I was reading a book last night that listed several existential questions. You know the type: Why am I here? Why is anyone here? and so on. (This is the kind of academic question that was mocked by Bill Cosby’s brilliant bit ‘Why is there air?” The jock’s answer was that there was air to blow up basketballs, to blow up footballs.) But the last question struck me and not in a good way: “Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?”
Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?
Okay, I get the bit about “having a soul.” Souls are a variation on the “God of the Gaps” argument. The God of the Gaps argument is if there is any gap at all in our worldly knowledge, it is filled with “god” as an explanation for what we don’t know. Before we knew what lightning was we assumed it was caused by a god. That gap in our knowledge has been filled, so no more lightning gods are needed. (Sorry, Thor.) So, anything mysterious or puzzling about the nature of our experience as human beings and, yep, that’s caused by the soul.
Basically the idea of a soul is rather pathetic. It comes down to some very deep thinking (not). First off, no one wants to die. (The joke goes that there were people who wanted to die, but they died before passing on their genes, so we are the only ones left.) Innately, we want to keep living. But second, we all die. Even the people in literature who die and are brought back to life: Lazarus, Frankenstein’s monster, etc., eventually they all die (again?).
Let me take a moment out and concede that a number of people every year die and come back to life. “Being dead” is a medical diagnosis and such things can be got wrong. The consequences can be tragic. When his tomb was reopened, the philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) was reportedly found outside his coffin with his hands torn and bloody after attempting to escape. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) In fact, enough people were entombed who had not died that bells were installed in some mausoleums as well as various designs for “safety coffins” incorporating similar mechanisms were patented during the 18th and 19th centuries and variations on the idea are still available today. So “resurrections” are not necessarily imaginary. My point is, resurrected or not, everyone has eventually died.
And when we die, our bodies decompose. Our flesh molders away, leaving inert bones that, cartoons aside, never get up and dance again. Clearly no part of our bodies “lives on” so if there were to be a part of us that does live on, it must be invisible. So, souls stem from the facts that: no one wants to die (we all want to live on), everybody does die, and since no visible part of our bodies seems to survive, the part that does must be invisible. Voila, a soul is born!
Now, let’s look at the “just a robot” part of the question. Just a robot? This is a smear. This is a setup. This is a comparison like how much friskier your dog is than the dead dog over there. Just a robot?
Think about robots for a second. The term was invented by Karel Capek for a play he wrote in 1920, although organic versions can be identified going back to golems (a robot made of clay) and other creatures, but Capek’s play is the first instance of the idea of a mechanical robot in human literature. And in human literature robots stayed, through “Forbidden Planet” (a movie so bad it is good), and myriad science fiction books. Not long ago, though, “robots” started showing up in the news: robots that helped make cars, robots that did medical operations, etc. And fairly recently, we have been treated to robots for the home: robots that vacuumed our floors, robots who were pets, and the Japanese have been working on robotic people. (The sexual tastes of a significant number of Japanese men do not include the words “human” or “female” for some strange reason.) Soon, our cars are expected to be robots, driving us around like we are Ms. Daisy.
In just one hundred years robots have gone from the realm of imagination to household objects. Now, extend that line of development one hundred more years, then one hundred more and a couple of hundred more after that. Can you honestly say that “just a robot” would be a thing of derision? Such things could be physically more capable than humans and computationally more capable also. They may even achieve consciousness and we would then be debating their status in our societies (tool or slave?).
The phrase “Am I just a robot” exhibits a distaste for any description of human beings as being a product of biological evolution. But humans being biological constructs is a quite successful explanatory framework which has answered many, many questions about why we are the way we are and why we think the ways we do. This concept is the “go to” concept for scientific researchers looking for the roots of human health, disease, and behaviors. The reason for this is that it has been damned successful. You do not have to like it, but it is undeniable.
Have all human activities being explained through the “we are meat robots” hypothesis? Of course not. But we have been trying for only a little over one hundred years so far. Extend that line of development one hundred more years, then one hundred more and a couple of hundred more after that and we shall see. The categories of robot and human may not even remain separate. Currently there are research efforts to merge electronic modules into people’s bodies given the blind the ability to see and the immobile the ability to move. (Yes, now.)
So, what struck me originally with “Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?” is how are these two a dichotomy? Surely this question is at least multiple choice. Could not human beings be the result of an alien biology experiment? Could not human beings be an experiment of a god: creating conscious beings without souls to see if we missed them? Why is the list so small: I have a soul or I am a meat puppet.
Clearly, this is a false dichotomy. This is like the recent presidential election when we were presented with a choice of two individuals, neither of whom was at all desirable or suitable to be president. When you force a false choice such as this, the results are not at all helpful.
The question stacks the deck for us having souls. So why must we have souls? Well there is the argument (above) explaining the logic, but a more powerful urge is unveiled here. We have souls because we are special. (Cue the Church Lady.) Of all creatures, we are different. Not only are we different, we are better. We are better than those Neanderthals and other hominids because they didn’t have souls. Only we have souls. We have souls because a god loves us and wants us to live forever.
Pathetic, absolutely pathetic.
Right now people are debating the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in our society (as being on the path to artificial consciousness?—hey SkyNet was powerful enough to make Arnold Schwarzenegger an international star!). Maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves; maybe we should be spending a bit more time on the consequences of natural intelligence and the lack thereof.