Are we all robots? Is our DNA the 0's and 1's of computer code? Are we an advanced computer system, with instead of keyboard and mouse input... input from our senses. Our database being our brain to process all the information. Our offspring just a code merge from two existing chemical computers. Instead of a socket to run the CPU, we create are electricity from food. Do we make our own decisions or is our brain just advanced logical circuit board of if/else statements making decisions from the vast input our senses give us?

If there is a difference, what is it?

  • 2
    Could this get reformed into a more academical-style question, like "How can it be argued that humans are(n't) chemical computers?"? That would be more in line with our faq and less not-constructive.
    – user2953
    May 20, 2013 at 14:22
  • In short, because a human being can ask that very question. Has any computer ever asked itself if it is different from humans? We are dissatisfied with what we've got, dissatisfied with our experience as it presents itself to us. This is a state of subjectivity, a state of caring. One special way in which we seek to overcome this subjectivity is to seek for knowledge. Do computers care about anything?
    – manselton
    Jun 6, 2013 at 20:09
  • WE ARE DIFFERENT. We are not merely governed by the laws of physics, for when we act with awareness, we have personal agency (not just external causation -- I can choose to get up from sleep, for example, the moment my eyes open). No psychologist or neuroscientist has pinned down the origin or seat of consciousness. The simplest conclusion is that it transcends (strict) observability because it is the subject itself being observed and this forms a contradiction.
    – Marxos
    Jun 6, 2013 at 23:21
  • I recommend to see an artificial neural model learning, like a child. Then you can re-phrase this question.
    – user2411
    Jun 8, 2013 at 13:59
  • human's life is dependent on a machine we use them every day. But Humans have feelings and emotions, and they can express emotions, anger, disgust, joy, fear, sadness, surprise, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love. Rather than a machine it only is a device consisting of different parts, and is used for performing different functions that are programed into the device . They do not have life they are only mechanical.
    – oreo
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:07

4 Answers 4


This is a very huge question spanning multiple fields in philosophy. I do not have the expertise to cover all of these, so I'll focus on my personal favourite, the Philosophy of Mind aspect.

As it stands there are no universally agreed upon answers to whether humans are different from computers in how they think. There are people on both sides of the argument, and there are multiple positions on either side.

Consciousness Exists, and We are Different: Cartesian Dualism

One of the oldest positions that strongly implies a difference between humans and computers is that proposed by Rene Descartes in the 17th century. This is roughly the standard traditional substance dualist view, which says that as humans we have both a body and a soul, and that the two are decidedly different. Specifically, while the body is made of matter (in the intuitive sense), the soul is completely intangible and not expressible in physical terms. It exists outside of our physical world but can control our body by providing input to the brain. It also in the soul that our conscious mind resides, and thus consciousness becomes a non-physical phenomenon. Thus in Cartesian Dualism, even if you make a machine that functionally replicates the human body, it will not be conscious. Cartesian dualists (who are becoming rather less common these days) therefore hold that there is a fundamental difference between machines and humans, which stems from our having a soul.

There are several criticisms of Cartesian Dualism, and the most threatening is the Mind-Body problem. This is the question of how it can be that an immaterial soul could possibly have any effect on the physical world: how does our mind drive our body, if the latter is physical and the former is not? No certain mechanism has yet to be proposed (Descartes believed it was the pineal gland in the brain), and by the inherent nature of substance dualism it seems very difficult for any theories to be rationally necessary. For the most part belief in Cartesian Dualism boils down to faith; after all, how on earth could we go about scientifically validating the means by which something by definition unknowable to us changes the physical world? This is generally why Cartesian Dualism is a bit of a weakening position.

Consciousness Exists, but We are the Same: Some Non-Reductive Functionalism

There are a huge number of functionalist that propose no inherent difference between humans and machines, even though we have consciousness. For brevity I will present probably the most common such position, which has been developed significantly by David Chalmers. Basically the theory is that consciousness is a non-reductive consequence of certain functional structures. Simply, if you build a machine that works in the right way (and the human body is one such machine), it will have consciousness. Chalmers does not think that consciousness can be reduced to individual physical pieces, but rather that consciousness itself is a sort of "fundamental particle" that is created from the right sort of structure.

Of course there is the difficulty of figuring out just which functions lead to consciousness, and how they do this (this has been called the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" and "the Explanatory Gap"). Some believe that this is a resolvable issue while others think that, similar to the mind-body problem, it's perhaps impossible to find a definitive answer.

Consciousness Does not Exist/is Nothing Special, so We are the Same: Some Reductive Functionalism:

This is a position primarily developed by Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore. The argument is effectively that consciousness is nothing more than an illusion caused by what is called "access consciousness." Access consciousness is the aspects of our mind that are almost definitely understandable in reductive, functionalist terms. This includes our ability to sense and react to environmental stimuli, report our personal mental states, and other similar abilities. Most agree that we will eventually be able to explain these through traditional reductive cognitive science and neuroscience, and people such as Dennett and Blackmore believe that our own consciousness is nothing more than an illusion resulting from these abilities: there is nothing particularly special about it. Thus there is no reason machines would be inherently different from us; build them the right way, and as a result of the reductive laws governing their access consciousness, they will have consciousness in the same way we do.

Unfortunately this is an incredibly counterintuitive argument and just as unverifiable as Chalmers' position: even if you did have a theory of exactly how access consciousness worked, how could you possibly verify the existence of the consequential conscious experience when it's purely subjective?

Conclusion: We have no Idea

What I've said above does not even come close to coming close to scratching the surface of all that has been said - it summarizes a fraction of an introductory philosophy of mind class which itself barely exposes the vast literature out there. However what I hope I've made clear is that there are no logically rigorous arguments for any particular position out there. They all fundamentally hinge on some sort of intuition or faith (e.g. Chalmers' Zombie argument depends on his intuition, Dennett's counter argument on his own). Anyone who says that they know for certain the answer is either lying, fooling themselves, or hiding some brilliant insight.

Whether with regard to our mind we are the same as computers or not thus is an open question with many developing answers. You should read all of them, and if you're confident, take your pick for one to work on :) Just remember that at best your position will be probable until some major developments have been made.


ReallyRational: "There is no definitive reason to believe that computers can't be conscious". There is: they are not organic systems, and consciousness has only been seen in organic systems. Certainly anything is "possible" and nothing is "definitive". But I am a scientist, not a philosopher: I base my conclusions on empirical evidence. Show me a conscious computer, or even a plan of how to build one.

Our empirical evidence tells us nothing more than that we ourselves are conscious. There is no evidence convincing me that any of you have consciousness. How would you even go about empirically verifying something which is by definition purely subjective? The only thing I seem to know for sure is that I myself am conscious, and even this has been subject to skepticism over the years. To be clear, this is not some esoteric opinion I have, but the generally agreed upon view, and certainly much more logically rigorous than trying to argue that other things have consciousness.

Really Rational: "but for all we know our impulses are determined by the functionality of our neurons, and it is only the complexity of our brain that veils this." We must judge based on what we know and see, not on what might be. "He who lies, speaks of things far away" - Talmud.

See above

  • @commando : "How would you even go about empirically verifying something which is by definition purely subjective?" By answering your question thusly: I am answering your question by answering it.... And then thusly: I cannot answer your question... Consciousness has physical manifestations - it is not purely subjective. What is your source for such an assertion?
    – Vector
    May 19, 2013 at 23:47
  • @commando: -1: The Law defines First Degree Murder as "premeditated" - the consequence is life imprisonment or death. "Premeditated" denotes a specific state and degree of "consciousness". The Law also demands "proof beyond reasonable doubt". How can we punish someone with death if there is reasonable doubt concerning their consciousness? Your assertion that consciousness is by definition purely subjective may have a place in philosophical literature. It has no place in our world of time and space; actions and consequences.
    – Vector
    May 19, 2013 at 23:54
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    @ReallyRational If your definition of consciousness involves it being scientifically verifiable, then by definition it will be replicable in machines. At most consciousness will be a consequences of the functional structure of our bodies, and as there is nothing unique about them, this will be replicable in machines with similar structures. It is a contradiction to assert that consciousness is purely physical, and then to claim that it is unique to organic creatures. There is no reason that organic structures should have it and functionally equivalent machines shouldn't.
    – commando
    May 20, 2013 at 0:12
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    @ReallyRational Functional equivalence is defined by the functions things perform. If you're making the claim that there's something special about the inner workings of neurons themselves that makes them particularly different, then you are entitled to such an unsupported assertion, but if you grant that what matters is how the neurons interact with each other in circuits, then nothing separates them from functionally equivalent silicon structures. And we have observed that neurons operate much like silicon chips and can be arranged into logical circuits.
    – commando
    May 20, 2013 at 0:24
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    @v.oddou Not exactly, though your difficulty is well-represented in debate on the literature about what the phrase even means. One common way of going about it is using qualia. A quale is a unit of subjective experience. Suppose I see a red apple - my experience of "seeing red", my internal experience of seeing red is totally subjective in that I cannot convey it to anybody else. Only I know what I see when I see red. This is what philosophers generally mean by consciousness - which I realize is different from the word's meaning in other fields.
    – commando
    Nov 19, 2015 at 13:58

The answer you get will depend on who you ask. There is no consensus within philosophy, so depending on which philosopher you ask the answer may be either yes or no or maybe or it's-impossible-to-tell.

However, within the natural sciences there is pretty good consensus that we are just (analog, noisy, non-deterministic (due to quantum mechanics)) computers. Of course there are a few people, mostly who aren't really in the right area of science to be familiar with all the relevant evidence, who cling to the idea of something special and non-computable about consciousness. But as far as I can tell, the entirety of scientific evidence comes down on the other side.

To start, we need to recognize the profundity of the Church-Turing thesis, which says that all of the ways in which we build up complex computations are fundamentally equivalent to each other. Although it's possible that such a thing exists, we've had a good seventy years to come up with a strictly more powerful framework, and not found anything that can't at least be approximated (given what we know about the physical laws of the universe). So just from fundamental physical laws plus fairly profound results in computability, we would suspect that if there is a difference in humans' consciousness or other mental capabilities, it would be a difference in quantity, not in kind, at least not fundamentally. (It might not be practical to simulate consciousness--getting one bit of matter to emulate another sufficiently accurately is not always an easy thing to do--but this wouldn't change the answer that we are fundamentally chemical computers.)

On top of this theoretical result, there are oodles of connections between brain (the physical organ, composed mostly of neurons and glia) and mind (our subjective sense of self and mental capacity). Between drugs affecting consciousness, fMRI predicting our thoughts and choices before we are aware of them, various illusions that make sense given the properties of neurons thought to implement perception of that sense (e.g. vision), behavioral disorders correlated with damage in various brain regions, and so on, that our brains give rise to our minds is one of the best-supported scientific theories out there. We obviously can't test it directly, but the pile of incidental evidence is impressive.

So the working hypothesis should be and is that we are "just" chemical computers. It does not follow that all the sorts of qualities that we value in humans--compassion, inspiration, consciousness, etc.--do not exist. We can plainly see that they exist. It just means that these things are implementable, somehow. A beach doesn't compute much; it doesn't follow that silicon cannot be used for computation, only that it's not organized the right way on a beach. Likewise, if our computers don't seem much like us in many ways, the simple explanation is that we haven't arranged them to (not without lack of trying, but building sand-castles isn't going to help much with calculating a square root either--if you don't know what to do, you can't do it, even if you have very good reason to believe that it could be done).

Philosophy is valuable in that it keeps us for taking this answer for granted, as it's not completely definitive, but it's seemed to have lost track of whether the other possibilities are near-certain or merely formal possibilities that have not been (and in some cases can not be) ruled out. Regardless, our best-supported theory by far is that we're (electro)chemical computers.

As to what the difference is--well, goodness, where to begin! The architecture is utterly different--not so different that it's not Turing-computable, but everything from clocks to error-handling to distributed processing etc. etc. etc. is not done the same way in our brains. For some tasks which we do well, emulating what we do gives far better results (e.g. image recognition these days pretty much has given up on trying to do it the classic computer-science way and is just mimicking what our retina and visual cortex do). So the bottom line is really that we don't know what the key differences are because there are so many, but we have every reason to believe it's just a matter of different engineering, not something utterly fundamental.

  • 1
    My first thought about this question was that a good response should begin by mentioning Church-Turing, and sure enough you did, so +1.
    – David H
    May 20, 2013 at 15:03
  • I want to bring in this : damninteresting.com/on-the-origin-of-circuits there is a way today of letting random generation spawn circuits, and testing them to see if they do what we want, and thrash those that don't. This works like evolution. And the results are scary because we don't even understand how some super simple circuitry gets the job done in this case. but it does. nature did the same with matter and we appeared. I think that's it.
    – v.oddou
    Nov 18, 2015 at 2:15

Here you go - Consciousness in C#:

public class Self
    private Tuple<Type, Self> Consciousness
        get { return new Tuple<Type, Self>(typeof (Self), this);  }

Has metadata and reference to self.

Don't take this answer to seriously, but complexity of consciousness is way overrated. From Wiki: Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: sentience, awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. In other words it's just ability to refer and inspect oneself.


The thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinus believed that something exists which he called "the soul", which others call "mind" or "consciousness." Interestingly, Aquinus equates this with Platonic "forms!"

Quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, making reference to Aquinus' Summa Theologiae, Question Ia.75:

Considered as a substantial form of a material body, the soul exists in a living being as the substantial form of an animal. Here it is important to clarify. 'Immaterial' can be said in two ways of forms. In the first way, any form as such is immaterial because it is not a material principle. It is distinguished as a principle of actuality in a being from the material principle which is a principle of potentiality and change in corporeal beings. In that sense, any substantial form whatsoever will be immaterial, including the substantial form of an oak tree or the substantial form of a dog. And so also is the substantial form of the human immaterial in that sense. Aquinas is explicit about this when he proves that the human soul is immaterial in Summa Theologiae Ia.75.5. It is immaterial in just the way in which any form whatsoever is immaterial. But in the second way, 'immaterial' is said of subsistent forms—forms that subsist without matter like angels or spiritual substances in general.

In 75.1 Thomas had argued against the ancient materialists, that the soul is not a body; it is incorporeal. In 75.2 he proved that the human soul is a subsistent because it has an activity that pertains to it without the use of a corporeal organ, namely, the activity of understanding in intellect. But then immediately in 75.3 he proved that the souls of other animals are not subsistent, because they do not have an operation that does not employ a corporeal organ. The souls of other animals are incorporeal in the sense of 75.1, but they are not subsistent as in 75.2 In 75.4, Thomas proves that the soul is not the man. Socrates, the man, has vital activities that are the activities of a living animal, like sensation, nutrition, reproduction, and so on, activities that are not distinctive activities of the soul itself as intellect is in the human case. Since these are activities of Socrates and not activities of the soul, Socrates and the soul are not identical. And so Socrates, if anything, is a living animal just like the other animals. Tacitly this leaves open the possibility that there might be an animal soul for Socrates that is not identical to the intellectual soul, and as shown in 75.3 that this animal soul of Socrates would not be subsistent. This possibility of two souls in Socrates, an animal soul and an intellectual soul will only be excluded later in question 76. In 75.5 Thomas proves that the human intellectual soul is immaterial just like the souls of other animals. But in conjunction with the result of 75.2, now we have a soul that is an immaterial subsistent, where in conjunction with 75.3 the souls of other animals are not immaterial subsistents.

In 75.6, relying upon all that has gone before, Thomas argues that the human soul is a subsistent that is incorporeal, and thus does not cease to exist as a result of the death of the body. This result shows the soul to be a subsistent form that can exist without out matter. And so it is now seen to be an immaterial subsistent in the second sense described above, not just the first sense. Now 'immaterial' characterizes its mode of existence, not just the negative fact that it is immaterial like all other forms are immaterial.


All of this might lead one to think then that, not being a dualist, Aquinas must be a physicalist, there being only two broad possible positions. Now, the difficulties of providing an adequate account of just what Physicalism is are well known. But suppose we take a minimal characterization of Physicalism as involving the claim that there is some privileged physical science or set of physical sciences, using the term ‘physical’ merely nominally and sociologically as we use it of certain sciences today, that ideally will provide a fully adequate account of all that exists and the fundamental characteristics of reality. Then Aquinas cannot be understood to be a physicalist, since the result of his analysis of perception and thought was to say that these activities are “immaterial,” which was to say, not adequately captured by the kinds of physical descriptions that do adequately account for much of the being and change we observe in the world. There are actually many variations on Dualism and Physicalism in play in recent philosophy. However, the difficulty of placing Aquinas in the broad outlines of that setting ought now to be clear. And without an actual demonstration that Aquinas' view is incoherent, one lasting contribution of his thought is to show that the supposed exclusive disjunction between Physicalism and Dualism is inadequate. He poses to us a challenge to think more broadly and deeply about human existence than such an easy dichotomy allows. [emphasis added]

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