So periodically I read something that refers to us, i.e., living beings, as machines. More often than that I read about our brains as machines, i.e., computing machines, hard-wired, programmable, etc., and I have written here my thoughts about using that metaphor to capture neurological functioning (see posts 2/12/15: “dried neurons?” & 7/28/14: oh me, oh my!). But considering biological entities, e.g., organisms, to be machines is something different and a bit more complicated because there is some literal truth to it. Essentially I see two issues here: 1) how are we to understand the biochemical activity composing life given that such chemistry is governed by laws which operate mechanistically and we consider life to be vitally free from such constraints, and 2) what are the critical differences between organic and inorganic forms? Read on with the understanding that I do not have the answer to those questions.
I am reading an old essay (1995?) by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical biologist at Cambridge U., entitled “The Uses of Consciousness”. Spoiler alert: the primary use is to understand the subjective musings of another by examining our own—a fairly apt answer, that one. He brings up several interesting ideas, one of which is this notion that organisms are machines. I was interested in his several referrals to Denis Diderot, a French writer of some renown of whom I know little. He refuted Descartes idea of humans having two ‘substances’, body and soul, in classic fashion, i.e., there is no evidence for soul and no ideas about how spirit and matter could interact and fuse into one.
Now over my years I have read about Descartes repeatedly, especially his “Cogito ergo sum” business, and not until now (or in 1995 if I had been paying better attention) did I learn that his learned contemporary found his formulation “deplorable”. This confirms my worry that our intellectual heritage and educational system has grown thin, emaciated even, as we focus on the catchy phrases and ‘stars’ and leave out contrary views, even when those views are more in line with our modern truths. Oh well, at least I was lucky enough to learn about Spinoza awhile back.
Back to mechanistic life. Humphrey takes a practical, everyday approach to such issues. I follow the great Jacques Monod in this from his landmark book, Chance and Necessity: yes, biochemical activity is mechanistic and yet biological processes are not “deducible from first principles”. Monod gives a beautiful exposition that life evolves by chance and replicates its structure by necessity, and indeed, any feature of life would seem amenable to this analysis. As I understand it, modern chaos theory follows along here—chaotic systems slowly organize in an unpredictable manner but that organization bespeaks future developments.
Humphrey refers to stalwart philosopher Daniel Dennett as one proponent that life is a machine, and further, that our consciousness is mechanical. Dennett (per Humphrey) believes that in principle a machine could be constructed that would mimic us closely enough so that we would be ‘fooled’ into thinking that the machine is conscious. Indeed, Dennett thinks that is what we already do with one another—we believe others are conscious based on our inferences from their behaviors but without any direct, real knowledge of their subjective domain, i.e., we are fooled into thinking others have minds. Humphrey counters that this ‘problem’ of another’s private subjectivity is actually overblown and that philosophers would do well to read more biology on this matter. Subjectivity is a natural consequence of being an organism, i.e., it is a fact to be understood and does not present a barrier to knowledge of each other. I do like a common sense approach.
Go back, though, to the thought experiment of how to tell if an object is a living organism or an artifact mimicking life. Monod addresses this early on in Chance and Necessity. An organism comes about through autonomous morphogenesis; it is a self-constructing machine that owes next to nothing to anything outside itself to its own creation. Further, an organism comes with its own purpose; it projects that purpose through its genesis and life span. Life is not teleological, i.e., growing to some endpoint as Teilhard de Chardin believed, but it is teleonomic, per Monod: this ‘thing’ with its internal autonomous determinism carries forward its project of invariant reproduction.
So how to tell machine from organism? Study “its origin, its history, and for a start, how it has been put together” (Monod, p. 13) and you cannot fail to notice that the machine was assembled from and by forces outside itself and the organism by forces internal to its own somatic creation. And that seems to me the incipient quality necessary for subjectivity. Yes, we are assembled through biochemical, mechanically governed processes, and yes, we do it ourselves, autonomously. While we could theoretically construct a machine that mimics that closely, its history betrays its lack of autonomy and thus its lack of subjective integrity.
Biology also fosters the notion that subjectivity is no great decider of our success. Rather, it is the linking of subjectivities that contributes evolutionary force to our lineage. Remember that mammals are especially remarkable for our sociability and that we humans are amongst the most social of all. Do I know that you have a subjective domain? Yes, I do; I can sense it through our empathic relatedness. Do I know what is in your subjective domain? Only by reading your signals and comprehending your symbolic communication. Humphrey clearly understands this as a primary function of consciousness, and to give him credit, he knew this before we had any good understanding of our neurological mirroring systems.
This view supports the notion that our consciousness derives from social interaction and that our identity, our self, comes about as we differentiate and integrate our early relationships. It also supports the notion that other animals have some form of consciousness to the degree that they are sociable. Again, this seems to accord with Humphrey’s common sense approach to these issues. For a different approach, read about a panpsychical approach at earthsky.org (https://earthsky.org/human-world/consciousness-what-is-theory-vibration) where two psychologists speculate that consciousness is based upon the vibrational resonance between particles, so that everything in the universe can be seen as conscious because everything vibrates at times resonantly and there is little difference between vital and inert forms. Amusing, perhaps, and curious, but not very nutritious. Humphrey cites Diderot (was this man ahead of his time or what?) as saying, “One day it will be shown that consciousness is a characteristic of all beings”. That is ‘beings’, you know, living things. Though Humphrey disagrees with this statement, I think it is closer to the truth than some other views like panpsychism.
I will conclude with two thoughts. One is my old idea that we should distinguish between sentience as life assaying the ambient, which is a property necessary at some level for adaptive success, and consciousness as the organism’s autonomous contribution to its apprehension of its own experience, including the ambient yet still independent of external stimulation. Thus, I would say all life is sentient and any life that is social may develop consciousness. I have written several posts about this before; see for example 4/21/16: “conscious or not?”.
The second idea is the importance of grounding our ideas in our biological nature. The guiding principle here is that our minds are embodied. Even at the highest levels of our intellectual production our minds rely on somatic experience for reference points. This seems to me to be quite remarkable and important. We might be machines of a special sort but we use our physical presence as a way to understand ourselves and our universe, and we do this with the power of metaphor, which is not exactly a mechanical process. I refer you to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live Byand Philosophy in the Flesh, both of which but especially the latter explain very clearly cognitive processes by which our embodied minds build upon somatic experience to conceptualize and abstract through metaphor as we seek greater understanding, you know like comparing life to a machine. Travel on.