What is the relationship between art and nature? Various answers to this question have been offered over the years: art holds a mirror up to nature, art improves on nature, art is part of nature, and so on. But surely the most provocative answer -- art creates nature -- was provided by Oscar Wilde in his dialogue on The Decay of Lying:
At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.
I'm not sure how far even Wilde believed this statement of hyper-aestheticism, but I think it has at least an element of truth in it. Art may not literally create nature, but it does create ways of perceiving it: working, tactile, human-sized scale models of reality. The best art takes vague notions and gives them a concrete presence; the best art takes elusive fogs and makes them real.
And of all the arts, none has excelled at this task more than science. Science, more than any other art, has unfolded and expanded reality. It has constantly pushed back the boundaries of our perception, and moved our existence ever more out of the spiritual and into the material. For most of human existence, the land was formless and unending, until cartographers gave it a shape, set its boundaries, curved space on itself and created a spherical world. For most of human existence, the stars and planets were mystical objects, their nature unknowable, their motions inscrutable; science made them vast and real, worlds in themselves, at vast distances, their motions governed by the same laws that govern motion on Earth. Whether they knew it or not, after the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, people lived in a larger universe, a universe palpably more real.
Science seemed best at giving a realisation to things we can see, hear and feel; it put before our eyes, in perfect light, what was already there. But what of the entity behind our eyes? What of the mind? What place does it have in the material world -- is it something real at all? For a long time, the mind must have seemed the major gap in any materialist world view. Thought, consciousness, emotion, and memory are all intangible and immaterial, and must have seemed forever beyond the realm of scientific realisation. To explain the mind, there was only Cartesian flailing, and Freudian pseudoscience -- and plenty of quackery. The heavens had their astrologers, biology had its creationists, but the mind was almost entirely the realm of spiritualists, mystics, psychics, theologians, novelists, and other purveyors of hocus-pocus.
Scientists and philosophers suspected that there must be some material link to the mind, but for a long time it remained elusive. One theory, which still has a few lonely followers, proposed that the mind was the same thing as the brain; every specific mental state was in fact a specific brain state, and there was a lawlike relation between the two. Another theory was that the mind only existed in so far as it manifested itself in a certain pattern of behaviour; the mind was entirely in the public domain. But there was something lacking about both of these theories -- they didn't satisfactorily explain everything, they didn't create the mind, but only provided dim glimpses of it, as it was reflected in other things. They were, in short, bad art. The mind was destined to be an elusive fog, until -- well, until at least the 1940s.
I wonder when the inventors of early computers realised they had created a mind. Did Charles Babbage have an inkling with his analytical engine, never built? Did Ada Lovelace, its first programmer, suspect she had written a miniature mind? Did Alan Turing have an idea when he was proposing his mathematical models of computing machines? Maybe at Bletchley Park, everyone was too occupied with solving the Enigma code to realise they were on the verge of solving the eternal mind-body problem in the meantime. But there must have been a moment of serendipity among the computer pioneers, the moment they realised that the machine they had created was a brain, and the program running on it -- intangible, immaterial, and yet utterly real -- was a mind. This was the moment when the mind was invented. This was a moment when reality became unimaginably larger, and a host of spirits dissolved away.
The new model was startlingly, immediately correct. The identity seems as obvious as night following day: the brain is computer hardware, and the mind computer software, and from there all consciousness, thoughts, emotions and memories follow. The brain is a Turing Machine, and the mind a set of processes running on firing neurons. The finer details still have to be worked out, of course (as they do with natural selection and gravitation), but the substance is there. The mind has been created, and here it will stay. The model will be amended slightly as the years go by, but not discarded.
Like all great inventions -- the spherical Earth, the solar system, natural selection -- the new mind is so correct, so real, so indelible, so forceful and confident in its presence, that it provokes a fury of resistance. Turing recognised this in his famous 1950 paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", in which he anticipated and answered every objection to the model raised ever since.
The most common of these is the "head in the sand" objection. People find the notion that the mind is a computer program so troubling that they choose to ignore it; they prefer to let the mind remain an unknowable mystery. They want and hope the mind to be something outside the material world, beyond physical laws, even though they have a working model on their computer desk. Charlatans speak of the "mystery" of consciousness, of "mental energies", of "mind power", of "the unused 90% of your brain". The popular media laps this stuff up far more readily than creationism or geocentrism; they even treat the computer model of the mind as a fringe idea, a bit crazy, only held by the more abstracted "boffins". The mind is a mystery best left to gurus, psychics and therapists -- to bad artists.
Another, more explicit objection is the theological objection, held both by the openly religious and by various mystical humanists -- chiefly philosophers who resent the intrusion of reality into their abstract world. For these people, there is something uniquely unknowable and divine about human existence. Now that the mind has been realised as an ordinary tool, they want to push it back into the fog. They feel the mind has been demeaned by its pedestrian realisation. Much as the opponent of Darwinism cries "I am not an ape", the opponent of the new mind cries "I am not a machine". (For the religious, the new mind must be an even greater affront than Darwinism. An ape is the work of God, but a computer is the work of man.) And as with the theological objection to Darwinism, the theological objection to the new mind carries very little weight indeed.
Then there are the many objections with a false ring of science about them: the logical sophistry of John Searle, and the sad products of Roger Penrose's mathematical senility. These people seem to lend respectability to the opposing argument, with their own versions of Intelligent Design, insisting that the mind can only be accounted for by some undiscovered, and perhaps undiscoverable, physical process. But a closer inspection will reveal that they, much like the Intelligent Designers, are repackaging old wine in new bottles, peddling variations of the arguments satisfactorily answered by Turing in 1950.
Underlying all these objections is a superstition about the special nature of humanity, and a fear of the terrible consequences of admitting that computers can also think, that computers also have "souls". Certainly, the new mind poses major challenges, which have yet to be properly considered: challenges about our morality, challenges about what it means to be human, challenges about what it means to be. The artificial minds on our desks carry important implications for what we are; implications we have so far swept under the carpet. But about one thing I'm certain: they should not make us think less of humanity. In fact, they help us realise what is really special about humanity: that we have discovered there is nothing special about ourselves. We have discovered that we are computer programs, running in the brains of hairless apes, on a small planet orbiting an unremarkable star. This knowledge should be a source of humility -- but that we have discovered it should be a source of pride.