Artificial Intelligence and the Vatican;
The Vision of Science-fiction*

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“… Catholic teaching has more definite things to say about ensoulment and what the soul is than do science and philosophy. There is much disagreement amongst the advocates of AI and philosophers about who and what might be endowed with consciousness and real intelligence, much less who or what might be given a soul.”
—Robert Kurland,   “Can Computers Have a Soul?”


Here’s an  article about the Vatican using artificial itelligence (AI) techniques to reproduce ancient articles—written in Gothic and Medieval scripts—in its secret archives.  The techniques modify conventional OCR (Optical Character Recognition) methods to recognize script characters (which are really jazzed up in these manuscripts).   There is no real “artificial intelligence” involved, since the heuristics are set forth by the programmers, and not independently composed by the OCR program.

Nevertheless, the age of AI is upon us, and as in other frontier areas of Catholic Doctrine, we might expect a forthcoming Encyclical “de Animis Intelligentiarum Artificiosarum” (“about the Souls of Artificial Intelligences”) in the not too distant future, among other surprising Encyclicals that have appeared.   I’m not sure what might be in such an encyclical, although I’ve written about AI ensoulment in the article linked in the opening quote.  However, what I think may not agree with what our Holy Father has to say.

And, since I don’t really have any idea of what Pope Francis might think about the ensoulment of AI devices,  let’s examine what science-fiction has to say.  The linked article has a section on science fiction stories about AI and the Catholic Church, so I won’t repeat that discussion here.  Rather, let’s see what this literary genre (which has often predicted the future) says in general about the Catholic Church.  Maybe this will enable us to get a glimplse of what would be in an Encyclical about the souls of artificial intelligences.


Science-fiction authors have not always treated the Church kindly.  I recall one story by George R.R. Martin (yes, the author of “Games of Thrones”), The Way of Cross and Dragon, in which the bishop on an extrasolar planet is a cephalopod.  This bishop sends a Jesuit Inquisitor to deal with a heresy, a planet where a religion of “Liars” follow a fake gospel of  Judas Iscariot.  The Jesuit deals with the heresy but in doing so, loses his faith, realizing (in the story) that he too is a Liar.

In another story, “Good News from the Vatican,”  a robot is elected as Pope (many of the College of Cardinals are robots).   The newly elected Pope Sixtus  chooses a new motto, “orbi et urbi et digiti,” and at the end of his (its?) welcoming address, blesses the people while ascending into heaven by attached jets.

There are  other novels and stories equally disdainful of the Church.  Perhaps this antagonism stems from Catholic teaching looking backward in time, to Revelation and Tradition,  whereas science fiction looks to the future:

SF [science fiction] 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.”
Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction, p. 183

Perhaps Pope Francis, unbeknownst to us, has read about this challenge posed by science fiction and is attempting to accommodate Catholic teaching to what’s happening NOW.  We should not be surprised, therefore, if an Encyclical is forthcoming about the souls of artificial intelligences, and perhaps some robot, martyred by Catholic zealots, is beatified.


*For those of you too  young to recognize what the red orb in the image is, it’s the “eye” of HAL 9000, the psychotic artificial intelligence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  The Latin for the forthcoming Papal Encyclical is the best I could do, recalling two years of high school Latin and searching the web to find endings for feminine, genitive, plural nouns and adjectives.

**Here are several articles, containing references, on the theology of science-fiction:

I. Some SF Gospels;
II. Paradise Not Lost?
III. Does Data Have a Soul?
IV. End Times
V.  Genesis and Darwin’s Radio

More to explorer

August 12, 1919: Henry Cabot Lodge Opposes US Participation in League of Nations

  One of the chief opponents of the Versailles Treaty was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R. Mass.).  He found most objectionable US

Saint of the Day Quote: Saint Helena

And then Helena said something which seem to have no relevance. ‘Where is the cross, anyway?’ ‘What cross, my dear?’ [said Pope

Trump’s Folly

  News that I missed courtesy of The Babylon Bee:   NUUK, GREENLAND—There have been rumors that President Trump was considering buying


  1. The word “soul” can hardly be used today. Our culture is so saturated with Cartesian mind/body dualism that, in common usage, “soul” = “mind” or, even worse, the Cartesian Ego. “Psyche” means this and nothing else.

    To the Ancients, including the NT writers, “soul” meant “life,” “life principle.”

    (It is worth noting that, in Latin, it makes sense to talk of vita (life) as going somewhere after bodily death, as in the last line of the Aeneid, where Turnus’s soul

    “Vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras – With a groan fled, full of indignation to the shadow-lands,” but that is by the by.)

    They thought that the difference between a living thing and a non-living thing consisted in the fact that the living thing has something that the non-living thing lacks, a principle of life. Now, a principle of life is an activating organisation. Matter is taken up in a way that is not reducible to that matter. Aristotle in De Anima (On the Soul) identifies a vegetative soul, that is, a principle of life which a plant has, and which gives it powers of nutrition, growth and generation. But there is, he says, another kind of living thing, which is possessed of a different set of powers, powers of perception, appetite and locomotion. Still other kinds of living things have powers of memory, will and intellect. Now these different beings constitute a hierarchy because the third kind has all the properties of the second, and the second of the first, but not vice versa. A plant, for instance, is capable of nutrition, growth and generation, but in addition, a rabbit, say, is capable of locomotion, appetite and perception, while a human being is capable of nutrition, growth and generation and locomotion, appetite and perception and memory, will and intellect.”

    Wittgenstein was right to insist that “The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” so long as wear bear in mind that he means a living body. When we see a man running to catch a ‘bus, we observe, not the result of intelligence, but intelligence in action; just a we do not see the results of perception and locomotion, but perception and locomotion in action. That is the soul, right there.

  2. I should have written “Turnus’s life,” rather than his soul.
    That just shows how often in Latin the two canbe used interchangeably

  3. Sorry for being nit picky. The correct phrase should be:

    De Animis Intelligentiarum Artificiosarum
    On the Souls of Artificial Intelligences

    Animis is 1st declension ablative plural – always ablative after the proposition de.

    The correct word for intelligence is intelligentia, though consilium and sapientia could have been used. Intelligentia can also be spelled as intellegentia.

    The correct word for artificial is artificiosus, -a, -um. It is not a 3rd declension adjective but a 1st and 2nd declension adjective. Note the genitive feminine plural to follow genitive feminine plural for intelligentia which is intelligentiarum artificiosarum. Daedalus, -a, -um interestingly can be used instead, and so can quaesitus, -a, -um. We know from where Daedalus originates – the Greek story of Daedalus and Icarus. That would be neat:

    De Animis Intelligentiarum Daedalarum.

    I like what it implies regarding artificial intelligence – flying up to be like the gods, and crashing and burning
    Linguam Latinam amo! 🙂

    OK, back to neutrons ‘R us.

  4. Thanks LQC for the Latin lesson. It’s been more than 70 years since I had my last Latin class, but I recognize your corrections. I’ve offered each of my grandchildren as they enter high school $50 to take latin, with mixed results. So, as you said “Linguam Latinam amo!” (If I knew more I’d try to do “we should love”)

  5. There are other novels and stories equally disdainful of the Church. Perhaps this antagonism stems from Catholic teaching looking backward in time, to Revelation and Tradition, whereas science fiction looks to the future:

    Nah, it’s because authors are human, scifi attracts folks who are science-minded, and the cheapest way to show you’re “scientifically minded” is to ‘reject out-dated mythologies’ or whatever they’re calling it this year. ‘s called “scientism.”
    Some, I think, are motivated by Catholicism being such a big threat to their desired beliefs– especially those who are self-appointed interpreters of what is “scientific,” which is magically in line with their personal beliefs. 😉 They PROBABLY aren’t entirely aware of that motivation, but by the willful ignorance that some display, they are. *sad*

    That’s generally why science fiction argues religion has to change. Because it conflicts with what they want.
    Usually use bad arguments, too.


    I really hope nobody is crazy enough to go into the “these guys have souls” thing when they don’t even exist yet.
    We’ve got teachings on souls (as you mention); going beyond what actually exists is a Really Bad Idea.

    In no small part because I’m not sure we’ll ever manage to get to real AI, one that can pass a Turning Test. (Yes, I’m aware of the recent PR test of setting up an appointment and similar; problem being, that isn’t even a free-form conversation, and manners make it so receptionists have no REASON to have any response when someone calls and is acting very, very strangely.

  6. Nate, thanks for the reference to John Wright…I stopped reading new SF about 15 years ago, so I’m not familiar with his work…I’ll look it up.
    Foxfier, thanks for the comments– there are a few SF writers who are respectful of the Church–Walter Miller, Jr. (“Canticle for Liebowitz”), Gene Wolfe and maybe Orson Scott Card (even though he’s a Mormon) come to mind. With respect to the Turing Test as a measure of self-awareness, John Searle’s Chinese Room analogy is a good argument against that. (See the linked article on “Do Computers Have a Soul.”)

  7. Bob-
    I’m familiar with the Chinese Room argument, but disagree with it for the same reason I don’t think AI meaning “can pass a Turning Test” will manage to come about; in both cases you have to hand-wave in a system that could actually HAVE all the rules needed to answer a free-form conversation well enough to ‘pass’ as a human, and even if you accept that such a thing can happen, the Chinese Room actually proves the opposite of what it intends– it shows that you can’t disprove a soul with the Turning Test.

    It’s like… being able to recognize selective breeding, and mutations, and accumulation of mutations, but not accepting that as proof of the “life started in a warm sludgy pond*” style total evolution. One is very well supported, scientifically, the other is either a what-if style theory, a reducto-ad-absurdum of what’s observed, or an attempt to over-extend observed facts.

    The funny thing is, I’m actually working on a story** with an AI as a character, precisely because the idea of a non-human soul that isn’t even biological is fun. I blame Data. 🙂

    *or insert whichever location a specific theory is using, I know there are several competing theories
    ** In the “teaching myself to write fiction” sense, not in the “expect to see this finished book” sense.

  8. Much less fun, a danger of taking the Turning Test as a soul-test rather than a way to define “artificial intelligence” is that it would find that the disabled, or my five year old, aren’t able to pass it…. (He can talk, he can understand, but he really likes to change the subject if he doesn’t have an answer that suits him to whatever you just said. In the sense of you’ll be talking about books, and suddenly he’s explaining name meanings.)

  9. Welcome, Dr. Bob. Hmmmm….”we should love Latin.” Maybe this?

    Linguam Latinam amare debemus.

    Debemus is a 1st person plural active present tense 2nd conjugation verb. It means: “owe; be indebted / responsible for / obliged / bound / destined; ought, must, should.” It goes into the nouns debitum (2nd declension neuter) meaning debt and debitor (third declension masculine) meaning debtor as used in the Lord’s Prayer or the Pater Noster:

    Et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
    Literally translated it means: And send away our debts even as we send away our debtors.

    I had 4 years of Latin and a great Latin teacher. I simply kept up with it because the language is logical but I am not nearly as good as MPS here at TAC, or Father Hunwicke at the Mutual Enrichment blog or Father Zuhlsdorf at the Father Z blog – I don’t have the expertise to keep up with them. I think Latin would be a perfect language for AI because it is so logical – very few irregularities compared to other languages like French and gawdaweful English! 😉

    And I was the ONLY Latin student in my class to go into engineering – nuclear engineering at that. The class asked me why and I said, “Because Latin is just like math and engineering – logical.” I hate French with a passion.

  10. I think the Turing Test overlooks the way language actually works.

    As Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations:

    241. “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

    242. If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments. This seems to abolish logic, but does not do so.— It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement.”

    Similarly, Kripe insists that there is actually no way of fixing meaning unless there is, between those who speak, a shared sense of common purpose that grows out of (a) the basic preoccupations of what it is to be a human being or (b) the various social enterprises that make up our every day commitments. Roughly,(a) he calls forms of life and (b) he calls language-games.

    In other words, meaning is only possible when embedded in these common pursuits that are, in the case of (a) shared by all, and in the case of (b) shared by some. This is the background against which any sort of sense is possible.

    If I say, “The baby is only pretending to smile” or “I do not know whether what I am feeling is a pain, or something else,” everyone would recognise that what I was saying was neither true nor false, but nonsense/meaningless. Some people call this the unity of indirect reference embedded in our language, the usually unspoken assumptions that underlie our talking.

  11. LQC

    Linguam Latinam amare debemus

    One of the great merits of Latin is its flexibility. So, besides your translation, here are a few alternatives.

    Debeo is often used impersonally, with an active or passive construction: Linguam Lainiam amare debet [One ought to love], Lingua Latina amari debet [Ought to be loved]. Or one could use opportet instead of debet, which is always impersonal.

    Or one could use the gerundive, Lingua Latina amanda est or, for emphasis, Amanda est lingua Latina [The Latin language ought to be loved.

    Or one could use the subjunctive, Linguam Latinam amemeus [Let us love]

    That’s eight versions, including yours!

  12. *vague fumbling towards a half-idea*

    Maybe that is why the Turning Test seems so…off… to me; I’ve never been instinctively good at communicating, so I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between what someone says and what I hear, as mom use to put it.
    Add in having taught small children, and it’s even further off– at least once a week you’ll get one of those “Oh! Well, yes, that is what I said, but it doesn’t mean that, it means this-” type assumptions.
    For a favorite example, our eldest could understand but not really talk yet.
    We told her Do not touch the cat.
    Five minutes later, had to tell her that yes, using something else to touch the cat did actually “count” as touching the cat.

    Adult interactions aren’t usually that amusing, and honestly the kid ones aren’t usually that good either, but the same miscommunications come up in normal conversation as well, even before you get into things like quotes and allusions and stuff.

  13. Nate, thanks for the reference to John Wright…I stopped reading new SF about 15 years ago, so I’m not familiar with his work…I’ll look it up.

    Bob it was in one of his books in the “Count to…” series (#4 IIRC). Which he wrote after converting to Catholicism. You might also write or comment on his blog. He has a wide variety of stuff you’ll probably enjoy like…

    Or we might even see if you want to join a podcast sometime.

  14. Yes, thank you, MPS. 🙂 And you, Dr. Bob, for amending the title.

    PS, I wonder if my wife realizes that her nickname Amanda is the feminine gerundive for the verb amo?

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