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Machines and Beings

If we define the term 'machine' to mean systems where causes can be traced outside, to programmers, or operators, etc., then it seems to me that the most intelligent devices we have made thus far - digital computers - are still machines because they are deterministic - we can always trace causes to the outside. Using this kind of distinction, there is a huge gulf between even lower animals and our most powerful computers.

If we are searching for systems that clearly start causal chains rather than just acting as players in them, we need to find more than machines, we need to find free agency. What is the 'right stuff' that makes agency? I believe we have located agency when causal chains disappear (for all practical purposes) inside complex objects. Many biological systems are extremely complex, but effects can still be traced to external causes. They will only disappear into objects that possess sufficient complexity and internal degrees of freedom that our instruments and measurements cannot reliably follow. As we leave the realm of machines, we encounter what might be termed 'beings.' Of course, the example par excellence of a complex system with a great many degrees of freedom is the human brain/body.


Some might say this is a cheap trick. It can be argued that such a search for agency will only stick at minds and other high-level systems for as long as we remain ignorant as to the functioning of lower level parts of such complex systems, as is currently the case with the human brain. Perhaps with more knowledge we'll find that human agency at the conscious level is just an illusion, and that it should properly be located at lower levels, perhaps eventually sliding all the way down to nothing but physics and chemistry, but I doubt it.With no agents, it seems to me we are left with a full-blown deterministic, atemporal, block-universe description, which I really don't know how to deal with. But that’s not to say this view of reality...

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

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