Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/February 1907/Is Man an Automaton?

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FEW things are more irritating to the average man, who does not pretend to be a philosopher or a scientist, but respects the opinions of such, than to be told, by those whose word seems to carry authority, that he must regard himself as an automaton.

He has been accustomed to consider his own mind and the minds of his neighbors as of no little significance in the system of things. He says that he rose early, because he knew he had a long day's work before him; he took his bath, because he knew it was good for his health; he went to the dining-room, because he wanted his breakfast; he ran for the train, because he did not care to lose five minutes waiting for another; he whistled, that the conductor might hear him and might be induced to delay a moment; he climbed the stairs to his office, because the elevator seemed to be intolerably long in coming.

So it went all through the day. He did things because he wanted to, or because he thought he had to. Other men about him did things for the same reasons. His whole day seems to have been full of thoughts and feelings, plans and decisions; nor can he bring himself to believe that, had these been different, his actions and those of other men would have been what they were. So unequivocally does his experience appear to testify to all this, that it does not even occur to him to raise a question, until some professional questioner suggests a doubt.

But he spends the evening of such a day in his library, and, as he turns over the pages of certain volumes of scientific essays, his eye is caught by Professor Huxley's statement that "our mental conditions are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism." If he is startled by this, his mind is by no means quieted when he turns to Professor Clifford and reads: "Thus we are to regard the body as a physical machine which goes by itself according to a physical law, that is to say, is automatic. An automaton is a thing which goes by itself when it is wound up, and we go by ourselves when we have had food."

To be sure, each of these writers softens the blow somewhat. Huxley tells us that we are conscious automata; and Clifford says that the body is not merely a machine, because consciousness goes with it. Nevertheless, this does not seem to make good the previous wrong. If a man tells me that I am an imbecile, and then modifies the statement by adding that I am a particular kind of an imbecile, it still rankles in my breast that I am an imbecile; and I am naturally impelled to inquire into the justice of applying the title to me at all. I may not call a young lady a doll, and then soften the blow by explaining that I have somewhat extended the signification of that common word. One has" a right to ask: Is the word, when so extended in meaning, rightly applied at all? Are dolls that think and speak, feel and will, and all the rest, really dolls? If not, why use the word, except as a figure of speech, and with insulting intent?

Now, it would be absurd to maintain that Huxley or Clifford or any other serious adherent of 'the automaton theory' has written with the intention of insulting or degrading mankind. These men had a glimpse of what they regarded as a valuable scientific truth, and they urged it upon the attention of their fellows. In doing so, however; they made use of expressions which have actually given offence to many, and have predisposed men to a rejection of their doctrine. I feel like going further and saying that the mere fact that they have seen fit to use such expressions may be taken as an indication that they have not fully grasped the significance of the truth they were endeavoring to express, but have themselves slipped into a misconception, which has harmed their cause.

I may say at the outset that I regard the cause as a good one. This does not in the least mean that I believe in any 'automaton theory,' The name is a grotesque and an offensive one, and should never have been used. The plain man is quite right in refusing to regard himself as an automaton. The real cause for which the so-called automatists, have been fighting is a clear and unambiguous conception of the relation between the mental and the physical—one which will not rub out the distinction between the two, but will do it full justice. In the present paper I shall try to show that the frank acceptance of their fundamental thesis need not make a man an automatist at all; nor need it compel him to modify the estimate which his experience has led him to form of the significance of men's actions. In other words, the man may become as 'scientific' as he pleases, without on that account being forced to repudiate common sense and common experience. Surely this is no small gain.

We all have experience of the relations which obtain between mind and body, or we should not even know that we have minds and bodies. But those who have not devoted special attention to psychology and philosophy are apt to have the vaguest of notions as to what the relations in question are. We have, to be sure, gotten beyond the crude materialism that once led men to regard the mind as consisting of five round atoms, disseminated through the body, and inhaled from the atmosphere. But I am not sure that most persons would not be inclined to maintain that the mind is in the body 'somehow'—and when we inquire into the significance of this 'somehow,' we can scarcely fail to discover that it has a material flavor. Whether rightly or wrongly, most men think of the mind as in the body in somewhat—but only somewhat—the same way as material atoms may be in the body. And he who thinks of the mind in this way may, if the question occur to him at all, assume that mind and body interact somewhat as two material things interact with each other.

To be sure, the more one reflects upon the difference between mental phenomena and physical, the more vague and indefinite this 'somewhat' seems to become. Material things can lie beside one another in space; they can approach one another and recede from one another. Their interaction is a thing to be described in physical terms; we have to do with space and motions in space. Have we anything analogous to this when we are considering, let us say, the mental image of a railway station and those physical changes in the brain which antecede my moving my feet in the direction of the station? Is the mental image literally in any part of the brain? Can it approach or recede from any group of molecules? Does it mean anything to say that it lies between this physical occurrence and that? And if the relation between what is mental and what is physical is really so different from the relation between two physical things, must we not recognize that the word 'interaction' is ambiguous when it is applied indiscriminately to either relation?

As early as the seventeenth century reflection upon the differences which distinguished the mental and the physical led to the conclusion that it is impossible that ideas should be inserted as links in any physical chain of events. You can not plant an imaginary tree in a real ten-acre lot; you can not insert the thought of a cork into the neck of a real bottle; is it more sensible to say that the thought of a railway station may be inserted as a link in a series of changes in the nervous system of a man? To such men as Huxley and Clifford it seemed that the physical series must be regarded as unbroken. Clifford, much influenced by the philosopher Spinoza, describes the relation between physical changes in the brain and the accompanying ideas as a 'parallelism,' as a correspondence or concomitance. It is scarcely necessary to add that neither he nor any later parallelist has intended the word 'parallelism' to be taken literally. It only means that mental phenomena are to be regarded as excluded from the series of physical changes, and yet as accompanying them.

Now, I think we may leave out of consideration those who endeavor to steer a middle course—to eat their cake and, at the same time, to keep it. The question is: Is the series of physical changes to be regarded as unbroken, and are mental phenomena to be looked upon as the invariable concomitants of certain physical changes; or are the two classes of facts to be built into the one series? Those who accept the first alternative are parallelists, and those who accept the second are interactionists.

Naturally, there is a lively quarrel between the two sects. The parallelist insists that the interactionist has no clear notion of what he means by interaction, when he uses the word; and he maintains that, did the interactionist realize his position, he would see himself to be little better than a materialist. He has failed to recognize the great distinction between mental phenomena and physical. On the other hand, the interactionist insists that the parallelist, in declaring the series of physical changes to be unbroken, has reduced the mind to a position of utter insignificance. Every action can be accounted for by going back to its physical causes, and to those alone. The mind, then, is a mere decoration; it does nothing; the man is a physical automaton, etc., etc.

I am not going to try to persuade any one, in this paper, to become an adherent of either the one sect or the other. But it does seem rather hard that those who watch the combat should be led to suppose that, with the triumph of the one party, they are condemned to become materialists, and, with the triumph of the other, they are turned into automata. It is distressing to be confronted with Scylla and Charybdis, and to see no clear water between.

What I wish to prove is that the whole matter is one to be regarded with no other emotion than that of intellectual curiosity; and that it does not matter a particle to the plain man, from the practical point of view, which side wins.

First let us assume that the interactionist is right. Then ideas and motions in matter may be regarded as belonging to the one series— they are links in the one chain. Now, one can not piece out a defective series of sounds by the insertion of a smell; one can not, when one tree in an avenue has died, replace it by a tree in a dream. To constitute a series, in any significant sense of the word, things must have something in common; it must mean something to speak of gaps and insertions. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it does mean something here, and that ideas are enough like motions in matter to be inserted between certain motions in matter and to form one series with them.

This may be a form of materialism; but what of that? The man whose day has been full of ideas, of desires and volitions, of plans and purposes, has had just the day that he has had; and the fact that all these are called material or semi-material does not prevent their being just what he has experienced them to be. If some material things can be like this, and can play such an important part in his life, he should get over his repugnance to materialism, or at any rate to some sorts of materialism; and he may go on thinking and talking about himself and his neighbors much as he has thought and talked in the past. It is not worth while to be frightened by a mere word; a cold in the head is not made worse when it is given a Latin name.

It may be said, it is a waste of time to try to protect men against the fear that interactionism may be proved true, for men have no dread of this result, as it is. This I think we must admit. Those who are familiar with the history of psychology and philosophy know that there was a time when it was not repugnant to men to conceive the mind as literally a kind of matter, having its place in the body just as any other kind of matter has its place. Gradually it came to be felt that this was a misconception, and various curious attempts were made to describe the mind as immaterial. To-day nearly every one is willing to say that the mind is immaterial—the conception has become common property. Nevertheless, he who is clear-sighted can see that most men have not wholly stripped away materialistic suggestions inherited from the past; and he finds these embodied in the interactionist doctrine. As, however, interactionism does not ask the plain man to be more materialistic than he is naturally inclined to be—every one can find a comfortable seat in so roomy a place as a 'somehow'—it does not arouse his apprehensions. So I shall not spend more time in allaying fears which do not arise in most minds, but shall turn to the 'parallelist' doctrine. Its supposed terrors constitute our proper theme.

Let us suppose that the parallelist is right. Then ideas and motions in matter must be regarded as belonging to two distinct series, and they must not be made links in the one chain. Thus, a pin is thrust into my leg; I reach down to it and pull it out with my fingers. A series of changes has taken place in my body. Some message has been sent from my leg, along certain nerves, to the brain, and a message has been sent along other nerves to the muscles of my arm and hand. But this does not say everything. I have felt a pain; I have been conscious of the injury done my leg; I have wished to remove the pin; I have resolved to do so, and am conscious that I do it. The physical series is an unbroken one; the mental phenomena are concomitants of brain changes, but fill no gaps between them.

Now, if we admit all this, must we sadly accept the following doleful results?

1. Man must be regarded as an automaton.

2. Man's mind is insignificant; as his body does all that is to be done, we may say that the result would have been the same had he had no mind.

Hence, we ought to abandon our usual ways of thinking and speaking about ourselves and others.

If these results actually do follow from an acceptance of parallelism, men may well feel apprehensive when they see able men advocate it. If none of them follow, there is small cause for apprehension, and the question becomes one of merely scientific interest.

Let us consider the first point. Must the parallelist regard man as an automaton?

Before one can decide this point intelligently one must know what the word 'automaton means. He who consults his dictionary is informed that it means 'that which is self-moving, or has the power of spontaneous movement, but is not conscious.' A little lower down it is explained to him that the term more specifically denotes 'an apparatus in which the purposely concealed power is made to imitate the voluntary or mechanical motions of living beings, such as men, horses, birds, fishes,' etc. He is further given to understand that the word may be applied to 'a person or an animal whose actions are purely involuntary or mechanical,' or to a person who acts 'without active intelligence, especially without being fully aware of what he is doing.'

Do any of these definitions cover the case of the man described in the first paragraphs of this paper? Was he without consciousness? Was he constructed to imitate the actions of a living being? Were his actions involuntary? Did he go through his day without active intelligence? Yet the definitions are very fair, and do not misrepresent the actual use of the word defined. Even in psychology, when we speak of 'automatisms,' we never have in mind a shrewdly planned raid upon the bourse, or the production of Cæsar's 'Commentaries.'

The fact that I choose to pin my faith to one view of the relation between mind and body rather than to another gives me no right to wrest words from their proper uses and to employ them in ways that must be misleading. Normal man is not an automaton in any legitimate sense of the word; and it is a grave injustice to parallelism to call it 'the automaton theory.' To be sure, Clifford and others have invited the injustice which has been visited upon them, and we can scarcely pity them as much as though it were wholly unmerited. But the frankest adherence to their parallelism need not induce us to call man an automaton. To say that consciousness is 'parallel' to brain changes is not equivalent to saying that consciousness is not present at all, or is present in defective measure.

And now for the second point. Must the parallelist regard man's mind as insignificant, and say that his actions would be the same if he had no mind?

Surely not. Bear in mind what parallelism maintains. It maintains that mental phenomena and certain cerebral changes are invariable concomitants. This means that a given idea can not exist unless there is a certain brain-change. But it also means that the brain-change in question can not possibly exist unless the corresponding idea exists. The relation between the two is not conceived to be an accidental one. For reasons which have been indicated, the parallelist objects to calling it a causal relation, and prefers the word 'concomitance.' Nevertheless, he regards the relation as one on which we may depend absolutely—as absolutely as we can depend upon the relation between a physical cause and its effect.

But, if this is so, the plain man may perfectly well become a parallelist and yet go on talking as though certain results could not be brought about in the absence of minds. He is quite justified in maintaining that no clever book could ever be written, no such day as his has been ever lived through, by a creature without a mind. He may, if he choose, leave to the scholar by profession the question whether the word 'cause' is not somewhat loosely used in common life. What he cares about stands firm on any hypothesis: ideas are significant; if he can work out a satisfactory plan in his mind, desirable results will be achieved; if he has not the ideas, the results will *D.ot follow.

Now for the last point. Should the parallelist abandon our usual ways of thinking and speaking about ourselves and others? It must be admitted that the words used by some parallelists suggest, at least, that he should do so.

" An automaton is a thing that goes by itself when it is wound up, and we go by ourselves when we have had food." The suggestion certainly is that, if we want men to function, we should feed them.

It has been known, of course, from time immemorial, and in every country under heaven, that men who get no food at all will soon cease to go; and it has been known also that men who get too much drink will first go irregularly and then not at all. It is an old secret that what goes into the mouth of a man is not a matter of indifference.

But did any man, parallelist or interactionist, ever try to control the actions of his fellow man in detail by the giving of food? or try to explain why Mrs. Smith visits Mrs. Brown and neglects Mrs. Jones, by investigating the diet of that discriminating lady? We can not explain her taking the longer walk through the park rather than the shorter one along the street, by pointing out that she has legs. If she were unprovided with these members, she would undoubtedly not walk at all; but her having them does not enlighten us as to her choice of a walk, nor does it give any key to the control of her actions.

Clifford himself never tried to make men e go 'by the administration of food; he wound them up by public lectures and by printed essays, when he wanted them to think as he did and to act as he wished them to. The truth is that the brain-changes which correspond to mental states are unknown; we have not the least conception how the brain-change of a man meditating a gift to a hospital and that of a man planning to rob a bank differ from one another. Nor have we any direct physical means of producing either. But we do know a good deal about men's minds, and we know how to arouse in them ideas which will—directly or indirectly, it does not matter which—result in definite actions.

The plain man is, then, quite right in explaining his day by a reference to ideas. We have no other way of explaining it. There is no reason for changing our usual modes of expression. The parallelist who calls himself an automatist, or who talks of winding men up by the administration of food harms his own cause gratuitously. There is nothing in parallelism, properly understood, to cause apprehension; and there is nothing about the doctrine that is startling.

It seems right that, having criticized that very clear and charming writer, Clifford, I should close with a word in his defense. It is very easy, when a doctrine is relatively new, and has not been subjected to careful criticism, to misconceive its full significance. Were Clifford alive to-day, I do not believe that he would call man an automaton at all. He would see, I think, that it is misleading to speak so. But he would still be a parallelist, and he would gain the more adherents to his interesting scientific hypothesis, in that his utterances would be less calculated to shock the common sense of his fellow men.