Thomas Carlyle and the Mind as Algorithm

In a recent post I reflected on the notion of human beings as algorithms that Yuval Noah Harari states is the current scientific consensus. Harari sums up this position as follows:

1. Organisms are algorithms, and humans are not individuals–they are ‘dividuals’. That is, humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self.

2. The algorithms constituting a human are not free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures, and take decisions either deterministically or randomly–but not freely.

3. It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself. An algorithm that monitors each of the systems that comprise my body and my brain could know exactly who I am, how I feel and what I want. Once developed, such an algorithm could replace the voter, the customer and the beholder. Then the algorithm will know best, the algorithm will always be right, and beauty will be in the calculations of the algorithm. (383)

[T]wenty-first-century technology may enable external algorithms to ‘hack humanity’ and know me far better than I know myself. Once this happens the belief in individualism will collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms. (384)

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

We live in the age of Big Data, in which algorithms – sets of instructions telling computers what to do – are used in all fields, from the medical to traffic control, and Harari demonstrates very easily that the algorithm is central to our experience of the world. Nevertheless, the scientific dogma he cites may be entirely erroneous.

The notion of the algorithm entirely predates the current age of information technology, originating in 1600BC Babylon. Yet it never until very recently seemed to provide a likely basis for human existence. So engrossed are we in algorithmic knowledge that we see ourselves reflected in it. We can no longer conceive of ourself as anything but algorithmic, so dependent are we on algorithms for our technological, economic and social development.

To understand the inherent dangers in such metaphorical thinking, we need to re-examine what happened at the height of the industrial revolution, at a time when the development of the machine was the dominant technological and social fact. Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (1829) is a key reflection on the Industrial Age. Carlyle noted:

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.

Note how Carlyle begins with the categorization of machinery into inward and outward. We all know the outward developments of the time – the steam engine, the power loom – but the notion of inward machinery is also worth noting. Carlyle argues that the outward dominance of the machine produces effects within the human psyche and within our conception of what we are. One of the most famous lines of “Signs of the Times” runs: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” By working constantly with machinery, and by an unquestioning faith in machinery, people were beginning to relate themselves to machinery, to define themselves in relation to machinery.

Through the 19th and early 20th century, developments in science tended to posit the human mind itself as a machine. This metaphor continued at least as far as Freud:

[D]uring much of Sigmund Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. It was as omnipresent a century ago as computers are for us today. Not surprisingly, Freud chose the steam engine metaphor to describe what he called the ‘apparatus’ of the human mind—in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psycho-dynamic’ system, and can neither be created nor destroyed.      

The steam engine is no longer a technology of such importance, thus the notion of creating a theory of the mind from it strikes us as extremely odd (though a remnant of this thinking has survived in the use of the figurative phrase “letting off steam” to describe emotional release). Nevertheless, when we think how the rise of the algorithm has affected scientists’ approach to the mind, we can begin to understand Freud’s thought processes. And indeed, reading the mind in terms of dominant or emerging technology is older even than the industrial revolution. The mind and consciousness were then, and to an almost equal extent remain still, a mystery – the last frontier, the one truly hard problem“, faced with which, the enquiring mind resorts to metaphor as a denial of mystery. It may turn out that algorithms have something to tell us about the mind, but the history of mechanical metaphors of mind indicate that this “something” will be far less than all, and that the study that sees algorithms in the mind is unwittingly metaphorical rather than scientific.


Article by Rodney A. Brooks calling for the retirement of the computational metaphor for mind and body