Rebirth of Reason


Vegetative Robots and Value
by Stephen Boydstun

Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged: “It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil” (1012–13).

In Rand’s view, all living organisms have values, and it is only living organisms that have values.

In her later essay “The Objectivist Ethics” (1961), she tried to strengthen the case for her thesis that it is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible. She invited the reader to engage in a thought experiment. “Try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose.”

Thought experiments are notorious for pre-packing the point to be demonstrated into the setup to be contemplated. In an essay in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (1984), Charles King raised just that sort of objection to Rand’s robot gedanken: Rand invites us “to think that the robot is not affected in any way whatever. The example is plausible if, in thinking the robot cannot be affected in any way whatever, we mean that the robot either does not know or does not care what happens to things around it. But, of course, if the robot neither knows nor cares, the example seems uninteresting” (109).

I do not agree that the robot gedanken is without interest if the robot is devoid of thought and feeling. I will here extend Rand’s gedanken in such a way that it can inform the concept of purely vegetative value.

More than one intellectual acquaintance of mine has remarked that Rand’s indestructible robot is an impossible entity from the get-go. A machine (or an organism) that was indestructible would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Every organization of matter capable of mechanical work will decay into disarray eventually. All machines are in fact destructible, and they will not last forever.

I suggest therefore that we can most charitably see Rand’s indestructible, immortal robot in a way analogous to the way we look at a perfect heat engine or a perfect refrigerator. Because of the second law of thermodynamics, there are no actual heat engines or refrigerators having the efficiencies of those ideal devices, but we can gauge the efficiencies of our actual devices by their nearness of approach to those ideal devices. Similarly, let us take Rand’s robot as an ideal limit, approachable but not attainable, with respect to durability.

Imagine building a robot of finite durability. Require that any other characteristics we wish to put into the robot be physically constructible, but not made of living cells. Then imagine building and rebuilding the robot on and on, with ever greater finite durability. Ask if its other characteristics are still so easily constructible as the iteration continues. Compare such a robot, ideal in the limit with respect to durability, with its corresponding kind of living organisms.

To support Rand’s thesis that the concept of life makes the concept of vegetative value possible, I will describe a plant robot of finite durability. As its durability is increased to that of Rand’s robot (an ideal limit in respect of durability), its similitude to a living plant will be seen to vanish. Beyond the scope of this article, it might be argued that without vegetative values, no appetitive values nor intelligent values are possible.

For the living plant, in Rand’s summary, “nourishment, water, and sunlight are the values its nature has set it to seek.” Let the plant robot require soil minerals to repair itself in limited ways. Do not allow the robot to make use of humus in the soil, because that would make it depend on life directly in performing some of its functions, and that would beg the question to be resolved by the gedanken.

I am here presuming a systemic-capacity conception of functions in living things and in our corresponding robot. The overarching functions of the operations of the various systems of the plant robot will be like the overarching functions of an actual plant’s functioning systems: some mix or other of individual self-preservation and of reproduction.

Let the plant robot require water and sunlight to produce electrical energy to operate itself. On the basics of how this would work, see Science News 9/11/04 and 10/30/04.

Suppose the plant robot gets its soil minerals and water from something like roots, but not roots made of living cells. Suppose the plant robot has the self-preservation capability of an actual plant having gravitropic roots. When uprooted both robot and real plant can align their roots with the direction of gravity and extend them so as to be more likely to reach soil minerals and water.

Now we iterate. The question is, as we make the robot plant more durable against all sorts of wear, decay, and disintegration (all due to the second law of thermodynamics), what are the ways in which it become less and less feasible, technically, to construct a plant robot having the sorts of functioning systems with which we began?

An important portion of the answer to this question is not far from view. Our plant robot will need instrumentation-and-control systems. For any sort of instrumentation-and-control system, we can discover how its performance characteristics decline as we increase the durability of its components on and on. One decline I see already is in the sensitivity of instruments. An instrument with zero sensitivity is no longer functioning. We are beginning to see the richness of reasons that an indestructible plant robot could not have the values of an actual living plant, the reasons it is unable to act in teleological ways.
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