Thursday, September 12, 2019

Robot Priests

Years ago during my college days, while studying for my philosophy degree, I took courses on the philosophy of science. This branch of philosophy deals with studying the ethics, epistemology, and ramifications of science and its discoveries. This field serves to explore science and question it from a philosophical perspective. One of my professors in this was Massimo Pigliucci who was the chair of the philosophy department at Lehman College and is now at City College in the CUNY. He is an atheist now but baptized Catholic. 

In several of our classes, we discussed artificial intelligence and whether or not a machine can have consciousness or a soul or if a human can transfer his or her consciousness into a machine. The discussions were interesting and helped me understand the Church's teaching on the soul and personhood as I transitioned from atheist to Catholicism. Ironically, Dr. Pigliucci was feeding the seed of faith that was sprouting in me which led me to greater belief in God.

Anyhow, it seems some academics in the Catholic realm are starting to flirt with the ideas fostered in the philosophy of science. Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio who holds two doctorate degrees in theology claims that the Catholic Church can ordain robots using sophisticated artificial intelligence as priests.  The suggestion has been met with ridicule by many in the Church but has stirred the curiosity of those who want a more flexible priesthood.

The idea claims that a robot with an advanced artificial intelligence would behave like a person would. If a robot thinks and acts like a human person, why can it not be ordained a priest?  The premise is heavily discussed among philosophers of science. Can a robot or android be a person? The movie IRobot starring Will Smith touches on this idea. Sonny, the robot who is the main protagonist in the film evolves to become self-aware. He dreams, has ambitions, has artistic creativity and is not rigid with logic as his peers are. Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek Voyager have also touched on the idea with the characters Lieutenant Commander Data who is an android and "The Doctor" who is a hologram. Both of these characters have artificial intelligence which behaves like human intelligence, only more sophisticated. In one episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, Data's personhood is questioned. A trial is held to prevent Data from being taken by another officer of Starfleet to be studied as a prop.

The question is, Can a robot with an advanced AI program or algorithm be truly ordained a priest?  What is intelligence? If we study it carefully, is not human intelligence a form of algorithm created by God?  The human brain uses neurons to zap synapses to each other. These synapses contact everything that makes a human being human, namely, thoughts, memories, free will, emotions, behavior and so on. If a robot contains a program that mimics this, is it not a person?  It is not alive?  This is debatable. We must remember that there is more to being human than mere synapses. Human beings require biochemistry in order to live and function as a living being that is sentient. A robot cannot mimic this. Biochemistry would require a robot to be flesh, blood, and hormones just like a human being. Functions and emotions in human beings are controlled by chemicals. These chemicals are carbon-based and require transportation in liquid states.  A robot would not be able to do this because the composition would be incompatible.

So, in my opinion, there is no way a robot could be ordained a priest because in order to be ordained a priest there has to be the form and matter. The form is the formula of the ordination or the words and laying of hands by the bishop.  The matter would be a living male body. A robot cannot have a living male body with blood, hormones and so forth. A robot is a robot and a human male is a human male. Therefore, it would not be possible for a robot or android with sophisticated AI to be ordained. Jesus Himself became a man to fulfill the salvation plan. He became flesh and blood. He took on the image of sin and weakness to relate to the human race. If God did this, then the ontological scenario is important.

Then there is the issue of the soul. Only a human being can have a living soul. God breathed into man's life. A robot cannot have a living human soul even if it behaves and thinks like a living human soul. The idea of ordaining robots as priests is fun to talk about in a philosophy class, but in reality, is not feasible. Sister Delia should know this holding a doctorate in theology.

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