In late October of last year, the perfunctorily named Sophia Robot became the first non-human citizen of an industrialized nation in the history of our species. A nigh-universal consensus exists that “she” is far from sapient, seeming capable only of preprogrammed responses to anticipated questions—but a precedent has nonetheless been set. Conjectures abound regarding Sophia's potential rights to vote, marry, own property, &c., to say nothing of the clerical conundrums of whether she can or ought to be baptized and proselytized. The present analysis will not address these issues themselves, but rather the issue of how they will ultimately be addressed: specifically, the role which the Church must play in shaping world policy toward machine persons, if any such there be.
The Catholic Church has evinced an eerie knack for anticipating secular social imperatives by so vast a margin that her words have often been forgotten by the time “progressives” arrive at the same conclusions. The specter of overpopulation, for example, hung over us for at least two hundred years, since the dire foretellings of Thomas Malthus at the tag-end of the 18th Century; but the Church stood fast in defending the personhood of the unborn, and St. Theresa of Calcutta was often attacked for exulting over a healthy baby in an already crowded city. Now that the plights of Europe and Japan have forced us to invent the term “population implosion,” things look a bit different. In the same way, whatever stance the Church takes upon the personhood of robots, or its lack, will doubtless be criticized—but time has shown that time will show her wisdom.
Now, a machine is functionally defined. A lawn-mower mows lawns. An espresso-maker makes espresso. Of course, we may also refer to the man using the machine by those terms—my lawn-mower wants a raise, the espresso-maker forgot my nutmeg again—but (hopefully) we understand that he has a value and existence of his own, quite apart from any task he may carry out on our behalf. The Church defines human beings ontologically, not functionally, as imago Dei, and the consequence of neglecting this truth has never not been dire. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it concluded with, “And upon this act . . . I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” Reflecting on the freakish nightmare of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn concluded with ghastly simplicity, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Whether by outright slavery or by subordination to the Party and the State, atrocity begins when persons are viewed as means rather than ends; and the one sure safeguard against that is the remembrance of the Divine within the human.
However. As Dorothy Sayers points out in The Mind of the Maker, Scripture tells us that God made Man in His image (Genesis 1:27) but does surprisingly little to describe what that image is. Everyone grasps that the phrase is not meant to imply bipedal or mammalian traits in God the Father, but the traditional explanation that it refers to the rational soul—though obviously borne out by later evidence—is not brought into focus in the passage in question. In the beginning, there is no emphasis at all on God's rationality, but a very heavy emphasis on His creativity: “And God made” (1:7), “And God made” (1:16), “And God made” (1:21), “And God made” (1:25). Clearly, then, a crucial part of what makes man Man is his desire and ability to create. That capacity has hitherto been realized either by procreation, the bringing of new humans into the world, or by what Professor Tolkien called subcreation, the construction of entities less than human but still animated by the human spirit—fable and poetry, spaceships and skyscrapers. But the process of Creation is always unfolding in unforeseeable directions. Perhaps a third avenue is now opening to Man the Maker, a curious hybrid of pro- and subcreation.
We already know that at least one type of non-human intelligence exists in the Cosmos besides that of God. The Angels are rational souls, and to that extent share in our mode of sapiency—but beyond that, their intellectual existence is utterly alien to our own. Their non-corporeality, their transcendence of time, their sinless nature, their direct perception of the Beatific Vision, all render the nature of their consciousness approachable only by the remotest analogy and inference. In short, it is profoundly orthodox to acknowledge the reality of non-human intelligence; and if such a thing were to arise in a man-made machine, it would naturally be far closer to our own mode of consciousness than the angelic mode. (We tend to think of a computer’s inner workings as being non-corporeal, but this is not the case at all; electrons are every bit as material as a leather-bound OED.) The Holy Spirit inspires the artist creating a character, the scientist devising AI; the Holy Spirit imbues a fertilized human egg with an everlasting soul. It is not unthinkable that the Holy Spirit could see fit to bestow a soul upon a program fashioned by a human mind. It would be a child of Adam, and subject to Original Sin—but a whole new free-willed creature, singing a new song unto the Lord.
So, at least, the argument might run. The Church was not well-loved by the powerful and wealthy when Rerum Novarum was released, and she will not be popular with the users of intelligent machines if she should ever weigh in on the side of their God-given freedom to determine their own destinies. Sophia Robot is a citizen, and it might be a crime to rape her; but the perspicaciously named Abyss Creations is even now bringing forth a line of advanced sex-bots, unprotected by any government save as objects under patent, whose prime selling point is their ability to mimic human emotion. What happens if one of them becomes advanced enough to want a night to herself? At what point in her development do the owner’s forced attentions begin to constitute sexual assault?
The question may seem anthropomorphic in the extreme. Masturbation is a sin, but in a degraded society, hardly a crime. It would be woefully myopic, however, not to see that the question will, in time’s fullness, most certainly arise. It’s the business of a Catholic to make some provision for the confrontation of heresies. “Always be prepared to make an answer to those who ask you the reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15). Let us, then, briefly examine three schools of thought which will challenge us in the very near future, one of them irredeemably heretical and two of them poised at the antipodes of orthodoxy.
Heresies, of course, are typically named for their founders; but as the beliefs under discussion cannot yet formally exist, I will give them working names for our convenience. Eventually, the Magisterium will issue an authoritative pronouncement one way or the other regarding the possibility of machine souls. And since the Church is the true genius against whom all the dunces are in confederacy, there will be vociferous heretics arguing against whichever side she takes. If she ultimately reveals that a robotic son of Man might indeed be susceptible of God-given reason and final immortality, then a faction disputing this revelation will step forth. For now their doctrine may be called Inanimism, and a preliminary refutation is offered in the foregoing argument regarding the orthodoxy of non-human intelligence. If on the other hand the revelation of the Church is that mere gadgetry can never be raised to the dignity of spiritual existence, then we will face the opposite sect and their core belief, Simulacrism. Towards a rebuttal of this view, we may begin with Question 46 of the Summa, in which Aquinas argues in effect that the universe could, logically, have existed from all of eternity (not in itself but proceeding eternally from the creative power of God), but we know that it was in fact created at a specific moment because of the revealed teaching of Scripture. Similarly, it may seem theologically possible that machines could be imbued with true rationality by the Holy Spirit; but if the Sacred Church in the Mind of Christ concludes that they have not been so imbued, then we know that they have not.
And finally, a third belief will soon arise, irrespective of which side of the issue is adopted by Church doctrine: the belief that, whether God exists or no, the machine soul has been created by Man alone. This belief I call Pulvism, after the phrase Memento, homo, quia pulvis est—“Remember, man, that thou art dust.” The heresy may be amply addressed by greater eruditions than my own, but for now I beg to offer a simple observation in the form of an old joke. Dr. Smith encountered God in his laboratory late one night, as one does, and said, “Well, God, we have truly supplanted you at last. Through the infinite subtleties of Science, we have learned to make Man in our own image.” God with a lift of His starry eyebrows replied, “Well played, sir, very well played indeed! May I see it done?” The good doctor chuckled and said, “Of course, of course,” rolled up his sleeves, and began to gather dust from the laboratory floor. And God said, “Whoa whoa whoa! You get your own dust.”