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27.11.03

Human, Animal, Machine

My previous post dealing with the line between animals and humans reminded me of a discussion we had in Political Ecology about the relationship of humans to animals on the one hand, and to machines on the other. Prof. Rocheleau pointed out that we (at least within Western culture) distinguish ourselves from animals on the basis of our capacity for rational thought, disparaging the emotional and un-articulatable portions of our being as "bestial." But we then turn around and distinguish ourselves from machines -- the paragons of explicit rationality -- by our organicness, disparaging machines as "cold and calculating" and unable to feel.

My response was to note that, in addition to seeing ourselves as the best of both worlds between animals and machines, the uniqueness of humans vis-a-vis both animals and machines is dependent on an idea of free will. Basically, we have it and they don't. Machines, we think, are ruled by deterministic logic (I've been told that even a computer's random number generator is deterministic, but in a way that satisfies the statistical profile of randomness). The same thing predictably happens when you push the same button. Animals, meanwhile, are said to be ruled by instinct. They don't think consciously the way we do; they just respond automatically to stimuli. Descartes, the great bogeyman of "critical" theory, went so far as to say that animals are basically the same as machines for this reason.

Free will seems to be closely tied to being a morally relevant entity. Only those beings capable of ethical action (which, to most philosophical systems, requires free will) have interests worthy of moral consideration. The link, I think, is consciousness -- free will requires consciousness to operate, and consciousness makes apprehension of benefits (in a consequentialist system) or rights (in a deontological one) possible. Of course, there are some conceptual delinkages that operate -- for example, humans as a class are considered to possess consciousness and therefore rights, so rights are conferred on any human, even one who individually happens to lack consciousness.

These sharp contrasts between animals, machines, and humans are easiest to make in the abstract, theorietical mode. Close interaction (at least of a certain type) with an animal or a machine tends to blur the line. We're all familiar with people who treat their pets as family members. We typically laugh at the situation because it's conceptually absurd (animals are not, according to prevailing philosophy, actually conscious and thus equivalent to humans), yet we know that in practice it has at least the appearance of reality. We successfully deal with our pets as if they were conscious moral entities. The blurring acquires a pragmatic, if not a "real," truth. A similar process can happen with a machine. I'm certain I'm not the only person to have named their computer (mine is "Abraham," incidentally). The name allows me to talk about him as an entity posessing a personality and a consciousness (and a gender). I've been annoyed recently because I don't have a name for my car, and thus can't easily treat it the same way.

The inclination to think of a machine as having consciousness is most apparent when it is giving you problems, behaving in an apparently irrational fashion inconsistent with the idea of the deterministic machine (and one purportedly identical with all others of that make) but consistent with the idea of an uncooperative person. This is a situation when the cyborg nature of the computer user -- in which the machine functions as an extension of the user -- breaks down. The machine then confronts the person as not just a thing or object (as Heidegger argued) but as another person. Individual personality becomes apparent as soon as the smooth functioning of the system breaks down. This works in social systems, too -- a cashier is just a cashier, functionally no more a person than the register or scanner, until they act "out of character" by, say, dropping your eggs or offering to grab some change for you from the "take a penny, leave a penny" cup.

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