I, Robot?

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly his short stories, many of which were based around robots and robotics. He famously created his “three laws of robotics” which were “the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” These laws are:

  1. a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov wrote plots that played on the unintended consequences of applying these rules, or of the potential conflicts between them. And both he and others played around with these ‘laws’, adding, taking away and modifying them for various creative purposes. But beyond the world of science fiction, scientists have looked at Asimov’s laws as a potential starting point for instilling ‘moral’ values into real-world robots, and their uses in human society.

While it’s clearly a bit simplistic and misguided to directly compare God’s creation of man with man’s creation of robots, I think there’s value in looking at faith for a few minutes through Asimov’s eyes.

Before looking at similarities, I need to repeat what I’ve said previously, and frequently, whether in this blog or in conversations. God did not create us to be robots. God gave us free will, autonomy, and this is perhaps the most fundamental concept in my whole understanding of existence. Because if we don’t have free will then, in my opinion, our lives as conscious beings are essentially meaningless. I might as well be a hammer, built solely for the task of hitting a nail.

So we have free will. We can do what we want. Why then don’t we live in a world of utter chaos, of anarchy? Why is there a general semblance of order in the world around us? Why do we notice and dislike the times when people act in a way that is contrary to our social norms?

Well, on the surface, there are laws and conventions that have been constructed by human beings over the centuries. They have been designed, amongst other purposes, to control our excesses, to limit individual freedoms for the benefit of society as a whole. We are born into this set of rules, we grow up with them, and with a few exceptions we come to think of them as normal, rational and good, so we accept and live by them.

On a deeper level we have instincts which are designed to keep us alive and thriving as individuals and as a species. Depending on your worldview, these instincts come from God’s purpose, from evolution, or from some combination of the two.

But as Christians there is another level to be considered, and that is the level of scripture. This is where I find the comparison with Asimov’s laws fascinating.

Your mind may immediately jump to the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These are possibly the most obvious direct comparison the the three laws, and are sometimes described as “the moral law.” There are more details, naturally enough considering the difference between human and robot motivations. But although they are listed, and when described they may be numbered, there isn’t an obvious hierarchy like Asimov explicitly stated. You could argue that the first is the most important, because if we have other gods than God, we have less reason to obey any of God’s commandments. But scanning down the list, should we prioritise the honour of our parents (abiding by the fifth) even if that leads us to murder someone (contravening the sixth)?

The Bible has been described by some Christians as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” And almost all teaching I’ve heard in many different churches refers back to scripture as the base point from which all good decisions should be made. I understand why. This is the physical evidence of what God has said to us. It’s the absolute truth to counter the danger of moral relativism. It’s real. You can hold it in your hands and you can show it to someone.

I can imagine the Bible as the equivalent of the software that is programmed into the positronic brains of Asimov’s robots. In fact, David points us in that direction when he says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)

I can imagine that when faced with any decision or dilemma a “good Christian” will refer back to the source code, comparing options against the relevant words of God in scripture to come to the right conclusion.

But do the rules to be followed comprise the 10 commandments? Or the 613 commandments? Or does a Christian ignore the Old Testament and base their rules on the instructions they read in the Gospels and Epistles?

How do we handle situations when there is a conflict between laws, or between written laws and our innate sense of moral good? And there will be conflicts. There are classic philosophical scenarios that can demonstrate this. For example, Kant’s dilemma of the murderer at the door or the trolley problem.

Even if we can find ways to satisfy ourselves that we can resolve any such dilemma, I see a bigger problem, which is that if we live our lives completely according to what we read in the Bible, we are running the computer program, and we effectively become robots after all. What then has happened to our free will?

Maybe you could say that if you have made a free choice to follow the rules, you are not a robot. Maybe.

I am coming to the conclusion though, that God does not intend the Bible to be a rigid rule book, or an operating system designed to direct our every action. I believe it should be taken seriously and that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It provides guidance, and describes principles. It shows the consequences when certain rules are followed or ignored. But it does not give an answer to every question raised in a person’s life. It never has, or we wouldn’t need to pray, because the answers to our prayers too would be in the good book.

I think that knowing the Bible as thoroughly as possible gives a wonderful foundation of knowledge and wisdom. But when we get to the real basics there are not 3 laws of humanity. There are not 613. There are not 10. There are 2.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

If we can just do our best to live our lives according to those two rules, I don’t think we need to tie ourselves in knots or rack ourselves with guilt about the ways we have inevitably fallen short. Let us breathe the spirit of the law. We are imperfect and God made us that way, and He loves us. He is love. Let us try to emulate that to whatever extent we’re capable.

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