René Descartes

René Descartes


French philosopher-mathematician René Descartes wrote, in Discourse on the Method, automata can’t respond to things the way a human can. This concept of what humans have the machines lack would serve the basis for the Turing test. As he studied physics and theology, he believed the mind and body are separate.

While the 17th-century automata set the stage in France, Descartes theorizied how the mind related to the body. In Meditations on First Philosophy, he showed the existence of God and that humans are a union of mind and body. The dualism meant the mind and body are distinct but related. He described ways in which substances exist in Principles of Philosophy, “we can clearly perceive a substance apart from the mode which we say differs from it, whereas we cannot, conversely, understand the mode apart from the substance”. Intellectual theorizing lets us differentaite between them. Descartes explained:

The intellectual abstraction consists in my turning my thought away from one part of the contents of this richer idea the better to apply it to the other part with greater attention. Thus, when I consider a shape without thinking of the substance or the extension whose shape it is, I make a mental abstraction.

Distinct substances exist as different from one another, so God is distinct from humans, and mind is distinct from body. The mind, though, is indivisible: because “when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any part within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete.” His theories would influence Western philosophies and ideas of machine minds distinct from their bodies.

Descartes even argued that animals are automata, complex, self-moving machines. They have “life” or “intelligence”, but still perform actions predetermined. Only rational humans had a soul and an ability to reason. The human body works like a machine with the heart working like a heat engine that powered the body. Descartes compared it to how a clock works.

Descartes himself also designed and built automata. He improved the design of clocks and created a mechanical magnetic tightrope walker. He created a robotic dog taht could jump at partidges to chase them away. Some histories argue that Descartes even built a woman, but, convinced that she was possessed by a devil, he threw her overboard on a ship voyage.

The work of Descartes and other philosopher and scientists would lead to the Scientific Revolution using the clock as a metaphor for describing the universe in a mechanical context. Writer Simon PAtrick described this metaphor in “A brief account of the new sect of latitude-men together with some reflections upon the [new] philosophy”:

Then certaintly it must be the Office of Philosophy to find out the process of this Divine Art in the great automataon of the world, by observing how one part moves another, and how these motions are varied by the several magnitudes, figures, positions of each part, from the first springs…