Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Robocop Takes on Philosophy of Mind

by Matthew E. Johnson

Alex Murphy had no idea that tracking down some dirty cops in his department would turn him into a cyborg. After a car bomb and some 2028 AD technological wizardry, Alex Murphy wakes up as the first half man, half robot, all awesome crime fighting machine: Robocop. Now more machine than human, what has Alex Murphy become? Does he have free will, or is he nothing more than a computer program in the body of a cyborg?

Set to be released on DVD and Blu-ray today (June 3), the 2014 reboot of the classic science fiction film Robocop (1987), has received some fairly poor reviews. A lot of reviewers seemed to think it was a watered down remake of the original. Others thought it was okay for a sci-fi/action movie but was nothing special.

Imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch Robocop (the 2014 one) only to discover that I was in for a wild ride through not just a bunch of over the top special effects and epic motorcycle scenes, but also some serious philosophy of mind.

To start with, it seems that someone had philosophy on the mind when the characters were named. The lead scientist in the film is named Dr. Dennett Norton, and the major political opponent to the inclusion of robots in the police force is named Hubert Dreyfus. While it may be nothing but a strange coincidence, Daniel Dennett and Hubert Dreyfus happen to be two influential figures in philosophy of mind who both have something to say on the question of artificial intelligence.

It is fitting, then, that Robocop explores questions about the nature of the human mind and the difference between human and machine. The film flags some scary implications of philosophy that reduces the mind to the right blend of neurotransmitters in the brain, using Robocop as a case study for why a human being might actually be more than a brain and a body.

Robocop (2014) sets up a thought experiment where Alex Murphy is not much more than a human brain placed in the body of a robot. The question it raises is one of the extent to which a person is their brain, their body, or something else non-physical, like a mind or soul. In the film, the assumption held by the scientist Dennett Norton and the corporate developers of Robocop is that everything a person is can be located in the physical brain. Put Alex Murphy’s brain in a different (robot) body, and he will remain the same person; but mess with the chemistry of his brain, and you can tweak who he is.

What they don’t count on is that Alex Murphy seems to prove that he is more than the sum of his parts. By the end of the movie, he seems to crack his own code and proves his free will despite his Robocop programming. Apparently, Alex Murphy is more than just the way his brain is wired.

Essentially, Robocop is an exploration of what happens if you accept theory of consciousness based on the idea that the physical brain is all there is (which, according to the movie, turns out to be mistaken) and then build a crime fighting cyborg. Whether the character names are coincidence or intentional, taking a second to explore Daniel Dennett’s and Hubert Dreyfus’s thoughts on mind and artificial intelligence will help to crack open some of the philosophical gems hidden in the movie.

Daniel Dennett is currently a Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, best known for his work in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Keeping company with outspoken atheists, Dennett is also known as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism movement along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. His 1991 work Consciousness Explained offers a theory of consciousness that claims that an exhaustive explanation of consciousness can be found using the physical description of the brain; human beings are nothing more than really complicated bundles of cells.

Our brains, for Dennett, are complex multi-level processors that take in information from sense perception and send it through pre-conscious editorial processes, or what he calls “multiple drafts.” There’s no “master discriminator” that receives all the information and decides what it means. Rather, the input goes through multiple “edits,” so to speak, and by the time it reaches conscious awareness it has already been interpreted for us by the pre-conscious processing of our brains (Consciousness Explained, 113). This means that our conscious experience of free will is an illusion--how we react to the world is already predetermined by the edits our brain makes to the incoming sensory information.

According to Dennett, the mind-body problem isn’t that hard of a problem, simply because there really is no such thing as a “mind” (i.e. a “master discriminator”) in the way we typically talk about it—it’s just a different way of talking about how neurons happen to be firing. In his 2003 TED Talk, Dennett attempts to deconstruct the Cartesian idea that “I think, therefore I am,” and that we at least know with certainty the content of own minds even if we are sure of nothing else. Using a series of optical illusions, he shows that our minds do all sorts of things we don’t know about, casting doubt on the idea that the mind is a non-material entity where our selves really reside.

Robocop (the 2014 one) sets up the character Dennett Norton initially as the proponent of Daniel Dennett’s philosophy of mind. Operating under the assumption that Alex Murphy is nothing more than his neurons, Norton feels that he is malleable in a fundamental way. Changes to Murphy’s brain will always result in changes to who he is. By the end of the film, Dr. Dennett Norton admits publicly regarding the Robocop project, “I acknowledge we know less than we thought.”

The arc of the story and the scientist’s change of mind feel like a critique of a conception of the mind such as one finds in Daniel Dennett. The human person, the film seems to say, is more than just a brain and more than just a body. There is something like a soul or a mind that cannot be accounted for just by looking at the physical components. And above all, this means that the human person has a special kind of free will and autonomy.

This is a message that likely resonates with our common sense. The problem, though, is that this is precisely the kind of thinking that landed us in the mind-body problem, where we have to figure out how the mind and body can interact with each other if they exist in two different realms that don’t overlap. If the human person is a special kind of thing that is more than and different from a brain, how does that special kind of thing relate to the physical body?

Hubert Dreyfus, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, has some advice to offer on this front. Dreyfus embarks on what seems to be a similar project to Dennett in broad strokes, but ends up with quite different conclusions. He too is uncomfortable with a strong division between mind and body but, unlike Dennett, thinks that the problem lies in the idea that the human brain is simply a machine for abstract information processing.

Drawing from the work of philosophers like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein, Dreyfus is a long-time opponent of what has come to be called the “Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence” (GOFAI for short) project. According to Dreyfus, where this project goes wrong is that it assumes that the human brain computes cold, hard informational input from the world in the same way that a computer processor crunches data. On the contrary, “Data, then, are far from brute; aspects of objects are not given as directly in the world but as characterizing objects in places in a local environment in a place and time in the world” (What Computers Still Can’t Do, 174). For Dreyfus, things in the world impress themselves upon us as already meaningful to us because of our embodied experience and our embeddedness in a community of other human beings.

Dreyfus finds problematic the use of a computer processor image for the mind (or what Dennett, in a heated exchange with John Searle calls “computational neuroscience”) because it takes human experience to be made up of cold, hard data to be processed. Where Dennett’s multiple drafts model of the “mind” suggests that all a human being is can be found in the physical body and the firing of neurons, Dreyfus suggests that the human person is a complex nexus of meaningful relationships and embodied interactions with the world and cannot really be pinned down by describing the person as either “mind” or “body.”

The takeaway from Dreyfus is different from the message of Robocop in an important way. While Dreyfus might agree that Alex Murphy is more than just the firing of neurons, there is no getting around the fact that who he is depends just as much on the way his body is able to interact with the world (i.e. his “being-in-the-world”) as it does on his brain chemistry. If Dreyfus is right, such a drastic change in Alex Murphy’s body would mean that he would become a different person because he inhabits an entirely different way of being in the world. He is not just a brain and not just a body, but both play a role in constituting who he is.

I have to admit, though, whoever wrote the screenplay for Robocop did their homework. While I (siding with Dreyfus) may not exactly agree with the conclusions the film seems to draw, it uses Alex Murphy as a thought experiment to pose difficult questions to philosophical positions like Dennett’s and Dreyfus’s. For this reason, I think Robocop is a great example of the power fiction has to illustrate possible implications of armchair ideas, showing us what might really be at stake in our philosophical theories.

Matthew E. Johnson is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on the intersection of hermeneutics and philosophy of mind, especially issues surrounding emergence and personhood.

First image by David Orban, used from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006.png; second image by Jörg Noller, used from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hubert_Dreyfus.jpg; third image used from http://wallpaperswide.com/robocop_2015-wallpapers.html. 


  1. Nice thoughts on a complex subject but the film was predictably disappointing

  2. I haven't seen the film (yet) but your observations have put it on my "buy at $10" list, for sure.

    Of course Robocop isn't the first and probably isn't the best example of the medium of science fiction being used to explore philosophy of mind. This has been happening in fairly serious ways since Star Trek OS, at least. What we're really struggling with when we explore mind through science fiction metaphor is the subject of identity; personhood itself, as you've obviously recognised. Somehow we see mind, intelligence, identity and personhood as bound together, so we may have AI (artificial intelligence) as the theme or perhaps consciousness transferral (like what happened to Kirk that time) but when the story isn't a simple cautionary tale about letting machines (a metaphor for extreme determinism) rule us, identity and personhood are almost always on the table.

    In James Cameron's brilliant sequel to Alien, aptly titled Aliens, the "synthetic" Bishop says that he prefers the term "artificial person". In the cult classic Demon Seed, which has nothing to do with demons but plenty to do with seed, the AI "Proteus" struggles against time to produce a fully-human child (achieved by kidnapping and raping Julie Christie) so that it may be fully embodied (as a saviour, no less). Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek NG has a legal battle to establish his own personhood, and later another to protect the personhood of the child he makes. In the latter the writers also toy with the question of how deep one has to go to find the person; all the way to the quantum level, apparently, introducing the idea (which I suspect that Dreyfus would like, from your account of him) that consciousness is intimately entangled with the world, not merely an emergent phenomenon, much less merely a complex deterministic system.

    So, I completely agree with your concluding statement. What might "really be at stake" is in fact almost upon us, not in the often distant future of science fiction, and your article shows us how serious theoretical subjects become publicly accessible through the medium of fiction.


    P.S. Wandering only slightly off topic, I thought of you when I saw this

    1. It certainly isn't the "best" science fiction, but if you keep yourself aloof of the general scalding criticism of the butthurt robo-fans who all wanted their movie full of gore and recognizable catchphrases, you might find the movie to be very enjoyable.
      The story itself is nothing to write home about, indeed it is basically the same story as in the original, but it's filled with caricaturesque comments on the flawed, runaway power of corporations and the media.
      More importantly, it succeeds as science fiction, providing a vision of both the advantages and the disadvantages of reliance on drones for defense.

      The first Robocop succeeded because it was brash, cynical and firmly ensconced in the culture in which it was created. This Robocop is much more subdued, and nowhere near as cynical, but I think it certainly picks up on the concerns of our times, and has its own value.

  3. Your analysis of Robocop is of great interest. I would suggest Dooyeweed's thought has a bearing in at least three main ways. The first two are, I imagine, fairly safe and self-evident. The last may find less consensus.

    Firstly, movies such as Robocop, Space Odyssey 2001, Bladerunner, Terminator, Matrix etc surely confirm Dooyeweerd's insight regarding a humanistic dichotomy between mechanistic law and personal freedom. In this light, can we perhaps see the Robocop remake as a modest attempt to find a point of equilibrium between these polarities and so heal the rift?

    Secondly, in response to questions of artificial intelligence, do Christians perhaps not too readily identify "rationality" with "soul", inadvertantly espousing the Scholastic "nature/ grace" split in an attempt to resolve the humanistic "nature/ freedom" split? Dooyeweerd of course views "rationality" as no less temporal than "body".

    Thirdly, if we subscribe to Dooyeweerd's summary of the Biblical ground-motive as "Creation, Fall, Redemption through Jesus Christ in Communion with the Holy Spirit", are we not thus identifying humanity as corporately fallen in Adam and corporately redeemed in Christ as "True Man" and as "New Root"? And are we not thereby recognizing that as "image of God" we are (in Christ) stewards of the very cosmos ("For all things are yours, the world, life, death..."), and also tacitly acknowledging that as "image of God" we are in our deepest selfhood (in our "heart", to use Dooyeweerd's rich but often misunderstood term) above time here and now. Thus even the most sophisticated "artificial intelligence" would remain but "an image of an image", a temporal reflection of the true human who, as supratemporal, is a reflection of God.

    If I might add a pertinent quotation from the "New Critique" -

    'The inner restlessness of meaning, as the mode of being of created reality, reveals itself in the whole temporal world. To seek a fixed point in the latter is to seek it in a "fata morgana", a mirage, a supposed thing-reality, lacking meaning as the mode of being which ever points beyond and above itself. There is indeed nothing in temporal reality in which our heart can rest, because this reality does not rest in itself...The question: "Who is man?" is unanswerable from the immanence-standpoint. But at the same time it is a problem which will again and again urge itself on apostate thought with relentless insistence, as a symptom of the internal unrest of an uprooted existence which no longer understands itself.' (Vol III: 109, 784)