Sunday, 19 July 2015

Reward, Punishment and Illogicality

There’s currently a very interesting article on the BBC website about autonomous combat robots (i.e. robot soldiers not controlled remotely by a human operator).  A large part of the article deals with the extent to which we can programme or teach an artificial intelligence ethics, and allow it to make moral choices such as whether it should, to use the example given in the article, bomb a house containing enemies, if it also contains civilians.

The field of robot and AI ethics is an extremely interesting one, and obviously has significant parallels and impacts on how we view human ethics.  The article quotes Colin Allen, a professor of cognitive science and philosophy as saying “We acquire an intuitive sense of what’s ethically acceptable by watching how others behave and react to situations.  We could try to pre-program everything in advance, but that’s not trivial – how for example do you program in a notion like ‘fairness’ or ‘harm’?” 

Obviously learning morality by observing others is to a great extent true, but it will come as no surprise when I say that I also believe in an objective morality that everyone is to some degree aware of, even if they’re not always aware of that awareness.  Some things are intrinsically wrong, while others are intrinsically right.  But can we teach this to robots, and would a sufficiently advanced robot accept it?  Many people are worried by the implications of advanced artificial intelligences, and while I believe that many of these concerns are needless, I nonetheless very much understand them.

This is all really preamble to something else that I’ve been thinking about recently, regarding morality, and specifically its enforcement, with reference to religion.  It is a common claim by atheists (or more specifically perhaps, humanists) that they are inherently more moral than theists because they do good because it is good, and avoid wrong because it is wrong, not out of fear of post-mortal punishment or in hope of heavenly reward.  They frequently quote Einstein as saying “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Now, leaving aside the problematic fact that these individuals appear to be adhering to an objective morality, and failing to consider where that might come from, I find these claims extremely frustrating, because they show a bone-deep misunderstanding of everything I believe Christianity to be.  They might be right about the seemingly more straight-forward beliefs of Islam and Judaism (as far as I know, and I don’t claim to be an expert, so I’m happy to be corrected on this), since these do seem to promise punishment for the evil, and reward for the good.  After all, this is surely logical, intuitive and just?  But Christianity is not logical or intuitive, and it certainly isn’t just, and this is one of the things that I love about it.

I would like to make this very clear, because it is close to the heart of my understanding of my religion:  Christians (or, at least, Protestants) do not believe that we are going to Heaven because we are good.  We are good because we believe we are going to Heaven.  One cannot earn brownie points.  One cannot buy or bargain their way into Heaven.    We are saved not because we deserve it, but because God is good, and wishes that all may be saved.  Not everybody chooses to accept this salvation, but it is freely and eternally offered to all people.  We are rewarded in advance, and against all expectation and justice.  An innocent is punished and the guilty are let free, and, faced with a divine fait accompli, all we can do is respond to it by desiring to earn it and show ourselves worthy of it so far as that is possible and we are capable of it.

Christians are not good in hope of reward and out of fear of punishment.  The strict, harsh, logical nature of such a system might make sense, but it is horribly empty of Grace, and that is where I think that Christianity is preferable to its Abrahamic cousins.  It seems to me to be a much more positive, much more empathic and compassionate faith than those that stick to the cold, rational morality of crime and punishment.

We are not robots.  We cannot be programmed to infallibly follow logical instructions and strict moral parameters.  We are living, thinking beings, free-willed, messy, emotional, woefully inconsistent, alternately terrible and wonderful, base and noble in equal measure, and I believe in a God that knows that and allows for it, and wants to give us a reward that we have no way of earning, and are incapable of deserving.

Christianity is illogical, irrational and founded upon injustice, and I think that’s absolutely fine.

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