Are we puppets of the gods?


Thomas de Leu, Prometheus, c. 1609

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

In all the variants of the Prometheus creation myth and artwork, the realistic forms of humans will become the reality they portray: they become real people. This paradoxical perspective raises the timeless question: Are humans somehow automatons of the gods? The almost subconscious fear that we could be soulless machines manipulated by other powers poses a profound philosophical conundrum pondered since ancient times. If we are the creations of the gods or unknown forces, how can we have self-identity, agency, and free will?

Plato was one of the first to consider the possibility that humans are nonautonomous, writing in Laws, “Let us suppose that each of us living creatures is an ingenious puppet of the gods.” Concerns about autonomy also suffuse traditional tales about robots. In the Hindu Kathasaritsagara (c. 1050), an entire city is populated by silent townspeople and animals, later revealed to be realistic wooden puppets controlled by a solitary man on a throne inside the palace. The notion that humans arose as the automatons or playthings of an imperfect or evil demiurge (along with the ensuing questions of volition and morality) was forcefully articulated in gnosticism, a religious movement of the first through third centuries.

The French philosopher René Descartes, who was quite familiar with the gear- and spring-powered automatons of his day, embraced the idea that the body is a machine. He even predicted that one day we might need a way to determine whether something was a machine or human. What, he mused, “if there were machines in the image of our bodies and capable of imitating our actions?” He suggested that tests based on flexibility of behavior and linguistic abilities might be able to expose nonhuman things. More than four centuries later, one of the replicants in the 1982 film Blade Runner echoes Descartes’ famous conclusion, “I think, therefore I am.”

Yet the dilemma lingers: the impossibility of devising a Turing test to prove to myself that I am not an android automaton. Contemplating the ancient illustrations of human beings as products of Promethean creation, carved on precious gems more than two millennia ago, is another powerful reminder of the age-old philosophical puzzle of human autonomy. Set against the classical Greek account of Prometheus, the modern tale of Frankenstein’s automaton delivers an especially urgent question and warning today: What do creators owe their creations? Victor Frankenstein was ultimately appalled by his monster and disowned it, while Prometheus is the archetype of a creator who feels a sense of empathy and takes responsibility for his biotechnical creation. As the juggernaut of ever-more advanced technology speeds relentlessly onward, it is perhaps worth recalling that the original Greek meaning of the name Prometheus is “foresight.”

“Prometheus’ Toolbox”, Adrienne Mayor, Lapham’s Quarterly

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