Monday, March 22, 2010

Human vs. Automated Sainthood

Presumably, a seminary would like a mechanism like Gus because it is programmed to answer questions which they cannot from a theologically sound perspective. However, St. Augustine was, in life, human. Though he was a man of extraordinary intelligence, he was not governed by purely logical beliefs. He made mistakes but his rational decisions also had human emotion behind them, I imagine. This is because he was sentient, which Wikipedia defines as “the ability to feel or perceive subjectively.”

We, as people, would probably be subjective even if we never knew our parents. There are certain foods we dislike, for example, no matter what we grow up eating. A computer (or any machine, I think) only gains subjectivity from being programmed in that way, and therefore I think it is not sentient. As the programmer Holtz says, “It’s programmed from Augustine’s work. And what we know about his life” (6-7). In other words, the computer is programmed subjectively based on scholarly guesses about the person of Augustine based on some evidence in his work and, presumably, writings about him. However, that means that Gus is programmed according to someone else’s subjectivity. He has no original subjectivity of his own. This reliance upon another being to attain a personality seems to me to make Gus only a shadow of another person’s opinions.

I think, in some ways (but not all) that Gus's insights on dogma are less valuable than the original saint's because he abides by the hard-and-fast rules of his programming. Saints are venerated on Earth because they lived virtuous lives, which we recognize as being a difficult thing to do. If a computer is programmed to be virtuous naturally, then where is the struggle in that? Where is the depth of experience of suffering? Where is the wisdom in a computer? But on the other hand, I imagine a machine like Gus might be useful with which to have an argument to understand one's self better.

But then again, this might only seem that way to me because I have not yet encountered a technology which stretches my theory of sentience.

1 comment:

Templeton said...

Hi there,

I thought that you may be interested to know that this year's Templeton Prize winner will be announced on Thursday 25th March at 15:00 GMT (11:00 EST) in Washington D.C. The £1,000,000 prize is awarded annually to outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to life's big questions. You can register for the webcast at and you have the chance to pose questions to the new winner.

If you do not wish to receive further information about the Templeton Prize please email:



Event: News conference

Date: 25 March 2010, 15.00 GMT

Venue: Washington DC – National Academy of Sciences

Live webcast:

The world’s largest annual award, the £1,000,000 Templeton prize, will be announced on Thursday 25 March at 15.00 GMT at a press conference in Washington DC and broadcast live online.

The winner will be a major international academic figure who has made a significant contribution to the study and understanding of new scientific discoveries and to one of life’s big questions: Does scientific knowledge contradict religious belief?

The £1million Templeton Prize, monetarily the largest award given to an individual, honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.

The 2010 Prize laureate will join a distinguished group of former recipients including Mother Teresa and Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn alongside scientists such as Professor Freeman J. Dyson and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Professor Charles Townes;.

Statements will be made by the new Templeton Laureate and the Templeton Foundation’s President, Dr John Templeton Jr and both will be available for questions.

Last year's award went to Bernard d'Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science whose explorations of the philosophical implications of quantum physics have opened new vistas on the definition of reality and the potential limits of knowable science.

Speaker and Templeton Foundation interviews are available by contacting +44 20 7861 3974.

Speak to either:

James Carron

Sally Gillespie

Information on the 2010 Templeton Prize Laureate can be provided in advance under strict embargo.

Contact James Carron at +44 207 861 2494 / or Sally Gillespie at +44 207 861 3974 /

Notes to editors

1. The Templeton Prize was created by global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton and was established in 1972.

2. The Templeton Prize is a cornerstone of the John Templeton Foundation's international efforts to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions, ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.

3. The Templeton Prize aims to identify "entrepreneurs of the spirit", outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding notions or understanding about ultimate purpose and reality.

4. The Templeton Prize is awarded annually on the decision of a panel of independent judges. Past judges have included the Dalai Lama, Professor Sir Brian Heap and Professor Paul Davies.

5. For more information on the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Prize, visit and