Robots and Religion Survey

Posted 11 Sep 2007 at 18:59 UTC by steve Share This

Robert M. Geraci writes, "I am an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and I'm writing a book about robotics and artificial intelligence. I have already spent time this summer as a visiting researcher at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute but I would like to supplement my fieldwork with help from the Internet robot community. You can help Robert with his research by taking his short survey on robots and religion. Some of the questions are a bit vague but that's probably because they're written from a religious rather than scientific point of view. Give it your best shot and hopefully Robert will post the results of the survey for us soon.

comments..., posted 11 Sep 2007 at 19:21 UTC by steve » (Master)

Overall, I found the idea of the survey interesting but the questions seem a bit wanting. Here are a few random comments on some of the questions I found a bit vague:

Does biological evolution have a purpose?

The obvious answer would be yes, survival of the fittest through natural selection. But equally obviously, a religious person might mean something more obscure, such as a "is evolution guided to a particular goal by a supernatural entity?" or somesuch. Without understanding the question, I just picked "maybe".

Another one I found difficult was:

Do you believe that human consciousness is nothing more than a “pattern” that exists in the brain?

First, I've found people who insert the phrase "nothing more than" into a description of how consciousness work, always do it because they disagree with the idea that follows the phrase and think saying that will make the idea seem less plausible to uninformed readers. Second, I have no idea what is meant by a pattern existing in the brain. I believe the brain combined with the body is a complex machine that results in consciousness. I believe that other complex machines could be conscious. I have no idea what relation to consciousness "patterns in the brain" may have, however. So another "maybe" answer for me on that one.

And this one was close but not quite right:

Do you believe that intelligent robots (assume for the moment that they are possible) will be religious?

I do not believe intelligent robots will be religious. However, had the question asked whether I thought intelligent robots would have the capacity to be religous, I would have said yes. I just happen to think it unlikely they'd choose to be. Others, notably science fiction writers such as Simak, had other views and thought robots could exceed humans in the area of religion.

Speaking of science fiction, the genre is loaded with books on robots and religion, so I think it would have been interesting to add some of those to the book list, which mostly consisted of light reading, bestseller type things.

Anyone else find a particular question interesting? What questions would you have added?

interesting survey, but some issues, posted 11 Sep 2007 at 23:34 UTC by dafyddwalters » (Master)

I agree with Steve's assessment, although unlike him, instead of answering "maybe" in the cases where the questions weren't clear-cut, I took my best guess at what those questions meant.

For example, I assumed that "Do you think that biological evolution has a purpose?" was asking me whether I thought that evolution had some purpose directed by some entity. Perhaps a better question to ask would have been whether I thought biological evolution progresses by random or by some guiding force. Since I believe that evolution progresses by random changes to DNA, I said no to this question.

I also found the question about whether human consciousness is a "pattern in the brain" a bit vague. I believe embodiment probably plays an important part in the emergence of phenomenal consciousness, so a disembodied computer can probably have limited consciousness. However, I reckon what the questioner really wanted to know was whether or not I believe phenomenal consciousness comes about as a result of the physical make-up of the brain and body (implying that a robot having the same properties could theoretically be conscious), or whether I believe consciousness requires some non-physical component (some might call it a soul). Since I believe that machines could eventually possess consciousness, I answered yes to this question.

Finally, I would also have added a question about the degree of religious belief held by the answerer, as perhaps it might be interesting to see how much the answers to the other questions correlate to the person's own beliefs.

thanks, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 00:21 UTC by rgeraci » (Journeyer)

thanks for taking the survey. sorry about the vagueness of the questions. in part, that is because prior to this summer, i've never done surveys before. in part, it is because i wanted a certain open-endedness to the questions because i'm trying to sort out to what extent particular books and their ideas (almost all of which actually trace to hans moravec) have affected various communities (including this one). to have been more specific would have been to deny survey-takers a chance to express the opinions that they possess (i think). but mostly it's just my inexperience.

in clarification:

regarding whether i personally think consciousness is a pattern in the brain or something else, i'm afraid i haven't the foggiest idea. really. my use of "nothing more than" was solely to ensure that anyone who answered yes really meant that and only that, as opposed to that plus something else (a soul, a spirit, whatever).

i wish i had worded the question about religion as steve suggests. that would have been much better. alas, surveys may never be my strong suit.

regarding the purpose of evolution: from a darwinian perspective, there is no purpose to evolution. any study of darwin or his biological supporters will support this position. the question is really set to clarify (apparently poorly) whether survey takers follow darwin on this, some religion on this, or (especially) ray kurzweil on this. moravec, kurzweil, etc. believe that evolution is very definitely leading up to something, which would have been a surprising claim to darwin.

regarding science fiction: i would have loved a longer survey that addressed the specifics of science fiction but it just didn't happen. i think there's a lot of relevance there, i just couldn't fit it in right now (hence the rather vague question near the end about whether or not the survey-taker is a fan thereof).

finally, i also wish i'd thought of dafydd's question about the survey-taker's own religious inclinations.

i appreciate everyone's time and also your comments (either on the questions themselves or the ideas at stake). keep them coming, as they'll only help me improve the final project.



Survey writing/taking technique, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 00:36 UTC by Daniel Casner » (Journeyer)

I very much agree with the above comments on the "does evolution have a purpose" and "is consciousness nothing more than a pattern" questions being somewhat problematic. I find that in taking surveys having questions left vague as those were causes more problems for me than it gives me freedom. Responding to the survey (before Robert's elaboration above) I found myself trying to figure out what the survey writer was thinking and how he would interpret the response rather than answering the question as I saw it. Having experienced being quoted out of context by the media and seeing how survey data can sometimes be presented in an over simplified way (not that I believe you'll do so Robert) I worry about the assumption being made that all people who say evolution has a purpose believe in an intervening god and all people who say that consciousness is just a pattern on the brain are atheistic.

On another note, I thought that a number of the questions about consciousness did something interesting. While I assume they were directed at the question of the existence of a soul etc.; they could equally well have been getting at the idea of embodied consciousness. As a gestaltist myself, I see these two concepts as equivalent but it was interesting to see the ambiguity in the questions.

black and white, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 05:01 UTC by steve » (Master)

I worry about the assumption being made that all people who say evolution has a purpose believe in an intervening god and all people who say that consciousness is just a pattern on the brain are atheistic.

That's an astute observation. There's a tendency to divide people into mutually exclusive science-only and religious-only camps. Either you're an unfeeling atheist evolutionist or a religious nut who believes the world popped out of nowhere last thursday.

In real life, I know plenty of devout believers who have no theological problems at all with Darwinian evolution or other aspects of modern science. I know others who believe what might be called deistic evolution - the idea that a supernatural being guides the process of evolution by directly messing around with our universe in some way to manipulate the outcome. And, of course, I know a few religious people who are creationists of one sort or another.

But even the most fundamentalist people I know are willing to accept at least some science - for example, they use cell phones, fly on airplanes, most of them accept the Earth is roughly spherical, and acknowledge that the Earth isn't the center of the Universe (though, sadly, geocentrism seems to be on the rise again among some creationists). Anyway, there's really quite a spectrum of beliefs out there and it's never an all or nothing view.

And the same spectrum of beliefs is true of consciousness, only more so; probably because we know far less about consciousness than we do about biology.

My perspective, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 12:27 UTC by The Swirling Brain » (Master)

My perspective is that many times the scientific findings prove what I believe or complement what I believe rather than disprove it at all. To me robotics is a way of seeing a faith perspective rather than the opposite.

Some of the questions I read have already happened. Like he asked: Do you think that human beings will have social relationships with intelligent machines in the future? I'm thinking that has already happened to some degree if you consider of all those people who have chatted with IM bots and didn't realize it. I think depending on your intelligence you can figure out you're talking to a bot although some children and those unaware perhaps don't realize it. Wow, could you imagine proposing to an IM bot only to find out it was a bot?

One question I thought was interesting was: Do you think that biological evolution has a purpose? I'm thinking of a couple of things. One, "Has Purpose" implies that the Purpose was decided and if so then by some higher being. Two, if macro biological evolution was possible (such as chromosomal level species jumps which I don't agree with, or even if it does, who cares, but I digress) as opposed to micro biological evolution (which I think is possible such as gene level hair color) then the purpose would have to come from the creature itself to force itself to evolve for its own benefit. The other possibility might again be from some higher organism or from some outside influence (parasite?) that would force the evolution of the original organism to bring about some benefit to the overseeing organism. I think you could answer Yes or No to this question and without explaination, I'm not sure you'd understand what Yes or No stands for. Like, does yes imply agreeing with religious or evolution views? So to me it would seem to invalidate this question to some degree if that was the, ahem, purpose.

To me, Faith in God is similar to a robot builder and a robot. I believe God created us and wants to have a relationship with us. For a robot builder or an AI builder I could see the same thing. I could see someone build AI and want to "grow" its intelligence to the point where they had a relationship with it like a father and son kind of relationship. I also see that people try to totally disprove this concept by saying they can evolve a robot without intervention. But it always gets back to throwing a bunch of parts in a box and shaking it up and seeing a robot come out. That never happens. Sure you can build a basic robot first with a purpose of it trying to learn or evolve somehow but you always start with something first with a purpose. So it's always a little contrived and it's always trying to see if you can make one without a purpose first but there always seems to be that seed of purpose to start things off. If you apply that to this world, you start to wonder our origins too which is I'm sure a debate that will go on for many, many more moons.

...And to each his own.

Evolution and wife beating, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 14:27 UTC by Rog-a-matic » (Master)

""Do you think that biological evolution has a purpose?""

This is a 'Have you stopped beating your wife' question :) Many who believe a creator explains the existence of the universe and biological agents better than gradual Darwinian evolution, also believe in adaptation and natural selection (Filtering out of unfit systems) but not that these small adaptations lead to a fish becoming a horse.

I could see evolutionist and creationists answer this question either way, so I'm not sure it will provide the result you're looking for.

Evolutionists for the most part believe it is direction-less, not necessarily favoring more complex systems, just systems more fit to survive under the current conditions.

Please correct me if this is wrong, is it thought there is a mechanism that directs evolution towards higher complexity for the sake of complexity?

What was the objective of the survey?, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 20:06 UTC by TheDuck » (Journeyer)

I'm curious as to the objective of the survey. Working for a research company, I have found the absence of one is often a killer to good surveys. Having taken it I'm not sure what it was supposed to prove or refute.

For example, Rog-a-matic made a great observation. I think he was saying that any opinions expressed with respect to "Do you think that biological evolution has a purpose?" are irrelevant. By definition, biological evolution is the survival of an adapted organism, or, the death of one that couldn't adapt. If Organism A responds well to a rainforest setting and Organism B to arctic conditions then it's fairly unlikely you'll find either surviving in each other's conditions. It's not for any 'reason'. They'd just die. That's what biological evolution means. Survivors move on by the simple fact that they survived.

So the survey cannot be vague or the result can never be "correct". The best you would get is an interpretation and it will be different for anybody reviewing it. Fortunately, Dr. Geraci has pointed out that composing surveys isn't exactly old hat for him and I appreciate that candor. I just hope he will then take the results with a grain of salt and not consider them irrefutable truths for the future of robots.

I'll stop now in an attempt to keep the discussion about the survey and not about religion. :)

(though I'm happy to discuss that -- or anything for that matter -- too)

Survival, posted 12 Sep 2007 at 22:02 UTC by Rog-a-matic » (Master)

You said: "By definition, biological evolution is the survival of an adapted organism..."

But evolution has to be more than natural selection, which only provides a filtering of those unable to survive and reproduce.

Evolution MUST also provide a way for order and complexity to increase.

Without this, there's no accounting for a simple organism becoming a complex one.

Chemicals becoming single cell to begin with is another giant question altogether, as is where did atoms come from and why is there gravity.

I'm not so sure., posted 13 Sep 2007 at 11:09 UTC by TheDuck » (Journeyer)

I wouldn't necessarily say evolution provided for order or complexity. We attribute our observation to that. We might say that ordered, or balanced, organisms and ones with more complexity survived. Since this isn't what it looked like "a minute (or century) ago" then it has evolved. Yet, for example, there are strains of bacteria and viruses (MRSA) that are still single-celled critters but have adapted to new antibiotics. Or ebola, even simpler than a bacteria, that adapts very quickly due to its insane reproduction rate in its host. In one outbreak we can identify several new strains from the same origin.

And yes, your last sentence is certainly a big one. I assume gravity is a by-product of the forces exhibited by atoms. You can call it "the weak force", for example, but with so many atoms in one place there must be an affect on others. And yes, that was a wild guess.

And that's about the best I can conjecture on that subject! :) Though, just because I don't know the answer, doesn't mean I will make one up and say "therefore it must be that". ;)

some more clarification, posted 13 Sep 2007 at 19:04 UTC by rgeraci » (Journeyer)

hi all,

thanks again for your interest. nearly 200 takers so far.

oh, and i'm perfectly happy to go by the name of robert. my students call me dr. geraci (to my face, anyway); i appreciate the term of respect but you don't need to use it.

in reviewing the survey, i'm now dismayed that i was too foolish to put a "none" option in the -have you read any of these books category-. alas.

regarding some of the newer concerns:

1) the purpose of the survey is to sort out whether or not apocalyptic AI books (moravec, kurzweil, etc.) have any affect on the worldview of robotics.

2) evolution, by biological standards, has no purpose (not even greater complexity, which is a by-product, not a goal of evolution). evolution allows for the increase of complexity but does not demand it. indeed, we could easily do a thought experiment where environmental conditions favored lack of complexity at all times.

i had put two questions on purpose in the survey in order to distinguish between those who see evolution as having a divinely inspired purpose and those who specifically think evolution leads to robotics...this was a separate question from the vaguer one about whether or not evol. has any purpose at all. i pretty much expected two groups to say "yes" evolution has a purpose: theists and people who think evolution is leading to intelligent robots (who presumably follow moravec on this). i figured the second question would separate the the future i'll just say what i mean and ask if you think there's a divine purpose to evolution rather than beating around the bush!

3) the social relationships question was terrible. as it is, people talk to robot vacuums. what i really wanted was to know whether or not people believed they'd be "friends" and "lovers" with robots in more or less the same way they are currently friends and lovers with human beings. another terrible question.

4) i am _most certainly_ not trying to put religious people on one side and intelligent robot people on the other. religious people come in many stripes and sizes, as do robot researchers, fans, builders, followers, etc. there's no a priori reason why someone can't believe in god, darwinian evolution, and even the replacement of human beings by robots all in one breath if he or she chooses to do so.

again, thanks to everyone who has taken the survey and to everyone talking about it. much obliged.

Further descussion, posted 14 Sep 2007 at 04:09 UTC by Daniel Casner » (Journeyer)

Given the response this subject seems to have gotten (the longest thread I've seen yet on perhaps Robert would consent to moderate a chat or on line forum on the subjects of religion, evolution and robotics. While a little more work to collate than a bubble survey the discussion might provide some useful data.

Who in flu in sez you?, posted 14 Sep 2007 at 04:11 UTC by The Swirling Brain » (Master)

Another thing I thought interesting that I forgot to mention before was that on the list of books read, there was no mention of religious texts. Like if any of these books have influenced your beliefs about religion and AI, shouldn't there have been some religious books in the list of books you may have read that influences your belief? I don't mean to dog robert as I have quite a respect for even just doing the survey, just probably that the book thing should be changed next time to indicate some bias of some sort? Or perhaps it should just be an opened ended question like what books or authors may have influenced your beliefs about AI and religion? I guess I'm still not sure what the survey was trying to accomplish or what results may be concluded from it? I'd love for robert to share his final report and hopefully we'll try to be more kind about it when we comment! :-)

Intersting, indeed..., posted 14 Sep 2007 at 18:52 UTC by TheDuck » (Journeyer)

Thank you, Dr. Robert :-)

Your further clarification was an interesting read. Hopefully you don't get too much backlash by saying "religious people" vs. "intelligent roboticists". Just as you say, there are many combinations of folks out there -- why I'll bet there are even intelligent religious people if you can believe it! ;-)

"as it is, people talk to robot vacuums" LOL

I like the idea of a moderated discussion though I'm not sure it would accomplish anything for Dr. Robert; it would just be interesting for us.

Yes, that final report would be quite interesting. And I think we've been quite kind up until now. Hopefully even to the extent that Dr. Robert can take away some useful ideas to continue his study.

a forum, posted 16 Sep 2007 at 23:26 UTC by rgeraci » (Journeyer)

well, i don't know if 12 posts constitutes grounds for an online forum but, if people want, i'll moderate one. someone else has to set it up, i'm afraid, as i've never set any such thing up and i'm currently swamped with work and, more importantly, my two young children. but if someone else wants to launch it i'll play moderator if you think it will be interesting.

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