They are everywhere. And it makes no difference whether you associate with them or try to avoid them. Like it or not, computers will share our destiny and the destiny of our children’s children. Are they our servants or our masters? Do they think, and, if so, is their thinking superior to that of humans? Where does this leave us?
It is easy to find reasons for the dominance of computers in human society. The unmeasurable depth of information and knowledge they can store and make available is truly impressive, and their memory capacities increase daily. It is said that the number of transistors on a single computer chip doubles every 1.5 years. As chips miniaturize, both the cost and size of computers decreases. Slim, hand-held computers (Palm Pilots) and featherweight laptops just over two pounds are now available.
The overall logical organization of computers, too, is awesome. They are able to relate the whole gamut of general concepts to myriad particulars, keeping an extensive accumulation of files and folders in rational order. The Internet makes it possible for one to connect easily with people, buy and sell almost anything, make travel arrangements, do research, keep up with the news and weather, and much more.
Speed also figures in. Human minds, at least aging ones, are quantitatively no match for computers. The human mind, we are told, loses some ten thousand cells daily. By contrast, the rapidity with which computer search engines process requests, locate information, display knowledge, and answer questions is mind-boggling. Personal computers with the speed of 500 MHZ, common today, were unheard of a couple years ago. Intel’s Foster chip, scheduled for the year 2000, will perform, it is said, at a speed of 1-GHz (1,000 MHZ)!
When we look at computers from a larger perspective, however, we can see that they do have some serious, obvious limitations—they lack (1) biological bodies, (2) brains or minds, and (3) souls, all essentials for human beings.
First, having no biological body or organic sense receptors, a computer lacks the capacity to observe and perceive the world, pick up signals, and focus on relevant materials. Computers do have sensory receptors of their own: keyboards, disk drives, microphones, and so on, through which humans feed them data. And robotic computers “walk” around foraging the high heavens and navigating the deep oceans for us. They have been programmed to react to unexpected aspects of their environment. Nonetheless, as they acquire energy quanta—atomic particulars—about the world, they lack the possibility of seeing the world from the perspective of the panoramic, holistic viewpoint humans have.
Humans begin the knowing process by sensing the world as a gestalt and then zeroing in on specifics; computers work the other way. Lacking emotions, computers feel no pleasure or pain, joy or anger, satisfaction or regret. (They do sometimes beep at you to show “irritation” when you give invalid directions.) Given specific data by or through us and using fixed rules, a computer organizes these atomic units into general patterns, analyzes relationships, and displays conclusions in pictures, graphs, and words. Once a computer receives our data, it can perform some amazing, unbelievable operations on them.
Second, lack of a brain or mind is an equally critical limitation.(1) The human mind, even with its limited memory, impoverished cognitive connections, and slow uptake, is qualitatively superior to computers. The central processing unit (CPU) at the heart of a computer is probably analogous to the human brain. The CPU has deductive and inductive powers, analytical abilities, and organizational skills similar to, or better than, ours. Yet, the “intelligence” it possesses appears to be qualitatively different from human intelligence. Lacking intuition—the power to employ hunches, computers are not in our league. Following hard and fast rules as they do, prevents them from making new discoveries, inventing, or advancing new insights about the universe. Maybe the new “fuzzy logic” under discussion just now will change some of that. But still, how does one compare a living human person with the collection of wires, circuit boards, and microscopic switches we call a computer?
Computers can and do check spelling and can make suggestions about word selection. However, these operations ar (check the connection here] picture of the sense of the writing we happen to be doing, some humorous words are allowed if the spelling is proper. For example, “our” is never replaced by “out,” even when the meaning requires it. Computers can never decide not to follow pre-programmed directions.
The distinguished German Professor, Martin Heidegger, wrote a book entitled, Discourse on Thinking, in which he describes two kinds of thinking—calculative and meditative. The first, though a human activity, is the kind of “thinking” computers do. Calculative thinking plans, researches, figures, and organizes the external world of objects so as to bring about some human advantages. It has a specific purpose and attempts to produce definite, practical results.
...Calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates. Such thinking remains calculation even if it neither works with numbers nor uses an adding machine or computer. Calculative thinking computes. It computes ever new, ever more promising and at the same time more economical possibilities. Calculative thinking races from one prospect to the next. Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself.(2)
Meditative thinking, by contrast, is reflection on life, which is neither scientific nor metaphysical. It is thinking which moves freely in open spaces. In these openings, as clearings in a dark forest, things appear, linger, endure for a time, and disappear. Meditative thinking is reflection on what concerns each of us in our very being. It is by no means “high-flown” or above the ordinary person. Though worthless for dealing with current business and practical affairs (the focus of calculative thinking), it still deals with ordinary life. Meditative thinking is a uniquely human activity.
At times it requires a greater effort (than calculative thinking). It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen.... It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history.(3)
Meditative thinking, at the very core of human existence, is a “releasement toward things,”(4) that is, a kind of inner composure, calmness and unconcern with the world, linked with an “openness to the mystery.” It is the passive concern for the meaning of being a self in openness to Being Itself. By capitalizing “Being,” Heidegger makes the point that ultimate “Being” must not be given the same status as beings, and it does not function on the same plane as beings. In short, it is Heidegger’s way of speaking about God. The motivation in this kind of thinking is that of becoming an authentic person in the world.
This leads us to the third limitation of computers, viz., the lack of a soul. With all their memory possibilities, logical organization, and speed, computers lack an abiding, self-transcending center, a soul. Amid the bundles of hardware and software components, held together mechanically and electronically as they are, there is no controlling personality core.
Nonetheless, when your instructions are avoided or mishandled by the computer, you are tempted to believe there is a crafty little guy inside who is the cause. In 1983, I took my first and last computer course, “Computerization of Library Records,” at the University of Chicago under a brilliant physics Ph.D. He taught us the fundamentals of assembler language, and encouraged us to go deep into the bowels of these strange machines to do our programming. The whole approach was for me “user-unfriendly”—I just wanted to know what buttons to push on the keyboard! In his lectures, the Prof. would refer to the “agent” who carried out our keyboard commands as the “Little Demon” inside. Graphic though the metaphor was, I never did understand his physics, his assembler language, nor his theology. I concluded long ago that no agent whatever exists inside computers.
By contrast, human agents sitting at keyboards possess the ability to “collect” themselves, to see life steadily and as a whole, to envision life sub specie eternitatis. The perennial thirst for meaning in the human person, which one can refer to as soul, is lacking in computers.
So, where does this leave us? Thinking meditatively enables us to determine and control what these wonderful machines can and will and ought to do. Computers have amazing stores of knowledge, but only humans may possess wisdom. It is never appropriate to refer to a computer as “wise.” Wisdom has to do with why and how knowledge is selected, with the ways computer technology is applied positively and negatively to the human situation and with values. It is imperative that we use these intellectual servants wisely. We must do what is necessary legally, personally, and socially to assure that our voluntary actions boot them up, give them directions, and shut them down.
Calculative and meditative thinking, I believe, must finally be integrated as one process. As individuals standing in relation to the Living God, we should use these wonderful technological devices positively to extend our awareness of what is going on in this wonderful world. The continuing reach of the human spirit for understanding of the world can be significantly expanded and enlarged by computers. There is always more knowledge out there than any one person, or the collective of all living persons, can possibly acquire. Computers will not overcome that limitation completely, but they certainly bring us closer. Bless God for the human ingenuity that allows us to have such amazing servants on our pilgrim way.
note1. 1. I omit any discussion here of the old, but significant question of how the terms “mind” and “brain” are related. Also, a serious discussion of cybernetics or artificial intelligence (AI) is outside the scope of this essay.
note2. 2. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. Freund and Anderson : NY, Harper, 1969, p.46.
note3. 3. Ibid, p. 47.
note4. 4. Ibid, p. 54. Heidegger’s phrase is: “Die Gelassenheit zu den Dingen.”