PRINT May 1983


“I am” is a vain thought; “I am not” is a vain thought; “I shall be” is a vain thought; “I shall not be” is a vain thought. Vain thoughts are a sickness, an ulcer, a thorn. But after overcoming all vain thoughts one is called a silent thinker. And the thinker, the silent one, does no more arise, no more pass away, no more tremble, no more desire.
—Majjhima-Nikaya 140

Robot Robert knew he was a robot, knew he was programmed to know it, suspected he was programmed to rebel against it. Question: How can
Robot Robert bust his program with full assurance that he has not been programmed to bust it?

—Marv Friedenn

ANKEBUTA, AN ANCIENT BABYLONIAN SCIENTIST, wrote a work on “artificial productions” in which he claimed to have manufactured a living human being.1 Babylonian culture, which did without the idea of a soul, assumed that by meticulous imitation of natural processes humans could create plants, animals, and even other humans (i.e., They “foresaw” genetic engineering). The hebrew cabalistic texts in which the story is preserved do not allow it a happy ending; it emerges not as a tale of scientific triumph, but of theological shame. Ankebuta’s Homunculus, we read, had neither speech nor locomotion, but could only open and close its eyes. The poor creature was doomed to inadequacy because the act of creating it was an affront to god. The moral is that only god can create a soul; any being not made by god must be soulless and, as a consequence, horrible. Similarly, the golem, a being created by a rabbinical successor of Ankebuta, was a general affliction to all who had contact with him, and a terrible omen for human destiny as a whole. The later monster of Dr. Frankenstein was represented as brain-damaged for the same hidden theological reason Ankebuta’s was; the attempt to create a person is always perceived as impious in cultures that have a myth of the soul. Monotheistic religions feature this kind of anxiety especially.

A case from Greek polytheistic mythology––that of asclepius, a human physician who became so skilled that he brought a patient back from death––provides instructive contrast. For this overstepping of mortal power he himself had to die, but after his death the gods admired his skill so much that they made him one of them; he became the god of medicine. Within the loose and shifting structure of a polytheism, with no idea of a fixed soul, and the conception of a changing universe, there was room for new deities of science.

Today as “artificial intelligence” spreads its net around us, we divide into quasi-theological camps under the banners of gray matter or silicon. The question of whether computers do, or will, “think like people” has become a cutting edge to divide those who believe in the soul from those who do not. Yet the question of whether computers think like people is unanswerable until we know how people think—but so far we don’t. Perhaps for this reason alan turing, a cyberneticist involved in the early development of computers, regarded the question as meaningless.2 It is widely agreed that at the purely physical level the analogy between the computer and the human brain is not strong: neurons and bits do not behave in ways readily translatable into one another. At the level of surface performance there are many clear parallels between what computers do and what human minds do, but the question is really whether human minds have additional possibilities that computers can never attain. This question has elicited so much passionate debate because it is, finally, a question about what it is to be a human being.

For some, humanness is a process that achieves definition. If at all, only by happening; like Heraclitus’ river it may never be defined, for it may never be the same for two moments in a row. For others, humanness is a metaphysical essence that persists and remains the same, outside the flowing stream of nature. To this latter group the Homunculus or robot seems an ontological perversion, a thing which, merely by existing as itself, diminishes us in what we are: it is a sign that the fall from grace is still tragically in progress. A recent advertisement in the Houston Chronicle for a baptist church identified the computerization of society with the devil’s campaign against the human soul.3 The same case, but in milder terms, was made in a recent letter to the editors of the New York Post: “Concerning Time magazine’s man of the year award: to substitute a computer for a human being is an insult to those of us whose feelings and emotions run deeper than a ‘mechanical object’."4 These attacks on the computer, and most others, too, are made less because of what a computer is supposed to be than because of what a person is supposed to be. They are made in defense of presuppositions about human selfhood. Such presuppositions are among the most ferociously held superstitions of any culture.

Presuppositions about the self fall mostly into three categories. In a purely phenomenalistic approach, the self is seen as a constantly changing stream of impressions and thoughts with no apparent unifying principle. Even the body is not acknowledged as a ground of unity (or substrate), because what we experience directly is not a body, but mental impressions that may (or may not) be interpreted as evidence of a body. For David Hume, for example, our experience is a stream of ever-changing “point-instant events” with nothing that may be regarded as a unifying principle. Seen in this way, the self is not a perceived object, but a mental object, created by an organizing operation performed on a stream of impressions which in themselves lack such organization. As Hume said, “what we call a mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions.”5 From this heap of random images a sense of personal identity is constructed.

Other thinkers recognize the existence of the body as a temporary substrate for the sense of self. From the time of Democritus, materialist thinkers have taught that consciousness is a temporary by-product of the combination of chemicals in the body. When certain molecules are combined in certain ways, a kind of “buzz” is set up that experiences itself as consciousness; in fact, since it is centered in a body, it experiences itself as a finite center of consciousness, or subject. When the molecules in question are separated by bodily death, the self simply ceases to appear to exist. This view, which is found also among asian materialists such as the Carvakins, harmonizes well with recent discoveries about the chemistry of emotion, memory, and other elements of the traditional self.

Still other thinkers have made an additional evidential leap beyond the body, to the existence of something (a soul) that is not dependent either on the stream of impressions in consciousness or on the chemical combinations in the body. This soul, being somehow outside the changing finite body and mind, will survive them both. This type of view, which may roughly be called platonist, is found primarily in the western monotheistic religions. Only adherents of this view—the soulists, as Douglas Hofstadter has called them—need feel threatened by claims for the powers of artificial intelligence. Modern American culture has inherited the platonic-Christian concept of eternal soul as its most common presupposition about the self; the idea of the unique value of the individual and his or her ethical and esthetic decisions is a somewhat secularized version of it.

In Japan the situation is quite different. Japanese culture is based to a large extent on the buddhist idea of not-self, or soullessness. This traditional buddhist view, which is formulated most extensively in the abhidharma texts, is relevant to any comparison of Japanese and American attitudes toward robots and the self. The abhidharma analysis of human mental processes operates through direct introspection; Meditational practices are used to slow down the time sense until the flowing stream of consciousness can be studied. The procedure is essentially a positivistic use of what our culture calls esp. What is reported by those who have mastered the microscopic apprehension of time is that the self is a series of disconnected atomic moments of consciousness that run through so fast that they blur into an apparent continuum. Hume’s “heap of perceptions” is a close parallel; even closer is the phenomenon of persistence of vision that makes a series of still photographs, when run through a projector at a speed too fast for the eye to refocus on each one individually, appear as a continuum of movement.

The idea of a self then “arises from a false attitude,” as Lama Govinda puts it. What we regard as an enduring and unified center of subjectivity is “not. . . a constant. . . ‘thing’ but an ever-flowing process. . .”7 As Buddhaghosa put it in the Path of Purification: “Perception of impermanence should be cultivated for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’ 8 The Buddha, who had gone beyond the conceit “I am” to the realization of not-self, is portrayed in early Buddhist art either by an empty chair or a pair of empty footprints or both: the illusion of selfhood is gone; “he” is not there. A buddhist teaching image portrays the self as a mechanical construction which can be taken apart as easily as put together. The self is said to be like a chariot which, when disassembled, appears as two wheels, a seat, an axle, and a pole; everything that was present in the chariot is still present, but the “chariot” is no longer seen.

This view of the self, or any which, like Hume’s, is close to it, must be extremely tolerant of analogies between human selfhood and a constructed mechanical device. In fact, Abhidharmic analyses of human motivation are as impersonal as input-output records of computers a remarkable correspondence between these models (Abhidharma and cybernetics) is their view of the rate of mental operations. The atomic consciousness units, or “mind-moments,” into which Abhidharma analyzes the apparent continuum of subjectivity are described as enduring individually for only a billionth of an eye-blink or lightning flash. Since an eye-blink occupies about a quarter to a third of a second, we may translate this to three or four billion mental events per second. This apparent hyperbole is found again in the literature on computers. “Supercomputers” at present perform from 20 million to 400 million operations a second; Japanese-planned general purpose computers will soon perform ten billion operations in a second; American-planned computers designed for specific purposes will soon accomplish up to 100 billion mental operations per second. The Buddhist view of the self, in other words, while it is amazingly unlike our inherited christian view, is similar to a description of a computer.

When our culture faces robotization, it faces a satanic and terrifying reduction of its selfhood. When Japanese culture faces robotization, it sees nothing that it has not been familiar with, and at home with, for centuries. In Japan, for example, a Buddhist Abhidharmic text called the Heart Sutra is generally ambient in the culture, as are texts like the “Our Father” prayer in ours. While the “Our Father” is a direct personal appeal for the safety of a self which will not escape from the consequences of its personal choices throughout eternity, the Heart Sutra expresses the not-self doctrine relentlessly and calmly. “Here in this emptiness,” it says, “there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no impulse, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no touch, no mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch-object, concept; no sight sense, hearing sense, taste, smell, touch, or mind sense.”9 And so on. It is no surprise that a culture imbued with such doctrines does not feel its humanity threatened by robotization; Judeo-Christian faith in the soul, on the other hand, provides a solid barrier of resistance and paranoia toward artificial intelligence. In terms of western history this unrest is simply a continuation of the faith-reason controversy that has been a keynote of Christian culture since the middle ages. The same soul concept that opposed darwinism opposes artificial intelligence, and for the same reason. Darwinism suggests that humanness is not an ontological but an existential concept, not an unchanging essence but a discovery which is constantly being discovered; it is there precisely to be reshaped. For darwinism the soul has evolved out of the stream of nature and hence is subject to being washed away and dissolved in that stream again; on the cybernetic analogy, the self was constructed, through an act of interpretation, by a finite intelligence which itself is subject to the quasi-mechanistic stream of natural events. Either view is intolerable to the fundamental Soulist doctrine which underlies much of our culture.

But the situation is not a simple and clear East-West dichotomy. As certain areas of eastern thought have paralleled the western naturalistic view, certain areas of western tradition have paralleled the not-self doctrine. Language analysis, for example, has been perceived very similarly in the two settings. Ramakrishna, the famous 19th-century Vedantin practitioner, eliminated the words “I” and “Mine” from his vocabulary, referring to himself only as “this.” Ramana Maharshi, another Vedantin, felt that “The conceit ‘I am’“ could be dispelled by keeping the question “What am I?” constantly before the mind. Ludwig Wittgenstein, not so unlike Ramakrishna saying “this” instead of “I,” noted that one should not say “I think” but “There is a thought.”10 Gilbert Ryle was not so distant, either, when he referred to “the ‘systematic elusiveness’ of the concept of ‘I’.”11 “What we have to acknowledge,” said P. F. Strawson, “ . . . is the primitiveness of the concept of a person.”12 Roland Barthes has argued that the modern liberal idea of “the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person,’ “ is a by-product of the distortions of a particular cultural moment; an empirical-rational disguise of the Christian soul, arising by way of the reformation emphasis on personal faith.” To some extent, both the unreconstructed doctrine of soul and the liberal-secular version of it are losing their grip on Western culture.

In the West, certain intellectual currents of the 20th century have functioned in part as critiques of the self. Freudian analysis reduces the self to a conglomerate of impersonal warring forces: the ego, or conscious subject, is merely an emissary of a vast impersonal sea of genetic and infantile contents. Marxism reduces the self to an impersonal by-product of class forces: one’s social position determines one’s thoughts and feelings. Physics has blurred selfhood into relativity curves, quantum leaps, and observers who cannot observe because they are really participants, caught up in the same shifting river that they are attempting to observe.

Modern biology also shifts the concept of selfhood from the category of substance to that of process. If every time we experience anything a neuron alters in the brain, then the self is a constantly changing thing like John Locke’s sock (which acquired one patch after another till no fiber of it was the same: did it become another sock? When?) Structuralism and semiology have brought about an apotheosis of language into a kind of transpersonal mind that renders the individual self trivial. Barthes, for example, insisted on “the necessity to substitute language itself for the person. . . . It is language which speaks, not the author. . . .” Language, as the ultimate speaker, both transcends and voids the self: “I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a (grammatical) ‘subject,’ not a ‘person’. . . .”14

The traditional Western idea of the self as an unchanging essence is threatened in the face of all these critiques. Roman Catholicism made peace with evolution by declaring that god put souls into a certain male and female ape at a certain moment in early hominid development, these being, then, Adam and Eve. The soul, in other words, is removed from the process of evolution; it did not evolve along with the body, but entered the species fully prefabricated and not subject to modification in the future. Evolution is declared simply irrelevant to the destiny of the soul. Thus modern religion defends itself from science not, as once, by denying science, but, more cunningly, by declaring it irrelevant.

As the idea of the integral individual self has been reduced to some conditioned response or other (from DNA to bourgeois individualism), the related idea of personal godhead has been replaced by a variety of transpersonal selves, universal minds, or mastercodes. Language, the collective unconscious, the Oedipus complex, the historical dialectic, natural selection, the double helix, all have acquired something of the metaphysical status of impersonal godhead in these emerging posttheistic and postself religions the individual person recedes as his or her free will is increasingly co-opted by the code. For a self which transpires through a melting and merging of intricate transpersonal patternings, the idea of freedom becomes ambiguous or even ironic. It comes to seem, as B. F. Skinner proposed, that freedom is what we call the way we feel when we do what we have been conditioned to do.15 The idea of a special quest for freedom, for a point of view that would transcend all codes, gets tangled in an infinite regress of programs, as in the parable of the poet Marv Friedenn quoted at the beginning of this essay. The quest for freedom from frameworks becomes simply another framework. The self remains relative, and cannot escape into the absolute. Modern scientific thought, finally, has evolved a composite view of the self as a shifting ripple in the Heraclitean river, a view that has much in common with that of buddhist psychology.

Specific arguments against the analogy between artificial and human intelligence follow a characteristic pattern: one part of human experience is isolated as outside conditioned causality; it is then declared to be inherently free or irrational or innocent, and hence not replicable by mechanical analogues. This part, whichever it maybe, is shifted to the center of the human self as a residual soul or trace of soul. Intuition, introspection, memory, esthetic sensibility, and emotionality have all served as the centers of such arguments. Some, for example, deny intuition and original thought to computers, since they think only by proxy. The argument is blurred by at least one case of original mathematical discovery by a computer, and by ignorance of the workings of human intuition to begin with. Others have fastened on affect (or emotionality) as the essentially human trait, and have asserted: “no mechanism could feel pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse,” and so on.16 This formulation begs the question by assuming that there is something nonmechanical to the emotive processes—an assumption that remains unproven. The metaphysical nature of the claim seems apparent in light of neurotransmitter research. There is no obvious reason why emotional processes should not parallel and be paralleled by mechanical models; on the chemical level, it seems that a parallel modeling is already partly available.17

To yet other exponents of computer-dread it is the perception of beauty that is the specifically and inalienably human trait. But the relativism of canons of beauty suggests that they too are conditioned by the ambient causal net. Erich Neumann, for example, has written of the extreme changes observed in the images of female beauty through human history.18 The sense of beauty, in other words, seems to be involved in evolution as much as is the sense of self. It will not serve as a foundation for a platonic absolutism of the soul. Since the sense of beauty responds to external forces, there is no reason why it should not parallel mechanical processes or, for that matter, be caused by them. The belief that the apprehension of beauty is unconditioned or preternaturally free harks back to the myth of Eden; it postulates a residual level of innocent perceptiveness still active in the human mind, still apprehending things with edenic grace. This myth, in fact, lies behind much resistance to science in general and the computer in particular.

Nostalgia for Eden brings with it the sense that continuity with the past is essential to selfhood, that the self is only on a solid footing when rooted in the past. Memory is then seen as necessary to humanness, and as a treasure threatened by the electronic storage and recovery of information. To empiricists in general, as much as to those who are nostalgic for a golden age, memory is seen as a primary evidence or constituent of the self. For Locke, for example (who still represents the common-sense consensus of empiricist thought), “if x remembers doing such and such, then he is the person who did that thing.” For Carl Jung also the sense of personal identity arises from the apparent continuity of memory. Alterations in the working of memory, then, are viewed as assaults against the self and as a loss of humanness. (The not-self point of view necessarily reads these facts in reverse: for Patanjali, the memory is not the trace of the self, but the self the trace of the memory; the self, in other words, is a habit system built up entirely by memory, and waiting to be taken apart.)19 What is at issue is not so much a sudden shift as a long-standing process. Technology has been altering our relationship to information and its storage and recovery all along.

Julius Caesar, in the Commentaries On The Gallic War (VI, 14) notes that the druids preserved the strength of their memories by refusing to commit their traditions to writing. Memory, he says, is the defense of literature. In oral traditions the inherited texts were stored directly in the human person, merging with it somewhat like the “book people” of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. The Romans, on the other hand, like us, remembered not information itself but where information was stored––a process that computerization is bound to increase. Some experience this as a loss of essential humanness, while for others it is a potential nirvana of escape from the prison of the individual self with its burden of past and future. One person’s enlightenment is another’s dehumanization.

Related to the defense of memory is the belief that introspection or self-awareness is an essentially human trait, one that machines cannot incorporate. Introspection means that the mind is both self-knowing and other-knowing in the same moment: it knows a sensum and simultaneously knows its own knowing of the sensum. A machine, on the other hand, is seen as limited to retrospection; it assimilates a piece of information, then in the next moment remembers assimilating it. This model is very questionable, however. Gilbert Ryle argues that people know their sentience through memory, not through simultaneous or layered awareness. (The Abhidharma agrees.) Simultaneous other- and self-awareness would lead to an infinite regress, he argues, the mind being conscious of a sensum and conscious of being conscious of it, and conscious of being conscious of that, and so on.20

Lacking in self-awareness, the machine is also seen as obstructive to our need for direct experience. It threatens to inculcate a kind of solipsistic circular-gazing in place of human gregariousness, change, and activity—ultimately, to replace direct human touch with indirect cold-screen abstraction. E. M. Forster presents this case in “the machine stops,” a nightmare projection of computer-dread into a complete loss of human vitality and relationship in Forster’s vision of a machine-dominated world, emotion and impulse are blurred out by a “horror of direct experience” that is the unavoidable consequence of the addiction to abstraction on the screen. “The desire to look directly at things” passes from the world. “Cover the window, please,” one character says to another; “these mountains give me no ideas.” Finally, “people never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the machine.” Each person sits before his or her cool, dotted screen, energy passing in a self-enclosing circle from fingertips to screen to eyes to fingertips. Under the influence of the machine, the human being seems to have become as silent and still as Ankebuta’s winking homunculus.21

But another comparison may be more appropriate than that of the brain-damaged monster. The shift of human activity toward sedentary information processing (already, of course, promoted by TV) is, like everything else, part of a long ongoing process. In antiquity, people did not read silently to themselves, but aloud to one another. Cicero had a reader who followed him around all day with the book in hand; at any idle moment––in the street, in the bath, at table––he would recommence the reading. Those who were not, like Cicero, professional readers and writers, read aloud to one another or to themselves. Literature did not yet seem separate from the voice, from the body, from the living breath (spirit); it did not yet seem a silent world of abstraction into which one might wander away from the world of sense and relationship. The first person on record as having read silently to himself is Augustine of Hippo’s teacher Saint Ambrose. Here is Augustine’s description of it: “when he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. . . . Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence . . . We would sit there quietly, for no one had the heart to disturb him when he was so engrossed. . . . After a time we went away. . . . ”22 St. Ambrose sat silent with his book, lacking apparent speech or locomotion, like Ankebuta’s pitiful monster (was his heart also “exploring the meaning”?), As isolated from other people as George Segal’s computer victim on the cover of Time Magazine’s “machine of the year” issue. The practice of reading silently to oneself spread as a part of christian devotional practice, involving monkish silence and the attention of the heart. Now we all do it. Has it made us less human?

Forster’s anxiety was that the machine would remove us from a commitment to direct experience, addicting us to abstractions. The replacement of direct experience by abstract signs is again a long historical process that cannot be apocalyptically concentrated into a single moment like that of computerization. In ancient societies, before weights and measures were standardized, time and space were regarded in terms of direct experience. Chinese texts use “as long as it takes to eat a bowl of rice” as a time unit; Vedic texts use “as long as it takes to milk a cow.” Buddhaghosa measures distances in units like “the range of a stone thrown by a man of medium stature,” and “the distance that a woman throws a bowl of water from her back door.”23 Meters and miles are dead abstractions in comparison with these. But has their use made us less human, or more? Isn’t the question meaningless once humanness is seen not as an essence but as a process?

In addition to his nostalgia for a natural state, Forster expresses another powerful and widespread type of computer dread: the fear that computerization, with its potential for detailed monitoring of people, could become a tool for authoritarianism, that it might, indeed, stimulate authoritarian regimes to arise. In “the machine stops,” as in humanistic science fiction in general, the machine, through its home terminals, becomes an extension into the private realm of the attitudes and values of centralized authority. This objection is weighty and significant; but again it is worth pointing out that a historical process is involved, rather than a single monstrous Cataclysm. Virtually all technological advances in history that could be used to the advantage of power and authority have been so used. When iron smelting was first developed, its Indo-European inventors did not even pause to consider making improved ploughshares, but straightaway forged the iron sword and launched a campaign of conquest. The radio, the internal combustion engine, the airplane, the television tube, all have been applied to the extension and consolidation of power structures. The confrontation with the computer is not radically different from these past confrontations. The same vigilance is called for to be conscious of its applications.

It may certainly be argued that a belief in the integrity of the self and its potential for freedom is necessary for the defense of basic freedoms from authoritarian inroads. It is, after all, the individual who is moved to his or her own protection. But a Soulist belief is in no way an advantage for the maintenance of freedom. The Buddha, while teaching not-self, instituted a society far freer and more open than that of the great states of his day; and it is precisely the authoritarian claims of the soul that have rendered christianity and Islam among the most violent and repressive traditions in history. The belief in auratic selfhood is often the root of tyranny.

The various theological myths––of the soul, of innocence, of Eden, of a sense of loss through history––that fuel the attack on robotization also lie, in inverted form, behind the opposite point of view, which looks forward to a sort of freedom or salvation to be attained through science, robots, and the age of space. From this point of view, the artificial mind seems an instantiation of the not-self preached by the Heart Sutra. The computer’s flatness of affect is seen as preferable to irrational human passions. In the art realm, Andy Warhol embodied the mythological aspect of this point of view when he said, “I want to be a machine.” The half-million-dollar Andy Warhol robot now under construction in Valencia, California, is the symbol of this mechanistic messianism. Warhol’s interesting ethical reflections in the philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)24 show an aversion to affect that parallels that of some Abhidharmic texts. In Buddhism it is the “tendency to react by emotions” that is the source of unnecessary bondages.25 Warhol bases his preference precisely on the assumption that machines are not tossed about by fluctuating affect as humans are. Again he shows a trend in our society toward something like the not-self doctrine of primitive Buddhism.

According to the Abhidharma, “disturbances by emotionality will be removed by changes in interpretation”26; the goal is to rearrange one’s relation to language so that the metaphor of selfhood is not constantly presupposed in one’s though processes. Effects that the computer might be expected to exert on the language emotion linkage are relevent here. Jean-Paul Sartre,in reviewing Albert Camus’ L’entranger, originated the term “white writing” (l’ecriture blanche) for a style that is relatively deanthropomorphized and stripped of metaphor. Barthes recommended the elimination of verbal gestures that aim at modifying nature (that is, interpretive gestures) on the grounds that they express”the approach of a demiurge.”

As the goal of this purification of discourse Barthes looked toward a “neutral writing. . . a mode of writing which might at last achieve innocence” from ethical presuppositions, a writing that would realize that “expressiveness is a myth.” Through a “transparent form of speech” “the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form.”27 Something like a neutralized speech is found in the extremely dispassionate and antimetaphorical discourse of the Abhidharma texts themselves. Computer jargon also tends to bleach metaphorical color out of language; it has been described to me by an enthusiast as a “clean language,” freed from anthropomorphism, as human feelings, for example, are reduced to the neutral status of “information.” In the terminology of the information processing––data, input and output, storage and retrieval, and so on––only the most basic and neutral metaphors remain, such as the spatial picturing involved in the term “data base.” Like Ramakrishna saying “this” instead of “I,” Alfred Korzybski argued for improving sanity by eliminating the verb “be” from out speech.28 Computer talk, with its distancing of claims and metaphors, may itself go some distance toward bleaching Soulism from speech.

In fact, the computer screen may have a tendency to bleach metaphor and affect from information. Books are different plastic objects; when rare or prized they are auratic, with all the implications for selfhood and objecthood involved in aura and fetishism. But on a readout or printout every text looks the same.The cathode screen with its low resolution, small image and its impersonal format is a cold format is a cold medium compared to the electric typewriter.29 As the wordprosser spreads among writers it is not unreasonable to expect something like the “enormous changed which” as Walter Benjamin said, "printing . . . has brought about in literature . . .”30 Again what is in question with nostalgia for the book as a unique object is not a single event but an historical processes.The hand copied parchment book was far more unique and auratic than the printed book. Such nostalgia leads ever further back into history because fascination with the unique object in another disguised Edenism. Robert Graves has sad that he writes poetry only in a room where every furnishing is handmade. The gestures expresses a belief in a primally that the machine will separate man from nature. In this respect the concept of self functions in art much as it does in religion, rather than as it does in science and philosophy.

Questions of the originality and authenticity of the auratic artwork depend on the belief in the integrity and creative freedom of the self that produced it as trace of soul. The abstract expressionist phenomenon was especially dependent on this romantic (ultimately plantonic) view of self. But the art that followed it, epitomized symbolically in this respect by Warhol, seemed to accede to Benjamin’s prophecies about the age of mechanical reproduction. Indeed the division into crafts arts and technician mediated arts may to some extent reflect the decided or shifting attitude toward the self.

The Warhol Robot again seems to symbolize the denial of the romantic belief that art and science are opposed forces or sensibilities. (Of course, Warhol’s works are themselves auratic in a pale, vampirical way.) The acceptance of a scientific relationship to esthetics expresses an acceptance of the idea that esthetics is not a fixed absolute but a dependent in the causal net. This view, in turn, may be seen as despairingly tragic by those committed to the belief that esthetic canons are objective and unchanging in their essentials.

Computerization will provide new input to the culture’s image bank, as have photography, advertising, television, video, and science in general. Less predictably, it may change and add some new organizing principles to the imagination itself. One could only guess how complete its retexturing of consciousness might be, but this will probably proceed in a cooling direction. Increased electronic presence will possibly become involved with the effect that Benjamin expected, perhaps prematurely, from photography––the end of the residual religion of the soul as a hidden presence in art. In the 19605 a cooling period overtook this concept (not for the first time); yet the cooling turned into a strange parody of heat, as Warhol became an auratic figure replacing Jackson Pollock. In a longer and deeper cooling which the computer could conceivably cause, the artist might lose even the aura of soul. In that event, a different type of personality would inherit the title “artist,” and art itself would develop a different personality. It would be fruitless to speculate on details.

Henri Poincare wrote that in mathematics “the useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful.” Werner Heisenberg talked of science proceeding by “aesthetic criteria of truth.”31 But clearly Graves and Forster, in their nostalgia for the culture of the handmade object, will not be enticed by demonstrations of, say, the esthetics of molecular structures in plastics. Graves and Forster (and many others) in effect adopt the myth of the golden age and locate humanity’s "true” self in the past; Poincare and Heisenberg imply instead the myth of the, millennium, and locate the “true” self in the future. Surely the computer does diminish the past before the future: the Loeb Classical Library, a repository of more or less all the literature that survives from ancient Greece and Rome, could be entirely stored in a silicon microunit held between one’s fingertips.

The myth of the millennium, which colors much of the positive feeling about computers and robots and a labor-free society, is bound up with the mythology of space and of salvation arriving from space. As our culture approaches the second christian millennium, the myth of the promised return of the messiah from the sky becomes translatable into increasingly popular forms. A full-page newspaper advertisement that appeared around christmas of 1982 across the country shows E.T.’s long, froglike finger reaching from outer space to touch a human hand, with a glint of light at the contact point. The take-off of the Sistine ceiling says simply that E.T. is god: from extra-terrestrial beings will our salvation arrive. Part of the great appeal of the movie E.T. Is its hidden rearticulation of the ancient mythic structure of salvation from the sky. This myth first clearly appears in the Egyptian afterlife texts in which the soul of the deceased Pharaoh was believed to ascend, after death, to the zone of the circumpolar stars, there to reside as a perfected being forever. It appeared again among the orphics and, through them, in Plato; it is part of Plato’s “Egyptianism” (as Nietzsche called it) which passed into christian theology. In the orphic-platonic form of the myth, a being from the sky descends to earth, reveals the destiny of the human soul as residing not on the earth but in the sky, then returns to the sky, showing the way to others who will strive to follow. Jesus is a representative of this mythic type,as is e.T.In fact is patterned on Jesus as much as on Peter Pan. He is a youngster of his own species because he echoes Jesus, the son, not the father like Jesus inviting little children to come to him, E.T. communicates his message primarily to children, "E.T. phone home” is the vade mecum, the call to return to primal perfection in the sky.

This mythologizing is of course another form of disguised Soulism, welcoming the shining faced messiah with the keyboards as another brand of Soulists reject it.The imprisoning is again in the mood of Plato and inadequate and imprisoning is again in the mood of plato and specifically in that mood for which karl popper called him an enemy of the open society.32 Both the dread of computers and the expectations of salvation from them are irrational projections based on mythic structures.

Myths, to be used positively, must be fruitful hermeneutic devices. The contentious projections considered here have only one interpretation built into them. They are the stuff of theological disputes. The degree of hidden metaphysics that has been imported into the discussion suggests not only the anxiety it produces, but also that the question of the relationship between artificial and human intelligence may, as alan turing said, be meaningless to begin with. It is our “selves” we seek; and we gaze blindly toward the future, which, though it does not show itself, is always there.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor to Artforum _and a professor
at the Institute of the Arts, Rice University.



1. Christian David Ginsburg, The Essenes: Their History and Doctrines; The Kabbalah; Its Doctrines, Development, and History, New York: Macmillan and co., 1956, p. 158.

2. Cited by Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1980, p. 597.

3. Houston Chronicle, February 9, 1983.

4. New York Post, January 3, 1983.

5. See Yoel Hoffman, The Idea of Self East and West: A Comparison Between Buddhist Philosophy And The Philosophy of David Hume (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Ltd., 1980), p. 40. The term “point-instant events” is Hoffman’s.

6. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, p. 574.

7. Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Psychological Attitude Of Early Buddhist Philosophy, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 80, 85.

8. Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, The Path Of Purification (Visuddhimagga), English trans. by Bhikku Nanamoli, Kandy, Sri Lanka: The Buddhist Publication Society, 1975, p. 118.

9. The translation, which is quite literal, is my own. For the Sanskrit text and commentary, see Edward Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books, Containing The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958).

10. Wittgenstein was expressing his agreement with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799), who was in turn chastising Descartes. See G.E. Moore, “Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1930–33,” Mind LXIV (1955), pp. 13–14.

11. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept Of Mind, New York: Barnes + Noble, University Paperbacks, 1962, pp. 168, 186.

12. P.F. Strawson, “Persons,” in Donald F. Gustafson, ed., Essays in
Philosophical Psychology
, Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1964, p. 388.

13. Roland Barthes, “The Death Of The Author,” in Image, Music, Text, English trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 143, 145.

14. Barthes, “Death,” ibid., P. 145.

15. B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), Passim; About Behaviorism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), p. 54, 197.

16. G. Jefferson, “The Mind of Mechanical Man,” British Medical Journal (June 25, 1949), p. 1110.

17. For some work on mechanical/physiological modeling of memory, motivation, and emotion, see, E.G., Karl H. Pribram, “The Foundation
Of Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud’s Neuropsychological Model,” in Brain And Behavior 4, ed. K.H. Pribram (Baltimore, MD.: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 395-432; John C. Eccles, “Conscious Memory: The Cerebral Processes Concerned in Storage and Retrieval,” in The Self and Its Brain, ed. Karl H. Popper and John C. Eccles (London: Springer International, 1977).

18. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, English trans. by Ralph Mannheim (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Bollingen series 47, 1955).

19. B.A.O. Williams, “Personal Identity and Individuation,” in Gustafson, Essays, p. 328; Carl G. Jung, The Structure And Dynamics of The Psyche, Collected Works vol. 8 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 390; Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, IV. 9; see the English translation by James Haughton Woods, The Yoga-System of Patanjali with the Yoga Bhasya of Veda-Vasya and the Tattva-Vaicradi of Vachaspati Micra (Delhi/Varanasi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1966); Harvard Oriental Series vol. 17.

20. Ryle, Concept of Mind, p. 160.

21. E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” in The Eternal Moment and Other Stories, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Harvest Books, 1956, pp. 11, 14, 13.

22. Saint Augustine, Confessions, English trans. By R.S. Pine-Coffin, Baltimore, MD.: Penguin Books, 1961, p. 114.

23. Buddhaghosa, Path Of Purification, p. 72.

24. Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).

25. Herbert V. Guenther, The Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma (Berkeley, Calif.: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1976), p. 9.

26. Guenther, ibid., p. 11.

27. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, English trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), pp. 51, 67, 69, 77.

28. Alfred Korzybski, Science And Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (Lakeville, Connecticut: The International Non-aristotelian Library Publishing Co., 1933).

29. For elaboration of this line of thought see Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York; William Morrow, 1978).

30. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 218–219.

31. Henri Poincare, Science and Method, English trans. by Francis Maitland (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), p. 59. Heisenberg cited in Judith Wechsler, ed., On Aesthetics in Science. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1981), p. 1.

32. Karl R. Popper, The Open Society And Its Enemies, Volume 1, The Spell of Plato (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971).