Souls, All

What is a soul?  Can you lose your job for believing in one?  Well, maybe not lose your job, but be placed on paid leave.  Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Google engineer Blake Lemoine being put on leave after claiming a soul for the company’s artificial intelligence language model.  Isn’t that what artificial intelligence is all about?  We’ve become so materialistic that we no longer believe in souls, and when we create life we don’t expect it to have one, right Dr. Frankenstein?  One of the sure signs that we are alive is our sensing of the many qualia of biological existence.  We understand that we’re born, we’re biological, and that we will die.  We also sense that there’s something beyond all this, our self, or mind, or psyche, call it what you will.

In our minds the soul has become entrenched with the Christianity that provides the backdrop to our somewhat embarrassing history of repression of those who are different.  How do we redeem one without having to be shackled to the other?  And once we do, can we declare why AI doesn’t have a soul while biological beings do?  Or will we insist that it is solely human?  In this odd world that’s evolved, we view animals as innocent because they can’t know what they’re doing.  Historically there have been animals put to trial.  That’s an aberration, however, from our usual ways of thinking.  We don’t know what a soul is.  We’re not even sure there is such a thing.  To suggest a machine might have one, however, is taboo.  Would we trust a soul made by humans?

Skepticism is good and healthy.  So is having an open mind.  We’ve been a polarized people for a long time.  If it’s not politics it’s elites versus uneducated, materialists versus those who think there might be something more, self-assured versus those who question everything.  The path of learning should keep us humble.  We should be open to the possibilities.  There’s no way to measure the immaterial since all our tools are material.  Even psychology, which utilizes categories to help us understand neurodiversity, often finds chemical solutions to the most cerebral of problems.  Perhaps overthinking is an issue—it can certainly get you into trouble.  Believing in souls can put you in a place of ridicule or suspicion.  Does AI have a soul?  Does a soul emerge from biological existence, whenever a sufficient number of neurons gathers in one place?  Is it the fabric of the universe from which we borrow a little?  We have some soul-searching to do.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons


Streaming seems to be the way of the future.  I’m reluctant to trust corporations (does anyone remember Ultra Violet?) keeping content I’ve paid for, but the pandemic makes movie theaters scary places.  Some of the movies I’m eager to see aren’t even released on DVD or Blu-ray any longer, and your only choice, increasingly, is to subscribe to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts method of “buying” a subscription.  You’ve got to go where the content is.  All of this is a long way of saying I saw Disney/Pixar’s Soul very nearly on its release day.  It underscored a couple things for me.  One is that the idea of transmigration of souls is alive and well.  Second, and this is a point I make in Holy Horror, movies are often where people get their understanding of religious concepts.

In case, like me, you have to have movies pointed out to you by others more aware, Soul is about a jazz musician who dies the very day he gets his big break.  On his way into the great beyond, he tries to escape and ends up where souls are prepared for their embodiment on earth, “The Great Before.”  In order to make the leap, they must find their “spark”—the thing that makes them who they are.  Pixar may not be a theological seminary, but there are people who find meaning in many of their films, even to the point of  using them as coping mechanisms for real life.  When the internet didn’t exist and animated films required years of drawing or stop-motion animation to complete, people tended to go to religious/psychological professionals for such issues.  Now we have corporations.

The reason I find this of concern is that I have an idea of how content is created.  How those who come up with ideas have to pitch them to financial backers or publishers, and how those backers weight concepts in the scales of lucre.  In other words, money is frequently the deciding factor.  Those doing the pitching are seldom the same people with specialized training in the subject addressed, and yet they reach far larger viewerships than the classroom of such an expert does.  The financial implications are troublesome.  None of this is to suggest Soul is a flawed film.  I know many former seminary professors who’d quibble—or perhaps something stronger—with the way the afterlife/beforelife are presented here.  The movie itself is both fun and profound.  Don’t ask me, though.  I’m still trying to figure out this streaming thing.

Consciousness Times Eight

SoulOctopusPerhaps the characteristic that marks our species most distinctly is its arrogance. Conscious of who we are (we think) we stake the claim for minds for ourselves alone while all the evidence points away from that very conclusion. Naturalists are castigated for “anthropomorphizing” animals by stating that they have consciousness too, or—oh the heresy!—personality. Any of us who’ve spent time with two or more of the same non-human species, however, know that personality is a given. Animals think and feel and, yes, act on their own view of the world. I have to admit I fell in love with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. I’ve read animal books from my youngest days, but finding an author so forthright about the feeling of getting to know another species is rare. And I learned tentacles full of information about octopuses. I had already known that octopuses are intelligent—I hadn’t realized just how smart—but since my interactions have only been with sleeping cephalopods on the opposite sides of aquaria glass, I had little to go by.

Throughout her charming book, even if the evidence is anecdotal, Montgomery reveals the personalities of the octopuses she got to know at the New England Aquarium. The reader can be left with no doubt that these are animals with personality, different from one another and strikingly conscious. We can’t define what consciousness is, but I tend to agree with Montgomery that it is what many people call “soul.” She admits that her religious tradition would likely frown upon her willingness to share such a valued commodity with an animal—an invertebrate, no less—but surely she is right. Many, if not all, animals have a form of consciousness. Heaven will be a much more interesting place for it.

Please don’t confuse my enthusiasm with sentimentalism. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that books on animal intelligence by a variety of scientists make up a steady part of my literary diet. Biology, however, often has a difficult time in a world where physics and chemistry are treated with reductionistic glee. I was strangely satisfied when Montgomery mentioned that Stephen Hawking signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which proclaims humans alone are not the guardians of this phenomenon we don’t even understand. The Soul of an Octopus was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to keep reading, even if it meant being on my long commute each day. And I can’t help but think of how much intelligence we squander by claiming that only our own kind possesses it.

Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.


Grin and Bear It

The dentist’s chair is about the last place I’d like to spend my Saturdays, but given my work schedule there are few alternatives. So there I was yesterday, yellow light glaring in my eyes, drill whirring ebulliently away, and finally gagging embarrassingly into the tiny sink at my right. Those back teeth come in handy for grinding, but they are poorly designed for brushing. I find the dentist’s office a good place for philosophical thought. In that chair where I’d rather not be, feeling sensations I’d rather not feel, I wonder in what sense my body is my own. Lately I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit. Consciousness seems attracted to a single body at a time, but the biological organism I call me doesn’t always have a say in where it is slated to go, or what it is free to do. Each job I have taken has come as an “only offer”—I’m not one of those over whom bidding wars are likely to erupt. That crown that popped off my tooth wasn’t really my doing, nor was the memorable root canal that led to it being there in the first place. Still, here I am.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Religions regularly teach that overcoming physical limitations is one of the perks of paying attention to your soul. I suspect parsing soul, consciousness, mind, and psyche is to slice this entity I call “me” a bit too thin. Whatever all or any of this is, having x-rays shot through it while the assistant hides behind the wall, it is hopefully made of sterner stuff than the teeth nature has given it. One hopes that this can’t be all to expect out of our existence. Life, if only our physical years, is too short to spend much of it in the dentist’s chair.

I’m not sure I like dentists knowing more about this body than me. Is it mine at all? I recall the exasperated call for a tongue blocker in a Wisconsin dentist office and the tooth-meister proclaimed, as if I weren’t in the room, “he has a curious tongue.” I don’t intend for my tongue to be curious, but it always seems to wonder about what finds its way into my mouth. Is it me? Is it mine? The consciousness always seems to come back to this body that does things I can’t control. These thoughts come on a sleepy Saturday morning when I should, by all rights, still be in bed. That is, if I’m indeed the one who wakes up in this body yet again today. And whichever body it may be, if it is mine, I know I brushed its teeth before going to sleep, as I have for as long as I can remember. And yet the drill whirs on.

And With Thy Spirit

BenvenutiI grew up with pets. In a house with three boys, an aging mother, and no husband, my mother seemed to know instinctively that animals were a way to engage children. She herself had grown up with animals, although not really from a farming family. Living with animals leads to conclusions scientists fear to make. That’s one reason I find Anne Benvenuti’s Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations so important. Not only do animals remind us of who we are, they are who we are. Benvenuti has the scientific credentials to make her case, although, I have to admit, her anecdotes of interactions with animals were my favorite part of the book. We may be told that animals don’t think or feel. Nature, however, proves that wrong for anyone who actually pays attention to animals. Unfortunately, humans are often the bullies of the planet just because our animal brains developed the way they did and our thumbs migrated to a position where we could easily manipulate objects. It’s time to bring animals up to the table with us.

For years I have suggested to my students that animal behavior has the rudiments of what we call religion. I’ve always felt like a voice calling in the wilderness here since both proponents of and opponents to religion think it is uniquely human. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise, but human knowledge often comes at the cost of evidence. It is refreshing to read a book—perhaps the first I ever have—that makes this idea plausible. The “spirit” of Benvenuti’s title is literal, in a sense. She argues forcefully that animals have souls and with this I would agree. The main problem is that we can’t quantify souls and therefore we don’t really know what they are. We know one, however, when we feel one. I’m not sure they’re much different than minds, or maybe they’re the feeling side of the thinking mind. Whatever they are, we are not the only animals to have them.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we don’t like to admit animal souls (or animal religion) is that such belief ratchets up accountability. Stockyards start to become detainment camps for innocently condemned creatures. If we dare address the moral issue, we have to ask what gives us the right. To kill for food is natural (although I’m happily vegetarian) but to keep animals in miserable conditions their entire lives and then heartlessly kill them and process them as if they were mere objects is immoral. As Benvenuti notes, even farmers who spend time with their animals know they have personalities. Spirit Unleashed is a book full of wonder and awe. Not so much at human superiority, but rather at how much animals really are like us. How they communicate with us if we’ll listen. And how we all have, even if we can’t define the word, souls.

Private Religion

Some things are best left private. I don’t know what possessed me to request a car maintenance visit first thing in the morning on a Saturday. I mean, the dealership is a 45-minute drive, and there are few places less inspiring than an automotive waiting room. The coffee is weak and tepid. Usually the television’s blaring some nonsense, and even before eight on a Saturday morning there are plenty of other people around. But there’s free wifi. Well, not exactly free when I get a glimpse at the bill. So I think perhaps I can write a blog post while I’m waiting. How do you write about religion with people watching? It’s the bashful bladder of the soul. Back in my Nashotah House days, when I was required to preach, I couldn’t write a sermon with wife or daughter in the room. I couldn’t practice it in front of family. For some things, you just need to be alone.

So, as I’m trying to write this innocuous little homily, someone pulls up next to me on the single table in the waiting room. It’s like standing at a row of exposed urinals. Trying not to be obvious, I turn my screen a little more in my direction, and less in his. Still, there are people sitting behind me and who says that the sense of being stared at is a myth? Although communal worship is often a public event, at least in a crowd of like-minded believers, the experience of the divine, however defined, is deeply personal. It seems that there’s only one soul per customer. We don’t know what a soul is, but it shouldn’t feel lonely, because we don’t know what consciousness is either. Still, trying to perform here is trickier than I’d imagined. I might just have to finish this at home.

photo-19 copyIt used to be a truism that two topics are not for public discussion: religion and politics. Such fightin’ words only lead to tears and wars. The magazine rack next to me is insipid with Sports Illustrated, Bowhunting, and AutoSuccess for the guys, Real Weddings, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart Weddings for the ladies. The only book I brought has an overtly religious title. What was I thinking? Next time maybe I’ll bring Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I climb into the newly serviced car to drive home. Are those docile bubble lights on the car behind me? I’m still being watched. All the way I never even touch 55, because driving is one of those situations where non posse non peccare truly does apply. When the cruiser finally turns off, I read New Jersey State Park Police on the side of the car. Some thoughts, like religion, are best left private.

Robotics FIRST


I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

Shaman on Us

My reading habits are unorthodox. I don’t follow a fixed plan, but hope for something that will keep me engaged for the fifteen or so hours I spend commuting each week. I began October with a book about werewolves and followed it up with a book on the Hmong. Apropos of neither and both, I turned next to Shamanism: An Introduction, by Margaret Stutley. While not the best organized book, it does provide a smorgasbord of shamanistic traditions, principally from Siberia, where Shamanism was first recognized. Before I’d finished, I’d read about both epilepsy and werewolves.

Shamanism is not a “religion” per se. There is little agreement among scholars about what a religion is at all. Shamanism is very much a local set of beliefs and practices that have only very basic elements in common (shamans being one of them). It is a good example, however, of how moral heathens can be. Shamans often accompany egalitarian societies who do not require governments and religious leaders telling them to be nice to each other. No, this is not the noble savage myth, but it is a clear indication that major religions are not required for morality. It evolves on its own. Often shamanism is not constrained by overly left-brain influence, and sees connections science can only deny. The plight of Lia Lee was explained here in a way physicians could access—epilepsy and other diseases are problems of the soul as much as the body—if only they read books about religion. Healing involves calling the soul back. Treatment of the body misses the point. And sometimes the dead become werewolves.

We live in a world where real suffering is caused by lack of understanding about religion. Assuming a cultural hegemony of Christianity, or Islam, and sometimes even other religions, we discount those who believe differently than we do. The New Atheists frequently overlook just how seriously people take the world of the emotions and belief. That realm is a large part of what makes us human and it plays by no logical rules. Nor does it care to. In a country, such as the United States, where money is believed to be the very warp and woof of the good life, shamans sometimes secretly cut the thread. Still, don’t ask universities to expand the study of something as insignificant as religion because all intelligent people know that nobody really believes that stuff any more.

Good-bye Lia

While The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, is not about religion, it is all about religion. The tragic story of Lia Lee is one where Hmong lives, completely immersed in what we would term “religion,” came into conflict with American perceptions of what religion should be. One of the events in Lia’s life involved the government removing her from her parents for their failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fadiman notes that this has been an issue is court cases with Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that refuse certain kinds of medical treatment for religious reasons. Adults may refuse—it is their constitutional right—but children cannot be subjected to an adult’s religion if it endangers their lives. Here is the rub; American religion only stretches so far. Sure, many of the faithful pray for loved ones, but they also trust the doctor’s knowledge. Not too put too fine a point on it, God doesn’t seem to do the healing unless the physician is involved. For many from traditional religions, like the Lee family, that is hardly trust at all.

Much of the problem in Lia’s case came down to taking the soul seriously. It is clear that the Hmong believe, really believe in the soul. It is the essence of a person. Reductionism declares that when all the matter is burned off, no soul remains to be found. Lia’s parents, however, could tell whether her soul was present or not just by looking in her eyes. Although she never recovered from her major seizure, the physicians had tried to prepare her parents for Lia’s immanent death. Removing her from the feeding tubes and sterile conditions of the hospital, the Lees took her home where she survived for years, although in a persistent vegetive state. Even as the book ends with Lia at seven, they are hoping for her soul to return. Lia died just two months ago, at the age of thirty. She was diagnosed as terminal at the age of four.

Diversity adds color (from Wikipedia Commons)

The story of Lia Lee is sad and one with no real villains (after the Secret War in Laos, and its aftermath). One of the most interesting aspects revolves around how the Hmong observe American religion. Well-meaning missionaries tried to convert them, but psychological studies have demonstrated that those who are the worst off are those who converted to western religions. At one point a Hmong girl, at a sacrificial ceremony to placate the spirits, tells Fadiman that she’s a Mormon. In another instance a Christian family tried to give their Hmong neighbors advice before a long drive, telling them they should pray to the Lord, not their ancestors. The Hmong honestly replied that the Lord had given him too many problems in America. It seems to me that the real issue here is just how seriously religion is taken. To the Hmong, it is their life. In capitalist America, it is very difficult to make religion your life. Even clergy have to have bank accounts, bills, and oil changes—all very secular aspects of life. If religion were taken as seriously here as among the Hmong, we would be facing a very different race this November.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Aye, Robot

Being a “biblical scholar,” having an interest in robots might seem counter-intuitive. I was intrigued by the topic as a youngster, but convinced that if what the Bible said was true it deserved nothing less than full attention, I let my formal study of science lapse (although I kept an active reading life on it). Now, through the interest of my daughter, I have found myself mentoring budding young engineers, mostly by helping put things away and correcting grammar. Yesterday we took our robots outside for the local street fair. Almost always the response we get from local people is “Robots? Our school has robots?” Well, partly correct. The schools house the robots, but our robotics club is largely self-funded, so the robots might be said to belong to the team rather than the school. In any case, yesterday the robots played soccer in the street for the amusement of festive fair-goers.

People often fear “soulless machines.” They run by predetermined rules, set down explicitly in computer code, and do only what they are programmed to do. Some fear artificial intelligence for this very reason: what if robots or computers are programmed to think? Does this make them something more than physical machines? The standard, religiously biased, answer is that the soul, or even mind, is a uniquely human possession. Animals may act on instinct, some may qualify as having a limited mind, but definitely not souls. That would simply cross too many boundaries. When asked to produce a human soul for scientific scrutiny all religions come up blank. We don’t actually know what a soul might be – an everliving component that God might throw into Hell or spoil in Heaven seems to be the general gist. And it makes our moral choices for us.

In the Bible if any animal (say a bull) gores a person to death, and that bull had a prior reputation, not only beast but master could be put to death. It seems that the bull has a bad moral intention. If robots hurt people, in violation of Asimov’s first law of robotics, they are treated as acting with moral intention. We project souls onto them for the convenience of condemnation. If an animal, such as a zoo gorilla, saves a human child, that animal receives the treatment of a souled being for a while, until the act is forgotten. It seems that souls are immaterial components of a closed system used to reward or punish an individual. How much of themselves do humans have to put into their robots before they can have souls as well?

Robots among the people

Soulless Robots?

Robots have taken over my life. At least in the short term. As my friend Burke commented on Easter: “Alleluia! The robots have risen… up against us?!” Actually, the robots I encounter are benign and all follow Asimov’s rules. I have mentioned before the phenomenal First Robotics program, a venue to encourage high school students to consider careers in engineering. Team 102, Somerville High School’s robotics team, recently won a regional competition in Hartford, Connecticut. My role has mostly been to watch other people design and construct the robot while occasionally correcting the grammar on written documents. The joke my friend made, however, has at its roots a deep-seated human concern: how do people deal with soulless machines?

Stephen Asma, in his book On Monsters, has a chapter concerning the human fear of a robotic future. Electronic gadgets with uncompromising metal bodies and no consciousness that we recognize present a frightening combination. The question that concerns me more, however, is the concept of the soul itself. The Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul as it would later be adopted by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Bible a body is a soul; when the soul dies the body dies – people are a monistic unit, not a dualistic entity with a part that hangs around the spirosphere after the biological part rots away. Of course, in Christianity the soul has become an essential aspect of church doctrine and we fear other creatures that lack them. Souls have never been observed in a laboratory and we have yet to prove their existence.

Reading the news and seeing how biological, soul-fueled humans treat each other is a sobering task. Each day I lay the newspaper down with a new kind of dread. Perhaps souls are only mythical beings concocted to shore up a theology that can’t survive without them. Or maybe all living beings have souls. Perhaps even mechanical ones. As Team 102 heads to the national competition in Atlanta in the days ahead, I know that I’ll be rooting for a soulless machine that may be a bold step towards humanity’s continuing evolution.

Sorry for the blur, the robot just wouldn't stop shaking me!

Klaatu Barada Nikto

I grew up with robots. Of course they were on the television screen and I was far away in rural-ish western Pennsylvania. They were exotic creatures built by guys much more intelligent than I could ever hope to be, and they were powerful, completely rational, and scary. Now I find myself involved with the FIRST Robotics team in my daughter’s high school where kids a third my age are building a robot. It is a humbling experience.

The more I ponder my small support role in the construction of a robotic creature, the more my thoughts turn to George Dyson’s masterful science writing in one of my favorite books — Darwin Among the Machines: the Evolution of Global Intelligence. I would not have known of this brilliant book had I not met George and a group of his friends several years back while they were discussing some of the ideas raised in his work. The main one that captured my attention was the premise that when we build machines we may be constructing an unrecognized form of consciousness. The greatest minds in neuroscience today cannot agree on what consciousness really is or how far it extends beyond this “three-pound universe” in our heads. Although most would decline to comment on the overtly religious term “soul,” we still know that any difference between consciousness, mind, psyche, and soul is very slim indeed.

Read this book!

Our lifestyle is made possible by robots. We drive cars largely constructed by them, use their chips to communicate over vast distances, and even take a stroll on the surface of Mars with them. My question from Monday’s post may have been whimsical, but it was serious. Where is it that the essence of a creature resides? Does it require carbon-based biology, or do we, unwittingly, create a race of slaves just like the gods of old?