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The Reproductive Psychology of Inanimate Objects
Edward Ingram thinks your television is manipulating you.
Most people don’t know the difference between living and non-living things. So we’ll start by setting most people’s minds straight.
Definitions of Life
When I was at school my biology teacher taught me a definition of life. Living things, he said, unlike non-living things, are things that eat, excrete, move, respire, grow, and reproduce. Many of my students tell me they were similarly taught when at school; so, though the details of the indices of life, as they are called, vary, biology teachers, it seems, are still telling their pupils of the indices of life.
There are two problems with a definition in terms of indices. First, some unambiguously non-living things come out as alive as a consequence. Fire, for instance, satisfies all of life’s indices, yet it is as unalive as unalive can get (why, we will see shortly). Second, the indices miss the key thing: living things are interesting things. Fire, by contrast, is a boring thing.
Because of this, philosophers suggest alternative definitions of life. The first, which was developed by Erwin Schrödinger (of particle physics fame) is the most fundamental. It is this:
Definition 1: Living things are things which exist in apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics (i.e., it is easier to make a mess than to tidy up).
That is, living systems are ordered systems that self-repair. Cut off a starfish’s leg and it grows a new one. Thus starfish are alive; and although not all living things have a starfish’s talent for recovery from amputation, all living things have some level of ability of self-restoration; thus they too are alive. Fire, by contrast, doesn’t self-repair: it self-destructs. That is why it is not alive.
The next definition builds upon the thermodynamic definition:
Definition 2: Living things are things which, in addition to being capable of self-repair, reproduce and evolve by means of natural selection.
Under this definition starfish are alive both because they are capable of reproduction and because they evolved by natural selection. This definition was made explicit by Dawkins, though it was implicit in earlier writings.
The third definition is the most stringent:
Definition 3: Living things are things which, in addition to being capable of self-repair, employ von Neumann architecture in order to reproduce.
Von Neumann architecture is the architecture, specified by John von Neumann (also of particle physics fame) shortly before his death in 1957, which allows for the possibility of a robot building a copy of itself. The key things about von Neumann architecture are that the robot (a) contains a blueprint (or, more properly, a recipe) of how to make itself and (b) can enter into ‘supervisor mode’ such that a copy of itself is made, including the blueprint (recipe). Significantly, von Neumann specified this architecture before the discovery of the structure of DNA: all organic life, whether it is based upon DNA or, as in the case of certain viruses, upon RNA, adheres to von Neumann architecture. So too, incidentally, do computer viruses.
Because the third definition is the most exacting, some say it is too restrictive. You and I, for instance, although we contain blueprints of ourselves in most of the cells of our bodies (the majority of human cells contain the genome of their owner), cannot make copies of ourselves by ourselves: we need the help of a partner of the opposite sex, or, in the theoretical case of cloning, the help of doctors, nurses, and the paraphernalia of biotechnology. Nonetheless, some people demand the third definition, for they feel the other definitions are too broad-ranging. No matter, whichever definition one takes, fire is not alive, but starfish are, so are dandelions, so are human beings, and so are television sets.
Now we can set people straight on psychology.
When I tell people that television sets are alive, and that people far more intelligent than myself have been arguing the same for years, they look at me askance. They object:
1. Television sets are zombies.
So, it is believed, are carrots.
2. Television sets don’t copulate.
Neither do dandelions (dandelions, along with many plants, reproduce asexually).
3. Television sets don’t reproduce.
You could have fooled me. When I was a child there were hardly any television sets. Now everybody’s got one.
4. We make television sets, television sets don’t make us.
Although it is undeniable that human beings contribute to the manufacture of television sets, so do other things: trees (trees help build television set factories); flowers (flowers help provide television set factories with pleasant aromas; and because of this they help prevent the humans who work in television set factories harming each other. They do this by donating their perfume, which helps the humans smell nice, thereby inhibiting the tendency for humans to get on each others nerves, which, of course, is not good for television set manufacture); cars (also alive, which help humans get to television set factories); lorries (which deliver television sets to television set shops and people’s houses); and robots (robots work in television set factories).
Television sets are not alone in requiring the help of symbionts in order to live and reproduce. Human cells contains numerous mitochondria. These are symbiotic microorganisms which are responsible for the cell’s metabolism. Thus no mitochondria, no energy: none of us could blink an eye, much less reproduce, without their help. Now see the point: from a chauvinist mitochondrion’s perspective, you are a machine built by mitochondria in order to build more mitochondria; likewise, from a television’s perspective, you are a machine made by television sets for the purpose of building more television sets.
Mitochondria are not our only friends. Inside our intestines, for example, reside countless Escherichia coli, which are symbiotic bacteria; they help us digest food. However, I’m more interested in our artifact symbionts. Artifacts are interesting because they help us reproduce. Because of this, although they are zombies, they have a psychology. It’s the same as ours. Like us, they want to reproduce.
Take Valentine’s Day cards. Men give them to lady friends, and the cards reproduce in the process – they increase demand for Valentine’s Day cards and thus their manufacturers make more of them. Boxes of chocolates do likewise, save that they are more ‘altruistic’ than Valentine’s Day cards: they reproduce by allowing ladies to eat their contents alive (a similar strategy is employed by joss sticks, save that they permit themselves to be burned). Recordings of Rachmaninov symphonies, which assist men by lowering the psychological defences of their lady friends, reproduce more slowly; but they are long-lived, and we can expect them to be in our ecosystem for centuries to come. Similar considerations apply to fast cars, gold trinkets, candles (for candlelit dinners), and aftershave; all are human symbionts which assist human males in reproduction.
Ladies team up with a different set of symbionts: sticks of lipstick (used to make them look younger), girdles (used to make them look thinner), phials of perfume (used to make them smell sweeter, and possibly to emulate human pheromones), seductive clothing, and padded bras are examples. Like television sets, all are replicators, all are alive.
5. Television sets don’t maintain their thermodynamic disequilibrium states.
My television induces me to keep it in clement surroundings (my living room), where it is protected from the elements; thus it corrodes less slowly than the second law of thermodynamics would normally dictate. Further, it induces me to polish it in order that it stays in pristine condition. Likewise, if it breaks down, it induces me to call a television repair man to fix it. Finally, because I live in the UK, I have to protect it from television set predators – TV detector vans – so it induces me to purchase a television licence.
6. Television sets don’t evolve.
Yes they do. When I was a child there were only crude television sets – machines packed with valves and which produced only black and white images. These television sets were driven to extinction – principally by a species of Japanese mutant television set. Recent television sets produce colour images, high fidelity sound, and come in various shapes and sizes. And they’re settling into new ecological niches – they’re in banks, supermarkets, grocery stores, caravans, Rolls Royces.
7. Television sets don’t grow.
First note that it’s a moot point whether this is a necessary condition for life. Second note that my television set has grown. When I first purchased it, it was a simple television set. Now it’s grown a video recorder and a computer games console. Fairly soon I hope it to grow a Bang & Olufson sound system.
8. Television sets don’t eat.
My television set eats electricity and excretes heat, thereby, like all living things, producing a net gain in entropy whilst maintaining its thermodynamic equilibrium state.
9. Television sets don’t possess blueprints.
This definition depends upon a strict reading of the von Neumann definition of life, by which, incidentally, mules would be considered inert – like many hybrids, mules are sterile. Notice that this argument zooms in on the objection that, as we make television sets, they’re not alive: to this one can point out that we also ‘make’ mules, and we also ‘made’ Dolly the sheep – is anyone saying that mules and cloned sheep are inert? Anyway, there are television set blueprints – they are kept in television set factories – and, like genomes, they evolve.
10. Television sets aren’t made of flesh.
In other words, they don’t look like us. The objection is chauvinistic. If, say, one met an extra-terrestrial, and if it transpired that the extra-terrestrial’s metabolism depended upon processes other than those of carbon-based organic chemistry, would one say that the extra-terrestrial wasn’t alive? Then again, we’ve been here before. In the 19th century, people from Europe said that people from Africa weren’t human, and they said this because people from Africa didn’t look like people from Europe. Likewise, men said that women weren’t as clever as men because women don’t look like men. So if, perish the thought, I wished to be politically correct, and if you insisted that television sets are not alive, I’d say you were morally challenged.
Consideration of the reproductive psychologies of inanimate objects is important for two reasons. First, most people’s gut objection to television sets being alive isn’t that they are made of metal and plastic whereas people are made of flesh and bone; it is that people have ‘something else’, a life force, as Henri Bergson (1859-1941) opined. Living things, in this view, are physical things with some Platonic Idea of Life plonked into them, and it is this dollop of an Idea of Life that makes them ‘alive’. This view is absurd. All living things, including conscious living things, are made up entirely of components which are themselves zombies; and, from a philosophical perspective, one zombie (such as a neuron) is much of a muchness with another zombie (such as a television set).
The second reason is that the view that human artifacts are alive is useful. As many have argued – Burrhus Skinner, Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, Terrence Deacon and Stuart Kauffman are examples – evolutionary arguments should not be confined to the biosphere. They apply to everything: economic theory, cultural anthropology, human ideas, how brains work, you name it. Further, when one looks at the behaviour of television sets in the large – that is, how they have invaded numerous aspects of human culture – their behaviour seems organic, purposeful even.
The view is not only useful, it is also disturbing, for just as human artifacts are alive, so too are human institutions. Thus, one may speculate, the reproductive strategies of hospitals include making people sick (no sick people equals no hospitals); those of schools making people stupid; those of police stations creating criminals; those of governments creating bureaucracies; and so forth. The doctors, the nurses, the teachers, and the politicians don’t ‘know’ this, of course, for they are ‘governed’ by the equivalents of television sets, that is, by institutions, which, like television sets, are zombies.
You want evidence? Parkinson, of Parkinson’s law fame – work expands to fill the time available – reported that in 1914 the British Admiralty had 62 ships and 2,000 Admiralty officials; by 1968 the respective figures had changed to 114 and 33,574. In health care, note the concept of iatrogenic ailments, which are ailments occasioned by the medical process itself. It has been claimed that some 20 percent of patients in US hospitals fall victim to iatrogenic diseases; meanwhile, in the UK, the NHS is killing 5,000 people per year as a consequence of lack of hygiene is hospitals, and condemning a further 100,000 to hideous diseases, or so our politicians tell us. The science writer, Isaac Asimov once observed that in 1976, when doctors went on strike for five weeks in Los Angeles, the death rate in the city per 100,000 dropped from 19.8 to 16.2; when they returned to work, it rose to 20.4. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to determine the negative effects of police stations and schools.
There’s a related point. Many argue that Nature operates holistically, and I agree with them. However, the notion of a 50 percent holism – a holism that includes Feng Shui, alternative medicine, yoga, and other ideas associated with New Age philosophy, but which somehow eschews television sets, nuclear bombs, and drip-dry underwear – isn’t a holism: it’s a dualism dressed in new clothes. Thus sensible people, unrepentant holists like me, embrace the idea that television sets are alive. When you can see that television sets are alive, and that they have a psychology, you have found the road to enlightenment.
The great philosopher, Leibniz (1646-1716), famously argued that we live in the best of possible worlds. For this he was, equally famously, lampooned by Voltaire (1694-1778) in his book Candide. In the book, Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz, Pangloss, argued that, as we live in the best of possible worlds, our ears and noses have been perfectly contrived to allow for spectacles. Irrespective of whether Leibniz’s optimism was justified, the point is that Voltaire didn’t understand: he didn’t understand because he was a chauvinist. We are cyborgs, and we have been cyborgs since our ancestors first used bows and arrows, extended their bodies with spears, and dressed themselves in tailor-made clothing. (Thus today, when you view a man on a bicycle, you may view him – if you believe, as some do, and as Leibniz appeared to, that life is progressing towards better things – as an evolutionary link in the roboticisation of the cosmos). For, although spectacles evolved to fit human ears and noses, there is nothing conceptually wrong with the notion that human ears and noses evolved to fit spectacles. Our intestines, recall, evolved in ways felicitous for E. coli. Similarly, our digestive systems, particularly the systems in those of us who live in the West, evolved for the ‘benefit’ of domestic cattle – people who live in regions where dairy farming is unknown have difficulty digesting milk – so, from a chauvinist cow’s perspective, cows domesticated us. Had spectacles arisen earlier in human evolution, our ears and noses would have evolved to fit them.
We have a psychology; yet the constituent parts of our bodies – the cells, the nuclei and organelles within them, the chains of DNA and RNA, and so on – comprise inanimate objects, for Nature comprises inanimate objects. So Nature has a psychology; and we are inanimate objects.
© Edward Ingram 2001
Edward Ingram is Fellow in Philosophy at the School of Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor.
[This is an extract of the author’s book Robots, Zombies, Mind, God, Fuzz, which is nearing completion and is being handled by the author’s agent, Amanda Little of Watson Little Ltd, London.]