Reading Sherry Turkle’s thoughts on social robotics got me thinking of other stories where we, as God’s creation, grasp at the chance to create some form of life ourselves. It has become rather common in recent science fiction, but the theme actually has quite a long and varied history.
The earliest expressions that I know of are the various golem legends from mystical Judaism (see Golem by Moshe Idel). The golem was a humanoid creature who, like Adam, was formed out of dust or clay, but by a human creator, not God. The mechanism by which the golem was then brought to life varies over time, but by the middle ages most stories attributed this animating power to the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, which was inscribed upon the golem’s forehead. Interestingly, the golem is later unmade by erasing the first letter of the word, resulting in the Hebrew word for ‘dead’.
In the most-cited stories, the golem is more like a monstrous beast who protects persecuted Jews from Gentile attacks, but in some of the older legends, the golem is more like a human and able to speak. One such legend tells of the prophet Jeremiah creating a nearly perfect replica of a human, which he animates by writing upon it the phrase “The Lord God is Truth” (see Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 279). But as soon as the golem is brought to life, it begins to rebuke Jeremiah for creating it. The golem explains that by creating a perfect human replica, Jeremiah has put himself in the place of God. Symbolically and quite provocatively, the golem wipes off the first letter of the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, leaving the phrase “The Lord God is Dead.”
The dangers associated with creating new life is also at the heart of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, Frankenstein. The book’s alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, is actually quite telling: the Greek Titan Prometheus is most often associated with introducing humans to the power of fire, but in some accounts Prometheus also played a crucial role in creating the initial humans by fashioning them out of clay. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein becomes the modern form of Prometheus after he discovers the scientific basis for animating flesh. Driven by a lust to accomplish his task and become the greatest scientist in the world, Frankenstein never pauses to consider the ramifications of his work until it is too late. As soon as the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein turns from his creation in disgust and literally runs out of the room.
Interestingly, Shelley never described how Dr Frankenstein created the physical form of his monster, nor the mechanism he used to bring it to life. Our common images of Frankenstein robbing graves, stitching together various mismatched limbs with the help of a hunch-backed assistant, and animating them with electricity come more from the 1931 film adaptation than the original novel. That film also gave us the iconic portrayal of the monster as a zombie-like, mute creature with bolts in its neck, that moves more like a robot than a man. In Shelley’s novel, however, the monster is actually quite agile, emotional, and articulate.
Similar to the case of Jeremiah’s golem, the Frankenstein story pivots around a tense confrontation between the creation and its creator. The details are quite different though: Dr Frankenstein wants to destroy his monster (as it has just murdered Frankenstein’s brother); and instead of telling his creator to unmake him, the monster demands that Frankenstein create it a companion. Shelley seems relatively unconcerned about the moral implications of replacing God, concentrating instead on the unforeseen consequences of creating something that the creator is unable to control. Shelley uses this as a metaphor for her concerns about modern science and industrialization, but we could just as easily use it when discussing more recent creations, such as atomic weapons, artificial intelligence, and robotic humanoids.
This confrontation between disgruntled creation and creator also figures prominently in the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, which was based loosely upon the Phillip Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the movie’s world, the all-powerful Tyrell corporation has succeeded in creating artificial biological life forms, known as “replicants,” that are virtually indistinguishable from humans, except for their enhanced physical prowess. Replicants are used for dangerous work on other planets, but because they have a nasty tendency to revolt against their human overlords, they are created with a relatively short lifespan, and are banned from returning to Earth.
The plot of the film follows one gang of replicants who have managed to come back to Earth for the purpose of confronting their creator and demanding more life. In the pivotal scene, the lead replicant (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer) manages to get an audience with his creator and expresses his grievances. Here’s the clip, which I highly recommend watching, though it does get a bit gross at the end:
This scene is full of provocative references. Tyrell’s apartment has the look of a heavenly court, or some kind of temple. The disgruntled creation brings its case against the creator, demanding what it thinks it should have. The creator doesn’t exactly refuse the request as much as explain that it is impossible to comply given the reality that is already set in motion (similar to the weeds and wheat parable). The creator calls his creation “the prodigal son,” which prompts the creation to confess its sins, and the creator to absolve them. But this absolution, or perhaps the realization that his efforts are fruitless, causes a change in the creation, leading it to kiss and then kill its creator (perhaps an allusion to Nietzsche?).
As we continue to develop more advanced techniques in biomechanics and robotics, stories like these become even more important to read, ponder, and discuss. Do we fully understand the implications of creating new beings that could be considered to be “alive?” What is the difference between using our God-given creative ability to create art or artifacts versus creating a new form of life? Is there a difference between creating hybrid or genetically-modified plant or animal species and creating an “improved” human? As people of faith, at what point do our creative acts attempt to usurp God?