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Do Churches Need a Catechism for Robots?

Are the claims about spiritual robots just an intellectual cottage industry for edgy clergy?

Some people have taken Pope Francis’s musings in recent years to mean pretty much whatever they want them to mean. For example,

But Francis’s wide arms have arguably never stretched further than a mass in 2014 when he suggested the church would baptize Martians.

“If—for example—tomorrow an expedition of Martians came … and one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?” Pope Francis asked. “When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way.’”

Jonathan Merritt, “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” at The Atlantic (February 3, 2017)

Merritt promptly converts the hypothetical question—which depends, of course, on the assumption that Martians are beings much like ourselves—into: Are you there, God? It’s I, robot.

Fine writing, that, but what’s the basis for the string of assumptions? Is a computer more likely to be in need of salvation, in a religious sense, than a horse? Why so?

Proponents of artificial intelligence as equal or superior to human beings are talented at a certain type of rhetoric. Just listen:

History lends credibility to this prediction, given that many major scientific advances have had religious impacts. When Galileo promoted heliocentrism in the 1600s, it famously challenged traditional Christian interpretations of certain Bible passages, which seemed to teach that the earth was the center of the universe. When Charles Darwin popularized the theory of natural selection in the 1800s, it challenged traditional Christian beliefs about the origins of life. The trend has continued with modern genetics and climatology. …

The creation of non-human autonomous robots would disrupt religion, like everything else, on an entirely new scale. “If humans were to create free-willed beings,” says Kelly, who was raised Catholic and identifies as a Christian, “absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity.” …

If you’re willing to follow this line of reasoning, theological challenges amass. If artificially intelligent machines have a soul, would they be able to establish a relationship with God? The Bible teaches that Jesus’s death redeemed “all things” in creation—from ants to accountants—and made reconciliation with God possible. So did Jesus die for artificial intelligence, too? Can AI be “saved?”

Jonathan Merritt, “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” at The Atlantic (February 3, 2017)

We are informed that “There are no easy answers for Christians willing to entertain these questions.”

No? There may be no easy answers. But there are prudent ones. Here’s one: “Is this situation likely to arise?”

When early Christian thinker Augustine (354–430) was asked about the theological status of satyrs (legendary half-human/half-goat figures), he responded that the question should wait until their existence was proved. It never was, which spared thinkers of his day a lot of pointless theology. Why couldn’t we do the same with claims about AI that are “just like us”?

As with the question of Martians who seek otherworldly wisdom, one might ask, “Is it likely to happen?”

There are a number of reasons for serious doubt about spiritual AI entities. As we noted in an earlier discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s eclectic Singularity philosophy, many thinkers dispute that artificial general intelligence is possible. For example, some hope that artificial intelligence could design the artificial super-intelligence that turns us all into super-geniuses. But computer engineer Eric Holloway points out that artificial intelligence systems are bound by and subject to the everyday laws of physics, which guarantee a point of diminishing returns.

Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks points out that the human mind is not even computable. That is, it is comprehensible but it is not reducible to calculations. To the extent that quantum mechanics plays a role in its operations, the mind may be intrinsically impossible to reduce to calculations because quantum mechanics operates on different laws from the physics of Newton and Einstein.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is that human consciousness remains the central problem in philosophy. If we don’t know what human consciousness is, exactly, there is no good reason to believe that computer consciousness is happening any time soon or ever.

But keeping such hopes alive remains an intellectual industry. Again, from The Atlantic, we hear,

[self-described Christian mystic Mike] McHargue notes that questions about AI and theology are some of the most common that he receives from listeners of his popular “Ask Science Mike” and “The Liturgist” podcasts. “Any non-biological, non-human intelligence will present a greater challenge to religion and human philosophy than anything else in our entire history combine,” he claims. “Nothing else will raise that level of upheaval, and collective trauma as the moment we first encounter it.”

Jonathan Merritt, “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” at The Atlantic (February 3, 2017)

Dramatically put. But sadly, most hospital chaplains are familiar with greater challenges to religion and philosophy that may be encountered on any given day. A priest who had to choose between sitting with the parents of a fatally wounded five-year-old and debating in a graduate seminar whether Martians could sin or repent would have little difficulty deciding which is the more serious and troubling problem of his vocation.

Further reading: Tales of an invented god. The most important characteristic of an AI cult is that its gods (Godbots?) will be created by the AI developers and not the other way around


Will we become mere apps of our smart machines? At COSM, Ray Kurzweil will offer a glimpse of his foreseen Singularity where we merge with superintelligent computers

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Do Churches Need a Catechism for Robots?