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Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine

The notions of causation and agency are deeply embedded in several fascinating science-and-religion questions:

How was the world created? Does God act in the world today, and if so, how? Are persons free? Why does God not prevent evil and suffering? What is life, and when does it begin and end? What is consciousness?

Some areas of scientific research that inform these questions are: Quantum Mechanics, Complex and Chaotic systems, Artificial Intelligence, and the Neurosciences. In this essay I offer a brief survey of the main issues as I understand them, looking at human agency, robotics, and then finally divine action.

Influencing all these questions is an ongoing debate over how to deal with scale. Given the recent success of methodological reductionism it's tempting to wonder if working at ever-smaller scales might be a good strategy for all problems. However, such an approach does not give satisfying accounts of several important phenomena, notably human consciousness, and our perceived ability to act as free agents. And for the religious believer, a reductionist materialist view of the world doesn't seem to have a 'causal joint' where a deity might impart inspiration, or indeed affect outcomes of any kind.

When we look at a human brain under the microscope, we don't see anything resembling the freely choosing mind we all experience. Instead, all we we see at the micro-level are mindless electro-chemical reactions.Who could disagree with Arthur Peacocke in that we "...cannot avoid arriving at a view of matter that sees it manifesting mental, personal and spiritual activities. See Paths from Science towards...

Rene Descartes solved this problem by extending the earlier Greek idea that we are made of dual substances: matter and mind/spirit. Unfortunately for the scientist, the mind substance is not visible under the microscope. Without the presence of this mind substance, matter can only ever form machines (he considered animals machine-like). More recently, some have turned this conundrum into a thesis; if what we see under the microscope is machinery, and we detect no mind substance, then we must be machines. Our perception of freedom and consciousness is therefore an illusion. This view is widely held within the AI/Robotics community. As Rodney Brooks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab puts it "On the one hand, I believe myself and my children all to be mere machines ... But this is not how I treat them  ... Like a religious scientist I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs and act on each of them in different circumstances."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 174Others point to the quantum world where machine-like behavior gives way to the probabilistic and paradoxical. Physicists John Wheeler has suggested that consciousness may be connected with quantum behavior. Kevin Sharpe joins Wheeler in wondering if consciousness could somehow affect outcomes at the quantum level.Kevin Sharpe, Sleuthing the Divine: The Nexus of Science and Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000): 97See The Princeton Engineering Research Lab at http://www.princeton.edu/~pear/Still others solve the problem of the missing mind by embedding the material world within revised metaphysical systems. Process thinkers, for example, speculate that matter possesses a mental-like property that is undetectable in simple systems.Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2000): 148Followers of Bohm see consciousness as an aspect of the underlying 'implicate order', and our own consciousness as sharing in that.Kevin Sharpe, Sleuthing the Divine: The Nexus of Science and Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000): 83

In the last few decades it has become apparent to some thinkers that it is possible to overuse a reductive approach. If we are willing to leave the micro world and consider more complex scenarios, new properties emerge that cannot be fully explained in terms of the components in isolation. Such an approach allows us to speculate that freedom, mind, and consciousness are in fact 'real' and open to scientific exploration. But many are resistant.

As we leave the micro world with its Newtonian simplicity and predictability, and start to deal with the world of complexes, wholes, and probabilistic descriptions, we'll need to work hard to make claims that are as free from subjectivity as possible.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

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