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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Teach Me

I’m thankful to Pastor Samuel Cole and Pastor Dena Cole for bringing this wisdom to the front of my mind, where it belongs. Before anything else, I want to pay tribute to my dear friend. Pastor Sam, we haven’t seen each other for some time now, but you remain close to my heart and regularly in my prayers. When I was starting on my journey of faith, you gave me the most powerful encouragement, and you showed me what it means to be salt and light in a world so bereft of both. You have continued to inspire me through the years. I don’t think there’s another human being who has done more to strengthen my confidence in the goodness of God in all circumstances. I’ve learned so much from you, and I love you. Thank you, my brother.

Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name. (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. (Psalm 143:10)

Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. (Psalm 119:33)

I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. (Psalm 32:8)

Too many people speak and act as if they know it all. It’s a common human failing but it bothers me more when I see it in Christians. And I see plenty of it, sometimes in person, and very often online.

Why does it bother me more? Because we of all people, who recognise the almighty power and knowledge of our Creator, should also recognise how small we are in comparison, how blinkered in our vision, how narrow in our knowledge.

And yet, when we should be demonstrating humility, instead we display hubris.

There was not one perfect man or woman until the birth of Christ, and there has been none since. If we really knew the whole truth we would be unable to sin – the knowledge of the consequences would make it impossible.

In fact, even as we recite “lean not on your own understanding” we are busy constructing our own personal moralities, interpreting scripture in our own image, and condemning others who do the same.

How many times has the church, the body of Christ, fractured into new sects and denominations? Occasionally this might be due to a difference of style, but more often it is about substance, about doctrine. When the splits number in the thousands, and still brothers and sisters sitting side by side in services can’t agree on one hundred per cent of Biblical interpretation, how can any one of us honestly believe they are the one who has finally understood God’s message clearly. Even Paul acknowledged the limits of our mortal understanding:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There is a beautiful phrase, apparently not coined by St Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” If only we could all live by it, and in particular by the third clause, because in truth we can find it hard even to agree on what is essential. Our social, cultural and political biases will determine what matters most to us, and hence we define our essentials, and then comes judgement towards those whose definitions vary.

We need to return to the psalms. We need to ask our Lord to teach us His ways and His will. And we need to keep asking, always ready to repent when we learn that our previous understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.

And we need to be charitable towards those with whom we disagree. Be respectful and kind. There’s no place for arrogance or presumption in the family of God. We are all still learning.

My Redeemer

Oh, that my words were written!
Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
That they were engraved on a rock
With an iron pen and lead, forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And He shall stand at last on the earth;
And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!

Job 19:23-27

Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Christ Jesus. What would His crucifixion have meant without His resurrection? I don’t know. This is what I know: the grave couldn’t hold Him, He conquered death, and proved that we too can enjoy an everlasting life, free from death’s curse.

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Matthew 22:32

Separation from God is death, and eternal separation from God is Hell. When you understand that disobedience of God’s commandments is what separates you from Him; and when you understand that as hard as you try you can never obey Him as completely as you want, or need, to; then you might lose all hope.

You reject all those who stray from Your statutes,
For their deceit is falsehood.

Psalm 119:118

But God knows our weakness, and provides the means of salvation for all of us.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3:16

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

The meaning of Easter is so profound and so broad that I simply can’t do it justice here. It is the essence of the Christian faith, and it is the real source of the Christian’s hope.

Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

Mark 15:38

There is no longer any separation between man and God. Man only has to reach out and he finds God’s hand is there, grasping his tightly. Safe, solid, loving, healing hands.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

John 14:6

Only Jesus can pay my debt, heal my wounds and give me life. Thank you Jesus.