I was a naive lad of 17, enrolled as a science student at the University of Sydney, when I stumbled upon a book that would influence me greatly, at an intellectual level, for the rest of my life: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
At that time, it was totally weird that scientists might dare compare animals (such as Homo Sapiens) and vulgar machines (such as computers). An anecdote in this famous book made an immediate and lasting impression upon me. Since Wiener's words now constitute a marvelous page in the history of science, I prefer to quote them in full, rather than trying to summarize his lucid language.
Now, suppose that I pick up a lead pencil. To do this, I have to move certain muscles. However, for all of us but a few expert anatomists, we do not know what these muscles are; and even among the anatomists, there are few, if any, who can perform the act by a conscious willing in succession of the contraction of each muscle concerned. On the contrary, what we will is to pick the pencil up. Once we have determined on this, our motion proceeds in such a way that we may say roughly that the amount by which the pencil is not yet picked up is decreased at each stage. This part of the action is not in full consciousness.
To perform an action in such a manner, there must be a report to the nervous system, conscious or unconscious, of the amount by which we have failed to pick up the pencil at each instant. If we have our eye on the pencil, this report may be visual, at least in part, but it is more generally kinesthetic, or, to use a term now in vogue, proprioceptive. If the proprioceptive sensations are wanting and we do not replace them by a visual or other substitute, we are unable to perform the act of picking up the pencil, and find ourselves in a state of what is known as ataxia. An ataxia of this type is familiar in the form of syphilis of the central nervous system known as tabes dorsalis, where the kinesthetic sense conveyed by the spinal nerves is more or less destroyed.
Wiener then starts to talk of a typically handicapped patient as if he/she were simply a sick machine:
However, an excessive feedback is likely to be as serious a handicap to organized activity as a defective feedback.
He even evokes an engineering error that could possibly affect human beings:
Is there any pathological condition in which the patient, in trying to perform some voluntary act like picking up a pencil, overshoots the mark, and goes into an uncontrollable oscillation?
Wiener's medical associate Arturo Rosenbleuth informs him that there is indeed a well-known condition, known as purpose tremor, associated with injury to the cerebellum.
For many years, I was persuaded that the inevitable outcome of Wiener's so-called cybernetics would be demonstrations that humans were some kind of complex machine… and that researchers might finally get around to designing computerized machines capable of behaving with so-called artificial intelligence, as if they were humans.
In another domain, I've just been reading about a pathological condition in humans that seems to demonstrate a profound truth about our existence. Click on the following Seed magazine banner to read this short article, written by David Weisman:
It's really weird (for want of a better word) that our two cerebral hemispheres function like a pair of complementary but quite different machines. Together, they provide their owner with the mysterious illusion of an entity that he/she refers to as "me". What's spooky in Weisman's story is the fact that this "me" feeling (I was going to call it "me-ness", but this neologism looks crazy) can gaily shunt out an entire cerebral hemisphere, as if it were an undesirable—or, in any case, unrecognizable—alien.
Ever since reading the books of Richard Dawkins, accompanied by Susan Blackmore's truly earth-shaking The Meme Machine, I've started to imagine that this "me" is indeed a marvelous and terribly complex illusion... but a pure illusion, all the same.
ADDENDUM: I'm reminded of a trivial but charming personal anecdote. Long ago, when I was capable of getting erotically involved with Irish nymphs (the closest I ever got to the land of my maternal ancestors), I happened to ask the young lady alongside me to tell me how her compatriots used colloquial language in love-making. If I had become interested in this mundane question, it was because I had already noticed that some of my own Franco-Australian language appeared to arouse her in only one way. It made her laugh with derision! (The term "panties", for example, made her burst out laughing, as if I were thinking of her as my baby doll... and it had to be promptly replaced by the ugly "knickers".) In this highly-charged linguistic atmosphere, I touched the most intimate portion of her anatomy and asked naively: "Back in Ireland, how do you refer to this part of your body?" Her delightful reply was infinitely more revealing than a treatise on Gaelic: "That's me."