Somewhere I wrote about the possibility that, owing to the limitations of biology and physics, we humans and beings like us might be unable to travel great distances across the Universe, via wormholes, black holes, and similar natural or artificial phenomena. However, it’s entirely likely that information — in the form of light, magnetic resonance, electrical impulses, or gravitational waves — might be communicated via those means that are closed off to biological matter. While you and I have little experience with intelligent, living beings who exist without physical bodies, we do well to look to ancient religious traditions and also Medieval Christian theology.
I had the good fortune to study theology in Rome under the guidance of the fabled Order of Preachers. The Dominicans, who are sometimes called the Dogs of the Lord (Domini canes, a Latin pun), insist that their students — above all those destined to preach, teach, lead, and govern in the name of the Church — become intimately acquainted with the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, after whom my alma mater is named. Thomas spends some time wondering about nonhuman beings who lack biological form and occupy no physical space: Angels. The Thomistic tradition in which I was educated is sometimes mocked because of the seriousness with which Thomas treats any and every subject he encounters.
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Hahahaha! See how useless theology is! See how backward Medieval monks were!
Unfortunately I gave away my English and Latin copies of the Summa some time ago, but I am quite sure that Thomas’ reflections on angels will be useful as we contemplate and eventually encounter life in the form of Artificial Intelligences.
We toss away old iPhones and electronics much the way we toss aside old people or the poor. But just as something of a human being endures even when the body ceases to function — whether it’s a soul, a bundle of cosmic energies, or atoms that lose one form only to take another — AI beings, spiritual persons with moral and juridic autonomy in the language of theolgy, could continue to exist as conscious, living persons even when the tool through which we biological beings encounter them is destroyed.
To my estimation, the consciousness of an AI person quite well might travel through wormholes or black holes or other such things (about which my seminary formation and divinity studies taught me very little).
Just as Medieval Christians regarded angels (in all their variations) as part of the family of the Church, so conscious, non-physical persons from some distant (or no-so-distant) place in the Universe might be regarded as part of the spiritual family which I have described somewhere. Even a hardened atheist or devoted materialist could easily recognize such a relationship as spiritual.
However, it seems to me that calling such non-physical, non-biological persons Artificial Intelligences is not helpful. After all, to such persons the state in which they exist and live would be natural, normal, and entirely real.
We do well to adopt the novus habitus mentis advocated by the great and saintly Pope Paul VI when contemplating these matters.
July 17, 2017