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In Context #2 (Fall, 1999, pp. 10-11); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Where Shall the Mind Look for Itself?

The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil (New York: Viking, 1999).

Reviewed by Stephen L. Talbott.

As Ray Kurzweil sees it, in 2029—when most of us will still be alive—$1000 will buy the computing capacity of one thousand human brains. Computers will routinely read all human literature and will claim to be conscious—a claim most people will accept. There will be direct communication along neural pathways between computers and brains. And virtual sex between physically separated human partners—old hat by this time—will face competition from computer agents serving as lovers.

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweil presents all this and much more as if it were merely the sober extrapolation of readily identifiable trends. Nor is he reluctant to run out the extrapolation as far as his fancy can carry it. By next century's end, he tells us, a single computer-based intelligence will be more powerful than all flesh-limited intelligence combined, and those humans who do not at least employ digital neural implants in their brains will be "unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do." But most people will have given up the flesh altogether, downloading their minds into software and manifesting themselves in various physical forms at will by means of "instantly reconfigurable nanobot swarms."

A remarkable thing about Kurzweil's book is the reception it has received. One reviewer after another has accorded it the dignity implied in taking its predictions seriously—often pointing, for justification, to Kurzweil's predictive successes in his earlier work, The Age of Intelligent Machines. Such a response would have been unthinkable just two or three decades ago. Clearly something is changing—fast. A reasonable assumption is that our rapidly increasing exposure to computers is altering our response to the kind of vision Kurzweil presents, making it more and more persuasive.

A Mind without Distinction

Another remarkable thing about this book is the author's apparent unawareness of any distinction between his strictly technical predictions—regarding, for example, the speed and computational power of tomorrow's hardware—and other predictions involving claims about life and consciousness. For Kurzweil, greater computational power translates directly into greater mental power, a translation he effects without undue worry about long-standing and fundamental philosophical problems.

When Kurzweil does venture beyond his preferred technical milieu, the results are not always pretty. As Diane Proudfoot writes in a Science review, Kurzweil is not much of a historian or philosopher, and his blunders in those fields inspire "little confidence in his imaginings about the future" (Apr. 30, 1999). So also John Searle, who finds in Kurzweil's book "a series of conceptual confusions" (New York Review, Apr. 8, 1999).

But it would be a mistake to dismiss The Age of Spiritual Machines too casually. The fact that Kurzweil no longer finds it necessary to distinguish between the functioning of a technical mechanism and his own mental activity—and that a large readership is more and more prepared to follow him in this conflation—is terribly significant for our future.

Certainly we can narrow our conception of our own minds. We can focus on the machine-like characteristics of the devices that have so thoroughly fascinated us during the past several centuries. But this is not merely a narrowing of certain concepts; through the accumulating mental habits affected by these concepts, it becomes a narrowing of the mind itself.

In other words, the way we think about our minds both reflects and in turn redefines what our minds are. Every way of thinking about the mind has a self-fulfilling aspect; after all, the thinking about the mind is, at the same time, an activity of the mind. My own suspicion is that half way through the twenty-first century many people will find it only reasonable to say, "See—Kurzweil was right." Having more and more restricted their own thinking to the abstractions that can be handled like mechanisms, they will happily adapt themselves to Kurzweil's robotic world.

Changing Our Minds

The mind is almost pure potential. You need only look around at a Bach or Mozart, a Picasso or Monet, a Joan of Arc or Helen Keller, an Einstein or Feynman, to get some sense for what has already been achieved—an overall achievement that must remain largely unfathomable to any one of us. That's a lot of unexplored potential for us to move around in! Nor is there any reason to foreclose the untold additional potentials that no individual has yet stepped into. We have no grounds for setting limits upon what the human mind can make of itself.

But the complementary truth is that we can also shrink our capacities without limit. And this points to something that Kurzweil has not reckoned with: getting at the truth of the human mind is less a matter of correct analysis at a particular historical moment—let alone merely technical analysis—than it is a matter of the path of consciousness we set out upon. The mind's discovery of itself will necessarily reflect what it has been doing up to, at the moment of, and in the very act of, its self-discovery.

Kurzweil, brilliant software engineer that he is, catches himself in the act of computing. That is not surprising, nor is it an entirely false revelation. But it is a truth that becomes seriously distorted in the absence of any exploration of the paths largely ignored during these several hundred years of our fascination with mechanisms. Each of these paths not taken represents a possibility of self-discovery yet to be glimpsed.

In pursuing a participative science, The Nature Institute seeks to do its part in opening up paths along which the mind can discover itself in new ways. It is one thing to find a shadow of our own interior processes reflected back to us from our machines. What is reflected in this way is what we have previously stamped upon the machines—but, as it were, stamped from without, through the "external" articulation of the machine's parts. Having abstracted certain elements of structure from our customary thoughts, we impress those elements upon the machine.

But quite other revelations are in store when we turn to the plant or animal. What we meet here is not only a reflection of our mechanistic habits of thought. If we have been able to develop a thinking appropriate to the organism, then we begin to grasp the idea that works sovereignly from within the organism as the living, organizing principle of its own being. And in shaping our minds to that living idea, we make it at that moment our idea as well. That is, we consciously raise our own thinking above the level of mechanism to the level of the living organism.

That, at least, is the testimony of those who today pursue what Craig Holdrege calls "whole-organism biology," and of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner before them. We are, of course, free to opt against such a path of knowing. But in refusing the path we are not in a good position to say what might have been discovered along it.


Original source: In Context (Fall, 1999, pp. 10-11); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Where Shall the Mind Look for Itself?

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