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In logic, the law of identity states that each thing is identical with itself. By this it is meant that each thing is composed of its own unique set of characteristic qualities or features, which the ancient Greeks called its essence. It is the first of the three classical laws of thought.
By beginning this review with a reference to the law of identity I do not mean to suggest that McEwan's latest best seller is a philosophy textbook. But, … it could be. I can imagine the book being used effectively in a philosophy of mind class, or a class on personhood, of a philosophy in literature class, or a class on panpsychism. Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy.
And it is also a joy to read and think about outside of the classroom. I do not want to ruin the enjoyment of reading the book by suggesting it is academic and dry! In an acknowledgment page at the end of the book McEwan thanks, among others, the philosopher Galen Strawson and the biographer Andrew Hodges for his biography of Alan Turing. That tip of the hat reveals a great deal about the content of the book. Turing is a character in the narrative – set in a reimagined 1980s UK with Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands war, events from history - but changed, reordered, different. Strawson's philosophical interests are evident.
Turing's work in artificial intelligence is central to the work. His "speech-recognition software" in the 1950s; "brain-machine interfacing" in the 1960s, and the "P versus NP" proof permitting artificial intelligence to jump the rail from "closed system[s]" to everyday life's "open system." His technological offspring includes Adam, an "artificial human," one of 25 models produced worldwide, into which Charlie, a 30-something washout spends his inheritance — out of "curiosity" but also as a ruse to woo Miranda, his neighbor who is living in the apartment above Charlie.
Soon the three main characters are involved in a sort of threesome with both Adam and Charlie stating their love for Miranda. (Do not forget: Adam is a robot.) As they attempt to sort out their relationship and place in the triad Adam becomes more and more human like (a person?) with desires and plots and dare I say, feelings? There are some amazing scenes as the relationships are strained and tested. Adam drives a wedge between Charlie and Miranda by announcing to Charlie, "There's a possibility [Miranda] is …a systematic, malicious liar." How does Charlie act when he thinks of Adam? Is Miranda's making out with Adam a matter of a love rival or is Adam merely a "bipedal vibrator"? Adam asserts his independence from his owner except for the necessary charging from an electric source each night. Miranda has her own secret and as it is revealed we are introduced to a consideration of truth. Are white lies morally acceptable in some circumstances? Is saying what is true a moral imperative at all times?
Preparing to read this novel: (suggested but not necessary!)
1. Read about John Searle's Chinese Room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a "mind" or "consciousness" in in the 1980 paper "Minds, Brains, and Programs" in which Searle argues that:
- Syntax is not sufficient for semantics
- Programs are completely characterized by their formal, syntactical structure
- Human minds have semantic contents
- Therefore, programs are not sufficient for creating a mind
2. Look at Bertrand Russell's 1927 book The Analysis of Matter in which he offers a proposal for approaching the mind-body problem.
3. McEwan has fun with counterfactuals, many of which involve wishful historical rewrites: John F. Kennedy survives "near-death in Dallas"; Jimmy Carter wins a second term instead of losing to Ronald Reagan; John Lennon isn't assassinated, and the Beatles regroup; Margaret Thatcher is vilified after losing the Falklands War.
4. The Guardian review: "The book touches on many themes: consciousness, the role of chance in history, artificial intelligence AI, the neglected Renaissance essayist Sir William Cornwallis, the formal demands of the haiku and the unsolved P versus NP problem of computer science, but its real subject is moral choice. The epigraph quotes Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Secret of the Machines", which presciently expresses the uncompromising quality of the machine mind. "We are not built to comprehend a lie," the poem goes. In Adam's digital brain, there may be fuzzy logic, but there's no fuzzy morality. This clarity gives him an inhuman iciness."
5. Kirkus reviews: "The British author's latest novel concerns a triangle formed by two humans and one android in an alternate version of England. The year is 1982, the British are about to lose the Falklands War, and Alan Turing is not only still alive, but his work has helped give rise to a line of androids almost indistinguishable from humans."
Adam is put to work on Charlies' computer making day trades. He is most efficient and soon has amassed a fortune. What will happen to this fortune? Will Miranda's secret come out? Will the love affair between Charlie and Miranda survive?
Is an android a person? Can Adam really feel? Is there a hard line between mind and mater?
A great read! Get a copy. And remember the law of identity.
© 2019 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Emeritus Philosopher at Vancouver Island University.