Humans, Machines, but do Plants have souls?

Anne Lenz

In the Platonic tradition, the essential characteristic, which distinguishes humans from animals and things, is the ability to reason. Tied to this notion of the soul (The Republic, Book IV), Plato separates ‘reason’ from the other aspects, ‘emotions’ and ‘desires,’ the animalistic qualities, but is sure to reinforce that these are all aspects of the soul. Turing is referencing this point of view when he writes The Theological Objection:

“Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think” (443).

However, Turing wishes animals and men were grouped together. Plato’s argument aligns to Turing’s thoughts on animals, but still refutes the idea that machines can think, if thinking means to reason, moreover that they have souls. Turing calls his other arguments against the idea that machines can think ‘based on denial of the validity of our test’ (446) until he reaches Lady Lovelace’s objection: “It can do whatever we know to order it to perform” (450). Turing postulates the idea of teaching a machine how to learn, creating various scenarios or programs for teaching. Is this not the same as programming a computer how to function?

Can we use the IBM supercomputer Watson as an example? Watson can compete with human thought, bringing to life Turing’s ideas of playing Jeopardy (cleverer than chess, which we also know computers can do) and speaking English. Someone programmed the computer to respond to a jeopardy question, and created a method for Watson to search through his knowledge, which as Lovelace wrote, means “it can do whatever we know to order it to perform.” Associating ‘to think’ with ‘to learn’, then to be able to self manipulate, or ‘to reason,’ the ability to sift through an information store, is a definite characteristic of the computer, giving it a soul (according to Plato).

Or can we take a different approach, Heidegger’s approach to thinking: “All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary” (3).

This is a much simpler explanation, for one can argue that code is the language for a computer, and the ability to process code means ‘thinking,’ The rest of Heidegger’s explanation follows an equally simple logic:

“One says: Technology is a means to an end. The other says: Technology is a human activity. The two definitions of technology belong together. For to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity.” (4)

For humans to understand Heidegger’s logic of the ‘essence of technology’ he states that they have to be willing to let the machine be powerful. Working with Deleuze’s articulation of the machine system as an expansion of capitalism onto the role of man and his power over machines (Gilles Deleuze), this coincides with Marx’s assumption that machines lose their value as means of labor when they become fixed capital for man to work upon or with (699). To understand the value of the machine, the human has to allow the machine to become its equal, and take upon itself human characteristics.

This is an effective argument for understanding the value of machinery and its function in our lives. If we can present the ability of machines to reason, to know which command results in which consequence, to have souls, then can we say that all things have souls? My study of ecology revolves around a third category, between humans/animals and machines – plants and gardens. Do plants have souls?


Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” Gilles Deleuze. Web.  24 Sept. 2013.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York & London: Harper & Row, 1977. 3-35. PDF.
24 Sept. 2013.

Marx, Karl. “The Fragment on Machines.” The Grundrisse. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 690-712. PDF. 24 Sept. 2013

Turing, A.M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236 (Oct., 1950). 433-460. PDF. 24 Sept. 2013.

More on Computers can think
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~ by Anne on September 25, 2013.

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