The National Catholic Review

Back in the 60s when there was no Facebook and no iPhones, teens had to handle their free time differently. For the nerdish among them, there were always good philosophy books to read. That’s how I happened to be reading the play "Huis Clos” ("No Exit") by John Paul Sartre. Although much of existentialism emphasizes building an authentic life based on choices, this particular book ended with a bunch of strange people trapped for life in a tiny room. “Other people, that’s hell”: What a depressing conclusion, and even more sad the denial of human freedom, God, and a more palatable eternity. Still, reading Sartre stirred up in me crucial questions about human agency.

Free will remains an important philosophical and psychological question--and belief in free will is crucial to Catholicism, as our entire system of morality emphasizes our free choice: to sin, or not to sin; to pursue grace, or to turn away; and finally, to cooperate with God’s plan, or to go the other way.

Last week I mentioned that I hoped readers would join me in reading The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes by Mortimer J. Adler, and to discuss this book online with me during the fall. The New York Times (and I am saying this with no irony or dry humor) has presented us with a gift this past month or so; first, by offering a series on free-will, computers, and determinism; and second, by including in Monday’s edition another essay on this topic written by a partner architect from Microsoft. The title: "The First Church of Robotics." Jaron Lanier writes:

The news of the day often includes an item about some development in artificial intelligence: a machine that smiles, a program that can predict human tastes in mates or music, a robot that teaches foreign language to children. This constant stream of stories suggests that machines are becoming smart and autonomous, a new form of life, and that we should think of them as fellow creatures instead of tools. But such conclusions aren’t just changing how we think about computers--they are reshaping the basic assumptions of our lives in misguided and ultimately damaging ways.

My own field of study--psychology--frequently compares the human mind to a computer in the subfield of information processing, and there is an underlying belief and faith (I have chosen these words carefully and on purpose) that one day computer intelligence will surpass the human mind and become its own entity, an eschatological event already planned for and named “The Singularity.”

You really have to read Jaron Lanier’s article and some of the great examples he gives about computer activities inappropriately defining human nature. He puts into words more eloquently than I the reason I proposed that we all read The Difference In Man and The Difference It Makes: “What bothers me most about this trend, however, is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.”

Computers and the Singularity: does anyone see these as challenging and opposing our tradition and sense of who we are as Catholics?


I would like to have a book discussion on the blog here in October/November on the topic of free will in psychology and theology. For those interested I’d ask that you try to get a copy of Mortimer Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes and dive into this exceptional work beforehand. If you can't find it at your local library, you can read it here as a Google book. As you read please feel free to discuss the book with me at

William Van Ornum


we vnornm | 8/19/2010 - 11:01am
Computers can crunch numbers and even make decisions using pre-programmed instructions, but they do not have what humans have: intention or free will. I think the debate currently isn't whether computers have human abilities; instead the contemporary question is whether humans are more than physical machines.  Mechanists have created humans in the image of their own machine creations.  During the past two centuries, the mind or psyche has been compared to a clock, telegraph line, railroad switch, steam boiler, filing cabinet and now the computer. Yet we are far more than any of these, and ultimately the human factor defies reductionistic explanation or prediction. Over a century ago, William James posited this question:  A student during a college lecture begins to have a daydream.  At some point, the student realizes this. No one can predict when the student becomes aware of daydreaming or whether he or she will decide to keep fantasizing or attend to the droning instructor.  More recently in the 1990s, Philips has been empirically studying the effect of intentionality on momentous decisions regarding life and death. Using death records in California, Philips found a 30% drop in deaths the week before a holiday relevant to the ethnic or religious background of the deceased (ex. Christmas for Christians, the Harvest Moon for Asians), followed by a 30% increase the week following the holiday.  The rates for the other weeks of the year were more or less steady.  The most parsimonious interpretation is that chronically ill individuals wanted to live to see Passover or Easter, and then they were willing to accept death after the holiday passed. There is no equivalent for computers.  As Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am!"
we vnornm | 8/13/2010 - 6:52am

Flying spaghetti monster? I like the image of this!

Happy summer, bill 
we vnornm | 8/13/2010 - 6:54am


best, bill 
James Lindsay | 8/11/2010 - 12:11pm
I gave this issue some thought in my doctoral epistomology course.  What if human freedom were really a matter of the nexus of chaos theory and the neural programming of language.  Would that make us any less human?  No, we can't be anything else.  Would it make us any less free to understand the means of our freedom?  Clearly the degree to which any individual is free (or predictable) is in his or her utility with language and their ability to vary their use of it.  The freest people develop new language.  The unfreest people believe everything they hear.

Neuroscience has shown that the Ghost in the Machine paradigm is false.  Our brains act first, producing our thoughts.  Does this rule out the soul?  I think not.  It simply rules out any view that our bodies are not integral to who we are.  It only rules out gnosticism.

Does it rule out life after death?  Not at all.  Indeed, it makes a belief in the resurrection of the body all that more essential.  Does it rule out consciousness without a body?  Perhaps - although there may be a resurrected body provided in this age.  We cannot know - and no one can in this life, yielding the final question:  Does it matter?  Not really.
we vnornm | 8/13/2010 - 6:50am

It is slow going. Interesting comment about "mental rubbish piles"; the more I think about this, the more examples I can think of. Keep plugging away if you have the inclination and energy.

best, bill 
JANICE JOHNSON | 8/12/2010 - 10:46pm

Re:  nerds and nerdishness

Maybe it takes one to know one.
Or better yet, maybe it takes one to appreciate one!
James Lindsay | 8/12/2010 - 5:24pm
What Stanley says about the lizard seems correct.  As long as computers are disconnected processors, whose diagnostics don't feedback onto their own experience of such things as pain, they will not become conscious, since they have no interest in doing so.  You can build in languaging to have them mimic human or animal reactions, but mimicry and experience that builds on itself are two very different things.
If you are looking for an alternative god for the Internet Age, I would recommend the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a study of its adherents - and why such a study - like the study of atheism - is an essential part of undertanding the spirituality of belonging and alturism.
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 8:38pm

Thank you; a certain case of nerdishness I was referring to was more than occasional, and still is! Glad that it may be contributing something to others.

best, bill 
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 8:33pm
Mr. Blum,

Many thanks for your hopeful and beautiful thoughts, and for making them magnify our theology and beliefs, rather than seeing this topic as a source of doubt and confusion.

Hope that you are having a good summer. bill 
JANICE JOHNSON | 8/11/2010 - 8:29pm
Stanley, I'm with you, expecting to have a sore noggin but looking forward to the challenge.  If the illustration of God creating a robot doesn't give one pause, the articles on singularity will do that and much more.  Cr;ystal, I did see the Matrix with my young nephew and had an interesting conversation with him and another young man.  They made comparisons of the lead character with the life of Christ and had some fascinating insights.  I thought about the  scientists working on singularity who presumably are very intelligent working themselves out of a job!  Seems pretty ironic to me.  And Bill, what would our society do without those who think of themselves as occasional nerds?!    Janice
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 8:28pm
Dr. Kennedy:

So many papers and articles in psychology and neuroscience and even other fields speculate about the wonders-to-be that will be revealed in the future.

You do us all a great service by reminding us not to expect some magic future, but to learn who we are, how we effect each other, and how we can help each other-perhaps a reminder of that Great Mystery emanating from Galilee and Jerusalem so many years ago.

Hope all is well, and I enjoy reading your online column in NCR each week.

Best, bill 
Roberto Blum | 8/11/2010 - 8:24pm
We are approaching both the Singularity and the Trans Humanity moment which are somewhat similar to Teilhard's Omega Point.

Both the resurrection of the body and the material construction of the Kingdom God are possible and necessary for our Catholic faith.  

I don't see a contradiction at all between we creating silicon based self conscious robots and evolution creating wet carbon based self conscious individuals like us.

Cooperating, both we carbon based and silicon based self conscious entities will proceed to construct the Kingdom and resurrect all those beings that have died and haven't been able to enjoy a peaceful and just Earth.  At that time, we will all see the face of God, a God that is waiting for us at the end of history.    
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 8:18pm

re:"How all this works, I haven't the slightest idea."

Reminds me of how Sir John Eccles ended a lecture I once attended: "I don't know how the hell the brain works, and I won the Nobel Prize for neurotransmitters."

I've thought about this topic for a long is indeed a pain in the noggin, and sometimes even worse.

The 16th century version of this topic even bothered Ignatius, who said: "We ought not to fall into a habit of speaking too much about predestination."

best, bill
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 8:10pm

Since our system doesn't convert the html to a link, I thought I would make it easy for everyone to see this posting from your excellent blog (and I love the photo of the cat leaping through the meadow):

SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 2009
Life imitates art
I saw a story in the news today - Researchers Say They Uncover International Cyber-Spy Network ....

Security researchers said they have discovered software capable of stealing information installed on computers in 103 countries, an apparently coordinated cyber-attack that targeted the office of the Dalai Lama and government agencies around the world .... he researchers say the infected computers acted as a kind of illicit information-gathering network, and that they observed sensitive documents being stolen from a computer network operated by the Dalai Lama's organization. They traced the attacks to computers located in China, but stop short of blaming the Chinese government ....

It's interesting because this is so like the storyline of an audio book I picked up at the library last week - Breakpoint by Richard Clarke. It tells of a Chinese-based threat to the US government and science community cyber communications networks. Here's a bit about it from The New York Times .......

Richard Clarke, the former National Security Council staff member whose 2004 book, “Against All Enemies,” chastised the Bush and Clinton administrations for not doing enough to prevent terrorism before Sept. 11 (and became a best seller in the process), is continuing his career as a novelist. In “Breakpoint,” his second thriller, Jimmy Foley, an N.Y.P.D. detective on loan to the feds, and Susan Connor, head of the Special Projects Branch of the Intelligence Analysis Center, try to uncover who is behind a series of attacks on America’s scientific elite and cyber infrastructure. They discover that a lot of surprising science, from babies being given an extra set of chromosomes to something called “human brain reverse-engineering,” is being carried out far from the public eye — and that more than one group might have reason to be upset. Though the book is set in the near future, Mr. Clarke ends with an author’s note pointing out that much of his science is not entirely fictional. “Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction,” he writes.

The writing is not the best I've read, but the science stuff is interesting .... technological singularity .... darpa ... transhumanism, etc. Here below is an audio excerpt from the book, at a point where the internet flow to and from the US has been almost completely cut off and now the good guys are investigating the mysterious explosion of a high tech computer lab ....

Mr. Clarke knows about this stuff from having worked for decades in intelligence work for different presidents and his criticisms of the Bush administration deserve to be taken very seriously. I won't give all the details....but I just read a thriller from 1996 that airplane.....flying toward....(I think you can figure out the rest). Sometimes fiction is prescient.

Turing test...Adler talks about this in great detail, and puts great credence in it....Searle's Room certainly opens up much more discussion...

I haven't seen Terminator or Matrix...too creepy for me!

Thanks for all the thought and scholarship that is in your posting today. bill
we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 7:47pm

It sounds like you've given this a great deal of thought, as have I. I especially like your thought that "we can't be anything else than what we are" no matter what happens with "thinking" machines, etc.

Thanks for responding, I wasn't sure if this topic was too "nerdlike," the kind of thinking which, at various times, I am very likely to engage in. 

we vnornm | 8/11/2010 - 7:41pm
You have hit upon the most significant, if hardly verbalized, issue of our times: What does it mean to be a human person?  The Singularity is a symptom of our losing touch with the true range and depth of personality rather than a triumph in itself.  This is a hard question because it would force people to reassess many post-modern concepts, including abortion, the nature and purpose of law, the limits of government, and the nature of human choice and responsibility.  B.F. Skinner once said to me, about all the evidence about animals who could think or calculate, etc., "There is nothing here that cannot be explained by laws we already understand."  

That applies to these easy and romantic notions of a computer-run future.  The big question is not what machines are and what they can do but who we are and the nature of what we do and our effects on each other.  I could go on and on as I am planning a little book entitled "Who Do You Think You Are?"  

The Church's acceptance of the division of flesh and spirit has not helped this.
The Space/Information Age, far from turning us to the Singularity, confronts us with the unity of the universe and therefore the unity of human personality (as does a great deal of psychological evidence).  Let me know how this progresses.
Stanley Kopacz | 8/11/2010 - 6:50pm
They always talk about the singularity, a moment when suddenly the machine or network of machines become conscious or reflexively conscious.  Yet, is that the way it happened with us?  Wham, here I am?  I certainly don't remember a moment like that, my own singularity.

At the same time, I see all kinds of toys with robotic behaviour emulating emotional behaviour in living beings.  But I don't believe it for a second.  Though not motivated to do so, I could saw one in half with a band saw and not feel I was causing pain.

Yet, I could not do the same to a lizard.  COmputers do math, solve differential equations, play chess better than we do, yet there's more in the lizard.  How this all works, I haven't the slightest idea.  If all the neurons and nets thereof are doing their reductionist duty, why should I be conscious of the whole circus?  Is consciousness just a useless byproduct?  I don't think so, otherwise their wouldn't be any advantage to having it.  It certainly makes an evolutionary difference.

This discussion promises to give me a big pain in the noggin.
Anonymous | 8/11/2010 - 12:47pm
 A while ago I read a novel that mentioned technological singularity and transhumanism (<a href = "">my post</a>) ... Breakpoint by Richard Clarke.  It all makes me think of the Turing test, the Chinese Room, a thought experiment by John Searle, and all those movies like Terminator and the Matrix where artificial intelligence goes bad and  takes over  :)