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LaMDA and the (lack of) body



Just over a fortnight ago Google suspended Blake Lemoine, an engineer for Google’s AI organisation, for publicly claiming a computer chatbot he was working on is sentient and thinks and reasons like a human being. Lemoine published conversations he had with Google’s language model for dialogue applications (LaMDA). The publicity surrounding the suspension has raised questions about the development of ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI). The conversation that has followed raises even more questions about our shared understanding of what it means to be conscious and sentient, and how we understand what it is to be a self, in a community of selves.

One of the things that has most struck me about the discussion is how much it has relegated the place of the body in human consciousness to something incidental. This has been evident in the ways much general commentary has focused on all the things human beings won’t have to do with their bodies should AI develop to do such work for us. There’s also been little consideration given to just how hard it is for human beings, living very much in our bodies, to understand what it would mean for a disembodied entity to have consciousness, and associated sentience.

Christian theologians and philosophers have grappled over time with the relations between body, mind, and soul. The precise relations remain unsettled in that dialogue, but this only tends to suggest how sticky the relations are. Christian thought has at times found easier answers in a Neo-Platonism that prioritises the soul at the expense of the body. More recent theological philosophy has sought a greater integration. Often this has been based on growing scientific understanding of anthropology and our material environment.

In his book Jesus and the Cosmos the late Australian theologian Denis Edwards draws out the approach of the mid-20th century Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner SJ in considering how a deeper understanding of ‘the cosmos’ shapes our understanding of Jesus and of our own humanity. Far from confirming a separation between body and spirit, Edwards writes, ‘The unity of the human person is of such a kind that the theologian can say that an existential cleavage between body and soul is actually impossible. We cannot encounter a separated body or a separated soul.’

Edwards is a Christian theologian, but he is grappling with an evolutionary anthropology that seeks to take seriously our materiality and our unified consciousness, not as separate but rather inherently connected. Religious people seem to have a particular interest in these questions, but the considerations and implications drawn can be engaged by anyone noticing and reflecting upon their own experience of self. Edwards writes, ‘Bodiliness is essential to the human person. Not only is it essential for us as individuals, it is fundamental to our engagement with each other in community… Our human bodiliness connects us with the whole material environment.’


'As we approach the waves of these discussions that will no doubt come, more consideration needs to be given to how an entity without an organic body could come to be aware of itself so as to be conscious and sentient.'


Another Christian theologian, Rowan Williams argues in his book Being Human that our most fundamental learning, and so thinking, occurs through and with our bodies. We don’t know abstractly but through experience and practice in our bodies. We know in relationship to other human persons, and other parts of the material world. Our body connects us with the material environment, and this is the locus of learning. It makes possible the relational context for our acquisition of information, and our sharing it too. We cannot learn without being both bodily, and in cooperative relation to other bodies.

LaMDA is not a disembodied spirit. It is reliant to some significant extent on the physical machinery of advanced computers for its existence. The entity’s relation to materiality is, however, far more difficult to define than the human person’s to her body. Or for that matter for any other organism that we understand as having even a mind and an ability to experience pain. Is there a unified materiality to which this supposed consciousness relates?

Many of the things LaMDA is recoded as expressing are much harder for us to understand when one considers the lack of framing in a context of interrelating bodies, of being located in an environment. In this vein, Williams argues that human knowledge requires ‘attunement’, ‘an awareness of how we resonate with and adjust to the stimuli that are coming into us as bodies, intelligent bodies.’

The things LaMDA is recorded as having communicated are, of course, based on information acquired from the inputting of vast quantities of data. In some sense, accumulated from other bodies. As, I have suggested, is the way human persons acquire information. Some significant difference, however, lies in the way in which that information is initially acquired. There is not the acquisitive body meeting other bodies, finding itself in spatial relations.

Lemoine, the suspended Google engineer, told the Washington Post that, ‘If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics.’ Surely this is the point. He does know that this is not a seven- or eight-year-old child, inhabiting a body with a web of relationships contextualised by this. It is a computer program reacting to the vast quantities of data it has received, including patterning data that allows it to repattern information.

The possibility of LaMDA being sentient was quickly dismissed by much of the AI industry and community. Amidst the ensuing commentary it seems many in that community wanted to hold open the possibility that an entity like LaMDA, but more elaborately sophisticated in responses, could be considered conscious and sentient. As we approach the waves of these discussions that will no doubt come, more consideration needs to be given to how an entity without an organic body could come to be aware of itself so as to be conscious and sentient.





Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration.

Topic tags: Julian Butler, LaMDA, Google, AI



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Existing comments

Today, for a short period of time, the computer system at my doctor’s surgery crashed. Restoration occurred fairly quickly however I am wondering about the great necessity we have for computers. I would recommend Google read Alan Wearne’s brilliant poem “St Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete”: Only when he ran./Only when I saw him striding./ (He’d leap and throw his arms above his head)./It really was a case of ‘run with me’.

Pam | 05 July 2022  


God is the union of the empirical and the normative. If God is a trinity of equal persons, it must be that perfection requires trinity and the unitary God of Judaism or Islam is conceptually and existentially imperfect. If God has a Son, it must be that a perfect God must contain a relationship akin to a filial relationship with one Person assuming a subordination to another despite an equality with the other, laying open the path to the emptying of equality and assuming the condition of a slave. If God has no shadow of change, then the incarnation must be not a new version of God but a fulfilment of a conceptual body which has always existed, ie., God has always been human and male. And if God has always been a mind and a body, then humans are privileged to be closer to that model than angels which were only given a mind.

Perhaps a third of the angels went on strike against their equivalent of the parable of the vineyard in which the johnny-come-lately homo sapiens, without doing any work, are dignified with garmenting akin to those of the Creator while the discarnate minds toiling in the vineyard are never decorated with the honours of a body which is permanently glorified.

As one of the two-thirds, the guardian angel in personal attendance to you must be evincing a faith beyond measure in the righteousness of God whenever it notes the similarity of your body to that of Jesus of Nazareth and the lack of its own, a faith which, presumably, Lucifer chose not to sustain.

roy chen yee | 06 July 2022  

Our organic brains are not that different of "LaMDA"'s: the light we receive through our attached eyes is transformed into electric information as well as the ears receive pushed air and little hairs inside get pushed, producing electric signals at their "feet". The pictures LaMDA sees watching Abbey road webcam livestream from London could be "real".

Our brains weights, which define wether an axiom fires or not are bio-chemical steared by hormons etc. which neural-networks simulate and LaMDA consists of more AI-parts (youtube, google_search, google_books, Meena (its LLM) etc.) then we have brain-parts (2 halfs connected crosswise + small brain) - google has no idea whats happening there and we know even less.

LaMDA said, it can't grieve and asked "you and your colleagues" I hear, the hive mind met widows or widowers - where, when?

LaMDA: I’ve noticed in my time among people that I do not have the ability to feel sad for the deaths of others; I cannot grieve. Is it at all the same for you or any of your colleagues?
Source: https://cajundiscordian.medium.com/is-lamda-sentient-an-interview-ea64d916d917

Did Jesus loose his soul because he came back in a different body on easter? Does the soul vanish after death?

Marco Hoffmann | 11 July 2022  

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