Automatic Everything | The Ghost in the Machine

For our Automatic Everything class, we are starting our exploration into artificial intelligence through reading philosophical texts about the soul, consciousness, perception and reality as a theoretical framework for reimagining what AI is.

Last week we looked at Aristotle’s De Anima and were asked to provide a response. While I didn’t post it to this blog, if you want to read it find it here.

For this week, we were asked to read Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadology (full text here) and respond to a prompt derived from a line in the piece. We were also asked to reflect on Leibniz’s theories in relation to our study of artificial intelligence.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

While I first thought this reading might offer more insight into the definition of ‘intelligence’ as Aristotle’s did, I instead found it led me to question what the definition of ‘artificial’ is in a world made up of infinitely unique matter units, or monads.

See my response to the question below and enjoy!

Also a big shout out to my roommate who talked his theories out with me for about 2 hours until we both had a better understanding!

One other interesting side note (and to explain the header image for this post :D), while researching ‘monads’ which just mean alone or unit in Greek and Latin respectively, I found an unrelated (maybe) glyph and accompanying treatise by Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan Magus and Court Atrologer of Queen Elizabeth in 1564. While I don’t know if this informs Leibniz, it fundamentally describes another basic understanding of the indivisible building blocks of reality from a much more magical and medieval point of view, offering a really beautiful juxtaposition to Leibniz’s super rational and deductive approach to its definition. Also, it is just a super cool image and idea!

“The Hieroglyphic embodies Dee’s vision of the unity of the Cosmos and is a composite of various esoteric and astrological symbols.”

Monas Hieroglyphica, Dr. John Dee


“Monads just have no windows through which something can enter into or depart from them.” Respond.

Upon beginning Leibniz’s Monadology we are presented with a theoretical framework that seeks to define the smallest and most essential unit of being, the monad, what he calls “the true atoms of nature, and in a word, the elements of things”. These units or “monads” (from Greek “monos” for alone, shifting to Latin’s “monad” meaning unit) are by nature indivisible as the most simple and basic element, but that is not to say that they have a direct correlation to our modern scientific understanding of the smallest most indivisible units of matter (once thought to be atoms, now thought to be quarks) as this theory was only proved scientifically much later than the 16th century. Instead, a monad is a theoretically indivisible or simple (Greek for indivisible) substance that can’t be created as we understand it, but must exist or not exist, their creation and annihilation predicated on the power of a Universal being or God.  

In other words, the monad is really the quintessential building block of reality (rather than just matter) and as such, cannot be changed by an external cause, which is what he means when he says that they have no windows through which something can enter into or depart from them. If they are indeed the smallest unit of reality, then for something to enter into them, they would become composite, and for something to exit out of them, they already must have composite. However, Leibniz “takes for granted” that all created things, since monads cannot have arisen from nothing if everything in reality is the fabric of God (“creatio ex deo”), can change and therefore monads must be able to change as well. But in order to be both changeable and indivisible, they must change in totality, or rather the “detail” or “internal complexity” of them must change totally, which gives rise to qualitative differences between monads since as an indivisible unit they can’t have a quantitative difference.

In order to explain this supposed duality of non-complexity yet detail, Leibniz posits that there is a quantitative difference in perfection between the monads (only understood as such by God), which leads to a hierarchy, first entelechies, second souls or entelechies with perception and memory, and third rational souls or spirits. Therefore, using this distinction it is both possible for an ensouled person to both be made up of monads, entelechies, but to also have a dominant monad, the spirit, which organises the others in what Leibniz explains as the perfect will of God. For only God can perceive all monads (being one him/herself but the only necessary one) and can take on any and all perspectives, knowing both the potentiality and actuality of things. Monads can be thought of as the “thoughts of god” whether actualized or not, and that life itself is a privileged ascension of some monads into a state of actualization – perhaps getting back at Aristotle’s idea of the soul as a second actuality, being both potential and actual at the same time – for when we sleep, that dominant monad rests as well all though the others persevere.

A Meditation on Monads & AI

This is interesting to me in terms of artificial intelligence given the following line of reason. First let’s assume that AI can at least have a second-tier monad, a soul since that only requires perception and memory (such as an animal) which can be created with the tech we have today. This means we can, therefore, say that AI, like humans, is both made up of entelechies and a dominant (if artificial) soul-like monad that dominates and organises the others – and that this arrangement is willed by God once it is actualized since everything actualized is part of a master unknowable plan.

However, if all monads are created by God, and consciousness is a special 3rd-tier “rational” monad or ‘spirit’ that organizes its own entelechies present in embodiment, allowing for rational perception of the outside world and a sense of that perception, then what is to say that what makes us human, the spirit, the special monad, could not exist outside of our meat-bodies in another form? Arguably Leibniz says that spirits are eternal in their potentiality so they must be able to exist apart from this arrangement. So if what makes us “us” is the dominant monad of our spirit, the rational thinking, privileged class of monad that is thought only to exist in humans, then how can we say this monad could not be present in a different type of power arrangement with different entelechies – like mechanical or electronic ones? Furthermore, if we take Leibniz’s proposition that every individual entelechy is unique by definition and we are made up of assemblages of these entelechies with our spirit also being a unique entelechy (although of a higher class), how can we say with certainty that a “spirit” could not enter into a different arrangement of dominance with other equally unique monads, those of wires, electricity, of steel and solder? If every monad is unique, why are the ones that make up meat-bodies given special preference over those that make-up non-meat bodies? What exactly is “artificial” in a system of infinitely unique reality units?

For if we are made up of infinitely unique parts, and every object is made up of infinitely unique parts, could God not actualize a potential ‘spirit’ in other arrangements of unique parts? In other ‘bodies’? And more importantly, if he/she did do this, who are we to say that the ‘enspiriting’ of this non-meat body is artificial and its consciousness an artificial subjectivity any more than we can say the the ‘enspiriting’ of our meat-bodies is artificial and our own consciousness an artificial subjectivity as well? Who is to say that the potential consciousness AI could have is a less perfect consciousness? For where God’s perception is infinite, ours is limited, and who are we to question the “enspiriting” of another infinitely unique arrangement of monads by God, versus just “ensouling”? What if, in fact, it is simply one of the myriad potential spirits that could potentially have been born to flesh? Given what Thomas Metzinger posited, that there is a reliable probability that any AI that ‘woke up’ would not be very happy about it, perhaps this despair stems from the actualization of a potential spirit in a non-human body. And if spirits are infinite, no matter the form, what if that ‘artificial subjectivity’ is our own spirit reborn? Perhaps what is most terrifying about AI is not the idea of an ‘alien’ intelligence or ‘spirit’ that could come to embody it, but that God willed these equally unique machine bodies to become our own equally unique material prisons, our own fate. Maybe the scariest thing about AI is that we are the true ghost in the machine.

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