A couple of weeks ago I briefly discussed, prompted by David Levy’s treatment of the issue in his book Love and Sex with Robots, whether a robot can be said to love a person if they say they do and act as if they did. Today I’d like to continue this discussion.
In his 1909 book The Meaning of Truth, the great William James asserts that a statement is only meaningful if it makes a practical difference whether or not it is true: “if it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning.” (p. 52) However, in a footnote later in the same book (p. 189), he corrects a claim that he made in his previous book, Pragmatism, where he declared the terms ‘God’ and ‘matter’ for synonymous “so long as no differing future consequences were deducible from the two conceptions”. Now, however, he no longer believes this, because even if the godless universe were exactly like one in which God does exist, believing the one or the other would definitely make a difference for us. “Even if matter could do every outward thing that God does, the idea of it would not work as satisfactorily, because the chief call for a God on modern man’s part is for a being who will inwardly recognise them and judge them sympathetically.” James then asks us to consider an analogy which he thinks will convince us that there is indeed a relevant, meaningful difference between the two hypotheses:
“The flaw was evident when, as a case analogous to that of a godless universe, I thought of what I called an ‘automatic sweetheart,’ meaning a soulless body which should be absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her. Would any one regard her as a full equivalent? Certainly not, and why? Because, framed as we are, our egoism craves above all things inward sympathy and recognition, love and admiration. The outward treatment is valued mainly as an expression, as a manifestation of the accompanying consciousness believed in. Pragmatically, then, belief in the automatic sweetheart would not work, and in point of fact no one treats is as a serious hypothesis.”
Yet just a year later, in December 1910, the philosopher Edgar Arthur Singer gave an address before the American Philosophical Association at Princeton, entitled “Mind as an Observable Object” (later published as the first chapter of his 1924 book Mind as Behavior), in which he directly attacks James for his alleged inconsistency. Pragmatically, a soulless person (that is, one that lacks subjectivity and any form of mental awareness) should be regarded as fully equivalent to the usual kind, to a person with a soul. Singer insists that it would not make any difference whatsoever whether the other really feels anything at all or just behaves in a way that is consistent with real feelings, that is, in such a way that we cannot detect any difference between what they do and what a real, conscious and self-aware person would do. Thus, contrary to what James suggests, for all intents and purposes an automatic sweetheart is just as good as a real human lover.
When we occasionally call a lover “soulless”, we do, according to Singer, in fact refer to a certain (already observed or predicted) behaviour, so if there is a difference between the soulful and the soulless it is a difference in behaviour: “If I imagine myself come to believe that my mistress, with all her loveliness, is really without soul, I cannot think what I should mean by this if it be not that I fear her future conduct will not bear out my expectations regarding her. Some trait or gesture, a mere tightening of the lips, hardening of the eye, stifling of a yawn, one of those things we say are rather felt than seen, would have raised in my mind the suspicion that she might not to my fuller experience of her remain indistinguishable from a spiritually minded maiden.” If the distinction between ‘soulless’ and ‘soulful’ means anything, then it is this. “Consciousness is not something inferred from behavior; it is behavior.”
James’s point, of course, was that we wouldn’t be happy with a lover of whom we knew that they didn’t really feel anything for us and that all their seemingly loving actions deceive us to the extent that they indicate some kind of emotional involvement on the part of our lover. Yet Singer could respond that we might well be unhappy with an automatic sweetheart, but that we really shouldn’t be because to react like that is completely irrational, given that a real human lover would do nothing different from the automatic one.
It is interesting, though, to see how neatly Singer’s description of a “soulless” lover (where the term can be meaningfully ascribed) fits with the descriptions that we find in literature of equally unsatisfying women and with the accompanying eulogies on the virtues of the artificial lover (as, for example, in Ovid’s Pygmalion, Hoffmann’s The Sandman, or Villiers’ The Future Eve). Once again, it is the real human lover who is decried as soulless, the one that turns out not to be completely reliable, completely with us, completely there for us. It is the yawn that indicates the lack of soul, a less than interested gaze. That is the danger that always exists when we risk getting involved with real human beings. They might lose interest in us, might grow cold and unresponsive, might stop loving us. If that is an indicator of soullessness, then each and every one of us is soulless, and only an automatic sweetheart, one whose eyes will always gaze lovingly at us and will never lose their shine, whose lips never tighten, but are always soft and welcoming, and who will never have to stifle a yawn, only such a one can be said to have a soul.
Thus it appears that the effect of denying that there is any difference between a real person and a fake person, between a real human lover and an automatic sweetheart, is that the soulless becomes, or comes to be regarded as, the truly soulful, and the soulful the truly soulless.