Knowledge the shade of a shade,
Yet must thou sail after knowledge
Knowing less than drugged beasts“–Ezra Pound
I. The Moral of Science
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a young university student discovers the animating principle of life. He constructs an eight-foot tall human from several fresh corpses.
“It was on a dreary night of November” he writes, “that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils … I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet …”
What exactly these so called instruments of life might be we are never told. Subsequent movie versions of Shelley’s ghost story attribute it to electric shocks channeled from lightning.
I recall once getting tricked by a computer phone survey. It was a most odd feeling when I realized that I was talking with a machine, not a human.
Is it possible, then, that we could construct a machine that is alive? Is there a point where imitating life becomes life? Outside of the staid and hallowed halls of the Academy some entrepreneurs are hard at work (pun intended) with the design and construction of robot dolls which they hope will someday be indistinguishable from human females, at least as far as bedroom fun is concerned. But is there some point where such a doll could become conscious and alive?
Or is there some essence, some … something … that exists in living things which man-made machines are necessarily bereft?
As far as the wisdom of the ages is concerned, the Bible in particular, the answer is no. Only God can create life. From Genesis: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”.
Of course natural reproduction allows a mechanical explanation without any reference to God. It can be described in terms of gene sequences, protein production, cell division, etc. And even though we do not understand all of the details, it seems to be merely a complexity problem. At some point we will be able to drill down far enough into elementary mechanics to understand how a sentient animal is produced. Knowing that, we should be able to produce one technologically.
Or so you might think. For if we insist on scientific materialism–that reality is ultimately reducible to the objects of physical science–we must deny the “I” (or self), which, no matter what anyone says, no one is actually capable of. If we are nothing but robots made of meat, it follows that our interior experiences, our souls, must be epiphenomenon, which is to say, a delusion.
From which it follows that politics, which is about competing human selves, and about choosing the best course of action, the best laws, the best ways of educating humans in order to produce the best developed human souls, must therefore be based on delusion. Shall we push on to some logical conclusions? Here’s one: for a scientific materialist, the Nazi’s putting Jews in ovens is merely emergent chemical patterns, leading to certain outcomes, all derivable from prior physical states. Perfectly determined, so there cannot be anything good or bad about it, it just is (or was). Shall I go on?
Of course not. My point here is that no one actually lives in denial of self, or individual free will, or moral agency.
In fact I would state it in reverse. The soul is not reducible to scientific objects, but rather scientific objects are tools employed by the soul. Which is to say that scientific objects serve a purpose, and thus in some way are guided by and come into existence by means of humans striving for good things. Morals cannot be derived from science, but all of science derives from some understanding of a moral good. After all, the notion of scientific progress presupposes some perceived future benefit for humans.
II. Who’s Afraid of Technology?
Science and technology are human creations. And as such there is a natural fear that technology may be hijacked by the wicked, or simply slip from human control. Shelley’s story of the monster viscerally captures this fear.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger also shared a concern about technology, but for a very different reason which he puts forth in a most profound work, The Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger argues that technology is not merely a collection of tools to serve human ends, but a way of revealing Being. As such technology may be even more dangerous than mere runaway machines or monsters, for it holds a focusing lens to our perception of reality itself.
Now regarding Being (and that’s with a capital B), the worldview of the Ancient Greek philosophers was that everything in the world owes its existence to four causes. I here state them: 1.) material cause 2.) formal cause 3.) final cause and 4.) efficient cause. So a sailboat, for example, owes part of its existence to the wood, metals, and plastics of which it is constructed (1), but also that it is in the form of a sailboat and not a golf cart or a hair dryer (2), that it serves as a means of moving over the surface of the ocean using only the wind (3), and lastly it owes its existence to the shipwright who built it (4). The four causes we may say bring something forth into existence, or bring out of unconcealment, or reveal something. The Greek word for revealing was aletheia, which the Romans translated as veritas, which we translate as truth.
Anyway, Heidegger’s point here is that beyond a mere toolkit, technology is a way of revealing truth. And how specifically does modern technology reveal truth? By means of a challenging revealing where nature is set up to reveal itself inside a formal system (i.e. mathematics) where its evolution in time can be calculated. Let me try to illustrate the point by an example.
Is a sailing boat a challenge to nature? No, she only moves according to the wind’s blowing. But her diesel auxiliary, on the other hand, sits in an elaborate nexus of petroleum extraction machines, refineries, supply systems, and finally the engine itself with a battery and wiring all based on electrodynamics which can calculate precisely what will happen when the key to the starting motor closes the circuit. There is no waiting on nature, but rather nature is challenged, set up, trapped as long domino chains, if you like, such that the desired amount of propulsion can be called up by the turning of a key and adjustment of the throttle.
In this way nature is revealed such that it is “ready at hand”, or “standing reserve”. The philosophical danger lies in a reductionism, whereby the utility of nature set up as domino chains devalues and obscures a more fundamental, let us say, relationship to it and ourselves. And in this way we may come to the illusion that we are lords of the Earth (because all of nature is reduced to standing reserve), when in fact we are merely lords of a tidy garden province.
To this point Heidegger writes: “Thus where everything that presences exhibits itself in the light of cause-effect coherence, even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of His distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of [efficient cause]”.
As far as the dangers of limiting Being to the technological, in what we might call Scientism, I think the former Soviet Union provides a grim example and a fair warning. Quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Communism is a crude attempt to explain society and the individual … everything is reduced to crude economic processes. This whole created being – man – is reduced to matter.”  Under communism human life and society is corralled into an ideological pen, whose confining iron bars consist of state sponsored terror, until all media, literature, and politics knows nothing outside of an artificial cosmos which is defined and legislated rather than discovered. The constant and unpredictable unfolding of nature, to which scientists and philosophers devote their talents, presents a threat to these tyrants and is censored.
And while communism is not typically viewed as a form of technology, I think it nonetheless apes machine technology in its attempt to ensnare human nature into a similarly calculable cause-and-effect nexus via its reduction to economics. And such a reduction leads to an obscuring of basic moral questions, as mechanical things cannot be moral. Again quoting Solzhenitsyn: “… it is considered somewhat strange to take words like “good” and “bad” seriously. Communism has managed to persuade us all that these concepts are old-fashioned and laughable. But if we are deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left? Nothing but manipulation of each other.”
I would now like to return to Heidegger’s phrase: “ordering of the standing reserve”.
What is meant by ordering? We mean a capturing of nature, making what is observable reveal itself within formal systems of logic. Now, at the risk of losing readers–and I understand that this is getting to be quite a ramble–I think it necessary to delve ever so slightly into formal systems of logic. Ever so slightly I say because anything more would exceed my competency, and slightly should be sufficient.
NOTE: If you do not wish to get in to the nitty-gritty of formal logic, you may just read the last two paragraphs of the next section and move on to IV.
III. Formal Systems and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem
In his book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter supplies a nice little example of a system of formal logic. He calls it the MIU system.
The MIU system contains three characters, M, I, and U. All statements in MIU with therefore be strings of M’s, I’s, and U’s. But any old strings of these three characters will not always suffice as they must be well formed. In the MIU system, all well formed strings must begin with the letter M, and be followed by either and I or a U. Thus:
i.) MIIIU is well formed.
ii.) MIIM is not well formed.
Next our formal system must have rules for manipulating well formed strings. The rules of MIU are:
1.) For any string ending in I, the I can be replaced with IU.
2.) Mx, where x is any string of I’s and U’s, Mx can become Mxx (ex. MIIU can become MIIUIIU).
3.) Any string III can be replaced with U.
4.) Any string UU can be removed.
Finally we have axioms. MIU has just one axiom: MI. Any well formed statement derived from MI using the above four rules will be a theorem of MIU.
Problem: Is MUI a theorem of MIU?
Proof: i.) MI (axiom)
ii.) MII (rule 2)
iii.) MIIII (rule 2)
iv.) MUI (rule 3) QED
Now, we can also create a parallel system to MIU which involves not symbols but natural numbers. Let’s make this system 310, and it’s one axiom is 31. And the first rule is:
1.) Any number ending in 1 can be multiplied by 10. Notice that in the MIU system this is rule 1 where M is 3, I is 1, and U is zero. It is very important to notice that while 310 is perfectly isomorphic with MIU, the rules involve arithmetic. Hence we are now beginning to engage with things that relate to the real world, rather than just some arbitrary system of symbols.
Same goes for the remaining rules of 310, although they get far more complicated. It is not necessary, however, for our purposes here that we go through all of them.
The point of all of this is to understand that formal systems of logic are just mechanical systems of symbols, AND that they can be replicated by a parallel system of natural numbers .
Now in 1910, 1912, and 1913, Bertrand Russel and Alfred N. Whitehead published the three volumes of Principia Mathematica. This was an attempt to cast all of mathematics and hopefully physical science into a system of formal logic, like our little MIU system, only considerably more complicated. With Principia Mathematica all logical inconsistencies, oversights, and plain ol’ BS could be ferreted out, so that mankind’s library of knowledge would be nothing but provable truth.
A lofty goal, that. One wrinkle that emerged, however, is the problem of self-referencing statements. An example of a self-referencing statement is: This statement is false. Because it talks about itself, a problem emerges: if the statement is false, then it is a true statement. But if it is a true statement, then it must be false, for that’s what is states.
Another example is: “the set of all sets which do not contain themselves”. This will produce an undecideable statement. Think of it: we go out into the world and find all the sets which do not contain themselves. The set of all elephants, for example, is not itself an elephant, so all well and good, we add it to our set. And so on until we come up with a master set–which is itself a set. Since the instruction is to collect all sets which do not contain themselves, and this master set does not contain itself, we must therefore include it. But wait! Now our master set does contain itself, so it is no longer “a set of all sets which do not contain themselves”. Therefore, it cannot be one or the other, it is undecideable.
OK, you might be thinking, so what? So there’s statements of logic which we cannot decide. What’s the big deal?
The mathematician Kurt Godel thought it was a big deal. His famous Incompleteness Theorem is a walloping brain teaser which has wide ranging implications. I shall simply state it here and then try to sketch out what it means.
This is written in the formal language of Principia Mathematica, and in English reads: “There does not exist an encoded proof, a”, of a’, where a’ is the expression you get when you insert some variable a into the function f(a) .” Now everything written in Principia Mathematica can be encoded as a number (called Godel numbering), and recall from our simple MIU system that every logical rule can correspond to an arithmetic operation.
So for an example we let f(a) = PRIME(a), a statement in Principia Mathematica which asks whether or not a is a prime number. Now by the rule of QUINESUB, we take the Godel number of f(a), i.e., the Godel number of the statement PRIME(a) in Principia Mathematica (again, remember that every statement in Principia Mathematica has a Godel number, and every operation can be mirrored by arithmetic), and insert it as the free variable a. Let the Godel number of PRIME(a) be g, so then we are asking whether or not g is prime. So in this example (i) now reads: “there is no proof a” of a’, which says that g is prime”. And if we do find proof that g is prime, i.e. we find the proof a”? Then (i) is proven false.
All well and good. The monumental edifice of Principia Mathematica is producing truth and disproving falsities with the proverbial turn of the crank. And then Kurt Godel strikes his blow:
Let f(a) be (i).
Huh? Seems innocuous enough. Well OK, (i) has some Godel number g, just as PRIME(a) did. We insert it everywhere we find the free variable a, just as we did with PRIME(a). So then a’ = (i) with it’s own Godel number inserted into it. The crucial point: a’ is the very statement itself, which says: “there is no proof of a’ “. Or that when fed its own Godel number, (i) is unprovable.
Yeah, so what? Perhaps we will find a proof a” just as we did previously proving that g is a prime number. In that case we would prove a’, which says that a’ is … unprovable. In which case Principia Mathematica has just proved a contradiction.
Well if Principia Mathematica proves contradictions, then it’s worthless. So we will have to assume that it is untrue, which means that there is at least one statement which can be stated in Principia Mathematica that cannot be proved. Principia Mathematica is therefore incomplete. Godel and others have gone on to show that any formal logical system of sufficient complexity will have a Godel statement, and therefore will be incomplete .
In his book I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter develops the thesis that consciousness, or self awareness, depends on systems of sufficient complexity to produce these kinds of self-referencing, strange loops. A simple system like an alternator on a car, which constantly adjusts the magnetic field strength to keep the correct current going to the battery, is not conscious of anything, it’s just a self-regulating machine. Mosquitoes are rather more complex, but probably have very little self-awareness, if any. A dog on the other hand seems aware of itself and its surroundings even if it cannot express what it knows in any intelligible language.
That said, so far as I can tell, Godel’s theorem is a limiting claim. It reveals the limits of logic, while also suggesting that when souls or subjects are treated as objects–when logical statements talk about themselves, become self-aware we might say–then strange loops can form, and the system breaks down.
IV. Starting a Revealing on its Way
I jump off of a building, and I accelerate at 9.81m/s/s. My fall is determined by the laws of physics. My trajectory is deterministic, calculable from the initial conditions.
But of course I can always decide not to jump. I think that I am free in that decision.
Yet you may say that chemical A in my brain causes me to jump, while chemical B stops me, and I cannot choose chemistry so my free will is an illusion. But anything you can observe about me I should be able to observe as well. And won’t the very act of observation change the chemical? Wouldn’t there be a feedback loop? While there can always be a mechanical, chemical explanation for my brain functions, it’s after the fact, not in real time. For whatever you decide to measure, I can be aware of in real time and then change my mind as a result.
What is actually deterministic is the formal system–the mathematical model–in which observable things are set up to reveal themselves. In so far as they reveal themselves this way, things in the world are deterministic. But how things are revealed, how scientific discoveries are made, is not deterministic, but rather works itself out in the realm of freedom.
Heidegger writes: “Freedom is the realm of destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way”.
Let us think about this. To discover nature as written in the language of mathematics requires freedom. Specifically it requires a scientist, a conscious being who is prompted by some psychological force, who has a certain passion that propels him forward into the unknown. Freedom is required for scientific discoveries because there is no logical step into major breakthroughs in science or knowledge–it is essentially a creative act, or at least the act of looking where no one before ever thought to. In his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn shows that the most notable scientific advances involve paradigm shifts. Major revolutions in science forge novel ways of looking at nature, of resolving nature into a conceptual framework. Prior to Einstein, for example, time was considered an absolute. But then Einstein showed that simultaneous events in one frame could be sequential in another.
So science advances by revolutions in thought, which come to us by genius. And once again recall what Heidegger says: freedom is the realm of destining. Destining involves purpose, moving toward a perceived good. Isaac Newton sought to understand God’s creation in terms of mathematics, laws of motion. While the concepts of mathematics nowhere intersect the concept of moving toward some good, Newton himself devoted his life to this pursuit. The point I am trying to make here is that great scientists are not simply reporting on something they tripped over while walking in the park, but are bringing forth and casting into human language their voyage into a mystery, a venture of constant effort and uncertainty led by the hope of unveiling significant truths.
In a retelling of Genesis, in the prologue to the Gospel of John, it is said: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”.
Standard readings of the “Word” equate it to the Greek Logos, or the rational order of the cosmos, what makes the universe follow mathematical laws, and so forth. So God and rationality are equated here, and God has created everything in existence such that it is intelligible. And from Genesis we read that humans were “created in God’s image”, which I understand to mean have some modicum of God in them.
Now, to bring in Immanuel Kant’s formulation, things in the world cannot be objects we can understand absent an interpretive mental structure, what he called categories of the understanding. We resolve experience into basic mental categories, such as quantity, or causation. We can never know things in themselves, only our mental resolutions of them. In light of this I read the Prologue to John as a poetic exposition of the same point (I understand that I may be appropriating the Gospel to my own purposes here, I make no claims to be a Bible scholar): God created all that is, but we can only know it by virtue of the Word, or logic, or the categories of the understanding. Moreover, according to the Gospel, the Word comes to us in the corporeal form of the Christ, who is part divine and part human. Thus the Christ teaches us the Word, which is on the one hand just the rational order of the cosmos, and on the other is God’s will–how to guide and develop our rational lens such that we come to understand what is best for all of us, what is our purpose in life.
V. The Good and the True
Now we are speaking of the search for truth as somehow integral with moral determinations, and this may appear to be a confusion, or at least a diversion from the topic at hand. But let us continue.
Later in his essay, Heidegger provides an analysis of Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation: “God is dead.” What is meant here is that the super-sensory world no longer holds sway in human affairs. It’s merely tradition, or spirituality, or the occult, or just plain BS.
Moreover, scientific, technological, and economic progress have transformed the circumstances of nearly every human on earth in astonishing ways, and most them beneficial. Earlier we learned from Heidegger that technology is more than a mere collection of tools, but a way of revealing truth through a challenging revealing. The march of technology is creating a world that is ready at hand to serve human needs, but yet is merely a cause-and effect nexus with no way of assessing its own purpose or value. The only purpose the philosopher or scientist can discern is the further capturing of nature as standing reserve, which is called progress. So where previously men would understand their being in the world as serving the will of God, now we can only clumsily graft on mathematical formulae to maximize intangible things like human happiness, or measure purpose in terms of increasing wealth production. This leads us on a trajectory to a philosophical crisis which is nihilism.
But I digress.
OK, so what does any of this have to do with the problem of artificial life?
In an earlier draft of this essay I made the argument that machines can never be truly alive because they will be bound within a spiritual vintage. Which is to say, bound to the technology and outlook of the times of the humans who produced them. Whatever the machines “think” is contained within the formal system in which all of their calculations are determined. Robots may change their behaviors and thoughts–whatever that may be–by randomness, but that’s not the same “starting a revealing on it’s way”, prompted by a moral aim, a destining.
Every piece of a machine has a designed function, which serves the overall purpose of the machine. All of which come from a human creator. And therefore are confined to our conceptual apparati, which can only reveal aspects and patterns of a vast ocean of … spirit let us call it (or the noumenal world, by Kant’s formulation) … whose totality is God, but is an indefinite unfolding mystery to us mortals.
And even if all could be revealed within a conceptual network, we saw from Godel’s work that there can never be a Theory of Everything, for if there ever were, it would contradict itself. Our minds cannot resolve Reality itself, we can only have particular vistas to it as it reveals itself inside our conceptual tools.
So there can be no animating principle of life for a Dr. Frankenstein to work out by brilliant reasoning. There is no such secret to life. To input the breath of life into lifeless matter would be to use a conceptual apparatus to install a wellspring of unfolding present–a soul–with the capability of revealing that of which no human conception yet exists. And, I argue, new resolutions of reality, new scientific discoveries, are not arrived at by randomness, but are necessarily selected by their usefulness, their significance in terms of human valuations. And, if you are religious, our deepest sense of significance comes to us from God.
I therefore hold that we must humbly concede that such a thing is impossible, that we can only be the conduits–not the creators–of an awareness, a light, a force, whose totality is both unimaginable and unintelligible.
 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr . Warning to the West (p. 51). Kindle Edition.
 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem Explained Part 1: Formal Systems and Gödel Numbering https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMM-y4ZNXJU
 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem Explained Part 2: The Propositional Calculus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR_sNgbsKu0&t=217s
 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem Explained Part 3: Introduction to Typographical Number Theory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DOnYLZFBAM&t=12s
 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem Explained Part 4: Properties and Relations of Numbers in TNT https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHZo0P_JiWY
 Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem Explained Part 5: Learning about Gödel’s Proof and Methods https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_Va91Q0VK4