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March 2022

Regina Scientiarum

By | Theology | No Comments

I once managed to inveigle my way into a job interview at Deloitte. The two Partners were clearly rather underwhelmed by my CV. At that stage I had 4 (junior) years at the Church Commissioners under my belt, and an MBA from a school that was Not On Their List. Finally they reached the end of the interview. Obviously relieved, as they gathered up their papers, they asked rather diffidently, do you have any questions for us? Yes! I said eagerly, Do you have any reservations about my candidacy? They scowled. Why on earth would we want to risk putting someone with a Theology degree in front of our clients? Well, you’ll be delighted to know that I sat them right back down and gave them the full story on why a theology degree is the ONLY degree a girl will ever need.

So I thought I might give you that story today, by way of saluting your academic achievements here at Sarum. But first I need to tell you something rather alarming.

In a lab at Columbia University back in 2017, Hod Lipson was working on a robot. It was a simple little thing, just four small mechanical legs, which had been tasked with moving to the other side of the room. It was programmed with Deep Learning, which uses artificial neural networks and reinforcement learning so that robots can teach themselves. Lipson wanted to know if these legs could work out how to walk on their own. Lo and behold, a few days later, the robot had taken its first steps and achieved the goal. So Lipson removed one of the legs, to see if it could re-learn to walk with just three. It worked. Flushed with success, the team got the clever robot ready for a formal demonstration. They started tracking how it was using its neural network to learn, and discovered something unexpected. The robot had taught itself how to read their faces. It had realised that observer feedback was relevant data, and had decided to harvest it. Indeed, it had repurposed a neuron, just for that task. As humans we can see why this was a smart choice, because we’ve all stood around cheering on a toddler, and our feedback helps them learn how to walk too. But we’d thought that robots couldn’t develop spontaneous self-awareness; and that would be our gift to give them if we ever saw fit. We thought that consciousness was something special, that couldn’t be manufactured; that it was our particular gift from God. Were we wrong?

Yes, and no. I think we were wrong to think that self-awareness is just a property of the living. Logically it must kick in whenever in its evolution an entity needs it to, in order to promote learning and progress. But I think self-awareness is still different from consciousness, and I think consciousness is distinct from soul. And I think theology is our only hope, and I’d like to tell you why.

First, a quick recap on consciousness. Have you ever imagined being a bat? In the 1970s, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper about it. He argued that if you’re conscious, you have a subjective sense of ‘what it’s like’ to be you. As a human, I can’t experience ‘bat-ness,’ but just because I can’t express ‘bat-ness’ in human language, doesn’t airbrush out its reality as a phenomenon. That makes science a bad tool for trying to understand consciousness, because it can only cope with concrete objectivities that are susceptible to physical description. So philosophers of mind have come up with some catchy jargon to try to pin down the experience of being conscious. They call this ‘experiencing qualia.’

‘Qualia’ are defined as individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, like experiencing the colour red. The philosopher Daniel Dennett defines the properties of qualia as: (1) ineffable – you can only apprehend them by direct experience; (2) intrinsic – you feel them independently; (3) private – they are only ever truly yours, even if others seem to have similar experiences; and (4) they are directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness – you know you’re experiencing them when they happen. That feeling you’re getting at the moment, of puzzlement or daydreaming or hunger? That’s a quale.

I suppose it’s arguable that robots could learn these feelings too. Perhaps their experience of ‘seeing’ the ‘colour’ ‘red’ might differ from our own subjective experience of seeing the colour red; but they might well be able to enjoy their own subjective experience of robot-ness. And if they do develop an ability to experience qualia – indeed they may have already done so, robots could argue that as conscious beings they merit the same moral rights as we do. Scary stuff.

This is where you come in, because you are our vanguard, our shield and buckler. Today is the day when theologians around the world will rise up, and re-take their crowns as liegemen of the Queen of the Sciences! Regina Scientiarum! Because what we still have left, when all of this has been replicated, is our human souls, hiding in plain sight. Where are they hiding? Why, in all that junk code that no self-respecting AI designer would ever code into a robot: Emotions? Mistakes? Uncertainty? Free Will? Glitches! Send them back to the factory! Or are they in fact hallmarks of soul?

I grew up in St Andrews, and if I forget my keys I could shinny over our back wall via the School of Divinity. To do so I had to pass through the front gate of St Mary’s, above which is inscribed in principio erat verbum, the reading from John that we heard today. We know that we’re made in God’s image, and perfectly designed for His ends, so we know that our junk code is no accident. While the race is on to replicate everything human that can be seen, we know that this risks leaving out the most important and most distinctive thing about us as a species.

Are any of you Dr Who fans? Perhaps you remember a two-parter in the modern franchise about a World War II monster, a child with a gas-mask fused to his face who’s turning the rest of London into gas-mask-wearing monsters, all wondering around like zombies asking ‘are you my mummy?’ The problem is resolved when the Doctor realises that alien nanogenes had got the design of the first child they met wrong, assuming that the gasmask was part of him, so they ‘healed him’ with the gasmask attached. It’s only when his mother finally hugs him that they ‘learn’ about her DNA, so can reconfigure the infected humans as normal, and the world is saved.

This story illustrates the difference between what’s called source code and executable code. In programming, the first step is to write down what you want to do, then you compile this in machine code, and operationalise it through executable code. The latter is the ‘black box’ that’s handed over. You might copy the executable code, but if you have no access to the source code, you have to guess about the underlying logic and rules. This is essentially what we’ve been doing with fossils and geology and astronomy to come up with our theory of evolution and the Big Bang. It’s also how we’re explaining consciousness; yet what I see behind consciousness is a design that I would call the soul, or John the Evangelist might call the logos.
So what do I mean by junk code? Here are 4 key lines of it: emotions, uncertainty, mistakes, and free will.

First: emotions. Mr Spock certainly doesn’t approve. How irrational and messy they are! Yuk. But there I go, being emotional about emotions again. Being rational about them, they seem rather important. In fact, the most ancient part of our brain uses them to prioritise the experiences and memories most likely to help us survive. So vital are they as a motivator, that we’re having to programme fake rewards into AI through reinforcement learning to try to drive progress. We may find emotions inconvenient and rather difficult to tame in laboratory conditions, but even Darwin thought they were vital to our evolution, both for their social value and for the psychological health of our young. And the religions have developed myriad theology, art and music to help us with them; as well as liturgy for key emotional life events, to aid our understanding and to tune our emotional registers.

Second, uncertainty. We have an extraordinary capacity to tolerate ambiguity. As Lewis Carroll’s White Queen famously put it, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And crikey is Theology a primer for this skill! Again, it’s so important that they’re also now trying to programme it back into AI, having originally thought it was death to logic. This is because uncertainty stops us from premature decision-making, and helps us to see possibilities for invention and innovation. In this way it also drives us towards improvement, because when things don’t neatly fit we have to make room for them. That’s why the programmers need it back: if AI is coding a blurry picture, and only has the labels cancer/no-cancer, a mistake could be fatal.

Third, those mistakes. Not the kind of trial and error mistakes made by our stumbling robot, but ghastly errors and lapses of judgement. Sins of omission and commission. Unkindness and injustice. Avoiding error is one of the very reasons we’ve developed computers in the first place. But without this very human capacity to get it wrong, we would not need a conscience or feel remorse, or be driven to repent and to make good: these heartfelt yearnings for restitution where wrongs need righting is a powerful force for good, whether the fault was ours or not; but without the junk code that prevents us from absolute clarity about right and wrong but gives us a conscience to help, we would never have developed the compassion to heal the wounds of our communities and to work to safeguard their future. Now, where might we find a well of wisdom about remorse and repentance?!

Lastly, the humdinger: free will. Oh for a degree in Theology to fathom that one! There’s an intriguing story written by Ted Chiang, which is a warning about an imaginary device called a Predictor, that flashes if you press it. The problem is, it actually flashes one second before you press it, and it’s impossible to beat. Playing with it becomes addictive, and ultimately teaches the player that there’s no such thing as free will. In the story, all those who play it lose the will to live. That’s why in the film The Matrix they had to put us into a simulation, because they couldn’t farm us efficiently if we didn’t experience our lives as meaningful. Theologians have long wrestled with free will, pre-destination and predetermination: we simply don’t know how programmed we might well be. The vital thing is that we have a line of junk code that insists we are free. It has come to be understood as such a fundamental human right that it is internationally protected, and without it we feel dehumanised. That’s why imprisonment and the withdrawal of ordinary freedoms is used by society as a punishment. Those writing about incarceration, like Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, show that an ability to find ways to keep feeling free is vital to human survival. But it’s a terrible burden, because as we’ve seen, our emotions, all that uncertainty, and our proneness to mistakes makes our navigation of free will the absolute vale of soul-making. Who might help us in this quest to try to get it as right as possible? Oh, theology again.

So theology comes in everywhere. In fact, it’s the only discipline with the resources to deal with all four of these lines of junk code simultaneously, and in sufficient depth to be useful. What an efficient degree! No PPE for us.

And even more so than the content you’ve studied, the neuro-psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist would massively approve of the brain workout you’ve just given yourselves. You might have heard of his thesis of the Divided Brain, which argues that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to facilitate the kind of narrow attention an animal or a person would need to focus on the task in hand, while the right hemisphere keeps watch for anything that might interrupt, and makes broad connections with the outside world. So the right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open vigilance and alertness; while the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply-focused attention to detail. With our left hemisphere we grasp things in our hands and make tools; in language our left hemisphere similarly ‘grasps’ things by pinning them down and being precise. To do this it needs a simplified version of reality, a sort of mental summary, so that it’s not distracted by complexity. Meanwhile the right hemisphere is alert for exceptions, and things that might be different from what we expect. It sees things in context, and apprehends meaning and metaphor, body-language and the emotions. It’s famously and deliberately woolly. But McGilchrist argues that in society at large, ever since the Enlightenment, there’s been a steady and devastating takeover of the right brain by the left brain, such that we’re now in danger of quite literally losing our faculties. So another way of understanding what you’ve been up to at Sarum is that you’ve been re-balancing your brains, priming you to be better and more supple humans in the future.

And this really matters, because of the risk of us sleepwalking into dystopia. Of course, humans have been using tools for millennia, and computers are just the latest wave of technology designed to make our lives easier. From spears to wheels, and smelting to writing, we’re a species that uses invention to improve the quality of our lives. But inventions like electric light, the combustion engine and anaesthesia were intended to improve the human experience, while Artificial Intelligence is actually designed to replace it. And we’ve careered off on this giddy path with no exit strategy. We’re already losing control of our emerging invention, and we may already have passed the point of no return.

My solution is therefore compulsory theology for all: Regina Scientiarum! But seriously, I’m in deadly earnest. Who else can lead us through this minefield, if we only have the courage to stand up and be counted? We need to explore, understand, describe and nurture our junk code, then learn how to cultivate and cherish it as a global society. And as theologians, if our junk code really is the signs of soul, and part of God’s design for us, we need to account for the hope that is in us. I certainly intend to be very noisy about it, and I hope that with your freshly minted certificates, diplomas and degrees, you will join me.

Address given at the Sarum College Presentation of Academic Awards, Saturday 12 March 2022