What Differentiates Humans from Machines?

21 Dec 2015

We discussed with STI Expert Prof. Luis Echarte some of the conclusions of his last paper, which analyzes freedom, the mind-brain problem and the differences between human beings and machines.

Your research is about the presence of teleological markers in the brain. What does this have to do with freedom?

Usually, when thinking about voluntary behavior we tend to believe that we always have introspective experiences about it, that is to say, that we know when we act freely. My hypotheses about teleological markers go deeper into another way of understanding freedom. From my perspective (shared by many traditional and contemporary philosophers), subjectivity is an essential condition at the origin of voluntary behavior but it does not necessarily accompany the action all along the way. In this context, I am highly critical of experiments, such as Benjamin Libet’s or Chun Siong Soon’s, in which the agent’s consciousness is used as a main criterion to distinguish between free or determined behavior. What I do suggest is that, for this purpose, neuroscientists should focus their attention on seeking a very singular type of biological marker, one that is linked to the process of capturing or creating goals. Unlike subjective experiences, these teleological markers may be monitored throughout the entire voluntary process –either experienced or non-experienced.

You posit that, automatic is not the opposite of voluntary. What does that really mean in practical terms?

To paraphrase Daniel Dennett, nobody is an expert on consciousness, at least while the agent’s narrative story is ignored. Because we have only limited access to our mind and behavior, human beings need to remember and examine the -sometimes very remote- temporal origin of their thoughts, emotions and behavior to find out if they are the result of determined factors or, on the contrary, of their own decisions. I define automatic behavior as a sort of voluntary process in which goals were shaped long ago through conscious deliberation, but are now out of the field of vision.

The problem is that, because such origins may be forgotten, this type of voluntary behavior might be confused with non-teleological reflex behavior where stimuli are mediated by non-cognitive processes. I call this kind of delusion pseudo-motives. Of course, the opposite phenomenon may also occur: making the mistake of ascribing goals a posteriori to movements with non-teleological origins. These pseudo-intentions create a false sense of freedom which has much more damaging effect than does the sense of being determined. After all, the worst type of slavery is when the slave believes he is free. Paradoxically, both types of mirages are very present in our society: on the one hand, a good number of neuroscientists want to convince us that we are not responsible for our behavior, appealing to its automaticity; on the other hand, publicists are working on very effective media campaigns to make us think and feel that we are choosing, when we are not.

Are, then, human beings somewhat similar to machines?

That is a tricky question to answer. If anything, I would say that machines are similar to human beings. However, I do not like this comparison because it leads to many categorical mistakes. Of these, the most important is to equate the whole with one of its parts. Machines exist because it is possible for us to replicate certain body processes. Yet, these processes may only be understood –make sense– inside the whole to which they belong. For example, in order to define an alarm clock, we must mention something that it is not in the machine: the user. In other words, machines are a set of particular human processes that have been conceptualized, reproduced and implemented in the same spatial extracorporeal location. That is why philosophers like David Chalmers claim that computers are, in some way, extensions of our mind. And because machines have an instrumental identity, in the strong sense of the term, we cannot reverse such a conceptual relation. The human mind does not need machines –nor external users– to be clearly explained. Also for this reason, the mind cannot be reduced to such a set of processes. It is something more. Indeed, the human mind makes possible the construction of computers in the same way that doors with locks make possible the manufacture of keys, but doors are neither keys, nor as keys are.

If a human being is more than a machine, then what is it?

For many philosophers and neuroscientists, the clue to that question has to do with how consciousness comes from the brain, that is to say, with the relation between phenomenological experience and neural activity –the mind/brain problem. However, I think again that this is not the best way to address the phenomenon of intelligent life. It is more fruitful to begin with the study of teleological behavior. What is the difference between goal-directed movements and non-goal-directed movements? It is a very old perspective: to understand our psyche we should first go back to the problem of the soul, namely, to study what gives the body life. Indeed, teleology is at the root of the human way of thinking and living –many people even find it the clearest evidence among all. It is not absurd to claim, then, that teleology is previous to mind, meaning that reality, at least the ensouled matter, enjoys a certain degree of outerness or, if one prefers, innerness –the main feature of subjectivity.

I am not suggesting that there are things and, in parallel, ideals, altogether linked in the Cartesian way. I like to describe such innerness as a temporal folding in which an entity’s past and future are co-presented (intentionality) and because of which movement emerges (intention). It is in this context that intelligence receives its deepest meaning: being a tool for freedom. It seems to me that the evolution of intelligence, from basic organisms to human beings, is the evolution of mechanisms through which natural goals are progressively owned. The final form of ownership is the ability to create and adopt new goals. That is the main difference between Gary Kasparov, the chess Grandmaster, and Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. Only the former knows why he is playing. We do not know how to design machines capable of giving themselves a reason to act, to move in this strange world. They only follow our dreams –work by our teleological markers. Mind comes to soul.

You differentiate between subjectivity and consciousness. How so?

On this topic I follow Dennett’s definition of a consciousness system: a tool specialized in processing primarily others’ human goals (reading other minds), and secondarily, its own goals. This type of processing does not necessarily need any phenomenological events – the agent’s awareness. For example, sometimes, in order to solve a problem, we decide to sleep on it. It is as if brains were able to work without us. Therein, I think, lies the unconscious mind and automatic behavior. Strictly speaking, consciousness phenomena would arise when the process of goals are experienced. Of course, conscious processing ontogenetically precedes unconscious processing. As I said, subjectivity is at the core of goals. However, central nervous systems appear to be able to build and manage the goal’s physical traces –teleological markers. Otherwise, unconscious phenomena would be impossible.

Conversely, it is possible to talk about subjectivity without consciousness, namely, noticing goals without the use of the intersubjective conscious system. For example, it is plausible to attribute a certain degree of subjectivity to the Aplysia californica, a species of sea slug, but it would be ridiculous to say that they have social (intersubjective) life as humans have. Precisely in this regard I dissent from Dennett’s view. He equates the way in which we notice and create goals with the way in which we weigh goals. From my perspective, machines can only do the second. Again, it is thanks to the abstraction and exchange of teleological markers that machines help us to think, but they do not think. By the same token, we should not literally believe that computers have information stored in their memory. Consider, for example, a tracker obtaining information from a trail. There is no real information along the way -only stones, trees… What happens is that the trail is a knowable thing when acts of knowing are applied to it. Teleological markers (prepared and placed on the brain, in a book, in a computer, etc.) are better knowable things than trails. In fact, I defend that information is the right term to denominate them and only them. Ultimately, I think that there is no information on a trail nor in any reality without soul or without contact with a soul –at least one - the mind of the universe.

Feelings have a relevant role in your idea of freedom. Is it also because of teleological markers?

Indeed. The concept of teleological markers is useful to explain not only unconscious behavior but also some kinds of complex emotions, which are very vivid mental phenomena but traditionally considered as separate from rationality and will. Antonio Damasio has contributed interesting evidence about the intrinsic connection between affective and cognitive processing. For Damasio, feelings provide essential support to rationality. I would, in fact, go slightly further and say that both affective and cognitive systems are able to automate, through feelings, the fruits of consciousness –in the social sense given above. In other words, our consciousness of reality may be transduced in emotional drivers over time. Here we find another sense of automaticity, i.e. teleological mental phenomena that are experienced but not closely controlled by the agent. It is a universal human feature: we usually do not feel what we would like to feel. Forging a heart is not an easy job but, if I am correct with my hypotheses about teleological markers, the best and quickest way of shaping feelings is through the exercise of ‘conscious’ reason. Preferably, our heart needs to be convinced, not tamed. The acquisition of habits –half way between what is conscious and what is automatic in the human mind– should be, in my opinion, a priority research line in the study of such affective transduction. The detection of teleological markers in human feelings would be strong evidence of that.

Probably, the rational conquest of one’s own heart is one of the most liberating goals one could imagine. Besides, it is the finest expression of human identity –unicity: behaviors, thoughts, and feelings weaved in the same fabric by the thread of coherence. Finally, the quest towards that ideal leads to the achievement of a reliable heart in which a person may look inwards, find herself and be capable of expressing to others her true being. Ideals are more powerful than violence against oneself and against others.

Visit Prof. Echarte's expert profile
Read Prof. Echarte's paper "Teleological markers: Seven lines of hypothesis around Denett's theory of habits"
Read the Spanish version of this interview at University of Navarra's website