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.

3 keys to enjoying a Sabbath rest

I find it difficult to rest the way God wants me to. If you’re the same, you may find this article helpful:

3 keys to enjoying a Sabbath rest (from Premier Christianity)

Reflections on Idolatry

The man had been talking for twenty minutes about his life. He had been a successful international sportsman, a true success in the world’s eye, but behind the façade was a man struggling with addiction. A few years later he was living in a home for alcoholics with a mountain of debt. Then a former colleague introduced him to Jesus, and slowly his life turned around, until he was eventually able to build a village for dozens of orphans to find a new family, an education and a new hope in Christ.

And then he broke down in tears as he explained that God had told him to let go of the village and pass it on to the next generation of leaders, because it had become an idol to him.

This moved me to my core, and I’ve been thinking about idolatry a lot since that evening.

What is idolatry? It’s a hugely important topic, right at the heart of God’s moral law, in the ten commandments.

Exodus 20:1-4 (CEV)

God said to the people of Israel: I am the Lord your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt where you were slaves. Do not worship any god except me. Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth. Don’t bow down and worship idols. I am the Lord your God, and I demand all your love. If you reject me, I will punish your families for three or four generations. But if you love me and obey my laws, I will be kind to your families for thousands of generations.

The instruction is repeated often.

Deuteronomy 4:23

Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden.

A vast majority of the idols mentioned in the Bible are stone or metal figures – graven images – man-made sculptures worshipped like a god, in place of the true God who made man in His own image.

Occasionally, we see hints that there is more to idolatry than these physical false gods.

1 Samuel 15:23

For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.

Arrogance is like idolatry. To think yourself better than you really are, by implication perhaps to think yourself better than God? Relying on your own strength or wisdom instead of God’s is a sure sign that you have started to worship the idol of pride.

Ezekiel 6:9

Then in the nations where they have been carried captive, those who escape will remember me – how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices.

Their eyes have lusted after their idols. So an idol can be something we see and desire, rather than trusting in what God has provisioned for us, which may be unseen for now. And see how God grieves when we turn our attention away from Him. Do you think He grieves for Himself? Or for the damage we inflict on ourselves when we worship the idols of greed and lust.

Jonah 2:8

Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

A succinct summary of an enormous problem. An idol is something that turns our eyes, and our hearts, away from God.

Isaiah 57:13

When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

And here is a truth. When we put our trust in anything above the Lord, we are trusting something temporary and flimsy, rather than our strong, faithful and permanent God. Those idols cannot help but let us down in our time of need.

Ezekiel 20:15-17

Also with uplifted hand I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land I had given them – a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands – because they rejected my laws and did not follow my decrees and desecrated my Sabbaths. For their hearts were devoted to their idols. Yet I looked on them with pity and did not destroy them or put an end to them in the wilderness.

And here is a greater truth. Although our God is a jealous God, and He has commanded us to put Him first in all things, He understands our weakness, He pities us, and He loves us. When we turn back to Him, He restores us.

About ninety per cent of biblical references to idols are found in the Old Testament, and as I noted, they almost exclusively speak of worshipping graven images, but in Paul’s letters we can see the broader definitions that we glimpsed earlier. For example,

Colossians 3:5

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.

It’s clear that when we put anything of our earthly nature ahead of anything of God’s Holy nature, we have created an idol. And when we do so we endanger others as well as ourselves. When I read 1 Corinthians 8 in the context of these thoughts, I see some new insight beyond its surface meaning.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

What I see here is that even though, as believers, we know that God is supreme and almighty, we too can become accustomed to idols – they become part of our everyday life and habits – we lose sight of what we are doing. We need to become more self-aware, and more Christ-conscious, so that we can recognise the idols in our lives.

I also note that even though we know there is nothing to be gained or lost by “eating in an idol’s temple”, we can risk our weaker brothers’ and sisters’ understanding by doing so. Equally, if we practice any form of idolatry – by emphasising material gain, or by having a prideful attitude, just for two examples – we risk presenting a false picture of Christ to our friends, family or strangers.

We should spend some time in quiet contemplation, and ask God to reveal to us what are the idols in our lives. They may be objects, or people, or personality traits or behaviours – anything that may prevent us from living according to His will. When I talked about this with my small group the idols that were revealed included ‘busyness’, ‘shyness’ and ‘security’.

This isn’t about beating ourselves up and feeling guilty. It’s about identifying stumbling blocks so that we can start dismantling them and move closer to God.

Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Amen

All scripture is from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicized, except where noted.