Artificial Intelligence, Science, and the Soul

by Contributor Don Brooks

Note from the editor: this article is the first in a series of three.

In this series we will seek to demonstrate that confidence in the coming reality of self-aware machines is directly connected to an understanding of science and consciousness that denies the human soul. Then we look at evidence from neuroscience and philosophy, concluding that human consciousness is best explained by the reality of the soul. Finally, we will demonstrate the importance of this topic for discipleship and evangelism.

The promise of Artificial Intelligence has captured the world’s imagination. The big screen loves AI. Terminator, I Robot, and Chappie are only a few of the movies that explore humanity and the arrival of self-aware machines. In the nineties, Star Trek’s Commander Data, like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz longed to be human. Data, the heroic and lovable android was so popular that when CBS launched its two Trek reboots, Discovery and Picard, their writers made self-aware AI central to Discovery’s second season and Picard’s first season.

Experts tell us that the advent of self-aware AI is only a matter of time. But with the accompanying potential for good there is also a caution. Bill Gates warns that eventually we will have self-aware machines who will have no need or use for humans.i Elon Musk, CEO and Founder of SpaceX, “has repeatedly warned of the risks associated with creating more independent and advanced AI, even going so far as to call it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”ii Stephen Hawking echoed the same on BBC when he warned, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”iii

Before we start searching for Sarah Conner we need to understand why the experts consider self-aware AI an eventuality. Several factors could be influencing their belief that it is coming. First, the advance of technology seems limitless. We have smart phones, smart refrigerators and smart cars. The emergence of truly smart machines is the culmination of progress. Secondly, the evolutionary narrative would predict this eventuality. Things evolve. The idea that simple things evolve into more complex things is scientific dogma. Self-awareness emerging from a super AI computer fits the narrative well. Lastly, there is Hollywood. On a popular level Hollywood contributes to the overall expectation that self-aware AI is coming soon—and not just to a theatre near you!

Following the Trail: Scientism

To explain the certainty of the experts we need to probe something more fundamental than the influences above. We need to briefly examine scientism. JP Moreland in “Scientism and Secularism” describes scientism as the very air we breathe.iv Scientism frames how people think about what is true, even if they have never heard the term before.

Moreland tells the story of a nurse who cared for him while he was in the hospital. The nurse asked him where he received his PhD. Moreland explained his educational path from the sciences to theology and finally philosophy. The nurse looked puzzled and mused out loud that he had taken two very divergent paths. In the discussion that followed the nurse affirmed that science was the study of hard facts and proven conclusions. Theology and philosophy were private opinions and personal feelings.v The nurse may not have been familiar with the word scientism, but had breathed it in long ago.

What is scientism? According to philosopher of science, Thomas Sorell, “Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is the most valuable part of human learning . . . it is the most authoritative or serious or beneficial. . . (S)cience is the only valuable part of learning”vi Sorell concludes, “what is crucial about scientism is not what is or is not scientific, but that the scientific is much more valuable than the non-scientific. The non-scientific has negligible value.”vii

Those persuaded by scientism, believe that scientific knowledge is objective, factual, knowable and true. Non-scientific knowledge is (ethics, philosophy, theology, and religious conviction) subjective, personal, uncertain and believed. It is important to note that scientism is not science. It is not known scientifically. Scientism cannot be tested. It cannot be observed or even falsified in the lab. Rather, scientism is a way of thinking (philosophy) about science and what can be known about our world (epistemology). In apologetic terms, this makes scientism self-defeating. Scientism itself is non-scientific and when its’ own standard is applied to itself, it only has negligible value.

Following the Trail: Materialism and Causation

Before we proceed we have a couple terms we should be familiar with. First, we need to describe the term, materialism. Materialism refers to belief that everything that exists is made of matter or depends upon matter for their existence or behavior. It is the belief that everything that exists can only be explained by physics and chemistry. This understanding of reality rules out the non-material. For example, there is no God and there is no soul.

Secondly, materialism implies the causal closure of the physical. The causal closure of the physical means that when tracing the causal antecedents of any physical event, one will never have to leave the level of the physical.viii All physical events have physical antecedent causes. For example, if you return home to find your floors wet, you can trace the causal antecedents back to someone forgetting to turn off the bath water. A physical person turned the physical handle to release the pressurized water. The water flowed into the tub and eventually overflowed. These are all physical causes. After further investigation you discover that your youngest son decided to fill the tub with water so he could play with his toy boats. But when you called him to come with the family to McDonald’s he forgot to turn the water off. Your youngest was the first cause and he is appropriately physical. Physical causation is true for every event in the universe. Under this view the first causal event of the universe must be determined at the level of the physical. It cannot be the creative act of God.

Following the Trail: Learning Machines and Self-Aware Machines

Now that these pieces are in place we can return to the experts and AI with a better understanding for their belief in the coming of self-aware machines. The difference between learning machines and self-aware machines is indicated by the terms, Strong AI and Weak AI. Strong AI refers to machines with self-awareness. Weak AI refers to learning machines without self-awareness. AlphaGo and Deep Blue are examples of learning machines.

All machines, including learning machines (Weak AI) have no intentionality. They are not about anything. AlphaGo did not set out to beat the world champion of Go. AlphaGo just did it. That was what it was programmed to do. Machines are not disappointed when they are tasked to do the mundane rather than the extraordinary. They simply proceed as programmed. They do not care if their user likes another machine more. They do not care if they are overworked. And if they are overworked and then overheat, it is only a mechanical-physical result. No angry laptops here.

On the other hand, self-aware machines (in theory) do care if they are overworked. They have intentions. They are about anything they choose. Star Trek’s Data was all about his cat Spot, classical music and protecting the Enterprise. Self-aware machines know how they are being treated. Just like humans.

Following the Trail: Self-Aware Machines and Human Consciousness

Neuroscience is the scientific discipline that studies what human consciousness is and where it comes from. Informed by scientism, materialism and physical causation, neuroscience studies human brain responses to stimulus in order to understand human consciousness (the sense of self) and how it arises from the brain.

If human consciousness arises from the biological machinery of the brain and its’ electrical activity, then why wouldn’t consciousness, or self-awareness emerge from the complex machinery and electrical activity of AI? If the human sense of self (the soul) is not the creation of a personal God, and is instead, a property of physical complexity, then self-aware AI would be inevitable. All that is needed is time to produce the complexity and sophistication needed for sentient machines.

The connection between the human brain, consciousness and learning machines is not lost on the Strong AI skeptic either. Cognitive neuroscientist, Bobby Azarian, in his article, “The Myth of Sentient Machines,” provides very compelling reasons (his emphasis) that Strong AI will never be achieved. Then he states the following.

Upon hearing this, one might be inclined to ask, “If a computer can’t be conscious, then how can a brain?” After all, it is a purely physical object that works according to physical law. It even uses electrical activity to process information, just like a computer. Yet somehow we experience the world subjectively—from a first person perspective where inner, qualitative and ineffable sensations occur that are only accessible to us. . . . The truth is scientists are still trying to figure all this out. ­How physical phenomena, like biochemical and electrical processes, create sensation and unified experience is known as the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, and is widely recognized by neuroscientists and philosophers.ix

Azarian may be a skeptic when it comes to self-aware machines, but his scientism is clear when considering human consciousness.

If the scientistic air we breathe is correct, then the only way to understand human consciousness is through physical causation. The confidence of our experts is understandable, but would be better served by listening to skeptics like Azarian. But if the scientistic air we breathe is a deep and influential myth, then the answer to human consciousness lies outside the reach of science. And it would follow that self-aware AI is out of reach as well.

Billions of dollars and the brightest minds are committed to this task. Is it money well spent? Or simply, well, spent?

Upcoming articles…

Part 2: Human Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Evidence for Substance Dualism (Integrated Body and Soul)

Part 3: The importance of the Soul in a World Committed to Materialism.


i The Mind in the Machine: The Myth of Sentient Machines, Dr. Bobby Azarian, Psychology Today (June 1, 2016)

ii Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn About Artificial Intelligence, Michael Sainato, Observer

iii Ibid.

iv Scientism and Secularism, p. 31., JP Moreland.

v Ibid, p. 29.

vi Ibid, p. 29.

vii Ibid, p. 29.

viii Ibid, p. 29.

ix The Mind in the Machine: The Myth of Sentient Machines, Dr. Bobby Azarian, Psychology Today (June 1, 2016)

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