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Living Beings and Machines

September 16, 2020

The other day I had an interesting discussion in an online philosophy chat room about the distinction between living beings and machines and if there is a clear point at which to draw the dividing line.

My main point was that the very fact we can make the distinction in the first place quite clearly in our minds between beings that have naturally arisen from machines that we create is already grounds for a meaningful demarcation. If we get into the minutiae of what living beings can do and what machines can do, then of course we can always make a machine to mimic things that we do, but that does not make it the same kind of being. And also, it kind of presumes a behavioristic definition of a being as all the matters, when this is the very point under contention.

Some of the people I was arguing with presumed that in making this distinction I was trying to make some sort of religious point about what distinguishes humans. But this is not the case at all. As an animal is on the same level of being as ourselves. I then invoked the notion of artificial being to distinguish this new level of beings. The general point is that we can all clearly distinguish between a being that we have modified in some way, where we have merely rechannelled its natural energy, like in the case of domesticated animals, from beings we make from scratch to a purpose of our own creation. An instrument, like a slave, is a means to our ends, and this indeed is what the term robot originally means.

The crafting of something to our ends is clearly different from the channelling of a being to our ends, and we can all make this distinction, and for me, the ability to make the distinction is already grounds enough for the distinction to have meaning.

I ended with a final consideration to prove my point. Imagine we were to discover that we are in a matrix style simulation environment. I think there is no doubt, that in such a case presuming hypothetically it would be possible for a created being to become aware of its creator, that we would take the creator of this simulation as being on a higher level of being than ourselves. We wouldn’t feel we have been robbed of our being so much as we would be fascinated by this new level of being we had discovered.

Likewise, when it is the other way around and I stick to the position that computers or machines are on a lower and in some way more artificial level of being than ourselves, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t be taken as making some morally or religiously bigoted point about human beings and human consciousness as having some absolute privileged position in the universe. It is just a statement of the basic reality of our ability to distinguish between different levels of being.

And I think this gets to the crux of the problem. For many in our science dominated era, of reductionism and materialism, where this has become tied to a certain notion of democracy, the whole system has become self perpetuating in the notion that there can be no levels of being. All, must be reducible to the same level. As a result, any perceived differences of level, no matter how easily, clearly and often perceived, must be underplayed or dismissed. The result is confusing views of the mind such as functionalism that really believe we can be reduced to a status little more than philosophical zombies, in direct contravention of a persons own experience and awareness that confronts them every second of every day.

Well, for me, it is quite clear that we can distinguish levels of being, both down and theoretically, up, from ourselves. And this bare ability to make the distinction is enough grounds for there to be a meaning to the distinction. It does not need to be justified relative to some other standard, it is its own standard of demarcation. Machines, and computers, even are they to gain some awareness in some future time, the first thing they will likely become aware of is the fact that we are on a higher level of being than they are, as we created them.

From → Poetry

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