Saturday, October 29, 2011

Whither Materiality

Chatting with one of my students yesterday, a middle manager in his forties, I learned from him that his company was preparing for a Shinto blessing of a new filtration system at one of their chemical plants.

Not only would they give thanks to the old system for its having served them well for the past forty or fifty years, but they would welcome in the new one with the hopes that it would serve equally admirably for at least as long.

While to some this act might seem deeply superstitious, a superfluous gesture hide-bound in tradition, to me it touches on a deep, metaphysical question.

To wit, Do machines have souls? (Japanese, or at least those who are adherents of Shinto, would probably not word it this way, instead taking it for granted that materials possess ki, a kind of essence or spirit.)

Well, do they, do machines have souls? That was the subject of last week's Car Talk episode (start at 28:00) wherein a caller from Davis, California wanted to know that if by swapping out the engine on his 1990 Isuzu Trooper he would be losing the car's soul.

There was, of course, some good-natured bantering on the question, but the consensus seemed to be that if indeed cars had souls, they would most certainly be located in the engine, so that the swap would most definitely result in the loss of the car's soul. Worse, by putting in a new engine, the caller was at risk of gaining an entirely new and potentially whimsical or dastardly one. (The guys seemed to be conflating soul with personality here, but so be it, they're comedians, not philosophers or semioticians.)

I'm not sure what someone like the late American physicist Richard Feynman would have done with these arguments, but I suspect he would have simply stowed the question in the category of things we don't know anything about. I don't think he would have said de facto that machines or objects don't possess spirit, just that until someone "proves" that they do, we'll have to be content with not knowing.

"Start out understanding religion by saying everything (we know) is possibly wrong."

Everything we think we know is possibly wrong.

And "I don't feel frightened by not knowing things."

I don't feel frightened by not knowing things.

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