Rafael Capurro
Working paper published by IMES (Istituto Metodologico Economico Statistico) Laboratory for the Culture of the Artificial, Università di Urbino, Dir. Massimo Negrotti (IMES-LCA WP-15 November 1995). This is a slightly modified and updated version. A German translation was published in: Klaus Kornwachs (ed.): Technik System Verantwortung. Münster: Lit Verlag 2003.



I. Historical Background

II. Towards a Current Interpretation of Artificiality 
1. Reality as Computational Artificiality   
2. Existential Artificiality   
3. Myths of Artificiality  

Final Remarks 




The 19th century was fascinated by nature and history. We are fascinated by artificiality and communication. But what precisely is the sense of the artificial, and, particularly, of all kinds of electronic devices, systems and products nowadays? What are the relations between the artificial and other kinds of beings, such as nature, the divine, the mathematical and, of course, ourselves? The meaning of artificiality as well as the interpretation of these relations has changed in the course of history. 

The distinction between artificial and natural things goes back to Greek philosophy. For the Greeks, generally speaking, there are some things which grow up as a product of nature (physis), and other things which are produced by man (poiesis), such as tools, machines, and works of art. By producing things the artist imitates (mimesis) nature, i.e., he does not imitate just the products of nature, but how nature produces them. Nature acts paradoxically, namely in a spontaneous and a 'purposeful' way. In contrast to nature, the artist has to think about the purpose and about how he is going to produce an object in order to achieve this purpose. On the basis of his technical knowledge (techne) he gives to his works some purposeless character or beauty. Bringing together the good or useful (agathos), and the purposeless or beautiful (kalos) engenders the specific Greek sense of artificiality. 

In his Timaios, Plato describes the creative or techno-poetical activity of the divine artist. The demiourgos produces nature in a similar but much more perfect way than a human artist produces, for instance, a statue. Whereas he has the exemplars of all things, the divine forms, at his disposal, we use only their materialized copies, producing then copies of copies.  

For the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea of a divine artist (deus opifex) is apparently a Christian version of the Platonic demiourgos. It entails the non-Greek concept of 'creation out of nothing' (creatio ex nihilo). All processes by which nature or man bring forth new things by giving a form to something that already exists, are 'information' processes. The Christian God is the only being capable of creating (creatio) things ex nihilo. This distinction between informatio and creatio remains a basic one throughout the Middle Ages. Although this is a Christian distinction, it is deeply rooted in key texts of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, particularly in the concepts of morphe, eidos/idea, and typos (Capurro 1978). 

Renaissance and modern times give more and more importance to creative man as an autonomous being or as a genius embracing the characteristics of the divine creator. The genius is the man who is not just capable of reproducing things according to a given rule, but of creating new rules. Kant develops this idea in order to distinguish the productive from the reproductive imagination. But a genius is not a dreamer, as he knows the difference between the unspeakable or undepictable and the mere symbolic character of his work. 

The act of creating new rules implies that the genius gets in touch in some way with the metaphysical dimension, God as the creator of rules. But this does not mean, according to Kant, that the genius knows anything theoretically about this dimension (Capurro 1996). The aesthetic activity, as the highest human artificial activity, mediates between the theoretical and the practical reason. This idea was further developed by the Romantics, particularly by Friedrich Schiller. 

Throughout the 19th century, man's artificial activity was more and more naturalized, i.e., disconnected from metaphysical ambitions (Nietzsche, Marx, Feuerbach). This process culminates in the first half of the 20th century. The industrial worker and the secularized artist are the two main symbols of artificiality in this period. The industrial worker is the man who transforms and dominates nature, particularly with the help of machines, as being described by Ernst Jünger in “Der Arbeiter” (1932). The work of the artist is considered either under pure mundane aspects or under a political viewpoint. In the first case it follows Hegel's idea that the role of art as a mediation between the sensible and the supra-sensible has come to an end. In the second case, art can serve as propaganda.




Because of the development of the computer in the middle of the 20th century, the sense of artificiality has changed. I will analyze this change under following aspects:
1. Reality as computational artificiality
2. Existential artificiality
3. Myths of artificiality

1. Reality as Computational Artificiality 

Traditionally, the artificial, a tool or a work of art, is less real than the natural. This concept changes in modern times, because the artificial (the machine) is being used mainly to dominate nature. But today we use a machine, the computer, not only to control but also to simulate all kinds of beings. This simulative capacity contributes more and more to a new sense of artificiality in its relationship to nature. Concepts such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and virtual life are signs of this change. 

In the 19th century Nietzsche thought of a reversal of the Platonic scheme which situated the metaphysical or supra-sensible at the top and the physical or sensible as well as the artificial at the bottom. But Nietzsche was fascinated by nature and history. His idea of the artist as a creator and mediator of ever changing perspectives remained subordinated to the idea of an eternal recurrence of nature. Nature was supposed to manifest itself through these perspectives. 

Today we are operating paradoxically under another kind of reversal. We consider more and more the virtuality of computer simulations to be the real thing. In fact, reality becomes a possible actualization of computational artificiality. This is in some way a reversal of the Aristotelian relation of the virtual (dynamis) with regard to the actual (energeia). Pure actuality entails no sensible matter. I think this reversal is paradoxical because it re-establishes the pre-modern dominance of the supra-sensible. But the sense of today's transcendent virtuality is not of a divine but of a kind of technical transcendence. In contrast to Plato the pure mathematical forms are now at the heart of a techno-logical engine, the computer.

From our human viewpoint the computer becomes an externalized intelligence and an externalized imagination altogether. It is the looking glass where we see reality becoming something of a lower status than the virtuality of the artificial. We know this paradoxical effect from the movie. The real actor or actress is the blueprint of the movie star. What is real is just what can be grasped, simulated and manipulated by this technological looking glass. The image at the looking glass turns out to be the origin of the projection or another possible construction of what seemingly originated it. To be real means to be capable of being conceived and implemented virtually by a computer. The references of artificial simulations can be either other technical products (technoids) or natural ones (naturoids) (Negrotti 1995). Not only cognition as Pylyshyn states (Pylyshyn 1986) but imagination is computation. But even more generally, 'to be' means 'to be processed.' Esse est computari as we could say remembering Bishop Berkeley. Computational artificiality is, in Heideggerian terms, the present meaning of being. 

Computational artificiality is a kind of super-category, like the metaphysical categories of substance or subjectivity, embracing all kinds of beings. In the metaphysics of substance there were degrees of reality according to the capability of permanence or time resistence of different kinds of substances (matter, life, human spirit, divine spirit). The metaphysics of the subject, as developed by Descartes and culminating in Hegel, made ontological differences according to the historical experiences of conscience, like in Hegel's “Phänomenologie des Geistes.”

The metaphysics of artificiality considers all phenomena as real only as far as they are expressions of computational forms (algorithms or programs). The computational form has a higher ontological degree than so-called reality since it can change it and reproduce it in another way. Reality is but an expression of computional virtuality. The artificial is the real. The theory of fractals intends to grasp something like the form of all possible computational forms. This is a technical version of the Platonic conception of a 'form of forms.' Computational artificiality does not imitate nature. It does not even just simulate it. It is the other way round. The natural seems to be just a possible simulation of the artificial. 


2. Existential Artificiality

In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger claims that human life is characterized by the fact that we live within a field of given and open possibilities. Not our soul or our body but our specific way of being, our existence or Dasein makes the difference between our life and, for instance, the ways tools or animals exist. This idea was also developed with different connotations by other thinkers of our time, such as José Ortega y Gasset or Jean-Paul Sartre. But it was Giambattista Vico who magnificently analyzed the concept of the human world as an artificial one. 

To exist as a human being means having to construct our own life. Our life is not something already given, it is not just a program to be run by a hardware, but it has to be partly written down by ourselves. 'Partly' means that we come into existence within natural and cultural given conditions (family, gender, country, epoch, language, etc.). Although we mostly rely on them in our everyday life, we also have to make our options within a field of non-fixed possibilities. We are responsible for these decisions. In other words, our life is not just a natural but also an artificial or, as the tradition calls it, an ethical one. Our way of existence is the sense we give to artificiality with regard to ourselves. Our mimetical relation to ethical ideals and values is an artificial one, not only because we can choose them, but also because we can change them, and even create new ones.   

Only because we are ourselves artificial, we are also able to create artificial things. In terms of existential philosophy we can say that our openness to being (or to no-thing) is the condition of possibility for the creation of artificial things. This possibility is a very restricted one in the case of other natural beings.  

In one of his lectures Heidegger says that man exists in the way of creating a world (“weltbildend”), i.e., of discovering and/or establishing new relationships between beings and in fact of bringing forth new kinds of beings, for instance, tools, whereas in the case of animals these relationships are mostly fixed and therefore their world is 'poorer' (“weltarm”) than ours. Finally in the case of non-living beings we have to do with 'worldless' (“weltlos”) beings (Heidegger 1983). 

But what is the relation between existential and computational artificiality? In some respect the artificial seems to share nowadays some of the ontological characteristics of animals, humans and non-living objects, but in other respect, as I have shown, it can be considered the other way round. It creates a new horizon for the understanding of all beings, including our own existence. 

Computational artificiality is supposed to be able to create its own world in a sense that is neither the one of animals nor a responsible moral agent. In most cases it can be considered just like a tool, sharing the characteristics of 'present-at-hand' and 'readiness-to-hand' described by Heidegger in Being and Time. But in other cases, we could be inclined to attribute them life and even intelligence... Although this is still more a metaphor than a fact, can we speculate about computational artificiality as a way of being which entails in some way a kind of world openness and world construction which is neither the one of animals nor the human one?   

In his lectures “Un know-how per l'etica” Francisco Varela shows that computational artificiality, if it is supposed to bring forth cognitive phenomena, must operate on the basis of a a self-organizing system whose dynamic is only possible if there is no fixed program or no stable self. Not the computation but the interaction of the organism with its environment is a necessary condition of this dynamic. But the sufficient condition is the openness or the 'hole' between the system and its environment. This openness permits the system create its own world out of its environment. 

This process is, according to Varela, based on the organism's body. Varela argues that we should cultivate an ethics based on practices of our bodily perception of this openness, like Buddhist meditation. This perception allows us to be able to act flexibly. We become capable of dedication to others and of acting smoothly and creatively with regard to new situations. 

If this insight is correct, the sense of computational artificiality can be restricted to the mere simulation of what Varela calls rule-oriented action or habits. If computational artificiality is understood in the sense of creating neural-like networks, then the question of non-programmed interactions with the environment becomes a decisive one. Only under this condition we could say that artificial systems are able to form their own lives. Artificial existentiality would be the simulation of some features of existential artificiality. 

Computational artificiality shines back into existential artificiality, into ourselves (and our selves), and into the way we understand our lives. Our being-in-the-world is ruled more and more by computer networks as well as by all kinds of electronic devices. Insofar as these systems seem to shape our life as a whole, we should cultivate practices that allow us to get rid of these (and other) conventions, not in order to abandon or even to show contempt for them, but in order to, as Varela remarks, unlearn (rather than learn) the habit of following given rules. This attitude is similar to the one of creative imagination as analyzed by Kant. The French philosopher Michel Foucault calls these practices "technologies of the self" (Capurro 1996a). 


3. Myths of Artificiality

Since ancient times, man's creative imagination and his artificial products are closely related to our dreams and particularly to the way we consciously process them, to our myths. Our dreams, and not so much our rationality, are at the origin of artificiality.   

Another French philosopher, Jean Brun, has analyzed the close relations between our dreams and our machines (Brun 1992). The human condition, our 'condition humaine,' particularly our bodily nature, the fact of being separated from each other by time and space as well as by death, the plurality of beings, times and places etc. gives to human action and to all our artificial products a mythological character. They are conceived as dreams to overcoming this condition, as dreams of power. 

Sometimes, particularly when reason is sleeping but also when it is dreaming, the artificial becomes more like a nightmare than like something beneficial. This is, for instance, the case when reason tries to give a positive sense to some of its artificial nightmares. When reason forgets its limits it gives rise to myths, e.g., the myth of technical and artificial progress. According to Francisco Goya's aphorism in one of his drawings, the dream and/or sleep of reason produces monsters ('el sueño de la razón engendra monstruos').   

The myths of the artificial are legion nowadays, not only in form such popular science-fiction stories as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey but also in form of scientific myths. One well known example is the idea that natural evolution continues and is even superseded by our robots, our "mind children" (Moravec 1988). As I said already, the artificial shines back and we appear as part of it, as an evolutionary foreplay of a higher kind of existence.   

The myth of higher intelligences, separated from mortal bodily conditions, is part of many religious and philosophical traditions. I have made the suggestion that the technological shape of this myth has an anthropological function. The void place of divine higher intelligences left by the process of secularization is fulfilled in our technological society by the idea of higher human made intelligences, a kind of super AI (artificial intelligence). Whereas in the past our place in the scale of beings was seen between the animals and the gods, in a secularized and technological civilization the myth of 'super AI' takes the place of the divine. This is, in my opinion, a new form of gnosis (Capurro 1995).   

This critical remark does neither imply that we could or should not interpret our lives and transform our bodies in terms of computational artificiality. In fact we will become more and more entangled with new forms of computational artificiality. But this process is not a blind Nemesis. As creators of artificial things and being ourselves artificial shapers of our lives we play a strategic position in the shaping dynamic of the artificial. Our rational strategies are: technology assessment and philosophical criticism. Our aesthetic strategy is outbidding technological imagination through aesthetic imagination. This is one of the important contributions of electronic art to a culture of the artificial. Electronic art is a sublimation of electronic gnosis. 

Artificial machines create, as Negrotti remarks, new varieties in the natural as well as in the cultural world. The artificial becomes sometimes more like the natural and sometimes more like the conventional machine or the electronic itself. The borders between nature, conventional technology, and, as I would like to add, existence are not vanished but they are more subtle. To believe that we could reproduce artificially living beings without a selective process is a myth. Also to believe that the use of different materials and/or processes when imitating other beings does not make a difference between the natural and the artificial is also a myth. The question of the compatibility between nature, artificiality and conventional technology is not an easy one (Negrotti 1995, 1999, 2002, 2012).


The shaping of our lives through electronic networks such as Internet can be considered as a major contribution to a global networked culture for which the question of power is stated in a new way, as in the case of geographical borders and of classical means of transportation and communication (Fleissner et al. 1995). 

In such a situation we need more than ever practices and particularly bodily experiences through which we can get in immediate touch with the contingency of our lives as well as with the one of the (natural and artificial) world itself. We can then learn not just to look at but to look beyond (not through or behind!) the artificial looking glass.  

To transcend means to go beyond. Maybe we discover that there is no-thing beyond artificiality, as there is also no-thing beyond nature or existence but just the simple fact of being. We use the artificial as well as we use natural beings (including our own lives!) to veil such a dimension. To become aware of it is a main contribution of philosophical exercises which were, particularly in former times, intimately related to bodily experiences (Capurro 1995).




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Last update: March 27, 2016

Copyright © 2003 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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