23 June, 2007
Soul vs Brain
How long will it be before we believe that robots have souls?
I can understand where the idea of an immortal soul comes from. A human life is a very strange thing. Snuff it out and the pile of meat and bones it used to animate flops down, useless and empty. To anyone familiar with the sight of people dying - as I suppose ordinary folk were not so very long ago - it must seem as if a vital spark inhabits the body and, once it is gone, leaves behind a hulk, a mere shell. And if this animating spirit can inhabit a body to bring it life, why not suppose it can leave the body and go elsewhere after death?
Of course, there is a better explanation but one that is so much more complicated and difficult to grasp, that most people find it hard to believe. The idea that the brain is an information processing device running a series of programs than manage and control the body is just too hard for many people to accept - especially when you throw in the strange reflexivity of the device that gives us the impression of consciousness, self-awareness and free will. The brain is the most complicated mechanism that we know - orders of magnitude more complicated than we have ever built. It makes our cities and phone networks, supercomputers and the Internet look like child's-play. It works in ways we have only recently begun to understand and much of what it does is still a complete mystery.
Why is the brain-as-computing-device a better explanation for how a person can be alive and then dead than the soul-as-animating-spirit explanation? Simply because there is masses of evidence that a person's life depends on a functioning brain, the mechanisms by which the brain works all operate on the self-same principles as other biological, chemical and electrical systems (so our understanding of the brain ties in precisely with our understanding of chemistry, physics and biology and therefore all the evidence for those disciplines has to be heaped onto the balance in favour), the simulations of brain functions we have begun building in computer software and in electronic devices actually work to produce the results we would expect, and the brain explanation is detailed and accurate enough now for us to build useful devices which interface to the brain to provide sensory input (hearing and eyesight in particular), to allow mental control of other devices, and even to replace bits of damaged brain. The soul explanation, on the other habd, stands isolated and unconnected to anything else we know. It is simply magic, it doesn't help explain anything else, and it has no useful applications.
Yet people still prefer the simplistic, magical, soul explanation. And this in spite of a very common demonstration of how the brain explanation works, which most of us see every day. When we turn on a computer and run a piece of software, the machine becomes 'alive' in a very limited way. It responds, it behaves, it does things. Turn the computer off and it dies. Where did that life go? It was conjured up out of nothing - or so it seems - and then disappears into nowhere. The thing is, a computer is so obviously not alive that most people miss the analogy altogether. They just don't see themselves as the same type of thing at all, being unable to abstract away from the obvious differences to the core similarities.
But that may well change when we have humanoid robots - something which is not too many decades away now. Then the superficial similarities will be overwhelming and the machine will seem so much more alive than a car or a TV or a desktop computer. That's when I think people will begin to suppose robots have souls, that they are truly alive, and that they share with us our supposed divine nature. Perhaps, if the robots themselves are clever enough (but not too clever) they will come to share our simple-minded beliefs.
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