Can machines be spiritual?

Why not?
Why not?
Image: Reuters/ Luke MacGregor
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Machines can replicate the communication style of individual humans, make moral decisions, and provide care to the elderly. There are even scientists working to create conscious robots. But could a machine ever achieve spirituality?

That all depends on how you define “machine.”

“There would plenty of people who’d tell you that human beings are machines,” says Robert Geraci, religious studies professor at Manhattan College. “If they’re right, then we know that machines can be spiritual.”

Those who claim that humans are a form of machine have a “materialist” perspective. Materialism is a philosophy that says we are entirely reducible to hard matter: the substances that create our physical bodies and brains also form our more amorphous minds. Daniel Dennett, professor at Tufts University and one of the most pre-eminent philosophers of mind, is one prominent advocate of this theory. In a paper on AI consciousness, Dennett wrote:

The best reason for believing that robots might someday become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves. That is, we are extraordinarily complex self-controlling, self-sustaining physical mechanisms, designed over the eons by natural selection, and operating according to the same well-understood principles that govern all the other physical processes in living things: digestive and metabolic processes, self-repair and reproductive processes, for instance.

Materialists don’t necessarily believe that humans are a form of machine, though. One example is Geraci, who spoke on the subject of spiritual machines at a recent conference on Apocalyptic AI at Stanford University earlier this week. “Human beings operate according to machine-like principles,” Geraci says. “We are information processing, pattern-recognizing systems. We have these modes of interaction with the world that involve input and output.” But it would be a misuse of the word “machine” to apply it to humans, he says: “Machines are tools. When someone says human beings are ‘machines,’ that’s a strange reflection on what those words might mean and it reinvents meaning for both ‘human beings’ and ‘machines.’”

Geraci does believe humans are formed entirely of physical matter, and that, he says, means it’s certainly plausible that we could build robots with every human capability. If that’s the case—if there’s nothing to prevent machines from becoming as sophisticated as humans—then any machine that perfectly mirrors humanity would have to be spiritual. “Spiritual pursuits are part of the human condition,” Geraci says. “If machines didn’t pursue any kind of spiritual reflection, then we wouldn’t consider them to be persons, to be conscious.”

Geraci defines “spiritual” as engaged in a search for purpose and meaning that goes beyond the everyday; to want something more than meals and riches, to seek transcendent values. It’s an ambitious goal. For machines to be spiritual, they would have to be conscious, to have personal agency, and a sense of wonder.

He doesn’t believe spiritual machines will be created anytime soon and, of course, their creation depends on a lot of uncertainties. Though Geraci believes humans are entirely physical beings, he admits that he can’t prove it—“there’s a lot of unprovable guesswork in there,” he acknowledges—and, therefore, that it’s conceivable human consciousness is made of something non-physical, which can’t be recreated. That, in turn, again raises the possibility that humans are the only things in existence capable of spirituality. But, without definitive proof either way, a materialist philosophy is just as valid. Spiritual robots may sound implausible, but Geraci argues there’s “no good reason to assume” we can’t, one day, create such machines.