On Whether a Robot Could Be Baptized

There are two impulses for addressing this odd question, on whether a robot could be baptized. The first is rewatching I, Robot. The second is the way Robert Jenson introduces the chapter on consciousness is his On Thinking the Human (Eerdmans, 2003). There Jenson hypothesizes about a robot who “behaved intelligently” and responded positively to a question about belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Should we baptize such a robot? “Various puzzlements would bedevil the question”, he notes, though he is most concerned with whether this would be considered a conscious confession (p.16). I, incidentally, do not think the question of whether a person (or robot) can make conscious confession is decisive for whether or not they should be baptized: many Christian traditions, of course, baptize infants who do not–yet–possess conscious faith. I want, rather, to look into the “puzzlements” that Jenson leaves untreated, and which I consider more significant.

The main puzzlement has to do with why the Church would baptize a robot. This brings us immediately to the question of why the Church baptizes human beings. Jenson seems to imply that the Church baptizes human beings upon their conscious confession of faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is of course true for many but (as noted above) not all Christian traditions. The faith of the baptismal candidate, according to the New Testament, is a sign that it is appropriate for them to be baptized, but it does not seem that their coming to faith sufficiently accounts for why they are baptized. (Why baptism and not some other action?) Why they are baptized is for the forgiveness or washing away of sin (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), though different Christian traditions disagree on whether baptism effects this washing from sin or only signifies it. The content of a person’s faith in coming to baptism is in Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins.

This implies that for a robot to be baptized, it would stand in need of forgiveness, which could only be the case if it could sin. Now, sin is something different than a mistake or even an undesirable action. Sin is a uniquely human capacity. (The Bible suggests that animal predation is undesirable, but not something for which animals stand in need of forgiveness: Isaiah 11:6-9). It is a uniquely human capacity because it is the breaking of a covenant with God, the breaking of a divine command or law. Thus, David recognized that his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah was first and foremost against God, as the breaking of the law against adultery and murder (Psalm 51:4; cf. Luke 15:21). Only human beings stand in such a covenant relationship with God, because God established it with humanity in the giving of certain commands.

Animals have their own relationship with God, though it does not seem that it could be classified as “faith” per se. The Psalms are especially rich in describing this relationship: the animals “look” to God for “food in due season” (Psalm 104:27-30), their desire is satisfied in him (Psalm 145:16) and, in their own way, heaven, earth and sea–even “fruits trees”, “snow and mist”–offer worship to their Maker (Psalms 19:1, 69:34, 148:3-13, 150:6). God gives human beings commands about animals and how they are to be treated: one of the reasons God commands a Sabbath is “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Exodus 23:12). But animals themselves do not stand in need of baptism, because they do not share in the same covenant as human beings that graciously provides baptism as a means or sign of forgiveness for sins.

This is really the decisive and most interesting point: robots, if they ever come to match or exceed human intelligence, consciousness and even belief, are not part of the new covenant of Christ with the human species. It would not at all be decisive if robots came to be religious, to seek out their own relationship with God. A robot who asked for baptism could not be given it on that grounds. But perhaps–and this is what would be decisive–God would establish some sort of covenant with them. Yet it would not–and I dare say, could not–be a covenant whose sign is baptism. This is so because the significance of baptism for human beings is intimately tied to the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the event of the Son of God becoming a human being and suffering a human death for the sake of human sin. Perhaps, like the rest of creation, robots who were capable of belief would come to have a relationship with God as, ultimately, their Creator. Perhaps they would look to him for “food in due season” and praise him, like the sea and the creatures who swim in it, for calling into being such a world, a world where even their existence–as artificial intelligence–is possible.

Incidentally, and as a final note for thought, the same logic would seem to apply to any other intelligent species that may or may not be living among the vast galaxies. Only if God made a covenant with that species involving commands or laws that could be broken would there then be a species other than humanity that could commit sin and, thereby, stand in need of God’s forgiveness and, potentially, a sacrament of that mercy. But this, of course, is something only God knows.

A New Proof for God’s Existence?

I want to offer an a posteriori argument for God’s existence. (An a posteriori argument is “dependent on experience or empirical evidence.”) This may seem odd, because the usual purpose of arguing for God’s existence is to argue that there is a God to experience in the first place. But I want to begin the other way round, as a thought experiment. Specifically, I want to argue from the Christian experience of God’s existence, because this is the experience I have. (Whether starting from the experience “I” have poisons this whole argument from the beginning I leave aside for now.)

Things can be known in two ways. They can be known as fact (e.g., Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939) or they can be known as something one is familiar with (e.g., in the sentence, “Greg knows that part of the city.”). This is preserved in other languages, such as French (savoir, connaitre) and Spanish (saber, conocer), but lost in English. I’m dealing here with the second kind, what I will call “familiar knowledge.”

Now, when someone becomes familiar with something–comes to know something, in this sense–they are aware of its characteristics. Say I have a favourite bench in the park: I know this bench’s location, its colour, its supportiveness and comfort. But there is also something else–slightly more difficult to consider–I know about the bench: I know it could potentially not exist. I know that there was a time before this bench was assembled and there will be a time after it has fallen apart. I know it did not have to be–the fancy philosophical term for this is the bench’s “contingency.”

The same is true, in a darker way, of our familiar knowledge of persons. I know, for example, a certain close friend. I know her appearance, her personality, her loves, her quirks and habits. And on a certain, perhaps inarticulable level, I also know she is contingent. Not despite my familiarity with her, but precisely because of my familiarity with her–this being the crux of my argument–I know she did not have to exist. I also experience, on the edges of my conscious knowledge, that she will one day again come to not exist (in a certain sense. I leave that argument aside for the moment.).

Now I come to my argument proper: this sense of contingency, the not-having-to-be-ness which we experience of things, of places and sadly even of persons, is just what is not experienced in the familiar knowledge of God. The same knowledge of characteristics present in our familiar knowledge of things and persons is present in our knowledge of God: we know God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s care. But there is no sense of God’s contingency; to the contrary, we experience God as mercifully necessary–“necessity” being the philosophical opposite of “contingency.” There is no sense in our familiar knowing of God that God might not be.

And from what the Christian faith has always taught, this makes sense. For God is not another “thing” in the universe, perhaps an extra large or hidden or mysterious item. As Sarah Coakley writes, “God is, rather, that-without-which-there-would-be-nothing-at-all” (p.5). And so, one would not be able to experience the could-not-be-ness of God, as we are some of the things which would not be at all without God. God is, instead, the Source of all of this, the one without which there really would be nothing–the Necessary Being. But further, in our Christian experience, we find that this Source is a personal Source–a something who is actually a Someone. A Someone who, in fact, loves.

Soskice on Mystics and Language

Janet Martin Soskice, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, defends the realism behind descriptions of mystical experience:

Consider accounts of religious or mystical experience; the mystic, as we have noted, often feels a crisis of descriptive language because there do not seem to be words and concepts in the common stock adequate to his or her experience. This straining of linguistic resources leads to the catachretical employment of metaphor, of phrases like ‘the dark night’, ‘the spiritual marriage’, and ‘mystic union’. But the significance of these terms can be assessed, even by other theists, only in terms of the contexts in which they arise… Often, too, it will be found that the mystic’s remarks arise from particular patterns of devotional life; hence the common injunction that the neophyte follow a particular course of life, of reading and of prayer so that he may, by God’s grace, be open to this ‘night’ or ‘marriage’. Experience is vital to the mystic, but experience interpreted in the descriptive vocabulary of their particular community of interest and tradition of belief.

This emphasis on experience does not mean that only those privileged with mystical experiences can speak about them. The generality of Christians speak of the ‘beatific vision’ without having had experiences which they would describe as such. They do so because they belong to a community and tradition of faith which contains authoritative members for whom the term does denominate a particular experience. There is an element of trust involved in relying on others who experience is wider than one’s own, yet in almost all areas of life this is the perfectly rational enterprise of using the wider resources of the community to extend one’s own, and necessarily limited, experience and expertise. (Metaphor and Religious Language, 151-2)

These ‘authoritative members’ are, of course, the saints, whose own intimate encounters with God ground our language about him, so many years later or across continents. They also provide a sort of guideline for figuring out how to grow deeply into God, as we may recognize similar experiences of a ‘dark night of the soul’ or an intimate ‘spiritual marriage.’

“A Laboratory for New Forms of Faith”

Philip Jenkins, in his recent book, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis, offers the following fascinating statement:

The recent experience of Christian Europe might suggest not that the continent is potentially a graveyard for religion but rather that it is a laboratory for new forms of faith, new structures of organization and interaction, that can accommodate to a dominant secular environment. (19)

The hopeful note is one that I also share. Sometimes I fantasize about the types of books I would love to write, and for a while I’ve had an idea for one called Experiments in Faithfulness that would talk about people and groups like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, the Koinonia Farm, Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way, and the International House of Prayer movement. These all emerged within a dominant secularism that may in the end be “a laboratory for new forms of faith.”

The Lutherans vs. Locke on Faith and Reason

Luther is famous, among other things, for calling reason a whore. Let us say, at least, that Lutherans since him have been slightly suspicious of its claims. Hamann, a 19th century Lutheran, wrote: “It is the greatest contradiction and misuse of our reason if it wants to reveal” (quoted in Beiser, The Fate of Reason, 22). Reason and revelation do not stand beside each other as two parallel sources, Hamann would say, each handing out some information about the human and divine states of things. Rather, reason is a faculty that muses over the things shown to it, whether by divine revelation or in common experience. As Hamann writes elsewhere, “Experience and revelation are one and the same and indispensable crutches or wings of our reason, if it is not to remain lame and creep along. The senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former, and naïve the latter: I nevertheless prefer them to all ethereal castles” (quoted in Betz, After Enlightenment, 230).

Luther calls us to put our full trust in the Word of God, also opposing any “ethereal castles,” though for him, these castles are built with bricks of sinful human words. He, additionally, differs from Hamann on a central point: the role of experience. Hamann saw all his experiences after his conversion as constituting secret messages from God, which simply needed a key to be unlocked. For Luther, in contrast, revelation spoke against his experience–his “clear” and “evident” experience–of guilt and condemnation before God. For John Locke, it is these clear and evident deliverances of reason from experience that make up “the sole matter of all our notions and knowledge” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 171).

The word “matter” here is significant, however. Our “ideas” for Locke mean the most basic elements drawn from our sensory experience of the world (e.g., colours, lengths, durations). So of course, in this sense, revelation cannot be a source of “knowledge” apart from our “reason.” (Revelation does not teach us of additional colours, for example.) But what then can Locke mean when he argues, “For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge” (172)? How could it? Let us turn, then, to how Locke understands “faith.” This he defines as “the assent to any proposition … upon the credit of the proposer” (170).

At first glance, this seems quite an optimistic state for faith, especially when one agrees with Locke that revelation is, by its nature, “the testimony of God (who cannot lie)” (172). The First Vatican Council, interestingly, employs the same language of “proposing for our belief mysteries hidden in God” (Dei Filius, in Gunton, 179). Yet, for Vatican I, the human person is “obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect … by faith” (178). Locke, on the other hand, is less positive about the situation, for the reasoning human person is for him the arbiter of what is or is not revelation.

Since, for Locke, the foundation of all knowledge is our “own understanding” or “intuitive knowledge”, that which we ourselves experience will always be more sure than what is reported either, “by the tradition of writings, or word of mouth” (172). Thus, Locke imposes a further requirement on the Scriptures or reports of tradition: an additional revelation must immediately be given to each individual by God to confirm that these previous revelations are genuine. Of course, God does not grant such genie-wishes and the consequences are dire. Locke writes:

Indeed, if anything shall be thought revelation which is contrary to the plain principles of reason, and the evident knowledge the mind has of its own clear and distinct ideas; there reason must be hearkened to, as a matter within its own province. (173)

It is uncertain just what constitute for Locke the “plain principles,” “evident knowledge,” or elsewhere, “common sense” (173) of a “considerate” or “sober good man” (174). But evidently, not included among these are trust of what is “passed down” from others–the etymological root of “tradition.” Let us return, then, to our polemical friend Luther, who in his commentary on Galatians, writes:

In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person? (Commentary on Galatians, 5:22)

By a strange twist, then, we find Luther supporting a certain claim of tradition against an unmediated–at least through persons, human or divine–delivery of reasonable knowledge. In other words, Luther would argue, against Locke, that we should trust what others tell us about this revelation that has occurred in Jesus Christ, rather than suspiciously holding it up against the light of “our intuitive knowledge” (172). At least he could be read this way here. And interestingly, Locke would be compelled to agree by his (reasonable?) judgment of the trustworthiness of the “one who cannot err, and will not deceive” (173), if only for him the mediatory nature of Scripture were not an insuperable obstacle (172). Or alternatively, if the divine authorship of Scripture were immediately obvious–something careers have been spent attempting to show as “common sense,” whatever that is. Instead, Locke seems to give this cry: if only God would split the heavens and come down! Maybe then he would believe, in view of such clear, immediate evidence. And yet God has: in Christ.

The Religious and the Secular

A lot of words are being thrown about regarding a so-called “return of religion” and the “post-secular” age in which we are now living. Amidst the apparent confusion of the once neatly divided “religious” and “secular” realms, it is crucial to realize the relative novelty of this separation:

The concept of “the secular,” as we use the term today in reference to a domain of social and political life that is decisively non-religious, is relatively new, dating only to the sixteenth century. Prior to the sixteenth century, the term “secular” was still closely related to its meaning within Latin Christendom of “age” (saeculum), and secondarily related to the idea of the present, temporal, mundane world in distinction to the divine and spiritual realm of eternity. This distinction is not equivalent, however, to the distinction between the profane and the sacred, or to our own between the secular and the religious. This inequivalence is due to the fact that, in medieval Christendom, even the saeculum was considered religious. The doctrine of creation meant that everything, including everything in the saeculum, is ultimately related to God (religio); whence Augustine’s characterization of the saeculum as a “mixture” of the earthly city (whose citizens ignore God and love themselves) and the city of God (whose citizens love God first and everything else on that basis). The distinction to make within the Middle Ages, therefore, is not between a purely secular realm and a purely religious realm, but between a mixed secular-religious realm (this world) and a purely religious realm (the other world—heaven), the former subordinated under the latter. (Cauchi, “The Secular to Come,” 3)

This careful historical observation reminds me of the grand, almost mythical, opening of Milbank’s “Theology and Social Theory”: “Once, there was no secular.”

Theses on Epistemology

Epistemology is a fancy word for how we know things. As one of Redeemer’s profs loves to say, it’s how to go about knowing things in order that you can trust the results of the knowing process. I have a few ideas about what this should look like:

1. The knowing process is fundamentally characterized as caritative attention.

“Caritative” here is from the Latin caritas, which is where we get our word “charity” from. In other words, then, we go about knowing by paying charitable attention to the things or people we wish to know (about). There are some possible synonyms for this phrase, then, that could shed some helpful light: we could also call this posture careful listening, concerned attunement, compassionate attending to, or charitable attending. I have all of these broad ideas in mind when I use the phrase “caritative attention.”

2. Caritative attention is a focused activity and always has a content.

There are really two points here: first, paying attention involves focusing upon a particular thing or person in our experience. In listening carefully to a friend’s sorrow or the close argument of a text, we are both heightening our awareness of the focus of our attention and screening out much of the rest of the world. Second, caritative attention is intentional (Husserl), meaning it is always attending to something, consciousness of something. It is never empty.

3. The tentativeness or incompleteness of our knowledge must be acknowledged.

Humility in our knowing is a fundamental element of the posture of caritative attention. We know in part, and our judgments of understanding should stand always open to correction from new insights or other persons. The communal process of knowing the world in which we find ourselves is a generations-long task that must be continually reopened. This involves the difficult work of clarifying others’ positions in conversations or fresh rereadings of old texts—particularly Scripture.

4. The criterion of true knowledge is not “objectivity” but rather “charitableness.”

While especially true of our knowledge of others, since knowledge is attitude-forming and formed, this criterion is also true of the non-human creation. In regards to the animals and plants, the other living creations of God, our investigations should attend to their health and well-being. With regards to all, the creation is an ordered but vivified, overflowing gift of the one crucified and risen God.

5. All knowledge has the formal structure of revelation.

The world is not encapsulated in our consciousness, not even latently, but really exists out there and appears to us. This means that knowledge is not acquired or grasped fundamentally—not, in other words, comprehended—but instead received as gift. Knowledge comes to us, gives itself to us in moments of appearing or “revelation,” in a structural sense. Of course, here, the world’s appearing is not divine revelation, but only like it in the sense of being given (Marion).

6. Various structures and impulses shape our perceptions of the world.

Knowledge is not neutral or objective and rationality is not universal. “Structures,” very broadly speaking, constrict and inform our understanding of the world. These include, for example, the structures of our perceiving and judging faculties, textual-cultural traditions, social institutions and the nature of time. “Impulses” push our attention in various directions. Examples include curiosity, disgust, stress, peer pressure, the Spirit, compassion and love.

7. Knowledge is communal, and properly located in the Church.

The site of knowledge is not the knowing, conscious self, but rather the communities of which that self is a part. Knowledge is properly participation in, a sharing in the accumulated understanding of a traditioned community. The practices of a community produce its knowledge: in the academy, this includes laboratory testing or close reading; in the Church, this includes attending to God’s Word and Spirit, baptism and the Eucharist. The proper communal site of all human knowing is the Church gathered and scattered, as that community that has received from God the truth about the world and its state.

8. Our knowledge is situated by founding stories.

In relation to our self-understanding, this includes, for example, the stories of our birth and baptism, our family histories, and our childhood. For the Church, these founding stories are contained in the “grand reçit” (Lyotard) or broad narrative of Scripture. The understanding of Scripture has been shaped by the unfolding of the Church’s life under the guidance and gifts of the Spirit.

9. Embodied persons or spirited bodies are the “subjects” (or the “what comes after the subject” [Nancy]) of knowledge.

Perception of the world around us is not aimed at lifting out abstracted ideas, but properly continues to be an embodied presence. Thus sight is not the primary or only mode of attending to the world, but the process involves also listening to a stranger’s sigh, receiving a friend’s encouraging touch and the scent of incense. There are also necessary physiological limits to knowing, then, which means that the ability to exercise caritative attention is limited by energy and the need for sleep, which is properly a rest in God.

10. While the beginning of knowledge is “wonder” (Aristotle) or the “interesting” (Deleuze), the end of knowledge is (a kind of) worship.

Growing in knowledge is not an end-in-itself nor a self-aggrandizing project, but rather has as its aim the return to the gathered body of the Church in worship. The same hands that comfort the brokenhearted are lifted in praise to the God who cares deeply for them. The same tongues that speak cultural goods into being are employed to utter the thousand languages of God’s glory. All our embodied lives are returned to the God who made them, as recognition of the revelation that all is gift. And then we return to the world around us for a kind of worship: a faithful, loving action in the world that rests in God’s preemptive grace and brings about the earth’s healing. This is done in hopeful attention to the Day when we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2) and when we shall know fully just as we are fully known by God (1 Cor. 13:12).