Saturday, July 26, 2014

What is a machine?

 Textile processing machinery, Jiangsu Province, China

 This morning, I was up above the Palisades on the Hudson River shortly after 5 AM, walking the famous dog Isabel, as is my usual routine. I felt to pondering the question of machines, and exactly what the idea of man being a machine means.

The original meaning of the Greek word from which the term machine is derived, mekhōs,  is contrivance — something skillfully created to serve a particular purpose. Interestingly, this immediately leads us to the idea of a creator, and service. So the word, which appears to be a denigration or devaluation of what humans are, is actually nothing more than an objective description of our role in the universe, and carries within it the implication of religious overtones that are not immediately apparent to us, having grown up in a technological and secular atmosphere — at least, as far as what machines are goes.

To us, being a machine implies a lack of everything we care about: most especially, that most ephemeral of qualities, free will, which is so roundly celebrated by our political and social institutions.

Without getting too convoluted, I tried to appear this idea down to its basics. To me, the most obvious difference between a living organism and the machine is that a machine cannot sense and cannot feel.  Our sensory abilities have extraordinary capacity; and I do not just speak about the capacity to receive things outwardly, as we examined in the last post: to know things mechanically with the senses, that is, with the eyes, or the ears, and so on. We have the ability to receive things inwardly, to have impressions fall in us in an organic and sensory manner that implies an unusual unremarkable cellular capacity for understanding the world through sensation. This can't be built into a machine; you can program responses into it so that it does things based on data created through external stimuli, but it does not amount to the intelligent experience of sensation within a body. It probably never will. The organism that has evolved to express this is so unusually complex that if the sensory parts are truly awake, no machine could ever emulate them. They display emergent properties that have never, so far as we know, been seen in any machine.

In the same way, machines don't experience emotion, or feeling. They never will; and this is a dilemma often treated in science fiction movies and novels. A real human being — Gurdjieff's "man without quotation marks" – has this sensing and feeling capacity that is not available to a machine. So when we are called machines, the implication is that we have not lived up to our potential in these areas.

Meister Eckhart's inner mind is a subtle thing. It stands apart from the machine, which receives associative impressions in a remarkably confused and disorderly manner. I watch this go on in me all the time; and the moment I identify with it, I am confused, because the machine isn't really capable of discriminating accurately in these situations.

Accurate self observation ultimately leads to a point of seeing the difference between the machine and that which is alive. There are different ways of being alive; and while the machine is alive, it does not have a sensory and a feeling component at its core. It lacks these essential qualities of Being.

 This sensing needs to be an inner sensing, and not an outer one. The machine senses outwardly; the living Being senses inwardly. The taste of these two things is quite different; one of them vibrates at a different rate than the other one. I need to come into relationship with the finer, higher rate of vibration if I want to discover what it means to acquire Being.


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