Artificial Intelligence and the Soul

Article excerpt

The view that there is an inherent theological conflict between strong artificial intelligence, on the one hand, and biblical teaching regarding the origin of the soul, human worth, and humanity being created in the image of God, on the other hand, is examined and shown to be ill-founded. Christian theology, therefore, has no stake in the claim that the possibility of technological accomplishments in this area is inherently limited. Consideration is also given to how a biblical understanding of human personhood can inform work in artificial intelligence.


"Finally, and most elusively, we are learning something about consciousness itself ... If we can identify that cognitive kernel, can we one day endow a machine with it? ... Human beings have always been brash enough to ask such questions but lacked the necessary gifts to answer them. At last, we are acquiring that ability ..." So ended the introduction to a special section in a recent issue of Time titled "A User's Guide to the Brain." (1)

For many years, thinkers have speculated about creating an artifact that deserves to be called a person. Moreover, intelligent robots or androids of various sorts have been prominent in works of popular culture (e.g., Commander Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation, R2D2 or C3PO of Star Wars, Andrew Martin of the Isaac Asimov short story which was later turned into the film The Bicentennial Man, or David of Artificial Intelligence). Is creation of such an artifact theoretically possible? Certainly there are many today who believe this to be the case. For example, Rodney Brooks, the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, claims that "the question then is when, not if, we will build self-reproducing intelligent robots." (2) However, some Christians have seen this possibility as contradicting Christian doctrines concerning humanity, such as the nature of the soul or humans being made in the image of God. As one writer put it, "I fully grant that my theology would crumble with the advent of intelligent machines." (3)

Is there an inherent conflict between biblical teaching and the idea of an intelligent artifact? Or is it rather the case that Christian theology has something to say about how one might approach such a goal? Note that these are phrased as theological questions, not technological ones. No existing systems even come close to the kind of intelligence displayed by, say, Commander Data, and there is no hard evidence that such a system will exist in the near future, if ever. But one who believes in this possibility can legitimately point to a long history of technologies that we take for granted today, that were once believed to be impossible. The question I wish to address here is whether Christian theology has any necessary stake in the impossibility of creating an artifact that deserves to be called a person, on the one hand, or has anything to say about how one might pursue such an objective, on the other hand. In particular, I want to address three issues:

1. Is there a conflict between artificial intelligence and biblical teaching about the origin of the human soul?

2. Is there a conflict between artificial intelligence and biblical teaching about human worth or our being created in the image of God?

3. Does biblical teaching about human personhood have any implications for work in artificial intelligence?

First, though, we need to look at a preliminary question: what do we mean by the phrase "artificial intelligence"?

What Do We Mean by "Artificial Intelligence"?

With the invention of the digital computer, the idea of creating intelligent artifacts moved from the realm of fiction into actual research programs, often referred to as "artificial intelligence." However, different writers use this phrase with a wide variety of meanings, both with regard to goals and basic methodology. …