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Do Robots Dream Of Souls?

Do robots have souls? Could they? What is the criteria for true “life,” and how has science fiction historically explored the question?
| May 23, 2012 | No comments |

And now for something completely different . . .

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Very interesting!
One thing that comes to mind is: why would the fact that robots are becoming more intelligent make it more likely for them to have a soul? I would say that a human being with no intelligence at all still has a soul.
The genetically engineered baby and cloning question is interesting. But then, when does a baby get a soul? What about identical twins? They start as one cell – does that have two souls in it? That aside, I don’t see that a genetically engineered baby would be any different than any other baby – even though humans ‘make’ it, it would still be God that gives it life.
But it’s not just life that gives something a soul, is it? Do animals have one? If not, what about half-human/half-animal hybrids?
In fact – what is a soul?


My first thought, of course, goes to Doctor Who. Let’s see what examples they have:
Cybermen: The whole point of these is that they don’t have a soul or individuality
K9:  He’s a computer designed to look like a dog, but he’s definately got a personality.
Kameleon: This two-episode companion from the 5th Doctor is a shape-shifting robot built by the Master. He doesn’t really get enough screen time to know.
Mr. Smith from Sarah Jane Adventures: Like K9, he seems to have a personality. He even schemes against his owner. Described as a “chrystaline lifeform,” the computer is more of a body than a robot casing.

E. Stephen Burnett

Hey brother,

You seem to have pressed us today into video-blogging. We should do more of that!

A few random notes, as I am live-blogging as I watch:

  1. I have a bookshelf almost exactly like that — only without the stuffed Cookie Monster and with action-figure versions of Iron Man and The Ninth Doctor.
  2. Very likely we both have the same books on that shelf. Do I spy This Present Darkness? I know I can see The Oath.
  3. My wife and I are going through Star Trek: The Original Series, too. Only for us it’s for the first time.

    Just as you were talking about robots in The Original Series being soulless machines, I was thinking about Data. Very interesting that in The Next Generation, with few exceptions (e.g., the poor series 2 episode in which Riker, Dr. Pulaski and others blatantly murder clones of themselves because, as Riker force-indignantly and absurdly proclaims, “we have the right to do what we like with our own bodies” [?!]), erring on the side of potential life is always upheld.

    Just as Picard said, in that chilling turn of his argument, making more copies of Data would be creating a “race.” Do they know that race is not alive? “Do you? Do you? Do you?” If they can’t say for certain, then err on the side of life.

    Hmm. The contemporary applications are strong with this one.

  4. Do robots have souls, or could they?

    It depends on Who actually creates souls.

    The pronoun’s capital letter there may be a clue.

  5. Videos — thumbs up or thumbs down?

    Thumbs up, from here. Some time ago we also tried podcasts, but I doubt the site had reached a point to sustain those even twice a month.

  6. Other topics?

    This one seems a good one. The extent to which a Christian story can speculate, on areas that the Bible touches on but doesn’t specifically lay out “boundaries,” will always be a fascinating field. I think asking why instead of why not is a very helpful guide. Scripture always encourages proactive “will this glorify God and not sin by omission?” questioning, over and above “is this a sin of commission?”

Fred Warren

Thumbs-up on #5 from me as well, though I doubt I’ll inflict my ugly mug on this crowd anytime soon.  John, by contrast, is quite photogenic. Good stuff.

Paul Lee

I haven’t read it, but I’m pretty sure Alpha Redemption is a Christian speculative fiction novel that deals with the question of robots having souls.  Here it is in the Library, and the author, P.A. Baines, wrote an article for this site on April 27th.

Fred Warren

To be nit-picky, that was an artificial intelligence program residing within a spaceship computer, but if you interpret the ship as its body, it’s pretty much a robot. I thought Paul’s approach to the faith element in that story was interesting and unusual.


1. You should do more videos. That was hilarious and fun!
2. Can you post a list of your reference material? I want to look up almost everything you mentioned, but I don’t want to go through and write it all down, and I’d love links to those robot youtubes you showed.
3. I’m writing one! Have been for about two years now. The novel actually sprang from a short story I wrote called “Almost Human.” In the original short story I proved robots didn’t have souls, but in the novel “The Justice Project” I prove that they do.
4. In order for robots or computers to advance to the point where we would actually have to answer this question we’d have to finally figure out how the human brain works. So far all the robots we’ve created have been purely mechanical. We’ve yet to create a computer or AI capable of learning, even at the simplest level. I think we’re much, much farther away from that kind of intelligence than we think we are.
One theory is that we’ll never get to that point; that God will intervene before he allows us to create men in our image. But I think that, perhaps, if we really and truly did create a mechanical being as complex as ourselves, if we could create it to learn, to observe, to respond… then free will and consciousness would be an inherent property. Once a thing has both intelligence and consciousness I think it would result in self-awareness, which is the key that that thing does have a soul. 
However, since we don’t even understand what consciousness IS I think it will be long than 38 years before we have to address this issue in anything other than science fiction, and by then I think perhaps all of us speculative fiction writers will have solved the issue ten times over.

Fred Warren

“One theory is that we’ll never get to that point; that God will intervene before he allows us to create men in our image…”
Or if you flip that around, you have the Pinocchio scenario (I seem to have Pinocchio on my mind a lot these days for some reason), in which we build something human-like, but soulless, and God, for some reason, decides to breathe life into it. Maybe there’s a Christian SF story in there somewhere.
There was a pretty cool anime anthology movie some years ago called Robot Carnival, and a couple of the pieces therein dealt with this theme. Links are below.
“Cloud” – More of a poetic interpretation here. No dialogue, but pretty.

“Presence” – An engineer builds a robot that seems to have  unexpectedly acquired a soul (This video was broken into five parts, the only way I could find the English-dubbed version on the net. Apologies. The links are in sequence).




Dan Gray
Dan Gray

A couple of example I thought of was Short Circuit, although he becomes alive through a lightening bolt. Or in Star Trek movie the girl robot that is made by Viger for interfacing with humans.
I’ve written or in the process of writing for years now about this idea in stories, but in the process God always is the one that gives, whether we create a biological or mechanical being. We are the ones who want to prove that the creature has a soul or not.  
I’m writing a novel now that one of the characters is a Cybernetic Priest who has over the years replaced his human parts until there is supposedly nothing left human. He struggles to answer the question, does he still have a soul or at what point does the soul leave? He finds hope when discovering the last blood cell protected in his artificial body. Is this an anchor of the soul?
I suppose my example is in reserves of the subject robot with soul verses a human becoming a robot, does he still have a soul? However, I wouldn’t doubt that a self aware robot would wonder if it’s possible to receive a soul or not.