Automata of our own making


[Currently reading Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard UP, 2011).]

Human beings groove on creating things in which they can see themselves. Mirrors, of course – but also cave paintings, sculptures, plays, poems, music, and robots. Each creation brings on an out-of-body experience, as we can see our lives from some outside perspective, one that makes what’s ordinary suddenly seem bewildering, beautiful, or tragic. This ability to step outside ourselves in order to see ourselves is the magic jewel of human consciousness.

Lately I have been reading about the stunning automata created in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the hydraulic moving statues of gods and monsters found in the garden at the royal château of Saint-Germain-en-Lay – which inspired Descartes’s musings on human physiology – to the notorious chess-playing Turk built by Wolfgang von Kempelen, automata have presented ourselves to ourselves in manners both charming and frightening. One of the greatest early machinists of the era, Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-82), created a flute-playing robotic maiden who really played an actual flute, blowing into the mouthpiece and fingering the valves. He also constructed a duck that would eat and poop, to everyone’s great amusement, though he exaggerated when he claimed that the duck was engaging in true digestion. But most amazing of all, Vaucanson’s contemporary, the Swiss watch-maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, fabricated a little boy who could be programmed to write anything you please in a perfectly lovely script, pausing occasionally to dip his quill in ink, and scanning the page with his beautiful blue eyes. The boy was entirely self-contained, meaning the machinery was all within his body – rather like our own.

At first, these wondrous automata demonstrated that there could be a mechanical explanation of human behavior, and that engineers and plumbers might be more useful than alchemist doctors in diagnosing and treating human ills. It was a vindication of the mechanical philosophy over magical thinking. But before long these same demonstrations brought on more worrisome ways to picture ourselves. Are we all just machines? Are our lives nothing but what plays out from a stack of well-crafted cams and springs? And to what extent are our lives just working components enslaved to even greater machines – political systems, cultural engines, the dynamo of the world?

In 1793, the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre called the recently beheaded king “that crowned automaton called Louis XVI” (166). People began to see their rulers – and, eventually, themselves – as robots mindlessly performing the rituals commanded by society. The historian Minsoo Kang neatly recounts the vivid stories of E. T. A. Hoffman (1776-1822), stories planted in the hazy “no-man’s land” between humans and automata –

For this purpose, the narrative device he used to great effect was that of uncertainty, centering on a series of questions that crop up repeatedly: whether a particular automaton is nothing but a mechanical construct or some unknown force is at work in it; whether the perception that there is indeed something otherworldly about an automaton is based on reality or a misunderstanding or, in extreme cases, the madness of the viewer; and whether the feeling of the uncanny that is aroused by the automaton emanates from the object itself or from the mind of the perceiver who finds its operation difficult to assimilate into the worldview based on the categories of ordinary reality. (Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, p. 207)

That feeling of the uncanny – both troubling and thrilling – was the secret behind the wild success of von Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk. The Turk sat behind a wooden desk on which was positioned a chessboard. Kempelen would open panels in the desk so all could see the machinery displayed within. A wide range of people, from Ben Franklin to Napoleon, played chess against the Turk, whose left hand would extend in clunky mechanical fashion over the board, pick up a piece, and deposit it on a legal square. And the Turk’s game was very good; he could even complete a knight’s tour, which means moving a knight around the board so that it visits every square exactly once. Everyone knew the Turk wasn’t just a machine – no machine could be that clever! – but no one could figure out how Kempelen’s trick was being played. Years later, it was discovered that the desk in fact could hide within itself a full-sized human being, who could track the game and control the Turk’s arm and head. But this revelation only deepens the weirdness: for, as the historian Simon Schaffer observes, here was a man, pretending to be a machine, pretending to be a man.

We can’t help but see our faces in our children. When we started making clocks, we started wondering whether we were clocks; and the story repeats itself as we invented automata, steam engines, computers, and video games. Our latest self-reflective device is Ultron, the newest villain in the “Marvel universe”: he’s “got no strings,” meaning first that he has no sentimental attachment to any meaty thing – but also that he requires no necessary connection to any individual robot body: he can live in the cloud. We movie-goers carry our cell phones into the theater, alerting social media to where we are, what we’re doing, and how much we like it; and these posts and tweets become the cloud-based ingredients of our lives. Do we live in the cloud? Are our connections only virtual? The uncomfortable fact that the Marvel universe itself, as a media dynasty, shares the same cloudspace with our social lives suggests that Ultron does not live in any alternate universe – we are his cloudmates, and we too have no strings.

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On the mistaken view that there is something especially sciency about the so-called scientific method

I heard it again on the radio today as I was driving around. The story was about a new science curriculum to be introduced in public schools. The problem with the existing curriculum is that kids are getting the idea that being a scientist means reading lots of textbooks and memorizing stuff. “They are thinking that science is history,” the person being interviewed said.

Since the person who said this has been to school for a great many years, I’m guessing there is something wrong with the existing history curriculum as well. I don’t think there is any career, inside or outside of education, that requires reading lots of textbooks and memorizing stuff. (Well, okay, here’s the exception: professional Jeopardy contestant.) Textbooks are always a consequence of learning (fortunate/unfortunate) – not the business of it. When it comes to the business of learning, science, technology, and math are not really distinct from history, literature, or philosophy.

I tried to make this point once as a guest speaker in an anthropology class. The teacher had the quite laudable goal of wanting to show her students different approaches to knowledge, so she invited me, a philosopher, to come in and describe how we do things over in the humanities side of the woods. I tried to show that generating or discovering knowledge works pretty much the same way wherever you go. (I also tried to convince them that scientists live in social and cultural circumstances, and the theories they come up with sometimes have more to do with those influences than with strict allegiance to the scientific method, but that’s another story.)

So the “scientific method” runs something like this. You come across something that seems interesting, and you poke around in it for a bit. After a while you make a guess about what’s going on. Then you think about what else you should be seeing if your guess is right, and you go looking for it. (Alternatively, you figure out what should not be happening, and see if it is happening nonetheless.) If what should be happening isn’t happening, or if what shouldn’t be happening is happening, then – sorry! – your guess is wrong and you should try again. Repeat.

There’s nothing especially sciency about that. Suppose you are reading Moby Dick, and you start thinking that the fact that the whale is white might be significant somehow. So you make a guess: maybe it is supposed to represent God, or maybe the idea of white supremacy. So with that idea in mind, you go back into Moby Dick and look for other passages that either support or do not support your interpretation. You research what the earliest readers of the text said about it, or what Melville himself may have said, and you start working toward better and better guesses. You will surely find better and worse answers to the question, “What does the white whale represent?”, even if you don’t come across a definitive answer. You might have to revise one of your background assumptions that there should be a single thing being represented. But all of this is as much in accord with “the scientific method” as figuring out how photosynthesis works or what an enzyme does.

From what I read and hear, the push for more STEM education misses this central point, that intellectual discovery works pretty much the same way no matter what you are studying. Indeed, the privileging of STEM over other disciplines tends to perpetuate the view that science is reading and memorizing textbooks – for science differs from the humanities only in the peculiar differences in the domains: inclined planes vs. caste systems, planetary revolutions vs. printing presses, mixing stuff in beakers vs. studying original documents. Those differences in domain amount only to different piles of facts that have to be learned and kept in mind: once the data are in, the way of thinking about them and interpreting them works the same way: guess, derive other consequences, and look for them. The “scientific” method is just the method of thinking.

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London, 1641

“Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” – Daniel 12:4

London was an exciting place to be in 1641. The political uncertainty was both thrilling and terrifying: many Puritans, convinced that their suspected crypto-catholic king, Charles I, was in league with the Anti-Christ, were pushing back against his high-handed policies. Their frustration was to lead to civil war within a year. A small circle of London intellectuals, led by Samuel Hartlib, seized the uncertainty of the time to push for what they hoped would be a middle way: a tolerant and enlightened Protestantism that could serve as a foundation for a pan-European utopia.

Hartlib had come to London in 1628 as a refugee from war-torn Poland. He was inspired by Francis Bacon’s vision of an enlightened society built around the pursuit of knowledge, and he saw that such a society could emerge only if education was completely reformed. He maintained an extensive correspondence with savants across Europe, introducing intellectuals with one another and promoting new works of scholarship. He eventually fell into company with John Williams, bishop of Lincoln, who shared his ideals and moreover had access to both money and Parliament. They hatched a plan.

Read more….

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Early modern European automata

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The early modern craze for titles

As the Republic of Letters expanded in the late 17th/early 18th centuries, gentlemen began to assume titles which were, let’s say, a bit generous. Johann Burkhardt Menke’s Charlatanerie des savans (1715) brings such persons up short –

Since the beginning of the Restoration of the Sciences, has not this fury for Titles, & if I dare to speak so, this Titlemania, been carried as far as giving a simple Jurist the title Invincible monarch of the Empire of Letters. Do not expect that I speak to you here, Messieurs, of these Scholastic Doctors, Doctors Angelic, Seraphic, Illuminated, Subtle, Admirable, Universal, well-founded, very-resolute; nor of this Visionary, who according to the report of several people worthy of belief, had his Portrait engraved on a steel plate underneath a Crucifix, to which he inquired laconically, Lord Jesus, do you love me? And the Saviour responded to him emphatically, Yes, very-illustrious, very-excellent, & very-learned Lord Segerus, Crowned poet of his Imperial Majesty, & very-worthy Rector of the University of Wittenberg, Yes, I love you.

(From Anne Goldgar’s Impolite Learning)

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Idle musings on historical periods

My academic specialty is known among philosophers as “early modern” philosophy, and by that is typically meant a string of canonical figures extending from Descartes to Kant. Before Descartes, philosophy is all medieval (the story goes); after Kant, it is an assortment of heady idealism, existentialism, utilitarianism, and nascent naturalism. (Philosophers mostly disregard the Renaissance and the term “Enlightenment,” as it is pretty difficult to tease out arguments from philosophers falling under those headings without having to study a lot of other stuff, like literature and history and politics.) For the most part, philosophers sort out historical periods on the basis of when certain figures they happen to find useful happened to live.

Of course, this is silly, and we all know it is, but it is convenient for things like organizing sessions at conferences and classifying both jobs and job-seekers, so it is retained. But, setting aside the fact that the practice won’t change anytime soon, I’d like to explore a more meaningful way to divide philosophy’s comparatively recent history.

In my mind, the modern period begins with Gutenberg’s invention, around 1450. There is a long and complicated story to be told here, involving both the Renaissance and the Reformation, but it is the advent of printed books that forcefully changed the nature of the learned European world. Scholars were rapidly inundated with such a variety of authors and ideas that it became imperative to construct new orderly systems. The grand cathedral of monotheistic Aristotelianism was blown apart into many cottages built by individuals trying to find new ways to make sense of it all.

We can identify this period of individual system-builders as the “early modern” period. It’s not that these individuals acted in complete independence, of course – the Republic of Letters arose inevitably as an attempt for everyone to keep track what everyone else was up to. But there were very nearly as many systems as there were system-builders, a flourishing of philosophical species, while early science began to develop as a sort of strain to separate winners from losers.

In my mind, the “early” segment of the modern period came to an end in roughly 1750, with the rise of truly encyclopedic thinking. The French Encyclopédie was put forward as a sum total of knowledge, not written by a single person, but written by a team of philosophes actively constructing a new cathedral to house the Enlightenment. The overall shift, seen from this high altitude, was from books representing individual projects to books identified under themes of large and broad movements. Philosophical efforts were less individualistic and more communal (excepting the early existentialists, who bucked the ruling trend). This to my mind is the true modern period, which begins with the Enlightenment. The very question, “What is Enlightenment?”, is a peculiarly modern question.

When did the modern period end, and the post-modern period begin? Though of course there is a genre of philosophical literature called “post-modern,” I don’t think there really has been any post-modern period. (It sort of fizzled, didn’t it?) So long as there are large banners of thought, and people enlisting themselves within schools of ideas, we are in a modern period. There may come a time when the question “what kind of thinker are you?” is met with a blank stare, and schools within disciplines and even disciplinary thinking itself becomes extinct – but it hasn’t happened yet.

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Comenius’s primer for learning Latin

I recently came across a 1685 English translation of Comenius’s “World of Pictures,” which was a primer aimed at helping children to learn Latin. (Comenius’s original was for German children, but this book was translated by Charles Hoole.) The idea was to give this book to kids and just let them enjoy the pictures and figure out the text for themselves (once they learned their ABCs). Each page offers a picture of a topic or event, and then offers side-by-side English and Latin descriptions, with references to parts of the picture.

Here, for instance, is the first page, inviting the young scholar to the master/pupil relation –

JAC student master

And here is a sea battle (“when huge Ships, like Castles, run upon one another with their Beaks, or shatter one another with their Ordnance, and so being bored thorow, they drink in their own destruction, and are Sunk”) –

JAC seabattle

Thanks, Early English Books Online!

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