Q: I know it’s only a machine, but sometimes I feel as if my car has a soul. You know, some sort of sentient, actual life force that gives it a personality. Am I nuts? Is it possible for a car to have a soul? – Hope Springs, Eternal, AL
A: That’s really two questions. First, I have no idea if you’re nuts. Consult your local mental health professional for that one. But let’s not dismiss that second question out of hand.
Let's first ask whether or not you, my human correspondent, have a soul, because certain corners of neuroscience feel pretty strongly that you do not. Sorry. Studies of brain chemistry and brain function have some scientists believing that our sense of self, and our belief in our own free will, are just illusions. Or delusions. Or at least something that’s evolved to keep us going and breeding, but nothing like what we’ve considered to be consciousness, intelligence, cognizance and human agency. You are your genes, and they’re just running through their biological inevitability.
I reject that. Not because there’s no substance to it, and not solely because of my religious faith, but because I think, my thinking has changed over time, and I’m aware of those changes. The materialist reductionism of human experience runs counter to my intuition, and sometimes my intuition is all I can go on. So for our purposes here, souls are real things that exist.
Of course cars don’t have human souls, but I’m going to posit the existence of mechanical souls. Souls that represent all that goes into designing, engineering, building and ultimately using any man-made device. These mechanical souls aren’t eternal – as I have faith that human souls are – but they’re palpable in how a thing functions and relates to the human operating it. In using a machine, we feel the intelligence and effort that went into creating it.
A car embodies thousands of years of human effort, learning and development. Let’s start with the taming of fire, the understanding of the wheel and circular motion, the development of metals, rubber, plastics, and structures to start. None of those come from a single eureka moment of a solitary individual, but millions of people slowly recognizing the potential of what they encounter and capturing that and refining it into something useful. Those millions of micro-contributions accumulate over time so that a driver feels them as painted steel in his/her hand when opening the door of a Miata. All of humanity’s thousands of years of experience in animal husbandry and hide processing is there in the leather on the shift knob. Turn the steering wheel and for a milli-moment there’s Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber communicating through the driver’s fingertips.
All the efforts of hundreds of generations of inventors and engineers don’t go away. They’re there in every car for us to feel, appreciate, and when things are going right, enjoy. And no two cars are absolutely exactly alike. Particularly if they’ve been worn down with use over time.
Yeah, machines have souls. And not just cars but everything from the clack as a Zippo lighter top shuts to the tones the iMac I’m typing on when I start it up, reminds us of all the human effort that went into building our mechanical and electronic world.
Artificial intelligence will accelerate our appreciation of how machines are imbued with the soul us humans pump into them. And maybe we are approaching a “technological singularity” where computerized machines themselves promulgate their own development at a rate beyond human control. But there’s always something recognizable human at the center of every machine.
And there’s nothing more human than a soul.