We're Not Robots (July 2004)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:17

Saga Magazine
July 2004

We’re Not Robots

Dorothy Rowe

Ever since Dr Frankenstein created his monster we’ve been fascinated by robots, machines that can do everything that humans can do and more. Human-like robots feature in cartoons, in science fiction novels and television series, and in sober accounts of what life will be like in the future. However, while Frankenstein’s monster felt loneliness, pain and hatred, the robots of more modern fantasies are deemed to have no feelings. Operating with absolute logic and reason, and with an intelligence far superior to ours, these imaginary machines achieve feats of which we can only dream.

Of course robot replicas of human beings are only a dream. There are now millions of robot machines which build and operate other machines but these robots don’t replicate people. Building a robot human being is an extremely difficult task, something which no one as yet achieved. The study of robotics has produced some limbs and hands which work quite well, and scientists working in Artificial Intelligence have created computer software which can mimic a good chess player or a particularly stupid therapist but no one has produced a computer which thinks as we do. In scientific and philosophical circles the battle over whether this can be done rages fiercely.

A philosopher who’s very much engaged in this battle is Daniel Dennett who writes about how our brains are ‘semantic machines’, that is, machines which creates meaning. That seems obvious, doesn’t it, given that what we’re engaged in all the time is making some kind of sense of what is happening. The big problem is how to find what the intervening steps are between your brain working away and you thinking and feeling.

Which brings us to a problem which scientists have created for themselves. Instead of understanding that feelings are one of the ways we make sense of what’s happening, scientists banish them from their work or say that emotions are separate from everything else and not important. So scientists build a computer that can play chess but, when the computer wins a game, it doesn’t get excited. Psychiatrists deal with emotions by ignoring them or saying that they are symptoms of a mental disorder, while psychologists put all feelings in a box labelled ‘emotion’ which is quite separate from ‘cognition’ which is thinking without emotion. Please don’t trouble psychologists by asking them whether statements like, ‘I hate my father’ or ‘I love you’ are emotions or cognitions. It only upsets them.

Emotions are messy and confusing. When we see the robot-like characters acting so simply and straightforwardly we can envy them for being able to think so clearly, untroubled by doubt or suffering the pangs of love or loss. Yet we can share Captain Kirk’s concern about Mr Spock, a Vulcan with the robot-like features of a high intelligence and no feelings. Captain Kirk knew that if we don’t have feelings something is seriously wrong.

Daniel Dennett calls our brains ‘semantic machines’ and I call human beings ‘meaning-creating creatures’ but actually we’re both talking about the same thing. What you and I and everyone else calls ‘myself’ and ‘my brain’ is somehow a single whole, and this ‘myself/mybrain’ is busy all the time trying to make sense of what’s going on. We can give meaning to what’s going on in different ways – in words, or bodily sensations, or images, or feelings.

Feelings are a special kind of meaning. They’re immediate and, in that moment of creating a meaning, entirely true. You walk into the kitchen and see that someone’s left the place in a mess, and the meaning you give to that scene is anger. You take a visitor to your front door, say goodbye, and, as the person leaves, the meaning you give to the scene is intense loneliness. In that moment the anger, the loneliness are absolutely true.

Feelings are the only truth about which we can be absolutely certain. You can only guess what the events were that left the kitchen in a mess or what your visitor was thinking as you parted, but at the moment you felt that anger, that loneliness, you were absolutely certain about what that scene meant to you. Afterwards you can interpret your feelings and perhaps try to change them. You can tell yourself that the messy kitchen isn’t important or that if you keep busy you won’t notice that you’re lonely. You can choose to make yourself miserable by feeling guilty about being angry, or you can confuse yourself by lying to yourself and denying that you felt lonely. We’ll lie to ourselves about the truth of our feelings when that truth seems too much to bear. To admit to ourselves that we get angry with the people we depend on or that we are in fact alone can be far too painful. So we’ll call anger fear, or the ache of loneliness a symptom of a yet undiagnosed heart disease. Instead of accepting that at that one moment we interpreted a certain event with a certain emotion we’ll use our intelligence to hide our own truth from ourselves. Creating and interpreting feelings is a messy business.

Our feelings, the rationalisations we’ll make, and the lies we’ll tell about our feelings all have one purpose, that is, to hold ourselves together as a person. If we don’t do this we can come to feel that we’re falling apart, that we’re just going to shatter and disappear.

Where does this sense of being a person come from? No one knows. It’s something to do with how we create meaning and how we develop as a baby. Whatever this sense of being a person is, it has the ability to create feelings to express itself and to defend itself. Our feelings help define who we are, they help defend us from other people who threaten our sense of being a person, and they enable us to be close to other people. We’re not robots. Feelings make us human.