The Standing Invitation

Archive for August 7th, 2011

The Mechanical Soul

with 2 comments

(And now for some wild speculation.)

If we accept that evolution is true, we must also come to terms with humans being a blurred region on a continuum that we share with animals, fungi, plants, and bacteria. And this is why some people don’t accept it.

Nobody likes to be told he is not special, and that is precisely what evolution tells us. There is nothing inherently special about being human. We are not the Chosen Ones. And some people cannot take this ­– can’t take the idea, not just that we are related to apes, but that we are apes. These people would rather ignore evidence and lie to themselves (and, by banning its teaching, effectively lie to their children) than accept the knock to human dignity.

My prediction is that, just as evolution has shown us that there is nothing special about being human, advances in artificial intelligence will tell us that there is nothing special about being alive.

People cling to the idea of an immaterial soul, and strongly resist the notion that it might have a biological origin. If all we are is bits of brain tissue, mechanical and deterministic, what’s the point of being alive at all?

But when AI really takes off, we will be forced to re-examine these beliefs. Not only will we someday build machines that are as able to think and feel and care as we are; we will also, on the way, build all the machines that come between. We will show, again, that we are on a continuum, with our minds differing only by complexity and computational power from Babbage’s difference engines.

How will people react to this?

Many will simply not care. The discovery of natural selection will have prepared the ground; the appearance of AI will only serve to confirm a hypothesis already believed my many. And anyway, what does it matter? We still need to pay the bills.

There will be others who will react with the flat hostility of present-day Creationists. Deny it all! Refuse to believe! Ban this immoral research! Computers are only a theory!

But many – one hopes – will find their own lives improved by the knowledge. It is good for the soul to know one’s place in the world, and understanding the ways in which we are not special will highlight and even enhance our awareness of the ways in which we are. They who already peer into the night sky and marvel at its cold beauty will turn their gazes inward, and will be just as awed by what they see there.




All I’ll say is that Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a wondrous, wonderful book.


Written by The S I

August 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm