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We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the unpleasant baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits make it acceptable? Read part 1 here.

This is post 15 in this series, and we wrap up the question of whether humans are equivalent to robots or if a spiritual explanation is necessary.

Personality and the spiritual

Soft Theist: If science tells us that all the molecules of our bodies are replaced every seven years, why can’t I murder someone, and then 8 years later claim, “Hey it wasn’t me, it was the other guy!” I cannot make such a claim, because we are more than just a collection of molecules. We have souls, or spirits . . . or . . . personalities, to use a term more acceptable to you.

Cross Examined Blog: Sure, we have personalities. Evolution has programmed us to be social animals and to support other humans. That does nothing to convince me that souls or spirits exist.

Atheist: If my mother, were revealed to be . . . a robot, I wouldn’t love her any less. Because my reasons for loving her are based on her nature, and intelligence, and kindness. Not what she is made of, whether it’s metal, or, some . . . “mystical spirit.”

Oh, I think you would love her less . . . because exactly what you love her for—her nature, intelligence, and kindness—you’d realize, are not genuine, but only programmed responses. As a robot, she wouldn’t REALLY care about you. It would be an illusion!

Would a Kurzweil simulation (discussed in the previous post) be an illusion if it were an accurate representations of a person’s thinking? Did Deep Blue not really beat the human chess champion because it was a computer? Does a calculator not really do accurate math because it doesn’t have an organic brain? Does a dishwasher not really wash dishes because it moves the water and not the dishes?

The evaluation by a person is what matters. What doesn’t matter is whether that person was convinced by synapses or transistors.

Can robots have emotions?

OK . . . yeah. But, I think uniqueness is what it’s all about. I think every person is precious because of their unique qualities and character and thoughts. It doesn’t matter to me that we are just a collection of molecules.

It does to me, because if you define human beings that way, then we ARE . . . JUST sophisticated robots. But, we, are not. We are . . . sentient. We DO have the capacity to feel.

Humans are the ones to judge whether someone or something is indeed feeling an emotion. Poll an audience after seeing WALL-E and ask if the robot feels. (Or the blue people in Avatar or the robot in Bicentennial Man or the love interest in Blade Runner or whatever your favorite intelligent non-human is.)

In the last post, you accused Mr. Atheist of being “severely stunted philosophically.” This conversation makes me wonder if you’re severely stunted emotionally.

Your “just sophisticated robots” label doesn’t matter. Do you have humans you love? Your emotions might be quite complicated, but what pushes your buttons doesn’t have to be. A one-year-old’s big eyes and smile invoke an emotional reaction (love, desire to nurture), and it’s not surprising that a robot with a similar appearance could push the same emotional buttons.

Well, that’s kind of what I was saying, about a person’s subjective, unique makeup.

Yeah, but at the same time, you dismiss the idea of a person’s spirit or soul as theist nonsense, when THAT is really what we’re talking about—personality, character, all the unique aspects of who you are as a human being. I say what emerges from molecules, is a greater reality than the molecules themselves.

Emergent properties is an important idea that we’ll get to next time.

Belief as a social disease

Wouldn’t you say that, historically, superstitious beliefs, traditional religious beliefs, belief in a spirit world . . . have amounted to a . . . social disease?

Yeah, yeah, I agree. I share your contempt there. BUT . . . I think, at least in the scientific community, the pendulum has swung somewhat in the other direction—not acknowledging ANYTHING as real unless it can be measured.

I read an article by [Yale professor David] Gelernter, and he says scientism, or he calls it . . . roboticism, was at first just an intellectual school, but today has become a . . . social disease! That we are dismissing the subjective world, when that world is real and absolutely key to our identities as human beings. The world of our . . . own, fears, and hopes, and loves. Our particular memories, of a garden, or a friend, or a trip. Our states of mind, times of sadness, joy. All these subjective feelings we have, can be experienced by you alone; they ARE . . . just in your mind. But, he says, they DO exist . . . and are important.

(I respond to another article from Gelernter here. It was a rejection of evolution, which is an odd article to come from a computer science professor.)

[Gelernter] says man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer. Unlike computers and robots, we don’t have just information: we have feelings.

So, I agree with his general point. If we devalue our subjective worlds, our emotional worlds, we are denying life.

Machines and humans work differently

This raises an interesting point. People are like computers in some ways (both have memory and perform computation) and unlike them in other ways (such as what they’re made of, what powers them, and serial vs. parallel architecture).

The Soft Theism thesis is that we’re not just molecules or computers. That’s true, but we need to understand an important difference, that when compared with people, machines usually achieve the same goal but with a different route. What I think is most important for our conversation is the same goal rather than the route. I explore it this way in my book Future Hype (2011):

[Airplanes] flirted with animal inspiration in their early years. But flapping-wing airplane failures soon yielded to propeller-driven successes. The most efficient machines usually don’t mimic how humans or animals work. Airplanes don’t fly like birds, and submarines don’t swim like fish. Wagons roll rather than walk, and a recorded voice isn’t replayed through an artificial mouth. A washing machine doesn’t use a washboard, and a dishwasher moves the water and not the dishes. Asking whether a computer can think or wonder is like asking whether a car can trot or gallop—a computer has its own way of operating, which may be quite different from the human approach.

We can approach the question of thinking another way: does a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it make a sound? That depends on how sound is defined. Similarly, whether a computer duplicating a particular human skill is thinking or not depends on how think is defined. You could say that a computer chess champion doesn’t think because it doesn’t operate the way people do. Or you could say that it thinks in its own way because it obviously gets the job done. To take another example, ELIZA was a famous 1965 computer program that played the role of a psychiatrist. It was so convincing that some users earnestly poured out their problems to the imagined intelligence, even though replicating ELIZA is simple enough to be assigned as homework in a college artificial intelligence course. Marvin Minsky considered artificial intelligence “making machines do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people.”

Computers and AI try to copy what humans do, not how they do it. This is no proof, perhaps not even evidence, that AI will never convincingly display feelings and emotions. This undercuts Soft Theism’s claim that naturalistic explanations will always be insufficient and that there must be a spiritual something-or-other at the bottom.

Next time: Intelligence and consciousness: evolution or miracle?

That this toil of pure intelligence . . .
can possibly be performed by an unconscious machine
is a proposition which is received with incredulity.
— Columbia University president
commenting on a French adding machine (c. 1820)


Image from Possessed Photography (free-use license)

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CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, though, he has explored the debate between...