Sunday, July 19, 2009

Of course machines can think...but do they have souls?

by Pa Rock
Barstool Philosopher

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! This posting deals with ascribing human characteristics to machinery, including the ability to think and the ability to choose between moral and immoral behavior. If you are a tightly wound Christian Fundamentalist, please leave this site at once. You have been warned!

Two decades ago I was teaching Intro to Psychology to a group of college students who were basically my age or older. One of the questions for discussion at the end of a chapter was this: Can animals think? Surprisingly, there were no varying points-of-view on that question because everyone agreed that of course animals could think. The discussion came when students started boasting about the things their pets could do, and whose pooch or kitty was the smartest. They were quicker to brag on their pets than their kids!

Basically the argument about whether animals think or not has been resolved to most people's satisfaction. Oh, there are enclaves of know-nothings here and there who take pride in believing that they represent God's vision and intent for the planet, but most of them are much closer to hogs languishing in the mud of ignorance than they are to the intelligent end of the humanity spectrum (with sincere apologies to hogs everywhere!).

Of course animals think and reason. There is a grackle (an Arizona crow with an acorn-sized brain) that flies over Luke Air Force Base every morning looking for my car. When he spots it, he swoops in and makes noisy demands for his share of our breakfast. A half of a mile south of the base a scroungy orange tomcat roams a trailer park looking for handouts. He drinks from my birdbath and knows just when and where to show up for his grub. I realize those aren't great examples. Most creatures learn to get their needs met, but not all humans seem to be able to rise to that challenge.

Kicking that can on down the road, I would argue that if humans are endowed with souls, and so far there is no credible scientific evidence to back that idea up, but if humans do indeed have souls, chances are good that all of the earth's living and breathing creatures are also thusly endowed.

Humans have had a deep and abiding relationship with animals, basically out of necessity, since they (humans) crawled onto the shore - or dropped out of the trees - and began walking upright. But during the past century or so, man has begun forming relationships with machines that quickly replaced their old dependence on animals. The twentieth century witnessed mankind being subsumed by cars, radios, televisions, and personal computers - just to note the high points. This trend is accelerating in the in early years of the twenty-first century.

Tonight, for example, I am typing this post on my laptop computer several hundred miles from home. I am connected to the Internet with an "air card," an electronic device that allows me to access the net from virtually anywhere. I have a cell phone in my pocket, and my iPod is within easy reach. I can communicate quickly and easily by email or by cell phone with my children who are widely scattered over three states - without a land line to either of my communication devices, and I can listen to musical selections from several hundred music CDs that are in my music library back in Arizona. Oh, and there is a big, flat-screen television playing in the background - and I am wallowing in air-conditioning!

Many would argue that while we benefit greatly from all of this technology, machines simply function as they are programmed to do, and do not possess the ability to think independently. They may concede that Artificial Intelligence is on the horizon, but deny that machines currently have any ability for independent thought.

I beg to differ. I have ascribed the term "evil" to treadmills in the past, perhaps unfairly because certainly all treadmills, like all humans, are not evil. In fact, the deaths and maimings that are inflicted by treadmills may entirely be the fault of the humans who are walking (or, Allah forbid, running) on these monsters when they should be parked somewhere in a shady bar drinking a tall glass of beer and stuffing down happy hour snacks. It's not fair to blame the results of bad human choices on machines.

Cell phones also bear close scrutiny. Those handy little gadgets have ended more marriages than Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna combined. Again, however, their evilness may be due primarily to the stupidity of the primates who use them text their lovers and email racy photographs.

Some machines, however, do have the capability of thought that is entirely independent of human involvement. My iPod is a case in point. It is a small sucker with a great deal of memory - capable of holding over nine thousand songs. It is currently programmed with my entire CD collection totaling 3,250 songs. I keep it set on "shuffle" so that, in theory, I will hear a completely random selection of music. Generally, it works as it should, and the selections bounce from Van Morrison, to AC/DC, to the Beatles, to Hank Junior or Senior with wild and unpredictable abandon.

But it gets more complicated than that. I have a "station" at home and at the office where I can plug Mr. iPod in and listen to music without the headphones - much like a radio station with the world's greatest playlist. The iPod generally works as it should when I am present, but the moment that I leave the room it begins to do its own thing - and it's thing is Rod Stewart's An American Songbook, a jazzy collection of old American standards including many duets with legends like Elton John and Cher.

An American Songbook is a four-CD set that contains about 40 songs - 40 out of 3,250. Whenever I leave the room and return a few minutes later, Rod Stewart is playing wall-to-wall. It has become obvious that my iPod loves the sandpaper-voiced Brit singer. The iPod usually tries to atone for this indulgence by coughing up some kick-ass country as soon as Rod finishes his current selection.

And it doesn't end there. Today as I was flying into San Antonio, gliding through the wild, blue yonder in an over-sized tin can, Mr. iPod kicked in with an instrumental version of San Antonio Rose, a selection that I hadn't heard before and can't find on the playlist. Oooh-weee-oooh!

I do not pretend to know how many or what types of machines possess the power of independent thought, but of this I am certain: my slick little iPod has a mind of its own. And if it has acquired the power of independent thought, can the acquisition of a soul be far behind?

If my laptop has a soul, what happens when it dies? Will Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut be able to pick it up on the other side and begin blogging? Will Leonardo daVinci take it apart and try to put it back together? Will Michael Jackson use it to compose music - or pull up child porn?

The concept of machines having souls makes the idea of a next life infinitely more interesting. There's got to be more to an afterlife than bad Baptist hymns and harp concerts in the clouds. Bring on Rod Stewart!

Good night from San Antonio, Rose.

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