Aimé Michel

Le premier mystère est: pourquoi y a-t-il quelque chose plutôt que rien?
Et le deuxième, aussi grand que le premier: pourquoi suis-je là en train de penser?


Diogenes’s Invectives

The Triumph of Scrap Metal

Atlas – Air France n°78 – December 1972


I was astonished, I admit. People have told me a great many stories over the centuries, and often, docile, I’ve believed them. But this one was something different…

— Did you say that you have manufactured the kind or man I sought without success among the Athenians?

— Yes, that’s precisely what I said, Mr Diogenes.

I searched my memory in vain, this story was really a new one on me. If he had said to me, “I’m the very man you were looking for”, well and good! Or better still, if he had proposed to introduce me to such a man, for a small fee of course, that would have been in the order of things. But to claim to have manufactured the elusive man!

— Wait a minute, I said, suddenly understanding. “This man, would you sell him to me?”

The fellow regarded me with a look of amusement. He didn’t seem to be a fraud, nor a lunatic, but simply what he claimed to be: a mathematician — tall, thin, and correct, though with a hint of fantasy, a slight twinkle in his eyes, and the detached air that results from dealing with the imaginary entities of mathematics.

— Sell him to you… And what would you pay me with, your lantern? One day in Athens, you were seen searching for a man in broad daylight, with the help of a lantern. People have often asked themselves the meaning of this little joke. What is a man, according to you? A free and responsible being? A creature endowed with reason and reasoning infallibly? If it’s the free and responsible being you were seeking, let’s continue no further; mathematics cannot help you. But if it is the creature with infallible reason, I can advise you to put away your lantern or donate it to the musée de 1′Homme. Your Quest is over. In ancient Athens, the faultless rationalist did not exist; you were right to defy the Athenians by pretending not to see them in light of day. Since he did not exist, we have manufactured him.

I was getting a little irritated.

— Oh, you mean the computer, I suppose. And yet the most respected specialists have written that the computer is no more than a stupid machine, a pile of scrap metal which can only regurgitate in another form what you put into its memory. I have read that those who speak of “artificial thought” are ignorant of the true nature of thought, and that the computer is as far from thinking as it is from making sausages.

— Did I say that it thinks? Most assuredly it does not. But it reasons. These are not the same. The computer is only a heap of junk, that’s true, just as the brain is only a piece of flesh. The comparison is not only legitimate, it is unavoidable. The best brain in the world is nothing but a bit of matter. People incapable of the most elementary reasoning (they say one, one and one again instead of three) have basically the same brain as you (which doesn’t bother me) and as I (which is more serious).

— You mean that…

— I mean that with the miniaturization of electronics, engineers are now producing devices upon which mathematicians can reproduce artificially all the rational processes subject to logical definition. I mean that in the framework of these processes, the computer never makes a mistake, whereas man is subject to all sorts of failures.

— Never?

— Never. Of course, it makes mistakes if there is a mechanical breakdown, or if its program contains an error. But it can never behave like man, who can even make mistakes without physical breakdown. The world’s best mathematician is the victim of forgetfulness and distraction. He can multiply seven by three and get twenty-eight. Or he may multiply seven by three, say twenty-one himself, and then write twenty-eight. The computer simply cannot do that. To confound twenty-one and twenty-eight, one must have the idea of number and the ability to think. The computer does not think. It is a system of circuits through which electrical current does or does not flow, and there is never a question of number, nor of idea, nor of anything similar.

All the while listening, I reflected and began to sense that special malicious pleasure that one feels when he sees an adversary in a debate digging his own grave. But what error had he made? What he was saying seemed perfectly reasonable. All at once I understood: It was not he who was digging his grave; but he had made me think of my old enemy Plato, the philosopher, the man of reason.

— I’m not sure, I said, that I’ve understood you. But it seems that the computer reasons infallibly because it cannot think?

— That’s right. You have said it.

— So error is in some sense unique to man?

— I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I can program my computer to make errors.

— Thank you, oh thank you. What is unique to man, then, is his ability to make mistakes without doing it on purpose. I’m going to reflect on that.