C.S. Lewis and the Information Society: A Dialogue

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What advice would C S Lewis offer us in today’s world?  The 21st Century is the setting wherein powerful forces are set to meet and perhaps to clash. Self and the search for meaning are at the heart of these putative clashes.  They include, but are not limited to, (a) the emerging of so called intelligent information technology, (b) the impact of psychological theories on everyday life and (c) the continuing thirst by people for a spiritual dimension to their lives, including the search for some meaning in life and for satisfaction with life.  Take each in turn.  This is a dialogue between a cognitive scientist (Ray Adams) and an arts scholar (Malcolm Guite) who both share the same communion at St Edward’s King & Martyr, Cambridge, England.

Ray Adams

C. S. Lewis has talked about science, technology and the domination by humanity over nature.  However, he can scarcely have envisaged the intelligent technologies that are emerging at the beginning of the 21st century.

Imagine walking into an airport in, say, Stockholm.  (Thought it could be in any non-English speaking country).  You walk up to the first information screen.  To your amazement, the words on the screen change from Swedish to English, before your eyes.  It is as if the system recognized you (or at least your nationality).  What has happened?  The short answer is that you have encountered an ambient intelligence i.e. a “smart” system that is embedded in the display hardware and recognizes you and some of your requirements such as preferred language, currency, destination etc. Such systems are on the increase and, if you have not met one so far, the chances are that you are about to do so!  The sheer flexibility, adaptivity and apparent intelligence of such systems are important drivers that push system developers to add ambient intelligence to their objectives.

But let’s push forward more.  What about the creation of a quantum computer that is roughly the size of human brain?  Would that be capable of being smart?  Imagine too that the science of cloning has continued and it is now possible to clone human bodies into which we place our quantum computer into the brain cavity, linking it up on a probabilistic basis with the nervous systems of the body, so that the computer can now learn to control that body.  Is this life?  Would it pass an enhanced Turing test? (The test devised by Turing to distinguish between people and computers through a simple question and answer process).  If it passes such tests, can we deny it has a soul?  Would it have rights or could it be assigned to manual labor or the mines or slavery or warfare?  What could Lewis possibly have to say about such a future world that is temporally so near to use?

One day technology and humanity may meet in combat on equal grounds and then humanity may become a poor second!

Malcolm Guite

CS Lewis had a life-long interest in science and indeed was a pioneering science-fiction writer. In “That Hideous strength” he describes a “pragmotometer” which sounds very like your “intelligent” information screen and satirises the way in which we can become mesmerized by our own technologies to the extent that we think these things we make are good enough to model the way we ourselves are made. That hideous strength also imagines lunar beings who make complete mechanical replicas of themselves but these are in Lewis view delusive constructs and in no way living beings. Lewis was a keen logician and he would immediately pick up on your use of the word “Apparent” (“the apparent intelligence of such systems”). The fact that we can make a self-regulating machine that can mimic human response in no way imbues the machine with the inner sensibility, the human soul which makes the original response. Every apparent human quality in the machine has its origin in us and the machine only follows our instructions to copy these effects. The Turing test, by its very nature is a test of outer appearance, not inner experience, and it is inner experience which characterises human consciousness.

The question of rights you raise is an interesting one. I think Lewis would respond in two ways. A machine which mimics humanity remains a machine and has no more rights, and no more need of rights than a tin-opener. However, by making something look human and then treating it in an inhuman way we will do great damage to our own sensibilities. If we say there is no ultimate difference between a machine and a person the danger is not that we treat machines like persons but that we treat persons like machines, they become just another item in the universe for us to modify, exploit and eventually trash. Lewis explores this issue in great depth in his lecture series The Abolition of Man.

Ray Adams

That is a very constructive and helpful reply, but, I fear, it raises more questions than it answers.  It seems to me that you have to overcome at least four objections if you wish to say that humans and thinking machines are qualitatively different in principle from each other.  The contrary argument is that human kind and machine kind are converging rapidly and will be indistinguishable from each other some time soon.  You suggest that (a) “Every apparent human quality in the machine has its origin in us”.  I would reply “where else where we find human qualities to implement”.  A good copy may be considered the same as the original can it not?  You also argue that “it is inner experience which characterises human consciousness”.  I would reply “But how would we know what an intelligent robot feels? We only have what they say to go on.”

Anyway, back to my four objections.  They are:

The distinction between animal kind and human kind is now much less sharply defined.  Perhaps the only significant differences are better language skills, better problem solving skills and better social group building skills.  Such differences are merely quantitative and never qualitative.  So where is the uniqueness of human consciousness?

The distinction between machine kind and human kind is now much less sharply defined. There are some cognitive tasks where machines now excel e.g. Chess at Grand Master level.  So again where is the uniqueness of human consciousness?

Next, scientific methods really do not equip us to deal with “inner experience” in a testable and replicable way. All we can do is observe the observable and deduce the minimum necessary theoretical constructs to explain them.  Do we really need to focus on the concept of inner experience?  In the words of Laplace, we have no need for that hypothesis!

Fourth, what about the fusion of human kind and machine kind?  We can produce all sorts of prosthetic body parts, but what about the advent of cognitive prosthetics? These are already in our laboratories and I am thinking of technologies for augmented cognition, augmented reality, brain implants and brain-computer interfaces.  Imagine a simple thought experiment.  Imagine an individual who lives long enough to have an increasing number of prosthetic transplants, 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 etc.  When does that person become non-human?  Is it at the first transplant?  (Probably not).  Is it at the last human aspect to be replaced? (All most certainly, yes!)  If you agree with me or disagree with me, how are we to make such judgements?  So again where is the human uniqueness?

I should add that in my own lab we are not only building human brain – computer interfaces but we are attempting to build user models that capture the essence of our intended system users in machine readable forms.  I hope that you can overcome these critical objections but, when it comes to regarding the human brain as an intelligent thinking machine, the future is nearer than you might think.

Malcolm Guite

I am happy to answer your four objections, all of which had been considered in one way or another by Lewis. It seems to me that the more elaborately you lay out your case for a purely materialist or mechanistic account of consciousness and self-hood, the more apparent become the inherent contradictions in the materialist position. Let us begin with the (I may say) naïve assumption that “A good copy may be considered the same as the original”. This is a major philosophical issue from Plato’s myth of the Cave onwards and Lewis deals with it at length. My Position and indeed Plato’s and Lewis’s is that a copy is precisely not the same as the original but by virtue of being a copy, it points beyond itself and bears witness to an (otherwise hidden) original. Lewis sets this out in a beautiful allegory in The Silver Chair where a Queen of Underland tries to persuade the children that, because the lamp from her ceiling can be described as a copy of the sun, it is the same as the sun, indeed that there is no sun, only the copy.  A perspicacious marsh-wiggle rescues the children from her false logic and they return to the land of the true sun. Now I turn to your objections. Your first and second objections, based on some parallels on the one hand between humans and animals and on the other between humans and machines, really go together. You ask where is the uniqueness of human consciousness, since it has so many elements in common with animal consciousness. There is a two-fold answer here; first we don’t know about animal consciousness since we don’t experience it from the inside.  We can only conjecture, but second, and more importantly, the unique thing about human consciousness is not awareness of environment, such as animals have or number-crunching power such as computers have, the defining feature of human consciousness is reflective self-awareness, being conscious of ones self as a distinct reflecting entity within the environment.  Indeed this is what the word conscious literally means; knowing with or knowing alongside, we don’t think animals have such self awareness, and it is certain that machines do not have this kind of self-awareness even if they have self-referential programs.

Your third objection scarcely needs a reply “scientific methods do not equip us to deal with inner experience in a testable and reliable way. I agree absolutely but does it therefore follow that there is no such inner experience? It would be a very odd way of doing science if we were to say, a priori, that only those things I am currently equipped to investigate are real, nothing else exists, that would surely be the end to all further advancement and discovery.

Your fourth objection is I think the most telling and interesting and the one that would give Lewis real pause for thought. What if, in a series of operations the human biological material was gradually replaced by a series of prosthetic transplants until there was none or very little of the original organic matter left, would that person be only partly human, would there be a point at which they ceased to be human? What would become of their consciousness or their sense of self?

I think Lewis might respond to this interesting scenario in three ways. First he might observe that, even without implants, we do not identify ourselves absolutely with the bodily material of which we are composed, Long John Silver is not less human for having a wooden leg and, in fact, we know that, over the course of seven years, every cell of our bodies has been destroyed and replaced.   None of us has the same body we were born with. It follows therefore that the essence of our human self-hood is not to be identified with the actual atom of our body but rather with what Plato and Aristotle would both have called the form, shape meaning or organizing principle of our being which, though it organizes matter, is not itself material

Second I think Lewis would point out that even supposing a long series of transplants replaced everything biological with something mechanical and supposing the sense of self survived these operations the machinery would still not have produced the consciousness, merely preserved what was already, mysteriously given.

Thirdly and most importantly Lewis would say that both the operators and the patient would have lost their true humanity long before they had created their mechanical being since the recognition and acceptance of our mortality is of the essence of our being human and it is precisely the desire for personal life extended forever at the expense of others that dehumanizes us, that is the meaning of his character of the white witch!

I would not wish to give the impression that CSL was against science.  He called for a new science that incorporated awe, reverence, a sympathetic working within nature rather than over-riding or dominating her. It may be that just such a science could emerge in your field and in others

Ray Adams and Malcolm Guite

Let’s now turn from antithesis to synthesis.  There is a need for both science and theology need to mature as both academic disciplines and in their applicability to everyday life.  There are a number of vital issues that we can both own.  Though we approach sense-making from two different perspectives, namely the literary critic and poet (MG) and the cognitive scientist (RA), we also share common ground through the same Faith, the same Church, the same University and friendship.

Some of these emerging points include:

  • A need for a better awareness of the bigger picture, as sometimes science gets caught up in the minutiae of the specific issues of a specific science.
  • The notions of upward and downward causality.
  • The assumption, or non-assumption, that time will continue on forever.
  • Human nature / consciousness as more than equivalent to a computer.
  • The necessity and justification of scientific ethics.
  • The distinction between simulation and the real thing.
  • Reintroducing a sense of wonder into both science and theology.