Atheism, Humans and Robots

robots1-150x150The standard disclaimer: I am not speaking about or attacking atheists. Instead, my goal is to rationally work through the logical implications of the atheistic worldview. (Please notice how I define atheism).

My conclusion is that, if atheism is true, then we need to re-imagine how we understand human beings. Atheism requires us to stop thinking of humans as independent, free actors who make their own choices, who decide to love people, and who take courageous stands for noble causes. Instead, we need to think about human beings in pretty much the same way that we think about robots.

How do we understand robots? Here’s a definition from Merriam-Webster:

A machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being.

From Wikipedia:

A robot is a mechanical contraption which can perform tasks on its own, or with guidance. In practice a robot is usually an electro-mechanical machine which is guided by computer and electronic programming.

Why, if atheism is true, should we think that humans are like robots?

Sam Harris, a leading atheist public intellectual, has provided the argument for this. What’s important here is the argument; this isn’t an appeal to authority, as if “what Sam Harris says about atheism must be true.” Instead, we’re looking to understand his logic and reasoning.

Here’s what Sam Harris wrote on his blog:

You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain. All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.

In other words, the evidence from neuroscience is that our brains control us, which eliminates the idea that “we” control our brains. If you read his post, Sam Harris describes two experiments that show this to be the best scientific understanding of our brains.

Think through this:

  • For humans, all of our behavior is caused by biological events which we have no knowledge of and no ability to change.
  • For robots, all of their behavior is caused by software/hardware events which they have no knowledge of and no ability to change.

Sam Harris is quite clear on this point. For instance, he considers the argument that quantum mechanics implies that there is an indeterminacy in our brains and this means there might be some kind of free will. Here’s his devastating response:

The indeterminacy specific to quantum mechanics offers no foothold. Even if our brains were quantum computers, the brains of chimps, dogs, and mice would be quantum computers as well. (I don’t know of anyone who believes that these animals have free will.)

When it comes to free will, what’s the difference between chimps, dogs, mice, humans, and robots? The only difference is the kind of physical cause. For organisms, their choices are determined by a biological cause like DNA; for robots, their choices are determined by a digital cause like software. But the “thoughts” and actions of both humans and robots are determined by causes outside of their control. Therefore, when it comes to what determines our thoughts, desires, and actions, we are very similar to robots.

What are the implications of this? Let’s consider what we know about robots.

  • Does a robot have free will? No. Robots act in strict accordance with the software programs embedded in their hardware and within the limits of their mechanical capacity.
  • Can a robot act morally? No. Robots just do what they are programmed to do. A robot might kill an innocent person, using a gun, but we wouldn’t blame the robot. We might destroy the robot to keep other people safe, but the blame belongs to the person who designed the robot and its software.
  • Does a robot have hope? No. Any individual robot’s existence is trivial, temporary, and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It is hard to even know what it would mean for a robot to have hope.
  • Can a robot love? No. A robot has no soul. If a robot acts in a beneficial way towards a human, this was not the robot’s choice, and wasn’t prompted by “love”, but was predetermined by the robot’s software. We can’t credit the robot for the good action, since the robot didn’t choose to do it and couldn’t have done otherwise.
  • Can a robot reason? No. It can run through various algorithms to arrive at the right answer to questions. This may facilitate playing chess or Jeopardy better than humans can. But no thinking originates from the robot itself; the robot is only running the software program that its creators developed. Nor is the robot coming to its conclusions having carefully weighed various reasons and choosing the most rational idea; instead, it is deterministically acting upon whichever algorithm its program is designed to select in that particular circumstance.
  • Does a robot have purpose? At first glance, it might seem like they do. After all, the designer of a robot creates the robot for a certain purpose, and people make and buy robots in order to accomplish certain goals. There is a reason and a goal to their existence.

But would human robots have purpose? No. We are an accidental byproduct of the cosmos. It just so happened that our earth was conducive to life, that life began on this planet, and that random mutation and natural selection led to our existence. But there is no plan to this or any rationale to our existence; there is simply no purpose for our lives. There is no goal for our lives, besides perhaps the propagation of our genes, but our genes don’t intend to do that. In addition, whatever purpose we choose to adopt for our lives is entirely arbitrary. There is no transcendent standard by which to measure various “purposes” for human existence as more or less worthy.

Therefore, the causal chain leading up to the creation of robots is a purposeless one. There’s the DNA script which automates the human actions, which causes the design and assembly of the robots, and then the software automates the robot’s actions. But at no point in the chain did a person choose to build a robot – the forces of nature compelled a human organism to build one. And all of the purposes for which humans build robots are themselves arbitrary. So our lack of purpose erodes even robots having purpose.

So, to conclude: robots have no free will, no moral ability, no hope, no love, no rational capacity, and no purpose. Since, if atheism is true, we are like robots in the relevant way (our thoughts, desires and actions are just determined by DNA instead of by software), humans also lack free will, moral ability, hope, love, the ability to reason, and have no purpose.

Therefore, if atheism is true, then the rational conclusion is that humans are very much like robots. This is a profoundly cheerless and dreary perspective on humans.

To the degree, then, that you have reason to think that humans are more than loveless, hopeless, purposeless robots, you have a reason to believe that atheism is false.

Update: I have since discovered that Richard Dawkins has explicitly promoted this understanding of humans: “What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot child.”

This post was originally published at Reasons for God.

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About Carson Weitnauer

Carson is the founder of Reasons for God and the co-editor of True Reason. He serves as the U.S. Director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and as the President for the Christian Apologetics Alliance. You can connect with Carson on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. To receive all of his new posts, join his email list for free.

  • Trevor

    Incomplete premise: a lack of free will does not inherently mean a lack of emotion, morals, hope, or purpose. Appeal to emotions as argument: an idea is not inherently bad or good, correct or incorrect just because of how it makes one feel; there must be other factors.

  • Damian A

    I get where you’re trying to go with this – the whole ‘no life purpose’ and all, but haven’t you kinda missed the point of ‘biological imperative’?

    Tying in the Sam Harris quotes with your repeated refrain of “if atheism is true…” would seem to suggest that they only hold true for atheists. This is at best a non-sequitur, at worst a strawman.

    I think what you’re really trying to decide is what are the implications for all of us if the neuroscientists are correct, because the science will hold true regardless of religious beliefs. Your post actually has nothing to do with atheism, or indeed theism, and should really be titled “”Neuroscience, Humans and Robots.”

    Or perhaps I’ve given you too much credit already, and you actually believe that only theists are worthwhile lifeforms. Do you really believe that the neuroscience only works in atheists? Do you believe that theists are immune to biological imperative? How much of the neuroscience works for theists, and does it depend on which god is believed in?

    Embarrassingly, you do seem to believe that atheists have no morals, and no capacity to love, hope or reason. I can only hope that these churlish, and quite frankly insulting, generalisations were some sort of brain fart, as they seem at odds with your opening claim of “I am not speaking about or attacking atheists.”.

    • MGaerlan

      Damian, please read our comment policy at http://www.apologeticalliance.com/blog/comment-policy/

      We like to keep things civil here and describing someones argument as “embarrassing”, “churlish” (when it’s intent is certainly not meant) or a “brain fart” certainly does not do that.

      • Damian A

        OP attempts to compare, but not contrast, all atheists with mindless, loveless, honourless, amoral, reasonless robots. His summary, that an atheist has no life purpose, is reached on the basis of a weak strawman argument and amounts to little more than an ad hominem attack.

        No link is offered between atheism and this ‘robotic state’, no justification at all. The apparent opposite, that theists are ‘non-robotic’ is not established either. That isn’t even an argument, that is simple name-calling.

        For some reason, you do not find this to be uncivil. Instead you would rather nitpick on a few phrases that seem a tad disparaging. Of the 3 phrases you highlight, I absolutely stand by the use of the word “churlish” [Webster: marked by a lack of civility or graciousness] to describe such an ad hominem attack on atheists.

        “Embarrassing” is used to describe the OP’s own belief/opinion that atheists are merely purposeless robots, as we can hardly have been swayed by the argument as it is presented. Please be clear, I have previously described the argument as a weak strawman and an ad hominem attack. It is the rabid attempt at dehumanising atheists that I am calling embarrassing. “Astonishing” could be used as a replacement.

        I don’t know what else to call this article except a “brain fart”, but I am happy to substitute in a more acceptable phrase, should one be suggested. To me, the phrase implies that the author has not brought their A-Game on this occasion, whilst not being overly dismissive or insulting of the author in general.

        • MGaerlan

          Regardless of whether or not you understand or disagree with the article, and regardless or not of whether I view your response as a good argument,I suggest you do find another way to argue your point. If not you will be banned from posting.

          • Damian A

            Ah, how quick the (threat of) Banhammer.

            I have re-written the offending parts of my original post.

            • MGaerlan

              Thank you Damian. We do appreciate your thoughts and interaction.

              I should note that any reply is (or should be ) quick, and that includes not putting off responding to activity that violates our comment policy. Thank you for understanding and also for editing your comments.

  • Mason Miller

    You’ve got it backwards. Atheism allows humans to be treated like humans and not robots. If you get confused, remember which mindset forces you to subject yourself to a predetermined set of tasks every Sunday.

    • Kitwalker05

      So what do you enjoy doing on a regular basis? Watch sports? Go to the pub with a few mates? I assume you do not class these as mind sets that force you to go against your own will (if in fact you have a free one).

  • Kitwalker05

    Neurology is a science. Science is the discovery of the world in which we live. Our current scientific understandings do NOT contain the breadth and width of all knowledge of the universe or how it functions. Do we know definitively if the emotion comes first or the corresponding brain activity? Maybe the emotion happens a fraction of a second early than the activity in the brain and is responsible for the brain activity instead of the reverse. There is so much we still do not understand of the meta physical and its role in our functionality. To assume that science has all the answers with nothing else to be considered is surely foolish and short sighted. Just as we are all subject to the physical realities of this world such as neurology whether we we believe it or not, may I suggest that the same is relevant for the non physical reality of this world.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com/ Hausdorff

    Are humans just robots made of meat? I would argue yes. Our DNA contains a blueprint for both our hardware and software. But I totally disagree with your statements about “what we know about robots”.

    “Can a robot act morally? No. Robots just do what they are programmed to do.”

    Couldn’t you then program a robot to act morally? When we teach children to act morally, aren’t we in a sense adding to their program to understand what is right and wrong?

    “Does a robot have hope? No. Any individual robot’s existence is trivial, temporary, and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.”

    In the “grand scheme of things” most people’s existence is probably pretty insignificant as well, doesn’t stop them from hoping.

    “Can a robot love? No. A robot has no soul.”

    Why is a soul necessary for love?

    “Can a robot reason? No. It can run through various algorithms to arrive at the right answer to questions.”

    Isn’t that what reasoning is?

    “Does a robot have purpose?”

    Do people have a purpose? I would argue a big part of life is finding a purpose for ourselves.