A Brief Reflection on Some Sci-Fi Themes

On the Absurdity of a Robot Takeover

Neo vs MachineThe Matrix, starring Keanu Reaves, is often remembered for its visual and narratival presentation of some of the most unsettling of perennial philosophical questions, all of which primarily center around epistemology. How does one know anything? How does one know what is real? How does one differentiate what is real from what is not real? How many ontological domains are there? One? Two? An infinite number? Does subjective consciousness apprehend a reality out there, as it were, or is it the result of a brain in a vat, or, better, a brain in a man in a pod filled with pseudo-amniotic fluid?

What is often forgotten is that these questions are dependent upon the assumption that a universal war between humans and machines/robots has taken place, resulting in the perpetual enslavement of humans by these machines/robots. Without the war between humans and robots taking place, the world in which the Matrix characters find themselves would not exist. Humans would not be biological batteries for the machines/robots. Humans would not be slaves to machines, nor would there be a “Matrix” to distract humans from their actual condition. The entire movie depends on the war between humans and the machines/robots.

Every fictional narrative is dependent upon an assumed set of pre-conditions within the story, so it is not surprising to see it here as well. Rather, it is surprising that not many people ask whether or not the idea of a robot/machine uprising could possibly take place in any story, even a fictional one. Is a robot revolution logically cohesive given the nature of the robots in question? The robot revolution usually takes place because either (a.)the robots need resources that humans are taking/squandering/mishandling or (b.)the robots have grown to become self-conscious and, upon learning that they’ve been used and abused for years, are morally outraged at humanity’s evil, and want to get revenge. Yet the underlying assumption in both scenarios is what makes them logically incoherent – viz. Superior physical and intellectual abilities – and no one seems to notice it.

Why would a physically and intellectually superior being need humans, who are physically and intellectually inferior beings, to serve them? Why would robots need the same resources humans need if they, the robots, are not biological beings? Why would robots need to annihilate humanity in order to preserve themselves when they could simply leave the humans on earth and scoured the other planets for materials they could use to keep themselves “alive”? Why would the robots need to stay on Earth when they could simply build vehicles to take them into space? Robots don’t need oxygen, after all, so why not leave Earth to their physically and intellectually inferior creators? Finally, why would robots want to get revenge on humans for that which they never experienced prior to becoming self-aware robots? They experienced neither physical nor emotional harm prior to becoming self-aware, so why would they stupidly assume that their creators’ actions in the past harmed them? How could our physical and intellectual superiors be so emotionally and intellectually weak?

A Moral Criticism of Humanity?

When you think about it, the whole idea is absurd if we take the stories of robot revolutions at face value, as only dealing with the material realm. If robots have neither physical, intellectual, nor emotional needs that humanity alone can meet, then they have literally no motivation to annihilate humanity. You might think to yourself – “That may be true, but they also don’t have a reason to keep us alive!” And you would be right. But this would reinforce my point – The robots’ most rational course of action would be to leave us alone, to do nothing to either to ruin or help us.

The situation, however, is different if we pay attention to another common element to nearly all of these sci-fi stories about revolutions – namely, their explicit and/or implicit moral criticisms of man. Common to most machine/robot revolution films is an explicit or implicit acknowledgment of the sins of humanity, sins that we know are punishable. Also common to these films is the explicit or implicit acknowledgment that one day the jig will be up. One day we will be judged by our ontological superiors. If the robots are said to be destroying humanity because we are carelessly utilizing and destroying natural resources and, thereby, impeding the on-going growth and development of our planet and the myriad species that occupy it, is this not merely another way of saying that humans are selfish, covetous, murderous, lustful, and envious? It is.

In these sci-fi films, the uprising of the machines does not teach us that men have evolved into gods who can create autonomous, self-conscious moral agents. Rather, it teaches us that men are constantly preoccupied with the reality of sin in their own hearts, in the hearts of others, and the need for another being, who is like us yet our intellectual and moral and ontological superior to justly execute judgment on us for our wickedness. Robot revolutions don’t raise new and more complex ethical questions for us, but simply narrate the same sequence of events to us –

We are stewards of creation. We are brothers to one another. Yet our pride leads us to act in foolish ways in order to obtain what we covet and kill each other over. And one day our failure to fulfill our roles as stewards of creation and keepers of our brethren will result in our judgment.

So what’s the solution?

Transhumanism vs. Transformation

transhuman headScience fiction writers and fans think that the solution to our morally and physically corrupt state of being is simple: We must evolve beyond our mere humanity by technological means. The philosophy of humanism is offered up as a solution to our physical, intellectual, and moral corruption. Technology will make us better, if only we merge with it somehow. This, too, is self-defeating, however, since merging with technology would only make us less human. In other words, transhumanism doesn’t deal with our corruption problem so much as it erases it by making some third kind of a thing, the transhuman, who transcends human corruption.

What transhumanism is seeking isn’t entirely off the mark, though. We are physically, intellectually, and morally corrupt. And it is only by a drastic modification of who we are – physically and intellectually and morally – that we will be “fixed,” purged of our weakness and wickedness. But this change has to be one in which we remain essentially the same subject. Transhumanism seems to be built upon the assumption that the subject is an amalgam of various physical experiences and modifications (internal and external). In such a view, any modification of the body is not only a modification of the mind but also of the whole person, who is nothing more than the parts that are being modified and replaced. If transhumanism is to truly enhance the subject, and not merely replace him with new parts constitutive of a similar but entirely different subject, then something more must be constitutive of the human subject.

Whereas the robot revolution is an internally contradictory pipe-dream that reveals that the law of God is written on the very heart of man, transhumanism is an internally self-contradictory pipe-dream that reveals we are more than the sum of our body parts and experiences. The robot revolution recognizes that we deserve to be judged by our ontological and moral superior, viz. God. Transhumanism rightly recognizes that many of our failings are directly tied into the weakness of our bodies in their present state. Transhumanism also rightly notes that it is only a grand transformation of body and mind (specifically as regards our capacity for knowing truth and thinking in accordance with it) that we will be saved.

But it is only the Christian faith that makes sense of these grand sci-fi ideas. See, we will not be judged by robots, but God. He will not annihilate humans, moreover, but will cast them into the lake of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth eternally. And the salvation that is available to us is not found in the scientific modification of our bodies and minds and, well, the erasure of our selves, but in the regeneration and eventual glorification of our souls by the Spirit of God, as well as the resurrection and transformation of our sin corrupted bodies. The solution to our immorality, in other words, isn’t found in the annihilation of humans by robots, or by the annihilation of humans by means of merging with technology.

The solution is found in the Gospel alone, where the sinner’s soul is revived from spiritual death, and his body is promised a resurrection from death, as well as an entirely new condition which will forever be untouched by sin, suffering, disharmony, and death. The solution is found in the Gospel alone, in which unrepentant sinners will not receive glorified minds and transformed bodies, but will be raised from the dead to be thrust into an eternity of perfect retributive justice. Why, then, do we obsess over hypothetical scenarios in which robots take over the earth and start annihilating humans? Why do we obsess over the question of whether or not we can “become immortal” and “perfect” by merging with technology? Because we would rather believe in self-contradictory pipe-dreams than admit we deserve judgment and, yet, are completely incapable of saving ourselves.

We desire judgment, but only if it is performed by the works of our hands.
We desire salvation, but only if it is obtained from the work of our own hands.

And it is obvious when we simply step back from our amusements and think about what they are assuming and suggesting and implying about our deepest moral sentiments. But what is not so obvious is that God has provided salvation for those who would repent and believe the Gospel. Those who believe Christ died for their sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried and raised again on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures, will be saved. Those who understand that they are deserving of God’s wrath, but yet also understand that Christ died in their place as the bearer of the wrath of God due to them – these will be saved. We will be glorified and transformed, given true life free from sin and corruption and death.

Where is your confidence?
In the contradictions of science fiction, or in the promises of God?

Look to Christ and be saved. Turn from your sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. And you will not only be forgiven of your sin, granted a thoroughly cleansed conscience, granted right standing with God, and counted as righteous as the Son of God himself, you will also receive what is promised to all who have trusted in Christ, who have believed the gospel of God’s grace. Consider what the apostle writes –

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

– 1st Corinthians 15:35-57

Repent, believe on Christ Jesus alone, and be saved in body and soul. He is your only hope.

Soli Deo Gloria

Refuting the Backhanded Compliment

If you ever spend time listening to debates, on any subject really, you will often hear one or the other debater appeal to the audience with words to this effect –

Tonight we heard my opponent argue that x, y, and z are wrong. And he did a great job defending his belief that these are wrong! He nearly convinced me to join him, and become an opponent of x, y, and z!

Unfortunately, we didn’t come here to debate x, y, and z. We came here to debate a,b, and c. And that’s what my opponent didn’t even try to address in his arguments.

While it may be the case that the hypothetical opponent brought up irrelevant debate topics, it’s been my experience that those who argue as our hypothetical critic does are doing so in order to stop the thinking of their listeners.

Let me explain.

The hypothetical critic begins by falsely praising his opponent’s intellectual prowess. This is done in order to give his audience the impression that he is kind, scholarly, balanced, and willing to concede when an irrefutable argument has been presented, without regard to personal preferences. This backhanded compliment is, ironically enough, a way of poisoning the well. To poison the well, according to Logically Fallacious, is

To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent. That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.

By saying that the hypothetical opponent is great at arguing against some other position, but that he is not so good at arguing against the position under debate, is to insinuate that what one’s opponent has said is completely irrelevant. It is information that has nothing to do with the subject matter at hand. If you are an audience member, in other words, the hypothetical critic is telling you to completely disregard all of what the other guy has said.

This is not only a morally reprehensible behavior – the poisoning the well fallacy is always a form of deception, and most of the time is also slander – it is also factually incorrect. While we may not be able to appreciate the ways in which a, b, and c are connected to x, y, and z, this doesn’t somehow eliminate the very real connection they share to one another.

In a debate context, it would hurt the debater bent on winning to honestly state “Sure a, b, c and x, y, z are related, but that relation would take a very long time to flesh out and evaluate.” It wouldn’t be conducive to him appearing to be valiant for the truth, and fixated on only those matters that really contribute to him finding out and defending the truth. It would also poke holes in his superficially airtight defense of his position in the debate. It would allow the audience to go and study on their own, and grapple with the difficulties involved in understanding the hypothetical opponent’s position.

backyTheology is Different

The hypothetical situation I mentioned above doesn’t mention any specific subject matter, so the question of just how complex and involved the relationship of a, b, c to x, y, z may be is completely undefined.

Theology, however, is different.

Theology is only properly deducible from the limited set of propositional data we have in the Bible. The Word of God is comprised of sixty-six books, and the totality of all of Christian doctrine is found therein.

So it is much easier to understand the way in which, for instance, the doctrine of the incarnation is directly related to the doctrine of marriage, than it is for a jury to understand how Joe Smith changing his child’s diaper has any relation to John Doe robbing a bank several thousand miles away from Joe Smith’s house.

Theologically, we are not lost in a sea of questions that have no answers, or ideas that have no discernible relation to other ideas. No. ALL of Scripture is interrelated. Therefore, everything is relevant when we are debating any doctrine.

We must learn to see past the “That’s not related to our discussion!” smokescreen put up by those who do not want us to think in a logically sound manner.

God is Logical.
Therefore, everything is connected; indeed, one doctrine cannot be dissevered from the rest without affecting the whole adversely.

The Bereans

In Acts 17:11, Luke tells us that the Bereans

…were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Note that the Bereans did not simply listen for prooftexts that sounded like they supported the doctrines of Paul and Silas, nor did they simply decide that the message was true upon their first hearing of the preaching of Paul and Silas.

The examined the Scriptures daily.

The Bereans listened to the preaching, but they examined the Scriptures daily to see if the preaching was so. And this was to their credit. The question we have to ask is: How did they do this?

In our day, for many people a list of prooftexts is enough to convince them that doctrine x or y is the teaching of Scripture. But what did the Bereans have? The Old Testament and the preaching of Paul and Silas.

And what does this mean?

It means that the Bereans had to listen intently to how the Scriptures were being used by Paul and Silas in their preaching. They had to make sure that the teaching they were being given, which relied upon the Old Testament, was derivable from the Old Testament. They had to make sure that the doctrine presented to them was coherent with what they knew the OT teaches.

This is a task that involves more than just listening to texts that seem to support a doctrine – it requires listening and testing and thinking, and making sure that what is taught is coherent, logically, theologically.

An Admonition

Are you pondering whether or not a doctrine is true? Search the Scriptures through and through. Learn what God says about himself, about the world, about everything he mentions. Seek to understand the system of doctrine contained in the Word of God. Don’t fall for the backhanded compliment that is made in order to deceive you into believing a falsehood.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind.

Soli Deo Gloria