On Whether a Robot Could Be Baptized

There are two impulses for addressing this odd question, on whether a robot could be baptized. The first is rewatching I, Robot. The second is the way Robert Jenson introduces the chapter on consciousness is his On Thinking the Human (Eerdmans, 2003). There Jenson hypothesizes about a robot who “behaved intelligently” and responded positively to a question about belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Should we baptize such a robot? “Various puzzlements would bedevil the question”, he notes, though he is most concerned with whether this would be considered a conscious confession (p.16). I, incidentally, do not think the question of whether a person (or robot) can make conscious confession is decisive for whether or not they should be baptized: many Christian traditions, of course, baptize infants who do not–yet–possess conscious faith. I want, rather, to look into the “puzzlements” that Jenson leaves untreated, and which I consider more significant.

The main puzzlement has to do with why the Church would baptize a robot. This brings us immediately to the question of why the Church baptizes human beings. Jenson seems to imply that the Church baptizes human beings upon their conscious confession of faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is of course true for many but (as noted above) not all Christian traditions. The faith of the baptismal candidate, according to the New Testament, is a sign that it is appropriate for them to be baptized, but it does not seem that their coming to faith sufficiently accounts for why they are baptized. (Why baptism and not some other action?) Why they are baptized is for the forgiveness or washing away of sin (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), though different Christian traditions disagree on whether baptism effects this washing from sin or only signifies it. The content of a person’s faith in coming to baptism is in Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins.

This implies that for a robot to be baptized, it would stand in need of forgiveness, which could only be the case if it could sin. Now, sin is something different than a mistake or even an undesirable action. Sin is a uniquely human capacity. (The Bible suggests that animal predation is undesirable, but not something for which animals stand in need of forgiveness: Isaiah 11:6-9). It is a uniquely human capacity because it is the breaking of a covenant with God, the breaking of a divine command or law. Thus, David recognized that his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah was first and foremost against God, as the breaking of the law against adultery and murder (Psalm 51:4; cf. Luke 15:21). Only human beings stand in such a covenant relationship with God, because God established it with humanity in the giving of certain commands.

Animals have their own relationship with God, though it does not seem that it could be classified as “faith” per se. The Psalms are especially rich in describing this relationship: the animals “look” to God for “food in due season” (Psalm 104:27-30), their desire is satisfied in him (Psalm 145:16) and, in their own way, heaven, earth and sea–even “fruits trees”, “snow and mist”–offer worship to their Maker (Psalms 19:1, 69:34, 148:3-13, 150:6). God gives human beings commands about animals and how they are to be treated: one of the reasons God commands a Sabbath is “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Exodus 23:12). But animals themselves do not stand in need of baptism, because they do not share in the same covenant as human beings that graciously provides baptism as a means or sign of forgiveness for sins.

This is really the decisive and most interesting point: robots, if they ever come to match or exceed human intelligence, consciousness and even belief, are not part of the new covenant of Christ with the human species. It would not at all be decisive if robots came to be religious, to seek out their own relationship with God. A robot who asked for baptism could not be given it on that grounds. But perhaps–and this is what would be decisive–God would establish some sort of covenant with them. Yet it would not–and I dare say, could not–be a covenant whose sign is baptism. This is so because the significance of baptism for human beings is intimately tied to the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the event of the Son of God becoming a human being and suffering a human death for the sake of human sin. Perhaps, like the rest of creation, robots who were capable of belief would come to have a relationship with God as, ultimately, their Creator. Perhaps they would look to him for “food in due season” and praise him, like the sea and the creatures who swim in it, for calling into being such a world, a world where even their existence–as artificial intelligence–is possible.

Incidentally, and as a final note for thought, the same logic would seem to apply to any other intelligent species that may or may not be living among the vast galaxies. Only if God made a covenant with that species involving commands or laws that could be broken would there then be a species other than humanity that could commit sin and, thereby, stand in need of God’s forgiveness and, potentially, a sacrament of that mercy. But this, of course, is something only God knows.

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Repeating Abraham

In his Conferences, John Cassian relates the story of a monk who failed in his discretion. This monk, who remains unnamed, is tempted to repeat the sacrifice of Abraham, who was called to give up his only son Isaac:

Why also should I speak of one (whose name we had rather not mention as he is still alive), who for a long while received a devil in the brightness of an angelic form, and was often deceived by countless revelations from him and believed that he was a messenger of righteousness: for when these were granted, every night he provided a light in his cell without the need of any lamp. At last he was ordered by the devil to offer up to God his own son who was living with him in the monastery, in order that his merits might by this sacrifice be made equal to those of the patriarch Abraham. And he was so far seduced by his persuasion that he would really have committed the murder unless his son had seen him getting ready the knife and sharpening it with unusual care, and looking for the chains with which he meant to tie him up for the sacrifice when he was going to offer him up; and had fled away in terror with a presentiment of the coming crime. (Conferences 2.7)

This reminds me of the comments of Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling, a lengthy meditation on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Fear and Trembling, 30)

What distinguishes Abraham from Cassian’s deceived monk? For Kierkegaard, the difference between Abraham and a murderer is faith. For Cassian, the difference between Abraham and the monk is discernment–or more properly, obedience to the discernment of the elders. But how would Cassian have counseled Abraham? Surely he would have counseled him that he had not heard God properly, that his act could only be murder, that such a sacrifice would not be in faith. For Kierkegaard, the counsel of others is impossible; it must be avoided because it cannot be undertaken:

But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. (Fear and Trembling, 74)

Perhaps there is something to both analyses. On the one hand, by the time God’s command comes to Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he had already had revelations from God on several occasions (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-22; 18:1-33). We could say that he was accustomed to discerning the voice of God; he had developed a habit and virtue of discernment. So then when God comes to him with the demand to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham recognises the voice of God and obeys.

On the other hand, Abraham has faith in the voice of the true God. Cassian’s monk, on the other hand, is deceived by a demon masquerading as an angel of light. In the grammar of Scripture, one can only have “faith” in the true God; to believe in false gods is not to have faith at all. In the case of Cassian’s monk, he fails to discern the voice of the true God, and so fails to have faith; thus his act is “murder” and not “sacrifice,” on Kierkegaard’s distinction.

Nevertheless, this leaves open the difficult question of discernment by individuals in the midst of the community. What happens when a single individual believes they hear the voice of God on a matter, and the “elders” of the community–the wise, and not simply the elderly (see Conferences 2.13)–disagree in their collective discernment? Kierkegaard has no space for yielding to the latter; Cassian, no space to yield to the former. What is the solution when an individual needs to adhere to the guidance of the community? Obedience. What is the solution when the community needs an individual to correct its discernment? Prophecy.

The Dissertation

It’s finished! That means at least two things: this blog will be up and running once again and, if you so desire, you can read the dissertation here (PDF).

Classic Kierkegaard

He has the most wonderful opening lines:

Many may find the form of this “exposition” strange; it may seem to them too rigorous to be upbuilding and too upbuilding to be rigorously scholarly.

Any guesses which work this is? No peeking!

Barth’s Romans Commentary

I’m finally reading the famous commentary on Romans. Of course, there are all the sharpened descriptions of contradiction between God and humanity, stunning and blunt: “In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it” (30). “But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself” (36). “Precisely because the ‘No’ of God is all-embracing, it is also His ‘Yes’” (38).

What is most striking just now, having spent last week with him, is how much I feel like I’m reading a biblical commentary written by Kierkegaard. Barth quotes him on the very first page, and throughout you can almost touch the Dane, he’s so palpably present. His ideas are ubiquitous: the “Paradox” (29); “contradiction” (38); “seriousness” and the demand for “choice” (39); God in “incognito” (39); the “qualitative distinction between God and man” (39); the impossibility of “direct communion” (50); and more than any other, the absolute difference between “time and eternity” (29, 44, 47), which is the presupposition of Barth’s whole text.

Yet, there is also another strand, it seems, running through Barth’s commentary, the side that sees the rest on the other side of judgment. This may well be the kinder (less polemical, more pastoral) part of Kierkegaard: “No, he who opens his arms and invites all–ah, if all, all you who labor and are burdened, were to come to him, he would embrace them all and say: Now remain with me, for to remain with me is rest” (Practice in Christianity, 15). And Barth: “the Creator has not abandoned the creation… the faithfulness of God to [humanity] still abides” (41); and, “He is the hidden abyss; but He is also the hidden home at the beginning and end of all our journeyings” (46). Of course, Barth had been a pastor ten years when he wrote this text, so he knew well the need to be assured of God’s faithfulness, that the “Yes” will be heard on the other side of the “No.”

I’m curious how much Kierkegaard’s influence will appear through the rest of the commentary, both explicit and not so subtly hidden.

Kierkegaard on Venerable Father Abraham

To my mind, the most stunning paragraph ever written (outside Scripture):

Venerable Father Abraham! When you went home from Mount Moriah, you did not need a eulogy to comfort you for what was lost, for you gained everything and kept Isaac—was it not so? The Lord did not take him away from you again, but you sat happily together at the dinner table in your tent, as you do in the next world for all eternity. Venerable Father Abraham! Centuries have passed since those days, but you have no need of a late lover to snatch your memory from the power of oblivion, for every language calls you to mind—and yet you reward your lover more gloriously than anyone else. In the life to come you make him eternally happy in your bosom; here in this life you captivate his eyes and his heart with the wonder of your act.

Venerable Father Abraham! Second Father of the race! You who were the first to feel and to bear witness to that prodigious passion that disdains the terrifying battle with the raging elements and the forces of creation in order to contend with God, you who were the first to know that supreme passion, the holy, pure, and humble expression for the divine madness that was admired by the pagans—forgive the one who aspired to speak your praise if he has not done it properly. He spoke humbly, as his heart demanded; he spoke briefly, as is seemly. But he will never forget that you needed 100 years to get the son of your old age against all expectancy, that you had to draw the knife before you kept Isaac; he will never forget that in 130 years you got no further than faith. (Fear and Trembling, 22-3)

A New Proof for God’s Existence?

I want to offer an a posteriori argument for God’s existence. (An a posteriori argument is “dependent on experience or empirical evidence.”) This may seem odd, because the usual purpose of arguing for God’s existence is to argue that there is a God to experience in the first place. But I want to begin the other way round, as a thought experiment. Specifically, I want to argue from the Christian experience of God’s existence, because this is the experience I have. (Whether starting from the experience “I” have poisons this whole argument from the beginning I leave aside for now.)

Things can be known in two ways. They can be known as fact (e.g., Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939) or they can be known as something one is familiar with (e.g., in the sentence, “Greg knows that part of the city.”). This is preserved in other languages, such as French (savoir, connaitre) and Spanish (saber, conocer), but lost in English. I’m dealing here with the second kind, what I will call “familiar knowledge.”

Now, when someone becomes familiar with something–comes to know something, in this sense–they are aware of its characteristics. Say I have a favourite bench in the park: I know this bench’s location, its colour, its supportiveness and comfort. But there is also something else–slightly more difficult to consider–I know about the bench: I know it could potentially not exist. I know that there was a time before this bench was assembled and there will be a time after it has fallen apart. I know it did not have to be–the fancy philosophical term for this is the bench’s “contingency.”

The same is true, in a darker way, of our familiar knowledge of persons. I know, for example, a certain close friend. I know her appearance, her personality, her loves, her quirks and habits. And on a certain, perhaps inarticulable level, I also know she is contingent. Not despite my familiarity with her, but precisely because of my familiarity with her–this being the crux of my argument–I know she did not have to exist. I also experience, on the edges of my conscious knowledge, that she will one day again come to not exist (in a certain sense. I leave that argument aside for the moment.).

Now I come to my argument proper: this sense of contingency, the not-having-to-be-ness which we experience of things, of places and sadly even of persons, is just what is not experienced in the familiar knowledge of God. The same knowledge of characteristics present in our familiar knowledge of things and persons is present in our knowledge of God: we know God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s care. But there is no sense of God’s contingency; to the contrary, we experience God as mercifully necessary–“necessity” being the philosophical opposite of “contingency.” There is no sense in our familiar knowing of God that God might not be.

And from what the Christian faith has always taught, this makes sense. For God is not another “thing” in the universe, perhaps an extra large or hidden or mysterious item. As Sarah Coakley writes, “God is, rather, that-without-which-there-would-be-nothing-at-all” (p.5). And so, one would not be able to experience the could-not-be-ness of God, as we are some of the things which would not be at all without God. God is, instead, the Source of all of this, the one without which there really would be nothing–the Necessary Being. But further, in our Christian experience, we find that this Source is a personal Source–a something who is actually a Someone. A Someone who, in fact, loves.