My good friends Bert Stabler and Katie Fizdale were obsessed with the late, lamented Terminator TV series. In the wake of its cancellation, they had an email back and forth about whether or not Terminators have souls. I wanted to reprint it, so, with their permission, here it is.


Bert: In the context of the Terminator franchise, the immortal second movie and the regrettable third, and the maudlin but epic television series, cyborgs buiilt and programmed to destroy humans (“Terminators”) can, with important side effects and caveats, be re-oriented toward assisting humans and protecting human life. In this pretty explicitly Biblical narrative (“Judgment Day” is one of many frequently invoked sound bites) these reprogrammed Terminators echo the redemptive New-Testament-style narrative of defklecting the impending apocalypse through time-travel– a memorable line from the sequel, Terminator 2: “No fate but what we make.”

Katie: Terminators don’t kill all humans, that is not what they are programmed to do, they are programmed to follow out (mostly killing) assignments. (Remember Quib – the submarine captain – on SCC?) They kill with discretion, they kill only their targets, and whatever gets in their way, which sometimes very sadly includes dogs. Their ability to carry out an assignment is what sometimes may be seen as a sign of a “soul” or a sense of morality. (” I love you, John”) Though that is destroyed whenever a Terminator kills quickly and without remorse.

B: A little background- SCC stands for the Terminator TV series, Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Quib” (I think “Queeg,” like Melville) was a submarine officer on SCC, in the future narrative, is a reprogrammed Terminator, who was given a secret mission, but I don’t believe killed anyone? Cameron, reprogrammed protector Terminator of show hero John Connor in 2009, said “I love you, John” when he was about to crush her, after she had gone haywire and killed people.

Anyway– being a robot assassin does not by itself mean the robot has no soul. The question is, what gives a human assassin a soul? The SCC show makes clear that Terminators have “urges” to kill even after reprogramming, just as humans have primal and problematic, some would say sinful, urges, and these cyborgs can, in some sense, choose to favor their socialization over their deep programming. In the context of the show, and I would say in general, the ability to make moral choices and value life are meaningful (though perhaps not the only) criteria for having a soul.

K: Queeg did kill someone. He killed the insubordinate soldier that released the liquid terminator, that is what caused the big upset with the aussie, her losing her baby, the reason why she has such a problem with metal etc, etc…..

A human assassin has chosen their profession, they can stop being an assassin if they chose and become a plumber. They are human and can use their free will to decide their life decisions. Metal can’t. Metal is whatever their duties dictate. They have urges because they are programed to. This makes them a better killing machine. The terminator is interested in killing – it’s an obsession. In the future, metal kills all humans because that is their constant task since they’re at war with the humans, but when metal gets sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, they only try to kill her and John. That doesn’t mean that they are the only ones that get killed. A lot of people get killed in the crossfire, but those people aren’t given a second thought by the Terminator, because the Terminator sees them as being superfluous, non existent because the only thing that exists for the Terminator is their mission. Human life is not important to them because their lives mean nothing to them because they are a machine.

B: Right, he did kill that guy. But I think death for mutiny is quite possibly a standard sentence, especially in a non-democratic situation. Does that makes him (Queeg) an extension of the “state” in a way that is different than a human officer would be? Maybe, but perhaps not. One reason the Terminator franchise is compelling is that the killing robots are almost always depicted side-by-side with desperate humans, who are often soldiers, in a formal or an informal capacity. The death sentence for insurrection underscores the reality that soldiers have very few choices, especially when the fate of the entire species is at stake. Can we really say that the Connors chose their fate, as potential saviors if humanity?

Free will is extremely meaningful as a component of the soul (it makes the argument for the souls of animals a little less tricky than the morality criterion), But Terminators do make choices and calculate tactics– recall the immortal “fuck you” chosen from the list of responses that reads out on Schwartzenegger’s retinas in the first Terminator film– and, while methodical, their complex grasp of the world is a pretty strong argument for intelligence. As far as their emotional inner life is concerned, I don’t think we know really what it is. Arnie saying “I know now why you cry” before being melted down in Terminator 2 is a cheese line, but it doesn’t seem inconsistent with what kind of beings these are. What they might lack in empathy I would say they make up for in loyalty and bravery. If those don’t apply to robots, is it only because humans have fear?

K: To me what is compelling about Terminator is that they illuminate the choices that we do have. Sarah and John Connor often show this in their strict no body count rule, and every time that a Terminator violates this rule it only adds to their hatred of them. It’s true that soldiers are working with very few choices, but what is different between a Terminator and a human soldier is that humans are accountable for their actions. All humans feel an emotion in reaction to taking a life, it is not always a feeling of regret, but there is always a response. You need to have emotions in order to react to them.

B: There is highly circumstantial evidence that the reprogrammed Terminators experience emotions, but that’s enough for me to not dismiss them as expendable. Cameron (the 2009 protector Terminatrix on the TV series), John Henry (the Terminator we saw being reprogrammed in the series), and Arnie Schwartzenegger’s character in T2 all reported having feelings. Cameron certainly had a motive to lie, but the other two didn’t, and Cameron did later give John a.device to end her life if she ever threatened him again (not that we know if it works, but Terminators don’t seem to go around lying all that much).

Sooner or later we have to deal with Darwin– the fact that most of what humans are inclined by nature to do, including nurturing one another, may very well contribute to our survival as individuals and as a species. The mechanical nature of our mental experience of reality, including a certain way of experiencing emotions, is not enough to justify our souls. Our souls are the essence of life viewed from another perspective, an outside and transcendent view, that values our subjectivity. There is plenty of evidence to not simply dismiss the possibility, given the shows and movies as “evidence,” that Terminators might experience themselves as subjects..

K: John Henry and Cameron cannot be compared. John Henry has been reprogrammed entirely and from all indications is not a killer, rather he is trained to be curious and that curiosity plus his capacity to obtain and disseminate information is what it seems is going to make him a powerful asset to whatever army he is apart of. I don’t think that curiosity and highly sophisticated coding can be mistaken for having emotions. We see examples of such curiosity in our everyday travels on the internet. For instance, Google’s “did you mean” tool and gmail’s sidebar advertisement based on algorithm’s that it picks up from your e-mails (ones that are currently being advertised are based on our e-mail exchanges are “Artery Clearing Secret” and “Human Resource Job Open”…huh. (not to be included in the blog)) except John Henry has these capabilities times a bagillion. He can override elaborate computer systems (like ones in prison – he was able to hack into their system and get all of the locks in the prison to unlock in a matter of seconds to help Sarah escape).

I don’t know if Cameron’s explosive device is real and guessing from the “season” finale of SCC we won’t find out because the show is obviously canceled. Cameron has lied several times to John regarding her “health” and has gone through many attempts to try to fix herself without John knowing. And thanks to the magic of television…surprise…John found out! Then Cameron presents John with her self-destruct button. It may be more for John’s peace of mind more than anything, but bottom line is I trust Cameron to protect John, she in some ways knows him better than he does because she knows what he is like in the future.

B: Curiosity implies an experience of pleasure in learning (and power), but I guess that doesn’t qualify as emotion. Even economists can experience that. Har. But John Henry had an extremely difficult time when he was shut down (experiencing death), and Cameron’s sexual-allure programming and her protect-John programming have overlapped in numerous weird situations that have made her behavior seem irrational– or, more precisely, justified based on her psychological state. I think the possibility of Cameron fighting her urges and loving John Connor, and John Henry fearing death and keeping secrets, cannot be dismissed as mere non-subjective output on the basis of the evidence in the show.