the user to actually create their own scenarios and situations with their AI girlfriend, furthering the illusion of human relationship and connection.

Another variant might involve a service that allows you to actually create an AI girlfriend based on data you feed it about a previous partner. You could conceivably feed the AI text messages and emails from your ex so it could learn their communication style, feed it recordings of your ex's voice from any videos you took while you were dating in which they speak (or any videos they've posted on a social media account where one can hear their voice), and even generate a visual model of your ex by feeding an AI photos of them—all of which will be quite easy given how much visual content of ourselves we put on social media already. Now you could do all the stuff I described already with a hypothetical AI-generated girlfriend, but this time it would be built around a real person.

This seems even more dystopian, as such a scenario by definition requires creating deepfake pornography, which could then plausibly get distributed within broader networks. The reputation damage as well as online shaming campaigns that could arise from such practices is obviously astronomical. Indeed, given the mental health crises we are currently facing, these dangers could even be deadly for some people.

So that is the world we seem likely to be entering right now. We already know that people are going out less often, having sex less frequently, and accessing porn at earlier ages thanks to smartphones. Now on top of that we are about to add software and hardware that, I repeat, all already exists. We also know that at least some tech companies know their products are destroying people and they mostly don't care, so there is not really any reason to think that Apple, OpenAI, or any other tech firm is going to behold the dystopia they are ushering in and decide to stop building it.

There are many questions I want to think about given these looming challenges. But one relates to a conversation we had at the Presbyterian and Reformed Public Theology conference over the weekend. During my talk I made some remarks about how severely limited natural law arguments are when they are effectively secularized and divorced from other forms of revelation. It's not that natural law is fictitious or that it doesn't matter. I built much of my second book around natural law arguments, actually. So I do believe in natural law. Indeed, I think when you utilize natural law and Scriptural argument alongside one another you can often end up with something quite beautiful. What worries me is what happens when we treat natural law as a kind of magical box into which we stuff all our Christian ideas, slap a label on the box that says "new natural law," as if to 'secularize' those ideas for public discourse in order to persuade non-Christian neighbors or accomplish certain political reforms, and then expect this plan to work.

Now, in some ways that isn't altogether fair to the new natural law folks: As Dr. Marshall said during our panel, their argument is not "dear SCOTUS, please believe in the writings of Thomas Aquinas on 'nature.'" Their argument, rather, is something like "we want the courts to believe in what actually is." But that brings us to the looming technological problems. Is it plausible to expect people to have an accurate sense of what actually is given the technological context in which we are living? There are a great many things now broadly accepted regarding sexuality that Christianity says are illicit. It is not at all obvious to most of our peers that same-sex sexual acts are disordered, for example, or that an intentionally sterilized heterosexual marriage is in some way distorting the design for sexuality by transforming sex into something purely about pleasure and personal gratification with fruitfulness largely crowded out of the picture. Given that, I don't see any reason to think that the majority of our peers will look at the above scenarios with AI and condemn them as illicit.

The arguments that will be made to justify such practices will be obvious to anyone who has followed discourse about reproductive technology, for example: What is the harm in someone who is lonely and struggles to form emotional bonds (perhaps due to some kind of psycho-therapeutic diagnosis?) using the technology we have to fulfill their sexual desires? Indeed, it seems rather an obvious play for progressives to propose all the above scenarios as an excellent solution to the entire "involuntary celibate" problem. One can also easily imagine virtually identical arguments being made in the church for couples using AI generated versions of each other to have cybersex using a VisionPro device during times when they are away from one another.

In such a technological context, arguments appealing to 'nature' or 'design' will mostly fall flat, at best. What is needed, instead, are living models of an alternative life and for those models to be accessible to people so that people can see for themselves that another life is possible, as we say at Plough. This, perhaps, is where Shedden and Sanders's argument regarding "witness" applies with maximal force, for what else, save witness (even if a witness that still leaves space for a project of cultural apologetics) can sufficiently disrupt the technologically mediated world we are living in?

I have been rereading That Hideous Strength as part of an essay I'm writing about Lewis's critique of bureaucratic language in the book. One of the funny things about our moment is that many Christian Nationalists are quite fond of Lewis's book. Indeed, we at Mere O have been accused of being "part of the NICE." Yet when you actually probe Lewis's 'argument,' (if we can call it that) his answer to the NICE is not "well, we need the NICE to repent and submit to the bishop of Canterbury" or "well, we need a Christian prince to fix everything." His argument is the living presence of a Christian community (which also includes one non-Christian) that seemingly does nothing more than "grow some excellent vegetables" while they wait for God to move. Far from being a Christian Nationalist book, a close reading of That Hideous Strength would quite strongly support a certain qualified sort of Benedict Option reply to our moment. And the Ben Op at its best was always about the power of Christian witness to preserve (and perhaps even advance) the life of Christian communities.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).