The Atheist/Android Conundrum

Android (Image by TenSafeFrogs, Flickr, CC)With today’s post I’m going to explore a common issue in the realm of futurist thought, and one that has been regularly examined in science-fiction literature and film over the past fifty years or so: sentient androids. Are they possible? What would it mean if they were? And how is it going to impact our own sense of identity? More acutely, I’m also going to ask whether or not a belief in metaphysical reality will impact our reaction to such advancement.

To begin with let us start with a central hypothesis – that the creation of technology capable of perfectly mimicking the activity of the human brain will become possible at some point in the future.

Many argue that this point might be a lot closer than we realise; whilst there are others who believe the true complexity of our consciousness is yet to be unveiled, let alone recreated. Regardless of the timeframe, most empirical scientists seem to believe that it is only a matter of when, not if, such an advancement will be made.

Whether or not such an achievement is actually possible is outside of the remit of this post, what I’m interested in is what happens if it is possible? It’s something that despite the many issues and problems raised throughout the vast library of science-fiction I don’t think we are yet acutely aware of the consequences – and there is mainly one consequence involved that I think needs extra attention. What happens when the human race is made obsolete?

Consider this: with the creation of a purely technological, as opposed to biological, form of human consciousness we might fall from the top of the pecking order. If you follow a purely secular, and atheistic, point of view then what argument can be given against the idea that our biological forms are no longer relevant? I would like to hear your thoughts on this…

Even for those of a more religious or spiritual persuasion, there will be an incredible amount of complexity and confusion involved in figuring out at what point an activity or sensation becomes spiritual or metaphysical as opposed to purely biologically deterministic (or maybe spirituality is just biological). But even if such experiments with sentient technology help prove this core human question one way or the other, our own personal beliefs will shape and dictate just what we do with the information.

Despite what many might initially think; I would argue that people who harbour a world-view that includes a metaphysical reality will be much more equipped to cope with sentient androids than those who do not. Actually, let me clarify that statement: metaphysical belief will allow for a stronger continuation of human identity and value once biology has been superseded.

A Conversation (Image by NikiSublime, Flickr, CC)If one holds a purely biological understanding of human consciousness and our role in the physical universe then it becomes difficult to deal with sentient technology that can better human activity. Why become a mathematician or physicist when an android can work infinitely more efficiently than you can? Why become a chef if a chemically perfect dish can be created every time, but just not by you? Why strive for excellence in any field for that matter?

Human identity has become so individualistic over the last century that for many of us our entire sense of self-satisfaction comes from our ability to excel and stand out from the crowd…so what happens when we become the lowest common denominator and the only sentient forms that can excel are those which are synthetic?

From a purely physical perspective, it would surely mean that we would reach a point where there is little purpose in continuing to be solely biological beings. Everything that makes us human, in an atheistic world-view, could be replicated and improved upon: a ‘Human 2.0’ would surely emerge, and why would you want to be left with the old model? Upload your consciousness (or, more likely, duplicate it) and move forwards into the immortal future as a synthetic human – is there an atheistic argument against such a conclusion (presuming, of course, that the replication of sentience was perfect)?

Well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – and that is a love of human essence, a kind of nationalistic (speciestic?) pride in our biological and genetic heritage. Fall back on a sense that we can love what it is to be biological, feel an inherent connection to it without the need for any other qualifying criteria. But then, does this not just become a form of metaphysical religious belief, that there is something inherently better about biology than technology?

In the end, we have a conundrum to deal with: will synthetic humans lead to the extinction of the biological human species? I’m not talking about Terminator-style Armageddon here, but merely through the process of making us obsolete in every activity that we pursue. For the pragmatist, what purpose would there be in remaining biological? Particularly if you could duplicate your consciousness and still retain a sense of personal identity?

Now, don’t get me wrong and presume that I am merely picking on atheists here – although I do like the idea of facetiously throwing out the controversial question: will atheism lead to the extinction of the human race? Even though I personally hold deeply metaphysical beliefs I actually do not see any inherent conflict between them and a lack of biological form for our consciousness – in fact, my own personal beliefs label technology as natural and not inherently opposed to biology in a dualistic sense. I still have my questions about whether or not purely synthetic consciousness will be able to achieve the same kinds of spiritual states that we are capable of; but I’m very excited to see the answer, without desire for any particular result over another.

I’m not even really being as opinionated in this piece as I often am, and that is mostly because these are questions that I don’t yet feel fully equipped to answer. So I thought I would share them with you all to see how you would respond, and please do understand that I’m not entirely decided as to my own position yet and am being more than a bit facetious with my line of antagonistic questioning.

So, who would have a harder time dealing with the identity crisis that might result from synthetic androids: atheists or theists? Physical empiricists or metaphysical mystics? Could a belief in a metaphysical reality help formulate a greater sense of identity when we are no longer the dominant life-form? Is it possible for an atheist to choose biology over technology without forming metaphysical beliefs? Could atheism lead to the extinction of the human race as a biological entity in this manner? Do you now think I’m just a Bible-bashing evangelical for even asking the question?


5 Responses to The Atheist/Android Conundrum

  1. Gargamel says:

    OK, some thoughts: you say “a purely technological, as opposed to biological, form of human consciousness” – what makes it human? Surely the issue is a parallel category of conscious non-human being – “Human 2.0” is just branding. New Coke sucked, but it didn't effect normal Coke.

    The next point, then, is what do you include in the category consciousness? Your robot physicist may be 'conscious', but is she curious? If not, she's just a calculator. Your robot chef – can she like and dislike tastes or just distinguish them?

    As for human identity in a techno-bio-future, I don't see the problem – if Androids are neither inspired to create, nor capable of enjoying, poetry and visual art, then human “identity and value” of one type at least remains ours.

    Your questions are valid, but I'm not sure that “atheists” are the correct focus for your enquiry: some of them are (I hear) capable of feeling sensations and emotions, of loving the world and all its inhabitants, and they are probably capable of dealing with androids: after all, it wasn't atheists who questioned whether test-tube babies would have souls.

    What you do identify is a category of thinkers who see relentless progress as inevitable and totally positive, who believe that there is a 'pecking order' and that humans are at the top of it. No serious thinker since Popper has advocated such crass historicism, and the only pecking order of that anthrocentric type that I'm familiar with comes from Genesis.

  2. RAGordon says:

    Thanks for the well thought out response, Gargamel.

    Firstly, let me just reiterate that I was being more than a bit facetious with my focus on atheism – a focus intended to cheekily rile up an easily perturbed subsection of the internet as it were 😉

    Beyond that I think your points are quite valid when we are discussing whether or not replication of human consciousness is possible – but again can I reiterate my opening clause that we are presuming here that perfect technological sentience (of the creative, loving, tasting, poetry kind) IS possible. When is another matter, but I was working from the point of view that it is possible.

    My central point is actually fairly simple: what would make biological humans inherently better than technological humans (presuming everything else was equal)? If our egos desire to live longer, think more quickly and effectively, jump higher, run faster, screw for longer – what would stop them from ditching the biological form altogether?

  3. GLPer says:

    I'm going to attempt a 'Buddhist' repsonse to this (or perhaps a couple of Buddhist responses) because Buddhism does not fit neatly into the Western athiest/theist or even body/soul paradigms, making it something of a 'third way' in this discussion. Traditionally, Buddhism denies the existence of individual souls, and does not equate its own metaphysical absolute with a personal God being. But it does posit such an absolute reality even if more time is often spent pointing out what, and where, it is not. It also believes in the salvation of sentient beings through awakening to this reality.

    Now to the questions of robot consciousnesses, their spiritual potential, and where this leaves us humans. If a robot had a notion of itself as a separate being, contacting an outside world through a sensory apparatus, something that can be born and can die – then it would (according to the Buddhist doctrine of 'dependent origination') acquire this state through a confluence of interdependent causes. At the base of this causal network is a fundamental Ignorance, a grasping at notions of self and other, birth and death, which from an ultimate perspective are considered false. Such a robot, where it to exist, would be deemed capable of suffering and in need of salvation.

    According to the Mahayana tradition, every kind of being – plant, animal, human, god, ghost, bacteria, fungal spore, or whatever – will one eventually achieve enlightenment. Robot-based life is not mentioned, but there is no reason why it could not be added to the traditional list of life-forms who will one day achieve Buddhahood, (especially since such lists are characterised by an attempt to be exhaustive and varied.) Having said this, the traditional (and chauvanistic) view is that these various life-forms must wait until they are reincarnated as humans, and male humans at that! A Buddha might therefore speak of having been a robot in a past life, and evil-doers might come back as robots in their next existence.

    Modern Buddhists sometimes demythologise this tradition to the extent that both male and female humans are considered acceptable bodies for enlightenment. In certain traditions, however, animals, or even inanimate objects, might be said to be Buddhas – but only if a transcendent Buddha is emanating in such a form in order to help others. Which raises the point that the transcendent reality of enlightenment always has priority over the physical form – including that of a Buddha in human form. So, I would think, if the importance of the physical world is ultimately negligible, then it doesn't matter especially what form one takes. One is enlightened if one has cut-off the primordial Ignorance, and one is a Buddha if one is directly or indirectly helping guiding others to enlightenment.

    A more anthropocentric Buddhism would thus have reservations about diminishing the human realm in favour of the robotic. (Unless of course it were argued that certain robots, by virtue of their evolution, had in fact become 'human'. In which case, unenlightened bio-humans would wish to be reborn as robo-humans in preference to bio/robo-animals or ghosts etc.) Nevertheless, the Buddhist view of history is that there are cycles of good epochs and bad ones, and many planes of existence from which to engage in spiritual cultivation. So a world overun by 'bad' robots could see the demise of the human world on this planet, but the 'good; humans might be reborn as gods in, say, the Tusita heaven. There they would be able to practice Buddhist cultivation, until some distant future epoch, perhaps after the robots had destroyed themselves, when it was possible for human life and Buddhism can flourish on Earth once more. A demythologised Buddhism, on the other hand, would view robots as potential allies in short term, and eventually, perhaps, the custodians of the Buddhist tradition in the future.

  4. Roslyn-Hall says:

    No? Obviously you haven’t read his “The Poverty of Historicism”. Not quite as erudite as you hope.

  5. […] other argument that emerges out of this, and which has been discussed previously on this blog, surrounds the effect that any such massive shift will have on the human condition.  To people […]

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