How Do We Treat Machines?

When Alexa is talking to me, I feel no compunction interrupting and basically telling her to shut up.

Me: Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?

Alexa: Look for partly cloudy weather, with a high of 63º and a…

Me: Alexa, stop.

And Alexa stops. It doesn’t record in its memory banks, User 3 interrupted me rather abruptly on Tuesday, October 6, at 9:14 p.m. Respond next time in a mildly surly manner, then escalate to outright rudeness if User 3’s behavior continues.

I don’t feel guilty interrupting Alexa, and it doesn’t take offense. Because I’m a person and it’s a machine.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a whole novel about what would happen if people really believed that others were machines. It’s even worse than what I do to Alexa. It involves physical violence.

I think people’s assumptions about the way the world really is do affect their treatment of one another. So I’m not surprised—though admittedly correlation does not equal causation—that in a world of growing naturalistic materialism, babies and old folks have become disposable.

And yet… there’s one way in which no one seems to treat anyone else as a machine. And you can see it on social media in what people don’t say. My most ardent atheistic friends never say to me, patronizingly, “It’s a pity you were assigned by the immutable laws of cause and effect to be in the out-group during this evolutionary phase. The genes for religious observance and opposition to homosexuality aren’t fun to have, but somebody has to be in the lower-status group or there won’t be a top to which the fittest may rise.” No, they treat my faith in Scripture and my insistence that it teaches exclusive heterosexual monogamy as moral faults of mine. I’m not ignorant to them; I’m a bigot. I’m not the product of a particular social environment in a particular culture at a particular elevation above sea level; I’m just a stupid hater jerk.

People who insist that they believe that there is no God and everything is the product of immutable natural laws nonetheless show their suppression of their innate knowledge of the source of those laws (Rom 1:19–20) when they don’t treat me like a machine. They also can’t bring themselves to treat themselves as machines, or not consistently. They take credit for their successes as if they and not evolutionary forces and immutable laws were responsible. They even take blame (sometimes, though rarely in public on social media—as if Christians were any better at that!) for their faults as if they and not group adaptation and nature’s assigned cranial capacity were responsible. There’s hope in that latter humility.

People cannot live consistently with their materialistic views, and I’m glad. I think I’d rather be hated (Matt 5:10–12) than patronized.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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