David Russell Mosley
6 February 2017
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
The other day over at The Atlantic, they ran a piece entitled, “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” The piece began by examining Pope Francis’ statement about what he’d do if Martians came to him looking for salvation, but the piece quickly moves from other organic life to the rise of the machines. I was not impressed by this piece, I am sorry to say. It seems to have gotten several facts and ideas wrong about the soul, prayer, and science in the Christian tradition. So, I thought I would respond to those three particular points as they appear in the article.
The first issues when dealing with “the singularity” (the rise of consciousness within machines) are of course issues of soul, mind, and consciousness. I’ll focus primarily on the soul since that is usually seen as the more “religious” concept (that’s nonsense, of course and I’ll show why in a moment).
Merritt, the author of the piece, for instance, notes:
Take the soul, for instance. Christians have mostly understood the soul to be a uniquely human element, an internal and eternal component that animates our spiritual sides. The notion originates from the creation narrative in the biblical book of Genesis, where God “created human beings in God’s own image.” In the story, God forms Adam, the first human, out of dust and breathes life into his nostrils to make him, literally, “a living soul.” Christians believe that all humans since that time similarly possess God’s image and a soul. (my emphasis)
Merritt then goes on to quote Augustine as an authority who says we don’t know precisely what souls are. The quote he cites is this, “I have therefore found nothing certain about the origin of the soul in the canonical scriptures.” Of course, what Augustine actually means here is the Scriptures are not clear whether God creates each soul new and places it in an unborn child or whether the soul is created by the conception process as such (Letter 190). So, if we were to apply what Augustine is saying in Letter 190 to the question of robots, there would be only two options, either souls arise naturally as part of the process of creating robots (which hasn’t been the case thus far) or God would create souls for robots (which also hasn’t been the case thus far). So, from a theological as well as scientific perspective I see no reason for us to believe it possible that robots will suddenly have souls.