Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Living in a robot suit – a thought experiment…

December 31st, 2017 by Bruce Charlton

As a thought experiment, consider life in a remote-controlled robot suit: an ‘exoskeleton’ or ‘mech suit’ – so we dwell inside a metal shell that is being compelled to do things by a remote control mechanism.

Imagine being inside this shell – thinking freely about the world, understanding in some ways, and wanting to act in some ways – yet our actions, our limb movements – what we do – is being compelled by the robot suit (and whoever controls it). So, we are constantly observing our bodies doing things we do not want to do, under compulsion of the robot suit.

Inside this shell we can think freely – but our limbs are (mostly) being forced, by the superior strength of the robot suit, into doing things that are not chosen by us – but are compelled on us. However, to be more accurate, we should regard the power of the robot suit to be greater than our own muscular strength – but only quantitatively greater – because it is sometimes possible for us to resist and even overcome the robot suit for some period of time – by exerting all our muscular strength against it. However, this overcoming the suit is exhausting, and therefore sooner or later we will tire and the robot suit will again take-over…

Thus our situation is that on the one hand we are compelled to act in specific ways by the external control of the suit; yet on the other hand we can sometimes force the suit to act in ways that our free-thinking desires.

This combination of freedom and constraint may then be used-against-us; if our thoughts are judged by our actions – from the correct fact that actions are visible while thoughts are not; plus the false assertion that, because we can sometimes act as we think, then we could (in principle) always act as we think… So people whose thoughts are detached from their actions, but not wholly detached, are treated as if their actions are of first importance, and their ‘real’ thoughts can be inferred from their observed actions.

This is deadly: because instead of thought being free and knowingly-experienced as free – thought becomes regarded as constrained by action.

And if/ when a society can (mostly) compel action (like a robot suit compels action), then society can claim to control thoughts – because thoughts are (in practice) being assumed by inference from actions; thoughts are being regarded as secondary, to the point of irrelevance…

Society puts us in a robot suit, which externally-forces us to do this-and-that – then society tells us that we chose to do this-and-that! That we wanted to do this-and-that. That what we did and continue to do is the real us

Read the whole thing at my Bruce Charlton’s Notions blog…

Comments (3)
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December 31st, 2017 02:55:10

December 31, 2017

1984 was 33 years ago, comrade.

January 7, 2018

I can’t say I’m sure that I grasp your argument, but I’ll go ahead and respond and you can correct me where necessary.

You say that Christians regard a person’s actions as of primary importance, “ignoring thinking”. I’m not sure who is guilty of this. Evangelical Protestants would not say this, since that would sound to them like works-righteousness. To them having faith is of first importance, and as I understand it, they deny that “having faith” is an act or a work, but consider it merely a gift that we passively, and internally, accept.

Catholics would not agree that actions are of primary importance while ignoring thinking. Thinking is primary in the sense that deliberate actions follow thought. This is what we mean when we say that the passions need to be subject to the intellect and will, which is why the practice of self-denial is important: it helps to subject the urges and habits of the body to what the mind knows to be right and true. So again the mind is primary and external actions follow.

I would agree with you that in a sense morality is primary, and that morality concerns actions and not merely thoughts. It won’t do to commit a sin externally, and excuse ourselves on the ground that we disapprove of the act internally. Either we believe that we have control over the morality of our external actions, or we don’t. The Gospel traditionally has taught that it’s sometimes hard to make ourselves do good and avoid evil, but it’s not impossible, and that’s why we are judged according to our works and not merely our intentions.

Regarding the mechanical suit analogy, if I understand correctly you mean something like, society forces us to act in certain ways by external pressures, whether physical coercion or threats, social shame or shunning, etc. These external pressures you represent by a suit that we wear which to a large extent controls our external movements but can’t control our thoughts and feelings.

Assuming I got that right, it seems to me that in addition to the “societal suit”, we are also clothed in a “family suit”, that is, our families coerce us into acting in certain ways and not in other ways, through the same kinds of external pressures that society uses to coerce us.

For that matter, for Christians there is also a “Gospel suit”, which compels us to act in some ways and not others; not usually through physical force but through the hope of reward and the fear of God’s justice. (Ideally we act always out of pure love for God and not for reward or out of fear; I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the purity of his own motives.)

Your point seems to be that the societal suit may make us act in ways that are contrary to the Gospel, but that we should not judge ourselves guilty so long as our thoughts and intentions are good. But why should the “society suit” overpower the “Gospel suit”? Or for that matter the family suit? If a family has strictures against certain behaviors, and the children engage in those behaviors due to pressure from society, are the parents wrong in holding the child at fault? What parent would not rather say, “You evidently hold society in higher regard than your family”?

Can we not choose which suit to obey? Can’t the Gospel suit help us to fight the compulsions and temptations of the society suit? Isn’t that the whole point? As St. Paul writes, Jesus “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14 — the whole of Titus 2, in fact, concerns the manner in which we should conduct ourselves externally.)

Bruce Charlton
January 8, 2018

@Ag – Another – neglected – suit is that of our personalities, intelligence, abilities, temptations etc.

The real ‘us’ is inside this biological-psychological diving suit – which severely constrains what we can and can’t do.

“we should not judge ourselves guilty so long as our thoughts and intentions are good. ”

No – we should judge ourselves guilty – and only this judgment enables repentance.

But we are nonetheless multiply constrained; and we cannot avoid these constraints. That is; we all sin, and we cannot stop ourselves.

And some people are extremely constrained – for example by an impulsive personality and a weak memory and an inability to experience compassion eg. a real psychopath – one who is born not made; or someone with congenital impairment, brain damage or on some drug… In a sense we are *all* that person, to some significant degree.

But it is this inner and pretty-much invisible motivation to ‘be on God’s side in the work of creation’ which matters to salvation.

God made us, and the world we live in – and it is a world in which sin is (all-but) inevitable. Therefore at the deepest and most ultimate level we can only be judged (judged from the point of salvation, I mean) by out intentions.

The worst behaved person might have the purest (although not completely pure) intentions; the best behaved might simply be responding to ‘good’ external motivating factors operating on a pliant and obedient disposition – that same disposition and inner-attitudes could lead to grossly evil acts if they were placed differently.

I think we need to distinguish what needs insisting upon for reasons of societal and church order; from the ultimate realities of salvation and indeed theosis – because the lessons of theosis do not depend upon the human brain and its memory systems, but are (somehow) ‘written’ in a permanent and eternal form.

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