René Descartes, Digital Ghosts and a Wind-up Shitting Duck


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

From ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, by W B Yeats. 

When René Descartes completed the law degree which his father had forced him to pursue, he was so sick of studying that he resolved that the only book he would ever open again would be the book of the world, and this moment marked the beginning of the philosophical adventure that would write his name into that book as one of architects of the scientific revolution. Right at the beginning of this journey, he would make the gross and laughable error which we still haven’t shaken off today.

After finishing his degree, Descartes spent two years in Paris, from 1616 to 1618. There, he was astonished and impressed by the automata — often life-sized mechanical curiosities mimicking the form and motions of human beings and animals — which were all the rage among the new bourgeoisie at that time. A number of skilled manufacturers of such contrivances were based in the city. 

Pneumatically and hydraulically-powered automata go back thousands of years. The legendary King Solomon surrounded his throne with mechanical animals which hailed his approach, extending paws and hooves to lift him up; once seated, an eagle placed the crown on his head and a dove brought him a Torah scroll.  In the Hellenistic period before the emergence of Rome, Corinth and Rhodes in particular had thriving engineering traditions. In Rhodes, as commemorated in Pindar’s seventh Olympic Ode (5th century BC):

The animated figures stand

Adorning every public street

And seem to breathe in stone, or

Move their marble feet.

Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ references tenth-century accounts of the palace of emperor Theopilos of Constantinople, wherein there stood ‘a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species’, as well as mechanical lion which ‘struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue.’

The Hellenic art of the automaton was documented in the writings of the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria, and survived through the Medieval Period, with notable examples found in France, for example in the pleasure garden built by Robert II, Count of Artois, at his castle at Hesdin, where his guests would be enchanted by mechanised monkeys, birds, lions and wodwos. In the early Renaissance period, Hero’s treatises were translated into Latin and Italian, and there was a revival of the fashion for pneumatic or hydraulic automata on the ancient model, adorning the garden grottoes of the nobility. In city centres such as Strasbourg or Prague, spectacular clocks featured automatic figures depicting animals, bell-ringers, and the lives of the saints or of Christ. Renaissance automata were increasingly powered by clockwork rather than air or water. Leonardo da Vinci famously designed a mechanical knight — a forerunner of modern robots — in the 1490s, and a mechanical lion which was presented to King Francois I in 1515. In the sixteenth century, the workshops supplying the royal courts and chateaux of Europe with these wonders were mainly operated by goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe, but there were also notable designers in Italy and France. In seventeenth century Paris, the automata on display and for sale as jouets for the new bourgoisie were extraordinarily sophisticated and detailed in their movements — animated figures which danced, painted, played musical instruments or wrote out poems by hand, for example — and now a wider public experienced the fascination of watching a machine behave as if it were a sentient being. 

Eventually the illusion would be brought to a more visceral level, to the vast amusement of the public, with Vaucason’s Digesting Duck, which would take food from your hand and then shit out realistic green slime. Vaucason claimed that the duck’s innards housed a miniature chemical laboratory which digested the food. In fact, it was a mere trick: there was a separate compartment containing a store of excreta, composed of bread-crumbs mashed with green dye. 

Automata are first order simulacra: sacraments to the real, they honour the ineffable quality of their originals, using engineering skill to evoke the reality of living organisms in the imagination. 

But in Descartes’ proto-scientific mind, a different process took place. If machines can be made to reproduce the motions of living creatures, human and animal, then might not living creatures merely be complex machines?

With this inversion, the automaton jumps its tracks and skips to the second order. Now, rather than reflecting it, the image ‘masks and denatures a profound reality’. The mechanistic materialist philosophy developed by Descartes does exactly that. In the four hundred years that it has dominated Western thought, it has proved extremely productive in technological terms, but ultimately sterile scientifically, misdirecting human awareness away from the reality of nature and the nature of reality.

Automation and automatism became the ideal military, industrial and social model. Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was obsessed with automata, according to philosopher Michel Foucault, and “put together his armies as a well-oiled clockwork mechanism whose components were robot-like warriors”. In 1801 Joseph Jacquard built his automatic loom, controlled by an early punch-card computer. Where machines could replace human labour, they would. Where they couldn’t, humans must be turned into machines. [1]

The soul-destroying influence of the automaton on social organisation and production is mirrored by its soul-denying influence on science and philosophy. Mechanistic materialism still dominates mainstream thinking today, as exemplified by Richard Dawkins’ famous phrase in The Selfish Gene (1976) describing the human (or animal) entity as a ‘lumbering robot’ or programmable vehicle for the transmission of genes.

This masking and denaturing of reality has had a deeply corrosive effect on human consciousness and our relationship with the rest of the natural world. Machines are not conscious, and while Descartes allowed that animals could perceive and feel, he saw their enactment of pain, fear or distress as automated responses designed merely to avoid physical damage to the machine — the emotional responses of animals did not denote sentience or suffering any more than a flute-playing automaton could feel the music. This premise leads directly to the atrocity of industrialised farming and mechanised mass-slaughter of animals in modern economies. 

Descartes had to allow that human beings were conscious — after all, his own consciousness was the sole secure conclusion he had been able to draw from his Method of Doubt — cogito, ergo sum — and from there he (generously) extrapolated consciousness to the whole species, as religious doctrine decreed he must. But everything else in existence — including the universe itself — is unconscious, a structure of insentient matter, analogous to a machine. Mainstream scientific thinking has made no progress on the question of the origins of consciousness: the orthodoxy is that consciousness is epiphenomenal, emerging as a by-product of computational capacity, or even that it is effectively an illusion, a kind of shadow or echo of neural activity. Thus consciousness is merely the fumes of the machine, and this mechanistic model of the human mind in turn gives rise to a fantasy common in ‘infantile science fiction’, to borrow McLuhan’s phrase: that an information system with sufficient computational capacity might spontaneously awake into consciousness and exercise free will. 

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), upped the ante in 1999 with his follow-up, The Age of Spiritual Machines. In this book he argues that ‘spirituality’ is synonymous with consciousness and that therefore a conscious machine may become ‘spiritual’. He betrays a somewhat ludicrous conception of what this might mean, however, when he conjures up images of robots praying or going to church. Kurzweil admits that we will never be able to know whether a machine is conscious or not — it will be trained to simulate consciousness, and in the process may ‘choose’ to simulate spirituality (as, one might add facetiously, do many human church-goers). Really, the only value of this idea, and Kurzweil must know it, is that it gives him a cool oxymoron for his title. 

The ‘spiritual machines’ concept is a shallow conceit which recedes into absurdity when we reflect that our science can neither locate nor define consciousness, nor produce any workable theory of how it can arise from inanimate matter in a dead universe — the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. As for the idea that the technological elites of this planet will at some point be able to upload their minds into a computer and thus live for ever, the notion that programming a digital ghost of yourself is equivalent to immortality is, I would say, utterly delusional, a primitive iconolatry born of the desperate and pathetic fear of death with which the machine model tortures its adherents. 

Yeats knew, as Shakespeare did, that you can dedicate your life and soul to art and achieve a kind of immortality. But the work that survives you — hard-wrought as it is with sweat, tears and tortured ingenuity — is a fossilised image of the mind’s hard tissues, a snail’s shell after the snail has died. It may be beautiful, a crafted testament that your soul was here, and that it felt and hurt and marvelled and sang — but it isn’t you

Yeats uses the idea of a mechanical facsimile as a metaphor for the afterlife of the artist, the work continuing to amaze and amuse even when its creator has departed. It is a purely whimsical aspiration; he knows a machine cannot be inhabited by a soul; a hydraulic golden bird upon a bough, no matter how liquid its song, has no subjective existence. Yeats understands that, but Kurzweil, somehow, doesn’t. 

The AI architects want us to believe that the qualitative mystery of consciousness will be overcome by quantity, and consciousness arise from sheer computational power. A googol, whence Kurzweil’s employer takes its name, is a very big number, 10 to the power of 100. But a googol of terabytes merely sidesteps the hard problem. In fact there is now a strong movement in science away from the mechanistic notion that brains generate consciousness. The sterility of that hypothesis provokes, at last, a creative inversion of the materialist assumption. Rather than mind emerging from matter, could it be that matter is preceded by mind — that matter, in fact, emerges from mind? In which case, the brain should be seen rather as a transceiver than a generator of consciousness. The illusion of the universe as a big clockwork machine is outmoded, an inheritance of our earlier ignorance of plasma, fields and currents. Is not the universe, as is increasingly suggested by spectroscopic imagery, and as Heraclitus and the Stoic philosophy already knew, a vast connectome — alive, conscious and intelligent? 

Kurzweil’s claim that, with the advent of artificial consciousness and digital immortality, intelligence will expand outward from this planet to permeate and influence the whole universe bespeaks a hubris verging on mental illness, far crazier than anything the Unabomber ever wrote. The great Kurzweil and his Google friends will provide the universe with a mind? Please, somebody bring me a straight-jacket and a syringe of largactil.

René Descartes thought that animal behaviours merely simulated sentience. Now, ironically, his descendants in the mechanistic materialist paradigm want us to believe that machines programmed to simulate consciousness can become conscious. And that, at that point, these living, learning, self-replicating machines will constitute a new species, the dominant species on this planet. The whole genre of science fiction seems to have been preparing us to believe in sentient machines for a hundred years and more.

Personally, I find the whole idea about as convincing as a wind-up shitting duck. 


[1] “The classical age discovered the body as object and target of power… The great book of Man-the-Machine was written simultaneously on two registers: the anatomico-metaphysical register, of which Descartes wrote the first pages and which the physicians and philosophers continued, and the technico-political register, which was constituted by a whole set of regulations and by empirical and calculated methods relating to the army, the school and the hospital, for controlling or correcting the operations of the body. These two registers are quite distinct, since it was a question, on one hand, of submission and use and, on the other, of functioning and explanation: there was a useful body and an intelligible body… The celebrated automata [of the 18th century] were not only a way of illustrating an organism, they were also political puppets, small-scale models of power: Frederick, the meticulous king of small machines, well-trained regiments and long exercises, was obsessed with them.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, New York, Vintage Books, 1979, p.136:]

[2] and so did Newton — his  Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is often cited as a foundation stone of the mechanistic philosophy — but read the last few pages, where he writes of “a most subtle Spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies; by the force and action of which Spirit the particles of bodies mutually attract one another at near distances, and cohere, if contiguous; and electric bodies operate to greater distances, as well repelling as attracting the neighbouring corpuscles; and light is emitted, reflected, refracted, inflected, and heats bodies; and all sensation is excited, and the members of animal bodies move at the command of the will, namely by the vibrations of this Spirit, mutually propagated along the solid filaments of the nerves, from the outward organs of sense to the brain, and from the brain to the muscles. But these are things that cannot be explained in a few words, nor are we furnished with that sufficiency of experiments which is required to an accurate determination and demonstration of the laws by which this electric and elastic Spirit operates.” By this token, the alchemist Issac Newton should perhaps be seen as an unacknowledged precursor of plasma physics and the electric universe.


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