The notion of robots and the human capacity for relationships, especially pertaining to the human-divine relationship, has emerged into the forefront of my consciousness. I decided to write a piece on what I see as several core issues related to robots and relationships. This discussion is embedded in the context of theological musings on God, free will, and justification by faith.
A dear friend has said to me that God gives us total freedom to choose. Corollary to that idea is the notion that humans are not robots and never meant to be. As such, we freely choose to be in relationship with God and are freely granted reconciliation and justification with God in and through Christ. Central to this basic soteriology is freedom of human will and rejection of robot-ism. In other words, the thesis is that we human beings are not robots controlled by some other more powerful agent; and that as human beings, we freely choose God over sin and separation. Let us interrogate these twin notions.
I'm not only a theologian, I'm also a philosopher. I cannot help but interrogate and examine these twin notions of anti-robotism and freedom of human choice philosophically. I believe such an approach can challenge our common assumptions around these notions and sharpen our view of what is axiomatically at stake here.
Robotism and HumanityFirst, robots. We assume that we are not and should never be robots. We also assume that God did not want us to be robots and would not treat us as robots subject to His total control. Thus, God would not sovereignly pre-determine our salvation as that would make us robots and contradict His desire for us not to be robots. But are these premises defensible and their conclusion true?
P1. We are not and should never be robots.P2. God eschews us being robots.C. God would not pre-determine our salvation as that would make us into robots.
Is premise 1 defensible? I suggest not. We may assume we are not robots. But increasing evidence especially from neuroscience suggests that we are very much like, if not, are little different from robots. Our neurological systems with their gazillion networks and conglomerations of neural and chemical events are intricately linked to our cognitive, affective, conative, attentional, and ethical activities. So much so that it is not entirely clear that there is any central agent within this vast field of neural activity that controls the panoply of complex events. These findings concur with phenomenological observations of human consciousness from the contemplative traditions, especially the Buddhist ones.
The field of artificial intelligence is another source of evidence. Granted we may not see in artificial intelligence the same degree of consciousness and algorithmic complexity we see in humans, there is no inherent reason why we will not one day see a fully conscious humanoid artificial intelligence capable of all that humans are capable of. This would point to the 'robotic' nature of humanity and the 'human' nature of robots. From cursory observations of human behaviour, there is so much about ourselves, decisions, and actions that are habitual, mechanical, repetitive, routinized, and yes, robotic. Why do we insist so much on our creativity and freedom in light of such obvious evidence of our robotic nature? If we conduct rigorous neuroscientific and phenomenological studies into so-called creativity and free choice, what would we find? Will we find genuine freedom and creativity untethered to our body or will we find more of the same complex neural, somatic, and contextual mechanisms determining our experience and behaviour?
We are very much like robots in the way we learn, think, feel, react, attend, choose, behave, interact, and relate. More so than we would care to admit. When we think we are making a free choice, we may not perceive the multitude of cognitive and other operations constituting that decision that are entirely outside our conscious awareness and control. Wherefore freedom? Wherefore choice? Are we really that free? I think not.
Theologically speaking, we are fallen. We are fallen because Adam fell. He fell because of sinful rebellion against and selfish resistance to God. Sin entered through Adam because there was divinely created pre-Fall freedom and innocence. God made Adam full of innocence and bestowed with total freedom.
Arguably, we can say Adam was the first totally free human being with total freedom to choose. But once fallen, and the stain of sin transmitted over multiple generations to us now, we are no longer fully free. We no longer have the freedom to choose like Adam. We have become more like robots than like humans. Our sense of apparent freedom of choice is more a chimera than it is a reality. Our degrees of freedom are in fact completely restricted. This can be seen as part of the total depravity of human nature. Does this mean we do not make choices in our lives? Of course not. But our apparent choice-making and felt sense of freedom of will are nothing more than delusions based on misperception of ephemeral neuro-psycho-somatic events entirely devoid of central agency. On this, both neuroscientists and Buddhist contemplatives can probably agree. And it is not outside the realm of theological and biblical reflections, as I have just demonstrated.
Verdict? Premise 1 does not stand. We are already robots and will continue to be robots, regardless of our desires and wants.
What about premise 2? Does God eschew us being robots? Yes and no. Yes, because God created us free and able to choose, with almost infinite degrees of freedom mirroring the freedom of God Himself. But unlike God, human beings are not free to create from nothing or to know everything or to be present everywhere. Yet, human beings can freely choose. We were not robots, not just yet. But after the Fall, we lost our freedom. We became robots. Does God then eschew us and abandon us to our own devices? No. He accepted our robotic nature and freely entered our reality to redeem us in and through Jesus Christ. God's sovereign grace broke through the barrier of our total depravity, volitional incapacity, and lack of freedom to free us into a new and free relational life with Him, in Him, and into Him. As a result, God who elected us and freed us from slavery to sin and our robotic nature imbued us with supernatural regeneration of spirit replete with new degrees of freedom never possible before. For the first time after the Fall, we can choose again albeit limitedly.
The remnantal effects of sin reverberate throughout our body and soul, even though our spirit or consciousness is regenerated. We continue to contend against forces of robotism in our constitution. Yet, a new life hidden within us by dint of the supernatural grace of God empowers us to exercise certain degrees of freedom beyond what was possible before. We could choose alignment with, trust in, surrender to, and worship of God by the power of Christ in us. We become less and less robotic.
Verdict? Premise 2 does not stand either, not completely. God eschews our robotism but at the same time accepts our condition. He nevertheless exercises his sovereign grace to redeem us from our condition and save us into new relational life with Himself. This freedom will become perfect when we are finally transformed by the Spirit from corruptibility into incorruptibility.
Given than premises 1 and 2 cannot stand, the conclusion therefore does not hold: God does indeed pre-determine our salvation so that we could cease being robots and become free to choose albeit in a qualified fashion. God pre-determining us for salvation does not make us into robots. We are already robots! On the contrary, our election by God infuses us with new freedom to choose, compelling us to transcend our robotic nature over time.
Relationships and PersonsSecondly, on relationships. We commonly assume that relationships can only obtain between persons who are autonomous and freely choosing. We also assume that such persons truly exist and conclude that such relationships that obtain between them truly exist. Let us examine these assumptions more carefully.
P1. Autonomous and free persons truly exist.P2. Relationships can only obtain between such persons.C. Relationships between autonomous free persons truly exist. Such relationships are real inherent entities that exist.
Interrogating premise 1, we find that such autonomous and free persons do appear to exist but do not actually exist. How so? We need to be mindful of this possibility: what appears may not be what exists. In our everyday experience, we assume we are autonomous agents wielding free choice in all we do. But as argued earlier, our sense of agency and selfhood is a chimera. It is a construct concocted from and superimposed upon a flux of events provisionally labelled material, somatic, sensorial, cognitive, affective, conative, and contextual—all of which appear and disappear with such rapidity that nothing is graspable at all. Inquire into this agentic self and you cannot find it anywhere.
First-person phenomenological observations with finely-honed attention and third-person empirical observations with state-of-the-art equipment find nothing in the data that can constitute the agentic self. The weight of evidence strongly suggests the fallacy of the autonomous free agent or self. The 'person' standing independent, unchanging, and freely choosing behind the entire gamut of complex neural, somatic, psychological, and contextual events does not truly exist, though it appears to uncritically and instinctively exist in everyday experience. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, analytical and empirical methods deconstruct the reality of such a person.
Verdict? Premise 1 falls. Autonomous free persons cannot be found. Such persons do not exist as they appear.
What about relationships? Do we not engage in relationships everyday? Let's look more closely at premise 2: that relationships can only obtain between autonomous free persons. If autonomous free persons do not truly exist even though they appear to exist, functioning relatively well in everyday experience, how can we then claim that such persons have relationships with one another? What is actually happening between 'persons' engaged in relationships? What does relationship mean and what constitutes a relationship? Let us inquire more earnestly.
Probing both ontologically and experientially, we see that what we call a 'relationship' is a label or concept put upon a highly dynamic field of interactions that can be further broken down into evanescent events that can never be grasped. Like the 'person,' a 'relationship' is a nominal construct or conceptual-linguistic label placed upon the basis of fluctuating, fluid, unreifiable, ungraspable events. These events themselves and the field in which they occur are in turn impervious to reification and apprehension. The basis of labeling or imputation is itself empty of any inherent or autonomous existence, as it is itself an imputation or label upon a further and subtler basis. The same logic continues from basis to basis ad infinitum. What do we end up with? Empty transparency and contingency without measure.
Thus, what we have in terms of relationships are patterns of interactions in a fluid open field of unreifiable events obtaining between nominal 'persons' who are themselves fluid unreifiable fields of activity. Nowhere in these fields can one find any permanent independent agent, self, or person that exists inherently from its own side.
Verdict? Premise 2 falls. Relationships between autonomous free persons cannot be found. They do not exist as they appear.
With the downfall of both premises, the conclusion naturally falls too. We have seen how autonomous free persons do not exist. We have also seen how relationships do not obtain between such persons as commonly assumed. Hence, while we can experience what we might call relationships in our everyday lives, with significant or non-significant others, we can never pin our finger on what these relationships truly are. They appear in the horizon of our unexamined experience but dissolve into the field of empty evanescent transparent flux the moment we probe into them ontologically and experientially. Therefore, relationships are not real inherent entities that exist in their own right. Both persons and relationships do not exist as they appear or function. Both persons and relationships are utterly contingent, sheer emergences and dissolutions with no fixed identities whatsoever. In fact, if probed deeper, even designated emergences and dissolutions cannot stand on their own two feet. For they presuppose 'something' that emerges and dissolves but that 'something' can never be found! Hence, does the dog have buddha-nature? Moo.
Verdict? Conclusion does not hold. Relationships are mere constructs out of flux and exist only nominally.
Concluding ThoughtsComing back to our theme of robots and relationships, I hope I have demonstrated the indefensibility of the human anti-robotism argument and the sheer emptiness of persons and relationships. How are these two thoughts related?
Well, it is precisely because persons and relationships do not exist as we think they do that it opens up the prosaic possibility of the unremarkable robotism of humankind and the nominality of human-human as well as human-divine relationships. Rather than denying our robotism, we can embrace it as reality. Rather than denying the possibility of true relationship between robotic humans and other robotic humans, or between robotic humans and God, we can accept the reality of sheer contingency and flux in ever widening circles and fields of empty transparency.
We melt into a space of relationality where event as experiential horizon is not something to be feared and frozen into a thing, but an exuberant spurting forth of bliss. In these two movements of insight, we can assert relationships as nominal realities obtaining between nominal persons in a joyful ecstatic dance of non-grasping and gracious letting be. Devoid of self-grasping and self-reifying tendencies, liberated from undue attachment and avoidance, our encounter with each other and with God would be that much fresher and more surprising.