The other day I saw someone ask if a robot could have a soul. The question was a rhetorical one, and they were making the point that if you ignore the possibility of a sentient robot having a soul, well that was not a good look. The thing is, I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe the robot could have a soul, but apart from the soul I think I largely agree with the point they were trying to make. It’s not about the soul as such, it’s about how you treat others, and specifically how you treat sentient beings not like you. And this got me to thinking, and I ended up thinking some pretty dark thoughts. So here I shall lay out my theory, as an atheist, of what the soul is.
The short version, it’s an idea used to justify evil, and to control people in fear.
The less short version. The soul is an idea that crosses religious boundaries, all religions that I know of have something like the soul in their belief system. It is the thing that makes you “you”. It is ephemeral, and it is, normally, immortal. When you die it does not, it goes on, through reincarnation, or to the next life. Christians have the soul going to heaven, if you have been good, or to hell, if you have not. And that brings us to the second part of the short version, control. I don’t think the idea of the soul started out as a mechanism for control, it was something to help the bereaved cope with their loss, the dead haven’t suddenly gone, they have moved on to a better place. But religion is lead by people, and give people power and they will abuse it. So the religious leaders pushed scare stories about what might happen to your soul if your were not good, and who better to decide what was good or not but those who understood the words of our Gods? And so being wicked tarnished your soul, and being good polished it.
Now that we have an idea that can control people, we can make those people do evil things, but how, evil is punished. Well what about not hurting each other, that tarnishes the soul, but what if it is only hurting others who have a soul that tarnishes your soul? Wouldn’t you then be free to hurt others who do not have a soul? And it is this very question, that I think is the crux of the initial question that led me down this path, but also how the soul is used to justify evil. Look at history, and you will find arguments for why one group or other does, or does not, have a soul, and so therefore cruelty towards them is, or is not, justified. Cruelty for it’s own sake is never justified, and that is the point being made initially, but it is an argument that has been made before, and I have no doubt it will be made again.
So I do not believe the robot could have a soul, but neither do I. So if the robot is sentient I should treat it as I wish to be treated, for we are the same. Even if it is hard to see.