BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day
8th May 2000
While Sunday’s Grand Prix in Spain demonstrated the co-ordination of man and machine, a contest in Holland is squaring up man against machine – and not without some protest….from the humans. For the first time in a national chess championship, a computer has been allowed to take part.
Fritz, a chess software programme, is the favourite to win in a strong field including even the man who recently defeated world champion, Garry Kasparov.
However, although the computer may gain the title of Dutch champion should it win, it won’t be entitled to any prize-money. A more interesting question is whether it will derive any personal satisfaction from the victory. While emotions amongst its opponents run high, will Fritz feel anything other than the electricity coursing through its circuit boards?
This, of course, is one of the big questions in philosophy. What is this thing we call consciousness? In my youth, I considered this so important to address, that I gave up architecture at university for ten years of study and contemplation as a monk in a Hindu ashram. I was particularly intrigued by the statement “aham brahmasmi – I am spirit, I am not this body.”
The sages of ancient India were never troubled by computers, but they did try to analyse what was happening within the human head. Even thousands of years ago, their deliberations led them to conclude that, the body, despite its complexity, was just a machine made of matter and incapable of conscious awareness. They felt that something else was needed to explain how we are able to experience the thoughts and emotions going on inside us.
If they had had access to computers and other electronic goods, they might have been able to extend the analogy. For instance, video cameras and computers perform similar actions to the eyes and brain by converting light images into electrical patterns. The Hindu thesis is that this is simply a mechanistic process and that there is no actual awareness of the image either in the computer or in the brain.
It’s only when these electrical patterns are re-converted into pictures and shown on a screen, that they can then be enjoyed as emotional experiences by a separate live observer.
So, who is the live observer of the actions of our body or the contents of our mind? The Bhagavad-gita suggests that, hidden inside the material body, there must be a tiny spark of an energy so different to matter that it is known as spirit. And that discovering this spark of spirit could be the key to understanding a lot more about who we really are.
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.