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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.

5 comments:

Timothy Carter said...

I think you know what I'm likely to say on the subject of Brain vs Soul, so I'll tell you a story instead.

An inventor developed a pair of artificially intelligent shoes to take him where he wanted to go while he focused his mind on other inventions. The shoes did the walking for him, taking him to work and home and the grocery store while he thought about other things.

One day, however, the shoes developed self-awareness and ran away, presumably deciding to see the rest of the world. They stole the inventor's car - one shoe worked the gas pedal, the other the brake - and off they went. Sadly, they couldn't steer, and they lost control of the car.

When the inventor found them, they were smashed beyond all recognition by the car crash they'd got themselves into. Their electronic lives were no more. Still, the inventor took solace in the knowledge that they were now in Heaven. He knew this for certain, because shoes have soles.

I know what you're thinking... how did the shoes get the car door open, right? Got that joke from an episode of Red Dwarf. Great stuff.

graywave said...

People who don't like Red Dwarf probably have large parts of their frontal lobes missing. These poor, sad creatures most likely don't enjoy Fawlty Towers, Men Behaving Badly, or Seinfeld either. Perhaps when the new stem-cell therapies come online there will be some hope for them. Until then, they will just have to continue to work as accountants and tax collectors and read The Hitch-Hiker's Guide, crying out, 'I don't get it! What's so funny about the number 42?'

Katherine said...

Y'know, I only realised a few months ago that 6x9 does not equal 42. It opened up a whole new level of humour...

And this halfway through a maths degree!

xman said...

I have often wondered about this soul thing in regards to personal transporters..

I do believe there is a soul, I like the concept of a world behind this one as this one is so broken, and yet there remains such a sense of hope..

Anyhow - back to souls.. I was wondering what would happen if a Star Trek transporter was finally invented.

It seems obvious that from the Brain as Soul point of view, that a person could be cloned and rebuilt and live, albeit as an exact duplicate except through different experiences.

However the Soul as Soul based theory would suppose that any clone would be killed and Resurrected presumably not have a soul?..

So maybe one day we will find the answer to your question, although the results could be pretty scary!

graywave said...

The transporter, in its Star Trek manifestation would be quite a challenge to the religious mind. In the show, the technology works by scanning the body, recording everything into a 'buffer', beaming something to another place, and reconstituting the body from it. Something like scanning a page of text into your computer (and destroying it in the process) and then printing the scanned image onto paper.

What they don't often mention - although it has been the subject of a few plots - is that you should also be able to use the information in the 'buffer' to create multiple copies of the original. The question then is not just whether the beamed original retains its soul but whether the multiple new individuals have souls too (logically, if the beamed one does they all do and if the beamed one doesn't, none do.)

However, this is all just nonsense. Since souls don't exist, it is just a matter of the Pope (or whoever) deciding whether to say a beamed or copied individual has a soul. Since the decision is arbitrary and has no physical consequences, who cares?

A much more interesting question is whether someone beamed this way is killed or not. It seems to me the original would die and a new, exact replica would be built. From the replica's perspective, they are the same person who was beamed and they therefore feel they survived the experience. However, for the original, it would be death since their consciousness would stop when their body was obliterated. It seems self-evident to me but if you need persuading, consider the multiple copy scenario again. Are they all right in beleiving they are the same person who has survived beaming? Or consider holding the original's 'pattern' in the 'buffer' for a long time - twenty years, say - before squirting out a new one, or a series of copies. Has he, she, or they been alive but unconscious all that time when they had no corporeal existence?

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