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In Context #1 (Spring, 1999, pp. 16-19); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Programming the Universe: Are Animals Robots?
Stephen L. Talbott

Artificial intelligence researchers are fond of creating little robots that scurry around on the floor and possess - or will soon possess, so we are assured—the wit of an insect. The assumption, often made explicit, is that with each technical advance the intelligence of these devices will ascend another step of the evolutionary ladder, finally approaching the mental cleverness and versatility of man.

But this gets things exactly backward. The truth of the matter is that it is much easier to program human intelligence—or, at least, certain aspects of it—than to program anything at all of an insect's intelligence. After all, we're the ones who have invented computers. Clearly we can learn to pattern our thinking in step with the mechanisms of a computer; we do this every time we write a program—and therefore the computer so programmed is patterned after our thinking. The execution of a computer program must reproduce our thinking in some sense. But it's quite a different matter with the beetle, who is presumably a long way from being able to hire on as a software engineer.

What artificial intelligence researchers like about insects is their supposedly simple, rule-based intelligence. This is odd, however, since it is the human being, not the insect, who has gained the ability to think in a rule-driven manner. We are the ones who not only speak, but derive syntactic rules of speech—and then admonish our children to "obey the rules". We are the ones who not only analyze our experience, but tease out of our analytic activity the logic of analysis. We alone formulate volumes of legal code, rules of etiquette, protocols of office, organizational procedures, New Year's resolutions.

"But even if the insect doesn't consciously formulate the relatively simple rules of its behavior, isn't it obvious that it obeys rules?" No, it's not. Here several things need saying.

The Commonsensical Beetle

In the first place, no one would be so foolish as to claim that an insect obeys rules in any literal sense. Certainly there is no conscious obedience going on, nor even a conscious apprehension of rules. At most one might say that the insect has rules of behavior somehow "built in" to it, which it must follow.

But this, too, is a misrepresentation. Yes, an insect often displays a kind of rigidity in its behavior, and, yes, when we apply our narrowly focused, abstracting intellects to this behavior, we may all too easily reduce it to rules of thumb. Rules of thumb, however, are not the behavior they summarize and reduce, nor do they adequately describe the behavior. We learned this during the early days of artificial intelligence work, when researchers confidently applied the same reduction to human intelligence. Only slowly did they realize that our common sense—which lies at the opposite pole from the more highly conscious activity whereby we explicitly formulate and obey rules—was hopelessly beyond any imaginable collection of rules.

There is every reason to think that this must hold true all the more for the intelligence of the insect, which surely lies even further toward the "organic" and implicit end of the spectrum than does our own common sense. Only the abstract, rule-bound activity of our intellects allows us to think otherwise. We see the fly expending the last energies of its life banging its head against a window pane, and we think, "What a simple-minded program it is following!"

Do Reflexes Exist?

But the fly was not made for a world of window panes. Its powers of adaptation are extremely limited. A lack of adaptability to a wholly alien world, however, is not the same as simple-mindedness or rule-mindedness. Within its own, infinitely complex and ever-changing world, the fly demonstrates an intelligence that in many respects is more subtle and efficacious than our own. (For an example of insect intelligence, see "The Obscure Wisdom of the Potter Wasp" in this issue.) Even the behavior at the window pane would reveal endless subtleties if we were to observe it carefully enough: how does it vary with different light and reflective conditions, different temperature conditions, time of day, the presence of other insects or spider webs, different chemical gradients in the air, and so on? The simple-mindedness of its "rules" is really the simple-mindedness of our observation.

All this was put into clear relief by Kurt Goldstein in his several-decades-old and decisively important book, The Organism (recently reprinted with a foreword by Oliver Sacks). A neurologist, Goldstein looked at the various ways we analyze organisms into rule-based, mechanical parts and then try to reconstruct the whole from these parts. It never works. He assesses the idea of the "reflex" in animals and shows in exhaustive detail that the "simple-minded" reflex mechanisms we so easily imagine actually don't exist. For example, slight changes in the intensity of a stimulus can often reverse a reflex; a reflex in one part of a body can be altered by the position of other parts; an organism's exposure to certain chemicals such as strychnine can reverse a reflex; other chemicals can completely change the nature of a reflex (a decerebrated cat will immediately swallow any water placed on its pharynx, but will produce wiping movements of the tongue instead if there is a little alcohol in the water); fatigue can have the same effect; consciously trying to repress a reflex can accentuate it (try it with your "knee-jerk" reflex); and so on without end.

Goldstein showed that the reflex is an artifact of our own stance as researchers, whereby we conceptually and experimentally isolate one part of an organism, cutting the part off from its whole. Moreover, he finds that higher organisms, including human beings, are much more likely to show approximations of reflexes, because it is we who can allow parts of ourselves to become isolated and de-centered. (That's what many procedures of medical assessment are all about.)

Human beings are able, by assuming a special attitude, to surrender single parts of their organism to the environment for isolated reaction. Usually, this is the condition under which we examine a patient's "reflexes"....But [regarding the pupillary reflex] it certainly is not true that the same light intensity will produce the same contraction when it affects the organ in isolation (as in the reflex examination) and when it acts on the eye of the person who deliberately regards an only needs to contrast the pupillary reaction of a man looking interestedly at a brightly illuminated object with the reaction of an eye that has been exposed "in isolation" to the same light intensity. The difference in pupillary reaction is immediately manifest. (Goldstein, 1995, p. 144)

"I Am the World"

If we would approach the intelligence of the insect in its own terms, without imposing our artificial requirements on it, then the fly on the window pane usefully reminds us that the insect is inseparable from its environment. The naturalist E. L. Grant Watson speaks of this when describing a newly emerged mason-bee taking flight for the first time and alighting on some chance object. It has no experience of the world as yet; how will it find its way?
I ask it: "What do you know, young bee, of the world and the universe?" It answers: "I am the universe." (Watson, 1995, pp. 142-43)
Our temptation is to take this as poetic shorthand for "the bee comes equipped with a set of built-in rules that prepare it for what it will meet in its normal environment." As we have seen, this is a highly problematic view. What are the alternatives?

One alternative is to take Watson's remark at face value. The bee is a whole, integrated within a larger whole; its intelligence is at the same time an expression of the world's intelligence. What it meets in the world is not something foreign, but itself.

Such statements will doubtless offend conventional scientific sensibilities. And yet we are driven to them as soon as we try to understand conscious intelligence, whether an insect's dull and "sleeping" intelligence or our own focused and self-aware intelligence. You cannot speak of the unity or coherence of any activities of consciousness—in fact, you cannot speak of consciousness at all—without speaking of qualities. Take any state of your own consciousness and subtract all its qualities, and you will have nothing conscious left. Without the qualitative experience of, say, a tree, you won't even have anything from which to abstract quantities.

Now, the peculiar thing about qualities is their double nature. They are "in here"—part of the interior of the self (which is why science has shied away from them). But they are also "out there" in the world we share. That is, once you have discounted hallucinations and other purely subjective contents, you are left with the phenomenal world we hold in common. It remains qualitative through and through. Only our habits of abstraction, and our willingness to mistake abstract residues for the reality they came from, could convince us otherwise.

Qualities that are both in here and out there raise the question whether the task of programming a beetle's consciousness—programming the qualitative texture of its experience—is also a task of programming its environment. It may be less true to think of the beetle as a centered, executive agent responding by-the-rule to stimuli from the world than to think of the world gathering itself (in all its qualitative beetleness) to a focus in the insect.

That focus may be diffuse, perhaps vaguely analogous to the soft focus of our dreams. In the human being, on the other hand, the gathering of interior light has become intense and sharply defined, finally igniting a flame within us, so that we, unlike the beetle, can throw light back upon the world. We can understand and bring ever new things to pass. It is not only that the world gathers and expresses itself in us; we express ourselves through the world.

What Is It Like to Be a Program? (Not Much)

So the spectrum of conscious intelligence, running from "simple" organism to complex, can be seen to reflect a shifting balance between a diffuse, world-intelligence raying into the organism from without, and a bright, focused intelligence partly raying back out into the world. This is a very different matter from seeing the spectrum as reflecting an ever more complex assemblage of rules.

What makes the latter view possible is the abandonment of the attempt to understand conscious intelligence altogether. It is replaced by the search for mechanisms that can more or less approximately reproduce particular behaviors. And with this narrow, isolating focus come the pathologies of understanding that Goldstein documents so devastatingly. Once you have abandoned the only ground upon which unities and wholes can be recognized—and that ground is irreducibly qualitative—you will inevitably find separate, well-defined mechanisms where there are none—creating them if necessary. And you will no longer care very much for the kind of qualitative observation that alone can show you the limitations of your viewpoint.

It's no surprise, then, that the abiding problem at the center of all efforts to create artificial intelligence remains as untouched today as it was forty years ago: how do we program the qualitative texture and content of consciousness? How, that is, do we program a consciousness as experienced "from the inside" (and, of course, the experience of things from the inside is what consciousness is.)

Is any organism ever precisely bound by rules in the strict, computational sense? It would be a healthy thing if those attempting to program animal behavior and intelligence would attempt to answer this question through direct observation of animals in their natural habitat. What I think they would find, if they were good observers, is that their rules became ever more compromised, more qualitative, more artistic in form as the range of their observation expanded, until finally they realized that they were striving to experience the inner being of the animal, its meaning or expressive unity, more than a set of rules.

It was long ago pointed out (by Thomas Nagel, 1980) that artificial intelligence researchers have not been able to approach the qualitative side of consciousness. They have not satisfactorily answered the question, "What is it like to be a bat?" This is sometimes viewed as the "last frontier" of artificial intelligence. The truth of the matter, I think, is that it is the entire unsolved and unsolvable problem of artificial intelligence. In the end, there is no other question to ask about an organism, except "What is it like to be that organism?" All the "mechanisms", all the "reflexes" and "drives"—if we were to explore them fully enough—would be recognized as nothing more than stranded fragments of the answer to this question. The organism is a unity, and the only way for anything to be a unity is for it to be an interior shining through—integrally expressing itself through—an exterior (Barfield, 1977).

The interior is given in consciousness, and this consciousness can, at one extreme, possess the soft focus that is more an expression of the world than of the "separate" organism. At the other extreme, it can exhibit the sharp, self-sustaining focus that enables us—unlike the fly and the beetle—to detach ourselves from the world and thereby to make both rules and mistakes. Many of our mistakes, it turns out, have to do with projecting our own, lately achieved, rule-following consciousness upon the living dynamic of the world from which we have detached ourselves.

Stephen L. Talbott is a senior researcher at The Nature Institute and author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.


Barfield, Owen (1977). "Science and Quality," The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Goldstein, Kurt (1995; originally published in 1935). The Organism. New York, N.Y.: Zone Books.

Nagel, Thomas (1980; originally published in 1974). "What is It Like to Be a Bat?" In Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1, edited By Ned Block. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Watson, E.L. Grant (1995; originally published in 1964). The Mystery of Physical Life. Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press.

Original source: In Context (Spring, 1999, pp. 16-19); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Programming the Universe: Are Animals Robots?

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