Is There a Ghost in the Machine?

In this video, Ray Kurzweil sits down with Marvin Minsky to discuss Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the coming Singularity. Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and director of engineering at Google. Minsky is an American cognitive scientist in the field of AI, co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory, and author of several texts on AI and philosophy.

About midway through the discussion, Minsky addresses the question – “Why are so many people annoyed at the thought that human brains are nothing more than mere machines?” His erudite response is as follows:

People say “Well, surely I’m a person. A single thing. An entity. A machine that just has a lot of parts wouldn’t have any such central device…” I think it’s an illusion. You don’t really see yourself. What you do is you make a model of yourself. Some part of your brain says, “What am I? I’m a body and a mind.” And the other part of the brain looks at that and says, “O, I see… I’m not just a machine.” Most people believe the body and mind isn’t enough, so there’s got to be something else, which is correct, namely an architectural theory of how all this works.

But since they don’t know any computer science, or for the most part any science at all… you always make a third box. You can call it the spirit, or the soul, or the vital force. There’s nothing in the box, but you feel much better. It might be a healthy thing, because if you discover something new you have a place to put it. The feeling that you have that you can’t be just machine is sort of recognizing that just looking at the parts of something doesn’t tell how it works. There’s nothing profound about it.

While it may not be profound to Minsky, this realization that there’s no separate ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is a monumental notion. As a cognitive scientist, Minsky doesn’t like this vague conception of a spirit or a soul. While some other thinkers prefer these terms to describe consciousness or aspects of it, Minsky instead refers to the brain’s architecture. What is that architectural theory? I’m not going to attempt to answer it fully in terms of how we think or how the brain operates, which is not yet possible and would delve deeply into neuroscience and psychology, but I will explore it in terms of the conception of self – namely Derek Parfit’s explanation of Ego Theory vs. Bundle Theory. Spoiler alert – Minsky, Parfit, and the Buddha support the Bundle Theory.