Re: computers have no souls!

From: Robert Owen (
Date: Thu Jan 27 2000 - 18:39:43 MST

Damien Broderick wrote:

> Did my standard Spikish number last night at the local free Municipal
> Library, to a motley audience of 12 or 15. Several corpulent science
> fiction fans were in evidence, who looked at first like a support team if I
> started being heckled by the pensioners. Instead, 0ne of them, a youngish
> woman, soon began to mutter, smirk, roll her eyes and then declaim when we
> got to the AIs. The uploads took her over the edge. Her consort seemed
> slightly embarrassed by her fervor.
> All nonsense, she cried, you just want a world of soulless cyborgs. A
> computer can't do anything of its own accord, a computer can't have
> consciousness. Oh? Why not? *It's not alive! It can only do what it's
> programmed to do. I'm a sociologist! I'm a utilitarian! I'm a sociologist
> and I'm here to tell you that computers can't do anything unless they are
> programmed to do it.* And so on.
> I mentioned that she was also programmed, by genes and culture, and she got
> highly indignant. I was trying to pretend she was a machine! She did things
> *just because she wanted to*! She'd broken away from the restrictions of
> her social upbringing etc etc. Not very much, you haven't, I said, and her
> face swelled attractively. No, I said, what I mean is... you're speaking
> English now, aren't you? You're wearing clothing not unlikely the garments
> we all wear. I see no Zulu hat upon your head.
> By this point I suppose I was patently a tool of hell, except that
> presumably she didn't actually believe in hell or souls, just in `life'. I
> went sideways. Suppose we insert a very thin tube into a person's head and
> replace a single neuron with a-- Ah, yes, you'd like to do that, wouldn't
> you, your type! Chop people's brains up, turn them into machines without
> souls. No, hang on, let's say you just did this with a mouse-- I could see
> her delighted confirmation as my gleeful robotic cruelty to our dumb animal
> brethren was shamelessly revealed. And so on. Altogether frustrating,
> because presumably she wasn't stupid or unimaginative (she read some sort
> of sf, after all). It was a salutary experience, giving me some sense of
> what the *real* opposition might be like, out there in the world in its
> teeming blithering bigoted billions. Urp.
> Damien (not a sociologist)

Hello Damien,

First, my visual imagination failed in an effort to construct the image of
a "corpulent" woman whose face was attractive when it swelled. For
obscure reasons, I thought of Eugene Ionesco's play, whose title and
subtitle are:
                               THE BALD SOPRANO

               ~ She Always Wears Her Hair The Same Way ~

Well, I wrote to see how you interpret the woman's obviously defensive
behavior. Look at it from contrasting perspectives: [1] objectively, the
idea of a machine capable of anthropomorphic cognition is THREATENING;
[2] subjectively, some unconscious tendency is ATTRACTED to this idea
(i.e. it is a fascinating and alluring value) against which attraction the
conscious self-image must protect itself by overdetermined and melo-
dramatic denial.

Questions: [1] what, specifically, is endangered by this thought?; [2]
what is it in the conscious organization that is viewed as irreconcilable
with this idea, such that if the unconscious correlate were to gain
conscious ascendancy, any coexistence would be impossible and the
current conscious ego-constiuent would be driven into oblivion?

As a parenthetical issue, if we assume that the threat entails, among
other things, a potential identity-crisis, what is the woman so identified
with that its loss is anticipated as catastrophic?


Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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