“… Catholic teaching has more definite things to say about ensoulment and what the soul is than do science and philosophy. There is much disagreement amongst the advocates of AI and philosophers about who and what might be endowed with consciousness and real intelligence, much less who or what might be given a soul.”
—Robert Kurland, “Can Computers Have a Soul?”
Here’s an article about the Vatican using artificial itelligence (AI) techniques to reproduce ancient articles—written in Gothic and Medieval scripts—in its secret archives. The techniques modify conventional OCR (Optical Character Recognition) methods to recognize script characters (which are really jazzed up in these manuscripts). There is no real “artificial intelligence” involved, since the heuristics are set forth by the programmers, and not independently composed by the OCR program.
Nevertheless, the age of AI is upon us, and as in other frontier areas of Catholic Doctrine, we might expect a forthcoming Encyclical “de Animis Intelligentiarum Artificiosarum” (“about the Souls of Artificial Intelligences”) in the not too distant future, among other surprising Encyclicals that have appeared. I’m not sure what might be in such an encyclical, although I’ve written about AI ensoulment in the article linked in the opening quote. However, what I think may not agree with what our Holy Father has to say.
And, since I don’t really have any idea of what Pope Francis might think about the ensoulment of AI devices, let’s examine what science-fiction has to say. The linked article has a section on science fiction stories about AI and the Catholic Church, so I won’t repeat that discussion here. Rather, let’s see what this literary genre (which has often predicted the future) says in general about the Catholic Church. Maybe this will enable us to get a glimplse of what would be in an Encyclical about the souls of artificial intelligences.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND SCIENCE-FICTION**
Science-fiction authors have not always treated the Church kindly. I recall one story by George R.R. Martin (yes, the author of “Games of Thrones”), The Way of Cross and Dragon, in which the bishop on an extrasolar planet is a cephalopod. This bishop sends a Jesuit Inquisitor to deal with a heresy, a planet where a religion of “Liars” follow a fake gospel of Judas Iscariot. The Jesuit deals with the heresy but in doing so, loses his faith, realizing (in the story) that he too is a Liar.
In another story, “Good News from the Vatican,” a robot is elected as Pope (many of the College of Cardinals are robots). The newly elected Pope Sixtus chooses a new motto, “orbi et urbi et digiti,” and at the end of his (its?) welcoming address, blesses the people while ascending into heaven by attached jets.
There are other novels and stories equally disdainful of the Church. Perhaps this antagonism stems from Catholic teaching looking backward in time, to Revelation and Tradition, whereas science fiction looks to the future:
“SF [science fiction] 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, The Gospel According to Science Fiction, p. 183
Perhaps Pope Francis, unbeknownst to us, has read about this challenge posed by science fiction and is attempting to accommodate Catholic teaching to what’s happening NOW. We should not be surprised, therefore, if an Encyclical is forthcoming about the souls of artificial intelligences, and perhaps some robot, martyred by Catholic zealots, is beatified.
*For those of you too young to recognize what the red orb in the image is, it’s the “eye” of HAL 9000, the psychotic artificial intelligence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Latin for the forthcoming Papal Encyclical is the best I could do, recalling two years of high school Latin and searching the web to find endings for feminine, genitive, plural nouns and adjectives.
**Here are several articles, containing references, on the theology of science-fiction: