The Fourth Discontinuity

by Noche Kandora

Linking man and machine – When Copernicus broke the news about his hallmark discovery, man reluctantly had to come to terms with the fact that Earth’s bestowed spot at the center of the universe was basically hogwash. Darwin made similar waves when he pegged man as animal. Then along came Freud, a Darwinian disciple who sought to dissolve the perceived dichotomy between the conscious mind and the darkened realms of the unconscious. And now, here we are in postmodern times facing down yet a fourth phenomenon we must reckon with, namely that no sharp break exists between man and machine, as Bruce Mazlish painstakingly argues in The Fourth Discontinuity.

Mazlish characterizes this man-machine continuum not in a nuts-and-bolts sense but as one that exists based on shared traits and mutual synergy. The book is particularly relevant in that the age-old man-machine debate, which peaked periodically throughout history, such as during the Industrial Revolution, is amid another crescendo with the emergence and significance of computers and virtual reality technology, not to mention artificial intelligence, robotics, and artificial life — new and expanded versions, so to speak, of the primitive contraptions of yesteryear.

In a thesis built in a historical context charged with philosophical thought and debate encompassing the past five centuries, Mazlish ends his book saying man is on a continuum with machines, more specifically, the computer. What’s more, humans are on the verge of “breaking past” the man-machine discontinuity, a step which would better prepare them for life in a mechanical age. “Whereas in the past, we came ‘face-to-face’ with our animal nature in relation to the other animals, now we are ‘faced’ with machines,” Mazlish writes. “The environment in which this encounter is to take place is one created in an increasingly artificial way, equal to the creation of the computer itself.” This could seem a bit cryptic unless one is aware of Mazlish’s forecast that a new “species” is at hand: Homo comboticus. This entity, which would be human in a sense, would succeed what Mazlish calls the “combot,” basically a sophisticated, computer-controlled robot. This embodiment of artificial intelligence in essence would bring us closer than ever before to mechanized versions of ourselves, carrying significant implications for our evolution.

Mazlish whets the reader’s palate for these concluding claims by stitching together some key elements of groundbreaking ideas posed by past prominent thinkers, including Darwin, Descartes, Pavlov and T.H. Huxley.

Mazlish whets the reader’s palate for these concluding claims by stitching together some key elements of groundbreaking ideas posed by past prominent thinkers, including Darwin, Descartes, Pavlov and T.H. Huxley. Basically, the appetizer before Mazlish’s main claim is this: the human animal at its core is mechanistic just like its four-legged counterparts and forebears, complete with a consciousness rooted fundamentally in physical existence. But man also can employ will and intellect, which come into play, for example, with his invention of machines, which are “versions” of himself, hence placing man on a continuum, “though the continuum is of a different kind from that which connects us with the other animals,” Mazlish writes.

Additionally, the book seeks to demonstrate that tools and machines — which in the context of postmodern society represent robots and computers — play an integral role in evolving human nature. In light of this, it is important to keep in mind that Mazlish never strays from his apparent belief that man is indeed beast, despite man’s attempts throughout history to shed his ties to the animal kingdom: whereas in the past man may have attempted this self-denial through, for example, religions such as Christianity, today the bid continues in ways marked by technological advancements, along with the proliferation of urban environments that reflect man’s move from the wild.

“What I am suggested here is simply that the human desire to escape the flesh, which took one form in asceticism, might take another form in the creation of machines,” Mazlish writes. Further detailing what he perceives as a driving force behind man’s propensity to cut the cord to the animal world, Mazlish adds that “it is exactly the most characteristic traits of the human condition — for example, fear of death, loathing of the body, desire to be moral and free of error — that, along with the desire for evolutionary mastery of the natural world, comprise the fundamental forces that increasingly impel humans toward the creation of machines.”

Mazlish then tweaks his philosophical cocktail that he brewed by himself and ultimately produces his own personal mixture, spelling out the interrelationship between flesh and blood and hardware and software, so to speak. He says the continuum that lies beyond the fourth discontinuity “requires us to realize that the development of machines, culminating in the computer, makes inescapable the awareness that the same theories that are useful in explaining the workings of mechanical contrivances are also useful in understanding the human animal — and vice versa, for the understanding of the human brain sheds light on the nature of artificial intelligence.”

Book: The Fourth Discontinuity
Author: Bruce Mazlish
Publisher: Yale University Press
Year: 1993
ISBN: 0300065124 (1995 reissue edition)
Shelf: Nonfiction

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