Several versions of materialism are compatible with the possibility that some artifacts, such as robots, might have minds similar to those of human beings.
In fact, some versions of functionalism are committed to this possibility. Discuss whether a sentient robot would be a person. For example, could it be capable of the same independence of thought and action as a human being? Would it be wrong to destroy such a robot?
The human brain is a complex network that has yet to be understood in terms of science. Though scientists understand the functionality of the brain, the cognitive level is still a mystery. Memory, behavior, and consciousness are still a mystery to science. This mystery is understood on levels of the creative spirit, which is abstract.
This creative spirit of the brain is what differentiates man from other species. Robots, no matter how self-expressive, will lack this spirit, as will animals to an extent. Therefore, if we as humans believe that killing an animal is not wrong, then the standard for a robot should not be any different. The pairing of innovative technologies with scientific discoveries about the brain opens new ways of handling information, treating diseases, and possibly creating robots with human characteristics. However, if humans are able to create sentient robots – that is, robots who have a sense of self – will they be treated as humans? This is the basis of a debate that few know the answer to. Yet, no matter how human-like the robots become, they will, in essence, not have the same functional ability that man is capable of.
The emotional and cognitive levels of thought will be lower, and thus destroying the robot would not be wrong. Are minds and bodies distinct? If so, how do they interact? There are still no good answers. But spurred by recent work in neuroscience and artificial intelligence, today’s philosophers are trying harder than ever to find some. Scientists have gone far towards understanding the brain without discovering a spirit or soul. Though the soul’s elusiveness is hardly news to a science-minded world, a more pressing redundancy looms. Neurologists can explain in impressive detail how brains control bodies.
Their findings never reveal or seem to require an immaterial mind. If materialism is the answer, then remember that the outlook is rooted in philosophical naturalism. As part of nature, humans are objects of science, and any human phenomenon, including the phenomenal” (subjective experience), has a material cause. Despite its successes elsewhere, as regards the mind, this outlook is still a program, not a result. Unfortunately, not all materialists admit this. Partly from the sensible philosophical habit of testing a good insight to breaking point and partly from sheer techno-hype, philosophers like Mr Dennett often talk as if victory were already at hand. They have said, in effect, that brains are to minds as computers are to processing, and the mystery of consciousness is solved.
But it has not been solved. Must sound explanations of the mind come from hard science? Even if computing proves to be a good model for thinking, can it be right for feeling and experience? How can brain activity be all there is to twinges of pain or sensations of color? Questions like that are being put with new sharpness as some of the snags with earlier or cruder versions of materialism are re-exposed. The belief that matter is basic and that mind comes after or on top was a favorite of the early Greeks. It irked Plato, who insisted that people had souls that survived bodily death.
Aristotle countered that separating mind and body was like trying to appraise a coin’s imprint from its wax – a potent image that suggestively equates mind with form or structure. However, Aristotle recoiled from the atomism of Democritus, who believed that the soul was made of matter. To Aristotle and the Epicureans, the universe contained only matter in different mixtures. Epicureanism, which denied an afterlife, became notorious to Christians, and its adepts were confined to living graves in Dante’s sixth circle of hell. Descartes was so struck by the mind’s oddity that he dubbed mind and matter different substances. Few modern dualists put it that way.
They do not believe in spirit stuff or ectoplasm, but the core image of dualism – grey matter with its material properties, thoughts, and feelings with their peculiar mental ones – seems inexpugnable. Materialism, with its heaven of a unified science, is a broad church. It includes fundamentalists who treat mind-talk as folklore and who try to explain away mental phenomena by reductionist tactics. And it includes subtler folks who accept that mental things belong.