People often complain about life being mechanical. It is true that I could drift through life functioning like a machine – especially if I am living in a city and spending most of my waking hours at work. Human relations too are turning mechanical. Man has lost his contact with nature. Even though most people recognize this as an undesirable trend, there appears to be very little we could do to stop this march towards total alienation. Scientific theories of life re-enforces this notion of ‘mechanism’ at the fundamental level.
What is the difference between human beings and computers? Is it only functional complexity? A sufficiently advanced computer program, according to the strong version of Artificial Intelligence theory, can simulate whatever man is capable of. All mental function can be broken down to a set of instructions and implemented in a computer program.
Imagine a perfectly normal human activity, for example relishing your favorite dish. The basic idea of consuming food is to generate energy necessary to sustain life. There is also enjoyment associated with this basic function. You enjoy your favorite food. Computers too need energy. Does a computer enjoy charging its battery pack? One could write a program to make the computer display external symptoms analogous to the ‘enjoyment symptoms’ a person displays while consuming food. Now the question, is a computer displaying external symptoms of emotion actually experiencing it? IBM’s Deep Blue could beat Garry Kasparov at chess. That machine must have been extremely intelligent. But did it actually know it was playing chess and beating the world champion?
This is a tough question in man vs. machine discussions. Philosopher John Searle came up with the ‘Chinese Room argument’ to point out the difference between human mind and a computer. Imagine a computer program that takes Chinese characters as input, manipulates them and produces another set of characters as output. The program is so advanced that it functions exactly as a native Chinese speaker with respect to the input-output relationship. It could return appropriate answer for any question asked, exactly as a Chinese person would do. Now imagine that the philosopher, who doesn’t understand Chinese, sitting in a closed room with an English version of the program. He receives Chinese characters as inputs; consult the English program and produces appropriate output symbols, without knowing anything about the question or the answer. Is there a difference between the philosopher working with an English version of the program and a native Chinese speaker replying the questions after reading and understanding?
I believe there is. Computers manipulate strings of 0s and 1s without understanding the context, where as a human person (a native Chinese speaker responding to the input symbols) has the awareness of what is going on. It is this awareness that cannot be captured in an algorithm.
Can a machine be aware of what it is doing? Or is human awareness anything more than the ability to produce correct outputs from inputs received? Can a human being or any other living organism be fully characterized in terms of input-out put relationships alone? A machine can be assembled from its parts. Can a living thing be assembled so? Assuming we have the technology, can a living thing be produced out of the numerous molecules that make up its body? Will such a creation be live?
DNA molecules contain the code of life. Coded information unfolds in the context of the cell. This unfolding is what makes the cell live and it is more than input-output relationships. Living things are more than the sum of their parts. I believe a human being assembled in laboratory can never acquire the property called Life.
Life began as relatively simple molecules. It took over 3 billion years of evolution for modern life forms to appear. This was a very long learning process. Was this random? I believe it is preposterous to view evolution as the result of a fundamentally random process, yet there is no scientific way to counter such randomness arguments. I believe this inability is related to the way our objective knowledge is structured. It is absolutely necessary to understand how knowledge evolved before we conclude on the evolution of life, random or otherwise. Final solution for the puzzle of life lies in the structure of scientific thinking rather than laboratory experiments.
A human individual begins life as a single cell in the womb and in 10 months grows into a complex organism. 3 billion years of evolutionary learning is passed on to the foetus through its growing experience in the womb. It goes through a highly compressed version of evolutionary journey before coming out of the womb. Man is a microcosm, reflecting the whole history of life, or even the whole history of universe from the singularity point through eons of gravitational expansion. Sixty or seventy years an individual spends on earth are not his/her life span. It is only the last phase of a billion year long expedition.
Is there a continuation after death too? There is, in the general sense that each of the atoms that make up my body returns to nature and contribute to some other creature’s growth. There is, in the sense that the vast ocean of life, of which the individual is a tiny droplet that has momentarily detached itself from the surface, will continue even after the individual’s death, individuality being the droplet’s sense of alienation from the source.
Being introspective by nature, I am aware of my inner space to a large degree. I find it amusing when this inner space is said to be mere illusion. To me this is what makes my true self, my unseen connection to mother nature. It is true that I don’t need this ‘inner space’ to perform most of ordinary human activities. I could go on with my computer self, but I would consider such an existence degrading and unworthy. Man evolved to be something more than a machine, to experience life through close contact with his source.
What makes life endurable and worthy is the individual’s experience of its connection with nature. Individual experience of this connection manifests as a hierarchy of needs (as systematized by American psychologist Abraham Maslow). At the bottom level are physiological needs – food, shelter and re-production. Beyond these are the safety needs such as job and health. Once these are met next phase of emotional and social needs take precedence- friendship, family, self-esteem and social acceptance. At the top of the pyramid are the self-actualization needs, such as the need to express one’s creativity, search for life’s meaning and the longing to experience connection with nature. It is notable that Maslow proposed this pyramid model for human behavior after studying healthy and successful people, rather than computer models or mentally deficient individuals.
I began my journey with a 10-month crash course in the womb. I rushed through the latent experience of a billion species, some extinct some thriving, in my 10 months of dream learning. 3 billion years compressed into 10 months. Then I was initiated into a new dawn. I took a new form, a new exterior, moving from the world of distant dreams to the world of life-like shadows. My new avatar contained the possibility of detaching knowledge from subjective experience, granting independent existence to all those stories that I imbibed from the ocean of collective experience during my dream phase in the womb.
Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory. Objective knowledge of reality is different from the reality itself, just as the cartographic projection is different from a three dimensional terrain of hills and valleys. We are confusing the map for the territory while equating living things with machines. I, the product of 3 billion years of evolution cannot be reduced to the bits of information coded in my genes because mindfulness is a non-algorithmic emergent property.