The Implications of Artificial Intelligence Upon
Jewish and Christian Understandings of Personhood
MIT Conference, 30 April 2 May 1998
Summarized by Paul Henry Carr
RODNEY BROOKS, Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science and
Engineering and Director, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Rodney Brooks designs humanoid robots as an assembly of micro machines. Humans are composed of cells, which he regards as being reducible to micro machines. We are materialistic beings which  attribute spiritual qualities to ourselves. On the other had, when Brooks interacts with his children and students, he does not treat them as machines.

 The humanoid robot, Cog, is designed in Brooks' lab to interact with people and its environment. He is working towards making robots with emotions and feelings. When this happens, "We will attribute to them souls and spirituality." (He might have added that pet lovers already attribute love and loyalty to their dogs and cats. Some even put monuments on their graves.)

Brooks feels that we need to dismiss the idea that we are special in the same manner that we have abandoned the idea that the earth is the center of the universe. Brooks said that Roger Penrose, who has authored books with Steven Hawking, is incorrect in contending that some aspects of the human mind lie beyond computation: "There is something in the conscious activity of the brain," writes Penrose, "that transcends computation-and will find no explanation in terms of present-day science." ( Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness", Oxford University Press, 1966.)

 HARVEY COX, Victor Thomas Professor of Religion, Harvard Divinity School

"The word 'spiritual' today is often used to mean 'generic religious.' But we do not live within a generic religion, we live within specific particular religious tradition." Harvey Cox's Christian tradition adopted the Judaic belief that the soul can not be separated from the body and condemned the Greek idea of  spirit-separate-from-the-body as the Gnostic Heresy. The Biblical/Jewish idea that God creates humans in God's Image is expressed in the Christian idea of Incarnation (not as a one-time event but as a permanent reality.) Jesus the Christ was both divine and human. "To be truly spiritual is to be truly human." This radically alters the way we ask: "Can humanoids be spiritual?"  Instead we must ask: "Can humanoids be fully human?" Can humanoids "sigh, blush, have sex, menstruate, cry, give birth, laugh?" In conclusion, Harvey Cox thanked Rodney Brooks for the conversation he and their students have been having .


During the discussion period, Rodney asked Harvey: "Can humanoids be spiritual?" Harvey first quoted St. Paul (Eph 6:12) "for we labor not against flesh and blood.... but against spiritual wickedness in high places." His final answer was: "Giving them spirituality may not be doing them a favor!" With regard to dropping our claim of "specialness," Harvey replied: "My being created for a specific purpose different from the rest of creation is my faith claim, and I am therefore not anxious." Both speakers expressed their reservation about the "overused and misused term consciousness." Several members of the audience suggested that grades-of-consciousness and "specialness" of humans, as opposed to animals and humanoids, are more useful than absolute distinctions.

ANNE FOERST, Postdoc Fellow, MIT AI Laboratory and Harvard Ctr. for Values in Public Life

Most humans have an intuitive sense of our own identity, a sense of the continuity of our life even tough our cells, abilities, thoughts, and world views change. Our identity is associated with embodiment and character.  Identity is part of the dialectic between mythos and logos:

mythos: identity, interpretation, story, meaning: WHY
logos: rational, logical: HOW
Every logos is based on mythos: unproven assumptions and stories. If the mythos is not articulated, that the logos become is own mythos. We get our identity by membership in a community of belief, such as Christian or Jewish. Thus there is an element of exclusiveness in our identity. Identity is not a concept which can be proven scientifically, but is a value we appropriate for ourselves. "Identity is a gift from God as an affirmation, not a physical property." 
ROSALIND PICARD, NEC Development Professor of Computers and Communications and
Associate Professor of Media Technology, MIT Media Laboratory

Which will have greater dignity, humans or computers?
This is a disturbing question, as in some ways computers have greater abilities than humans.
The key to human dignity is not in performance criteria, but in our need to transcend our finitude and ask what has endowed us with life in the first place.

WARREN BROWN, Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary

Modern cognitive neuroscience challenges the dualist view of personal dignity based on our having bodies inhabited by immortal, non material souls. We need to return to the Hebrew and Christian view that humans are souls-they they do not have souls. The uniqueness of personhood lies in our ability to relate to the world, to others, and to God. Our ultimate dignity comes for our acceptance that God has chosen to reciprocate in a covenant relation with us.

A recurrent theme of the conference is that our ultimate formation, dignity, and personhood comes from the religious symbol " Image of God."  David Gordis, President and Professor of Rabbinics, Hebrew College, described "Image of God" as the "capacity of human beings to make informed moral choices and the obligation to do so; the dual reality of the tragic dimension of the human experience and the ability to feel compassion."   The symbol "Image of God" meant "intellect" up to and including Thomas Aquinas, "moral substance" for Luther, and "transcendent spirituality" for Calvin. As the distinctions between animals and machines becomes more diffuse, the symbol "Image of God," might be more meaningfully interpreted as "sustaining creativity" (Tillich, pg. 261 "Systematic Theology, vol. 1) or "dynamic becoming."