Descartes’s Doll: Christianity and the Myth of A.I.

May 16, 2017

A recent article in the Atlantic made the assertion that the next great “threat” Christianity would have to face—in the wake of evolution, Islam, etc.—was artificial intelligence. Theologians had been apparently missing the boat on this one (as they do on so much else) and now the church would have to deal, totally unprepared, with questions such as: will machines have the ability to pray (and would God hear those prayers), would an A.I. have a soul, and should Christians seek to evangelize this new technology?

The concept of truly intelligent self-willed artificial entities, which the futurist Nick Bostrom calls “super intelligence,” is presented by the author not so much as a possibility, but as an inevitability. The artificial intelligence we now have which sorts our Facebook pictures and accidentally orders new furniture sets through Alexa, is but a shadow of what is to come. A.I. will soon be on par with, and even supersede, human intelligence.

Yet this “inevitability” is built on a premise which has been around since the philosopher René Descartes; namely, that intelligence is a thing and that we are essentially minds (or brains in jars, as a philosophical experiment would have it). The “soul” in this equation is just some mysterious ether that hovers around us and is either placed there by God or is part of a package deal with intelligence. If we can replicate intelligence in some other matter, we can produce another mind.

Classical metaphysics, to which Christianity has a longer and stronger relation, gives us an entirely different understanding of intelligence and the soul. For thinkers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the soul is the form of the person as a complete entity. The parts of a human being only make sense when they are operating in relation to the whole, and this includes body and will along with intellect. Philosophers such as Paul Zehr have updated this view when they talk of the necessity of “organic unity” in the human being, and how difficult it is to insert any new form of technology into what is inherently a closed system.1

While Christian theologians may not be troubling themselves too much with this false dilemma, the wider secular culture at the moment seems to be obsessed with A.I. (and—by extension—robots, cyborgs, etc.). The slew of serious books on the subject has been unending. This, this, and this all came out recently in a single week.

Popular media has been entranced by the subject of artificial intelligence. In recent years, TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Person of Interest, and Westworld have made it a central plot thread. And it has been even more prevalent in film. From arthouse fare such as Ex Machina, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Her to charming family and children’s movies such as Wall-E, Astro Boy, Big Hero 6, and Iron Giant, to the action blockbusters Robocop, The Matrix, Terminator, Transformers, Star Wars, and Star Trek (and their franchises), artificial intelligence dominates our collective imagination.

But why is it so popular? In Japan, the popularity of robots and A.I. has been tied to Shinto, an animistic religion indigenous to Japan which holds that even inanimate objects can possess spirits. Yet this does not seem to explain the western fascination. There is, of course, the oft repeated claim that we like playing God with our technology, an argument that goes back to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. We like to have things or persons we can manipulate and control.

Yet this, I think, has only a limited appeal. The word ‘robot’ etymologically means “slave,” but the message of most art and entertainment on the subject is very much against the idea of exploitation. Movies such as A.I., Chappie, Bicentennial Man, and I Robot have a strongly anti-exploitative message at their core; they seek for audiences to empathize with their artificial protagonists. Already, in the real world, we have groups and organizations working to provide robots with rights to prevent this kind of abuse in imagined future scenarios.

Descartes, who in a sense got the whole ball rolling with his redefinition of human beings as “thinking things,” was said to have spent several years living with a mechanical doll. The story is apocryphal, which suggests there is some truth in it, even if wasn’t factual truth. After the death of his only child, a young daughter, Descartes had a lifelike doll of her made, with clockwork mechanics which made her move. He travelled with this doll in a large chest. Allegedly while crossing the sea in a ship, the doll was revealed to the captain and its mechanized behavior so spooked him and the crew that they tossed it overboard in fear of it being something demonic. The real question of course was why would Descartes have kept such a thing (or why would many people believe this about him)? Was it a matter of morbid loneliness? Do we like the idea of A.I. because we feel lonely? That is certainly the premise of movies such as Her, Robot and Frank, and A.I.

Or could it be that this obsession is tapping into some insecurity that we ourselves are no more than mechanistic matter, a mere thinking thing? Just as the robots are given a voice to protest that they are more than machines, we too are silently making the same claim alongside them. We are not just the product of evolution and biomechanics, as modern philosophy and science would have it, to be (with no further use) once discarded. The mind is something more than advanced computations. We need to hear robots saying “I am a person” because we are secretly afraid that we ourselves are fleshly robots and nothing more.

In an era when we are being dehumanized at an alarming rate through abortion, euthanasia, and pornography (as well as commodification and consumerism), it is to the robot that we look to affirm our humanity, our mystery, our immateriality, our souls.

About the Author
  • Michael J. Plato is Assistant Professor of Intellectual History and Christian Thought at Colorado Christian University. Michael is from Toronto, Canada, where he studied philosophy, theology and cultural studies, and he now lives in Lakewood, Colorado.

  1. For more on why A.I. is impossible according to classical metaphysics, look here

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?