I’m thoroughly enjoying Proust was a Neuroscientist, by science writer Jonah Lehrer. His theme is as follows: artists have, on many occasions, discovered profound truths about the brain long before scientists have cottoned on.
It’s a fascinating read.
However, I have one little quibble (thus far). In a chapter about neurogenesis and brain plasticity, Lehrer concludes that so much uncertainty and complexity is involved in determining personality and behavior, that we can effectively say good-bye to determinism, and the lack of free will that accompanies it. We are not, he claims, the machines we once thought we were.
Not so fast, Mr. Lehrer!
This is, I believe, a problem of misplaced perspective. The types of machines we build, like the 1939 BMW boxer sidevalve engine shown above, are actually just one subset of the machine category: they’re simple. Extremely simple, in fact. They may seem complicated, but far greater complexity, flexibility, and dynamism can easily be found in nature, especially in complex organisms such as ourselves.
Lehrer is therefore quite correct in pointing out how complex and dynamic we are, and he is right that we are not quite like the simple machines we are accustomed to using in everyday life. He is even right that it is not practically possible, at this point, to even attempt to predict human behavior – the amount of information needed to make such projections is staggeringly huge.
But this contrast between ourselves and our machines does not justify placing us in an entirely separate category. We are extremely complex chemical, electrical, mechanical machines, with many more inputs, outputs, and degrees of freedom (in the engineering sense) than most of the machines we’re used to dealing with. We do, nonetheless, perform some of the same functions as our machines: we move, we perform calculations, we sense signals, and we maintain stable thermal and chemical conditions against changes in our environment.
Perhaps we see ourselves as unique because we are conscious, or because we can think. But even these abilities, arising as they do from brain function, can be described in terms of basic physics and chemistry, and are therefore the result of machinations just like everything else.
In short, there is no ghost in the machine. We are the machine.
If the word “machine” still grates, perhaps there is solace in the knowledge that we – homo sapiens – are the most astoundingly sophisticated, versatile machines ever to have come into being. (To the best of our knowledge, of course!)