Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about puppets. I know that sounds way too paleo-tech, and weird, but hear me out. Puppets are an ancient technology, which, for all the millennia that passed before, and up until very, very recently, were the primary way we experienced animated art. For the vast majority of human history the way we watched projected figures in front of us playing out some imagined drama was in the form of shadows cast on the walls.
In such shadows were the forerunner of movies, and television, videogames and VR. And if you don’t think a similar artistry and brilliance to these newer medium can be found in ancient marionettes you should take a peek at the beautiful, bizarre world conjured up by the Javanese who with their long tradition continue to do shadow theater best.
Puppets have also been the jumping off point for some very deep philosophical reflections. What, after all, was the inspiration for the analogy of Plato’s cave than the world of the shadow play? Just a little over two centuries ago there was Heinrich von Kleist’s short story “On the Marionette Theatre” that used the art of puppetry as a means of reflecting on human freedom and the difference between us, animals and machines. Philosophers can do a lot with puppets, or at least try to.
Thus when I heard that the philosopher John Gray had written a recent book whose starting point was Kleist’s short story- Gray’s The Soul of a Marionette– I felt compelled to pick it up. I was ready to kick myself for not having realized first that Kleist’s story was an excellent way to address contemporary questions such as the difference between human and artificial intelligence or perhaps the challenges brought upon common notions of freedom in the light of recent neuroscience.
As I am not alone in seeing, rather than diminishing in importance as we have developed new and superior forms of entertainment a grasp of the ancient art puppetry might be a key to understanding our own confusing age. For it seems that we are entering a golden age of puppetry in which humans are the puppeteers of all sorts of semi-autonomous machines from drones to artificial prostitutes. A fate that seems much more likely over the next few decades than the kinds of looming full machine autonomy predicted (and feared) by many today.
The specter of the marionette can also be seen in the quite legitimate fear that some of the recent advances in neuroscience could possibly be used not only to infringe on the autonomy of animals, but on human beings as well.
In other words, I had high hopes for The Soul of a Marionette given that its jumping off point for discussing the modern world was Kleist’s brilliant 1810 story and essay on the philosophy of puppetry, but it seems I didn’t deserve a kick after all, for these hopes were dashed when I discovered Gray was merely using Kleist’s tale (and his entire book) as a prop for his otherwise stale, endless argument with liberals and “utopians”. Allow me to do in my own limited way what Gray should have done, but did not and for that those unaware will need to first hear Kleist’s tale.
It’s impossible to capture the genius of Kleist’s bizarre yet brilliant short story, but I will try nonetheless. Ostensibly it is the story of a man who encounters a famed dancer/choreographer named Herr C, attending a marionette show. This becomes the setting for what is really a philosophical discussion about how thought and free will often interfere with the ability of human individuals to effectively act- a theme which Kleist also explored in his essay On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking.
Any of us who have played a sport, given an impromptu speech, or even planted a kiss know precisely what Kleist is talking about. Consciousness, once one gets past the initial point of learning something, can actually trip us up. Herr C compares for the inquiring man clumsy human dancers with the grace of marionettes free of the limitations imposed by gravity and self-doubting minds. The inquisitor himself recalls how with a mere joke he had inadvertently destroyed the unreflective confidence of a friend, which prompts Herr C to tell a story illustrating how much better the natural skills of a bear are than even the most well trained human fencer. After which the two men end their conversation.
Such a story would mean little, especially for us two centuries later, had Kleist not put into the mouth of his Herr C within this dialogue what amount to philosophical and even religious speculation pregnant with connections, especially for today, and specifically in light of recent advances in artificial intelligence.
At one point in their discussion, the man inquiring of Herr C compares the marionettes to mere machines like a “hurdy gurdy” much unlike real human dancers. Herr C does indeed believe “that this final trace of the intellect could eventually be removed from the marionettes, so that their dance could pass entirely over into the world of the mechanical and be operated by means of a handle”. Yet rather than this reflecting a diminished judgement of the marionette’s visa-via human dancers, Herr C believes full artificiality and automatism to be their great virtues:
He smiled and replied that he dared to venture that a marionette constructed by a craftsman according to his requirements could perform a dance that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time, not even Vestris himself, could equal. Have you, he asked while I gazed thoughtfully at the ground, ever heard of those mechanical legs that English craftsmen manufacture for unfortunate people who have lost their own limbs? I replied that I had never seen such artifacts. That’s a shame, he replied, for when I tell you that these unfortunate people are able to dance with the use of them, you most certainly will not believe me. What do I mean by using the word dance? The span of their movements is quite limited, but those movements of which they are capable are accomplished with a composure, lightness, and grace that would amaze any sensitive observer.
Here Kleist, at the very least, opens up not only the possibility that a machine constructed by a craftsman according to some specifications would be better than a human being, but also that human beings with mechanical parts would be superior to mere biological humans. In the story when the interrogator of Herr C questions this assertion that machines could potentially be superior to human beings the choreographer/philosopher responds with the assertion that:
….it would be almost impossible for a man to attain even an approximation of a mechanical being. In such a realm only a God could measure up to this matter, and this is the point where both ends of the circular world would join one another.
For Herr C, human beings were trapped between the infinite consciousness of God and the freedom from consciousness of machines. Getting free from this trap would entail eating again from the “tree of knowledge” and this would be “the last chapter of the history of the world.”
Now Kleist, of course, had no intention of addressing what we would consider questions regarding artificial intelligence, yet given developments in that field of late, one can’t help but be struck (at least if you’re not Gray) by the fact that “On the Marionette Theatre” seems to touch on current issues such as, what Yuval Harari brilliantly characterized as the “decoupling of intelligence from consciousness”. Like the marionettes patiently observed by Herr C, at least in some formerly human endeavors- such as playing chess– machines with intelligence, but no consciousness at all can outperform us. Indeed, this is the big surprise of recent gains in the ability of AI- we can get very close to smart and even superior behavior without any need for general intelligence let alone consciousness.
There are many places where Gray might have leveraged Kleist’s strange tale from addressing what such a decoupling means for the whole Western philosophical tradition, which began, after all, with the injunction “know thy self” to wrestling with claims that AI as currently constructed manifests intelligence more akin to puppet show illusions like the old Mechanical Turk than the intellect of a mind. Nor does Gray really extend Kleist’s analogy to interrogate how we, both voluntarily and involuntarily, seem hell bent on turning ourselves into a version of automata through technologies of micro-surveillance for the purpose of self-control and efficiency, or how this connects to the project of much of philosophy itself.
Gray might also have discussed how the problem with the version of marionette freedom proposed by Herr C was that it appears to be blind to the dictatorship of the puppeteer who continues to exist behind the scenes. To recognize and take steps to counter this is the first step towards ensuring technology actually does enhance human freedom, especially as that technology becomes merged with the body and brain themselves and subject to outside control.
These problems with The Soul of a Marionette stem largely from the fact that the book is ultimately the right weapon used to hit the wrong target. Although on the surface it appears that Gray is out to philosophically grapple with our current technological trajectory in light of our ancient human condition his real target is Steven Pinker and his exhausting band of optimists.
The Soul of a Marionette, I think rightly, makes the case that the philosophy behind much of modern technology is a modern form of Gnosticism. In this case Gnosticism means the belief that the world is somehow ill constructed and that through our knowledge and efforts we can fix it. But rather than make the case for this technological version of Gnosticism– ala Steve Fuller, or use such a recognition as the basis for a critique as does Luciano Floridi, Gray sidesteps the issue to make a rather weak case against common notions of “progress”.
It is indeed true that those who insist upon perpetual human progress share the same intellectual roots as those claiming we are rapidly approaching a technological singularity- most importantly both emerge out of “the death of God” in the 19th century which resulted in human beings assuming responsibility for both their own knowledge and fate, and we have been grappling with this new responsibility ever since.
Gray essentially adopts the old trope that while we have advanced technologically we have not advanced in our morality or our wisdom. At the same time, Gray essentially accepts the destination predicted by singularitarians- that human beings will be supplanted by artificial intelligence. What distinguishes him from figures like Ray Kurzweil is that Gray wants to make it clear that the coming “spiritual machines” will carry forward our same moral flaws as human beings, which, contrary to Pinker and his ilk, we have retained.
The first problem here is that any suggestion that moral progress (or even technological progress) is or is not perpetual remains mere speculation- it’s not really an answerable question. The second and bigger problem for Gray’s case is that in failing to acknowledge singularitarian technological projections as a political project Gray essentially severs our ability to influence how technological development unfolds- that is to define its moral and ethical dimension. By failing to keep in view the still very real and relevant human beings (moral and immoral) behind our intelligent machines he obscures the essential political and economic questions in his cloud of existential gloom.
Gray would like us to abandon whatever freedom we have left to join him in some stoic version“of the inward variety prized by the ancient world” (162). He is certainly premature in urging our retreat into the desert. Following him would only accelerate the very unraveling of our moral progress that he predicts. To step aside and let the the very real political and moral gains we have made over the last few centuries disappear would not be forgiven by our descendants, unless that is, they really have become soulless marionettes.