Sermon preached before the University of Oxford at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on Sunday 5 May 2019
Over the centuries Oxford has been home to many influential thinkers. One whose college stands not far from here is South Park’s great Messiah, Richard Dawkins, the posterboy of the zeitgeist. He epitomises the prevailing intellectual narrative in this country, that of a secularism cured of all superstition and fancy, in the distinguished tradition of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It’s so intellectually fashionable to be an atheist these days, that I congratulate you on your daring in coming here today. I mention Dawkins, because in taking up his cause I wonder whether his acolytes appreciate quite what’s at stake, in following his logic to its natural conclusion. Because those who argue that we’re nothing but an evolved species that happens currently to be in charge, have already effectively signed our species over to the robots.
Should we care? Consider this. What makes us human? At present, our DNA. In the West, we control the supply of humans both personally through contraception, and societally through bans on the cloning of humans. But why do we do so? Because we hold on to the notion that somehow human life is special. This feeling is behind our decision as a society that those born into some kind of disability, or mental or biological difference, deserve the same rights and protections as any other person; and we extend those rights to the unborn child, after a certain threshold has been reached. It’s why in this country we’re not yet in favour of assisted dying; why we’re twitchy about experimentation on humans; and why the business of eugenics makes our blood run cold. So in law we offer protections to humans over and above other species. This is currently captured in the Human Rights Act, and shows up routinely where experimentation on animals is preferred to experimentation on humans; or when the courts order the destruction of dogs who’ve attacked humans, regardless of provocation.
But this cannot stand. If we’re just meat, why should we enjoy such privilege? At best it’s Speciesist. At worst, it cannot last. You don’t need to have read much SciFi to figure that one out. As Steven Hawking rather gloomily told the BBC in 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” I shan’t spoil the latest Dan Brown for you, but he reaches largely the same conclusion. This is because we’re readily replicable, should any other species or lifeform wish to copy something quite so clunky. We’re already biologically replicable through cloning, pace the ethics; and in our lifetimes we may also be artificially replicable in terms of our brain functioning. Indeed, the philosophers who used to puzzle about Mind-Brain theory have already quietly left the building, ceding their thrones to the neuroscientists, because they believe it to be inevitable that materialism will out.
And if we’re just meat, this creates some knotty problems for society. Let’s start with the law. One of its primary functions is to protect the state, so those not behaving in line with the rules of society are lawfully punished. But if neuroscience shows that our behaviour is not only pre-ordained through genetics but also entirely conditioned biologically, the concept of free will must fall, and prisons could only be used for public order, not to make moral points: we can’t credibly ‘blame’ people if they’re not morally responsible. In any case, it would be far more efficient to design out those people whose make-up renders them socially unhelpful: thus eugenics again rears its ugly head.
Another problem is what we do with broken people, and how we define brokenness. For instance, childhood is a waste of time if we can clone humans and accelerate their growth to adulthood. And cloning would also allow us to copy only ideal specimens to generate our super-race. Once alive, if any accident, illness or ageing occurred, those who could afford it – while humans reign supreme – could correct their faults with biotechnology.
Wherever you stand on the AI debate, it’s already seemingly made some big decisions. For instance, the choice of title. It’s dubbed ‘Artificial Intelligence’ because it appears our bodies are not as important as our minds, perhaps because they age and fail. In the future we assume this will be curable, through biotechnologies not currently considered ethical enough to be made legal, like stem cell therapies or cloning. Science fiction has been our steady teacher on this front, and we’re now quite used to the idea that the design of our bodies needs improvement. This is in itself theologically interesting. Wasn’t a human body good enough for God in Jesus? But leaving that as an intriguing aside for the time being, the pursuit of AI also gives away a core assumption about a race to the top: we want to speed up evolution so we can become perfect by turbo-charging our brains, using technology to release us from this awkward tethering to finitude and error. Again, our favourite SciFi characters reflect this back to us, when androids or non-human species have to sub-optimise to get along with humans, by colluding with silly things like emotions or humour. Oh! If only we could be released from all this irrationality!
But what if we were special? What if there was something inalienable about being human, beyond the meat, that means we deserve dignity and privilege? In history that vital spark, that spiritus, has been called the soul. In the Christian tradition we believe that when God made us in his image this was his hallmark and his signature, and that the soul is the wellspring of our consciousness, and our birth-right as the people of God. We were God-made, so we have a soul; it follows then, that things that are man-made by definition cannot: we cannot manufacture soul.
Over the centuries, there’s been much ink spilled on where we might find the soul, and even who has one. At one point, women were rumoured not to have them, because they weren’t men; and the debate still rages about whether or not animals have them. The Egyptians, Ancient Greeks and Romans argued that the soul was to be found resident variously in the heart, the chest, the thorax or the brain, with the brain gaining the most agreement over time. When Christian thinkers weighed in, the soul became conceived as a kind of holographic aura that was somehow everywhere and nowhere, but which being immortal vanished on death. One enterprising researcher famously tried to weigh the soul: Duncan MacDougall’s experiment in 1901 found that the difference post-mortem amounted to 21 grams.
Of course, the religions differ on the concept of the soul and on human rights, as do the ancient traditions. In the longest-running litigation in New Zealand’s history, after 140 years a Māori tribe has finally won recognition for the Whanganui River – the third largest in New Zealand – which now has legal personality as a living ancestor of the tribe.
Who has a soul is not just an academic matter, because it may be the only thing we have left to defend our humanity when AI has matched us on everything else. So what is it? Perhaps it’s easier to say what it’s not. It’s not our physical being. It’s not somehow commensurate with our physical age, health or abilities. It’s not just ‘being alive’ or we’d have a more developed concept of plant and animal souls. It’s not seemingly tethered to a particular part of our bodies, although it is personal: conjoined twins with two personalities are considered to have two souls, even if their heads share a body. It’s not susceptible to empirical testing, but the sense of fundamental subjectivity it connotes is likely to be behind our concept of self, and our self-consciousness.
If, like the wind, the soul is rather hard to pin down, what are some of the tell-tale signs that a soul is present? Let’s return to today’s reading, and to the road to Damascus, to apply our own little Turing Test. We see there travelling an evil man who’s zealously persecuted Christians. He’s walking along, perhaps gloating over his latest atrocities, when a blinding light stops him in his tracks. What happens next would persuade even the most ardent conspiracy theorist that this man was no time-travelling android. Saul repents. Of course, he gets flashing lights, temporary blindness and a healing miracle to help, nevertheless he voluntarily renounces his previous beliefs: he turns away from them and changes his mind.
It seems to me that this little story encapsulates everything that we need to know about what it really means to be human, and why AI cannot logically compete: because humans aren’t logical; they change their minds. Would we really want to programme robots to do this too, if they epitomise for us process improvement? There are all kinds of inefficient things that humans do that no self-respecting robot would wish to contemplate: we forget, we regret things, and we grieve; we dream, we envy our neighbours, and we fear death. Could these be symptoms of soul?
Sometimes these things are associated with free will; sometimes with consciousness; sometimes with sin. For me they are soul signs, because they collectively describe the ways in which by being worse than robots we may in the end be better than them. Why? Because these apparent design flaws are clues to our destiny. If we believe that we’re made in the image of God we must be perfectly designed for God’s ends, even if we don’t know why. And we’re generously designed, because we’re even free to choose badly. A robot is not free to choose badly, or to change its mind: you’d have every right to sue its programmer if it did.
And even those who don’t believe in a divine creator, like the philosopher Thomas Nagel, would agree that there’s something unfathomable about consciousness, except that it’s seemingly been vital to our evolution and survival as a species thus far. Perhaps in the end AI will fathom it, but we stand a better chance of doing so, if we really put our minds to it. Instead, at the moment, we’re busy promoting an educational system which sets us on a collision course with the robots, who already out-pace us on facts and memory.
So what would give us the best chance to define soul before the robots do? As you’d expect from a theologian, I’d like to put in a vote for the arts as the natural laboratory for the soul. The Arts and the Humanities are really only ever about wallowing in our personhood. As the novelist Ian McEwan argues in his latest book, literature is only possible because of our human flaws, and serves both to document and to explore them. It’s in our wrestling with art and culture, with opposing viewpoints, and with ambiguity and the very limits of human knowledge that we are at our most human. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s terminology, the STEM subjects, so currently in vogue, are great for known unknowns, but are sadly likely to be superceded by AI. In contrast, promoting the arts and the humanities is more likely to help us with the unknown unknowns that we face as a species in the future.
Indeed, Theology itself would make a brilliant Turing Test: could you imagine a robot programmed with the Bible? Which Genesis account would it hold as definitive? Which Gospel would it prioritise when the accounts disagree? And how on earth would you do a decision tree for the Trinity? Perhaps if Artificial Intelligence could entertain a concept of such sophistication and ambiguity, it would deserve to be called human.
The AI project assumes that we can ultimately identify the design of the human brain, copy it, and improve it. God’s project similarly encourages us to ask questions about our own design, but rather than improving our efficiency, we’re called to grow our humanity. In this context, that means relishing our so-called design flaws; indulging in our humanity whilst exploring and nurturing it. So after the service, enjoy being human. Greet each other, notice the weather, smell the air; discuss the sermon, taste your lunch, complain about Brexit: it’s your human right to do these things.
Robots, being programmed, know exactly why they’re here. That information is definitively available. But why are we here? We don’t really know; we can only find out. Our story is not yet complete. God has plans for our species, and for you in particular. And our journey is about embracing our destiny, not just as human beings, but as human becomings.