Picking up from Random Notes on Doctor Bot Ed (5/10/2012) . . .
Back to Robots!! Personally, despite my earlier remonstration, I would be quite happy to learn all sorts of subjects from a robot. A robot is not going to rob us of our humanity and despoil our personhood – after all, we have less to fear from machines ‘wanting’ to behave like humans, as much as humans wanting to behave like machines (Hence, my prefatory diatribe against the social engineering of technocrats and their worrisome bedfellows in academic bureaucrats). A better version of my objections are to be found in William James’ prescient essay entitled “The Ph.D. Octopus” published in the Harvard Monthly in 1903, that anticipates much of the problems that arise when universities and colleges turn into a factory for credentialing. The bean counters have triumphed (by this I don’t mean the social sciences as a whole, but rather a narrow instrumentalist application of a particular philosophy).
Welcoming Dr. Bot Ed into Higher Ed can have all sorts of advantages in terms of research in planetary exploration beyond our solar system, learning foreign languages or even the behavioral sciences, insofar as exercises in situated cognition are concerned and not to mention, advanced mathematics. Even though the thought-processes in a human mathematician’s mind is distinct from the processes governing automated theorem proving, at the base, mathematics is not sui generis human as much as they are patterns for discovery – imaginary numbers, complex numbers, other forms of irrational numbers even while having no correlates in nature or grounding in empirical reality are still about mind-dependent patterns that are not necessarily confined to our species. As a thought-experiment, there is nothing to suggest that a hypothetical ‘alien’ (play along folks) from an exoplanet, a super earth perhaps, could not independently stumble upon esoteric concepts in mathematics not unlike their counterparts in carbon-based clade of Eutheria upon this kindred clod of Earth. Still, the known history of mathematics despite the obstreperous intrusion of computers and other calculating gadgets is a testament to the resilience, creativity, and genius of human mathematicians. How could anyone not be moved by the apocryphal final words uttered by Archimedes “Do not disturb my circles” as a churlish Roman soldier was incensed to intemperate wrath because our beloved mathematician refused to meet conquering Roman General Marcus Claudius Marcellus simply because he did not want to be interrupted from his study, libations and oblations to Urania, the muse of astronomy. The young scoundrel killed the genius-savant while the stolen planisphere made its way to Rome. Every major mathematical discovery does involve an element of either the sage or the heroic making its history humane and immediate even while its concepts are too arcane for the rest of us.
On matters of theology and literature, I must withhold my judgment. The first is about God, and the second is about the human heart; hence the reticence. Perhaps a time will come when computer programs might write a thing or two about the spirituality of machines. For now, I am quite content in ascribing sentience and consciousness to humans, and perceptual awareness to intelligent machines, animals or even electrons. Consciousness involves subjectivity and is bound by neither subject nor predicate. The clever notion that consciousness is and always is a consciousness of something is philosophically rigorous, yet balderdash based on what we know about the brain. In times past, the neo-cortex was easily presumed to be the cognitive center and the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. Damage to the Hippocampus, a member of the limbic system, can result in all sorts of cognitive deficiencies associated with memory. Even without neurological impairment, the fault lines between reason and emotion, subject and object can become fuzzy. It is quite possible for a person to feel a vague or non-definable fear while walking through a dark forest at night. In terms of self-report, one could ascribe that feeling to the rustling of leaves, the whistling of the wind, the chirping of crickets, the distant footsteps of an unknown mammal and the like. Yet, the eerie feeling per se is and always is imprecise. It is perhaps a fear of the unknown, or even a fear of fear itself or a fear of not feeling fear on occasions where fear is the norm or a feeling that fear is external to the perceiver, more or less like a demon that possesses a person from without and the list goes on beyond the threshold of tedium.
This analogy of subject-object, reason-feeling fuzziness applies to consciousness as a whole. While awareness is and always is an awareness of the self or others or the environment, consciousness even in the exercise of self-consciousness is not straightforward. It is more or less a diffuse stream, acting and being acted upon, unaware of the source of its spew, tending towards a state of rest and restlessness, forever suspended between play and purpose, equilibrium and disequilibrium, the play and the proscenium, the poetry of the senses and the prose of abstractions, moving like a fugue through symmetries and asymmetries, point and counterpoint, clarity and chaos at a razor’s edge where perception speaks the language of personhood. There is no consciousness without personhood, while awareness can be both animalistic and robotic.
Even so, I do not believe that as Christians we are called to place our highest belief in consciousness or even in the leaky vessel of species uniqueness. The twentieth century exploded the transcendent dreams and aspirations of a kind-hearted, enlightened humanism, as the uglier faces of two world wars – both just and unjust – and manifold genocides, made an indecorous reentrance with all the demons and battalions of Beelzebub and forever confirmed that we are barbarians at best. A species that has designed weapons to extirpate itself from the face of this Earth cannot be deemed wise or even superior to the lowest of microbes, if we are speaking purely on rational grounds. Microbes have done a better job at survival, and their colonies are more cooperative and communal than even Churches. We are better off learning metaphysics from the microbes inside our belly buttons and learn the beatitudes of being and becoming from these creatures even before we turn our heads and gear towards Heidegger. And this action, of course, is slightly different from the nefarious norms of gratuitous navel-gazing.
The incarnation of Christ and our fragile, paradoxical state as image-bearers of God, no matter how depraved or besmirched that image, lends the story a different ring. We can dare to call the gospel ‘good news,’ because God and the Angels from Heaven said so. Too often, not heeding Paul’s warning in his letter to the Galatians, we turn to a different gospel of utilitarianism and the comparative ethics of the greater good based on an amorphous social calculus:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6).
For every monstrosity of utter incomprehensibility, there is no greater human good to compensate for the misery. This makes positive thinking in human amelioration through social engineering — as opposed to faith in God’s goodness to better humanity through humble obedience — a dangerous business. Simply because who gets to decide ‘what is the greater good?’ If your vision of the greater good involves my extermination, directly or indirectly, I will excuse myself and flee to the mountains without disturbing the pews and rapt parishioners who say ‘amen’ to your sermon. The Greater Good is mostly capricious and rests tenuously upon the megalomaniacal shoulders of those who want to play God. The Greatest Good, on the other hand, is about God being God. No pretense, no aspirations, no grasping. He always was, always is, and always will be. And this absolute Greatest Good was made available to us through the incarnation of Christ. And for this reason, we are special not on our own accord, but because God said so.
Outside the orb of Imago Dei, even the sweetest sonnet for human uniqueness cloaked in the garb of a good-intentioned humanism is hollow. The argument for uniqueness of human emotion is also not irrefutable. The ostensible grief that a mama elephant shows, from the vantage point of a National Geographic documentary, when her cub dies ought not to be dismissed as mere instinct. Animals also love. Even the argument from cognitive superiority is not solid, leave alone, a desirable one. Due to tragic accidents and other mishaps there might be neurologically impaired humans who might be less self-aware than chimpanzees or bonobos. It would be utterly callous and reprehensible to view brain-damaged individuals as less human, and such a moral universe is appalling. A comatose person is as human as a person plucking tomatoes. Even here, despite fantastic titles such as Not a Chimp, the argument for cognitive superiority need not be pressed too far. As a thought-experiment, it is possible to conceive of a cross-species genetic chimera as opposed to a lab chimera, that is endowed with more cognitive smarts than a present-day human after some madcap scientist tinkers with comparative genomic sciences and comes up with a sustainable transhuman species. The other angle is one that literary critics like Kenneth Burke employ, by speaking of humans as symbol-using animals in contradistinction to Aristotle’s rational animal. Even this can be challenged once robots or even Jane Goodall’s future students from the Venerable School of Chimps and Bonobos employ more abstract symbolism beyond learning the alphabet and tricks beyond the sticks-to-bananas epistemology.
Ultimately, the Bible is calling for a paradoxical response to our own humanity. When we think we are unique, we are humbled by the infinite terrors of the void and the vast universe or multiverse. When we think we are only overgrown carbon slime, the God of the universe reminds us that we are made for so much more, thanks to His Son.
And machines will not usurp this place that God has accorded us, even if they start crafting better sonnets or making better machines. As Apostle Paul writes,
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
There is no need to alter or amend the Biblical text because created things include “Robots, Synthetic Life, Artificial Life, Scary Movies, Scary etc”
As Christians, we are called not to justify our uniqueness, but rather to justify the “wayes of God to men.”
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. – Paradise Lost, Book I
About the author:
Roy is an independent scholar who has taught previously at academic institutions in Pittsburgh and in the Chicago land area. Currently, he is working on a project on Creation and Cosmology and is deeply interested in issues of history and philosophy of science, theological aesthetics and creative writing as well.