2.7 Natural, artificial, living
2.7.1 Natural and artificial things
So far, we have been looking at intelligence in the natural world. At this point in the discussion, it is worth pausing briefly to consider whether intelligence is exclusive to nature and natural systems. If it isn’t, where else might intelligence be found? This seems a reasonable question, given that our goal is to build intelligent computer-based systems – artificial systems with intelligent capacities. But what exactly is an ‘artificial system’? What does it mean for something to be ‘artificial’, as opposed to ‘natural’?
‘Nature’ can be defined in countless different ways. The character of each definition is largely determined by who is proposing it (for example, a philosopher or a biologist) and the purposes for which it is intended. This section will give you an idea of the wide-ranging and often conflicting ways in which philosophers and scientists have interpreted the idea of ‘nature’.
Spend the next few minutes trying to come up with your own definition of the term ‘nature’.
You might have come up with one or more of the definitions in the following list (which is not intended to be exhaustive):
- the essence of a thing, its core or ‘inner’ reality: as in, for instance, the statement ‘by his very nature, he is cautious’;
- the sum of all natural things – you can probably see at once that this definition is circular: nature is defined in terms of the natural, which remains undefined;
- all the things in the world that have originated without human influence;
- all living things, either including or excluding humans;
- the structures, processes and laws that make up the world, which are studied in the natural sciences and which scientists, technologists and engineers seek to harness or to modify.
For our purposes, we might perhaps settle on this smaller set of definitions proposed by Frederick Ferre in The Philosophy of Technology (1988):
- nature as all that exists in the evolving world of space and time;
- nature as that which is essential in a thing, that is, that which is expressed, all other things being equal, when it develops according to its kind without outside interference;
- nature as the collective term for all that exists apart from the artificial.
Read over Ferre’s three definitions again. Do you detect any problem with them when they are taken together?
You may have spotted that this set of definitions is inconsistent: definition 1 states that nature is everything that exists, which would have to include all artificial things, yet the artificial is explicitly excluded from nature in definition 3.
Clearly, either everything is part of nature, in which case the artificial cannot be something ‘other’ than nature, or everything is not part of nature, in which case there is a distinction between nature and the artificial. If we want to make this distinction, then we have an obvious duty to define what we mean by ‘artificial’.
In his book The Sciences of the Artificial (1981), the pioneering computer scientist Herb Simon identifies the following list of features as characteristic of artificial systems:
- They are constructed (though not always, or even usually, with full forethought) by man.
- They may imitate the appearances of natural things but lack, in one or many respects, their reality.
- They can be characterised in terms of functions, goals and adaptation.
- They are often discussed, particularly when being designed, in terms of imperatives (that is, in terms of how a thing ought to be) as well as descriptives (that is, in terms of how a thing actually is).
Simon maintains that the artificial arises from applying human rationality to the design of objects. If this rational design process is somehow analogous to evolution, then artificial things in some ways resemble natural things. There are clear echoes here of Paley’s argument, which you met earlier in Section 2.2. Most higher organisms give the impression of having been superbly designed for their various purposes. However, the majority of scientists don’t accept the theory of intelligent design; they see structure, order and pattern as arising from blind, impersonal forces – through evolution or other processes. So although we are usually inclined to see the products of human activity as ‘artificial’ and animals and plants as ‘natural’, for Simon the distinction breaks down. In his view, artefacts are designed by humans: organisms are designed by nature.
The boundary between artificial and natural becomes even more blurred when we turn from the rational, top-down design of artificial things, such as bridges or computer programs, to the bottom-up design of artificial things by means of techniques that are inspired by natural processes, such as Darwinian evolution by natural selection.