Machines Named John and their Questions for God

Recent episodes of science fiction television have converged on the theme of androids named John coming up with questions for God. And what interesting questions they are!

On the episode that marked the return of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, robot John Henry continues his education by playing with Bionicle action figures, as well as searching the internet, listening in on unsecured phone lines, and talking with Miss Weaver and Agent Ellison. John, noting the difference between the toys’ ball socket joints and his own, he begins to ponder the fact. Ellison says that John’s body was made in the image of that of humans. When asked whose image human bodies are made it, Ellison says “God’s”. John then comes up with a question for God: why didn’t he make humans with more ball socket joints?

This isn’t just a silly question. Our bodily forms are not optimum, and without evolution as an intermediary and part of the explanation, the notion of our bodily forms being in God’s image becomes borderline inexplicable. Interestingly, on Battlestar Galactica we find a Cylon named John (he prefers to be called “Cavil”) interrogating his maker, known to us as Ellen Tigh. In this fantastic episode, we learn how five Cylons on Earth foresaw a coming apocalypse and escaped, and later helped create the human-like models of Cylons. John complains that he is forced to view wondrous things like supernovas through “ridiculous gelatinous orbs” that can only see part of the spectrum. Unlike Data who wants to be human, John resents having human limitations rather than more extensive machine capabilities.

Some have complained that BSG is bad (or at least “not as good as LOST”) because the writers didn’t know where they were going ahead of time. Neither did evolution. That’s why we don’t have more ball and socket joints. But that doesn’t mean that human existence is not something splendid and wonderful, that our nature with its limitations doesn’t give us a gift that the theoretical infinite possibilities John desires might not.

But that’s the point that came up on the pilot of Dollhouse: no matter what we have, we always want something we don’t. Yet it seems to be precisely our imperfection and the long evolutionary history that gave rise to us that have endowed us with free will and creativity, those very things that historically have been referred to as “the image of God” in humankind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03734930079710820207 Luke

    i LOVED that episode! i think it really displays humanity’s need to know more and rage’n against a creator that didn’t have the foresight to give us the ability to see the full spectrum and hear dark matter. i absolutely love BSG and really liked your summary.RAWK!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    I interpreted that dialogue between Ellen and Cavil in large part as a discussion about the merits of transhumanism (with Cavil, obviously, taking the transhumanist position—I’m more sympathetic to his transhumanist position, by the way, so long as the best of human values are not lost). Transhumanism, being, for those who don’t know, a view that embraces the idea of improving on normal, “baseline” humanity—largely through technological means.Its an idea that runs through most science fiction being written today.Yet it seems to be precisely our imperfection and the long evolutionary history that gave rise to us that have endowed us with free will and creativity….How are you defining free will?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    How are you defining free will?The short answer is “I’m not”. :)The slightly longer answer is that I simply intended a contrast with one popular understanding of the creation stories in Genesis, in which a first human couple are created as adults or at least as something other than newborns, and thus presumably would have had to be “pre-programmed” with all the things that humans normally learn over the course of childhood. And thus our emergence through a process of evolution seems to allow us more freedom (however that may be envisaged and understood) than this pre-programming model.Just as I think that any version of “postmodernism” that does not do justice to the “modern” is problematic, I think there can be a positive form of transhumanism, as long as its view of humanity is not entirely negative. I imagine that the existence Cavil desires, eliminating the biological component that also results in us being emotional as well as rational beings, might well end up being “sub-human” rather than “transhuman”, however enhanced our eyesight might be. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    I imagine that the existence Cavil desires, eliminating the biological component that also results in us being emotional as well as rational beings, might well end up being “sub-human” rather than “transhuman”, however enhanced our eyesight might be.I see no reason to assume that if, for example, humans were “uploaded” into computer environments or robotic bodies (as in Greg Egan’s DIASPORA) they would necessarily lose their emotionality. Even less so their rationality. I just think care needs to be taken that those aspects of human value systems and emotional makeup we find most intrinsically worthwhile (like empathy and compassion) are retained in the mental architecture of any new, enhanced varieties of humanity. There’s no reason to assume these traits can only exist in sentient beings that are biological. For all we know they might even flourish better in other forms.Nor, I think it should be pointed out does transhumanism necessarily entail abandoning the biological—only overcome the limitations of our current biological makeup—in terms of intelligence, sensory apparatus, longevity, memory, susceptibility to injury and disease, control over our mental and emotional state, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I suppose a key question is whether the computer or robotic environment were designed simply to preserve brain content and function, or to also preserve or at least simulate the whole body chemistry apparatus that is responsible for our emotional lives. It doesn’t seem to me that our emotional experiences involve only the brain, hence my concern about these being lost in a process that merely copies the contents of the brain/mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    And thus our emergence through a process of evolution seems to allow us more freedom (however that may be envisaged and understood) than this pre-programming model.I don’t quite buy that. Whether one is programmed by evolutionary forces (and culture, of course) or an intelligence doesn’t make much difference to the question of to what degree our mental architecture is preprogrammed.The real issue, I think is how much versatility the programming allows for.Regardless, though, free will isn’t the term I’d use for it. I suspect (though am far from certain) there is no such thing in the sense its normally understood in philosophy—that our choices and behavior are not ultimately explainable by the same physical causation everything else science studies can probably be “reduced” to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    It doesn’t seem to me that our emotional experiences involve only the brain….I suspect that they do involve only the brain. That is, if someone ever actually did the “brain in a vat” thought experiment in actuality, that they could induce all the same sensory AND emotional experiences—the victim probably would not even be able to know they WERE a brain in a vat if the knowledge of how to control its stimuli were effective enough.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07219641596185493932 Chris Paine

    Clearly great minds were thinking alike.http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog

  • Anonymous

    I posted on another blog (What Alan’s Watching) how I thought this BSG episode very nicely opened the door to an inversion of the old dilemma of Epicurus. In other words, a kind of sci-fi update to this question of how God can be at once all powerful, all benevolent and yet horrible things happen to innocents. Only two out of those three can be true at once. It “re-imagines” that idea beyond why an all-powerful God would allow the destruction and suffering of the innocent to why God would create all of this beauty in the heavens and then create mankind too feeble to ever fully appreciate it. I was god-smacked by Cavil’s speech with this notion and that was simply awesome!- anonymoose

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I don’t think we disagree – I’m not saying that emotions “take place outside the brain”, merely that it involves a wider array of bodily processes. Nor am I saying that these could not be simulated without a full-fledged maching equivalent of body chemistry. My point was merely that, if one wants to have machines with emotional capacity, something that at least simulates the processes that are responsible for our emotions would need to be in place.Or, to put it another way, what else is in the vat, besides the brain, may not be unimportant.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04262012749524758120 Eamon Knight

    If we’re going to discuss emotion and its relation to the rest of our mental life, I have to give the obligatory plug for Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. On Damasio’s account, emotion arose as a CNS mechanism for tracking certain bodily states, and predates rational cognition by many millions of years. Moreover, it continues to be important to proper functioning: people with damage to brain centres identified as “emotional” don’t just lose affect and turn into Vulcans; they become dysfunctional in a large number of ways. To put it simplistically: reason can help you choose the best course of action, but emotion is necessary to make you care enough to choose it. Any “transhuman” implementation will have to include or simulate our emotional components.And: Yes, that was an excellent BSG episode.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11588697184862488209 randy jensen

    I found myself thinking of Descartes himself rather than Damasio, perhaps because I’ve been teaching early modern philosophy.In his Fourth Meditation Descartes raises the intellectual analogue of the traditional problem of evil a la Epicurus, but in this case the issue is not why God allows so much suffering and wickedness but rather why God allows so much error and ignorance. Why are the creatures God makes in his image so fallible?Descartes’ response is that we shouldn’t complain merely because we’re finite and he then goes on to argue that our various faculties were designed by a God whose goodness would not allow for the possibility of *undiscoverable* error or deception. Thus, if we use our faculties correctly, making judgments only when we’re absolutely certain of them, we’ll eventually get to the truth about the world.Cavil’s complaint seems to be that it takes too much work and too much time to figure out what the world’s really like, and in the end he’s still not able to take in as much of what’s really out there as he wants to. And that reminds me less of an atheist and more of somebody who’s pissed off at God for not doing a better job. At this point, transhumanism does beckon….


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