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What differentiates humans from machines?

Social Trends Institute interviews Luis Echarte, professor at School of Medicine and partner of group 'Mente-cerebro' del Institute for Culture and Society

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Luis Echarte PHOTO: Manuel Castells
20/01/16 18:59

The research center Social Trends Institute has interviewed Luis Echarte, professor at the School of Medicine and partner of the group 'Mind-brain' of Institute for Culture and Society, in relation to a article published in the journal Sciencia et Fides. In it he analyzes the temporal dimension of human freedom and how, through such analysis, it is possible to understand somewhat better why the human being is not a machine.

His research is about the presence of teleological markers in the brain. What does this have to do with freedom?

Often when we think about voluntary behavior we tend to believe that we always have introspective experiences, that is, that we know when we act freely. My hypothesis about teleological markers delves into another way of understanding freedom. From my perspective-shared by many traditional and contemporary philosophers-subjectivity is an essential condition at the origin of voluntary behavior, but it does not necessarily accompany action all along the way. In this context, I am very critical of experiments-such as Benjamin Libet's or Chun Siong Soon's-in which the agent's consciousness is used as the main criterion for distinguishing between free or determined behavior. I suggest that, for this purpose, neuroscientists should focus their attention on the search for a biological marker that is linked to the process of goal capture or goal creation. Unlike subjective experiences, these teleological markers could be monitored through the voluntary process-experienced or not.

To what extent are humans similar to machines?

This is a difficult question to answer. In any case, I would reverse the question by saying that machines are, in some respects, similar to human beings. However, I do not like this comparison because it leads to categorical errors. Of these, the most important is to equate the whole with one of its parts. Machines exist because it is possible for us to replicate certain bodily processes. However, these processes can only be understood - they only make sense - within the whole to which they belong. For example, to define an alarm clock we must mention something that is not in the machine: the Username. In other words, machines are a set of particular human processes that have been conceptualized, reproduced and implemented in the same extracorporeal spatial location. This is why philosophers like David Chalmers claim that computers are, in a sense, extensions of our minds. And precisely because machines have an instrumental identity, strictly speaking, we cannot reverse that conceptual relationship. The individual does not need machines to think, although he can make use of them. For this reason, too, the mind cannot be reduced to a set of processes: it is something more. The human mind makes it possible to build computers in the same way that doors make it possible to make locks; but doors are not locks. There are doors without locks.

If the mind is more than a computer, what is it then?

For many, the core topic of that question has to do with how phenomenological experience relates to brain processes-the mind-brain problem. However, I think this is not the best way to approach the problem. It is more fruitful to start with the study of teleological behavior. What is the difference between movements directed to a goal and those that are not? It is a very old perspective: to understand our psyche we should go back to the problem of the soul, study what gives life to the body, and then understand intelligence as a subject of vital movement . And the fact is that teleology is not only at the root of human behavior but also of thought. The challenge is in understanding in what way teleology is prior to the mind, which means that reality, at least the subject with soul -the animated subject -, possesses a certain capacity to transcend itself or, if we prefer, a certain Degree of interiority.

I like to describe this interiority as a temporal fold of the subject in which the past and the future of an entity are gathered in the same referential instant and through which the intentional movement emerges. In this context intelligence receives its deepest meaning: that of capacity for freedom . The evolution of intelligence, from basic organisms to human beings, reflects the conquest of the living to possess themselves. The final form of this liberation would consist in the skill to create and adopt new purposes. That is the main difference between Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, and Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. Only the former knows why it is playing. We don't know how to design machines capable of giving themselves a reason to act, to change the game or to simply stop. They are slaves to our dreams, no matter how well they are able to fulfill them.

Read the full interview on Social Trends Institute website

article by Luis Echarte published in Sciencia et Fides: "Teleological markers: Seven lines of hypotheses around Dennett's theory of habits".