We are well beyond Frankenstein and the experience that the machine—“it’s alive”! As we continue to rely on Suri’s for GPS directions, “self”-checkout aisles, or the artificial intelligence of robotic vision and other digital trends, philosophers cannot help but to address the ontology and selfhood of automation. It seems clear that machines can function as selves, in Kant’s full sense of understanding and determinate judgments laid out in the Critique of Pure Reason.

We can analogize Kant’s analysis of human cognition and the synthesizing of the “sensible manifold” with the “content” and “form” of computer programming, for example. What distinguishes human experience from machines, aside from the flood of our emotions, feelings, and spontaneous anticipations, lies in the power of reflective judgment. Reflection is the hallmark of human experience according to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and all our determinate judgments presuppose it; otherwise how would we be aware of our actions? In the history of philosophical idealism the difference between the self and person stems from this distinction between cognitive determination and reflection. So far as we know, machines lack this power of reflection. We have read or seen examples of it in science fiction and the movies, but is it possible that super-computers or other forms of hyper-technology can perform reflection in the way Kant describes which is representative of persons, who have their own teleological purposes or wills?

  • Why not? :) Can you explore a little further what sort of explanation you might be looking for? What hypotheses have you formed; etc?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 15 '14 at 19:53
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    I'm wondering how a human can be automatized to the level of a machine, which drains us of the needs and purposes shared by persons. For instance, I believe one can only be a self in a facebook profile, not a person no how many gender options one can choose from. The difference between impersonal and personal experience is what drives this question and it seems the act of conformity which technology requires, what is called "leveling", dismisses the function of the coherent whole that is the person as a unity among its various selves. Machines like calculators can replace selves but persons? Feb 15 '14 at 20:29
  • I tend to associate the idea of self as the person, or the mind or soul etc. Where are you deriving your notion of the 'self in a facebook profile'? I tend to think of that as a persona or avatar etc. Feb 21 '14 at 18:37
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    Must machines lack reflection? That is, is this a requirement in your question, or can I pretend that you didn't say "lacking reflection"? :-p
    – labreuer
    Mar 7 '14 at 23:35
  • @labreuer I was referring to Kant's distinction between reflective and determinate judgments. The Critique of Pure Reason could not have been written without the assumption of reflection and, hence, the Critique of Judgment and Kant developed this into a full-blown realization. If you granted everything said in the First Critique the question arises how would we know that we know these functions of Understanding and Reason. So, like Kant, I assume self-reflexivity to be basic to the sensible manifold! Isn't it true that machines lack this and, unlike us, reflection doesn't get in the way? Mar 12 '14 at 0:30

11 Answers 11


If physicalism is true and determinism (at least on a Newtonian level) is true, then yes, a machine theoretically could be designed in a way you describe and thus considered a "person".

Phsyicalism as you may know is the idea that (stated most simply) "everything is physical". Determinism is the idea that everything has a cause; nothing is uncaused. In other words, given the way things are at time t, the way things progress thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law. Under these views the human mind and all human behavior is just the result of a causal chain of prior physical occurrences in the brain. This, in fact, brings us to the realization that the brain itself is a machine; sure it's not made of metal and wiring but the same kind of complex feedback loops and processing occurs.

At this point, we've thus already answered your question. If the human brain is itself a machine, then of course we think machines can be seen as a "person". But if you insist that by "machine" you mean something other than man, then still, yes, it is theoretically possible to replicate the human mind using non-organic parts as long as you maintain the same logical feedback loops and the like. The content/structure (brain matter, cells, chemicals vs. metal circuits, electricity, etc.) does not matter in a deterministic system, only the logic they produce matters.

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    I'm not assuming this vulgar materialism. A brain is not the same thing as a machine--that's an assumption I don't accept. It's a form of gross reductionism to assume that the brain is an indispensable condition of thinking, but all thought cannot be reduced to the material. Materialism seems to be a strange pathology that denies the various existence of the personal modalities that pervade the materialist's existence. I don't believe that the physical universe is the whole universe--there is no mechanistic causality without internal freedom! The two go together like the physical and mental. Feb 15 '14 at 20:23
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    Understood. If one does not hold my premises as true then my conclusion would not follow. I'm confused though because it's clear there's at least one thing, one substance in the universe; whether it be physical or mental (ala The Matrix / Cartesian daemon). So surely we start with ontological monism. Then to propose something more, say in dualism — a second substance, you must then provide evidence for such a proposal. What evidence of another type of "substance" do you have that acts on us in ways that cannot adequately be explained by the first substance?
    – stoicfury
    Feb 15 '14 at 20:41
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    Thanks a lot! Looks interesting and I like Johnny Depp. Let me clarify that I am assuming an ontological pluralism of the kind Whitehead's organic philosophy supports. As a ethical/political question I am interested in how a Nazi says they just "followed orders" and how this is an act of denying one's personhood or freedom. We cannot have duties without rights, or freedom without responsibility and this relates to the concern of how machines are free AND responsible. I'm concerned with machines taking people's jobs or being turned into a machine, both degenerate person to self/thing. Feb 15 '14 at 21:00
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    I think it's a long way from the interesting question that you asked, and the idea of machines "taking people's jobs." I'm sure the farmer who used to drive a team of mules to pull a plough was very happy to have his job taken by a guy driving a bulldozer. And of course in the near future, a self-driving bulldozer. Technological progress is a given. It's trivial to fret over it. But it's certainly a good question to ask if that self-driving bulldozer will ever achieve self-awareness. When that day comes, what if it decides to bulldoze us?
    – user4894
    Feb 15 '14 at 22:38
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    Right, that's part of it. I definitely see these as related because doesn't self-awareness presuppose intention and purpose, associated with the ontology of persons? Your example doesn't work for me because that farmer was probably happy and had a sense of autonomy. Many bureaucrats and specialists don't have that sense today--talk about bulldozers seems trivial given that we use technology not simply for use, but so many areas of our life, even pleasure. So I'm glad you have suggested this because I think these issues deal with technological sophistication and interdependency. Feb 15 '14 at 23:00

A person is an emergent thing. Can a man built machine be called emerged maybe.

By emergent I mean flexible, adaptive, in relationship to whom it's interacting with. Like a bell. It sounds different when you strike it differently. But compared to a bell a person changes shape and evolves over time.

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    Emergence and evolutionary development! That's really one key difference between natural organisms and robots, and also the cause of all substantial differences between them. +1 for pointing that out!
    – infatuated
    Mar 8 '14 at 11:09

A soul is essential for a sense of self/self-awareness, which is essential for self reflection.

If a machine (in the electro-mechanical sense) can have a soul, a distillation of the essence of the Universe (a true and larger Self), then my answer is 'yes, it can be considered a person'. If that can't happen, then my answer is 'no, not even if all the systems and feedback loops of the organic body and mind are replicated'.

Note: Other than my own interpretations, I don't have any references to material that supports my answer. If anybody is able to provide supporting arguments, I'd be much obliged.

  • Perhaps you may be interested in my answer and the source I suggested.
    – infatuated
    Mar 8 '14 at 11:02
  • Please define or provide a reference to your use of the word 'soul'. I need to know exactly what you are talking about to agree or disagree.
    – user16869
    Feb 26 '16 at 13:06
  • The "soul" can be thought of as that aspect of self-reflective mind that relates a defined or "mortal" unit of being to an absolute "infinite" continuum of being. Such a continuum may be captured, for example, in such highly generalized concepts as E = MC2. If the machine sees itself as both discrete units of matter continually replacing and synthesizing itself through an "immortal" electromagnetic source, perhaps we have some rudimentary "soul stuff." Life is photosynthesis and it is no accident that "light" is often analogous to "soul." But we are nowhere near such a unified interpretation. Feb 26 '16 at 14:58
  • @no comprende: physicists have used calculus quite profitably without defining fluxions exactly or precisely; sometimes concepts can have shape and presence even when somewhat vague; mists physicists hardly know analysis, which is the mainstream method of making calculus definite in form; think too, of Ayrton Senna who can drive a formula one car better than most without knowing the definition of force. Feb 26 '16 at 22:06
  • Soul, nafs, atma, mind, self, psyche, Brahman, ego, spirit and consciousness - there's many concepts here to mull over. Feb 26 '16 at 22:09

When I read this question, I can't help but thinking of the Turing Test, in which a judge must tell which the machine is and which the human. Both reside in different rooms, and contact each other by text, which the judge can see/hear. If he fails to do so, the machine is considered indistinguishable from a human being.

The machine clearly lacks reflection, as it only reacts to the given input in a human-like manner. The logic on which it is built defines its answer, instead of a thinking process: For exactly the same input, with exactly the same conditions, a machine will always produce the same output (even with random numbers, as these are generated with some logic corresponding to some input).

Therefore, in theory, it is possible to have a machine which acts indistinguishable like a person, which leads to the idea that a machine can indeed be a person.

  • Actually, in the Turing Test, the 'judge' is the one interacting: that person connects with a presumed entity and decides if it is human or not. But that has been shot full of holes. Humans can make huge errors (as in autism) and still be human, and intelligence could have other means and motives than human ones. If you could talk with an intelligence on a vastly different scale (like in the book "Whipping Star" by Frank Herbert) it would be nothing like human, yet capable of reflection: it would be reflecting on very different conditions of existence.
    – user16869
    Feb 26 '16 at 13:10
  • For the other side of your assertion, it is not possible to simply mimic human outputs. We cannot program them in advance, because human behavior is generative (comes up with new solutions) and has insight (knows what everyone is aware of, not aware of, etc.) So I think that a 4 year old will be able to run circles around any machine intelligence for a while. Give computers a few million years, they are bound to evolve sentience eventually...
    – user16869
    Feb 26 '16 at 13:13

This assumption usually strikes those who equate human intellect (soul) with human brain and reduce human brain to a machine.

This is rooted in materialist philosophy that rejects human soul having an independent, incorporeal substance. Mulla Sadra, the most prominent Muslim meta-physician of the 16th-17th century, firmly established that human body in its evolutionary process is guided and perfected by a cosmic immaterial Macro-Intellect. Human soul is a substance granted by the Macro-Intellect to human body after it is sufficiently developed in the womb. But the soul works in close interaction with the body (especially the brain), however it exists independently in the spiritual realm. Consciousness and reflection stem from human soul (micro-intellect), however, with involvement of human brain (which is in fact the instrument of the intellect) as long as man has not departed natural life. Therefore, life and consciousness are in essence incorporeal qualities of the incorporeal Macro-Intellect that emanate from it, permeate the organic body, dissipating down into the constituent physical elements.

Under this light, a machine in essence can never be a conscious reflective body comparable to human beings. Because for it to be conscious and reflective it has to be originated by the incorporeal intellect that governs and leads beings in the natural realm to the point of independent level of consciousness. A humanoid robot is only a combination of physical entities that work together and sensually interact with the external world based on the laws of the physical world. For them to become truly conscious they must receive incorporeal qualities from the incorporeal intellects that originate the body from its very early states of natural origination onward but that's not how a robot develops.

Here's a succinct exposition of Mulla Sadra's theories on human nature, development and afterlife for those interested in this less-famous but uniquely brilliant muslim philosopher: The Soul as Barzakh:Substantial Motion and Mulla Sadra’s Theory of Human Becoming by Maria Massi Dakake.


Convergence: what you experience and what you predict or think you know come together. When a machine can experience and theorize its own behavior in a way that converges, it will be a person.

Legally, a person has to be able to give consent, thus there are laws having to do with people being of age to make decisions, being in their right mind during a crime, etc. A Corporation can be said to assent to something or decide under some circumstances, so legally it functions as a person (can be fined, etc), but that does not mean that a Corporation is a Self. Both are needed to fit our understood meaning.


The "Re..." words are certainly the catch in machined knowledge, but I would argue for "Reproduction" through "Recognition," as opposed to "Reflection."

It is interesting that you cite Kant here, for his transcendental philosophy is, in my view, both the best critique of reductive physicalism and potentially the best set of instructions for assembling fundamental concepts as integrated circuits into artificial intelligence and even, perhaps, self-identified "personhood."

All the "parts" are there in the transcendental kit, just open up the "intuiting" valves and add sensible flows. A good candidate for generating "reflection" are the weirdly unpredictable, pulsing patterns of electromagnetic oscillations produced by video cameras observing themselves, recording recordings.This might potentially bring in a very fine-grained type of mutual "recognition" or symmetrical "disequilibrium" in machine relations.

To me, the greatest drawback to machine consciousness and personhood is finding the logical counterpart of love, by which I mean "reproduction" through "recognition" in the Hegelian sense. One capacity of brains, far too neglected in physical accounts, is that they self-select and reproduce themselves. Here, Von Neumann's Universal Replicators provide a mathematical description of "immortal" machine genealogy requiring overproduction, errors, and selection. It also requires a "software" and "hardware" interacting dualism. But this is still way too simple.

To attain personhood machines must not only recognize a "categorial instruction" they must see themselves as interchangeable "ends-in-themselves" which is a paradox. They must endlessly regenerate and resolve "paradoxes," including the fundamental paradox of gender... and some machine equivalent of in utero or a priori conceiving: i.e., the state in which two "persons" identify as "one" and then "one" person develops into "two" persons in "one," finally separating into a conceptual unity of "three" persons, the minimal unit of regeneration.

I say this to emphasize the degree to which paradox and irrationality must enter into the machine logic for anything approaching "personhood" to emerge. Kant does provide a promising blueprint. And he was unique in his day for even a modest mention of sexuality. But in my own view, most approaches to AI underestimate this necessary substrate, those capacities of practical and aesthetic judgment that "brains" must include to selectively reproduce "brains."

  • "A person is a brain's way of making another brain" I guess. Your paragraph that starts "To attain personhood..." applies to humans as well, and few people do. Definition of Love from the Catechism: To Will The Good Of Another. Simple, precise, inclusive, essential. These things need not be complicated.
    – user16869
    Feb 28 '16 at 1:01
  • But I like to complicate things, isn't that the point of philosophy? Apr 8 '16 at 17:10
  • I like to simplify things. I think that is the point of life. Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simper."
    – user16869
    Apr 8 '16 at 17:35

A dualist would very likely answer that it isn't possible that a machine can acquire personhood. This would be because the self-awarness/reflection part stems from the non-physical aspects of the mental which we cannot instill in an artificial machine no matter how well engineered it is.

From a strictly materialist point of view, Hofstadter's concept of strange loop, and self-representational and higher order theories of consciousness would allow for a machine to reflect upon itself. Broadly speaking, these types of theories assert that conscious arises (or is possible) in systems which have the ability to monitor themselves, or store and process representations of themselves. If a system's repertoire of symbols is complex enough that it can store and manipulate symbols corresponding to itself, then it should be capable of self awareness. All the issue comes down to is the level and complexity of representation that the system is capable of.

Where Kant would diverge from those who adopt the the self-representational theory of consciousness, is that he sees our self-awareness, or reflexiveness, as leading to free-will, whereas the self-representational models don't require or imply freewill at any point. Indeed many from that school believe that we don't have freewill in the traditional sense at all, they are all either compatibilists or hard determinists.


I would strongly disagree that reflection is the hallmark of human experience. Most of our life is spent in non-conscious states. We behave mostly by habit, and subconscious activity. Definitely, we do spend some time on conscious, reflective states, and this is... imo, how we get our conceptual knowledge.

Specifically, why can't machines "reflect"? A machine performs an action expecting a certain a result... the result doesn't happen, so the machine looks its logs to determine what action it took, and how the action could be improved. Is this not reflection?

  • @sharma: that isn't reflection; it's a mechanical sequence of events; reflection as a term used in natural conversation already presupposes a 'mind'. Feb 26 '16 at 21:10
  • @MoziburUllah, ok. But then I'd say that it is the lack of a mind that stops a machine from being a person. ie: Lack of mind is the essential issue. Lack of reflection is a consequence of a lack of mind but I don't see it as being essential for personhood. Feb 26 '16 at 21:16
  • @shaa: well there are legal fictions that posit corporations to be 'corporeal'; however here, the OPs question takes of from Kant, and he assuredly takes the mind as primary. Feb 26 '16 at 21:25
  • It's why it's called German Idealism. Feb 26 '16 at 22:00

The difficulty with your question is that we do not understand how self-reflection arises from the biological processes at work in a human being, and their brain in particular. Not knowing the answer to that question makes it impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether or not self-reflection can be realized in a non-biological system.

Searles, for example, argues for something that he tentatively calls "biological realism", in which consciousness (and therefore self-reflection) is a biological phenomenon like digestion or photosynthesis. The digestive process is inseparable from its biological/chemical mechanisms. A computer program can model the process to a large degree of accuracy but there is a difference between a model of digestion and the actual transformation of a hamburger into energy and feces.

Under this view, a computer program can model consciousness, but can't produce it any more than a computer model of a weather system can produce a real rainstorm.

Is the mind "hardware independent"? Is it like a computer program that can run on any physical system capable of interpreting the syntax of the program? Or is the biological hardware (which, as far as we know, is the only kind of system that has produced consciousness) intrinsic to how consciousness is realized?

As far as I know, there is no definitive answer to this question.

  • I could never understand the difference between Searle's position and Type-identity. How is saying that "the only thing that can have consciousness is the biological brain" any different from saying that "Mental states and brain states are identical" ?? His hyperbolic lecturing style isn't any help either. Feb 26 '16 at 22:15
  • I have a hard time articulating the difference myself. But the proposition that consciousness is only realizable in the brain doesn't necessarily require that a particular brain state be identical with a particular mental state. Searle's theory is consistent with a world where the same mental state could be associated with more than one neuronal configuration in the same brain, or where different neuronal configurations in different brains could produce the same mental state. All of that is possible in a world where consciousness is only realizable in an organic brain. Feb 27 '16 at 1:58

Kantian idealism, in its Copernican turn from the object to the subject already pre-supposes the existence of mind as a given; and the distinction between the two realms - objects as matter without mind, and subjects with mind.

Kant takes for granted that to have experience, there is something that experiences - in more modern language, it has qualia; he further takes for granted, an axiom that wouldn't be contested - it certainly isn't by Descartes cogito: I think therefore I (am a mind) that exists - this is the picture of the Averronian floating man; or again, much later, and picturesquely put into the argot of Science Fiction brains in a vat.

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