Artificial Intelligence and Self Esteem
Philosophers have long pondered the question; What defines life and where is the “self” located. These basic metaphysical questions are not merely philosophical questions, but rather have important practical applications regarding ethical debates like euthanasia, assisted suicide and the source of self esteem to name a few.
When considering the differences between animals, plants and stones it isn’t hard to find differences. Rocks don’t reproduce, eat or have living cells in them. Plants have limited mobility and don’t outwardly display emotions or cognition like animals do. When it comes to the question regarding the differences between animals and humans the lines become more grey and when we consider artificial intelligence the question is even more puzzling and thought provoking.
Two basic streams of thought in philosophy are dualism and materialism. Dualism as introduced by Rene Descartes views the mind as an independent metaphysical entity which is ultimately separable from the body. This continues along the lines of the philosophy of Hippocrates who introduced the concept of vitalism which describes our life force as vital energy. In short they believed in the existence of the soul. Materialism views our entire existence as a purely material series of physical chemicals and components. In short, their view is that there is no soul.
Modern philosophers have revelled in the the theory of Darwin which claims that people have evolved from animals. Thus, accordingly we are just extremely well adapted animals and have no unique soul that separates us from animals. When comparing animals and humans, the question often becomes clouded by the myriad of tricks humans can perform, showing their superior intelligence. Truthfully, this isn’t enough to show a significant difference between humans and animals. The argument is best highlighted by discussing artificial intelligence.
Imagine a super robot that acted and looked exactly like a human. It learned and adapted to new situations and was impossible to tell apart from a human without cutting it open. Modern philosophers have asserted that there really isn’t a difference between this super robot and a human. This isn’t very surprising considering that the Nazi regime used Darwin’s theories as a springboard for philosophically justifying mass murder. If humans don’t truly have a soul that is unique, then what awards them individual rights and freedoms? When animals seek survival they kill the weaker of the species to continue. What makes us any different?
I will soon return to the argument and present the vital difference between humans and animals, but let us first consider a couple of points. G-d could certainly create a world of evolving species and also decide at a certain point in time to introduce a unique soul in humanity. That would not be a problem for G-d. It is not a powerful question on the text of the Torah which makes no mention of evolution, because the Torah seeks to explain ethical concepts rather than scientific ones. The torah doesn’t discuss dinosaurs or porcupines for that matter. It simply has a different goal than science which observes the observable and seeks to answer the question of how things function and develop, while Torah answers the question of why we a here.
The true question for scientists who believe that life is a random series of events is where the origin of life comes from. Richard Dawkins is a scientist who believes strongly that there is no G-d. He authored a book called “The G-d Delusion” to publicize his views and popularize them. In the documentary “Expelled” by actor Ben Stein, Ben Stein interviews Richard Dawkins and asks him where the origin of life comes from. He responds that “no one knows what the origin of life is, but there is a signature of sorts in all life.” He then suggests that “perhaps it was aliens that designed us, but that still leaves the question of where the aliens came from.” Even Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist believes it intelligent design! Give the interview a watch on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t09Pzg9MSZ8.
So, let’s return to the original question. What is the difference between a human being and a really well designed robot? Which would you rather marry, a robot or a human? Hopefully, you answered a human, but why? Imagine you married the robot and your anniversary comes around. Your robot spouse writes you an absolutely beautiful poem. How do you feel receiving it? What’s missing? A robot can only do what it was programmed to do. A human being chooses to write a poem for you and strives to make it beautiful and relevant to your taste and relationship out of its own will to connect with you and nurture the relationship.
Think about any great hero. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hellen Keller. What makes them great? Every great hero had a difficult challenge before them. Instead of caving in like many of us would, they chose to persevere and rise above the challenge for some valuable principle. At the end of their life, humanity cheers their accomplishments. Even if a robot performs many more tasks, they get no applause, because they merely did what they were programmed to do.
When we exercise our free will to make moral choices, we don’t do what we are programmed to do, but rather go against our programming to create a new program for ourselves. If we have a propensity towards anger and we use our free will to choose not to get angry, then we have reprogrammed ourselves. This is what the Torah calls the tzelem Elokim, meaning that we are created in the image of G-d, with a highly developed soul. An animal does not have that trait. If you look at two baby animals of the same species, you can approximately explain what they will do with their lives. Two human babies are completely unpredictable. One may choose to be Einstein and the other a horrible tyrant.
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge the first thing they did was hide. They were so embarrassed by the poor choice that they had made that they hid. We can see that their self esteem fell because of their act. By making a poor moral choice they were one step closer to associating themselves with something animalistic. Our self esteem is directly linked to our recognition of our unique G-dly souls. If we believe that we have unique divine souls, then we believe that we have unique divine missions on earth. Every day becomes a new chapter in the saga of our cosmic destiny on Earth. It is truly wondrous and amazing. On the other hand if we believe that we are no different from animals and have no divine soul, then we also have no divine mission on Earth. We are just random particles playing out a meaningless maze. That should be fine with us if we are no different than animals. They are perfectly happy being what they are. Somehow, we can’t seem to find true happiness without seeking, accomplishing and conquering our nature. Perhaps that itself is evidence that we are truly unique. We should all start our days with the phrase “I accept upon myself the positive commandment from the Creator of the universe to love others as I love myself.” Try it and it will change your life!