Baptizing Artificial Intelligence

The Christian Ethics class this past winter J-term (actually in December) was full of thought provoking case studies. Dr. Russell Moore provided a much talked about final exam that students at Southern are still buzzing about. There was only one question. Here is a summary.

It is the distant future. You are 106 years-old, and in good health with a sound mind. Your great-grandson, Joshua, is a Southern Baptist Convention (now called the Galactic Immersionist Federation) pastor. He is seeking your counsel because, as he puts it, “There’s nothing about this in the Bible.”

Modern technology has enabled infertile couples to engineer what the press calls “robofrankenbabies.” These babies’ bodies are constructed partially with, as in the Frankenstein novel of old, with body parts from human corpses and partially with body parts produced via human cloning. These children are real flesh and blood in every way, except a robotic brain. This cyber-brain is programmed with advanced artificial intelligence so that the child is able to truly think on his own. He is able to express joy and sorrow, grief and gladness, the full range of human emotions.

One of these children is Aidan an eleven year old child whose parents are non-believers. Aidan looked up from the Bible and said to Pastor Joshua, “Does Jesus love me, Pastor? Did Jesus die for me? Can I be saved from this guilt and, like you said in your message, from sin and death and hell?”

Aidan looked up and asked, “Am I a real boy? And can I be a real Christian?”

Pastor Joshua struggles with the question, “Should I lead him to Christ?” he asks. “Should I baptize him?”

Here is my response. What do you think?

————–

The Bicentennial Man is a novella in the Robot Series by Isaac Asimov. The story formed the basis of the novel The Positronic Man (1993), co-written with Robert Silverberg, and the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams. This story looks at all things human and follows the transformation of an android named Andrew into a uniquely human life form. I disagree with the premise in the movie version that Andrew the Robot actually becomes human. In the end, he is only a machine imitating human traits; this, despite the creation of flesh and blood surrounding his robotic body as part of his attempt to be human. Andrew even develops a way to end his life through aging his body. But underlying all of this, those who created him, humans, are themselves created. The robot Andrew lacked one thing…the image of God. The only thing he succeeded in obtaining was the image of man. I find it fascinating that God chose to place the ability to feel remorse. Robots can be programmed to learn, but it was the creativity of mankind that gave this imitated rationale to Andrew the Robot. I for one am grateful for a creator who grants his creation the ability to feel guilt. Without it, we could never understand the undeserving grace that God grants. Whether it is engineering schematics, architectural design, sculpture or painting, the art we create is an expression of gratitude to God who has granted us this wonderful gift. Otherwise, we would be mere robots in service to him.

The issue with Aidan is that he is struggling with a personal issue of whether he is a real boy or not. He seeks to be human like those around him, like the parents who care for him. To his positronic brain, being a Christian may simply be another form of being human. Idealized ethics would dictate that the ideal compassion of Christ necessitates that the pastor show the same compassion to this little boy. It is ethically OK to break with God’s intended purpose of Christ’s incarnation, namely to redeem fallen man from a sinful separation from God the Father.
Bill McKibben rightly begs the question of genetically enhanced children who are pre-designed to be more devout in their religious heritage. Parents some day may want to program a greater sense of piety in their children. The technology certainly exists and may have even been part of Aidan’s genetic makeup. What McKibben brings out is the fact of the kind of doubts that the child will have about this strong desire for devotion. Is this devotion to God truly from the child? Or is it simply how he is supposed to react? This child will constantly wonder whether his call to God means anything or is it just brainwashing? But even if this child never questions his faith, then ultimately the faith is meaningless. Because there is no regeneration, McKibben writes, “It would be a faith literally beyond questioning and hence no faith at all. He would be for all intents and purposes a robot (48).”

Aidan may very well be able to question his faith. Although his parents are nonbelievers and probably did not request a religious child, the scientists who created the technology may very well have programmed religious tendencies in the robotic brain. He desires to be with Christ. He even acknowledges that he deserves to go to hell, and is a sinner. But what sins did this child commit? After all, he is programmed and genetically designed to be perfect isn’t he? Yet the programmers and scientists who made Aidan are themselves sinners and not perfect, so perhaps this became part of his genetic and robotic make up.

The Christological ethic here rests in two areas. First, the source of life within Aidan and second, what image is he made after? The life source within Aidan rests solely on a man-made electronic heart and brain. This machine ultimately has an on/off switch made by and controlled my mankind. This places man in a position to be like God. The original sin in Genesis follows this problem of man positioning himself above God. God controls the life force in all of creation. Only he can give life to a human being, to the animals and to the trees. Mankind can end a God given life, but this is unarguably sinful. But if man were to turn off Aidan’s switch this would not be sinful because man created this robot.

The second question rests in what image is Aidan made after. Is he made in the image of God or the image of Man? I would argue here that Aidan is made in the image of man. God does not have a positronic brain and neither do the men and women he created. The souls that Christ came to save are made in the image that he himself became. The incarnation of Christ was in the form of God created man, not a human created robofranken-baby. Although biologically Aidan is human in flesh and blood, what is the source of this child’s essence is the electronic heart and brain that man can turn on or off, and program to think any way he desires. The limitations here are that mankind is limited in all his knowledge. Only God knows everything. He knows the secrets that keep mankind alive, that keep all of creation functioning, spinning in space.

In conclusion, I would not council my great-grandson to baptize this child. As tough as it is, this child is not made in the image that God redeemed. God sent his Son, Jesus, to save man, not a man-created machine, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a fish. Jesus was incarnated as a human being, made by God…not man.

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