Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Soul of a Machine

Image Credit: Goodreads

Note!  Spoiler Warning!  If you are interested in reading The Golem and The Jinni, you may want to avoid this post.  I am only a third of the way through the book, so I can't at this juncture offer an opinion as to whether my musings here are a spoiler or not.  This is not a book review, but rather a desperate attempt to write something in my blog, long overdue a post, and taking the cheap and dirty way of copying and pasting a comment I made at the book club.  There should be a dumb post warning on this as well.

I am reading The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker for my book club at Goodreads this month., The Golem and The Jinni, Helene Wecker

As a matter of explanation for the post that follows, a Golem is a being from Hebrew myth made of clay that will serve its master and can only be destroyed by its master.  So in this book, near the turn of the 19th to 20th century, a man seeks a perfect wife and goes to an evil failed rabbi wizard and asks for a Golem to be made but seeking a companion, specifies that the Golem should be intelligent and curious.  For a sum, the wizard creates a near perfect female Golem of clay and instills in her intelligence and curiosity, but no free will as she will be under her master's control.   The Golem has two basic commands one that will wake her, and one that will destroy her.  So the man takes his still inanimate Golem in a crate and heads off the New York on a steam ship.  Along the way, consumed with the fear that the wizard cheated him, he wakes the Golem against the advice of the wizard.  She is fully functional, however the man immediately dies of a burst appendix, and the Golem is left masterless.  Having no master she is receptive to all the immediate desires and wishes of those near her and it is driving her a bit mad.  Also having no master she appears to have free will and a sense of morality.  She arrives in New York and is aimlessly walking about.  She is involved in a minor theft, stealing a treat from a rich man and giving it to a hungry child.  A retired rabbi happens by the gathering crowd demanding that the woman be punished for the theft.  He recognizes her as a Golem and takes her in.  Rabbi Meyer is old and frail.  He fights a moral battle of whether he should destroy the Golem, little good comes from Golems, and yet Meyer grows fond of the Golem because of her intelligence, morality,  sensitivity, honesty, and kindness.  Yet he worries that she may as all Golems do, eventually go bad.   So this is the back drop for the comments that follow.

I am intrigued with Rabbi Meyer's musings as to whether the Golem has a soul and if destroying her or enslaving her to a new master is tantamount to murder. The Rabbi felt not, that only God can create a soul, and the Golem is made by man, ergo her destruction would be of no more moral consequence than you sending your car off to be smashed up in a cube of metal to be recycled. Yet the Rabbi has troubling doubts prior to his death, and he has fears that this entire situation is damaging his soul. 

Does a 57 Chevy have more soul...
I may be a poor philosopher regarding this car metaphor, my wife and I name our vehicles and feel bad when we get rid of them. I don't necessarily feel bad, other than cost, about replacing the car chunk by chunk. A new transmission hurts only my wallet, not my psyche, although the engine might cause me moral qualms--is not the life and the soul of the car its engine--a body of earth, a metabolism of fire which combines the black magic of petroleum (perhaps a form of aether) with air, and cooled by both air and water. The automobile is a basic elemental being that can serve us or destroy us (especially when mixed with that 6th basic element, alcohol). Or is the automobile's soul, its on board computer?  

... than a Prius?
Is it more immoral to junk a Prius than a 57 Chevy? Sorry my vote goes to save the 57 Chevy despite the lack of the computer! But that is just simple testosterone fired adolescent mindedness...what is more romantic, driving in (or having a fling in the back of) a 57 Chevy or a Prius? Yet get into a head on collision with a 57 Chevy and you will die a nasty death impaled on the steering column.  The Prius will "sacrifice" itself absorbing the energy of the collision in the collapse of the structural elements of the car around you rather directing it into you. There is a very good chance you can walk away badly shaken up but physically unscathed. So does a car that sacrifices itself to save you have more morality than a classic? 

Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter getting their asses kicked
by IBM's Watson on Jeopardy. 
We stand on the threshold of having to make Meyer's decision. The old Turing machine argument. If it hasn't happened yet, it will soon, all humanity will lose to the computer in playing chess. On a recent battle of the minds on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings and another star player got their asses whomped by Watson, a parallel processing behemoth built by IBM for the very purpose of kicking ass in a contest rigged by the ambiguity of  common language and meaning to favor humans. Start a reductionist fishing trip in the human mind and it boils down to a vast collection of synapses...a gap for ion exchange. Where the hell is a thought, love, holiness, or a soul in that? Does a collection of synapses have any more moral justification than a giant collection of transistors connected together by copper busses and telecommunication satellites? 
Reductionist's view of the human soul?  

So getting back to Chava the Golem. If she indeed passes a Turing test for human like qualities: intelligence, free will, moral agency, love, hatred, greed, fear, or perhaps distilling it down to what I have read in my new age flakey readings, the two elementary basic emotions, love and fear, which she seems to possess, does Meyer have the right to destroy her? This business of only God being able to create a soul, well let's put all the men on one continent and all the women on another continent separated by a vast ocean, and let's see how many human souls God creates. So in that way is the Golem being made by man any less of a creature than a human child? Does the circumstances of a human child's conception ranging along a vast spectrum from sacred loving intent, to hot loveless (perhaps drunken) lust, to cold and evil rape in any way affect the quality of the soul of the conceived child?  Does a child born of rape have any less of a soul than a child born to parents that were lovingly trying to conceive?  

But what of the Golem's dangerous qualities, extreme strength, the tendency to run amuck, should she not be destroyed before its too late? But then are we not destroying her based on unrealized potential? Who among us is born incapable of murder? 

So what are your thoughts, is Chava any less of a being than we are? Does she have a soul? 

Image Credits:

Synapse:  Wikipedia, Neuron


  1. Glad you're back, Sextant. I love this post. I was thinking of reading the book. Now I probably will. Chava sounds like an intriguing character. And, from what you've written, I'd say yes, she has a soul. But then, I too, develop hard to explain attachments to cars. The one closet to my heart was called My Little Blue Car. It was a Mazda and we had a very special relationship. Its nickname was the Oatmeal Mobile. That's because, every weekday morning for several years it transported two very lively little ones to day care. Time was short back then. No time for leisurely breakfasts at home. So the little ones ate their oatmeal from plastic mugs in the backseat. And for the rest of its very long existence, My Little Blue Car smelled of oatmeal. It stayed in the family (my son drove it very long distances when he trained to be a firefighter) until it finally passed away. Memories of that battered, faithful, oatmeal-smelling vehicle still bring a lump to my throat.

    1. Donna,

      I think you would like this book. I am really enjoying it. The Jinni I am not so wild about, so far, although he has character, but this soulless hunk of clay is turning out to have a hell of more soul than a lot of people I know.

      I think of the various cars we have had, and they all have their own personalities. Most of it is probably nothing more than the things that are going on in you life when you own wit your Oatmeal Mobile. Yet for damned hunks of iron they do seem to weasel their way into our hearts and become part of the family.

      Donna, a pleasure and honor as always, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Coincidence: My friend gave me this book about two weeks ago and I just started reading it the other day. So far, I'd say the Golem is worth saving at least as much as your '57 Chevy.

    1. Tom,

      Yeah, I think the Golem would definitely be worth as much as a 57 Chevy. Now, a 63 split window Stingray with a fuel injected 327, well ahhh hmmm! Nah just kidding, I am half way through and Golem hasn't disappointed me yet. Hope you enjoy the book.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.