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Review of ‘Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media’ by Joshua K. Smith

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John Reader reflects on the philosophical questions and theological challenges of robots, embodiment, and human identity in Joshua K. Smith’s ‘Robot Theology: Old Questions Through New Media’ (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2022).

June 4th 2022 in the UK is the 4th day of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations but the news this morning is all about the events from which she will be absent, not surprising given her age! She had appeared for much of the event on screens projected at a great distance from the assembled crowds. Had there been the possibility of a robot or avatar replacement would that have sufficed instead? What is so important about the presence of the “real person”?  

It would seem that real people are in process of becoming an anachronism. Joshua K. Smith’s new book, Robot Theology: Old Questions through New Media (2022), addresses the question of how Artificial Intelligence and robots might become part of the theological vision.  

Smith suggests that the lacuna in the field of human-robot interaction (HRI) is firstly because Christians and theologians have a pessimistic view of human nature (3). This subject might be more appropriately approached under the heading of a critique of dualism and the division between mind or spirit and body.  A second explanation for this lacuna could be the widely held Christian belief in human exceptionalism and the doctrine of the humans made in the ‘image of God’ (imago dei). Smith suggests that humans are unique in terms of function, rather than ontologically distinct. I agree that these are crucial questions but would argue that they require deeper reflection, and could perhaps benefit from the concept of distributed agency, as well as ideas of human non-human assemblages (see my “Theology and New Materialism” 2017). 

The main aim of this book is to examine how robots can serve as a new media for theological and metaphysical discourse in an age of scientism (4). Humans and robots can work together for human flourishing if there is a balance between humans’ involvement and the morality of the machine. By making moral machines, we must give careful attention to how robots are designed to interact with humans. With this consideration, the telos of machine should be to aid the efforts of an array of religions and ideologies. Smith rightly suggests that technology is no mere tool but is in fact a profoundly religious ideology. What, however, I feel is lacking is a more robustly philosophical perspective. For, in his analysis, there is a danger of subsuming “technology” beneath a theological banner, which could be regarded as a form of biblical imperialism.  

In chapter one Smith argues that attempts to transcend human limitations through technology have been around a long time. What, he asks, is different about robots? How, following Jesus, can we respond to “the other” in the figure of robots (13). There is a danger of idolatry in human attempts to manipulate and control robots in search for identity and security.  For there is a temptation to turn new technologies into objects of reverence and worship (15). AI and robots will not simply change the world around us, but will also change the way we relate to each other. Does this not then require a new conceptuality? Smith correctly points to the dangers of a view of reductive materialism that would suggest these issues will be resolved through the scientific study of the material world.  

As AI must be embodied in mechanical computers,  and draws upon human user interaction and natural resources, there remains a danger of treating it as a disembodied agent, in which ethical values and responsible decisions are built into the machines beyond philosophical questioning. In the second chapter, Smith describes how Christians and theists believe that there are objective moral standards that point to actions or desires that are either right or wrong.  Despite grounding moral values in the Bible, he nevertheless demands a more nuanced investigation to ethical and regulatory guidelines (25). He writes: “We know there are God-given standards to what makes something good and just.” The problem of the Tower of Babel was, as Smith interprets, not that humans were collaborating through technology, but rather that they had desired to subvert their Creator through technological means.  

Technology is, Smith insists, neither innately good or bad. Rather each instance must be assessed according to the following three criteria. First, technology  must not conflict with God’s moral law. Second, technology must promote the Christian understanding of love. Third, technologies must foster the biblical concept of stewardship. And fourth and finally they must not oppress and limit liberty and conscience. (27)  

Any advances will come at a cost and no matter how tempting the benefits “we cannot subvert the design and decrees of the LORD”.  Smith further discusses familiar issues concerning responsibility, privacy, big data and the dangers of the control of technology (See Zuboff 2019, and Veliz 2021). Current approaches to AI and robot ethics typically assume a mechanical metaphysics, in which there is no room for the nonmaterial or the supernatural (37). We should, I suggest, seek to move beyond reductive materialism and form-matter dualisms by developing the insights of New Materialism(s), as perhaps a more promising source of critique in conversation with elements from less traditional religious sources.  

In chapter three on Christian anthropology, patiency and personhood, Smith argues that there may be ethical reasons to grant certain qualified entities negative rights and protections because to do so may positively impact conditions of human and environmental flourishing  (45).  There are, he suggests, four recognized forms of personhood. First, moral: this person is a moral actor and therefore a moral patient. Second, psychological: this person is sentient, can suffer and displays intentionality. Third, legal: this person can be the subject of law or exercise rights. Fourth, relational: this person is determined by the nature of relationship or character they play in the moral actor’s story (48).  

The next section is on robots and moral patiency. The key question is whether moral agency can be attributed to robots?  To do so, Smith argues, risks devaluing and dehumanizing humans through human-robot interaction. Not granting moral standing to social robots though is dangerous as to neglect this scholarship is to risk skewing anthropology toward a non-biblical perspective of the human person (57).  Social robots, he suggests, do not ever have to be moral agents or pass the Turing test. For when a robot behaves in ways that are similar to humans it is of no consequence whether they have an inner self, moral agency or consciousness. Regardless of these concerns, they deserve moral consideration simply because of the potential moral injury to the human counterpart. Is this not a watered-down version of human exceptionalism? Would not the conceptuality of human non-human assemblages be a more effective means of dealing with this? Is it not simply about interactions but about the ways in which both evolve and develop through relationship? 

It seems clear, in Chapter Four, that many current debates are trying hard to catch up with these developing issues, and it is not immediately obvious that an explicitly Christian or biblical perspective should have anything distinctive to offer.  Smith begins, in Chapter Five, with a section on the biblical idea of friendship or companionship supplemented with a study of modern philosophical and psychological views. Will human values and relationships be damaged or undermined by those with robots? There are issues of exploitation and manipulation for the benefit of the controlling party. He further discusses the dangers of surveillance and external control. Friendships with robots can, he concludes, supplement human friendships, yet cannot be considered as a substitute or replacement, as such a substitution would also undermine or devalue those relationships. Could there though not be examples where “friendships” with the non-human are more reliable and secure than those with humans? 

Smith begins Chapter Six with the biblical-theological understanding of race. Further brief sections include important yet well-documented concerns about inbuilt bias in the technologies. How and to what extent can governance and regulation counter these biases and how can the processes of development be engaged early enough to make a real difference? (See Evans and Reader address this in “Ethics after New Materialism” Temple Tract 2019 proposing a modest ethics). 

In Chapter seven Smith presents an important section on embodiment. He argues that the Christian tradition has, in its disdain for disembodiment, effectively made an unholy alliance with physicalism (121). There should, he argues, be room in the Christian metaphysics and ecclesiology for a qualified disembodied presence. Embracing strict theological physicalism seems to conflict with the biblical reality that presence is not merely about biological material or physical embodiment (123).  

Experiences during the pandemic have raised the issues of presence in a significant way and require further reflection, but attempting to interpret this through an exclusively biblical lens holds the debate in a straitjacket, and could alternatively be remedied by bringing in other sources and ideas. There are further concerns for the pastoral context, and the role of the remote or virtual as well as the presence of robots. There are also environmental consequences of disembodiment that need to be taken into consideration. 

In the brief conclusion, Smith reiterates the attempt to lay out some of the territory.  While this is an important task my main concern is that the subject requires a more fully developed interpretive framework drawing on philosophical as well as theological sources. 

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Staying with the Trouble 3.0: One Bishop, One City, One Hope

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The William Temple Foundation, in partnership with Leeds Church Institute, is delighted to launch the latest series in our ground-breaking podcast Staying with the Trouble. The series will run for the next six weeks, starting 7th June, 2022.

Entitled Perspectives on Poverty and Exclusion in Leeds and produced by Rosie Dawson, the series is anchored by Bishop James Jones, Bishop Emeritus of Liverpool. Via six interviews with key actors across the city, Bishop Jones traces the impact of the current cost of living crisis on the lives of ordinary citizens, and the relationships and practices of solidarity, care, compassion and justice that emerge to provide resilience and hope to so many facing hardship and despair.

As Bishop Jones summarises, these relationships and networks reflect ‘an organic regeneration’ that cuts deeply across religious, secular, ideological, cultural and ethnic divides.

Director of Research for the Foundation, Professor Chris Baker reflects, ‘In this Platinum Jubilee Year, with its emphasis on theme of service as exemplified by Queen Elizabeth, this series really resonates as it shows how daily acts of service and sacrificial leadership build resilience and hope across our communities in the darkest of times.’

Dr Helen Reid, Director, Leeds Church Institute says, ‘I commend the podcast series to all who love Leeds and are troubled by inequality here. The podcasts combine personal experience and local perspectives with insight, hope and action for building a fairer city.’

For further information contact Dr Ryan Haecker:

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Reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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David Ormrod is Professor of Economic and Cultural History at University of Kent

My suggestion from the floor of the conference (sparked in part by several papers attempting to define the scope of Temple’s thinking for our current social order) was that we should recall the thinking of the Christian Left in the 1930s and 40s beside which Temple’s social thought can be seen in clearer perspective.  This is especially important today for those who deplore the inequalities created by the dismantling of the welfare state from the 1980s.  Although some in the conference and elsewhere see this as creating new opportunities for religious engagement, the former must view this state of affairs with alarm.

Christianity and Social Order opens with the clearest possible affirmation of the Church’s claim to be heard in relation to economic and political issues.  Its historical reference points come directly from Tawney, and Temple’s description of the nineteenth-century pioneers of the Christian social movement affirms their significance in recovering the Church’s moral authority and commitment to social justice, in retreat since the post-Restoration decades.  Since the late eighteenth century, urbanisation and industrialisation created conditions demanding social reform, but until the 1840s, the primary concern of reformers was still for individuals (pp. 1-10).

From the 1880s to 1945, we can identify a developing Christian and socialist convergence, and Temple’s contribution is best understood in this context.  In 1937, Clement Attlee wrote, ‘…probably the majority of those who have built up the socialist movement in this country have been adherents of the Christian religion – and not merely adherents, but enthusiastic members of some religious body.  There are probably more texts from the Bible enunciated from socialist platforms than from those of all other parties.’ The Malvern conference of 1941 marked the high point of these convergent forces, and as they have dissipated, something of an ethical void has opened up in our society. 

During the interwar years, more than a dozen Christian socialist societies and movements flourished in Britain, with the express purpose of exercising a prophetic and vanguardist role within the churches and in society at large.  We can identify two main tendencies within and amongst them.  The first, that of the majority, was represented by Temple and Tawney focusing on the idea of an ‘ethical state’.  The second and more radical approach, emerging during the late 1930s, was most cogently expressed by John Macmurray, deriving from his humanist-inclined philosophy and his encounter with the Marxist-inclined Christian Left and its publications. Victor Gollancz, John Lewis, Richard Acland, Stafford Cripps and John Collins played prominent roles.

The thought of the Christian Left developed at some distance from progressive Anglican social thought and its claims on a sense of British national identity.  The incarnational principle, in Temple’s case, led to a conservative view of the church: the visible church was seen as the preferred instrument for inaugurating the kingdom of God. Furthermore, the relationship between the established church and the state had a special significance since the nation state was also seen as a divinely established means of bringing forward the kingdom.  Hence the duties of Christian citizenship formed an important theme.  As John Kent has pointed out, this rested on an Aristotelian view of politics in which state and society were identical – the ‘oneness of the world within the city’s walls’, the polis.  For Temple, British national identity required a bonding religion, Anglicanism.  Tawney, however, was much less optimistic about the potentialities of the Church of England which, he felt, ‘remains a class institution, making respectful salaams to property and gentility, and with too little faith in its own creed to call a spade a spade in the vulgar manner of the New Testament.’

Macmurray and his circle envisaged a moral community which transcended the boundaries of the nation state and the churches.  Christian consciousness, he realised, was deeply embedded in society, extending well beyond the visible church.  Above all, it was expressed in personal relations: the nature and quality of personal relations was the touchstone of the ethical society.  By 1944, Temple saw the purpose of God as ‘the development of persons in community’, a formula very close to the former’s thinking.  Macmurray, in turn, moved closer to the earlier concerns of mainstream Christian socialism as he came to realise the full extent to which German fascism had succeeded in asserting a rational control of society as a whole.  Wartime debates within the Christian Left reflected a loss of faith in social systems which rested principally on rational planning and took a more humanistic turn.  By 1945, the moment had arrived to translate the consensus achieved at Malvern into a new kind of ethical state.

This is the second of two reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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