Over supper a few nights ago I had a conversation with Damien (not his real name) which roamed around the relationship between science and philosophy. Damien is a young man highly educated in the sciences and with, I suspect, an IQ which would give me an inferiority complex.

He told me that he avoided philosophy because it yielded no certain answers and, by its nature, could never do so. Science, on the other hand, did give clear answers based on empirical evidence, even if we needed sometimes to modify them in the light of new discoveries.

Of course I understood, but I wondered if the two could complement each other. And I explored the track of artificial intelligence. I had recently listened to a scientific conversation on the nature of the brain. It was assumed that the brain was ultimately mechanical. With its 100 million neurons and its 100 billion connections we might never reproduce it in practice. But what if we could? Were we to create a robot with an exactly reproduced human brain, and a body to match, would we have created a real human being? Of course we never reached an answer. So pause, and think what other elements the robot might need to have.

Our first test might be to kick the robot’s shins. Would we expect it to react? Yes, almost certainly – because it would be programmed, like us, to protect itself.

So various internal actions would be triggered. Some would start the process of healing; others would jerk the robot into crisis action to decide, almost instantaneously, whether to escape or whether to bash you on the nose. But would it be conscious in the sense that we use that word? Science has failed to answer that question. But I am clear that kicking a robot’s shins is not in itself a moral matter; kicking your shins would be.

The next test would be whether our robot had free will. Some scientists would reject this test on the grounds that free will does not exist even in humans. Unfortunately this proposition is self-defeating. If conclusions are no more than the outcome of personal history, which we can neither fully know nor control, it can claim no truth value for we would already be biological robots.

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