Am I a Robot?

I think it’s likely, but it doesn’t concern me overmuch. After all, robots are pretty cool, even if they are made of meat. Perhaps it is the decades of science fiction arguing that sentient robots are deserving of love that makes this idea so easy to accept. Then again, perhaps it’s just how I’m programmed to feel.

This is about free will

In case you are wondering, the inspiration for this post is the ever-classic philosophical debate about free will. After years of mucking about with this topic I’ve settled into a particular viewpoint. It’s a bit more complicated than yes or no, but you can probably guess from the intro I lean into the “no” side of the debate.

I don’t believe in magic

By this, I mean that I don’t think your desires can change the fundamental nature of reality. Wishes don’t become reality. Prayers don’t change what will happen. Every example I’ve witnessed with people trying to change reality through force of will alone has only reinforced this view. The fact that many things happen that nearly everyone would like not to have happen is a strong argument against this notion.

That is not to say that our desires or wishes have no impact. They in fact do. They are intrinsically part of who we are and they drive our behaviors and actions. Those actions have a very demonstrable impact on the world around us. They don’t change the fundamental nature of reality, but they are part of it and create change that follows the path of our desires much of the time.

No ghosts in the machine

My experiences have also led me to believe that our consciousness is a manifestation of our bodies. It arises from a complex web of functionality. It is not one thing, but a collection of different things such as memory, sense, abstract symbolism, categorization, expression, emotion, and many other functions including self-awareness without which we wouldn’t know we have the others.

Most of these functions are not exclusive to humans, we just have the most robust set of them, leading to our very special expression of identity and thought. Other animals share some or all of them to some degree. And as we develop computer intelligence, we create non-living things that have many of the same traits if not all of them just yet.

The more we learn about and study our brains, the more we come to see that the function arises from the form. That if we tinker with our brains, we also tinker with our minds.

Our reality is ordered

There is a predictability in the way the universe operates that has allowed us to develop the discipline of science. The whole underpinning of it is this predictability. If things were not ordered then we could not make predictions and there would be no value in science.

Of course, our knowledge is limited, and there may be elements of reality that are not ordered or which we don’t understand. Quantum mechanics gives us some pause in saying the universe is fixed in its function. Yet, for the most part, we live in an ordered world that can be predicted if you have sufficient knowledge.

And so…

If reality is ordered and there are no ghosts driving us or it, then we are a sort of meat robot that follows the order of the universe and cannot escape the laws of cause and effect. In short, we don’t have metaphysical free will that transcends the “natural” order of the universe. If we had enough knowledge about ourselves and everything that impacts us, we could predict exactly what we will do in the future.

What a fantastic meat robot will never know

The thing of it is, even if we are bound by destiny, we will never know what it is. We don’t have perfect knowledge and the system that is us, and the system that is the wider universe is so complex and difficult to understand that we will never truly know what will happen next or even exactly how we will react to it. We are self-aware, yet we are always learning new things about ourselves as we journey through life.

Whatever our motivations and desires, we will never fully understand exactly why they are this way or how they could have been different. We will always be somewhat mysterious even to ourselves. Even more, you won’t see the outside influences so much as you will see the resulting nexus of circumstances that is you. Despite lacking full understanding, we intrinsically know we are acting based on motivation.

Every meat robot is a special snowflake

Being a robot does not rob you of individuality. That’s because all of us are necessarily unique. Even with the same DNA and the same family, our experiences make us different. There is no guarantee that any given one of us will make the same decisions in the same situation. We’re something like a snowball rolling downhill. Every moment of our lives we change and adapt and become a little different and a little more unique.

Some would argue that without free will, there can be no accountability. But I find that plainly false. If one robot goes on a killing spree, you don’t just ignore it because it’s following its nature. The nature of that robot is to be dangerous so you treat it accordingly. The same goes for us. If our nature is that of violence and danger, then others will act to protect themselves. There is no difference in holding a “soul” accountable than holding a robot accountable. You identify the source of the problem and then do something about it.

But it is the fact that actions have consequences that make it possible to change others’ behaviors. That opens up the door to rehabilitation and redemption. Really, if the soul can just do what it likes with no outside force able to exert influence, then such efforts would be wasted, mere wishful thinking. It’s only because we understand there are actions and reactions based on some kind of order that we have hope of influencing one another in a useful way.

Sig and Tea cup

Let’s review

Being a meat robot without free will isn’t quite what we might think it is. It’s what we are. We are unique individuals. We do things for a reason even when we aren’t entirely aware of why. Our reasons are our own. Our destiny is driven largely by our own personal nature. Our nature might be a product of our environment, but it remains ours uniquely. We don’t know what is in our future but we will only get there through our own actions.

And while there may not be magic in the world, everything that is amazing, incredible, and wonderful in the world is what the world is. AKA, meat and matter are amazing, incredible, wondrous, and should not be cast aside for the one-dimensional ghosts of our imaginations.

Sigfried

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