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Introduction to Robots and Rituals

by Joseph Vukov and Michael Burns

We find ourselves in an era of rapid technological progress. In the past year, new forms of artificial intelligence such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT have captured headlines and imaginations. Vehicles are sprinting towards autonomous operation. Meetings in all sectors have pivoted to Zoom and show no signs of returning to the conference room. Science and technology are cashing in IOUs, and we can feel the results in our daily lives. Without taking time to reflect carefully on these changes--and without humanizing them--we run the risk of being swept away. Either by hyperbolic naysaying or unreflective adoption.


Meantime, the Disaffiliation Crisis seems to show no signs of abating. One of the primary drivers of disaffiliation is a perceived conflict between science and religion. Among young adults with a Christian background, 29% feel “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in,” and another 25% believe that “Christianity is anti-science.”   When asked about disaffiliating from Catholicism specifically, 36% indicated that the conflict between science and religion was an “important” or “very important” reason for leaving.  And the feeling seems mutual. While most scientists (51%) believe in some sort of deity or higher power, they believe at nearly half the rate of the general US population (95%).


Clearly, we must foster dialogue between the sciences and people of faith. And we must do so with an eye to the novel questions being raised by new forms of technology and their applications to our lives. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition--with its expansive view of both learning and the reach of religious belief--is well-poised to lead the conversation. This volume of Nexus is an attempt to do 
just that.


In its pages, you’ll find two kinds of articles. The first kind: reflections (all from scientists) on the ways in which scientists can and should enter into productive dialogue with religion, people of faith, and Catholicism specifically. In a wide-ranging interview, David DeSteno shares his work in positive psychology about the impact of religious practices. We learn that Catholic practices on Ash Wednesday and Lent carry not only profound religious significance, but deep psychological value. Michael Burns reflects on the importance for non-believing scientists to enter dialogue with rather than dismiss the views of believers. He identifies the virtue of intellectual humility as a place of common ground. Pamela Gay shares the excitement and wonder that attend scientific exploration, and the ways in which this exploration can bring us closer to God. Finally, Adam Hincks, S.J., reflects on what the Jesuit tradition specifically can bring to the dialogue between faith and science. He argues for an approach that emphasizes a subjective, interior integration of the two.


The second kind of article you’ll find in this volume: reflections that move from general concerns to more specific issues at the intersection of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and new forms of technology. Hille Haker provides guidance for the use of AI and robotics to address pressing needs in elder care. Her suggestion for moving forward: a cautious adoption that retains the human element in the care we provide. Michael P. Murphy explores the newest wave of the Digital Revolution, situating it in both revolutions of the past and theoretical frameworks provided by the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., reflects on the nature of artificial intelligence: both its possibilities and limitations. Along the way, he shares stories about his experiences in the early days of AI development, and powerful insights grounded in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Blake Lemoine, in an interview, shares an insider perspective on a range of issues: bias in AI, the nature of advanced AI and the “human spark,” and our potential obligations to new forms of AI. Joe Vukov reflects on ChatGPT, other new forms of AI, and how a distinctively Catholic view of human nature might understand them.


Finally, the issue concludes with a list of recommended reading by Susan Haarman. Her list focuses on science fiction, on texts that can expand our ways of thinking beyond current questions and patterns of analysis. Want to think creatively about the issues our contributing authors have raised? Haarman’s list provides an ideal place to start.


The questions raised in this volume are close to both of us. We regularly present on these topics, teach about them, and write about them. We have discussed them for scores of hours. We’re proud of each piece, and happy to share them with you. We hope they spur you to further reflection.


Joe Vukov and Michael Burns
Chicago, IL
Loyola University Chicago




1     David Kinnamen, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).

2     Robert J. McCartney and John M. Vitek, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 2018).

3     Pew Research Center, “Religion and Science in the United States” (The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, Washington, D.C. 2009).


Joseph Vukov

Joseph Vukov is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, where he is also an affiliate faculty member in Psychology and Catholic Studies. He is the author of Navigating Faith and Science (2022) and The Perils of Perfection: On the Limits and Possibilities of Human Enhancement (forthcoming 2023).

Michael Burns

Dr. Michael Burns is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Loyola University Chicago. He regularly publishes peer-reviewed articles on the interactions between host bacteria and cancer tissues, using next generation sequencing and computational approaches. He also works extensively on interdisciplinary projects that promote science outreach within faith communities.

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