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Can a machine have a soul?

Can a machine have a soul?
Derek J Smith from Newport (age 55+)

Is it possible, in the future for robots to have minds of their own?
Paige from Suffolk (Aged 5-14)

Answer

The short answer is IF
For a machine to have a soul it would have to have a self.
Most philosophers and scientists are agreed that for something to have a self there must be something that it is like to be that thing. So a stone does not have a self, because there is nothing (conceivably) that it is like to be a stone. For an animal to have a self there must be something that it is like to be that animal. This does not mean something that it is like to us, because we have a human brain, but there must be something that it is like to the animal. In other words, to have a self, the animal must have subjective experiences, such as regret or joy.
There are two ways a scientist could approach the problem of whether a machine could have a self: –
Look for evidence of a self. The problem is what to look for. The only way that we know about the selves of other people comes from what they say. But even this is problematical. If I say that I have no self or subjective experiences, I would not be believed. There is no objective evidence that a scientist could bring forward to contradict me, but I still would not be believed. The kind of knowledge that we have about each other is not the same kind of knowledge that a scientist would regard as evidence. So a scientist could not bring the same kind of evidence-based knowledge to bear on the problem of whether a machine or an animal could have a self.
Make a robot with a self. Suppose a scientist made two identical robots, one with a self and one without. Under the same circumstances the robots behave in exactly the same way. How could anyone tell the difference between the two robots? They could not tell the difference, because they have nothing to go on. The robots look the same and behave the same under all circumstances. So even if the robot designer assured us that one robot did have a self, there would be no way of verifying this.
So the answer is that it is conceivable that a machine could have a soul, IF it could have a self, but that in itself is problematical.

David McFarland, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford

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