Man a machine?

The doctrine that men are machines, or robot is, is a fairly old one. Its first clear and forceful formulation is due, it seems, to the title of a famous book by La Mettrie, Man a Machine [1747]; though the first writer to play with the idea of robots was Homer.

Yet machines are clearly not ends in themselves, however complicated they may be. They may be valuable because of their usefulness, or because of their rarity; and a certain specimen may be valuable because of its historical unique­ness. But machines become valueless if they do not have a rarity value: if there are too many of a kind we are prepared to pay to have them removed. On the other hand, we value human lives in spite of the problem of over-population, the gravest of all social problems of our time. We respect even the life of a murderer.

It must be admitted that, after two world wars, and under the threat of the new means for mass destruction, there has been a frightening deterioration of respect for human life in some strata of our society. This makes it particularly urgent to reaffirm in what follows a view from which we have, I think, no reason to deviate: the view that men are ends in them­selves and not “just” machines.

We can divide those who uphold the doctrine that men are machines, or a similar doctrine, into two categories: those who deny the existence of mental events, of personal experiences, or of consciousness; or who say perhaps that the question whether such experiences exist is of minor importance and may be safely left open; and those who admit the existence of mental events, but assert that they are “epiphenomena” – that everything can be explained without them, since the material world is causally closed. But whether they belong to the one category or the other, both must neglect, it seems to me, the reality of human suffering, and the significance of the fight against unnecessary suffering.

Thus I regard the doctrine that men are machines not only as mistaken, but as prone to undermine a humanist ethics. However, this very reason makes it all the more necessary to stress that the great defenders of that doctrine – all up­holders of humanist ethics. From Democritus and Lucretius to Herbert Feigl and Anthony Quinton, materialist philo­sophers have usually been humanists and fighters for freedom and enlightenment; and, sad to say, their opponents have sometimes been the opposite. Thus just because I regard materialism as mistaken – just because I do not believe that men are machines or automata – I wish to stress the great and indeed vital role which the materialist philosophy has played in the evolution of human thought, and of humanist ethics. [4-5]

1 comment

  1. Oh dear. First, ‘People are machines’ obviously doesn’t equal ‘People are just machines’. Second, over­population is an example of there being “too many of a kind”? Third, blatant false dilemma in the fourth paragraph—and both alternatives are non-sequiturs. Neither does consistent materialism entail a denial of the existence of mental events or consciousness nor does something’s being an epiphenomenon mean “that everything can be explained without it”. There are levels of explanation, even if everything really is made up only of particles, energy, fields, etc. Fourth, this materialism “undermines humanist ethics”—but all the great materialist philosophers “have usually been humanists and fighters for freedom and enlighten­ment”? Maybe there is something wrong with your claim, then?

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