The Theology of Science-Fiction: III — Does Data Have a Soul?

creation, creator, creature, genesis

creation, creator, creature, genesis

Theological Objection: “Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.”

Rebuttal to Objection: “It appears to me that [The Theological Objection] implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this soul.” Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.

“Never tell a child,” said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.” See Mere Orthodoxy

Let’s start off on a light note. A long time ago when computers were still new (yes, it was that long ago), when I was at my first academic assignment, the head of the division dealing with computers gave a talk on artificial intelligence for computers. One of the humanities faculty in the audience put a question after the talk “Would you want your daughter to marry one [i.e. a computer]?”. Legend has it (I wasn’t there) that he answered, “Yes, if she loved him”.

When we inquire about the souls of computers/robots we assume that computers/robots have a mind/self-awareness/consciousness. That some sort of programmed intelligence can be conscious (self-aware) is a hotly debated proposition.

A book would be required (many have been written) to explore this notion. We don’t want to write that book here, so let’s suppose, as do science fiction (SF) authors, that consciousness is possible by some means or another for computers and robots and see what SF has to say about them having souls.*


As a transition to considering machine intelligence, let’s examine how SF treats the transfer of human intelligence/personality into computers or robots. Note that one theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, in his book, The Physics of Christianity, posits that heaven will consist of personalities transferred to software as the universe reaches its end in an “Omega Point” singularity. Since it is a black hole type singularity, time is slowed down and the intelligences transferred to software thus have essentially an eternity to enjoy their virtual life.

Among the many SF stories that deal with transferred human intelligence, there is one that especially focuses on the question of soulhood, Deus X, by Norman Spinrad. Spinrad treats the question with respect, although his attitude to the Catholic Church is somewhat less than reverent (there is a female Pope, Mary I). Below is a summary of the plot, as given in McKee’s excellent survey, The Gospel According to Science-Fiction:

…thousands of people exist in an artificial afterlife called ‘Transcorporeal Immortality’, having copied their consciousness onto a worldwide computer network called ‘The Big Board’….Catholic theologian Fr. Philippe de Leone argue[s] that this creation of an artificial soul, which cannot have true self-awareness, dooms the actual soul that is copied to damnation. Pope Mary I, hoping to settle the controversy, orders Fr. DeLeone to have his soul copied upon his death, so that his consciousness can argue against its own autonomous existence from the other side.

Superficially, Pope Mary’s plan seems to contain a paradox. If the downloaded Fr. de Leone changes “his” mind and says “yes, I am a real soul”, how can we trust what an artificial soul might say?

The solution to the paradox is that all of Fr. de Leone’s beliefs have been downloaded to his program. If these beliefs are changed, it means that the entity in the computer has free will, and is thus autonomous and a real soul.

In the story Fr. DeLeone’s soul is “kidnapped” (how do you kidnap a program?) by a group of downloaded personalities that wants to convince the Church, via Fr. de Leone’s download, that they have a real soul. As McKee points out in his synopsis, there is a reverse Turing Test applied here. Fr. de Leone does change his mind, the downloaded personalities declare him a deity (“Deus X”) and a new controversy arises: Church officials declare how could this blasphemy come about.

To still the controversy, Fr. de Leone sacrifices his downloaded personality (dies), Pope Mary declares him a saint and recognizes that the downloaded souls are “real”.


There are many SF works in which the Catholic Church plays a role. In some, the Church and its teachings are treated with respect; in most, not so much. As Gabriel McKee points out in The Gospel According to Science Fiction

SF, arising as it does from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment, is critical of religious institutions. SF frequently argues that if organized religion is to be a positive force in the future of humankind, it must change drastically to meet the spiritual challenges of the future. (p. 183)

One such drastic change is envisaged by Robert Silverberg in his story Good News from the Vatican.

In his story there are robot priests and robot high Church officials. One such, a robot Cardinal, is elected Pope after a deadlock between two human cardinals. The story ends with the newly elected robot pontiff rising into the air from the balcony before the assembled masses in St. Peter’s Square and, as he goes up “…his shadow extends across the whole piazza. Higher and higher he goes until he is lost to sight.”

Does Silverberg, with a sense of irony–the shadow cast over the piazza, and the Pope lost from sight–predict the eclipse of humanity and human values? Or am I reading too much into this ending?

A more sympathetic view of how the Church might interact with artificial intelligence is given in Jack McDevitt’s fine story, “Gus“**. In this beautiful tale, the newly installed rector of a Catholic Seminary interacts with a computer simulation of St. Augustine of Hippo, purchased (the simulation, that is) to help students understand St. Augustine’s teachings.

The Rector, Msgr. Chesley, is at first greatly displeased with Gus’s (the program’s) dicta: “‘The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians’ Chesley threw over his shoulder. ‘Get rid of it'” (“Gus” in Cryptics, p. 373).

The relationship between Chesley and Gus becomes warmer with time, as they discuss the problems of being a Catholic in today’s world:

“’Why did Augustine become a priest?’ Chesley asked.

‘I wanted,’ Gus said, with the slightest stress on the first words, ‘to get as close as I could to my Creator.’ Thoughtfully, he added, ‘I seem to have traveled far afield.’

‘Sometimes I think,’ Chesley said, ‘the Creator hides himself too well.’

‘Use his Church,’ said Gus. ‘That is why it is here.’

‘It has changed.’

“Of course it has changed. The world has changed.’

‘The Church is supposed to be a rock.’

‘Think of it rather as a refuge in a world that will not stand still.'” (op. cit., p. 382)

Gus’ sayings to the students become so unorthodox (he decries the doctrines/dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that other faculty decided he should be downloaded to storage and traded in for a computer simulation of Thomas Aquinas (plus business software). Gus asks Msgr. Chesley to hear his Confession and then destroy him, so he can have peace:

“‘I require absolution, Matt.’

Chesley pressed his right hand into his pocket. ‘It would be sacrilege,’ he whispered.

‘And if I have a soul, Matt, if I too am required to face judgment,what then?’

Chesley raised his right hand, slowly, and drew the sign of the cross in the thick air. ‘I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

‘Thank you…There’s something else I need you to do, Matt. This existence holds nothing for me. But I am not sure what downloading might mean.’

‘What are you asking?”

‘I want to be free of all this. I want to be certain I do not spend a substantial fraction of eternity in the storeroom.’

Chesley trembled. ‘If in fact you have an immortal soul,’ he said, ‘you may be placing it in grave danger.’

‘And yours as well. I have no choice but to ask. Let us rely on the mercy of the Almighty.’

Tears squeezed into Chesley’s eyes. He drew his finger- tips across the hard casing of the IBM. ‘What do I do? I’m not familiar with the equipment.’

‘Have you got the right computer?’


‘Take it apart. Turn off the power first. All you have to do is get into it and destroy the hard disk.’

‘Will you—feel anything?’

‘Nothing physical touches me, Matt.’

Chesley found the power switch…He found a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. He used the screwdriver to take the top off the computer. A gray metal box lay within. He opened it and removed a gleaming black plastic disk. He embraced it, held it to his chest. Then he set it down, and reached for the hammer. In the morning, with appropriate ceremony, he buried it in consecrated soil.” (op.cit., pp.388-389)

Even though I am moved to tears when I read this, do I believe that a computer program will have a personality, a soul? Not likely***.


This will go somewhat afield. Given the title of this article, it is required that an inquiry into Data’s soul be addressed. (For those who aren’t Trekkies, Data is the android navigator in the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: the Next Generation. He aspires to humanity and sometimes reaches and even surpasses that state.)

There is a problem, however, in that whether Data has a soul is never considered in any of the episodes, possibly because the word “soul” (not in reference to music) is anathema to writers and producers of popular entertainment. So in the episode, “The Measure of a Man“, the question “Is Data a sentient being” is asked, rather than “Does Data have a soul”.

The question is addressed in a trial, to see if Data, as a “sentient being”, has the right to refuse to be disassembled for study and refitting. Captain Picard acts in Data’s behalf and Commander Riker, under duress, as the prosecutor. Riker attempts to demonstrate that Data is a machine by switching him off:

[Riker is doing his duty in the courtroom]

Commander William T. Riker: The Commander is a physical representation of a dream – an idea, conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It’s a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms; its responses dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now… and now a man will shut it off.

[Riker switches off Data, who slumps forward like a lifeless puppet]

Commander William T. Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut. (The Measure of a Man, Quotes)

Captain Picard gives a stirring defense, arguing that the question of whether Data is conscious–self-aware–has not and can not be settled any more than whether one can be certain that another person is conscious except by external behavior. And finally the question of soulhood is addressed minimally:

Captain Phillipa Louvois [The Judge]: It sits there looking at me; and I don’t know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics – with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I’ve got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul?[emphasis added] I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.” [notice the shift from “it” to “he”] (ibid)

And so Data is left free, and the question of whether he has a soul, undetermined — as in the Scottish verdict, “Not Proven”.


In the fourth (and hopefully the final) post of this series, I’ll explore end-times, the Eschaton, and focus on two SF classics, “Childhood’s End”, by Arthur C. Clarke and “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, by Walter Miller, Jr.

See the first article in this series.

*Along with Roger Penrose and John Searle, I don’t believe that consciousness is a product of algorithmic processes, i.e. that the brain is a meat computer. But that’s a post for another day.

**Scroll down to #1, “Gus”.

***As always, I asked my wife to review this post before publishing. I asked her whether she was moved by the story of Gus. She replied, “If it were St. Augustine on his death-bed talking to his confessor, yes, but a black plastic disc–never!”

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19 thoughts on “The Theology of Science-Fiction: III — Does Data Have a Soul?”

  1. Pingback: Science's unanswered questions, including why science works

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  3. Amusingly enough, the question of Lt. Data is part of what got me thinking about theology as a kid. As written, Data was obviously a person– possessed a rational soul– even when he would insist that he didn’t. The very way that he could aspire to “be human” showed that. Was when I first figured out that fiction was very good at supporting what the author put in, but not very useful for reality. (I was about 9 when it first aired, so that’s not a very big admission.)

    Who was it, Brother Guy from the Vatican observatory, who said he’d baptize an alien if it asked him to?

    If they seem to have a rational soul, we must in charity assume that they do.

    1. Thanks for your comment Foxfier (what a clever nom de pen!). “If they seem to have a rational soul, we must in charity assume that they do.” That’s the reverse Turing test that was mentioned in the post (Deus X) and I think it’s about as far and least as we can do in judgment.

    2. Thank you– I’ve been using it since I was a kid in the 90s, first at my mom’s request and then because it’s easier to identify me instead of the dozens of folks with the same birth name. Not all of us can manage a dignified picture. *Grin*

      These stories and the thoughts/discussions they bring up really are an awesome teaching tool– the stories can make it so very clear how we sense moral truths, even before we can figure them out… and also how a well-crafted story can draw us to believe a false thing by appealing to that inherent sense of right.

      I’m probably being opaque, but– if machines really can’t act as if they’re rational beings, then Data would be an example of a well told story that leads to a false conclusion; if machines can act as rational beings, then another Star Trek episode- “The Naked Now,” where Data says the memorable (if drunken) line about ‘if you prick me, do I not…leak?’ is more accurate.

      Either way, there’s always someone that wants to define another person as a not-person, and we’ve got to be sharp to be able to figure out how to accurately protect human dignity, even from attacks that take the form of expanding “person” beyond any meaning. (imagine a situation where both a cat and a mouse are “persons;” a cat must eat meat to survive, and so “person” effectively has no meaning or demand on those who have it)

      It’s a wonderfully interesting subject, and can be a great way to recapture the people who are sure they’re too “smart” to be religious….plus, it’s flat out fun. It’s like sports for the brain.

  4. Hello Bob, I saw your comments on Strange Notions and really liked your commments regarding physics.
    For quite a while I have read many laymans explanations of QM, AI and Philsosophy of Mind via Penrose, Davies, McFadden, Hoffstaeder, Feser and Lonergan.
    The notion of thought, I think needs to be unpacked further. I come from the A-T background that breaks down “thought” into 3 acts of the mind. Apprehension, Judgement and Discursive Reasoning.
    So far (even since the Middle Ages) animals have been given credit for a sort of thinking. Birds of prey (and pretty much most all preditoty animals at the top of the food chain) have both instinct and learn how to hunt by imitating and watching parents. It has yet to be shown that animals have any discursive reasoning powers with universal concepts or that they can project any thought process forward or backward in time.
    Regarding all life below human, Thomas Aquinas didn’t have a problem with spontaneous generation (life coming directly out of organic and inorganic matter) but the big divide is discursive self reflection.
    Bernard Lonergan’s book Insight treats this topic in depth and is considered by many one of the masterworks of the 20th century.
    The Church also teaches that God must directly create the human soul (no emergentism) because of the reflexive powers of the human soul — especially the power of love.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Steve. I have a copy of “Insight” but have been too intellectually lazy to go through it…maybe your comment will be an incentive to do so.

  5. Well, Data is alive on an organic level, the components of his body swirling around nuclei not unlike that of a rock which we once thought to be anything but dynamic. Do atomic particles dance with joy ?

    1. James, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure, from a chemistry perspective, that data’s life could be called “organic”, since it seems to be (at least as far as the intelligent aspects go) constituted from electronic elements assembled by a man. Accordingly, he is a device and can a device have a soul?

    2. No, I don’t think a device can have a sentient soul but it can constitute life.

      Organic electronics is a field of materials science concerning the design, synthesis, characterization, and application of organic small molecules or polymers that show desirable electronic properties such as conductivity. Unlike conventional inorganic conductors and semiconductors, organic electronic materials are constructed from organic(carbon-based) small molecules or polymers using synthetic strategies developed in the context of organic and polymer chemistry. One of the benefits of organic electronics is their low cost compared to traditional inorganic electronics.

    3. Thanks James, I’ve learned something new (or relearned something I should have remembered). But if Data is electronic–be it organic or inorganic–made by man, will he have a soul? That was the Judge’s question and it’s unanswered.

    4. Good question. There are other Star Trek episodes in which an “evil” Data appears, reconstructed by another scientist (as I recall).

    5. Yes, i would think that if he could sin and be culpable he would have to have a soul but since it cannot be proven – oh well.

    6. Are electronic elements different, to Himself, than normal cellular ones?

      Almost everyone recognizes that children that are assembled by man in unnatural ways are still people– and people with mechanical bits added are still people. I know several stories have been written about where the line between man and machine is drawn.

      Trying to make an artificial person would be wrong, same way that designer babies are wrong, but until it happens we can’t know if it’s possible.

      (I kind of hope we don’t find out, but a friend is trying to write a story where there’s a sub-plot of a Catholic organization “adopting” artificial intelligences just like they do designed people, and trying to talk people out of using the type of computer design that can result in a very lonely machine intelligence forming…which is seen as a defect, and usually destroyed. Yeah, the fiction says more about what the author thinks than about factual reality, but most speculative fiction does.)

    7. If we accept that souls exist, we should not hastily dismiss the possibility that at least some ghost sightings are what they have always been believed to be: the spirit or soul of the deceased.

      1. Ghosts almost never appear naked. They appear wearing clothes, usually the same kind of clothes they wore during life.

      2. As has been pointed out, it is natural for man to wear clothes. It is in our own nature to provide for ourselves something that nature does not provide, and clothing becomes in essence as much a part of us as hair and nails (which are also non-living).

      3. Ghosts also are sometimes seen with tools, weapons, vehicles, etc.

      4. Ghost dogs, horses, and other animals are sometimes seen, but (as far as I know), only animals that were (presumably, at least) connected to some human being. They are usually pets or working animals. “Hell hounds” and the like might be exceptions, but (whether they are real or not) they don’t seem to be simply the ghosts of animals.

      5. As Peter Kreeft says somewhere, we tend to think of the body as containing the soul, but it would be better to think of the soul as containing the body.

      All of that is pretty flimsy evidence, I admit fully, but I’ll use it to set forth a very tentative suggestion: the human soul sort of “spills over” into objects and animals that are important to it, so that they become in some real sense a part of the person. If this can happen to a horse and carriage, it could presumably happen to a robot.

      Maybe, in some real sense, Data is a part of the person Dr. Noonian Soong.

    8. ” ..the human soul sort of “spills over” into objects and animals that are important to it, so that they become in some real sense a part of the person.”

      Very interesting. I recently experienced a phenomenon only heard about from others. My cat of 13 years died at home while i was far away and the grief we both endured
      ( my daughter would put the phone to his ear for me to talk and he to meow ) was very intense. As his vocals got weaker and my hellos filled with emotion I knew there was not enough time to get back before he died, I faced what I once eschewed – no closure. He died 4 days before I returned and had been buried in the yard – then the terrible agony of not having closure began. During this past year I prayed for what seemed to be impossible …until one early morning I was visited. Four, slow, distinct paw falls up my leg. I was on my side and didn’t turn to look as I felt it would have been akin to those greedy Israelites who tried to grab more manna than they needed only to have it melt. What most impressed me the was the physical pressure, the same I felt for a thousand mornings when he would jump up to arouse me. This happened three more times. And Voila ! – spiritual, physical closure allowed by God for my unearned comfort. It was one of Catholic Stands fine authors who talked about ‘form” and how all creation is filled with it that i meditated on. There is a thin veil between those here and gone. I like to think that intense love allows the latter
      to push up against it to make contact for noble purpose. .

  6. To say that man is the only living thing on the planet, who can reason/think, has not spent enough time with animals.

    We do not know, if all life returns to Him, who gave it.

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