Story Premise

I am writing a short story in which the protagonist believes his android assistant is demonstrating signs of consciousness. The android's mind is based on deep-learning artificial general intelligence and has progressed well beyond human comprehension. My protagonist does not know how consciousness could have emerged and is frightened by the ramifications. He feels the only person he can discuss this with is an old friend and work associate who's opinion he respects.

The largest portion of the story is a dinner conversation in which they discuss the nature and origin of consciousness and the possibility of a soul, in order to decide what must be done with the android. They each bring a variety of perspectives to the conversation. My protagonist is a former Chief Data Scientist now involved in AI for robotics; his dinner partner is also a Data Scientist and entrepreneur. My protagonist considers himself nonreligious with a lingering Christian mindset. His dinner partner is a faithful Muslim.

My Problem

I would like to keep the dinner partner Islamic if I can. However, I'm having a difficult time determining the Islamic view on emerging consciousness in AI, and whether consciousness amounts to a soul. There are plenty of papers and discussion threads on the Islamic perspective of whether a machine can have a consciousness or a soul (even here). But all are based on the premise that the android was intentionally built with consciousness. My premise is that consciousness emerged. For the nonreligious, it is, therefore, an emergent attribute of the universe. For the religious, God-given.

My Question

Is it possible for a contemporary Muslim (within the constraints of his faith) to believe that God would give an android consciousness? We'll leave the question of whether it has a soul out of it since I intend to leave that for the reader to ponder.

Feel free to give me homework.

(P.S., If you think another faith would be more fitting, I'm open to hearing your thoughts).

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    $\begingroup$ There is a Stack Exchange site about Islam, have you checked if they would accept your question? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jun 30 '19 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the tip. $\endgroup$ – MarkTomlinson Jun 30 '19 at 4:46
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    $\begingroup$ Are you specifically thinking of more "traditional" versions of Islam or would you include Muslim thinkers who try to synthesize religious ideas with scientific and philosophical ones, like Mohammed Iqbal? In a future scenario it seems possible these kind of reinterpretations would become more mainstream. $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jun 30 '19 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ While Islam is nowhere the top of my list of interests, I do know that there multiple theological strains within it, some comparable with classical Christian theology in depth of thought and scholarship, others comparable with Neoprotestantism in fervor and enthusiasm. Moreover, within Christianity, the mainstream apostolic denominations would take a dim view of a lay person expressing theological opinions about the consciousness of androids or any other subject; I don't know how this works in Islam. I doubt that a Salafi and a Wahhabi would have the same opinion, even if both are Sunnis. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 30 '19 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ AlexP makes a good point, you need to know a lot more about this Muslim character to write them, you need to know their imam. I think you could probably do a much better job of writing this character if you engaged the Muslim community and learned from them. Their stack, as previously suggested, is a good starting place, but if you plan for this character to play a bigger role than offering a few opinions maybe joining a muslim web community where outsiders are welcome. Depending on where you live there might even be some sort of meatspace event you could attend. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Jun 30 '19 at 20:03

First of all, the Quran seems to state that animals are conscious and that therefore they to praise God (Allah), which is why they have to be slaughtered a particular way in order for their meat to be eaten; it is meant as a sign of respect to the animal and as a form of 'sacrifice' on the animal's part to humans.

That does not however answer the question of a soul; it would appear that most Muslims believe that the soul of an animal does not survive the death of the animal, and that the soul surviving death and being received in Heaven is the exclusive domain of humans.

From that perspective, I'm of the view that the most likely interpretation of this occurence would be that the Muslim would indeed believe that the consciousness carries with it the ability to praise God, but that it does not possess a soul, or at the very least, it does not possess a soul that can survive the death of the AI's consciousness. In that sense, it would have all the hallmarks of a very intelligent animal in the eyes of Islam, except for two very important considerations;

1) Origin of the consciousness
There is the possibility that a Muslim (or a Christian for that matter) may view a conscious AI as a creation purely of Man, not of God. As such, it could be seen as an abomination as it is attempting to play in a space that has up to this point been the exclusive domain of God.

One interpretation of this could be that Man creates the body and mind, but God gives it the spark of life that makes it conscious. That would be the easiest interpretation in a religious context to work with, but it's just as possible that it could be rejected entirely as a man-made construct attempting to play God, which could be received with hostility. This of course brings us to the most important exception;

2) Consciousness is not Liveness
As a researcher in this field, my comments on the nature of AI in terms of consciousness, awareness, and liveness are well and truly on the record in this site and others. Without rehearsing that research once again in its entirety, the practical upshot of it is that you can have a machine that is intelligent, displays awareness and is potentially 'conscious' according to a narrow interpretation of the word, but none of that makes it alive. We tend to conflate ALL these terms because it's only now that we're reaching the point in AI research where it is important to know the difference between them.

Even if a computer is conscious and aware of its own existence, that doesn't make it alive and it doesn't have the same underlying drives we have, like hunger or a survival instinct, to contend with. It will be able to simulate emotions but not feel them. In other words, we do not have to imbue it with the same 'rights' we imbue other living things, especially other people. As such, we can categorically state that it cannot and will never have a soul.

As such, it fails the first test of consideration in terms of religion; it's not alive. It gets all the same level of consideration as a rock or a tool. In point of fact, that's all it is; a very intelligent tool.

While it may be able to fool us otherwise because of the human propensity for anthropomorphism, a Muslim with training in data science and machine learning will know this machine for what it truly is; a machine. As such, I'm not convinced that religion would even come into it. If it did however, I believe that this creation would have a status similar to an animal, provided of course Islam is free to interpret the spark of consciousness as being the sole element God has provided to the project.

I will state for the record however that this is just one possible interpretation of belief from someone who does not practice Islam and is based on my own personal reading of the Quran and other research to further my own understanding.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm fairly sure you're mistakenly using the term "alive" instead of sentient. It is trivial to demonstrate that a non-organic AI will never be alive. That certainly doesn't mean it couldn't be sentient and it certainly doesn't mean we do not need to afford it rights.Perhaps this apparent confusion stems from the fact that there is indeed major overlap between "aliveness" and "sentience". Indeed, many entities which are alive are also sentient (namely animals, including humans), though there are some that obviously aren't (plants for example; on account of their lack of a nervous system). (1/2) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jun 30 '19 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Certainly we have never yet observed an instance of an entity which is sentient but not alive, though using this as the sole basis to declare it impossible is to fall into the trap of the black swan fallacy. (2/2) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jun 30 '19 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ "It will be able to simulate emotions but not feel them." wait, isn't it exactly what science in XVIII & XIX century was saying about cats and dogs, explaining why vivisection is ok, and why NASA was ok to electrocute test animals at the beginning of space race? It sounds awfully familiar. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 30 '19 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TimBII To be clear when I said "[...]it certainly doesn't mean we do not need to afford it rights.", I wasn't making the claim that we do in fact need to give AI specific rights (that's a topic for another day). Whether or not we should give AI any rights is a separate issue to whether or not you have any justification to positively claim that we shouldn't. I hope the distinction isn't lost on you, because I admit, it is a subtle one. (1/4) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jun 30 '19 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ @T On a different point, I have to respectfully point out that your response to Mołot is rather lacking in basic rigor... The notion that two entities cannot have the same properties because they do not share similar origins (I'm sure you can think of many examples where this is not the case) is spurious at best. A trivial example to the contrary, if your view of AI is correct and it is created, both it and humans would share the property of intelligence even though humans and AI are (by your own admission) of different provenance. Clearly this directly opposes your previous supposition. (2/4) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jun 30 '19 at 23:19

This is a weird question, because you're asking if a religious Muslim would believe that an android would have a consciousness, but not a soul. I suppose that would be a sensible question from an atheist perspective because scientists view the ultimate facility of humanity being its sentience - man's thought processes and logical components. Hence the 'Turing' test - a test that determines whether a machine can perfectly mimic a human's behavior.

The thing is, if you start from a religious perspective, (and, to clarify, I'm discussing the Abrahamic religions here) consciousness isn't even a conversation starter. The soul is. And most of the rest of my answer is going to echo Tim B II's second answer - a quote 'freethinking' computer is just an illusion created by a complex program. No program truly has free will or sentience. It's just a tool. Even if the tool is kind of creepy as to how useful it is, it's still just a tool.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you say all religious people would think "no program truly has free will or sentience"? There is a philosophical perspective called compatibilism that defines human freedom in a way that doesn't contradict determinism, and there have been religious variants of this idea. That article deals mostly with Christian compatibilism but this article argues it's present in some Jewish traditions; as for Islam, see next comment $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jun 30 '19 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ (cont.) Islam apparently has a doctrine called Qadar that says all our actions are predestined by divine decree, and that's led to various arguments about how this could fits with the idea of free will, see here, here and here. $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jun 30 '19 at 21:19

TL-DR the verses quoted in the question render my question irrelevant. Having an Islamic dinner partner is a non-starter for the purposes of my story.

Thanks, everyone, for all the input.

The first comment that I received (Thank you, John Dvorak) directed my attention to an Islamic board on Stack Exchange. I did some research there before asking, of course, and came up with this thread, Is it haram to make humanoid robots?

I originally chose Islam to honor a past co-worker who's opinion I always respected. I was modeling the dinner partner after him and felt this was a good way to introduce a perspective that differed greatly from my protagonist's. I full well intended to find a Muslim beta-reader, but now I see I can't even make it that far.

Back to the drawing board!

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Mark, You should add this as an edit to your question instead of answering it. It is more comment in nature, that an actual answer. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jul 2 '19 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ It is an answer. The answer is that it could be haram to make a humanoid robot in the first place -- so we don't even get to the question of consciousness. Therefore, I'm going to choose a different alternative perspective for the dinner partner. $\endgroup$ – MarkTomlinson Jul 2 '19 at 4:46
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    $\begingroup$ The question was about Consciousness, not making a humanoid robot. I understand that in your scenario, the robot would have never existed and hence for you, the answer is simply no. However the general question, Is it possible for a contemporary Muslim (within the constraints of his faith) to believe that God would give an android consciousness? does not ask if creating a humanoid robot is Haram. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jul 2 '19 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ Putting "thanks" at the beginning of an answer makes this look like a thank you answer, which are frowned upon here. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '19 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ The answer you got on that thread didn't actually say it was haram to make a humanoid robot, it just suggested it couldn't look too close to a human, but that "The degree at which a robot (or any other humanoid form) is considered to resemble Allah's creation is not defined". And the verses cited for the answer were from hadiths, not the Quran, and there is a significant tradition of questioning hadiths within Islam. Also note that the hadith mentioned could apply to photographs/movies, which most of the Muslim world is fine with. $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jul 2 '19 at 11:48

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