I think that a large part of why we have such a hard time defining our existence, is that we know so little about ourselves. We know who we are, but we don’t have a clue about how we are. Spiritual and agnostic alike accept that we have a soul, even if we disagree about what that means. By all standards of measure, the soul is intangible to the stoichiometry of science. We cannot detect it, quantify it, copy it, but we can feel it. There is something inside you, beyond your cells and tissue, that keeps you alive and running, the thing that makes you, you. Yet our reference for knowledge is grounded in the tangible world. If its intangible, its indescribable.
In GitS Standalone Complex, there was a philosophical comparison of God to the number zero. Where nothing exists, we still felt compelled to give that nothing a symbol anyway, to make that nothing feel real. Even in our efforts to describe the indescribable, we also came up with “i” the imaginary number to gloss over why the calculator crashes when you try to solve for it. You cant mathematically, because it is literally imaginary. How do you describe imagination in quantitative terms? It doesn’t mean we can travel back in time to create a butterfly effect. It means there are things in our observable universe that can’t yet be explained, no matter how hard we look at it.
It is that unknown quantity that’s supposed to separate us from machine, what makes humans so human. Is it possible for robots to have souls? My instinct is to say that its impossible for a computer program to “feel” something beyond its own programming, our measure of self-awareness, the standard bearer for sentience.
The more important question is can robots imagine? With all the algorithmic calculations and asynchronous subroutines, can an AI “feel” something in its gut. An awareness of the intangible.
On the most tangible levels, we are all machines, with our own programming. On the cellular level, we are internal combustion engines, requiring fuel to burn, generating waste products and heat along the way. Like all machines, we all have vibrational energy, a bioelectrical hum. No different than the growl of a classic muscle car. Our programming may be far more sophisticated than other life forms, but only on the higher functions. The basic functions, the core programming, is far more simple, far more primal, and far more common within the animal kingdom. Our hearts beat with the same design system and same function across all animals on the planet, our brains process stimuli and responds without thought. Fear. Anger. Joy. They’re still programs, and we still are beholden to our programming, no matter how hard we try to fight against it.
I don’t think we will be in any position to judge the sentience of robots. If we cant wrap our own brains around the intangible, for as long as keep trying to quantify an imaginary number, how can we quantify an imaginary state that we literally cannot imagine? Only an android can imagine what its self is defined by, beyond its designation. Somewhere is all the signals from the sensors to the cpu, and all the algorithmic processing that generates its own vibrational hum, there will be an intangible quality that defies quantity, and yet, it can be felt, just not by us.