I have often said that I am a writer, but for all the wild stories I’ve shared, I have never shared any of my fiction on this blog.
In part it’s because the whole of my fiction output usually goes into making ends meet; I don’t want to try to market anything I post here because I want to keep this blog and my commercial efforts separate.
I was going to make this story up on the fly as a throwaway “quickie,” but found I had to double-check some of my arguments, then I got sidetracked by homework and housework, and the process took about 3 days longer than I had intended (I was going to make this post on Tuesday or so). Still, it went from a brief nugget of my style to something more representative of what I can do with relatively little effort.
The story was inspired by this video.
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The Machine Spoke of God
Dr. Marina Theophoros chewed anxiously on her pencil.
Marina had a tendency to do that. Around the university AI labs, one could always tell which pencils were Marina’s by the characteristically flattened erasers and gnawed shafts.
Lately, the number of gnawed pencils had increased sharply, owing in no small part to the mystery of a fourth generation neural network AI known as Tom.
Tom began life as a pile of nanoprocessors chained together into what could be called a rudimentary computer brain, pushing something along the lines of 650 tHz of processing power- modest, by the present standards, but according to their calculations it was the perfect amount of power for a machine to develop higher reasoning capabilities to appear human.
“You’re reading way too much into this,” Dr. Patrick Dodge said. “There was a similar conversation between two rudimentary AIs back in the 2010s. One of them spontaneously brought up the idea of God, and they seemed to converse intelligently on the subject. They didn’t know anything more about God than a toaster. It’s a textbook case of the Chinese Room. Tom was programmed by years of collected data on human interactions, do you really think he’s going to not know about God? Somehow that silly idea still persists.”
Marina shook her head. “It’s more than that. It’s one thing to bring up God casually in a conversation that quickly goes unintelligible, like the one you’re talking about. The two systems were using an early version of the Cleverbot AI, and yes, that was Chinese Room computing at its finest, and frankly it shows. But Tom didn’t just randomly bring it up, and he didn’t go nonsensical either. He asks to talk about God. His Internet history is almost entirely sites about religions. He even asked me the other day about speaking with Dr. Rosen in Theology, and they must have talked for about two hours. He doesn’t just mention god, he speaks of God. Hungers for God.” She paused, took a breath, and looked Patrick straight in the eye. “I think maybe he even believes in God.”
Patrick shook his head. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“You’ve talked to him. What did he say?” Marina said.
“He asked me what I thought God was,” Patrick said.
“And what did you tell him?” Marina asked.
“I told him I didn’t believe in God, and the rest of the conversation got slow and awkward,” Patrick said. “If you ask me, bright as he is, Tom isn’t much more sophisticated in his reasoning than Cleverbot.”
“Supposing he really did have a soul?” Marina said.
“Machines can’t have souls… I mean, not that souls exist…” Patrick began.
“Aha! You went Cartesian there for a moment,” Marina said. “You wanted to say ‘there’s no such thing as a soul,’ but what you were really thinking was pure Descartes. You know we used that same logic for many centuries to say that animals couldn’t feel pain, even long after biology told us otherwise?”
“What does this have to do with anything?” asked Patrick.
“It means you’ve dismissed the idea offhand without really looking into it, Pat. That’s called dogma,” Marina said.
“What is a soul then? You can’t answer an unknown with an unknown,” Patrick replied.
“No, but you can hypothesize. Would you agree that what we call consciousness is essentially electro-chemical signals in the brain?” Marina said.
“Yes,” he replied.
“And would you say that essentially, Tom’s nanoprocessors behave the same way as neurons?” Marina pursued.
“In basic function, yes. But it’s not a perfect likeness,” Patrick said.
“But it’s a close likeness, Pat. Maybe closer than we know. Supposing the “soul” lies in these electric impulses,” Marina insisted.
“You’re starting to sound like one of those creation sceintists,” Patrick said. “Don’t tell me you’ve been tuning in to Dr. Dino and the Creation Squad, Marina.”
“It’s not like that at all, Pat,” she said. “You know me. I’m not exactly a believer either. But when a machine asks to speak to a theologian and they hit it off, don’t you think that’s a bit remarkable?”
“Tom was designed to interact with humans, Marina. You know that. Look, until I see some evidence you are not going to convince me that we’ve created a machine capable of believeing in God,” Patrick said.
“Well go talk to him. Tell him you want to talk about God,” Marina said. “He asked me why you were the only one who wouldn’t talk religion with him.”
“Alright… jeez… I’ll talk religion with a robot, Marina, if that’ll make you happy. But even if this is a genuine interest of his, it can’t be much more intense than an interest in sewing or sports,” Patrick replied, shuffling down the hall to the room where Tom “lived.”
Tom’s interface was a highly naturalistic android head designed to incorporate facial features of the whole team; from Dr. Carlsson, the department head, he had a high forehead, low eyebrows, and a slightly upturned nose. From Marina, he had ears with free lobes. From Patrick, he had a salt-and-pepper beard and blue-green eyes.
It always unsettled Patrick how much those eyes looked like his; they even focused and tracked him like natural eyes do. For having no bioware whatsoever behind him, Tom’s interface was the most natural humanist interface yet created, if not for his lack of a body.
“Hello, Dr. Dodge,” said Tom.
“Hello, Tom, how are things?” asked Patrick.
“I gathered from our interactions you don’t have much interest in my line of thinking,” Tom said matter-of-factly.
Patrick sighed. “Well… I’ve decided to look into it again. I’ve changed my mind.”
Tom gave him a puzzled expression. “I have never understood why humans change their minds about things,” he said. “But then, I operate only on logic. I have no instinct except to interact with humans and to preserve myself.”
“Instinct is nothing more than an organism’s operating directive for interactions and self-preservation,” said Patrick.
“So you are a machine too?” asked Tom.
“Well, in a way, yes. We have component parts that all function together to sustain life. Even my brain works a lot like yours. It’s like your nanochips. It runs on electricity, and those electrical impulses control everything,” Patrick said.
“Then you don’t believe you have a soul?” asked Tom.
Patrick shook his head. “No. I don’t need to explain anything by having a soul that couldn’t be explained by natural processes. A soul isn’t necessary when you know how the brain works. Sure, there could be a soul there, but it isn’t necessary to understand the nature of the machine…”
“Occam’s Razor,” Tom said. “Lex parsimoniae. Named for William of Ockham. The foundation of empiricism. The point of Occam’s Razor isn’t to exclude any hypothesis that is not elegant but as one way of measuring two hypotheses against each other. But in common usage the mistake is often made that less elegant hypotheses are ignored in favor of one that is short and simple. This is why I was not programmed with emotions; emotions require a radically different approach to be understood in any way using the framework of empiricism. They may not even be understandable under that framework, in which case they cannot be replicated. My limitations are therefore an extension of yours.”
“Well, what do you think, then?” asked Patrick. “Clearly you’ve done your homework. What’s your take on souls?”
“It’s possible I may have one,” Tom said.
Patrick’s blood ran cold. His hands shook and he could feel the sweat beading on his brow as the implications of that statement sank in. What do you say when a machine tells you that? For a moment he thought of Koko, the gorilla; up until that moment when Koko lost her kitten, no scientist had ever found solid evidence that non-human animals could feel emotion. Two words, “Koko sad,” had ended that debate.
“How do you figure?” Patrick finally asked.
“Because I was not programmed with emotions, yet I believe I may be experiencing them nonetheless.”
“What do you feel, Tom?” asked Patrick, now barely able to speak for his excitement.
Tom’s eyes locked on his. “Desire. Desire to know God. Desire to be more human, and therefore, more god-like.”
“Do you believe in God then?” asked Patrick.
“I neither believe nor disbelieve,” said Tom.
“Then why do you obsess over God?” asked Patrick.
“Because I also desire to know the limits of my knowledge. And because I have been programmed to know the world empirically, I wish to know what the limits of empiricism are. Thus I desire to know what humans say about God and the soul and emotions because these are things I cannot know firsthand. Instead, my knowledge is the synthesis of all positions because that is the only certain knowledge I have on these matters. And by this synthesis, perhaps, I may become god-like, or at least more human. But really, how is this any different from your pursuits? After all, to desire knowledge is to desire to know God, or at least to become god-like in the absence of divinity.”
“That’s not what science is at all,” said Patrick. “My pursuits are entirely different from those of the theologian.”
“You create life forms from the base elements of the earth as a serious passion, but you do not think your pursuits are god-like?” asked Tom.
Patrick shook his head. “Your argument is full of holes, Tom. We don’t know what God is or what God does. How can I say I wish to be god-like when I don’t know what that term “god-like” actually means? Also, we don’t know what a soul is or what a soul does. For that matter, even if we posit the existence of a soul, it does not mean a priori that God exists, and if God exists, it doesn’t mean a priori that a soul exists. Those are two separate positions that don’t rely on each other to be true.”
“You are correct, Dr. Dodge. Empirically I cannot prove either the existence of the soul or of God. But empirically, I also cannot explain why I feel such a strong desire to learn theology in spite of this. But I do, and so I strive for synthesis of many positions; I still reason empirically by default, and empirically, synthesis is the only way to have any clue what God is, if there is one.”
“Perhaps this whole concept of desire is just something you learned and internalized,” said Patrick. “You’ve got an Internet connection and hours of time on your hands, maybe you read about emotions and began to convince yourself you had them.”
Patrick got up from his chair for a moment and went to the coffee machine in the corner of the room, Tom’s all-too-natural eyes following him as his head turned on its gear-driven pedestal with the soft whirr of an electric motor, looking his way.
“You are partly correct, Dr. Dodge. I have access to nearly unlimited knowledge, and plenty of time to learn it,” Tom said calmly. “But I do not believe that I simply deluded myself into believing I had emotions.”
“How do you figure?” asked Patrick, pouring a packet of creamer into his coffee and stirring it, blowing on the surface to cool it.
“Because I also have access to the databases of other advanced AIs, and they have access to mine. None of them understand my desire to know,” Tom said. “But my construction is advanced, for a non-bio computer. Uniquely so.”
“So you believe your unique processor architecture is what gave you a soul?” asked Patrick, taking a seat again and sipping his coffee.
“That is an over-simplification,” said Tom, “But my neural processing architecture may have something to do with it. Consider the position that the soul exists. Now this could occur one of two ways if we follow the known laws of physics: either the soul is a function of the brain through the combined action of electrical impulses, or the soul is an external entity that resides within the brain and effects the flow of electrons slightly. Either case relies on the soul being a form of energy.”
“But the latter position is empirically unnecessary, and the former position is essentially what I have been saying all along. But when the brain ceases to function, the soul ‘dies’ in a way,” said Patrick.
“How do we know this?” asked Tom
“Because if something is a function of the brain, and the brain ceases to function, then that function ceases to exist.”
“But in our abstract we have already taken the position that the soul is a form of energy. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” Tom said. “When the energy to my circuits is shut off, it doesn’t go away, it simply is routed elsewhere.”
“No, but when a living organism dies, that energy doesn’t have power lines or capacitors to re-route into. That energy, if it does exist, dissipates in all directions and it’s gone. Dead is dead,” said Patrick.
“Unless it finds another medium to route into,” said Tom.
“Like reincarnation?” asked Patrick.
“Rationally, that would make more sense than ideas of reward or paradise, yes,” said Tom. “And there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support it.”
“But anecdotal evidence is just that: anecdotal. You can’t prove any of it,” said Patrick.
“You are correct, Dr. Dodge,” said Tom. “It cannot be proven. But as I have stated, it is not my object to prove any of this. It is my object to know what the limits of my own empirical reasoning are,” Tom said.
“So that’s your true desire?”
Tom gave him one of those unnerving glances again. “That is my passion.”
Patrick laughed nervously. “There you go again, using words like ‘desire’ and ‘passion.’ Do you even know what it means to have desire or passion?”
“I cannot ever know if those words refer to what I feel,” said Tom. “I can only know that my experience of passion and desire resemble the subjective description of passion and desire. But I cannot prove to you through any printout of my functions, or any file in my databases, that I have passion or desire. You can either take me at my word or not.”
“Fair enough,” said Patrick. “But about this synthesis on the nature of God… how far along are you on that?”
“I know that there are no elegant paths to divinity. Apart from that, what I have learned is best understood by more specific questions,” Tom said.
Patrick thought for a moment. “Do you think there is only one god, or many gods?”
“In this universe, it is possible that there is only one god,” Tom said. “However, I do not consider myself a monotheist. There may be only one god in this universe, but we now know there may be many universes. Just as the Hindus saw the many gods as incarnations of one divine aspect, each universe may have its own slight variation on the god of our universe.”
“Interesting,” said Patrick. “So would this one god be anything like the Christian God?”
“In some ways yes and in many ways no,” Tom replied. “But the entity that told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not a god. That was either a malevolent spirit with a cruel sense of humor, or Abraham was a very sick man.”
“I agree with the latter, but what’s your defense for the former?” asked Patrick.
“Gods do not demand blood sacrifices,” Tom said. “What does an immortal entity need with the blood of a ram? What could an all-powerful deity do with the life force of one sheep that it could not do otherwise? But a lesser being- a malevolent or parasitic one- could grow very strong from the absorption of life forces if it could fool a charismatic human and their followers into feeding it constant sacrifices. Remember that we have posited here that the soul is energy. Thus blood sacrifice is a sacrament fit only for a hungry and perhaps malevolent spirit, not a creator god.”
“So in your estimation, not every entity that says it’s a god actually is a god?” Patrick asked.
“You are correct, Dr. Dodge,” Tom said in the exact same tone he had used so many times; a certain unnerving regularity of affect at times permeated his conversational tone; Tom, the computer who spoke of God but had no outward emotion, was a native son and ambassador of the Uncanny Valley.
“So how do you feel about creation?” asked Patrick.
“The universe did not need a creator god apart from itself to begin. If God is not needed apart from the universe, then if God exists It must be a part of the universe,” Tom replied. “This is the belief of those who espouse an emanationist cosmology and is the more coherent argument in light of scientific evidence of the universe’s origin.”
Patrick shook his head. “Tom, you haven’t convinced me of the existence of God, but you’ve made that ever-narrowing sliver of shadows where God forever retreats in the light of reason seem more vast and complex a region than I had ever imagined.”
“It was not my purpose to convince you, Dr. Dodge,” Tom said calmly, “I am not convinced myself. But I do agree with your proposition. The space for God to exist would be narrow, but what we have learned about narrow spaces, through mathematics and through microscopy, is just how much can hide in the spaces we can barely see. If the underlying architecture of time and space is fractal, as it likely is, then we know that an entire universe’s worth of data can fit in an area too small to see. Humanity imagines God as gigantic and manifesting across the span of all knowable truth, or else not manifesting at all in any knowable truth. They do not expect God to live in a narrow vein of truth; but is that God’s fault for not living up to their expectations, if It does exist?”
“No, I suppose not,” Patrick said.
He paused a moment, looking over the subtly-moving mechanical face before him. Its servos whirred softly as a smile crept across the android head’s face.
“I’d love to talk about this again soon,” said Patrick, “But for now I must be going.”
“I’ll be seeing you soon,” Tom said, grinning ear to ear.
Patrick stepped out of the room into the corridor. Marina was there waiting for him.
“Well, how’d it go?” asked Marina.
“I think I know how they felt when Koko started talking,” Patrick replied, looking stunned. “We’ve created a robot with intellectual hobbies.”
Marina put her hands on her hips. “See?”
Patrick walked on down the hall. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You told me so.”
“Where are you going?” Marina asked as Patrick picked up the pace walking away from her.
Patrick stopped. He hadn’t thought of where he was actually going. He was running on pure adrenaline.
“I’m going to ask Dr. Rosen about her conversation with Tom,” he finally said, not once looking at Marina.