Robot autonomy and religion

So, the presentation today (A.I. vs autonomy) really got me thinking.  I wanted to ask this question, but I wasn’t quite sure that I could phrase it properly.  So I’m going to post it here for anyone to answer:

What (if any) relationships exist between religious beliefs and beliefs on A.I.?

In my experience, SF typically separates itself from religions except where a point is being made.  But since Artificial Intelligence in general is a comment on existentialism, I think this discussion is completely reasonable.  Robots/A.I./Androids don’t become life until they are turned on, so the existence precedes self (as they said in the presentation, they are not thought to have souls), whereas in many religions the immortal soul precedes our existence on earth.  People with these beliefs would probably have trouble accepting artificial life as sentient or equal.

I realize that on some level all of the fiction dealing with A.I. is a comment on this.  What I’m asking (and I’m looking at you, people who presented on this) is, are there any works that specifically and undeniably make comments on this? Are there any stories where this clash of beliefs occur, or essays where they discuss it in depth?

And, to hopefully get some discussion going, what does everyone else think of this?

7 thoughts on “Robot autonomy and religion”

  1. While religions all have different philosophies most share the belief that they were founded on the question, “why are we here?” Artificial Life were made and in most cases they could simply ask their creators why they were made and in most cases the creators would respond with, “to do the laundry.” A truly sentient robot would question is that all there is.

    The best example of this I can think of off the top of my head is Battlestar Galactica (Re-Imagined) which features a large amount of religious symbolism while humans and robots fight for their right to survive with several religious groups on both sides of the conflict.

  2. There’s this Korean movie called “Doomsday Book,” a pretty strange movie with three stories put into one film. The middle story is about a robot that “works” at a buddhist temple, and says that he (it?) has achieved enlightenment. There’s an interesting a long debate about the validity of an artificial life being able to even comprehend reality in a similar way humans do. It touches on a lot of pretty deep points. It was on netflix, not sure if it still is though.

  3. Strangly enough the first thought I had when reading this is Promethius. No spoilers intended but the crew find out that humans were also created from some other being and search out to find them. In this there is also an andriod who expresses some amount of self. I found this movie in including humans trying to find out why they were created and the andriods own disillusionment with its’ creators did explore this to some amount. While the focus is mostly on the end of the humans and there is not real mention of souls I would say it did look into a sort of religious belief in creation and souls. If humans were some other beings creation do we still have a claim to a soul while adroids do not.

  4. Dillon makes a good point in connection function and the soul. Particularly in the case of discussing AI, whether there is a soul or not is of little discussion, but is there any way to say that a human has anymore soul than that? To answer that, we need to ask what the function of a soul is. Some philosophers (don’t ask their names, I can’t remember right now, but maybe one of the better known ones?) believed the our souls were essentially our actual selves and we were required to aim for virtue in order to better prepare our souls for entry into the next stage of existence. This would mean that AIs do not have souls. Myself, I’ve always thought that a soul functions like a battery – the force that keeps you alive so long as the physical apparatus can sustain it; when it cannot, the soul goes out like a candle. In this case, it’s possible that an AI may possess a soul for a time, but that it may become properly soulless over time (this supposition about the soul requires mortality).

    A further question about the nature of a soul is whether it is a matter of existence or if it is a matter of purpose. Where android’s existence predates life, and in the supposition that the soul predates life as well, it could be argued that the soul exists where life will exist. Of course, I wonder if everyone has their own soul if it precedes us, or are we all sharing one megalithic soul (maybe of a God or something?). But if the soul exists where life WILL exist, then android’s and cyborg’s ensouling relies entirely on the truest intentions of the creator. Unless the state of active existence is actually not life.

    I can’t think of anything that specifics comments on the relationship of the soul and AIs, but I do think it’s a valid and important philosophical query, and it should be pursued.

    1. I really like the idea of a soul as a battery. It’s probably the best way to describe it to someone as simple-minded as myself. Given this definition, would you be in full support of AIs being considered sentient, living creatures?

  5. I am one of the presenters, and we did, in fact, consider the concept of religion and AI. It is not an easy task to try to apply a soul, which is speculative, to an artificial creature, which is also speculative. All becomes rather murky. There are, indeed, several interesting sources on the issue of religion and artificial intelligence. In his article “Robots, Rights and Religion,” James McGrath brings up the idea of humanity being “made in the image of God.” So does this mean that as the creators of artificial life we become their gods? I certainly do not wish to engage in a full-blown conversation about religion (in my experience such chats never go particularly well), but it is interesting to think that in an imagined far future we might distantly be “remembered” as creators, and perhaps become subjects of an android religion or mythology.
    As for whether androids can have souls, as has been mentioned more than once, how can we even know if we have one? What exactly is a soul anyway? Is it natural or supernatural? Is it separate or intrinsic? Where does it reside? What is its function, and who gets one? I am old enough to remember the birth of the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, and all the questions about whether she could have a soul, and what that might mean for cloned humans. But I think you are likely correct, ballamb10, that those who believe the soul (whatever it is) precedes existence will have a difficult time accepting that AIs are equal to us or anything other than glorified toasters.
    We also have to consider why religion exists, why it is necessary. If one is a believer, then religion just IS, it is fact. A creator has provided rules for how to live appropriately etc. If one believes religion or deities have been created or imagined by humanity, then we must ask if a life form that we create will have any need to create religion. Or, as their creators, are we somehow their deities?
    In the context of transhumanism or posthumanism, where humanity and machines become increasingly intertwined, the issue of religion becomes even more interesting. There is an article on Academic Search Complete that discusses this issue:
    Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. “Transhumanism As A Secularist Faith.” Zygon: Journal Of Religion & Science 47.4 (2012): 710-734.
    Here are some links to more information for anyone interested:

    Prof. James McGrath:

  6. Personally, I am not very knowledgeable in any religion, but I think your question is very interesting. Artificial beings have been present since ancient times. Greek myths such as Hephaestus’ automatons, his creation of Talos, and Pygmalion’s Galatea all have artificial beings. These beings were created for a purpose that was designated or craved by their creator. Does this make the creator some sort of god because they have created another being? I find it interesting that Talos’ weakness is his only human vein (because the rest of him is completely bronze and I don’t mean evenly tanned). He was created to protect humans and yet his only weakness is his small piece of humanity. Our group had actually geeked out pretty hard about that fact. It seems that in a variety of stories involving artificial intelligence the main purpose of the artificial beings tends to be their downfall as well. I think it is trying to comment on what it is to live. That which drives us also pulls us back.
    I talked about the movie “A.I.” in our presentation. I think it is worth a gander in your search for answers. It is based loosely on Brian Aldiss’ short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.” Also, “Bicentennial Man” had some moral and ethical aspects addressed as well (it is also a way to pay homage to the late Robin Williams, may he rest in peace) and that story was based on Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man.” I hope this gives you some leads.

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