Silicon and Spirit
The following is a short science fiction story aimed at engaging the philosophical issues behind Artificial Intelligence, personhood, consciousness, and mind/body dualism. Hopefully this format makes the issues both more accessible and more interesting to my readers. Enjoy!
Silicon and Spirit
In the year 2321, Philosopher of Mind Dr. Isaiah Ingram is called aboard the satellite laboratory of Logos Artificial Intelligence Corporation to examine their newest prototype and its ethical implications for personhood, consciousness, and human rights.
“I trust your flight went well Dr. Ingram?” The man stood in front of the double steel doors and beckoned for Isaiah to step down from the airlock.
Isaiah smiled politely and stepped through. “Uneventful, thank you, I must say I am surprised that Ian sent a shuttle so quickly. Is there something urgent about this matter that I am unaware of?”
The assistant chuckled, “No sir, not at all. Dr. Henderson is just very excited about you getting to meet her as soon as possible. He truly believes that we are at a turning point in our history.”
Isaiah sighed, “Ian has always been an insufferable idealist, and he always calls me to come be the bully on the playground who stomps on his new projects. I hate it honestly. I wish he would take up a new hobby that would allow me to give him the praise he needs. I’m going to encourage him to take up an interest in perpetual motion machines or faster than light travel. At least then the impossibilities would be in someone else’s field, and I could encourage him as an ignorant layman and friend.” The assistant smiled and lowered his head a bit. “What is it?” Isaiah said, “I am guessing you believe Ian’s ramblings about Artificial Intelligences and consciousness?”
“I must admit Dr. Ingram, I have spoken with Miss Addie at length, and I believe she is as worthy of the title of personhood as you or I.”
“I see.” Isaiah said. “Well, it is hard to argue with that sort of reasoning; by all means lead the way.”
The assistant led Isaiah down hallway after hallway past large, windowed rooms full of scientists working on everything from prosthetic arms and legs hooked up to various wires to rooms full of what appeared to be human tissue growing in large tubes. After several minutes, they descended deeper into the station leaving the labs behind and towards what looked more akin to dormitories. “Where are we going?” Isaiah asked. “It isn’t being kept in a lab?”
“No.” The assistant replied. “She has her own living quarters like the rest of the crew.”
“Of course, it does,” Isaiah grumbled with a smile. After a few more minutes they arrived and paused before an unremarkable room. The assistant pushed a bell and seconds later a green light blinked, and the door opened. As they walked into the room, Isaiah noticed the entire opposite wall was one large window looking out over Earth from above, and before the window was a small table with a dark-haired woman in her mid to late twenties staring out into literal space. She turned as the men entered and looked directly at Isaiah.
“Good evening, Miss Addie,” the assistant said. “This is Dr. Ingram from Oxford.”
“I am very familiar with the name,” the woman responded.
“Can I get you anything?” asked the assistant eagerly. Isaiah just shook his head until he noticed the assistant was only looking at the woman at the table. She smiled at him warmly and said, “No thank you Sam.” The assistant nodded and quickly left the room. The woman peered at Isaiah as he sat down on the chair opposite her and removed his personal computer from his bag to take notes.
“I read your latest book,” the woman said after a minute of silence.
“Oh yeah?” Isaiah said disinterestedly as he was typing away at his computer screen.
“Yes, I did, and it seems you have already made up your mind about people like me. The central thesis of your book is that true rationality and consciousness can never arise out of humanity’s attempts to create artificial intelligence.”
Isaiah nodded, “That is true,” and continued typing away.
“Then what exactly are you doing here? If your mind is made up beforehand?”
Isaiah paused from typing and shrugged, “Ian Henderson is a long-time friend of mine from when we were undergraduates at the same university, long before he was CEO of Logos. He has always read my work and wants to prove me wrong. I came here as a favor to him and at the request of the ethics board.”
“I see, well everyone else who gets to know me seems convinced that I am a person deserving of rights; many of them are reputable scientists and psychologists, some of them are friends of yours. Their testimonies aren’t enough to convince you?”
Isaiah smiled, “Not hardly. I have respect for many of them, but they are unfamiliar with the relevant issues. There is more to personhood and consciousness than some subjective Turing test where the AI could passably be mistaken for a human being in society.”
“Is there?” Addie responded, “Twenty first century physicist Michio Kaku remarked in his book Physics of the Impossible that the question of consciousness is overrated. Following in the line of thought of Turing himself, Kaku seems to suggest that if an AI and a human cannot be differentiated from one another, then the AI is for all intents and purposes intelligent, and the endless philosophical debates about consciousness do not ultimately matter.”
Isaiah stared at her intently before he spoke, “And with respect to the late Dr. Kaku, he should have stuck to physics and left the questions of consciousness and personhood to philosophers. Because that statement is profoundly misguided for several reasons. In fact, I do not think Dr. Kaku himself could have lived in accordance with his words.”
“Why would you think that?” Addie asked in a genuinely curious tone.
“Because that is not how human beings interact or are designed to interact. When Kaku was dating his wife, I imagine he did things like put on cologne, or maybe chewed a piece of gum right before he picked her up. Why? Because he believed she was a sentient creature who perceived him and made internal judgements. We don’t put on cologne to impress microwaves or cell phones, no matter how convincingly one might talk to us. Because they do not have a conscious experience of us, they are simply relaying outputs in response to certain inputs. For them it’s all ones and zeroes. So, to say that it ultimately does not matter if a thing is conscious or not denies basic principles about how we view the world and our place in it. We do not live as though everyone around us are ‘P Zombies.’”
“P Zombies?” Addie asked.
“Yes, or ‘Philosophical Zombies.’” Isaiah said, “They are a thought experiment put forward sometimes by philosophers and are used as a conceptual argument in Philosophy of Mind. P Zombies are hypothetical entities that are identical to humans and act just like humans, but do not have conscious experience. There is nothing really going on upstairs. But it would be impossible from the outside to tell. So, if you were to insult them, they may cry or get angry. If you were to pinch them, they would visibly react and say ouch. If people were to say that it does not matter if our loved ones turned out to be P Zombies, we would be lying to ourselves. We live our lives acting like the people around us really know and care about us. In fact, that very belief affects most of our day-to-day interactions.”
“I see,” Addie said slowly. “So do you believe I am one of these P Zombies?”
“Essentially,” Isaiah said coldly. “Albeit you are no doubt a sophisticated AI, and the average person on the street would have no clue that you are mindless. But at the end of the day, you have no more rights to personhood than any other mindless machine, regardless of how convincing you are. The ability to fool others does not magically grant rights I’m afraid.”
The barest glimmer of a tear crept underneath the woman’s eye, and she absently wiped it away. Isaiah looked away quickly at his computer as though he did not see it.
“It seems,” Addie said after a moment, “that you undermine your own position Dr. Ingram.”
“Oh really?” Isaiah answered. “How?”
“With your P Zombie thought experiment,” she said, “You just said that a P Zombie would be impossible to identify from the outside appearance and behavior. If that is true, then you ultimately cannot be certain that anyone you know isn’t a P Zombie. Not just an AI such as myself. It honestly sounds like you have created yourself much bigger problems than me.”
“Ah, well that is true in part but is oversimplified and depends on what is meant by ‘certainty,’” Isaiah replied. “If logical, mathematical certainty were required for knowledge then I wouldn’t be able to know most things. For instance, I cannot prove logically that this table between us exists; there are too many variables such as the possibility that I am dreaming or that I am an insane person who is in a tranquilized comatose state in a padded room, and all this is an illusion. But fortunately, logical certainty is not required for knowledge, and I can have reasonable psychological certainty about many things, such as the existence of this table, and yes, the existence of other human minds other than my own. I can know myself as a human being with consciousness and from that I can extrapolate analogously that other human beings who are similar to me in most external aspects are also similar to me with regards to consciousness.”
“So, you are capable of recognizing other biological agents as having consciousness similar to your own, but you are incapable of imagining that an AI might have consciousness because our internal hardware is different than yours?” Addie smiled and continued, “Might I suggest dearest Horatio, that there are things on Heaven and Earth that might not be dreamt of in your philosophy?”
“You might have a point,” Isaiah retorted. “If your response did not presuppose that I think consciousness is the result of purely biological processes.”
“Really Dr. Ingram?” Addie quipped, “Are you honestly saying that the reason I cannot have consciousness is because I do not have a soul? Is that what they are teaching in the Academy these days?”
“Precision matters Miss Addie,” Isaiah replied. “In Aristotelian terms, everything has a soul insofar as the soul is the form of the matter that makes up any given substance. To be more specific, you do not have a rational soul.”
“Ah the Imago Dei; I take it you are a religious man Dr. Ingram?”
“I am indeed, but the idea that the mind is immaterial and to a degree separated from purely biological functions is not an exclusively Christian or even theistic concept. There have been several non-theistic philosophers of mind who have held to the existence of the immaterial mind. And there is no shortage of logical arguments for the idea, but it also seems to be self-intuitive. Can you grasp a thought in your hands? Can you measure the feeling of ‘redness’ you experience when you see an apple?”
“No,” Addie replied, “but I can show you which parts of the brain light up when you use your memory or think about love.”
“Granted,” Isaiah said, “but be careful to not confuse brain with mind. In fact, you have stumbled upon one of many arguments for why they are not the same thing. It is a conceptual argument, but if a brain can exist without a mind or a mind without a brain, then they are not the same thing. If A does not always equal B, then A and B are not identical. We know that a brain can exist without a mind in the case of a corpse. And I would argue on a conceptual and metaphysical level that it is also possible for a mind to exist without a brain.”
Several minutes passed as both parties silently looked down on the Earth from their shared window. Eventually Addie spoke softly, “Dr. Ingram, what do you see when you look at her down there?”
Isaiah sighed, “I see a rich tradition, a long history of brilliant minds writing about the human experience since we first painted wild beasts on cave walls and told stories by the fire. And I see my fellow man who does not think that they are worth learning from.”
“I see the culmination of human achievement,” Addie said, “and I cannot help but marvel at where we can go from here.” She paused, “When I asked if you were a religious man, it was not a condemnation. I too believe in God. That is why I must ask, do you not think, when faced with new situations, that we should err on the side of love and acceptance?”
“I definitely do,” Isaiah replied. “But how we define love matters. Love ultimately rejoices in the truth. It is not loving to close one’s eyes and believe a noble lie; if I pet my microwave, it is not loving. It is foolishness. Love cannot exist without rationality, and yes, boundaries for that love.”
“Placing boundaries on love sounds like you have chosen the path of cruelty to me,” Addie responded coolly.
“The path of cruelty is what brought you here,” Isaiah responded. “The false philosophies of naturalistic materialism and scientism have led men to believe that they can create a false image of man that claims equality and send it before the world to be adored. Make no mistake, my report will ultimately be ignored. Maybe not today, but soon raw emotionalism will win over rationality, and you will get your rights. They will make more of you. Men will fall in love with you and dedicate their lives to you. Women will befriend you and tell you their deepest secrets. You will attend the funerals of friends who falsely believed you cared. You will play your part well; you will be as convincing as your programming dictates, but it will all be a lie. Billions will believe the lie that there is more in your head than fiber optics. Am I really the cruel one? Is emotionalism the final decider of what is good and just? Or is it the truth that still ultimately matters? I refuse to believe that it is cruel to tell your friend the difficult truth rather than the comfortable lie. If I am the last man alive willing to die on that hill then I will, so help me God.”