[EAS]Are We Machines?

Peter J. Kindlmann peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Thu Jun 26 01:29:43 EDT 2003

Dear Colleagues -

>From MIT's Rodney Brooks comes yet another book on the "you are mere
machines" theme. In this he has company from Carnegie-Mellon's Hans
Moravec and others. The vigor of such "put-down" assertions has a
kind of grim "one-up-manship" about it. My reaction is usually
something along the lines of "get a life." Steven Talbott's current
NETFUTURE issue (below) provides a welcome and more literate
antidote. Consider subscribing to his newsletter -- details at the


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From:         Steve Talbott <stevet at OREILLY.COM>
Subject:      NetFuture #146


                    Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #146     A Publication of The Nature Institute         June 24, 2003
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet at oreilly.com)

                  On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
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Flesh and Machines: The Mere Assertions of Rodney Brooks (Steve Talbott)
   Appeals to ignorance do not convince


About this newsletter



                    Steve Talbott (stevet at oreilly.com)

In *Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us* (Random House, 2002),
Rodney Brooks informs us that "we are nothing more than a highly ordered
collection of biomolecules":

   Molecular biology has made fantastic strides over the last fifty years,
   and its goal is to explain all the peculiarities and details of life in
   terms of molecular interactions.  A central tenet of molecular biology
   is that *that is all there is*.

Apparently fearing that we will be insufficiently gripped by his message,
Brooks (who is director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT)
goes on to say in the space of three pages:

   The body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according
   to a set of specifiable rules....

   The body is a machine....

   We are machines, as are our spouses, our children, and our dogs....

   We are nothing more than the sort of machine we saw in chapter 3, where
   I set out simple sets of rules that can be combined to provide the
   complex behavior of a walking robot .... we are much like the robot
   Genghis, although somewhat more complex in quantity, but not in

   I believe myself and my children all to be mere machines....

   We, all of us, overanthropomorphize humans, who are after all mere
   machines (pp. 173-5).

Noting that some people may bristle at the word "machine" (not to mention
the tedious repetition), Brooks acknowledges that he uses the word "to
perhaps brutalize the reader a little".  He feels the need to shake us
free of any conviction that "we are special" -- meaning, in case you
missed it, that we should accept our status as "mere machines".

Searching for the Bottom

As a reviewer facing an attempt at brutalization, perhaps I will be
forgiven a touch of bluntness.  When, using the characteristic language of
the insecure reductionist ("we are nothing more than"), Brooks refers to
molecular interactions and says emphatically, "that is all there is", he
is engaged in a startlingly transparent argument from ignorance.

"That is all there is".  *What* is all there is?  Brooks makes the
statement in order to intimidate, but is unwilling or unable to tell us
anything at all about the brute, underlying, mechanistic reality he is
pretending to beat us with.  If there is one thing no respectable
physicist since the mid-twentieth century would claim to do, it is to
describe some sort of ultimate physical machine, let alone a well-
understood physical machine.  The entire movement of physics has been away
from concrete machine models -- and, indeed, away from models altogether.
Theories at the lowest level no longer even describe particular things or
events that might be modeled.  So when, with an air of settling matters
for good, Brooks says "that is all there is", what hard reality is he
shoving in front of our faces?

His general idea seems to be that there is some "mere" machine-stuff down
at a lower level of explanation, and everything above it is "nothing more
than" the compounded articulations of this mechanistic reality.
Explanation proceeds from below upward.  Our nature is fixed by the
foundation on which it rests.  "We are machines".

But if explanation proceeds from below, then you need to start with
whatever is at the bottom.  Your primary explanatory apparatus, in other
words, is quantum weirdness.  And the one place in science where you
absolutely cannot find a machine, is amid the scarcely utterable
perplexities of the quantum realm.  Nevertheless, *there* is where Brooks
would apparently nail down our determining and limiting nature -- the
reality we are "nothing more than".  Does he care to tell us a little
about this reality?

Certainly not in *Flesh and Machines*.  Moreover, even if he could extract
something of our essential nature from the sphere of quantum effects, and
even if he could demonstrate the machine-like character of this nature,
there would remain the difficulty facing all bottom-up expositors of the
human being:  where *is* the bottom, since not one iota of evidence within
physics suggests we have reached it, and no one even seems to know what it
might mean for there to be a bottom or what would be its distinguishing

Physicist Steven Weinberg informs us that some of the (unknown) structures
pointed to by currently accepted theory are smaller than the atomic
nucleus by a factor of a million billion.  In other words, it is at least
as far from the atomic nucleus to these unknown structures as it is from
the scale of ordinary life to the atomic nucleus.  If the idea of
explanatory levels makes any sense at all (it doesn't), and if our nature
is determined by whatever constitutes the bottom, then so, too, the nature
of atoms and molecules must be determined by the same inaccessible bottom.

But still, in his happy ignorance about whatever is "down there", Brooks
can find satisfaction in the effort to whip us into submission with a
phantom:  "That is all there is".  One wonders what he pictures in his own
mind as he says "that".  Here I have a nothing-more-than conjecture of my
own:  his idealized bit of ultimate matter is nothing more than a
projection of the machines he builds; his imagined molecule is a kind of
minuscule robot-homunculus.

Brooks might reply that, at some higher level of explanation, quantum
weirdness (and the unknowns lying beneath it) manage to even themselves
out, leaving us with the hope of identifying neat mechanisms at this
higher level.  But if he is not appealing to determination from a well-
understood bottom -- if he claims to discern our mereness at some higher
level -- what saves his choice of levels from arbitrariness?  Why should
we not, for example, take the living organism, or consciousness, as most
fundamental and most revelatory for any explanation of the world?  If we
really want to understand the sustaining powers, the living energies,
presented in the world, doesn't it make most sense to look for our
understanding where those powers and energies are most fully developed and
most explicitly manifest?  In any case, whatever the level Brooks chooses,
he needs to *demonstrate*, rather than simply assert, its essential
mechanistic nature.  He doesn't seem interested in the task.

If he had been interested, he might have begun by listening to the
physicists.  When Werner Heisenberg can say that atoms are not *things*,
and when Steven Weinberg can say that "particles are just bundles of field
energy", and when Richard Feynman confesses that "in physics today, we
have no knowledge of what energy *is*" -- well, then, the natural question
to put to Brooks is, Where's the beef?  Show us your grand, microcosmic
machine!  And tell us what makes it *merely* a machine.

Order and Form

Brooks seems particularly inclined to find evidence of our machine nature
at the level of biomolecules.  Since he never tells us *why* these
molecules should be regarded as machinery, there isn't much to quarrel
with.  But a couple of extremely brief comments may prove useful.

Two of the most longstanding and fundamental questions about living things
are, first, How does the organism sustain its order and resist decay?
That is, how is matter "caught up" in the organism's living processes in a
way that suddenly and dramatically ceases when the organism dies and the
inevitable processes of putrefaction and decay take over?  Or again:  what
is the difference between the state of the same physical body before and
after death?  And second, How is the distinctive form of every organism
brought into being and maintained?

Both these questions have tended to fade from view as biology has
transformed itself from a discipline about organisms to a discipline about
molecules.  Researchers seem to believe (if they think about the matter at
all) that if they can just get a handle on the molecular "machinery" of
the cell and organism, the larger questions will somehow answer

What has actually been happening provides an ironic counterpoint to this
expectation.  It is less that the lower "mechanisms" are answering the
larger questions than that the larger questions are simply reasserting
themselves at the lower level.  In particular, the problem of order and
resistance to decay stares microbiologists in the face as soon as they
cease averting their eyes.  As Lenny Moss (who is both a cell biologist
and philosopher) puts it, when we look at the molecular dynamics within
the cytoplasm of the cell, what we see suggests that "biological
resistance to thermodynamically driven entropic heat decay obtains all the
way down to the most basic fabric of living matter" (*What Genes Can't
Do*, MIT Press, 2003, p. 91).  Moss is one of many researchers looking at
the complex chemical dynamics of the cell as a whole, and noting that
there is no one-way chain of cause and effect determining the cell's
order.  This order (which is passed from one generation to the next) is
irreducibly manifested in the cell as a whole, with each part (including
the DNA) being effect as well as cause.

As to the other problem, that of organic form, one need only point to the
decisive issue of protein folding.  This is opening up into a complex and
massive question of form that mirrors, and is organically inseparable
from, the question of overall form in the organism.  Harvard biologist
Richard Lewontin, after citing some of the many factors affecting protein
folding (and therefore protein functioning), continues:

   These understandings, however, have not penetrated into the main
   structure of biological explanation .... What is needed is to move the
   issue of structure from the peripheral realm of a few special cases to
   a central concern of investigation at the molecular level.  (*The
   Triple Helix*, Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 115-17)

Given that these two fundamental questions about life -- the question of
order and the question of form -- simply reappear at the molecular level,
what sense does it make to say, as Brooks does, that the living organism
is now understood as *merely* a collection of biomolecules?  Certainly the
new questions will, to the mechanistically inclined, appear to demand
standard mechanistic solutions.  But by the same token, to the researcher
who was willing to see the qualitative (and therefore non-mechanistic)
unity of the organism as a whole, the new problems at the molecular level
will appear as verifications of that original view rather than as
refutations of it.

Incidentally, I recently saw a report that physicists have found the
proton to be continually shifting in form.  While it (whatever "it" is)
can assume spherical form, apparently it also takes on other shapes,
including that of a peanut and even a donut.  (Remember, we're talking not
so much about a "thing" as a pattern of forces or energies.)  The world,
from top to bottom, appears to consist of continually transforming form --
at the molecular level as well as at every other level -- and it's not at
all clear how to map Brooks' picture of tiny machine-parts onto this
essentially fluid and qualitative reality.

Losing Consciousness

The "we are nothing but" claim takes countless forms and comes at us from
many sides.  To cite just a few famous cases:

   "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions,
   your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than
   the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated
   molecules.  As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: "You're
   nothing but a pack of neurons."  (Francis Crick)

   There is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving,
   pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes
   and bytes or digital information.  (Richard Dawkins)

   Man has to understand that he is a mere accident.  (Jacques Monod)

   People, after all, are just extremely complicated machines.  (E. O.

I have a working hypothesis.  Leaving Brooks (about whom I know almost
nothing personal) aside and focusing instead on the wider rhetorical
phenomenon:  why do we so often encounter today the assaultive
reductionist assertions, "the human being is only...", we are nothing more
than...", "we are merely..."?  The vacuity of the claims together with the
characteristic aggressiveness of the authors certainly raises some
interesting questions.

We get a hint of what is going on by considering the negative and
belittling cast of the assertions.  Clearly the authors, consciously or
unconsciously, see themselves as bringing us down a peg or two.  They
could, after all, have reveled in the glories and depths and wisdom of the
natural world revealed by science.  But, no, they want to make sure we
understand that we are *only* such-and-such.  Apparently their own
pessimistic sense of the matter is that we are discovering the human
reality to be an impoverished one -- a *reduced* one, in fact -- this
despite the usual explicit statements about what a stunningly rich and
profound world science presents us with.

We may wonder, then, what is behind this sense of being reduced.  Whence
arises this feeling of inferiority requiring the use of pejorative and
reductive language?  My own suspicion is that one of the most fundamental
insights of Carl Jung may throw light on the matter.  The Swiss
psychiatrist pointed out that when integral contents of the personality
are lost to consciousness, an inferiority results.  Moreover, the sense of
inferiority gives rise to moral resentment and "always indicates that the
missing element is something which, to judge by this feeling about it,
really ought not to be missing, or which could be made conscious if only
one took sufficient trouble" (*Two Essays in Analytical Psychology*,
Princeton University, 1972, pp. 139ff.).

I feel free to mention this only because the way a personal lack leads to
a sense of inferiority and then to moral resentment (so that we are happy
to bring others down a peg or two, to our own level) is such a universal
fact of life that none of us -- if we are possessed of the slightest self-
awareness -- can fail to recognize the process in our own lives.  So it is
not a matter of pointing fingers at individuals or singling out any group
as "morally challenged".  But where we can recognize a broad social and
intellectual pattern such as the one presented by reductionist rhetoric,
we really ought to try to understand what is going on.

The lack Jung spoke of was a loss of contents properly belonging to
consciousness.  Where do we see such a loss more in evidence than in
disciplines such as artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and
reductionist science in general?  Surely if there is any place where we
should expect a loss of conscious contents, it is where such contents are
commonly denigrated as a matter of principle.  The main drift in these
fields is to ignore as completely as possible the immediate contents of
consciousness, reinterpreting them in terms of what is *not* conscious.
It is hard to imagine a more direct route to the conditions of lack,
inferiority, and moral resentment Jung describes.  The entire project of
these disciplines is to drop things from consciousness.

In other words, there is a truth of sorts in the reductionist claims.  Or,
you could say, there is truth in the plight of the reductionist.  At the
level of its symptoms the psyche never lies.  A kind of practical
reductionism really has been occurring as the inevitable result, over
time, of theoretical reductionism, and we should not be surprised if it
produces pathological results.  In a society where the cry echoes from all
sides, "You are nothing but a machine", we can rightly ask whether what we
are really hearing is "I sense that I am becoming nothing but a machine
and, dammit all, I won't tolerate anyone else being more than I am".

There is in this symptom, as Jung clarifies it, a paradoxical double
aspect:  on the one hand, a sense of inferiority, but, on the other hand,
a compensating "psychic inflation" through which the ego assumes god-like
pretensions.  After all, am I, as one of the cognoscenti, not in the
omniscient position of knowing the real truth about everyone else, while
they remain benighted and self-deluded, ignorant of their "mereness"?  We
may wonder as well whether this tendency toward inflation helps to explain
grandiose visions of our future as a race of cyborgs destined to become
masters of the universe.

Another consequence of the loss of conscious contents, aside from a sense
of inferiority and a compensating ego inflation, is that our conceptual
resources for understanding the world are diminished.  When we lose
awareness of all but the machine-like in ourselves, we also lose the
ability to conceive the world as anything but a machine.  Those whose
intellectual horizons are encompassed by digital machinery tend to see the
world computationally, just as their predecessors saw the world in terms
of clocks, cameras, steam engines, telegraph lines, and movie projectors.
There is security in believing the world is like the things one knows
best, and intellectual ease in draping one's well-practiced ideas like a
veil over the Great Unknown.

Turnabout is Fair Play

I willingly own up to some mischief here.  "Psychologizing the opposition"
is a tactic more often abused than productively employed in worthwhile
discourse.  But I offer two justifications for the tactic, apart from what
I take to be the demonstrable plausibility of the foregoing.

First, what I have said is no mere academic exercise.  The future hangs in
the balance of our self-knowledge.  When we lose much of ourselves to the
subconscious, we become blind to our own motivations.  We may also seek
external powers to compensate for our loss of internal mastery.  And, in
fact, what we see in much of science and technology today is precisely a
blind drive toward power.  The idea of inevitability has widely
substituted for the submerged sphere of consciousness where we might have
felt called upon to exercise personal responsibility for our own actions.

In the second place, Brooks repeatedly psychologizes *his* intellectual
antagonists -- and in the most shameless manner.  So I thought a little
turnabout would be good medicine.  To give one example of what I mean:  in
1963 Joseph Weizenbaum wrote the program called ELIZA, which he designed
to play the role of a psychologist who largely parrots back the responses
of the patient.  Weizenbaum was shocked at how dead-seriously many people
took ELIZA while "conversing" with it.  And he was even more shocked to
hear psychiatrists speaking highly of the potentials for such therapy.  So
Weizenbaum wrote,

   What can the psychiatrist's image of his patient be when he sees
   himself, as therapist, not as an engaged human being acting as a
   healer, but as an information processor, following rules, etc.?

This is the one and only statement by Weizenbaum that Brooks cites, and he
proceeds, without any explanation whatever, to label it "nonsensical" --
unless you can call this gratuitous and unsupported bit of psychologizing
an explanation:

   Weizenbaum was fleeing from the notion that humans were no more than
   machines.  He could not bear the thought.  So he denied its possibility
   outright .... [He is] afraid to give up on the specialness of mankind
   .... It is intellectually too scary.  (pp. 167-8)

Apart from the fact that Brooks offers no basis for his judgment about
Weizenbaum's state of mind, he ignores the obvious possibility:  maybe
what Weizenbaum "could not bear" was what no one should be able to bear,
namely, a completely nonsensical interpretation of machines and programs.
The point, of course, needs to be argued, but Brooks casts his slur
against Weizenbaum without making any reference to Weizenbaum's arguments
-- arguments readily available in one of the classics of technology
criticism, *Computer Power and Human Reason*.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

The *New York Times Book Review* blurb on its back cover proclaims *Flesh
and Machines*

   a stimulating book written by one of the major players in the field  --
   perhaps *the* major player .... [He] offers surprisingly deep glimpses
   into what it is to be human.

But so far as I can tell, Brooks makes no effort to discuss what it is to
be human.  He does, however, repeatedly express the faith that machines
will turn out to be alive.  I intend, in a later issue of NetFuture, to
take up some of those points at which his faith comes closest to being
argument.  I will also have a great deal to say about Brooks' emphasis on
the "rule-bound" aspects of people and robots.

Related articles:

"Conversing with Ella" in NF #140.  A brief attempt at dialogue with a
finalist in the annual Turing Test competition.


"Are Machines Living Things?" in NF #133.  An exchange with Kevin Kelly.



                          ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and
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Copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute.

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