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Playing Dice With The Universe

The Measure of a Man

by Bill Kte'pi
May 13,2004


Playing Dice With the Universe

The Measure of a Man

Thanks to Michelle Dockrey this time around for the title.

The Catholic Church is very old: even if you date it from the First Council of Nicaea in the summer of 325, when the Christian bishops met together for the first time to discuss what, exactly, Christianity was (although it wasn't until the end of the century that they finally agreed on what should be in the Bible), you're still talking about almost 1700 years of the same organization existing -- all the while encountering numerous cultures with vastly different values and traditions, and learning to make itself understood to them -- and while the changes which have been wrought in those 17 centuries shouldn't be downplayed, don't trivialize the similarities, either. 1700 years is a damn long time to spend being something.

Notions that religion is something societies outgrow aside (especially since people have been saying that for a couple thousand years, and what actually happens is that new ways of thinking about religion replace old ones), we can expect the Catholic Church to be around for a very long time. Longer than nations. Longer than political or economic systems of thought. Longer than the sprout, flush, bloom, and wither of an entire scientific revolution -- or two or three or nine.

That's why I'm going to be focusing on Catholicism so much here; it tries very hard to retain as much of itself as possible through the ages, refining a core essence that is -- in theory -- not easily swayed by trends and fads.

So. A hundred years from now, three hundred years from now, two thousand years from now, what's the Catholic Church going to do about robots and clones? Do they have souls? Can they become priests? Can they go to Heaven? Can they give confession?

It sounds silly, but here's the rub, Cap'n: it always sounds silly. That thing about the angels dancing on the heads of pins, forget about that. Two of the big arguments that come up over and over and over again, from antiquity to the modern age?

1) Whether Adam and Eve had belly buttons.

2) Whether Adam and Eve had sex (or were capable of having sex) before the Fall, and if so, whether it was any different from the sex they had after it.

On the one hand, they're both ridiculous questions to argue about: even if we should take the Eden story literally, we'll never know the answers, and what would we do with them if we did? What would they change?

On the other hand, in order to answer either of the questions, and defend your answer against the people who pick the other choice, you need to make important statements about the human condition and the rules of the universe. Ultimately, that's the only reason "creationism vs evolutionism" is a debate people bother to have: not because picking one over the other justifies any kind of change to your life or morals, and not because the answer is especially important beyond the emotional nonsense people bring into it, but because the debate gives people the opportunity to defend more specific statements about their view of the universe.

So let's talk about clones and robots.

Defining our terms.

Clone. A human created by cloning the DNA of another human; for the purposes of this discussion, everything we say about "clones" can also refer to "artificially-created humans," biological beings who possess human faculties in every mental and physical respect. (If we developed the ability to create synthetic DNA, for instance, without taking it from a human donor, and grew that DNA into a human -- what we say about clones will also apply to that human.)

Robot. An inorganic or partially inorganic created being, of sufficient faculties and irrefutable self-awareness and intelligence. This can include the traditional metal-bodied, human-shaped robot, and might include "robots" who exist only as software (discussion below will determine if these so-called artificial intelligences need to be differentiated from robots, from a soul's-eye point of view).

Soul. Our starting definition, from the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, which costs $60, so you should take my word for it: "Soul includes both mind and spirit, the mental including sensation, desire, belief, and reason, the spiritual including aesthetic and religious experience and many other aspects of specifically human life. Philosophers tend to equate soul and mind, theologians tend to equate soul and spirit." (Emphasis mine.)

If there were definite, clearcut, incontrovertible answers in Catholicism, the Church would just be a building: instead, there exists a constant dialogue, a discussion amongst Catholic thinkers and often reflected in its dogma, which -- and this is the major difference between Catholicism and Protestant denominations -- serves as a "living Bible," so to speak, in addition to the written scriptures. Think about the way the Supreme Court and the Constitution coexist: the Supreme Court has no power to alter the Constitution or declare any part of it invalid, but it is empowered as the Constitution's living, animate "voice," its interpreter and arbiter.

For that reason, there'd be no purpose to this essay simply saying "yes, robots have souls," or "no, clones don't have souls." Catholic thinkers will come up with a variety of answers to those questions, and a number of factors only Hari Seldon could delineate for us will determine which answers become favored and dogmatic.

So what we're going to do is break it down by answer, and then give the reasoning behind each possible answer.

Clones Get Souls.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval writer whose work revolved around his conviction that (contrary to the claims of the Latin Averroists) the world of reason and the world of faith are the same, and his resulting reconciliation of well over a thousand years of philosophy and theology, each human soul is created by God, not as a by-product of intercourse and conception or other natural processes, but by specific divine intent: not only is the soul not biological in nature (which few theologians or philosophers have ever proposed it is, contrary to what's implied by the "21 grams" myth), it isn't an emergent property of the biological system either. Disembodied souls have no significant existence, as far as Aquinas is concerned: the perfect joining of a soul with a new person is one of the benefits of a theistic universe (and likewise, our continued existence after death depends on a resurrection into a physical form).

The soul, without the body, is not human: the body, without the soul, is not human. Being human requires both. This is what sets humans apart both from angels -- who have souls but no material existence -- and the rest of the animal kingdom, who have bodies and may even have minds in some limited sense, but do not have souls.

Although Aquinas would reject the notion of the "blind watchmaker," as Richard Dawkins put it, the absent Creator who built the universe such that it would not need his continued presence to function, he might not object to the idea that God would create a soul -- and has, indeed, already decided to -- for any human body that was born. The original -- some might say "natural," but this argument depends on contending that there is no such thing as artificial birth -- birth mechanism, in which sperm and egg combine through sexual intercourse and develop into an embryo which is carried to term in a mother's body, need not be privileged. It need not be the only manner by which to create a human being.

As evidence, look at surrogate motherhood, which cannot occur without the intervention of applied human reason: would you be willing to argue that the offspring carried by a surrogate lacks a soul?

Many human clones -- all of the early ones, we would assume -- would be similarly carried by surrogate mothers, women whose relationship to the genetic material is nonmaternal. Is it so different from a twin?

Clones Don't Get Souls.

In Genesis, Adam is formed from the dust and dirt when God breathes the breath (Hebrew nephesh, Greek pneuma) of life into it, a breath which is inhaled back at death. Creation, life, and the joining of matter and spirit, is an intimate process.

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to assume that because we are capable of doing something, there is a circumstance in which it is divinely approved. And even if that were true, maybe we shouldn't be so cavalier in our assumption that we know what the circumstances are.

Surrogate motherhood is not cloning. Surrogate motherhood is a mechanism human reason has developed in order to allow a couple who cannot otherwise conceive a child to do so -- a goal we most certainly can know that God approves of, given the vast amount of material in scripture and the lives of saints dealing with God's granting of fertility to infertile couples (the nation of Israel, and hence the genetic line that leads to Jesus, begins with just such a grant). Just as God permits the intercession of saints, so too does he permit the intercession of good work: not every prayer needs to be answered in God's voice.

Cloning isn't an infertility cure: there are simpler ways to deal with infertility, and cloning has the specific purpose of creating a person from "recycled" DNA. It's an extreme measure that isn't necessary to begin with. Must we assume that God will sign off on it, and provide a soul anyway?

Church doctrine, in an 1859 affirmation of notions advanced by Aquinas, privileges the womb in the role of the creation of life and the process by which life becomes human and souled: even Jesus, the Son of God, experienced life in the womb of the world's first surrogate mother. It could easily be argued that -- independent of any ethical claims the Church may make about cloning -- the products of such endeavors are not truly human if they have not been conceived and carried in the womb. (This doesn't necessarily bar all clones; it does bar many possible clones.)

Robots Don't Get Souls.

"Human beings," says the Oxford again, "are not simply subjects of mental and spiritual states over and above their bodily condition. They are also intentional agents and conscious participants in interpersonal relations." Although the body and mind might be bound by deterministic systems, the soul is not, and this is much of the Church's argument against behaviorism. We are more than instinct and learned impulse. This is one thing that separates us from animals -- and from computer programs.

If the argument against clones' souls, above, is valid, then it likewise follows that robots don't get them either: even if souls aren't "manufactured" as the result of sexual intercourse, if they're nevertheless imbued during a specific biological moment and only that moment --

-- then, well, sorry Data.

Yuh Huh They Do Too! Look Out For St. Data, Patron Saint Of The Lifeforms Song, Cap'n!

Although Aquinas is the universal patron of Catholic schools, and Catholic teachers of philosophy and theology are required to abide by Thomistic frames of reference and schema, modern Catholicism nevertheless adapts Thomism in two ways which are very relevant here, one explicit and one less so.

Explicitly, Thomist Catholicism has been modified by Cartesian (for Descartes, the "I think therefore I am" guy) mind-body dualism, which identifies the self with the soul in a manner which isn't incompatible with Thomism but nevertheless was not expressed by it (although it often features in neo-Thomism, a revival of interest in Thomistic schema which came after Descartes came, thought, ammed, and left): for modern Catholics, Thomist-Cartesian Catholics, a person is their soul in a way in which they are not their body. The loss of an arm, a leg, or major motor function does not impair the self, the essential you-ness, the way the analogous loss of soul would, if that were possible. When you cut yourself or give blood, you don't consider yourself any less you -- but the soul is not built that way. The soul is the part using the mind to do the considering.

Like I said, that's not incompatible with the almost purely Thomistic arguments made above -- but phrased thusly, much of the burden of humanity is shifted away from the physical. If we could transfer that mind, that I-am, to a robotic body as the human body dies, would the soul pass on and leave a mind behind? Or would it remain?

I'll argue that it remains, because there is an aspect of the Thomistic soul-imbuing model which is neglected because of the abortion debate. Aquinas didn't place the burden and definition of life on conception exactly -- because optics were primitive, he believed that an embryo possessed a human-looking form much, much earlier than it does, but even putting that aside, according to Robert Pasnau, in his commentary Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature: A Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae la 75-89, the human soul "is infused all at once by God ... when the human brain has sufficiently developed, around mid-gestation, to support the operations of intellect."

A Catholic Church that wants to preserve its proscription against abortion simply notes that the soul has already been put aside before that intellect-supporting point, and fetuses that die before that point hence have a soul which is sent on to the afterlife. They just weren't in physical possession of it, so to speak.

So hold that in your head for a moment, the bit about the soul being inherited when the human brain has developed enough to "support the operations of intellect" (think of it as a box that's being put together in the womb -- when there're enough sides, it's capable of holding something, even if it's going to be empty for a while longer; what we're privileging here is not the state of empty or filled, but the capacity for those states to be meaningful).

We've recently had a papal encyclical provide and affirm the Catholic definition of death (which is the same as everyone else's, but it's important to note that the phrasing matches that): "the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, and restated many times in public and private addresses since).

Catholic life begins and ends with brain activity, and it is according to this activity that God exhales the soul into the body and inhales it back out when its work is done.

Could we not then decide that it is that brain activity -- and most importantly, the product and parameters of that brain activity -- which is privileged? That souled life, if not human life in a biological sense, is defined -- as far as God is concerned -- by the faculties of the human condition:

  • Consciousness, the awareness of self and others, and the perception of sequence and consequence,
  • Appetites, passions, emotions, and irrationality,
  • Rationality, logic, and the capacity to reason,
  • Faith and belief,
  • And free will?

If we did, the burden would not be one of demonstrating that robots have souls -- but rather, that a given robot or class of robots is sufficiently sophisticated, and sophisticated in the right manner, to be recognized as human (or some broader word of which "human" is the largest subset and the only one found in nature). It remains to be seen which of those five areas will be the most difficult to nurture in data -- and the robots' designers might well shoot themselves in the foot, as far as this argument goes, since deterministic views of the world (which deny, on some level, the operation of free will) are so popular at this point in time with roboticists.

But a robot might nevertheless petition the Church's recognition -- even at its designer's protests.

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What do you think?

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