Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Politics of the Soul

Andrew Cvercko

Ethical Technology

January 18, 2013

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.


Complete entry


Posted by Thomas Gleeson  on  01/18  at  02:09 PM

All things are connected at each and every moment.  All movement impacts everything else in the universe somehow if even only slightly.  In a world where quantum computing will be emerging rapidly, I believe nothing is, will be or ever has been functionally “negligible”.  Life energy is clearly energy and dearly kinetic.  All matter and antimatter should be respected and recognized for their interconnected appeal.  Thank You Andrew for this connective commentary.  May the waves from this article resonate evermore and furthermore everywhere.

Posted by Rick Searle  on  01/18  at  10:29 PM


I think your spot on in proposing that religious concepts that the scientifically inclined might be prone to ignore, such as the concept of the soul, will likely have a big impact on how technology evolves. I see this as part and parcel of how different cultures intersecting with emerging technology might give rise to very different forms of society- perhaps to the extent to the point of their being even rival forms of modernity or societies that reject emerging technologies whole cloth.

I certainly agree with you that the so called Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam face theological hurdles when it comes to something like human level AI that the major non-Western faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism do not as a consequence of the singular focus on human beings as the only creature said to possess a soul by the monotheists. I think that these hurdles are sufficiently high that if promised technologies, especially human level AI, truly arrive I am hard pressed to see how the monotheistic faiths survive in anything like their current theological form. There are Christian outliers- namely Kevin Kelly- trying to think the implications of this stuff through for Christianity, but I don’t think any but the smallest minority, especially in Christianity or Islam are thinking through the implications of emerging technologies for their faiths.   

Here is Kelly:

“At some point in the next thousand years, perhaps even in the next hundred years, humans will invent some kind of artificial thinking machine. Whether that thinking machine has a conscience, consciousness, free will, or soul remains to be seen. What is certain is that no other event in the history of our culture will have such theological ramifications (except contact with an ET). The debate over what moral standing such a mind would have has already started before it has been invented. How will we know if an AI is conscious? If it is conscious, what does that mean to us as humans? Will we remain special as children of God? What about a soul? The only way these dilemmas will be satisfactorily resolved is if a robot one day stands up in some future church and proclaims, “I too am a child of God!” At that point will the Christian sphere of empathy expand to include them?”

But where I really think the legacy of the soul concept found in the monotheist faiths will be found is in the Singularity movement which has essentially created a technological version of the Christian tale. There is personal immortality (mind uploading) and a hoped for apocalypse (the Singularity).

What I am really interested in is if the whole concept of mind-uploading or the Singularity makes any sense at all to someone like your Buddhist friend. For isn’t the whole goal of Hinduism and Buddhism to get the hell off of the wheel? To not preserve the self into forever but to let it go?

Thanks for a great post!

Rick Searle

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  01/18  at  11:59 PM

“the cultural belief that the cheeseburger you’re eating may be your dead grandmother undoubtedly has an effect on the numbers.”

If every living thing has been every other living thing, then what difference does it make which living thing you happen to eat? Eating one’s own grandmother is unavoidable. Unless only certain phyla of life (“animals”) are privy to ensoulment, but even then, the reality is that interphylogical boundaries, and even the boundary between life and non-life is much blurrier than such discrete categorization implies.

Seems like it all just degenerates into panpsychism.

Functionally, the role that ensoulment, personhood and the circle of empathy have played are basically equivalent: the variable by which we determine the degree of consideration we should give to an object. In other words, how similar it is to us, and thus subject to the golden rule. This is not a binary on/off switch, but rather a fluid continuum, and various personhood theories attempt to suss out how to calculate an object’s/agent’s place on the continuum.

Historically, the frontier has only expanded, and I see no reason to think this process will reverse, barring a collapse of civilization. As we enter Kurzweil’s sixth epoch where all matter becomes intelligent/“wakes up” the circle of empathy will thus become the invisible ocean within which we swim, the circle’s boundaries no longer existent.

Posted by Henry Bowers  on  01/22  at  12:38 PM

I enjoyed this article; the intro, however, overlooked Aquinas’ contribution:  souls needn’t be a “stuff . . . alongside or within” a body at all, if they are indeed the form of the body.

In that vein, Rick, what makes the soul a religious concept?  Aristotle attributed the life principle to the soul, and he was not outspokenly committed to his predecessor Socrates’ reincarnation agenda.  The immortality of the soul, moreover, can be concluded from the immateriality of concepts, as opposed to any religious commitments.

But the question of how we’d know if a robot is conscious is the same as how we know if each other of us is conscious.  There’s no way to prove it.

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