I once read that every few years our culture becomes obsessed with a different theme in science fiction and fantasy, and that this theme reflects an existential crisis we are having at that particular moment.
For example, about 10 years ago, an obsession with vampires thinly veiled our preoccupation with youth and death. Next came an obsession with zombies that became a way to explore our dependence on personal electronic devices rather than personal relationships.
Since I find vampires to be a juvenile pastime, and I am of the opinion that it doesn’t take long to mine the zombie trope for all it is worth, I must say I am thrilled to see that over the past couple years shows like Ex Machina and Westworld have moved us back to my most favourite sci-fi and fantasy theme of all: artificial intelligence (AI).
It seems that every 15 years or so we revisit this theme as our technology brings us closer to building a robot that is indistinguishable from a human being. But it is not the science that keeps this theme interesting; rather, it is the human themes behind the science. Every book, screenplay and television show that broaches the subject of sentient machines is really screaming the question: What makes humanity unique?
This question goes back much further than the modern imagination on AI. Long before Isaac Asimov got us thinking about robots, we had already started to question what makes us distinct from other animals. It was here that we came to the conclusion that we are unique by virtue of our capacity to reason. We may be animals, but we are a special kind of animal because we can use logic and deduction to think about the world intelligibly.
Having relied on this explanation for so long, it is no wonder that we are facing an identity crisis with the development of machines that can solve logic problems and develop complex strategies. It seems we are only a few steps away from a self-aware android that we are afraid will make us obsolete. And so we return to the question of our uniqueness. If reason isn’t really what makes us special, then what is it that makes a human being a human being?
Science-fiction authors have tried to answer this question in a variety of ways, with characteristics such as our creativity or even our extreme capacity for cruelty rising to the fore. I secretly hope that in some alternate reality there is a version of me who is busy writing the screenplay that will answer this question imaginatively and with a deft precision that will win over the harshest critics.
But since in this reality I am only indulging my science fiction obsession in a brief Prairie Messenger column, let me say quite simply that my answer is that we are unique not for our capacity for reason alone, but rather for the interplay of our reason with our capacity for faith.
I recently watched a Bishop Robert Baron video in which he took only 10 minutes to explain the relationship between faith and reason (“What Faith Is and What Faith Isn’t”). The bishop compares faith and reason in this way: imagine that you are going on a blind date with someone. Before you meet the person, you might use a Google search or ask the person’s friends some questions about her. But your objective reason can only take you so far and eventually you will have to meet the person.
And when the person speaks, she “will reveal things about herself that you would never know in any other way. . . . She will disclose to you truths about herself that exist within her own interirority — in her own heart — and can only come forth from her free decision to speak. . . . At that point you’ve got to make a decision. The decision is: Do I believe her or not?” The decision to believe someone in this way cannot be verified by any objective reason. It is beyond reason. It is a leap of faith.
Notice here that faith and reason are not pitted in opposition. Rather, faith builds on the foundation that reason has already laid. This is something a machine would never be able to do. Sure, we could program it to accept the statements that humans make as factual, but a machine would never be able to exhibit the type of faith that is required for true relationships, true creativity, true passion or true love.
I sometimes wonder if our fascination with AI is also connected to a deep concern that we have lost our capacity for faith. In our over-obsession with reason, there is a fear that we may have lost the ability to take a leap to anything beyond scientific facts. But there is hope for us yet.
Popular science fiction keeps returning to this theme because deep down, we want to be more than just animals that reason. We want to be what we were created to be: people of faith.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She recently attained a PhD in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan.