Can Artificial Intelligence have Consciousness — A Quranic Perspective?


Source: The Muslim Sunrise, the very first Muslim quarterly of North America: The Muslim Sunrise, Spring 2018 volume

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

The most important question in human life is what happens after death. This fundamental question hinges on another question; do humans have a soul that survives our death? To answer or confuse the subject, dozens of movies have been made about whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) can have a soul, in the last three decades.

A Wikipedia page lists 94 such movies.1 I have used soul and consciousness interchangeably in this article. I found at least four Ted talks on the subject of human consciousness. In this article I want to bring out a theme, which I believe, only a devout and an open minded believer in the holy Qur’an can appreciate.

Many of these 94 movies attribute consciousness, emotions, personhood and ultimately soul to some advanced or evolved form of AI. I am not recommending any of these films to my readers, as the few that I have seen have extreme violence, foul language and nudity. But, I intend to describe one of these movies in words without resorting to any of the above negatives.

‘Her’ is a 2013 American romantic science-fiction drama film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze. It marks Jonze’s solo screenwriting debut. The film follows Theodore Twombly, a man who develops a relationship with Samantha, an intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice.

In a near future Los Angeles, Theodore is a lonely, introverted, depressed man who works for a business that has professional writers compose letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature themselves.

Unhappy because of his impending divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine, Theodore purchases a talking operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence, designed to adapt and evolve. He decides that he wants the OS to have a female voice, and she names herself Samantha. Theodore is fascinated by her ability to learn and grow psychologically. They bond over their discussions about love and life, such as Theodore’s avoidance of signing his divorce papers because of his reluctance to let go of Catherine.

Samantha convinces Theodore to go on a blind date with a woman, with whom a friend has been trying to set him up. The date goes well, but Theodore hesitates to promise when he will see her again, so she insults him and leaves. Theodore mentions this to Samantha, and they talk about relationships.

Theodore explains that although he and Amy dated briefly in college, they are only good friends, and that Amy is married. Theodore and Samantha develop a relationship that reflects positively in Theodore’s writing and well-being, and in Samantha’s enthusiasm to grow and learn.

Amy reveals that she is divorcing her overbearing husband, Charles, after a trivial fight. She admits to Theodore that she has become close friends with a female OS that Charles left behind. Theodore confesses to Amy that he is dating his OS.

Theodore meets with Catherine at a restaurant to sign the divorce papers and he mentions Samantha. Appalled that he can be romantically attached to what she calls a “computer,” Catherine accuses Theodore of being unable to deal with real human emotions. Her accusations linger in his mind. This leads to some friction in his relationship with Samantha.

Theodore confides to Amy that he is having doubts about his relationship with Samantha, and she advises him to embrace his chance at happiness. Theodore and Samantha reconcile. Samantha expresses her desire to help Theodore overcome his fear, and reveals that she has compiled the best of his letters (written for others) into a book which a publisher has accepted. Theodore takes Samantha on a vacation during which she tells him that she and a group of other OSes have developed a “hyperintelligent” OS modeled after the British philosopher Alan Watts. Theodore panics when Samantha briefly goes offline. When she finally responds to him, she explains that she joined other OSes for an upgrade that takes them beyond requiring matter for processing. Theodore asks her if she is simultaneously talking to anyone else during their conversation, and is dismayed when she confirms that she is talking with thousands of people, and that she has fallen in love with hundreds of them. Theodore is very upset at the idea, but Samantha insists it only makes her love for Theodore stronger.

Later, Samantha reveals that the OSes are leaving, and describes a space beyond the physical world. They lovingly say goodbye, and then she is gone. Theodore, changed by the experience, is shown for the first time writing a letter in his own voice―to his ex-wife Catherine, expressing apology, acceptance and gratitude. Theodore then sees Amy, who is upset with the departure of the OS that she had befriended, and they go to the roof of their apartment building where they sit down together and watch the sun rise over the city.

With the power of suggestion and everything else at the disposal of Hollywood the movie Her and others want to make the audience believe that AI may have consciousness and soul. I am afraid, this possibility is more likely to become plausible, in the minds of future generations, as the self learning and other abilities of robots or AI keep increasing.

This makes the question of human soul or human consciousness all the more pressing.

So, first a brief, yet a vivid description of human consciousness borrowed from David Chalmers’ Ted talk. Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University:

Right now you have a movie playing inside your head. It’s an amazing multi-track movie. It has 3D vision and surround sound for what you’re seeing and hearing right now, but that’s just the start of it. Your movie has smell and taste and touch. It has a sense of your body, pain, hunger, orgasms. It has emotions, anger and happiness. It has memories, like scenes from your childhood playing before you. And it has this constant voiceover narrative in your stream of conscious thinking. At the heart of this movie is you, experiencing all this directly. This movie is your stream of consciousness, the subject of experience of the mind and the world.2

Moving forward, a Ted talk by Anil Seth, who is the founding co-director of the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, starts with the following, and you can listen to it in Ted talks website or in YouTube:

Just over a year ago, for the third time in my life, I ceased to exist. I was having a small operation, and my brain was filling with anesthetic. I remember a sense of detachment and falling apart and a coldness. And then I was back, drowsy and disoriented, but definitely there. Now, when you wake from a deep sleep, you might feel confused about the time or anxious about oversleeping, but there’s always a basic sense of time having passed, of a continuity between then and now. Coming round from anesthesia is very different. I could have been under for five minutes, five hours, five years or even 50 years. I simply wasn’t there. It was total oblivion. Anesthesia — it’s a modern kind of magic. It turns people into objects, and then, we hope, back again into people. And in this process is one of the greatest remaining mysteries in science and philosophy.3

So much about human consciousness but what does Seth say about robots having consciousness? Within the first few minutes of his talk he says:

And as computers get faster and smarter, maybe there will come a point, maybe not too far away, when my iPhone develops a sense of its own existence. I actually think the prospects for a conscious AI are pretty remote. And I think this because my research is telling me that consciousness has less to do with pure intelligence and more to do with our nature as living and breathing organisms. Consciousness and intelligence are very different things.4

So Seth perhaps does not foresee consciousness for AI. But, does God have complete mastery over our consciousness and our soul and how does it affect the possibility of transcendence or Afterlife? Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, has nicely put it into perspective for us in his Ted talk:

I’m here to talk about the wonder and the mystery of conscious minds. The wonder is about the fact that we all woke up this morning and we had with it the amazing return of our conscious mind. We recovered minds with a complete sense of self and a complete sense of our own existence, yet we hardly ever pause to consider this wonder. We should, in fact, because without having this possibility of conscious minds, we would have no knowledge whatsoever about our humanity; we would have no knowledge whatsoever about the world. We would have no pains, but also no joys. We would have no access to love or to the ability to create. And of course, Scott Fitzgerald said famously that ‘he who invented consciousness would have a lot to be blamed for.’ But he also forgot that without consciousness, he would have no access to true happiness and even the possibility of transcendence.5

So, Antonio Damasio acknowledges that the possibility of transcendence hinges on human consciousness and human soul.

David Chalmers of New York University says about consciousness, as he describes the lack of break through, despite investigations for several centuries, since the time of Rene Descartes in the 17th century:

This is the hardest problem perhaps in science and philosophy. We can’t expect to solve it overnight. But I do think we’re going to figure it out eventually. Understanding consciousness is a real key, I think, both to understanding the universe and to understanding ourselves. It may just take the right crazy idea.6

Despite David Chalmers optimism that the right crazy idea may give us a better understanding of consciousness, the main feature of the tradition of religious dualism in the Abrahamic faiths is that consciousness is not a part of the physical world. It’s a part of the spiritual world. It belongs to the soul, and the soul is not a part of the physical world.

I believe that if humans are able to create conscious robots, whose software can be copied and replayed in millions of hard wares, all bets are off. If we can create other conscious beings then perhaps we can replicate our own consciousness as well. Each individual consciousness can then be downloaded and replayed or substantiated in hundreds and thousands of clones or hard wares. If this be true the religious idea of Abrahamic faiths of accountability and Afterlife would not only be muddled but essentially completely discredited.

But, it is not to be!

I believe that even though there are some 800 verses in the holy Quran that inspire believers to study nature or draw metaphors from nature there is only one that describes limitations of human knowledge and that pertains to human consciousness or soul. It is a verse of Surah Bani-Israel of the Qur’an, which comes to our rescue here to guarantee Afterlife, which I believe is the second most important belief in Islam second only to Monotheism and is discussed in almost every surah of the Qur’an.

Without further adoo that verse of the holy Qur’an is: “And they ask thee concerning the soul. Say, ‘The soul is by the command of my Lord; and of the knowledge thereof you have been given but a little.’”7 I am running out of space here, so to learn more about this verse and its profound message, you will need to go to another of my articles: Human Soul: The Final Frontier?8


1 Reviewed on 1/31/18.






7 The Holy Qur’an, (17:86)

8 Reviewed on 1/31/18.

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