Friday, August 18, 2017

Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture" Reviewed:
Why "Poetic Naturalism" is an Oxymoron

The Standard Model*, from Wikimedia Commons (by Latham Boyle)


Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such. When I call it a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say is not faith, but rationality, but which is in fact a faith that denies rational objections to scientism.

There are many scientists who write books justifying their faith that science  gives the only answer to the question, “how should we live?”   Whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just to make money is a question I can’t answer.

Some--I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular--are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion.  Others--I'm thinking of Sean Carroll--take a more balanced view, conceding there may be legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren't for them.  Carroll’s new book, “The Big Picture”, gives his account of a materialistic ethos that doesn’t need God.

I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis:

  • Poetic Naturalism” is a philosophy that will enable one to lead a moral, satisfying life, one that doesn’t need God;
  • Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning demonstrate that it is very unlikely that God exists. 

I will also argue against Carroll’s views on the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.


Carroll defines “Poetic Naturalism” as follows:
“Naturalism claims that there is just one world, the natural world…’Poetic’ reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.   We find it natural to use a vocabulary of ‘causes’ and ‘reasons why’ things happen, but these ideas aren’t part of  how nature works at its deepest levels. “
—Sean Carrol, “The Big Picture”, pp 3-4. 
Carroll goes on to say that phenomena that I put outside the purview of science—for example, love, morality, beauty—are “emergent”.   Let me explain this more fully:   often in science when descriptions at a molecular or atomic level become very complicated and collective phenomena are involved, it is easier to describe things in a semi-empirical way.   Thus, for viscous flow hydrodynamic equations are set up; or to analyze ferromagnetism a collective description, an Ising model, is used.

For example, when we say “water is wet”, we could (in principle) give a reductionist picture and explain what’s happening  in terms of the surface tension of water, and at a deeper level, by an analysis of intermolecular attractive forces.   In short, we very often use a different language to explain or describe what could ultimately be explained by fundamental laws of physics (down to the level of subatomic particles and field theory).**

I call that view—that it’s only a matter of what descriptive language is used—a copout, a “scientism of the gaps”.    This position is not one that can be easily defended.  Indeed, poetry itself,  the joint appeal to our sensibilities of Shakespeare, Shelley and Bob Dylan, is not to be parsed by science.
So, as my subtitle suggests: the term “poetic naturalism” is an oxymoron.  It does not really explain, it just evades fundamental questions.


Carroll uses a combination of abductive reasoning***, “Inference to the Best Explanation” (IBE), and Bayesian probability analysis to argue that it is very unlikely that God exists.   Here’s one such argument:
“We have two  competing propositions: one is that God exists, and that transcendental experiences represent…moments when we are close to divinity;  the other is naturalism, which would explain such experiences the same way it would explain dreams or hallucinations…To decide between them, we need to see which one coheres better with other things we  believe about the world."
—ibid, p.134

Clearly Carroll believes the second explanation is the best, i.e. naturalism.    Others (myself among them) would believe that transcendental experiences cohere better with the existence of God, as does everything else we believe about the world.

Before discussing how Carroll applies Bayesian probability analysis to support naturalism, I’d like to emphasize some general points (taken from William “Matt” Briggs’ [“Statistician to the Stars”] blog post and book).   First, all probability is conditional, depends on evidence; such evidence may be facts, or it may be beliefs, beliefs founded on facts or knowledge, or—dare I say it—on Revelation. It’s just a way of working backwards from evidence to infer a probability.  Second, probability is quantitative.  You assign numerical values to  probability based on the evidence;  otherwise, there’s no way to judge between probabilities based on different evidence.

One well-known example of Bayesian analysis is the Monte Hall three door problem.   I want to  emphasize that Bayesian analysis requires quantitation (even if it's just a best guess, and a definition of an appropriate population (or prior probability) to conform with updated information and evidence.   The Appendix gives an example of such reasoning.  This isn’t what Carroll does.

Carroll argues that if God existed, he would create a world that provided overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for his existence:
“Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all.   Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently  came up with the same doctrines and stories about God… Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information…Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living.  Imagine a world that was free of random suffering…In any of these worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as  evidence for God’s existence.  It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism. [emphasis added]
ibid., pp. 147-148

This view is simplistic in the extreme. It  does NOT follow “as the night, the day”, that the absence of these features is conclusive evidence for atheism. Consider just the statement that Scriptures should contain “specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information”.  The Bible is certainly not a science text.  It’s about how and why we should live.  Would a shepherd on the Judean Hills have made any sense out of Maxwell’s equations, or even Newton’s law of gravitational attraction?   Carroll’s argument here simply begs the question, assumes the answer he wishes us to believe.

To say that “God should make it easy to believe” is to support a proposition that ignores theology and philosophy.
Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” --John 20:29 (KJV)

That quote says it all.   I’ve argued in a blog post that there are excellent reasons why God does NOT make it easy to believe.    And there have been hosts of books on the problem of evil, theodicy, that show it is not truly evidence against the existence of God.

Let’s now consider some particular topics in Carroll’s “The Big Picture” for which his analysis is deficient:  the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.


The Anthropic Coincidences are a set of restrictions on physical laws, constants, and geo-astronomical features, fine-tuned, so to speak, to enable the development of carbon-based life.   As explained in the post linked above, a  probability cannot be assigned to this “fine-tuning”, but it does strongly suggest that some sort of designing intelligence set up a universe in which humans could exist.   To quote Fred Hoyle:
"A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.   The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."--   Fred Hoyle,  “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics: 20:16, 1982.

Carroll acknowledges the force of this argument:
“…fine-tuning is probably the most respectable argument for theism.”—Sean Carroll, “The Big Picture”,  p.303

Nevertheless, he says fine-tuning is not sufficient evidence for the existence of a designing intelligence.  He argues that the universe is what it is, we wouldn’t be here to speculate about the fine-tuning if the universe wasn’t there.  He also proposes that “eternal inflation” creates an infinity of universes, a “multiverse”, so that amongst this multitude of universes one or more will be fine-tuned as ours is.   Yet belief in a multiverse is as much an article of faith as belief in God.  Many eminent physicists (including Roger Penrose and  Paul Steinhardt) consider that inflation is not a  proven physical theory.

Following David Hume (his favorite philosopher?), Carroll says that talk about causation is empty and fallacious;  we can only describe and give correlations, not give causes for the way things are.  Consequently we can’t say that the universe was purposely designed for anything.  There was no cause for the universe and its fine-tuning doesn’t need an explanation. Thomas Nagel has a fine response to this sort of argument:
"One doesn't show that something doesn't require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one's existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren't, I'd be dead.”— Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

It’s worth pointing out that Nagel is an atheist, not a theist, but believes that the universe is indeed purpose-driven.


Books could be (and have been) written about the problem of mind and soul.   Rather than giving a full discussion and rebuttal of Carroll’s views on these issues, I’m going to cite some quotes and then, very briefly, argue against them.
“Under naturalism, there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot.  We are all just complicated collections of matter moving as patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics…Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that develop naturally along the way.”—Sean Carroll, “The Big Picture, p. 295
“If the world is purely physical, then what we mean by ‘understanding’****  is a way of talking about a particular kind of correlation between information located in one system and conditions in the external world.” ibid, p.348
“Consciousness isn’t an illusion, but it doesn’t point to any departure from the laws of physics as we currently understand them. [emphasis added].  ibid, p. 351
“One popular definition of free will is ‘the ability to have acted differently’.  In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability.” ibid, pp. 380-381

I’ll not respond specifically to any one of these, but will only say that were I to believe them, I could see no reason for living.   I’ll add that there are philosophers and scientists who disagree strongly with each of these assertions, especially, 3 and 4.

Given that Carroll doesn’t believe in Free Will (or to put it more specifically, says that it’s only a way of talking about how we conduct our affairs), what does he say about morality?    How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?

Let’s see what Carroll says about this; first, he acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard:
“As Abraham learned, having an absolute moral standard such as God can be extraordinarily challenging.   But without God, there is no such standard [emphasis added] and that is challenging in its own way …Nature alone is no help. as we can’t extract ought from is;  the universe doesn’t pass moral judgments.”   ibid, p. 495

Then, according to Carroll, morality must be a personal construction:
“We have no objective guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason itself…Morality exists only insofar as we make it so, and other people might not pass judgments in the same way we do.”  ibid, p.412.
“Poetic Naturalism refuses to offer us the consolation of moral certainty …How you should act depends on who you are. [emphasis added]”  ibid, p. 415.

So, that’s the problem, and I don’t believe Carroll offers a solution, other than that of the doctor in Camus’ “The Plague”:
“‘ What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?’
‘I don't know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.’
‘Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?’
‘Comprehension.’ “  —
Albert Camus, The Plague


There it is.   Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, and indeed, for any value system.   There is no reason we should take a system based (presumably) on Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning to understand the world, other than that of the doctor in “The Plague”—it’s comprehensible.  

And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else.   There is not a logical reason to follow this;  in fact, at the very beginning of “The Big Picture” Carroll emphasizes that science has nothing to say about the supernatural.  

So, I say Carroll’s “The Big Picture” is not that big.   It leaves out much of what is important and real for many of us.  But even so, reading his book, one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person.    I wish him well and hope he finds a belief system other than “Poetic Naturalism”.


*This illustration is used to acknowledge Carroll’s belief that the Standard Model for particle physics is the epitome of scientific knowledge, and that, in principle, all that needs be known about the world should conform to that model.  I’ve discussed the Standard Model in a post, God, Symmetry and Beauty: the Standard Model and the Higgs Boson.   I’ll agree that the Standard Model is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern physics, but as many physicists point out, it is not without problems and deficiencies.

**Or could do so if we had the knowledge, time and inclination for the more fundamental explanation.

***I’ve discussed modes of rational inquiry, including abductive reasoning, in a post, “Why do we believe…”.

****Carroll  is arguing here against John Searle’s “Chinese Room” analogy, a parable designed to show that computers can’t be self-aware.


ere’s an example using diagnostic tests. Suppose you visit a central Asian country, and after you’ve returned, are concerned about having con- tracted a parasitic disease, D, from having eaten a certain fish. There’s a diagnostic test T that’s good for detection of the disease, D: 99% sensitivity (i.e. the probability you actually have the disease D if you test positive is 0.99) and 90% specificity (the probability you don’t have the disease D if you test negative is 0.90). The prevalence of the disease D (proportion of people who have the disease in a selected population) is 0.1% in the general population. (Note: I’m picking numbers out of the hat in order to give a numerically simple example.)

You take the test and find that you have a positive result; should you be worried? Let’s consider 100,000 people in the general population.

  • The number of people out of a random sample of 100,000 with the disease D is 0.001 x 100,000 (prevalence times population size) or 100. 
  • Then, the number of people who don’t have the disease is 100,000-100 = 99,900. 
  • The number of people who have the disease and test positive is 100 x 0.99 = 99. 
  • The number of people who don’t have the disease and test negative is 99,900x0.90 = 89,910. 
  • Then the number who DON”T have the disease, but still test positive is 99,900-89,910=9990. 
  • The total number who test positive is then 99 +9990= 10,089. 
  • The probability that you have the disease is the ratio:                           number who test positive and have the disease / number who test positive = 99/10,089 =.0098 or about 1%.
--So, not to worry.

Now let’s change the population and include the fact that you’ve visited this Asian country. This is updating the evidence. For this population (people who’ve visited the country recently), the prevalence of the disease is 1% (or 0.01 in probability). Using the same type of analysis as above you can figure that
In this case, the probability that you have the disease, having tested positive for it, is 990/10,890 or about 9%.

Let’s narrow the population some more, (update evidence further) and stipulate that only people who have visited the country AND eaten the certain fish will be taken as the population. In this case the prevalence of the parasitic disease is 50%. Doing the same type of analysis you would find that the probability of having the disease, having tested positive, is 49,500/54,500 = 0.908 or 91%.

Now the point of all this arithmetical fol-de-rol is to show first, that a probability analysis must be quantitative, and second, that updated information is used to specify a sampling population, or the prior probability.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Atheus Evangelismus--the Varieties of Evangelical Materialists*

Militant Atheism--modified from Wikimedia Commons
"Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior.  Personally, I am not comforted by that at all;  I find it extremely off-putting."--Sean Carroll
 “[Religious] Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” ― Richard Dawkins
 "Because there are laws such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."--Stephen Hawking
"I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I'd much rather live in a universe without one".--Lawrence Krauss
 "When people organize their lives around these [religious] beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them--or worse, who credibly rebut them--they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.” --Stephen Pinker 

Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such.  By being a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say proceeds from rational processes, but which in fact denies many rational objections.

There are many scientists who write books, justifying their scientism;  whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just make money is a question I won't attempt to answer.    Some--I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular--are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion.    Others--I'm thinking of Sean Carroll--take a more balanced view, conceding there are legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren't for them.  

Now I'm more familiar with the works of Carroll, Dawkins and Hawking, but I do know something about what Krauss and Pinker have written about religion.   So, I thought it might be instructive put their quasi-religious beliefs into correspondence with some Christian sects.   So, here they are:

Carroll    <----> Unitarianism Universalism
Dawkins <----> Catholic Geocentrists 
Hawking <----> Low Church Anglican
Krauss    <----> Missouri Synod Lutheran or Southern Baptist
Pinker     <----> United Methodist

These correspondences are, I'll admit, arbitrary to an extent.   I've assigned them on the apparent willingness of proponents to argue reasonably and to acknowledge possible merit of those who do believe in God.   

What's your take?


*My wife, my beta-reader, said on reading this, "It isn't really a  post, it's more like a comment".    I agree, and the only two legitimate correspondences are those for Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins--the three others are sort of put in just to get some more people and denominations in the list.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Can a computer have a soul?
The Theology of Science-Fiction, Redux2

Artificial Intelligence, Wikimedia Commons
"Theological Objection:  'Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.' Rebuttal to Objection: 'It appears to me that [The Theological Objection] implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this soul.' " Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.

“Never tell a child,” said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body." See Mere Orthodoxy


In the previous post, "Can there be ethics without God?  The Theology of Science Fiction, Redux 1", I discussed the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of intelligent aliens, non-human life.   The question of whether intelligent, extra-terrestial beings could have souls was also raised (but not fully discussed).    I also said I would talk about artificial intelligent entities--computers, robots and minds (supposedly) implanted into computers--and whether these would have souls  (it being assumed that artificial intelligence is a possibility).   

So, here this is, a repost of "Does Data have a soul?"  Before proceeding, I want to recommend an article by Jim McCrea on the theology and philosophy of souls and artificial intelligence.    I also want to introduce, as a preface, what the Catholic Catechism has to say about souls.
SOUL: The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection.  Glossary, Catholic Catechism;  see also, CCC 362-368.
Before discussing what science fiction (SF) has to say about souls and artificial intelligence, let me reminisce.   A long time ago when computers were still new (yes, it was that long ago), when I was at my first academic assignment, the head of the division dealing with computers gave a talk on artificial intelligence for computers.   One of the humanities faculty in the audience put a question after the talk "Would you want your daughter to marry one[i.e. a computer]?".   Legend has it (I wasn't there) that he answered "Yes, if she loved him". 

When we inquire about the souls of computers/robots we assume that computers/robots have a mind/self-awareness/consciousness.   That some sort of programmed intelligence can be conscious (self-aware) is a hotly debated proposition.   A book would be required  (many have been written) to explore this notion.   We don't want to write that book here, so let's suppose,  as do SF authors, that consciousness is possible by some means or another for computers and robots and see what SF has to say about them having souls.*


As a transition to considering machine intelligence, let's examine how SF treats the transfer of human intelligence/personality into computers or robots.  Note that one theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, in his book, The Physics of Christianity,  posits  that heaven will consist of personalities transferred to software  as the universe reaches its end in an "Omega Point'  singularity.  Since it is a black hole type singularity, time is slowed down and the intelligences transferred to software thus have essentially an eternity to enjoy their virtual life. 

Among the many SF stories that deal with transferred human intelligence, there is one that especially focuses on the question of soulhood, Deus X, by Norman Spinrad.   Spinrad treats the question with respect, although his attitude to the Catholic Church is somewhat less than reverent (there is a female Pope, Mary I).    Below is a summary of the plot,  as given in McKee's excellent survey, The Gospel According to Science-Fiction:
"...thousands of people exist in an artificial afterlife called 'Transcorporeal Immortality', having copied their consciousness onto a worldwide computer network called 'The Big Board'....Catholic theologian Fr. Philippe de Leone argue[s] that this creation of an artificial soul, which cannot have true self-awareness, dooms the actual soul that is copied to damnation.   Pope Mary I, hoping to settle the controversy, orders Fr. DeLeone to have his soul copied upon his death, so that his consciousness can argue against its own autonomous existence from the other side."   as quoted in The Gospel According to Science Fiction. p.43
Superficially, Pope Mary's plan seems to contain a paradox.   If the downloaded Fr. de Leone changes "his" mind and says "yes, I am a real soul", how can we trust what an artificial soul might say?   The solution to the paradox is that all of Fr. de Leone's beliefs have been downloaded to his program.   If these beliefs are changed, it means that the entity in the computer has free will, and is thus autonomous and a real soul.     

In the story Fr. DeLeone's soul is "kidnapped" (how do you kidnap a program?) by a group of downloaded personalities that wants to convince the Church, via Fr. de Leone's download, that they have a real soul. As McKee points out in his synopsis, there is a reverse Turing Test applied here.  Fr. de Leone does change his mind, the downloaded personalities declare him a deity ("Deus X") and a new controversy arises:  Church officials declare how could this blasphemy come about.   To still the controversy, Fr. de Leone sacrifices his downloaded personality (dies), Pope Mary declares him a saint and recognizes that the downloaded souls are "real".


There are many SF works in which the Catholic Church plays a role.    In some, the Church and its teachings are treated with respect;  in most, not so much.   As Gabriel McKee points out in The Gospel According to Science Fiction
"SF, arising as it does from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment, is critical of religious institutions.   SF frequently argues that if organized religion is to be a positive force in the future of humankind, it must change drastically to meet the spiritual challenges of the future." Gabriel McKee, op.cit., p. 183
A sympathetic view of how the Church might interact with artificial intelligence is given in Jack McDevitt's fine story, "Gus"**. In this beautiful tale, the newly installed rector of a Catholic Seminary interacts with a computer simulation of St. Augustine of Hippo, purchased (the simulation, that is) to help students understand St. Augustine's teachings. The Rector, Msgr. Chesley, is at first greatly displeased with Gus's (the program's) dicta:
" 'The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians' Chesley threw over his shoulder. 'Get rid of it'" "Gus" in Cryptics, p. 373.
The relationship between Chesley and Gus becomes warmer with time, as they discuss the problems of being a Catholic in today's world:
'Why did Augustine become a priest?'   Chesley asked.
'I wanted,' Gus said, with the slightest stress on the first words, 'to get as close as I could to my Creator.'  Thoughtfully, he added, 'I seem to have traveled far afield.'  
'Sometimes I think,'  Chesley said, 'the Creator hides himself too well.'
'Use his Church,' said Gus. 'That is why it is here.'
'It has changed.'
“Of course it has changed. The world has changed.'
'The Church is supposed to be a rock.'
'Think of it rather as a refuge in a world that will not stand still.' " op. cit., p. 382,
Gus's sayings to the students become so unorthodox (he decries the doctrines/dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that other faculty decided he should be downloaded to storage and traded in for a computer simulation of Thomas Aquinas (plus business software).    Gus asks Msgr. Chesley to hear his Confession and then destroy him, so he can have peace:
" 'I require absolution, Matt.'
Chesley pressed his right hand into his pocket. 'It would be sacrilege,' he whispered.
'And if I have a soul, Matt,[emphasis added] if I too am required to face judgment,what then?'
Chesley raised his right hand, slowly, and drew the sign of the cross in the thick air. 'I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'
Thank you...There’s something else I need you to do, Matt. This existence holds nothing for me. But I am not sure what downloading might mean.'
'What are you asking?
'I want to be free of all this. I want to be certain I do not spend a substantial fraction of eternity in the storeroom.'
Chesley trembled. 'If in fact you have an immortal soul,' he said, 'you may be placing it in grave danger.'
'And yours as well. I have no choice but to ask. Let us rely on the mercy of the Almighty.'
Tears squeezed into Chesley’s eyes. He drew his finger- tips across the hard casing of the IBM. 'What do I do? I’m not familiar with the equipment.'
'Have you got the right computer?'
'Take it apart. Turn off the power first. All you have to do is get into it and destroy the hard disk.'
'Will you—feel anything?'
'Nothing physical touches me, Matt.'
Chesley found the power switch...He found a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. He used the screwdriver to take the top off the computer.    A gray metal box lay within. He opened it and removed a gleaming black plastic disk. He embraced it, held it to his chest. Then he set it down, and reached for the hammer.  In the morning, with appropriate ceremony, he buried it in consecrated soil."  op.cit., pp.388-389
Even though I am moved to tears when I read this, do I believe that a computer program will have a personality, a soul?    Not likely***.


This will go somewhat afield.   (For those who aren't Trekkies, Data is the android navigator in the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: the Next Generation.   He aspires to humanity and sometimes reaches (and even surpasses) that state.)    There is a problem, however, in that whether Data has a soul is never considered in any of the episodes, possibly because the word "soul" (not in reference to music) is anathema to writers and producers of popular entertainment.    So in the episode, "The Measure of a Man", the question "Is Data a sentient being" is asked, rather than "Does Data have a soul".

The question is addressed in a trial, to see if Data, as a "sentient being", has the right to refuse to be disassembled for study and refitting.    Captain Picard acts in Data's behalf and Commander Riker, under duress, as the prosecutor.    Riker attempts to demonstrate that Data is a machine by switching him off:
"[Riker is doing his duty in the courtroom]
Commander William T. Riker: The Commander is a physical representation of a dream - an idea, conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It's a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms; its responses dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now... and now a man will shut it off.
[Riker switches off Data, who slumps forward like a lifeless puppet]

Commander William T. Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut."
"The Measure of a Man", Quotes.
Captain Picard gives a stirring defense, arguing that the question of whether Data is conscious--self-aware--has not and can not be settled, any more than whether one can be certain that another person is conscious except by external behavior.     And finally the question of soulhood is addressed minimally:
"Captain Phillipa Louvois [The Judge]: It sits there looking at me; and I don't know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics - with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I've got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul?[emphasis added] I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose."
[notice the shift from "it" to "he"]  ibid.
And so Data is left free, and the question of whether he has a soul, undetermined--as in the Scottish verdict, "Not Proven".


Since I don't, myself, believe that true artificial intelligence--consciousness and self-awareness--is possible for computers or robots, then the question of whether such have souls is moot.   However, the SF stories give, I believe, an interesting perspective on what it means to have a soul.


*Along with Roger Penrose and John Searle, I don't believe that consciousness is a product of algorithmic processes, i.e. that the brain is a meat computer. But that's a post for another day.

**Scroll down to #1, "Gus".

***As always, I asked my wife to review this post before publishing.  I asked her whether she was moved by the story of Gus.  She replied, "If it were St. Augustine on his death-bed talking to his confessor, yes;  but a black plastic disc--never!"

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.