Bishop BrassneckThis piece (via MLU)notes how a robot is giving lectures in theology – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s being used as a prop for some theology lectures. It helps dramatise certain human issues, either the ‘strong’ ones about it lacking the immortal soul human beings are taken to have in Christian thought, or some ‘weak’ ones about more general ethical issues.

Nothing wrong with that; in fact I’ve heard it argued that all thinking robots would be theists, because to them it would seem obvious, almost self-evident, that conscious entities need a creator. No doubt D.A.V.I.D helps to raise interest, but he doesn’t seem half as provocative as the Jesus automaton described here; not a modern robot but a feature of the medieval church robot scene, apparently a far livelier business than we could ever have guessed.

It’s certainly true that those old automata had a deep impact on Western thought about the mind. Descartes describes hydraulic ones, and it’s clear that they helped form his idea of the human body as a mere machine. The study of anatomy was backing this up – Leonardo da Vinci, for example, had already concluded on the basis of anatomy alone that the brain was the centre from which the body was controlled. Together these two influences banished older ideas of volition acting throughout the body, with your arm moving because you just wanted it to, impelled by your unintermediated volition. These days, of course, some actually think we have gone too far with our brain-centrism, and need to bring in ideas of embodiment and mind extension; but rightly or wrongly the automata undoubtedly changed our minds dramatically.

The same kind of thing happened when effective computers came on the scene. Before then it had seemed obvious that though the body might be a machine, the mind categorically was not; now there was a persuasive case for thinking our minds as well as our bodies might be machines, and I think our idea of consciousness has been reshaped gradually since so that it can fill the role of ‘the thing machines can’t do’ for those who think there is such a thing.

It might be that this has distorted our way of looking at consciousness, which never occupied an important place in ancient thought, and does not really feature in the same way in non-western traditions (at least so far as I can tell). So perhaps robots shouldn’t be teaching us about the mind. On the other hand, they sometimes come up with interesting stuff. Dennett’s discussion of the frame problem is a nice example. Most people take the frame problem – in essence, dealing with all the small background details of real-world  situations which multiply indefinitely, are probably irrelevant, but might just come back to bite you – as a problem for AI: but Dennett thoughtfully suggested that it was in fact a problem for all forms of intelligence. It was just that the human brain dealt with it so smoothly we’d never noticed it before: but to explain how the brain dealt with it was at least as problematic as building a robot that could handle it. In this way the robots had given us a new insight into human cognition.  So perhaps we should listen to them?


  1. 1. Vicente says:

    It’s certainly true that those old automata had a deep impact on Western thought about the mind.

    Indeed !!

    For those interested in the topic, I strongly recommend: Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

    A great book that devotes a few chapters to this question, and other very interesting issues.

  2. 2. VicP says:

    It was persuasive that our minds may have been machines or computers but machines and computers were originally just crude imitations of our own bodies and brain functions. The first spinning wheels were cranked by hands and feet until the industrial revolution brought the steam engine.

    We can say the analogy is wrong; or “so what” if our brains and bodies are computers and machines! The difference is they are natural machines made of biological cells. We can conjecture twin earths and zombie worlds where walking talking systems evolve out of inorganic “non-living” cells that drink water that is not H2O and wind up with circular reasoning that our brains and bodies are computers and machines made by evil demons etc. But as Scott’s BBT espouses that is why we are on this philosophical muddles!

    Of course we ARE computers and machines! No problem with that at all. You just have to be comfortable with the fact that our brains are blind to why we are not comfortable with that analogy!

  3. 3. Marcus Morgan says:

    Hi Peter, I stumbled upon your work “Surely Not?” about the computer-brain comparison. I tend to agree with you generally, but I am probably even less charitable to the computer view. I suggest the appearance of rational complex thought is by neurons directly representing functional site interfaces with a world. processing of those diverse interfaces are automatically processed by one flow from diverse inputs to diverse outputs after integration in one location – a brain. By valuing sites themselves, we can see what neurons automatically represent by no more that networking across diversities for an integrated “experience” – possibly a magnetic event of “neutralization” to neural current. No computation, just automatic flow in and back again for biological functions in the world. have a read of my work at Don’t be put off by the title, I propose humans have a great “Design” to their biological sites from evolution, to create rational awareness.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Thanks, Marcus.

  5. 5. Marcus Morgan says:

    Terrific site, the dog’s bollocks, covers the interesting issues. I visit some awful sites by comparison, I must say, but I’m not so nice about the issues people discuss. Nature is like Jenga, once you get it right, it all falls into place (or out of place easily if not) – including everything (?) you write about, but I haven’t read it all. You can certainly extend from it quite freely.

  6. 6. VicP says:

    Peter, Nothing wrong with the machine/computer analogy. As I point out the machines and computers we build or based on animal nature. Electronic computers imitate thought and logic because they imitate something which we have in abundance, namely time. The devices in a computer are logic state storage devices instantiated by artificial time or an electronic clock. Living things may be machines but they are made from smaller machines or ALL living cells are machines. Neurons are just SPECIAL Machines because they can perform this emergent function called Consciousness OR they can cause the emergence of this larger environment which Ted Honderich calls The Room. It is this deeper function of emergence which I theorize as Super Cell Theory or the metabolic combining of function. What makes brains so complicated is that there are multiple cortex areas of emergence combined by an overlaying neocortex with translational functionality that generates Higher Order Thought, body language, body movement, aural language etc.

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Hi VicP

    the machines and computers we build or based on animal nature. Electronic computers imitate thought and logic because they imitate something which we have in abundance, namely time.

    Interesting comment. Could you point out other more specific similitudes (beyond being in time), or commonalities that make computers ressemble brains? we know computers and brains consume energy, they weight, can be located in space, can be evaporated at high temperatures, etc but could you tell some coincidece in the way they function and operate?

    I really envy you if you think we have time in abundance, to me, time is gold.

  8. 8. VicP says:


    Well maybe I play fast and loose but you can define time as the relationship between any physical particle or object with respect to other physical objects and its environment. When there are no physical objects present including dark matter you can argue time is present, however it’s difficult to prove.

    Instead of similarities between brains and computers, how about between biological bodies from simple organisms on up and computers? Brains are simply specialized organs in more complex bodies (biological machines). Bodies move logically in their environments wrt rewards and threats. Although brains control bodies with essentially analog neuron circuits that respond in time, any analog function can be simulated or reconstructed digitally with artificially clocked circuits. A robot which resembles a human and moves like a human is essentially reconstructing its environment the same way brains do, except they do it with electronic algorithms that create the time and order, thus coordinating its “sensorimotor” system the way a human does?

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