Will robots have souls? Do animals? Do we? At first glance, this line of questioning may appear to be purely theoretical, having no bearing on life until it ends and the individual discovers for them self what it’s all about. However, looking at the history of our species, the doctrine of the soul has been used to subjugate, to elevate, to enslave, and to empower based on an individual’s possession of one or lack thereof.
Most human cultures have theorized some sort spiritual “stuff” that exists alongside or within the physical bodies of living things. It has been called various things ( soul, atman, ka, etc.) but more importantly than what different people called it is who and what they ascribed it to. There is a direct link between a culture’s perception of a thing’s spiritual stuff and that culture’s respect for it. An easy example is the spiritual status of animals in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) compared to their status in the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism).
In the Abrahamic faiths, it is commonly accepted that only humans have souls. Other forms of life do not have the same spark of divinity in them, are not created in the image of God, and are therefore a lower echelon of being than humanity. God even says as much and gives humans the okay to use the rest of animal life on earth however it sees fit.
In contrast, the Dharmic faiths propose that everything has a soul (or in the case of Buddhism, nothing does but everything experiences rebirth in a similar manner.) We all experience an endless string of rebirths that may include stops as all sorts of life. Some Buddhist thinkers posit that this process has been going on for so long that every single thing has been your mother at least once, including the fly buzzing around in your house right now.
These two understandings of what forms of life are significant spiritually have led to different cultural norms in regard to meat eating. India, the source of the Dharmic traditions, has a population that is approximately 40% vegetarian. America, on the other hand, has vegetarian rate of approximately 3.2%. Although many other factors undoubtedly contribute to to these statistics, the cultural belief that the cheeseburger you’re eating may be your dead grandmother undoubtedly has an effect on the numbers.
The politics of the soul do not only affect our treatment of animals, they also affect our treatment of each other. Historically, beliefs on who has a soul and what sort of soul have been used in defending everything from the caste system in ancient India to slavery in America. In Hinduism, its held that the souls of the members of the various castes emerged from different parts of Brahama (the chief god)’s body, with the priest caste emerging from his head down to the lowest castes emerging from his feet. This was used historically to promote class-based poltics that to this day oppress and limit people.
In ancient Greece, there was a belief in reincarnation the held that the best souls were reincarnated as Greek men with lower rungs being occupied by the less than the best. This was, predictably, used as reason to subjugate women and non- Greek foreigners.
In America, many Christian preachers used rhetoric that the souls of Africans were somehow not the same as those of Europeans to excuse why it was acceptable to subjugate and enslave them. The concept of the soul, when used by people in power, can be twisted to whatever ends they see fit.
So what happens when we have AI? Will these new intelligences be treated as tools or as people? And what place will the politics of the soul have in this determination? Another way to phrase the question would be whether AIs would have “Buddha nature”, the capacity for enlightenment. In traditional Buddhist rhetoric, all living things have the capacity to gain enlightenment if they pursue it (much like in Christianity, all beings have an ability to enter heaven if they pursue it). This could also be viewed, in non-spiritual terms, as the capacity to increase not only one’s intelligence but one’s consciousness. According to several Buddhist monks I have talked to, a robot could not get enlightened as it would not have a real brain, only a computer. No matter how complex this computer was, it could not be as complex as an actual brain and therefore could not attain the spiritual heights other beings aspire to. Other monks preferred to hold off judgment until they can talk to the hypothetical robot.
If AIs and robots are treated as not having the spiritual being that humans have, we are looking at a world in which they will be considered sub-human. We live in an age where in first world countries workers can expect health care, paid sick time, etc., but if AIs are viewed as less than this, more as particularly powerful computers, they could expect treatment little better than slaves.
Contrast the ways artificial intelligences are treated in different science fiction stories. In Star Wars, “droids” are property; they are bought and sold, and subject to memory wipes whenever their owners deem it necessary. Droids exist solely to serve their owners; they are kept in garages, shut down when not in use, and perform whatever function they are told whether or not they find it agreeable. Droids exist in a universe with a visibly proven religion (“the Force”) that they show no aptitude for or connection with. Despite having clear personalities, ambitions, and the ability to experience emotions, they are given as much respect as any other piece of non-living technology, i.e. none.
On the other hand, in Star Trek: the Next Generation, Data is an android and is treated as a valuable member of his crew and is given all the right of any of the other crew members. He has his own quarters and is allowed to pursue his own ambitions. The times when characters treat him as less than human, they are portrayed as backwards and wrong. Data exists in a universe that has become a socialist utopia; there is no discernible religion, so where as Data is not ascribed a spiritual essence, neither are any of his fellow crew members.
This is not to say that the solution is the abolition of religion. It’s important to remember the effect religious beliefs have on percentages of vegetarians, and also how difficult it would be to have the entire human race abandon religion and prejudices attached to the politics of the soul (the caste system is now illegal in India, but is still enforced de facto).
Wherever we go as a species, our advances in technology and science have always affected our understanding of spirituality and religion. In addition, our spirituality is always affected by our politics and our politics are always effected by our spirituality. The day we create sentient AI will be one of the most important for our species, and may force us to finally decide together, all of us, what we’ve meant all this time when we talked about the soul.
If we can create artificial beings that are sentient and capable of intellectual growth, where does that put our supposed gods, or supposed afterlives? Robert Anton Wilson once joked that pregnancy is the most powerful thing in creation, as it allows a man and woman to conspire and force God to create a new soul. If we can create fully intelligent, self aware AI, how do they fit in to this conception of a spiritual core of our being? Are we conspiring to force God to create a new soul in a different package ( or for those who believe in reincarnation, are these souls simply filling new packages) , or are we proving once and for all that it’s not there, that we’re biological processes that work themselves out and then stop? Or, as the monks said, are we just making very smart computers that are still not smart enough to be considered sentient? It should be noted that, at least at first, we may be able to put a limit on how our AIs behave and how much they are allowed to learn. This can either be viewed as supreme evidence of their lack of personhood, or humankinds’s willingness to use lobotomy to create more docile slaves.
Whatever the final consensus is, we will most likely (almost definitely) face a period of uncertainty. However, whatever we ultimately decide will either cause an expansion in the definition of what it means to be alive or potentially damn an entire new species to an eternity of servitude. Debates on whether humans and AIs can marry, whether AIs can hold public office, whether AIs are allowed to reproduce and build other AIs may follow, but first we must decide: are AIs people or something less? Perhaps we need to wait to talk to one, just to be sure.
Andrew Cvercko lives in Winsted, CT. He works at a drug rehab, teaching mindfulness meditation to people attempting to recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
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