C.S. Lewis and Robots


No robots were involved in the writing of this column.

That’s not to say that robots aren’t writing a considerable amount of what you might come across today on the internet.

A recent article, entitled “Robots Wrote this Story,” describes how “in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy . . . [but today it] identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across different platforms.”

The various artificial intelligences writing the news for us have interesting names. Among them are Wibbitz (USA Today), News Tracer (Reuters), Buzzbot (open source), and Heliograf (Washington Post). Rumors are that Skynet may be on the horizon.

A Washington Post reporter optimistically says, “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings. But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.”

So far.

Lewis certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the robot in a classic science fiction film released in 1956.

Before leaving home [for a trip to Northern Ireland] I saw the film of The Forbidden Planet, a post-civilisation version of the Tempest with a Robot for Caliban . . . The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most.*

Count me as a member of C.S. Lewis’ camp. He possessed little to no fear of robots. He was far more suspicious about a future shaped by the devotees of scientism.

Scientism is that warped theory that, in the words of one Professor of Biological Sciences, surrenders to the “temptation to overreach.”

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived.

But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable. (Emphasis added.)

Scientism, not robotics, is clearly the danger. However . . . what if the disciples of scientism intend to use robots to further their misanthropic plans?

I suspect taking over our news sources may only be the first stage of the robot blueprint for humanity’s future ruin.

Where are we prepared to draw the line in terms of robots displacing humanity. Apparently, not even in the realm of spiritual matters and worship. I have previously written about a curious, presumably docile, robot. It is, in fact, a Buddhist monk, and presumably a moderately successful evangelist.

A Greater Danger

A futuristic threat that once fell in the domain of science fiction has become science fact. Scientific American has reported that “some of the brightest minds in science and tech think we need a plan to keep humans safe from supersmart machines.”

C.S. Lewis identified a much more ominous alternative than robots seeking to lord it over humans. Lewis worried about the danger of human beings devolving into robots. Well, not robots per se, but beings who have suppressed the qualities that make us who we are, and forfeited our humanity.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures describe an event that must have stunned the angels in heaven. God deigned to create humanity, men and women, in his own image.

It is precisely when we choose to disobey God’s leading, and further distort that divine image, that we become less human.

When I was a child, I wondered why God would create people capable of disobedience. Not only capable but, as the Lord knew in his omniscience, beings who would disobey him. To a more mature mind, the answer seems obvious. No automaton, guided by its programming, can truly love. Lewis explores this dilemma in Mere Christianity.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. . . .

If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.


* The Forbidden Planet received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. It is also received the honor of being selected to be preserved for posterity by America’s National Film Preservation Board.

Along with its literary influence, highly influential special effects and visual style, the film also pushed the boundaries of cinematic science fiction. For the first time, all action happened intergalatically (not on Earth) and humans are depicted as space travelers, regularly jetting off to the far reaches of the cosmos. Additionally, Forbidden Planet is remembered for its innovative score—or lack thereof. No music exists on the film’s soundtrack; instead, all ambient sounds are “electronic tonalities.”

forbidden planet.jpg

12 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and Robots

  1. Keith A. Wadley

    Another movie of recent note was where the AIs had started collecting power cells to preserve their future, a future without humans. I think it was called Automata. Several recent (past decade) films have asked similar questions in terms of what AI might be capable of if we ever get it ‘right’. Personally, AI is always bound by its programmer’s presuppositions, logic, and worldview. There will never be a truly 100% type of AI similar to humans. It is impossible.

    1. Yes, there have been a number of fascinating explorations of artificial intelligence. No, despite what some of them surmise… robots will never have souls.

  2. 35 years ago while earning MA degree in religious studies I wrote a paper on how our views of God would evolve and change with new technologies, health care extending life, space travel and how modern things of the future (now the present) would have as much an impact as had the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo in understanding God and faith. The professor, a Jesuit, gave me an F saying my paper was plain silly and preposterous.

    I reject that we have free will before God as all has been written in the Book of Life and the elect chosen before creation. Free will in the Christian sense is not a matter of choosing this or that.Even Judas had no choice as he was destined to perform the required part leading to the Crucifixion and hence redemption. Perhaps he killed himself not for guilt but for having been preordained to commit the betrayal. When we surrender to Christ and live in Christian charity we have been liberated from choice. The is only one choice, the path of Christ. We surrender our will to God so our will is dissolved. Freedom comes in not having a choice. That burden has been removed. So I don’t think rejecting Christ is a human ability since He knows his flock before the beginning until the end of the age.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Carl.

      First… darn those Jesuits! That professor didn’t recognize foresight and wisdom when it was right in front of him. I just (half) joking about Jesuits… I got an M.Th. from a Jesuit seminary in Patristics…

      As for the “free will” question… most of the Calvinists I’ve known are not as strict about Predestination as you present yourself to be. Coincidentally, I was just rereading Romans 7, which is in the Lutheran lectionary for tomorrow, and it describes how even the redeemed struggle with the flesh (our sinful nature). “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Seems to me that he is describing an existence where each day (even each moment) we (empowered by the Holy Spirit) choose to continue sinning or to live in the light.

      This, of course, has no bearing on our salvation, which is purely by grace through faith in Jesus. It does, however, support the notion the concept of simul iustus et peccator (that we are at the same time forgiven saints and fallen sinners).

  3. Hi Rob,

    Yes, there has to be the Lord in the center of all things. I see the machine-minded men who don’t think or act for themselves. The Lord help us who have to work in the digital age to reach modern men and women, to remain the children of God, not automations ourselves.

    In Christ,

    1. I only dabble in fiction, but your comment gave me an intriguing idea for a novel that a gifted writer might treat quite ably…

      What would it be like in the not-so-distant future for a “young” Christian involved in creating high-tech dopamine for the masses who becomes awakened to the fact that it has stifled our very humanity? Variations of this theme have been treated in the past, but not (so far as I am aware) with the focus on the spiritual conflict–at least not from a Christian perspective.

      It would offer all of the drama of good stories and if you sprinkled in some behind the scenes agenda (as in That Hideous Strength), I think it would be fascinating.

      1. Great idea. I will pray your idea comes to life. I have my first book on time travel and changing history or not. In a later book there is a future where a social war is being waged between the techies and those who feel technology takes away from really being human. Lots of room for ideas like these.

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