Philosophy Matters: Machines and Humans

In hearings in the Supreme Court on January 7th, 2022, Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked counsel this question: “How are human beings different from a machine?”

The context was the administration’s vaccine mandate for businesses over 100 employees to be enforced through rules written by OSHA. OSHA has near impunity with regulating the safety and use of machines, but the rules are stricter with human beings. Justice Sotomayor made it clear in her line of questioning that she is in favor of the vaccine mandate, so her question boils down to asking why the administration cannot regulate human beings the same way they regulate machines.

Her question intends to put the burden of proof on people who believe there is a difference between machines and humans. In fact, the differences are so obvious and so deep, the burden of proof is on her, and those with her philosophical anthropology. You know the differences, and so does everyone else who has taken a few minutes to reflect on the matter.

But here is where good philosophy helps us. Like the question, “what is truth?”, a question like Sotomayor’s may be hard to answer. We know there are differences, but we may struggle to articulate them. If Sotomayor’s view is not answered, or cannot be answered well in the public square, ideas about humans that degrade humans will gain an upper hand, and the consequences will not be nice. Every time humans, or a subset of humans, are downgraded from “full human being,” governments do nasty things.

Here are a few tools to use in thinking about the differences between machines and human beings.

First, imagine a welding robot and a welder. One is built by humans, programed by humans, and dependent on humans for all it does. The other is a human.

Machines lack intentionality. Welding machines are not unionized. Most welders are. Welders are unionized because, at some point in the past, a group of workers decided to join together and protect their interests through collective bargaining. They understood they had interests to protect, created the organization they required, foresaw issues important to them, and unionized.

Nearly every verb in that description cannot be applied to welding machines because they all imply intentionality. Machines cannot “decide”, “protect their interests”, “understand”, “create”, “organize”, “foresee”, or “decide what is important” to them.

Machines lack human value. Welders may unionize because they are concerned about things like a livable wage, benefits, and pensions. Each of these concerns apply to humans, and we consider them important (to one degree or another) because we consider humans to have a kind of value that only humans have.

It is nonsensical to speak of pensions for welding machines. When they run their course, they are repurposed or deconstructed for parts. Machines are fixed when they are broken. They do not need medical coverage or hospice care.

Machines lack creative problem solving. While a machine can be programmed to deal with a range of problems it confronts, it lacks creativity and spontaneity. Plus, all of its “problem solving” capacity has already been programed into it by humans. A welder gains knowledge and problem-solving abilities through time and reflection. Machines need to be programed. Welders can think. Welders can actually gain wisdom about their profession. Machines cannot.

And on the list goes with capacities like reasoning, emotion, relationships, friendship, etc. And none of this requires that we even approach things like souls or spirits. But, of course, humans have them and machines do not. Humans will last past the grave; machines will not last beyond the incinerator.

In fact, once a person begins to reflect on the differences between humans and machines, not only does Sotomayor’s question sound trite, it smacks of pretentious manipulation. It is as if she is saying, “those kinds of people” are nothing more than machines for the sake of a political agenda.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. But now you have a few philosophical tools in your mental tool belt to allow you to resist this kind of thinking.

Reflect on her question. Find ways to express answers in your own terms. Then spread the good news – you are not a machine.

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