Routine, Ritual, and Robots

Professor Hallisey stood before the student, arm outstretched. The student immediately raised his arm, clasped the professor’s hand, and shook it. This, the professor explained, was magic.

In Confucianism, he went on, "ritual" does not have the same religious overtone as in the West—it generally refers to daily routines—but is, nonetheless, magical. If one has a proper understanding of a given ritual, as well as the correct intentions/spirit (known as “Ren”) the ritual will complete itself. The handshake was just one example. Moreover, ritual has a ripple effect. In Confucius’ time, it was said that if the emperor merely sat correctly upon his throne, the kingdom would rule itself.

In Catholicism, "ritual" has nearly the opposite meaning. To begin with, there is no "ripple effect" originating from the individual—the ritual holds no power, save to please God, and any consequences thereafter emanate from Him. More importantly, one’s intentions don’t factor in; the importance of the ritual lies only in its external performance. Indeed, historically, you could pay others to do your praying for you.

In Catholicism, then, it seems that the perfect ritual would be perfectly executed and endlessly reproducible. It would be robotic. And, in fact, such a robot exists.

On a recent Radiolab podcast, they covered the following story (I’m reducing it to the barest summary): in 1652, King Philip II’s son was badly injured; the King promised God that if He performed a miracle by saving Philip’s son, Philip would perform a miracle for Him. Philip’s son recovered, and to show his thanks, King Philip commissioned a renowned clockmaker to create a tiny robotic version of a long-dead monk who supposedly had the power to heal the sick.

The robot is ghostly. Tiny feet poke out from its frock as it walks about, raising and lowering a crucifix, its mouth silently opening and closing. Scholars have speculated about why King Philip commissioned the “monkbot,” but the consensus seems to be that he wanted to create a sort of 'prayer machine' to pay eternal tribute to God.

What, then, is the line between routine and ritual? In Confucianism, assuming one has the proper intentions/spirit, routine is elevated to ritual, and one’s daily life could become a series of magical acts. I immediately wonder if those who suffer from OCD would be considered to have improper "Ren," or if they would be like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, the magician caught in the feedback loop of his own powers. In Catholicism, it’s more complicated. While I don’t mean to imply that Catholics believe that one cannot honor God through daily routine, there is a rift between the secular world and the world of ritual—no matter how much I strive to make the act meaningful, I cannot consecrate the Eucharist by shaving (though it may be worth a try).

As a final note, I’d like to discuss “Jaberwacky”. Jabberwacky is a chatbot, an artificial intelligence program that not only responds to you, but actually learns from what you say. It seemed like an interesting venue to meld the Confucian idea of ritual as human interaction versus the Catholic idea of ritual as a merely external performance. Here is a short excerpt (it went on for much longer) from my conversation with Jabberwacky:

User: Do you forgive me?

Jabberwacky: Yes. It's not your fault at all, don't worry.

User: Do you forgive me?

Jabberwacky: Yes. You are forgiven.

User: Do you forgive me?

Jabberwacky: Yes, do you forgive me?

User: Do you forgive me?

Jabberwacky: I forgive you for being mean to me.

User: Do you forgive me?

Jabberwacky: Do you forgive me?

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