Is there a digital soul?
In our western culture there is an increasing conviction that computers will ultimately become conscious. In the past three years alone, people from different backgrounds have expressed both their fear and hope that this will happen. Scientists like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are all troubled by the fact that artificial intelligence (A.I.) is a threat to the security of humanity (1).
A Presbyterian preacher in Florida said that he will share the gospel with robots once they’re awake (2). In literature and in the movie world, people have explored the interesting question whether we can fall in love with our new machine superiors in films: Ex Machina, Transcendence and HER.
Around the possible existence of A.I. spiritual questions and questions about our worldview arise. For example is it possible that a computer becomes conscious? If that’s the case, would it have a soul? If it’s not, what does that mean to our soul? Would it somehow refute the fact that we do have a soul? Would it then contradict the truth of the Bible? Etcetera. Many Christians may ask themselves what they should believe.
The good news is that there is freedom to disagree with each other. From the Christian worldview, people think different about the aspects of A.I. Whether one thinks that computers are able to be self-conscious, ultimately depends on which of the two popular views on the soul and the human consciousness he or she supports: the Non-reductive physicalism or the Substance Dualism. Before I explain both views, an important distinction must first be made.
The difference between ‘smart’ and ‘conscious’
Many people erroneously equate the intelligence level of a computer to consciousness, but these are two different things. A computer can potentially be endlessly ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ if by that is meant that it can make an unlimited number of calculations at incomprehensible velocity levels.
Yet technically, this is not the same as consciousness. Consciousness encompasses much more than just a quantitative measurement of intelligence. It encompasses qualitative experiences such as subjective consciousness, understanding, intentionality and a ‘holistic’ identity. Even if a computer would be sufficiently intelligent to make it appear that it had qualitative experiences, e.g. that it looked like it was in pain or had fallen in love, then we still don't know for sure whether it is really conscious. A popular thought experiment shows why.
The Chinese room
The philosopher John Searle, had asked people to imagine the following: Imagine that a person, who doesn’t understand Chinese and whose native language is English, finds himself in a room with only boxes full of Chinese characters and a series of English instructions (3). People outside the room are sending cards to the inside with Chinese symbols that actually are questions without the person in the room knowing that those are questions. By following the English instructions, the person can return Chinese symbols, which are the right answers to the questions. People outside the room might think that the person inside the room speaks Chinese well. But the reality is that the person inside the room doesn’t understand it at all. He has no idea about what the characters mean. He just follows the right instructions to give the right output.
Searle’s point is that this is exactly what a computer does. It follows a series of instructions (a program) to give the right output, regardless of how fast or efficient it is able to do so, regardless of how natural or smart its reactions to us look like. We cannot logically conclude that the computer has an understanding or consciousness. The intelligence level of a computer may give the illusion of consciousness, but it can never guarantee the real consciousness. Sorry, Siri.
Is the distinction important?
Some people may think that the example of the Chinese room pretends to prove too much. If we take the thought experiment seriously, one could say, then we can also not know for sure that other people are conscious too, because the only way we’re able to detect the consciousness of others is by looking at their output, thus at how they behave themselves in response to their environment. But we assume that other people are constantly conscious, so why not a computer? If a computer could imitate the natural reactions of man effectively in every situation, then we should assume that it also has a consciousness, even if it would follow a program; there is no other way to verify it.
This is essentially the argument that Alan Turing presented in his defense of what would later be called the ‘Turing Test’ (4).
What Turing and other people do not acknowledge, however, is that output (behavior) is not the only indicator for us to know whether other people do have a consciousness. We as humans also have introspection. As human beings, every one of us has a kind of third person, an inner consciousness, an objective ‘witness’, a ‘virtual other person’ that makes judgments from our own individual flow of experiences. I know for example that I am hungry. I am also conscious (I am a witness) of my growing irritability and I derive from that (judgment) that this is probably because of my empty stomach. So, by introspection we get indisputable knowledge of our own consciousness (5). But we receive more than that. We also know that we organically descend from other people who claim to have the same consciousness we have. There is a continuity of origin, experience, organic matter and form that we share with other people which we do not share with computers or robots. This continuity enables us to expand our own individual consciousness and to conclude self-assuredly that other people are also conscious. That, however, doesn’t mean that we can come to the same conclusions with computers.
What is wisdom?
The distinction between intelligence and consciousness is important because it allows Christians, who probably have theological objections against the idea of a conscious computer, to nevertheless pay attention to the wisdom of technologists as Bill Gates and Elon Musk on the potential intelligence threat of A.I. The truth is, that a great danger might lie in giving too much control over human activities to A.I. Take for instance the ‘Stock Market Crash’ of 2010 (6). Even if a real computer consciousness is impossible, computer intelligence - something we all agree on – with regard to the application of it, should be very carefully considered.
Two views on human consciousness.
With the distinction between intelligence and consciousness in mind, we can now judge how someone’s view on the soul and the human consciousness can influence what he or she thinks about the possibility of computer consciousness.
First of all, there is physicalism, which is a philosophical assumption which claims that everything is physical and that immaterial features (matters of biological, physical, moral or social nature) supervene (12) on the physical. Physicalism stands for the conviction that everything that exists is in very essence matter and is determined by the universal laws of nature. In physicalism, all objects and features are considered to be describable by the science of nature.
This standpoint has been elaborated in a 20th century science philosophy and philosophy of the mind (Wikipedia).
Although the theory of physicalism is more known as heterodox (i.e. deviated from the common conviction of the dogmatic belief) than as orthodox, genuine Christians support both views. I will discuss this here below. Keep in mind that these two views are the most common, but they are certainly not the only options. There are other, more nuanced opinions which we cannot elaborate on in this article (7).
According to (non-reductive) physicalism (also called ‘property dualism’ (13), human consciousness is real, thus no illusion, but it is totally dependent on and ultimately caused by physical events in the brains.
According to this view, consciousness is not a part of our souls, and there is no such thing as a soul: we are simply our body and its features, nothing more than that. Non-reductive physicists consider the consciousness to be a feature of matter that appears when a physical system (such as a human brain or body) is composed and works in a certain way.
Christians who support this concept, are perhaps most open to the possibility of computer consciousness. After all, if human consciousness is just a feature of a physical brain, who could say that we could not build an artificial brain that would be able to produce the same emergent (14) (a feature which occurs spontaneously)? Christof Koch, one of world’s most prominent neuroscientists and researchers of the consciousness, thinks that it is very possible. He explains why: ‘Consciousness is a feature of complex systems with a certain “cause consequence” operation mechanism. They have a specific way of dealing with the world, like the brains, or basically as a computer could do that. If you would build a computer that has the same circuits as the brains, this computer would also have a consciousness that is connected to it. It would feel like to be this computer’ (8).
Non-reductive physicalism is an attractive option for many scientifically orientated Christians, but encounter it nevertheless runs into a number of theological objections.
For if there is no such thing as a soul and I am not more than my body and its features, then I literally cease to exist when I die. Death, considered from a physical point of view, is not more than destruction, because my body will perish and the consciousness related to it, will extinguish. How could I be able to be myself in the resurrection without anything that can keep or change my identity after death? Even if God would assemble all exact atoms which my body was composed of when I died, it would not have made the resurrected “I” to be more than an improved copy or replica.
To illustrate this point, the physicist Peter van Inwagen, suggests the following imaginary conversation: “Is that the house which your daughter has built with some blocks?” “No, I have rebuilt it after I had bumped over it accidentally. However, I have put all the blocks precisely the same way she had done. Just don’t tell it to her” (9). In both the examples of the blocks and the resurrected person, according to Van Inwagen, the newly made one is just a replica of the original, thus not the same as the original.
According to Substance Dualism, humans are a unity of two different ‘substances’: body and soul. Consciousness is a characteristic of our soul, which can exist separately from the body after death. So, Substance Dualism avoids successfully the identity problem of physicalism, which was mentioned earlier. I can still be myself in the resurrection, because my soul keeps and determines my identity after death.
Christians that support this concept, will be the least likely to recognize the possibility of computer consciousness. After all, if consciousness is a feature of the soul given by God alone, a computer will never have a soul and therefore never be conscious, regardless of how intelligent it could possibly be made. Interestingly, Alan Turing tried to respond to this concept in 1950 as follows:
“Most people acknowledge that God cannot do certain things, like making the number one to be equal to two, but should we not believe that He has the freedom to give a soul to an elephant if He thinks it’s suitable? And exactly the same argument can be presented in the case of machines. In making machines we should not be so disrespectful to presume that we have His power to make souls, not more than in the reproduction of children. In both cases we are rather instruments of His will that are prepared to offer a shelter to souls that He creates” (10).
The argument of Turing is in essence as follows: God can give a soul to whomever He wants, and He does it for new beings whose bodies we create by reproduction, particularly our human offspring. So, why couldn’t God give a soul as well to an intelligent computer that we create? But the argument of Turing assumes that all dualists believe that God creates souls ex nihilo (create something out of nothing) and gives them a soul with the conception. However, not all dualists believe that.
For many Christians believe that souls, though they are real and distinguishable from the body, yet are transmitted organically via reproduction, together with the body – a view which is called “Traducianism” (15). According to this view, humans reproduce themselves as total beings – body and soul. Therefore, the only way for a new soul to exist is to have it descended organically (via reproduction) from beings (humans) that have a soul as well. For a traducianist, the continuity of the human kind that I earlier spoke about, is a continuity of origin, experience, organic matter and form and therefore the key to the ‘production’ of new souls.
Freedom to disagree
The issue of computer consciousness may not matter at practical level, at least not yet. Computers are intelligent enough to make us cautious in how we use them. You don’t need to believe in computer consciousness to admit that.
Whether computers can have qualitative experiences, mainly depends on our philosophical presumptions about souls. Even if we may disagree, we still can cooperate for a better future. Will a computer ever be intelligent enough to become fully conscious? I don’t think so. Should robots be saved? No, but it’s not harmful to improve the quality of PASCAL (16).
James Hoskins is a teacher, author and musician from Kansas City, Missouri. He teaches philosophy and science to a preparatory High School. He writes about the mixture of mind, faith and culture in his blog PhiloLogos.net, as well as on christandpopculture.com.
This article has earlier appeared in CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 39, nr 02 (2016).
1 Michael Sainato, “Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn about Artificial Intelligence,” The Observer, August 19, 2015, http://observer.com/2015/08/stephen-hawkingelon-musk-and-bill- gates-warn-about-artificial-intelligence/.
2 Anthony Cuthbertson, “Florida Pastor Plans to Convert Robots to Christianity,” International Business Times, February 6, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/florida-reverendchristopher-benek-wants-convert- artificial-intelligence-christianity-1486912.
3 For a detailed overview, see David Cole, “The Chinese Room Argument,” The Stanford Encyclopdia of Philosophy (winter 2015 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/.
4 Alan M. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 59, 236 (October 1950): 433–60.
5 It is undeniable because the very act of trying to deny our own consciousness would require the use of our consciousness.
6 Ben Rooney, “Trading Program Sparked May ‘Flash Crash,’” CNN Money, October 1, 2010, http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/01/markets/SEC_CFTC_flash_crash/
7 Such as hylemorphic dualism.
8 Antonio Regalado, “What It Will Take for Computers to Be Conscious,” MIT Technology Review, October 2, 2014, http://www.technologyreview.com/news/531146/what-it-will-takefor-computers-to-be-conscious/.
9 Peter van Inwagen, “The Possibility of Resurrection,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 9, no. 2 (1978): 114–21.
Alan M. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 59, 236 (October 1950): 443.
Supervene: When characteristic A occurs in an object with the result that also characteristic B occurs necessarily, then characteristic B supervenes on A.
If you reproduce the object one on one, then the object will also have characteristic B. This is particularly relevant with regard to the number of positions within the philosophy of the spirit.
Vitalism is the study of the existence of a vital energy in the organic nature. Devitalism is the denial of it.
Emergence (Wikipedia) is a concept which is the center in the systems theory and science philosophy.
It often regards the development of complex organized systems that exhibit features which are not identifiable by merely a reduction of their constituent parts.
Interaction creates other features, patterns, regularities and/or totally new entities.
Another possible definition is: An emergent phenomenon is created by the interaction of factors (which can be anything such as: objects, waves, energies, ideas) which results in the creation of new entities (objects, patterns, responses, insights) that have features/characteristics that are not identifiable from the features of the constituent/underlying factors/building stones.
Traducianism (Wikipedia) is a concept from the Christian theology which is about the origin of the human soul or the spirit. Traducianism assumes that the soul is generated by nature; this means that in the creation of man, the soul of man finds his origin in the soul of the father and the mother.
Considered from the view of creationism, this means that only the soul of the first man, which is Adam, was created by God. Eve, his wife, was created by God from a bone of Adam’s (Genesis 2:21and therefore made out of him: ‘bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh (..) and thus built out of a man.' (Genesis 2:23)
PASCAL was a computer built by Philips. The acronym PASCAL stands for Philips Akelig Snelle CALculator (Philips Awfully Fast Calculator). PASCAL was the successor of PETER (Philips Experimentele Tweetallige Electronische Rekenmachine) (Philips Experimental Binary Calculator). It was built by the Physics Laboratory of Philips that also used it for its own calculation tasks. There were calculations made for amongst others: hot air engines, television-sets and semi-conductors. PASCAL was in its time one of the fastest computers in the world. In 1960, PASCAL was completed. It was used until 1972 in the NatLab (Physics Lab).