Are You A Machine? Are You A Computer?

Our culture, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix and Star Wars/Trek, etc. etc. posits that you're a machine...wrong!

You’ve probably heard of ‘WATSON’ the Jeopardy game-show playing computer that can beat every human being, or ‘DEEP BLUE’ the IBM chess-playing computer that beat Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion, in a chess tournament years ago. These examples, and increasingly many others, such as the imminent driverless car, illustrate the growing power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and all this technological progress is creating a growing impression that humans may eventually be displaced as the most intelligent and resourceful and capable entities or beings on Earth.  But does this kind of thinking really make sense?

One of the reasons we are seduced by these kinds of science fiction scenarios is because our culture has created and promoted the idea that humans are just ‘machines’…and collective human ingenuity is constantly advancing the process of creating ever more powerful machines, like computers and robots, that will soon overtake humans in the ability to do complex intellectual tasks and also be creative and ‘intelligent’ in everything else in life.  But in this paean to computers the AI enthusiasts are ignoring some fundamental distinctions between humans, and other organic creatures on the one hand, and artificial technological machines on the other hand.

For example, everything intellectual that we, as human beings, do is…HARD, and takes…EFFORT. As a child every human finds learning his/her native language to be hard in that it takes many years of making mistakes, and keeping on practicing, to become proficient at speech and, later, writing, and effective communication. Every child finds basic arithmetic hard, and all the subsequent math hard…even the math whiz kids make many mistakes and it is only through constant practice, and EFFORT, that anyone with a higher IQ can get a Ph.D. in math or science, or any other academic discipline for that matter.

Just learning how the world works, as a child, requires constant effort, and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. And kids, and all people, keep constantly making mistakes. That’s what childhood play is all about, smearing finger-paints, dropping objects to learn about gravity, deforming Plasticene to learn about ‘plasticity’ as opposed to the hardness of metal or the smoothness of glass, distinguishing between solids and liquids and, later, gases…and thousands of other categories and patterns and distinctions and similarities and differences…and learning about logical thinking, as opposed to magic and the imagination, distinguishing between past and future, etc. etc.

Computers and robots on the other hand are programmed with exact, precise, instructions that only have to be followed completely mechanically and faithfully in order to achieve the results required. That is the essence of COMPUTATION, and that is still ALL that even the most advanced computers and AI programs do, such as WATSON or the driverless car, etc.  That is also the essence of what it means to be a machine. None of these machines has to make any kind of effort, is never actually ‘thinking’ about what it’s doing, or is ever distracted by stray thoughts, flashes of inspiration, etc.,…because all those ‘mental’ effects are products of consciousness. No machine is conscious, not WATSON nor DEEP BLUE, nor anything else we will ever construct; none of them will ever, can ever, have an ‘interior subjective experience’ of the world or itself. These things will always be ‘objects’ and never ‘subjects’ as living creatures are, from the lowliest caterpillar to a human person.

The proponents of AI would disagree with this assessment. They point to the similarity between transistors in a computer and the neurons in an organic brain, for example. However, the millions or billions of transistor elements in a computer are not ‘living’, unlike an animal brain where you can see, under a microscope, how the wiggling axons and dendrites, the connecting fibers of neurons, rearrange themselves and grow, and make new connections, in an ongoing, never ending process of dynamic activity that constitutes being alive. The animal brain’s purpose, after all, is to serve the needs of the animal, or person, in its constant interaction with its environment. The brain makes it possible for a living creature to continually learn, as a result of accumulating EXPERIENCES, experiences accumulated through the process of living, which a robot or computer doesn’t do, because a computer is just another object, and there is no irreducible difference between an object or a machine and its environment.

On the other hand a living creature, although immersed in its environment, is an instantiation of a PURPOSE, the purpose of living and thriving. The creature’s MIND is the totality of its subjective experiences, organized in an intricate and dynamic way, and the mind is the link between its physical brain and the environment it finds itself in. The brain is a physical organ you can see and weigh and measure and examine in an anatomy laboratory. The creature’s ‘mind’ on the other hand is its subjective experience of life which machines just don’t have…except in science fiction. A computer ‘brain’ is just a dead piece of machinery which cannot produce a consciousness or subjective presence, any more than a bicycle or mechanical adding machine can.  Robots and computers, therefore, cannot have any ‘purposes’ or desires or plans independent of what their creators’ purposes or plans are. That is what a machine is, fundamentally…just an extension of the purposes of the living mind that created it.

Ergo, we, as humans, are more than just machines. What it is that we are is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, historical, cultural question. Our culture has created religion and philosophy and art and mythology to struggle with this profound, deep, existential question of what humans and other creatures ‘are.’ Whatever that might be, however, it is something far more than just being a ‘machine.’

The line of thinking that we are just ‘machines’ started with the Renaissance in Europe and accelerated during the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution there. A French intellectual, La Mettrie, wrote a very influential book ‘Man The Machine’ precisely in order to debunk the ‘spiritualist’ interpretation of man’s nature. Along with Voltaire and Descartes and all those other guys, the point was to refute the idea of ‘spirit’ in favor of complete materialism. And, to be fair, there was so much nonsense propounded by a non-scientific Church, and all the other superstitions, from astrology to witchcraft, that our culture needed a strong correction in favor of the material over the spiritual. But today the culmination of that 300-400 year process has resulted in an equally unbalanced prejudice in favor of the material over the spiritual, or, better put, the non-material, or ideational. Ideational, or idea-based that is. Today a new synthesis is beginning to emerge, with holistic, teleological notions fleshing out the earlier material reductionist theses, in the areas of complexity theory, systems biology, etc.,…and everything begins looking more and more subtle and complex.

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