Robots

Question:

I have an offbeat query. I’m researching early discussions of the theoretical legal issues concerning artificially created people — what we would call “robots.”

There is some discussion of these questions — e.g., is it murder to kill such a creature — in post-Talmudic literature in Jewish law. I’m wondering if Thomistic philosophy ever touched on these issues. Or if not, did any of the other scholastic philosophers ever deal with them?

Can you help me out? If such literature does exist, it might well be worth featuring in your archive. But most of all, I’d like to know about it.

Much obliged in advance for your effort.

Reply:

Yours IS an odd query. I take it you are referring to golems of Jewish folklore. I don’t know of any place where Thomas would have dealt with the issue of artificially created people. For Thomas, in order for something to be a person, it would have to act rationally by engaging in abstract thought. If such a thing did this, it would indicate that it had a rational soul, and thus, by definition, be a person. But a rational soul is not something that Thomas believes could be artificially created. It could only come to be through a direct act of creation by God and only in the right kind of matter or body. So for Thomas, if a thing is artificially created, it is not a person. If it is a person, i.e. has a rational nature, then it could not be artificially created.

The closest I think Thomas would come to a discussion of this sort of thing is in Summa contra Gentiles, Book III starting at Chapter 103, where Thomas is considering the works of magicians who supposedly endow inanimate things with seemingly rational abilities (like speech). There, Thomas says that such behavior would really have to be accomplished by some sort of intelligent creature, since inanimate things cannot, in principle, act rationally.

Now, understanding is not present in things subject to generation and corruption, without sensation. But sensation cannot be present where there is no touch, nor can touch be without an organ that has a balanced mixture of sensory qualities. Now, such a balanced mixture is not found in stone, or wax, or metal, from which a statue is made. Therefore, it is not possible for these statues to be moved by a principle of life.

ScG 3, 104 [9]

The comparison with robots or computer Artificial Intelligence is that these artifacts, like statues, are inanimate objects and cannot have intelligence or sense, i.e., no cognitive operation, because they are not composed of material that is a “mean” to undergo the immanent activity that is characteristic of cognition (or receiving form without matter). This idea of formal reception is how Aquinas, and Aristotle before him, understood what was distinctive about cognitive operation: what is now termed possessing qualia, having intentionality and achieving cognitive or formal identity. (See, for instance, (Aristotle, De Anima 2.12, 424a17-24; Aquinas, Commentary on De Anima, Bk. 2, Lecture 24, n. 551-555).)

The intelligent creatures which Thomas thinks would have to be responsible for the intelligent-seeming behavior of statues and such are bad angels, i.e. demons. That is about as close as Aquinas comes to even being able to conceive of artificial intelligence. Such intelligence could only be apparently artificial.

There is a legend that Saint Albert the Great, the teacher of Saint Thomas, was a practitioner of alchemy and related occult studies, and that he made an automaton. But I do not know much about the legend, or any philosophical reflection by Saint Thomas or any other medieval thinker on the issues involved.

Revised May 14, 2021

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