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The Theology of Science-Fiction

Bob Kurland

Mar 1, 2024

Can AI have soul ?

Theological Objection: “Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think."

Rebuttal to Objection: “It appears to me that [The Theological Objection] implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this soul.” Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.


Let's start off on a light note. A long time ago when computers were still new (yes, it was that long ago), when I was at my first academic assignment, the head of the division dealing with computers gave a talk on artificial intelligence for computers. One of the humanities faculty in the audience put a question after the talk "Would you want your daughter to marry one [i.e. a computer]?" Legend has it (I wasn't there) that he answered, "Yes, if she loved him.

When we inquire about the souls of computers/robots we assume that computers/robots have a mind/self-awareness/consciousness. That some sort of programmed intelligence can be conscious (self-aware) is a hotly debated proposition.

A book would be required (many have been written) to explore this notion. We don't want to write that book here, so let's suppose, as do science fiction (SF) authors, that consciousness is possible by some means or another for computers and robots and see what SF has to say about them having souls.*


As a transition to considering machine intelligence, let's examine how SF treats the transfer of human intelligence/personality into computers or robots. Note that one theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, in his book, The Physics of Christianity, posits that heaven will consist of personalities transferred to software as the universe reaches its end in an "Omega Point" singularity. Since it is a black hole type singularity, time is slowed down and the intelligences transferred to software thus have essentially an eternity to enjoy their virtual life.

Among the many SF stories that deal with transferred human intelligence, there is one that especially focuses on the question of soulhood, Deus X, by Norman Spinrad. Spinrad treats the question with respect, although his attitude to the Catholic Church is somewhat less than reverent (there is a female Pope, Mary I). Below is a summary of the plot, as given in McKee's excellent survey, The Gospel According to Science-Fiction:

“...thousands of people exist in an artificial afterlife called 'Transcorporeal Immortality', having copied their consciousness onto a worldwide computer network called 'The Big Board'....Catholic theologian Fr. Philippe de Leone argue[s] that this creation of an artificial soul, which cannot have true self-awareness, dooms the actual soul that is copied to damnation. Pope Mary I, hoping to settle the controversy, orders Fr. DeLeone to have his soul copied upon his death, so that his consciousness can argue against its own autonomous existence from the other side.”

Superficially, Pope Mary's plan seems to contain a paradox. If the downloaded Fr. de Leone changes "his" mind and says "yes, I am a real soul", how can we trust what an artificial soul might say?

The solution to the paradox is that all of Fr. de Leone's beliefs have been downloaded to his program. If these beliefs are changed, it means that the entity in the computer has free will, and is thus autonomous and a real soul.

In the story Fr. DeLeone's soul is "kidnapped" (how do you kidnap a program?) by a group of downloaded personalities that wants to convince the Church, via Fr. de Leone's download, that they have a real soul. As McKee points out in his synopsis, there is a reverse Turing Test applied here. Fr. de Leone does change his mind, the downloaded personalities declare him a deity ("Deus X") and a new controversy arises: Church officials declare how could this blasphemy come about.

To still the controversy, Fr. de Leone sacrifices his downloaded personality (dies), Pope Mary declares him a saint and recognizes that the downloaded souls are "real".


There are many SF works in which the Catholic Church plays a role. In some, the Church and its teachings are treated with respect; in most, not so much. As Gabriel McKee points out in The Gospel According to Science Fiction

SF, arising as it does from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment, is critical of religious institutions. SF frequently argues that if organized religion is to be a positive force in the future of humankind, it must change drastically to meet the spiritual challenges of the future. (p. 183)

One such drastic change is envisaged by Robert Silverberg in his story Good News from the Vatican.

In his story there are robot priests and robot high Church officials. One such, a robot Cardinal, is elected Pope after a deadlock between two human cardinals. The story ends with the newly elected robot pontiff rising into the air from the balcony before the assembled masses in St. Peter's Square and, as he goes up "...his shadow extends across the whole piazza. Higher and higher he goes until he is lost to sight."

Does Silverberg, with a sense of irony--the shadow cast over the piazza, and the Pope lost from sight--predict the eclipse of humanity and human values? Or am I reading too much into this ending?

A more sympathetic view of how the Church might interact with artificial intelligence is given in Jack McDevitt's fine story, "Gus"**. In this beautiful tale, the newly installed rector of a Catholic Seminary interacts with a computer simulation of St. Augustine of Hippo, purchased (the simulation, that is) to help students understand St. Augustine's teachings.

The Rector, Msgr. Chesley, is at first greatly displeased with Gus's (the program's) dicta: "'The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians' Chesley threw over his shoulder. 'Get rid of it'" ("Gus" in Cryptics, p. 373).

The relationship between Chesley and Gus becomes warmer with time, as they discuss the problems of being a Catholic in today's world:

“'Why did Augustine become a priest?' Chesley asked.

'I wanted,' Gus said, with the slightest stress on the first words, 'to get as close as I could to my Creator.' Thoughtfully, he added, 'I seem to have traveled far afield.'

'Sometimes I think,' Chesley said, 'the Creator hides himself too well.'

'Use his Church,' said Gus. 'That is why it is here.'

'It has changed.'

“Of course it has changed. The world has changed.'

'The Church is supposed to be a rock.'

'Think of it rather as a refuge in a world that will not stand still.'" (op. cit., p. 382)

Gus' sayings to the students become so unorthodox (he decries the doctrines/dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that other faculty decided he should be downloaded to storage and traded in for a computer simulation of Thomas Aquinas (plus business software). Gus asks Msgr. Chesley to hear his Confession and then destroy him, so he can have peace:

"'I require absolution, Matt.'

Chesley pressed his right hand into his pocket. 'It would be sacrilege,' he whispered.

'And if I have a soul, Matt, if I too am required to face judgment,what then?'

Chesley raised his right hand, slowly, and drew the sign of the cross in the thick air. 'I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'

'Thank you...There’s something else I need you to do, Matt. This existence holds nothing for me. But I am not sure what downloading might mean.'

'What are you asking?”

'I want to be free of all this. I want to be certain I do not spend a substantial fraction of eternity in the storeroom.'

Chesley trembled. 'If in fact you have an immortal soul,' he said, 'you may be placing it in grave danger.'

'And yours as well. I have no choice but to ask. Let us rely on the mercy of the Almighty.'

Tears squeezed into Chesley’s eyes. He drew his finger- tips across the hard casing of the IBM. 'What do I do? I’m not familiar with the equipment.'

'Have you got the right computer?'


'Take it apart. Turn off the power first. All you have to do is get into it and destroy the hard disk.'

'Will you—feel anything?'

'Nothing physical touches me, Matt.'

Chesley found the power switch...He found a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. He used the screwdriver to take the top off the computer. A gray metal box lay within. He opened it and removed a gleaming black plastic disk. He embraced it, held it to his chest. Then he set it down, and reached for the hammer. In the morning, with appropriate ceremony, he buried it in consecrated soil." (op.cit., pp.388-389)

Even though I am moved to tears when I read this, do I believe that a computer program will have a personality, a soul? Not likely***.


For those who aren't Trekkies, Data is the android navigator in the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: the Next Generation. He aspires to humanity and sometimes reaches and even surpasses that state.

However, there is a problem in asking whether Data has a soul.  The question is never considered in any of the episodes, possibly because the word "soul" (in its theological, not musical sense) is anathema to writers and producers of popular entertainment. So, in the episode, "The Measure of a Man", the question "Is Data a sentient being" is asked, rather than "Does Data have a soul".

The question is addressed in a trial, to see if Data, as a "sentient being", has the right to refuse to be disassembled for study and refitting. Captain Picard acts in Data's behalf and Commander Riker, under duress, as the prosecutor. Riker attempts to demonstrate that Data is a machine by switching him off:

[Riker is doing his duty in the courtroom]

Commander William T. Riker: The Commander is a physical representation of a dream - an idea, conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It's a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms; its responses dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now... and now a man will shut it off.

[Riker switches off Data, who slumps forward like a lifeless puppet]

Commander William T. Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut. (The Measure of a Man, Quotes)

[Captain Picard gives a stirring defense, arguing that the question of whether Data is conscious--self-aware--has not and can not be settled any more than whether one can be certain that another person is conscious except by external behavior. And finally the question of soulhood is addressed minimally:]

"Captain Phillipa Louvois [The Judge]: It sits there looking at me; and I don't know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics - with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I've got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul?[emphasis added] I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose."

[notice the shift from "it" to "he"] (ibid)

And so Data is left free, and the question of whether he has a soul, undetermined -- as in the Scottish verdict, "Not Proven”.


In his book, "Our Lady of the Artilects," Andrew Gillsmith raises fundamental questions about these basic articles of faith: good versus evil, who (or what) can have a soul and what constitutes a soul.  The book is ranked 2nd by readers in the Good Reads survey of Catholic science fiction, right after that classic, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." In a review of the book on Catholic Stand I’ve discussed how Gillsmith addresses these issues, so I’ll refer the reader to that article.

As a concluding comment, I’ll quote the last paragraph of that review:

Philosophers and scientists have debated whether it be possible to create artificial intelligence that is conscious and self-aware (See “Can Computers Have a Soul,” and Chapter 6, A Science Primer for the Faithful.) I vote for no.

Nevertheless, science-fiction (speculative fiction) has used this device (and will presumably continue to do so) for parables defining the human condition. That knowledge, per se, is not enough for us is the message. Although the two wings of faith and reason are supposed to carry  us humans to the truth, reason by itself is not enough to answer questions such as “why are we here?” Instead of hobbits, orcs and elves, Andrew Gillsmith, has used synths and humans in a moving and captivating story to illustrate this human condition and to suggest what God has in mind for us.


Bob Kurland is a retired physicist with a colorful and diverse background. Known for his wit and candor, Kurland embarked on a remarkable journey that spans academia, spirituality, and community service. After a distinguished academic career, including earning his Bachelor of Science "with honor" from Caltech in 1951 and obtaining his Master's and Ph.D. from Harvard in Physics and Chemical Physics respectively, Kurland delved into the world of theoretical science. His contributions to the field are perhaps best exemplified by his seminal work, the "Kurland-McGarvey equation," a groundbreaking achievement that continues to influence scientific discourse.

In 1995, Kurland experienced a profound spiritual transformation, converting to Catholicism. This newfound faith became a cornerstone of his life, guiding his actions and imbuing his endeavors with a sense of purpose. He dedicated himself to serving others, volunteering at federal prisons and hospitals, embodying the principles of compassion and empathy. In addition to his scholarly pursuits and philanthropic efforts, Kurland is a talented musician, proficient in a variety of instruments including the bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, and tenor bowed psaltery. He generously shares his musical gifts as a member of the parish instrumental group and local folk group, enriching the community with his passion for music. Though retired from the academic arena, Kurland's inquisitive spirit and unwavering dedication to knowledge continue to inspire those around him. With his characteristic blend of intellect, humor, and compassion, he leaves an indelible mark on both the scientific and spiritual realms.


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