Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mechanizing Reason and Automating the Passions

Automata, or robots, if you will, have fascinated philosophers since Descartes, who used them as a sort of mirror in his reflections on human reason (animals were automatons, humans were endowed with a rational soul). There is a delightful documentary with Prof. Simon Schaffer of Cambridge on the clockwork and automata of the 17th Century. The documentary begins with the words, "It is often said that to understand something, you should build it". About 29 minutes in, Prof. Schaffer presents a truly remarkable automaton- a little boy at his writing desk built by Swiss clock-maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Says Schaffer, "The aim was, I think, to mechanize reason, and automate the passions."

These words, and the documentary as a whole, offer a wonderful window into the origins of something that has been at the heart of the Western project ever since- to produce a mechanical understanding of the world, and of the mind. Information theory and cybernetics have blurred the line between mechanistic and organistic visions of the universe, and of the mind, but the project to understand the mind, by building one, is at the very heart of the information (r)evolution itself, while the replication of the body and its motions- and thus of the worker, lies at the heart of the industrial revolution.


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