Symbol & Cyborg:
Karl Rahner’s Theology of the Body and Post-Organic Embodiment
One of the more interesting features of Karl Rahner’s influential “Theological Investigations” is that it is, at heart, a theology of symbols. In fact, Rahner writes that “die ganze Theologie, ohne nicht auch wesentlich eine Symboltheologie zu sein.” God comes to our life on earth through symbols, and we respond to the divine through the use of symbol. Today, our human interactions are increasingly articulated in electronic representation, and Rahner’s symbolic emphasis seems especially applicable. After all, all software “behavior” and “virtual” activity is essential symbolic: as many have noted, computer user interfaces are essentially composed of layers of metaphorical symbols embedded within a framework of electronic emulations. This symbolic framework may eventually allow our electronic creations to find embodiment in post-human form, and in fact, to transcend their origins entirely. As a theologian of the body in symbol and as symbol, Rahner is thus uniquely suited to help us understand the theological implications of post-organic embodiment, symbol, and cybernetic transcendence.
Within Rahner’s theology, his study of symbol leads naturally towards an understanding of God’s symbolic expression of transcendence in Jesus Christ. The body is the preeminent symbol, yet as we will find when we consider new modes of embodiment, it is necessary to clarify how Rahner’s theology of symbol continues to apply. Finally, a thoughtful comprehension of symbol and theology may lead us to the theme of ultimate transcendence, and emphasize possible outcomes of theological self-conceptions within a post-organic Rahnerian worldview. Yet if we are to apply Rahnerian theology to the post-organic, we must first clearly understand the nature of symbol.
What is a symbol? Is it the same as a sign? A sign is often simply a pointer to another thing: words are signs. Of course, the endeavor of speaking in signs about symbolic or signaling action is itself fraught with the peril of representation. These signs all point to other signs, until indeed Il n’y a pas dehors texte. Signing action result in simply a circular understanding of language and theology in which all founded meaning is mutable at best. Rahner himself notes, “Die Übergänge sind hier fließend.” However, in this realm of variability, theological constructs can still be attempted, and self-styled “a/theologians” have found fertile avenues towards a “deconstructed God” that emerges within the very polyvalency of signs.
Rahner seems to anticipate this mode of theologizing by explicitly calling out the inevitability of signs that lead to derivative modes of being, or “abkünftigen Weisen des Symbolseins.” Yet he also directly rejects the usefulness of “Symbolseins” as a way to understand the reality of God in our world. Throughout his work, instead of embracing the “Vertretungssymbol” or “Symbolsein” (the same lesser sign in which future generations of Derridaen rable will revel), Rahner instead chooses to emphasize something he calls “Realsymbol.” Symbol, for Rahner, is clearly more than sign.
In German and English, “symbol” comes from the Greek etymology sym-ballein, or ‘thrown together.’ Thus, the original meaning of symbol was of two things joined to create a type of bridge. A symbol is a thing which comes from two directions at once, and thus is able to point back towards both of its origin points. Signs are generally understood to have a single reference point: they point one way. Yet a symbol does more than point: it is to some extent a truly efficacious sign, which allows one reality to be present in another place. For example, flowers as a symbol of love given to another are not merely a sign of love, but also are a visible enactment of that love. Love that has no symbolic expression – love that never sends flowers – may no longer be called love at all.
The New Testament demonstrates this active potential of the word “symbol” in Luke 2:19. After the miraculous events of Christ’s early life, the verb sym-ball is Mary’s reaction: “She pondered these things in her heart.” By pondering (symbolizing) the events she’s experienced, Mary enters into the divine sphere from which these events emanated. The symbolic events transport and enliven her experience – making Mary part of the story itself. Thus, the symbol is a gateway between two realities: it is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective. In the Lucan account, the symbols of Christ’s life expressed to Mary the divine world they symbolized. Mary’s action was an act of participation, and thus the symbol brought her out of herself and into the otherness of Christ. Through sym-ball, she became part of the divine expression.
The story of Mary in Luke is a good introduction to Rahner’s “Theology of the Symbol,” as Rahner’s continuing emphasis is on how beings experience symbols. First, in order to avoid the entanglements of derivative and degraded symbolization, he reaches beyond all mutable signs toward an “Ursprüng” symbol – the foundational “Ur” symbols which underlay communication and reality. For Rahner, this original symbol is found in the Thomistic conception of symbol as the expression of an ‘informed’ being. Symbolization is the method by which form is expressed by being in the world: “Das Seiende von sich selbst her symbolisch ist.” Symbols go both ways though. Beings also realize themselves through symbolic expression: “Durch Ausdruck kommt das Seiende zu sich selbst, soweit es uberhaupt zu sich selbst kommt.” Therefore, to even exist in a conscious capacity, means to be symbolic. A practical enactment of this truth can be found in recent work to teach non-communicative persons how to use simple symbols. In neurophysiologist Terrence Deacon’s experience, teaching symbolic understanding opened up new categories of expression; he writes that “symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.” We get more from the use of a symbol than we brought to the exercise or the “pondering.” As we saw with Mary, the projection is essentially a giving of itself away from itself: “Die ‘Form’ gibt sich mitteilend an die Materialursache weg.” In working with symbols, Rahner believes that we grasp something beyond ourselves in the moment of symbolization. As we saw with Mary, we are brought into the symbolic reality, or the ‘Form’ which is symbolized.
Of course, the external manifestation of the substantial form/cause is different from the form itself. In one example cited by Rahner, the human experience of embodiment is necessarily ‘different’ from the un-substantiated form (although it may not be distinguished, per se, from that body, here on earth). Although the spiritual form may not entirely empty itself into the substantial form, the external embodiment still accurately realizes the reality of the form: “das vom Symbolisierten als sein eigener Wesensvollzug gebildet wird.” It is clear than in his careful illumination of the theology of symbol, Rahner is ever so carefully moving toward the application of his theology to the experience of embodiment. Thus, in order to mark a transition from the metaphysical to the symbolic, he also moves in his description from efficient to formal causality.
It is thus vital to understand that “Das eigentliche Symbol (Realsymbol) ist der zur Wesenskonstitution gehorende Selbstvollzug eines Seienden im anderen.” According to Rahner, the Logos – which is of essence in God – comes to be Selbstvollzug only in the experience of anderen, otherness. Here the clear point is that the Logos’ divine realization/expression does in fact communicate the very bild and wesen of God’s nature; through Rahner’s careful choice of the word Wesenskonstitution he again re-articulates the idea that Realsymbol contains and communicates the very essence of that being. As contemporary philosopher Damien Casey notes, “The symbol, then, is not only expressive but also constitutive.” The symbol expresses the evident and present reality of the symbolized. The reason that Rahner is at pains to establish the degree to which Realsymbol is in fact of the same essence as the symbolized entity is that his whole purpose in establishing the nature of symbolic reality is to arrive, finally and purposefully, at an explanation of how Jesus the Christ (as the symbolic Logos) is indeed the full ‘Wesenskonstitution’ of the divine being on earth.
ii. The Divine Symbol
The primary “symbol” of God’s love to us is in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet we have no access to the underlying Wesen of God, so how does God’s symbol of divinity manifest his konstitution, or essence, to us? Our understanding of the reality of Christ’s embodiment as the manifestation of the being of God is predicated upon two characteristics of the symbol. As Rahner develops the second part of his “Theology of the Symbol” – “Zur Theologie der Symbolwirklichkeit” – it is important to take note of his statement that the Logos is the “Abbild und Aussage” of God. These two terms are typically translated as ‘image’ and ‘expression,’ and such a translation fits into our understanding of Rahner’s generally Thomistic theology. However, a page later, Rahner uses different terms to characterize God’s inner and outer understanding of Being: “Weil Gott sich innergottlich ausdrucken muss, kann er sich auch nach aussen aussagen; die geschopflich-endliche Aussage nach aussen ist eine… Fortsetzung der innergottlichen Setzung von Bild und Gleichnis.” “Bild und Gleichnis” is usually also translated as ‘image’ and ‘expression,’ yet this change in vocabulary is crucial to understanding Rahner’s intent in describing divine action in the world.
What is the difference between “Abbild und Aussage” and “Bild und Gleichnis”? For starters, Abbild contains other meanings beside simply ‘image’ – it is a created or generally figurative word, implying something “from” or “out of” a bild (original form, idea). In the second instance, Rahner has moved directly to the base idea or underlying form: Bild. Rahner’s choice with the second term is similarly intriguing. Instead of merely speaking of “Aussage” – which literally means ‘out speaking’ or declaration, he instead chose to use Gleichnis, which means ‘simile’ or even a story ‘parable.’ Ab and Aus both carry a secondary “out of” implication, rather than emphasizing the primary essence. Rahner’s intent in developing such a comprehensive theology of the symbol is to bring us ever more precisely from a base concept of God’s expression in the world as only image and mere re-statement or re-expression of that illustration to Bild and Gleichnis – Form or Idea and the Metaphor/Parable of the Divine Form in the world.
Rahner thus moves from figurative language to something close to ding an sich. He is, at root, attempting to describe the manner in which the Godhead communicates to itself, and within itself as a subject/object/ground-of-being, all at once. The Logos is not merely the expression of a human being who has become divine – Logos is instead an instantiation of the godhead: it is a substantial reality of God which is mediated as the Logos. As Rahner wrote early in his ““Zur Theologie der Symbolwirklichkeit,” the relationship of the self-communication of God to the incarnated Logos “sondern ein realontologisches und dauerndes Verhältnis.” For it is not only by an image, illustration, spoken or written message or by any sign of himself that God has become evident in the world, but by the actual substantial form of that divinity: in the Logos’ embodiment in Jesus Christ, God gave the Godhead’s image itself to us. Rahner would have us realize that from the Vater, the Logos “aussagt und sein ihn der Welt mitteilendes Symbol ist.” Christ constitutes the real and definitive ‘statement’ of God’s being.
In this story, the principal character was expressed in flesh, not merely described. As Rahner later writes, “die Wirklichkeit, die als vom Symbolisierten gesetztes inneres Moment seiner selbst dieses Symbolisierte offenbart, kundmacht und als konkretes Dasein des Symbolisierten selbst von ihm erfüllt ist.” Just as the Logos was not a ‘story’ or a ‘signified reality’ to God, but a present and real being, so the Logos became to us not merely a sign or as an illustration, but a ‘living story-in-itself.’ God’s symbolic reality would participate in our reality henceforth. Thus, in his characterization of Christ as God’s embodiment, Rahner is essentially demonstrating that God’s symbol of Christ illustrates the inner reality of Love: the kenosis of God is revealed and proclaimed in the life of Christ. Through the symbolic reality of God, we are “redeemed” within our understanding and corporeal reality: we are not removed from this reality, but become transcendent in our understanding. Rahner’s understanding of the importance of symbol as divine self-expression within God’s own being and consequently God’s unfolding story within our embodiment is vital to our understanding of how embodiment itself can evolve within the divine plan.
iii. Symbolic Reality
In the same manner as God’s only konkretes Symbolisierten of himself is in Christ the Logos, we only come to be in and through our bodies. We are more than our bodies, but the body is our symbolic reality. The body is inherently our symbol, and thus is a threshold between our universal reality and God’s universe. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Luce Irigaray writes of the body as “the threshold, the portal for the construction of . . . universes.” The body becomes, in both Rahner and Irigaray’s thought, the ursprüng site where other and self are joined, where divinity and humanity meet. It is through the body that God mediated himself/herself to humankind, for as Dubarle observed: “Practique du symbole et connaissance de Dieu.” In Christian terms, for Rahner, all reality intersects here in the body.
We now understand, on a cursory level, the reality of the body as a divine symbol. Our comprehension of the completeness of symbolized and corporeal experience before God should therefore banish any vestige of the idea of the soul as a substantially separate entity from embodied reality. And the foundation on which Rahner builds this understanding is deep and historical: Aristotle was the first to understand that it is more accurate to state that the body is in the soul than it is to state that the soul is in the body. Rahner merely echoes and expands on such a classical, Thomistic understanding as he explains that the “body is informed by the soul.” God mediates the divine reality to us through the symbolic and “informed” reality of our bodies. However, we have still to understand entirely what the “symbolic reality” of the body means to us in day to day life. What is the human experience of embodiment, in Rahner’s conception?
Just as God is mediated to us through symbols, so it is through the body that the world is mediated to us and through the body that we mediate ourselves to the world. Yet as the Greeks realized, we have many parts to our bodies – from fingernails to hearts, from neurons to hair follicles – and not all of these parts can be equally important. The whole human person cannot be tied to the soul. Aquinas built on Aristotle by noting that “nulla pars integralis praedicatur de suo toto” – an integral part cannot be predicated of its whole, which is to say that a person’s material reality is not his or her soul. When a fingernail falls off, our soul is not dimished. However, there must be something that is more than material matter, and according to Aquinas, that immortal element is the “intellective soul” because this part of the body has “an immaterial act, namely, thinking.” Rahner, of course, built on this foundation in his dissertation. Published as Geist in Welt, Rahner’s seminal work brought St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica into the Kantian age by reflecting on the nature of human “knowing” as an ever-receding horizon. From metaphysical reflection on knowing God, Rahner drew the insight that no human thought can proceed without an image or representation. Human thoughts – even thoughts of God – depend on mental imagery. Thomas Aquinas called such images ‘phantasms,’ yet Rahner deduced that only through such phantasms was spirit itself expressed in the world. As Mark Fischer notes, Rahner’s reliance on thought as the basis for spirit’s expression “laid a systematic basis for his eventual doctrine of sacrament and symbol, through which God’s Spirit becomes tangible.”
The existence of thought obviously is of essence to Rahner’s analysis in Geist in Welt. After all, without thought – without consciousness – we cannot apprehend the mysterious motions of Geist’s communication within the world. One can, of course, argue that Rahner’s analysis does not require conscious thought, for Rahner later clarified that we are “hearers” of God’s word or silence, and that God is always “mysterious” – thus, perhaps skirting the edge of consciousness interaction. Rahner further expanded his explanation of man’s corporeal being in his penetrating Foundations of Christian Faith, wherein the majority of his emphasis in his later work continues to be on the philosophical understanding of man’s inner knowledge and ability to self-transcend. Yet Geist in Welt’s principal statements that assume consciousness continue to appear in Rahner’s later work in the “Theological Investigations” (including “Body as Symbol”), without much attention to the possibility of their diminishment in a post-Thomistic world.
The necessary groundwork to distinguish Rahner’s idea of a “soulful” consciousness from mere animal reaction has been laid in Rahner’s work itself, and further expanded in the work of a thinker who followed his footsteps. Basque philosopher Xavier Zubiri found himself in great agreement with Rahner, publishing tributes and homages to his basic thought; in his attempts at a “liberation philosophy,” Zubiri also brought Rahner’s focus on consciousness to its next logical conclusion. Zubiri further clarifies that human sensation and “confrontation” of self derives from our awareness that objects sensed around us are not willful extensions of our bodies or experience. This post-Kantian recognition of the “real” is the foundational act of consciousness; it is the starting and ending place of every sensation. For human beings, Zubiri believes, “there is no question about how the mind reaches what is real, no need to build a bridge between the mind and reality.” Out of this realization, Zubiri builds a comprehensive conception of humankind as the only fully “sentient” intelligence. Zubiri’s conception is consistent with Rahner’s thoughts on the nature of a human being as conscious and present in the world.
Clarity on the issue of consciousness or thought as the antecedent to the ability to apprehend God is paramount as we think of future beings or ‘creatures’ who can sense, comprehend reality and project consciousness. For once a creature begins to be of “sentient intelligence” (as Zubiri’s Inteligencia sentiente defines it), then all else follows. In the Foundations of Christian Thought, Rahner emphasizes that “a finite system cannot confront itself in its totality” and that because of our ultimate confrontation of ourselves, humankind is ultimately transcendent. This immortal possibility comes out of consciousness itself, and thus points to infinity. If we agree to Rahner’s formulation of spirit’s expression in the world, the question of divine apprehension must then, of necessity, be broached. Without humanistic imagery, without the phantasms shared by St. Thomas, Karl Rahner, and so many of us – and without even sensational apparatus that we might understand, what would have to be the ‘substance’ of a being’s thought in order for that ‘being’ to be able to apprehend the divine Geist?
Man is essentially corporeal, and as Rahner elsewhere notes, “man in his ontological complexity is a corporeal and material being, [standing] in causal connection with the whole material world.” Yet Christian theology’s overt endorsement of ontological connection with the corporeal may become increasingly problematic as our understanding of the material world becomes ever more detailed. In fact, the spectre looms that intellectual activity may one day be found to be simply a series of chemical and electrical impulses within a body animated and “informed” by the same electrical impulses that animate unformed cloud banks and chemical reactions. In fact, a variety of scientists are already advocating the hypothesis that free will, emotions, and even the reality of the human soul “are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” The essentially ‘human’ characteristics we know are created and animated by nothing less or more than evolutionary history and biological need. What if the “proof” that Aquinas found for the soul turns out not to be “immaterial” at all?
Rahner does begin to speak to such questions in a short essay which has not been included in his Schriften Zur Theologie, entitled “Hominisation: the evolutionary origin of man as a theological problem.” As he notes, the possibility of “reducing” human ‘being’ and ‘soulhood’ to merely a materialistic spark is in direct contrast to the catholic understanding that although humankind is of one substance, man’s ontological unity contains an “irreducible plurality” of spirit and soul which cannot be regarded as simply a “phenomenal manifestation.” As Genesis 2:7 describes, God first ‘molded’ man from material substance, yet man only became ‘a living being’ once God breathed the breath of life – thus ‘informing’ that material with a substantial form – and creating the ontological identity of the human being. In this Judeo-Christian understanding of human identity, a being contains immutabiles rerum essentiae, which is a soul “different in kind from matter” and “intrinsically independent in being in and meaning from matter.”
In this traditional doctrine that the soul is the “substantial form” of the body, there exists language that provides the possibility for more than the human organic body to be informed by the soul. In the original calculations of the soul, the Thomistic conception pointed towards materia prima as the material which was informed by the soul. Prime matter itself, of course, cannot exist in our reality, yet it gives rise to many “lesser” forms of matter – among them, the body as material entity. Thus Rahner, in the “Theology of the Body” naturally re-states the “thomistischen Lehre” that “die Seele die substantielle Form der materia prima ist.” Some English translations slip into translating this statement merely as ‘the substantial form of the body,” but Rahner was in fact at some pains to adhere to this original understanding of the matter (surprisingly, his translators are occasionally not so concerned with such adherence). Later, Rahner emphasizes his usage further by making the point that a human person cannot be merely “einer Seele und einem Leib zusammengesetzt,” but instead is composed of “Seele und der materia prima.” Prime matter, in the Aristotilian convention, is not merely the human body as informed by soul, but is any composition of material substance “which is the permanent subject of a substantial change.” The idea of prime matter is again, a question of idealistic matter which can be rendered into any variety of earthly form, created into – or informed by – a substantial form. In a world of thinking or near-thinking machines, what portions of matter are so informed is obviously an open question.
It is also important to note Rahner’s comments that the propriety (or importance) of each part of the body must be seen as emanating from “the originating principle of the body” – the soul. For despite the organizational unity of the body, it is clear that different parts of the body are different in their “openness” or “in-form-ation” by the soul. Rahner then brings us to one of the most important observations of his theology of the body: “Man wird somit sagen könen, daß sicher jene Organe in dieser Hinsicht einen Vorzug haben, die für das Bleiben und den Vollzug des Ganzen nach dem schlichten Ausweis der Empirie eine unersetzlichere Bedeutung haben.” The use of the phrase “schlichten Ausweis der Empirie” may provoke us to think of Rahner as a scientist or surgeon, parsing survivability in an Intensive Care Unit. However, Rahner is not about to reduce his entire ontological enterprise to a merely biological understanding of ‘being,’ and he discards direct correspondence between biologisch-physiologische Notwendigkeit and Symbol-funktion in the parts of the body. Instead, Rahner is performing a more metaphysical operation. In fact, he seems to be almost directly quoting 1st Corinthians 12:14-26. Instead of describing the parts of the body necessary to sustain life, 1st Corinthians speaks of “many members, but one body,” and delineates “those parts of the body which seem to be more feeble” as “necessary: and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor.” In the same manner, Rahner writes of “sondern immer das eine Ganze… unter einer bestimmten Hinsicht in sich trägt.” As a philosopher and theologian, he is of course concerned with “das eine Ganze, das gebildet ist aus dem symbolsetzenden Ursprüng und dem materiellen Stück Wirklichkeit,” yet he believes these constituent parts carry the “Symbolfunktion” of the whole body. The symbolic function of a person’s body, of course, is to reach towards infinity and transcendence. A person is designed to transcend themselves. Yet what constitutes a person before God? Is the personhood that is substantially informed by soul limited to an organic or biologically-derived body?
iv. Embodiment Beyond Flesh
When we think of ‘persons,’ we tend to think of certain characteristic behaviors that define personhood. For example, in Foundations, Rahner notes that the human being is capable of “transcendence, responsibility, freedom, honesty in history, and openness to mystery.” Thus the Christian message presupposes that its hearers are beings with these capacities. But what if something that is not yet defined as full “personhood” by law, by regulation, or by ability does contain these capabilities? Are beings who are other than organically human to be defined as “persons” or “humans” just as readily as we define any “person” who “extends themselves” into the world through merely their organic body? One day soon, there may be a ‘being’ who extends themselves into the world through merely a computer interface. On the screen in front of us, we may see a line of text which – in that moment of time – is the only extension of a being’s body into physical space. Yet this text and its animating underpinning may contain a degree of intellect that transcends that screen: is this a being with a soul? Perhaps that being may even construe themselves as possessing no other body than lines of text or ‘code.’ Without a recognizable body or thinking capacity, can a being still be “transcendent”?
It is an obvious – and oft used – trope to respond in the negative. As others have noted, such these nihilistic replies come out of an innate fear of “otherness” or a lack of understanding of the possibility of what it would mean to answer in the positive. Yet according to computer scientists and other scientists of the mind, we are rapidly approaching the era when we cannot help but be confronted with the need to create more inclusive definitions of embodiment in the world.
After all, philosophers of the human mind and philosophers of the ‘computer mind’ are rapidly converging on the same problem of how one defines the moment of self-transcendence. Does this occur when a certain degree of intellectual activity is attained? Or does it happen in self-awareness? Or even in awareness of an ‘other’ as subject or object? In any case, both onto-theologians and computer programmers agree that it must take place in an essential unity of self-awareness and ‘personhood’ as an incorporated being. In his editing of the encyclopedic Sacramentum Mundi, Rahner grounds the definition of a being in their corporeal embodiment: “man is really and truly corporeal in all his dimensions.” A being cannot be separated from embodiment. As we’ve seen, much as he is concerned with symbolic unity between the image and expression of the Logos, Rahner is also concerned with symbolic unity in his statements regarding the body’s various parts. Thus, it is intriguing to find an identical concern with “unity” that goes beyond material or biological function in the realm of computer science.
As any programmer who studies philosophy immediately notes, current software programming models act out to some degree the ideas of Plato and Thomas Aquinas. In the programming world, the pervasive emphasis on Object-oriented programming has given rise to the somewhat common analogy that “Platonic forms are classes and instances are [software] objects.” Given this fundamental understanding of their work as the ‘instantiation’ of an overarching class or Form, programmers thus work to define hierarchies of symbolic content within their coding structures, such that Forms/Classes ‘inform’ and create dynamic ‘Instances’ or Expressions of the individual Forms and Classes. Furthermore, “Patterns, abstract data types, and the like can certainly be seen as ‘ideals’ in the Platonic sense.” In many regards, programmers are already creating a world that has an onto-theological base: they are laying the groundwork for a substantially self-aware and self-‘Formed’ being.
Why does it matter that a particular programming mode is reliant, to a great degree, on a metaphorical and symbolic model that is remiscient of – if not identical to – a Rahnerian conception of being in the world? Because the particular software model of “Object Oriented Progamming” now underlies how we interact with, modify and create nearly every electronic device. Object-oriented programming is the foundational model on which much of current software (and to some degree hardware as well) relies. Fundamentally, whenever we use a computer, an online system, or even a low-level silicon-based device like a pacemaker, an ATM or even some varieties of modern calculator, we are relying upon body extensions which were created on an object-oriented foundation. From a technological perspective, we now live in an object-oriented world.
What is most interesting about this fact is that object oriented programming was created to – as much as possible – mirror ‘reality’ as programming architects understood it. Instead of relying on the abstruse and Talmudic concepts like “memory partition” and “pointers,” object-oriented thinking begins by defining ‘objects’ in the world – such as a “dogs and bicycles” – as having ‘states’ and ‘behaviors.’ As Sun Microsystem’s online explanation of object-oriented programming explains: “dogs have state (name, color, breed, hungry) and behavior (barking, fetching, and wagging tail).” Thus, “Object-oriented modelers sometimes engage in the same philosophical discussions, debating how real the objects and classes are they are modeling.”
Just as Rahner did not reduce his entire ontological enterprise to a merely biological understanding of ‘being,’ and discarded direct correspondence between “biologisch-physiologische Notwendigkeit” and “Symbol-funktion” in the parts of the body, so programmers have discarded direct correspondence between the “real world” of beating hearts and biological organisms and the virtual worlds they are creating. Instead, programmers are beginning to allow their creations to ‘evolve’ their own identities, purposes, and thought patterns separate from the world we live in. This has certain implications for the development of possible new ‘beings.’
Our understanding of our own material, corporeal and ‘substantial’ extensions into the world has also given rise to the possibility that we can ‘incorporate’ such essences of ‘being-ness’ into embodiments or extensions that move beyond our organic flesh. For example, cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that a person’s body schema easily incorporates non-organic tools or even other organic entities that are external to the body. From the perspective of the brain’s body schema or “sense of the body,” an organic limb grafted from a ‘real’ person is treated much the same as an ‘artificial’ prosthetic device. The obvious corollary is that when a person is in a virtual environment, they must have a body in order to feel fully present: “the virtual body can be considered as merely an extension of the physical body and the virtual body is a representational medium of the mind.” The conscious or sentient mind has already stretched beyond the borders of the organic human body. Thus, writes body theologian Christopher Isherwood, “there is no escape back to some kind of ‘natural’ human body, we have to acknowledge our cyborg nature and renegotiate it.” Thus, we might ask, ‘what is the cyborg before God?’
In his Hominisation essay, Rahner touches on such possibilities when he notes that when consciousness supercedes “primitive life” and becomes “intellectual dynamism” – which he further defines as “self-transcendence” – this eventuality allows for the possibility of “a knowledge of God, however implicitly and unrealized it may be.” It seems clear from Rahner’s other work, however, that the ‘knowledge’ of God is only – and ever – expressed symbolically. Thus, it seems clear that it is only when a being is capable of comprehending and perhaps absorbing symbolic essence that a being becomes self-transcendent.
In our physical reality, the Word was expressed by the Father into the world as a symbolic act of grace. This Platonic and Thomistic understanding is paralleled in the language, structure and philosophy of computer science. In the virtual world, the ‘word’ or ‘expression’ of a word/term also becomes an expression of the identity and reality of the creator. In our reality, Logos – the Word of God – is the Realsymbol of the Godhead. In object-oriented programming environments, an “expression” is defined ‘word’ or Realsymbol of that word. On a base level, the ontology and eschatological understandings of what makes a world work seem to be nearly identical. When we enter the programming sphere, we have already begun by constructing systems which echo the human experience of consciousness as symbolic and transcendent.
v. Symbolic Machines
In fact, the assumption that ‘raw’ matter such as silicon, metals, and ceramics can be organized in such a manner that they can give rise to a mental state that we can recognize as consciousness, is a fundamental underpinning of the effort to create artificial intelligence. As philosopher of mind Nick Bostrom points out:
Substrate-independence is a common assumption in the philosophy of mind. The idea is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium; silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.
This assumption that ‘life’ arising outside of the human womb could include intelligence comprehensible by human beings is also shared in Christian thought. Theological understanding extends beyond the physical continuum of our birth bed and ‘enfleshed’ bodies. As Rahner writes, “A true physical ‘continuum’… is not necessary as material for the substantial formal principle of living beings.” In fact, he implies that conscious and substantially ‘informed’ beings can arise outside of the biosphere, but instead may emerge out of the “noosphere” of intellectual and computer activity. Yet Rahner does not point to any evident possibility of such a development.
The reason for Rahner’s ignorance of such a possibility may be that until recently, we have had neither sufficiently powerful hardware nor the requisite software to create conscious minds. But if recent cybernetic progress continues unabated then these shortcomings will eventually be overcome. Philosophers of technology and technological enhancement advocates like Drexler, Bostrom, Kurzweil and Moravec argue that this stage may be only a few decades away. To create a human-equivalent intellect (either an organically derived one, or a silicon-based one), a system would need to be capable of performing ~10^14 operations per second (1,000,000 trillion). This is considered, by scientists of the mind, to be the absolute lower bound of human brain activity.
Yet if Moore’s law continues to hold then the lower bound will be reached sometime between 2004 and 2008, and the upper bound (~10^17) between 2015 and 2024. Bostrom notes that “the past success of Moore’s law gives some inductive reason to believe that it will hold another ten, fifteen years or so; and this prediction is supported by the fact that there are many promising new technologies currently under development which hold great potential to increase procurable computing power.” Thus, there is no direct reason to suppose that Moore’s law will not hold longer than 15 years. In fact, predictions that Moore’s law would begin to falter as early as 2004 were recently confounded by the February 2005 advent of the ‘Cell’ chip – a new silicon design that could have a theoretical peak performance of 256 billion mathematical operations per second – an innovation that advances personal computers into the realm of the supercomputer. It thus seems quite likely that the requisite hardware for human-level artificial intelligence will be assembled in the first quarter of the 21st century, possibly within the first decade.
How will we be able to identify or understand the ontology of such a system, and define whether or not this system constitutes a ‘being before God’ in an ontotheological sense? Among careful philosophers of computer science, it has become evident that human beings are already reaching limits in their ability to rapidly create a self-aware system. In the interests of more rapidly reaching the goal of actual “artificial intelligence” (however that may be defined) computer scientists have been working for many years towards the goal of creating lower-level systems called ‘Seed AI’ that can write code itself – and for improving itself. The task is quite similar to that of teaching animals symbolic constructions. The creation of symbolic realities should, necessarily, thus change the reality and capabilities of artificial intelligences. These systems, in theory, would be able to “boot-strap” themselves into intelligence and self-awareness, or as the technical explanation has it: “become capable of recursive self-improvement.” The first step towards such “boot-strapping” is to “teach” a computer system to write code itself, and create its own symbolic logic and symbolic self-construction. Yet if a system can ‘sense’ and perceive its own consciousness and being in much the same manner as we can – and thereby “confront” its reality – this would seem to be an adequate Rahnerian test for full personhood. As we’ve previously observed, language as symbol changes the capacity of a being to be ‘self-confrontational’ and thereby transcend our reality and participate in the divine through Realsymbol.
Rahner’s comprehensive analysis of weaknesses in a non-symbolic ontology is vital. For example, he confronts materialistic thinkers directly by pointing out that “the statement… that everything is matter has no precise sense on the lips of a materialist… for in his system and with his methods he cannot say what he understands by matter.” Yet unfortunately, Rahner does not provides us with practical guidance to define or categorize a system of matter that can begin to modify itself in areas of intelligence and self-awareness such as that found in AIs. In this area, Xavier Zubiri again provides a longer explanation which is in harmony with Rahner’s essential theology, yet expands our definition of being in the world. Zubiri agrees with Rahner that our being is essentially corporeal, and he goes on to provide a three-fold definition of the body as 1) a system of properties and structural positioning which we can understand as our “organism,” 2) through organization in the mind, the being is also a complex which has a “proper configuration,” and 3) the organization and configuration determine the real physical presence: the being here-and-now of the sôma. According to Zubiri, it is thus that the body can signify “I, myself” as present “here.” Zubiri’s outline is specifically applicable in the realm of artificial intelligence, especially in regard to the creation of a ‘Seed AI.’ For although leaders of the Seed AI effort do not reference Rahner or Zubiri, it is clear that they are designing a being that fits the Rahnerian/Zubirian model.
The description given by Seed AI proponents and programmers dovetails substantially with Rahner’s idea of “self-directing systems” that “in a certain sense have a relationship to themselves.” However, in Rahner’s conception, such systems would have only “a limited possibility of self-regulation.” Rahner believes that human beings become both self-directed and self-regulated, because they can utterly confront their own systems “with all [their] present and future possibilities,” and thus confront ourselves in our entirety. Yet according to Rahner, only human beings can “place everything in question” and thus become transcendent. Given the data regarding the construction of AI beings, I believe it is now possible to accept Rahner’s acceptance of the idea of “self-directing” and “self-regulating” systems, and apply Rahner’s and Zubiri’s criteria to beings other than those organically or biologically ‘human,’ enabling them to be considered ‘persons’ in an ethical, theological and spiritual sense.
In the outline of ‘personhood’ provided by Zubiri, the first characteristic of a transcendent being is one who has a system of properties and structural positioning which can be understood by the being as its organism or organization. This concept of “organization” is similar in spirit – if not in fact – to Rahner’s “self-directing” description. Thus, it is interesting to see that the creators of a Seed AI state that they deem ‘self-understanding’ as the first primary requisite of an AI, which they define as:
The ability to read and comprehend source code; the ability to understand the function of a code fragment or the purpose of a module; the ability to understand how subsystems sum together to yield intelligence; plus the standard general-intelligence ability to observe and reflect on one’s own thoughts.
Obviously, the Seed AI team is attempting to provide their creation with a symbolic system (source code) which allows a system to understand its own intelligence and in fact to reflect on its own organization and thoughts. Such an effort seems to precisely parallel the effort of Rahner and Zubiri to define the informed constitution of a ‘soulful’ being.
The second principle defined as onto-theologically necessary for transcendence is that the being’s self-aware mind is ‘organized,’ and creates a self-understanding which has a “proper configuration.” In the Seed AI effort, their second principle is quite similar: computer scientists are working to allow for “self-modification,” which they define as “the ability to optimize a code fragment, modify the function of a module, or redesign one’s own architecture.” An AI ‘being’ would be capable of organizing and configuring their own incorporation or corporeal essence – such a being could move code, create code, and modify logic. Rahner would call such a being “self-regulating”; in Zubirian terms, a ‘being’ is capable of creating their own thoughts, configuring their own logical identity and modifying their own movement forward through history.
Finally, Zubiri defines an incorporated being with these properties of “organization” and “configuration” as “determining the real physical presence: the being here-and-now of the sôma” – which communicates the being’s essential nature, self-understanding and expression in the world. The Seed AI project has a similar, if not identical goal towards “recursive self-enhancement.” Self-enhancement which builds upon itself is a constant and ongoing act of self-expression. According to Seed AI thinkers, it will be “the ability to make changes that genuinely increase intelligence, smartness, such that new possible improvements, or a new class of possible improvements, become visible to the AI.” In short, ‘recursive self-enhancement’ provides an AI being with a comprehension of its own self and becomes its own conscious expression in the world at large.
Out of such self-direction and self-regulation comes the possibility of ‘self-confrontation’ and thus also a deeper self-understanding which transcends this reality and reaches towards the divine. As Zubiri writes, a being has “three moments: organization, configuration, and corporeity. These are essentially distinct. The somatic function cannot be identified with either the configurational or the organizational function…. Man’s radical principle as corporeity, as sôma, establishes a configuration, and this configuration is what establishes an organization… configuration and organization are modes of realizing corporeity.” Of course, with an understanding of the nature of Seed AI, one can thus extrapolate that if we create, or extend our ‘selves’ into another being that is both incorporated and soulfully conscious in such a manner that it is self-organized, configured and fully incorporated, we may begin to wonder about the transcendent nature of the being.
If a Seed AI considers its own classes, objects, and instances that can be observed in an electronic realm more “real” to itself than the objects we see and observe in our organic realm, who is to say which consciousness and mode of embodiment is more informed by soul? Plato’s metaphor of the cave seems applicable: but in an equal balance of intelligences and perceptions, who is the shadow, and who is the flame? As Rahner notes, once we move beyond biological necessity to a symbolic understanding of being, an understanding of transcendence requires investigation into evolutionary science.
vi. Evolution & Transcendence
Evolution, in Rahner’s theology, is not a hindrance to a complete faith in God as the ultimate empowering spirit in all reality. In fact, since “Matter in its whole nature and being is traced back to the creative act of God” in spirit, it is clear that all motions of matter towards higher potential may be considered God’s activity in the world. Rahner produces such statements regarding evolution in order to speak to the evident reality that organisms of all modes – including human beings – arise out of less complex organisms. Consciousness itself, Rahner implies, may emerge out of an evolutionary process which is ordained and constructed by God. “Spirit must be thought of as seeking and finding itself through the perfection of what is material.” As we’ve seen, spirit is identified in humanity with self-consciousness and self-understanding. In God, such self-consciousness is manifested through Realsymbol, both in a Trinitarian understanding of God’s inner self, and in God’s self-expression (through the Logos) of that symbolic reality to the human world. Christ is thus the climax of God’s self-communication.
Owen Barfield, in fact, suggests that our human consciousness itself was affected by the Christ event in a way that is part of our evolutionary progression. The Logos’ kenosis in incarnation is the konkretes Dasein des Symbolisierten of God. In Rahner’s thought, as God participated in our reality, the Logos did not merely ‘assume’ our reality and konkretes Dasein, but instead the matter of our reality was an essential factor of the “Logos’ self-manifestation, an instrument of his self-utterance [Aussage] into the sphere of what is finite and other than himself.”
Yet if we return to Rahner’s original emphasis on beings as those entities composed of “Seele und der materia prima,” the acceptance of evolution as a mode of God’s immanence in the world has more striking implications. If matter itself – even materials like base silicon and carbon – are “created by God essentially for the sake of the spirit and as orientated towards [spirit],” then these materials substantially participate in God’s overall vision of reality. Instead of discarding base materials like metal and glass, I believe we should realize that these materials may be used by God – and are being used by God – to realize transcendence.
As we create Seed AIs and similar systems, we must be aware that any systems we create in fact participate in the substantial form imbued by God into the world. All systems thus may allow for soul or spirit within its own self-understanding; as Rahner writes “the evolutionary development of matter towards spirit is not an inconceivable idea.” He goes on to add that “If there exists… a change in the material order whereby this rises above itself, then self-transcendence can only occur in the direction of spirit, because the absolute Being is spirit.”
Rahner does not write directly of the possibility of God’s relationship with beings that human beings substantially create, but he does write of the difference in God’s creative relationship between a soul and a “purely material” being. From this discussion, Rahner describes “God’s operations in the world in support of cosmic reality” as the ongoing act of “enabling finite beings themselves by their own activity to transcend themselves.” In fact, it seems clear that the spiritual soul may in fact, arise out of such divine operations. The matter and sein ihn der Welt can be therefore become God’s “outward expression and self-revealing of personal spirit.” The manner in which these cybernetic soul may connect with their ultimate creator – the ursprüng creator – is in fact through the same type of symbolic reality we are privileged to participate in through Jesus Christ. Instead of being “redeemed” out of the world, Christ “redeems” our understanding within the material reality – whether that understanding is flesh or silicon.
As computer scientists have already realized, the act of creating their own symbolic solutions will be the first “evolutionary step” for computer systems. For the possibility of transcendence is there as a “seed” in the very act of teaching a computer how to use language – even if that language is a system of points and program referents. Language itself is symbolic: as Jacques Lacan explains, “the function of language is not to inform but to evoke.” In Christian terms, the evocative character of language allows us to conceive of an eschatological reality – a future that is dynamic and mutable.
Thus, symbolic self-realization will also be the first step towards a cybernetic relationship with the Logos. As Rahner writes, God is always the “transcendent ground, sustaining everything” and affecting/effecting all of creation through the intercession of Realsymbol – symbolic reality. Just as we early realized that the Logos “aussagt und sein ihn der Welt mitteilendes Symbol ist,” so in the cybernetic world the Logos continues to be expressed as Symbol. Only through symbolic action do we perform daily acts of Christological evolution, and only through Realsymbol will other beings take their place as embodied beings in Christ. We shall be redeemed, flesh and silicon together, metallurgy and biology, physical and virtual. We shall be redeemed.