James McGrath’s Religion and Science Fiction Chapter 6

On The Natural Rights of Robots Made in the Imago Homo


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for my review copy of James McGrath’s latest book, Religion and Science Fiction.

I come to the chapter that I know that James McGrath would be very familiar with, his own, “Robots, Rights, and Religion.” In this work, McGrath seeks to push the Christian theological imagination into the possible and what could be very real future. With the potential development of artificial intelligence which could theoretically imitate humans, would the self-awareness of AI technology necessarily entail natural rights and privileges? At this point, McGrath points to our brain’s importance in religious experience, and dismisses any attempt to bring in the concept of the Imago Dei as nothing more than “superficial” (123). The AI presents to Christianity is a view of the soul, perhaps borrowed from Greek Philosophers where there is a spirit inside us that is separate from our material existence (136). If it is a soul which grants human beings natural rights, and if this concept of the soul is more Platonist than biblical, then indeed, that would put the very idea of natural rights into question, yes? Not for McGrath, for he even explores the possibility of rights for animals, you know, so we can protect killer whales while there are thousands of citizens still on death row. This all leads to the question of salvation, can machines be saved? This would put the question of God Incarnate in human flesh into question, with the Fathers’ and Mothers’ argument that Christ saves what the Word assumes, i.e., human reality. To an extent, McGrath’s overly optimistic vision even presents a challenge to divine election in some circles; what does it mean for technology to live in covenant with God?

First, before I get into my theology of the imago dei, I want to show that I am fully capable of dealing philosophically with McGrath’s approach. I, for one, reject the epistemological docetism that takes the bodily, fleshly experience (this includes praxis) out of the definition of knowledge/intelligence. My skeptical view of the possibility that AI will be able to “sympatize” with human beings is like this in sum: such “sympathy” would be impersonal and superficial at best, sort of like Bill Clinton as President in the 1990s, constantly repeating over and over again, “I feel your pain” yet still give in to White right-wing bashing of the poor. Or take the situation of a domestic abuser who says, “I’m sorry” after each fight.  If he is truly moved by his own inhumane treatment towards his spouse or partner, then he would act on it. Fleshly, material, and bodily existence (this includes pain and pleasure, imprinted memories and counter-memories on our skins) is what it means to be human. Rationality as human personality cannot accept pain as part of our humanity. The rational robot will be just another attempt for humanity to construct a god who is impassible and who behaves just like us.

McGrath is certainly not the first biblical scholar to put the theology behind the Imago Dei into question; Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann also argues against it, claiming it is not a central doctrine in Judaism, and that the Hebrew Bible has a different vision for what it means to be human (covenant being one of them). McGrath’s problem is he did not (even if it was 1 or 2 sentences) propose an alternative to the Imago Dei language. It is not easily dismissed with a scoff here or there. Also, the whole binary where there is this purely Jewish view of the soul versus Greek just does not cut it anymore; especially when you examine passages such as Samuel’s soul being brought back from the dead (1st Samuel 28), where a “ghostly figure” comes out of the earth. The Old Testament ban on mediums and spiritism was not because these things were impossible, but because they were possibilities, and that there was probably a spiritual realm in their view— and this coming from someone like me who is more of a materialist. One last note on the Imago Dei is the proposition that Christ as the Imago Dei (Colossians 1) teaches us what it is means to be human, since this knowledge cannot be grasped naturally. In the spirit of Matthew 25, I would say that there cannot be any definition of human personality, any anthropology (theological or otherwise) which does not take into consideration the Light & Wisdom of the oppressed peoples of the world!

Second, on the question of ethics, I don’t think I found McGrath’s view of what constitutes as “personality” as adequate. At this point, if human being is defined as being self-aware and rational, it would not be too far of a stretch to see the clone as a human being, and therefore making cloning okay. Are persons who are not self-aware, or persons who are deemed “not rational” any less human than “rational” people? While it is admirable to separate the imago dei theology from the language of rationality, I think that the idea of rationalism as a defining principle of personhood to be quite problematic, and a leftover from the Enlightenment. Indeed, do we not exclude persons suffering from intellectual disabilities? I am not saying Reason is a whore evil ala Martin Luther; what I am saying that abstract meditations on this sort of rationality complete divorce themselves from concrete forms of love, what Scripture calls in Hebrew, Hokmah, and in the Greek, Sophia, or Wisdom. Wisdom, as the application of knowledge is part of makes us as human beings unique–the ability to learn from our mistakes, to grow. Indeed, I think that beyond abstract notions of empathy and sympathy (things that yield intellectual familiarity), human beings are capable of partaking in the life of the transcendent, in suffering love, which would be concrete, bodily, intentional, and risk-taking.

In addition, if I learned anything from MacWilliams chapter in this text, on Frankenstein, “Science Playing God,” it is that we cannot leave our monsters alone to themselves to become self-sufficient, but rather, because the imago Dei is the imago Trinitas, with human beings as inherently relational, we should strive to make them (the robots) as part of the community.

Perhaps the imago Dei presents the greatest barrier to ideas that creatures “deserve” rights in the first place, since rights language, as theologians recently have pointed out, can become covers for plays of power: “I am entitled to this, therefore I can do this to you” etc., etc. Again, my challenge is not a call to return to anthropo-centrism, but a challenge to “RIGHTS” talk all together. Rights for whom, and why?

One of the good things about the failed Battle Star Galactica spin-off, Caprica, is that it gave us the reason why the Cylons were created– ahem, for military purposes very much like the Storm Troopers from Star Wars. I am sure that just as we look at the histories where Scripture records humanity’s struggles through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, there, technology shapes politics, say, like the kingship of Saul and his band of farmers against the armed forces of the Philistines. All this is makes me more cautious than McGrath, and I would say, for good reason!  No technological advancement can be assumed to have an innocent starting point, no matter how noble the cause.

“Pain is love.”- Ja Rule


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