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Automata, Consciousness, and 17th Century Mechanics

Automata — machines that operate according to a set of predetermined instructions — are some of our earliest iterations of artificially intelligent technology. What epistemic purpose did they serve, and what do they demonstrate about how people have historically thought of machines as alive? This post is adapted from a paper I wrote responding to Stanford historian and philosopher of science Jessica Riskin’s famous essay “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life.”

mechanical defecating duck

What is human and what is machine? While computers seem more pervasive than ever in our modern lives, the comparison between human and machine has precedent as early as the 17th century. In her ever-relevant essay “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life,” and book The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick, philosopher of science Jessica Riskin explores the boundary between early modern machinery and life. Looking back at how French inventor Vaucanson’s mechanical duck imitated the process of defecation or how Descartes explained lungs as a pair of bellows, one could infer that both men thought that life was quite literally mechanical. Utilizing examples of early modern automata, Riskin situates herself against such an interpretation; while some may have thought that human and animal anatomy was mechanical, lifelike machines and mechanisms served as a teleological explanation of life1 — an explanation through function. In fact, when put in the context of Cartesian dualism, one can conceive of the way in which 17th century machines could be seen as alive.

Two android musicians and a mechanical duck: these are the three automata, according to Riskin, that ushered in an age of mechanical explanation in which we are still living.2 Vaucanson, their inventor, developed these automata as philosophical experiments that were constantly testing the boundaries of what elements could be replicated mechanically. If he could build machines that mimic increasingly complex behavior, would that not explain how life works? In the example of the flute player, this involved not just the mimicry of human behavior — a human-like figure whose fingers pressed the keys of the flute and a simultaneous sort of “breath” which would produce a note — but also the internal simulation of function that revealed a certain physiological understanding of how the body worked. A review of the showcase of Vaucanson’s automata described the flute player as an “infinity of wires and steel chains … [which] form the movement of the fingers, in the same way as in living man, by the dilation and contraction of the muscles.”3 Similarly, by perforating holes in the duck’s feathers, Vaucanson sought to show that the duck not only defecated, but that it actually had a digestive system that would demonstrate how such a process was executed.4 Despite the fact that the simulative digestive process ended up being a deception, the automata still demonstrated Vaucanson’s desire to show the underlying processes of behavior.

Vaucanson’s failure (or clever trick, depending on how you look at it) to actually simulate the duck’s digestion demonstrates the limits of mechanical simulation. However, judging from the words of Vaucanson himself,5 it seems that he wasn’t seeking a full simulation of human life. Rather, he was exploring the boundary between the urge to create automata that were internally and externally as lifelike as possible, while understanding that a full simulation was ultimately impossible. In a time in which technology was allowing artisans to create more lifelike automata, one can see the way in which a flute playing android or defecating duck spurred the imagination of its spectators of the potential such machines had for simulation. If an automata could simulate digestion, speech, and musical ability, could it have the potential for thought, or even human consciousness? Is human and animal life, under the right circumstances, ultimately reducible to mechanism?

Because automata blurred the boundary between human and machine, it would be easy to assume that Vaucanson and others thought that they were actually on their way to creating mechanical life. Riskin notes that there are some historians have taken this literal interpretation of automata as “straightforward renditions of life in machinery,”6 but that such a literal interpretation of the work of inventors such as Vaucanson would be mistaken. Rather, it was a reflective of a materialist-mechanist understanding of life, one that challenged the extent to which animal life could be explained by mechanism via the actual construction and generation of lifelike mechanism.

Vaucanson and others’ automata, both artefactual and performative of a mechanistic conception of life, affected more than just the lay spectator. Descartes was surely influenced by the various automata he had seen when writing Traite de l’homme, in which he offers explanations of physiology in mechanistic terms: he describes bones as pegs and iron, nerves as cords, lungs as a pair of bellows, and an embryo in development as an automaton set in motion.7 Descartes’ conception of the animal body as a “machine made of earth” disconcerted many, who found such an approach as depriving animals of life. However, Riskin invites us to to flip such an assumption on its head: animals were not lifeless, but the machines were actually full of life.8 Framed this way, mechanical description is less threatening to animal life. In saying that the heart functioned like a furnace, Descartes wasn’t making the claim that the heart was a furnace, but that that its ontological status as a heart could be defined teleologically, by the way it functioned like a pump. In other words, the heart’s ontology could be defined by it’s teleological description as a furnace.

To understand the particular positioning of the Descartes’ mechanical explanation of the body, it helps to situate Descartes in an intellectual tradition of mechanical explanation. his conception of the “animal-machine” wasn’t original —Aristotle, Galen, Aquinas, and others had compared animal physiology to artificial devices and everyday objects such as toys and tools. Thus, Descartes wasn’t working with a new model of animal anatomy, but for a novel form of its interpretation. Whereas the ancients and Scholastics explained the body in terms of souls, humors, or faculties, Descartes conceived of it as fully comprehensible in material, mechanical terms, a “mode of intelligibility rather than the particular machinery of life.”9 By using mechanism to explain bodily function, Descartes was changing what it meant to give an explanation of natural phenomena. “To say that the body, animal or human, was like a watch, in the sense of being a fully material composition of parts, was not to say that it was a watch.”10 Riskin calls this Cartesian interpretation of anatomical function an “epistemological revolution” that would extend to a general view of the world in mechanical terms.11

Descartes, realizing that one’s senses could be deceived - by perceptual illusion, dreams, an evil demon or otherwise - postulated that one could never be sure of bodily experience. The only thing he could be sure of was that he was a thinking being. This is the basis for his Cartesian dualism, or the separation of the mind and body. He saw the mind as immaterial, but attached to a body that he conceived of as functioning like a mechanism, allowing him to delineate the boundary between human and machine: while humans are warm and responsive from possession of a connected mind and body, the disembodied machine was unfeeling and passive.12 A side effect of the Descartes’ belief in the mechanical body attached to the intellectual human self was that he adopted the unpopular belief that non-human animals were capable of thinking, and lacked imagination and sentiments in general, even if they behaved as though they do. Sentient-seeming behavior did not mean dogs or turtles had minds — matter could have life but not soul.13 However, if non-human animals could be alive without possessing a mind, so could machines. In this sense, Descartes imagined that machines could be alive.

While Cartesian dualism is no longer accepted as a valid theory of mind, many of the issues that Riskin raises, and that Descartes struggled with, are still hotly contested today. For example, functional or teleological explanations are often employed when speaking about the brain’s behavior computationally. If the brain, at the lowest level of analysis, can be described in computational terms, does that mean we can simulate it? Are mechanical descriptions of neural processes epistemically useful? Are behavioral descriptions sufficient for generating artificial life? It is unlikely any of these questions will be answered anytime soon, but progress can be made by reinterpreting and building on the work of our intellectual predecessors.


  1. Here I use teleological as meaning goal or purpose in a functional sense, not in the Aristotelian sense.

  2. Jessica Riskin, “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life,” Critical Inquiry 29, no. 4 (Summer 2003): 599-633. 612.

  3. Riskin, 602.

  4. Ibid., 609.

  5. Ibid., 608.

  6. Riskin, 610.

  7. Jessica Riskin. The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 52.

  8. Ibid., 46.

  9. Ibid., 55.

  10. Ibid., 50.

  11. Ibid., 55. An additional piece of evidence that supports this “epistemological revolution” is discovery of the Antikythera mechanism off the coast of Greece. The mechanism, often considered the world’s oldest known computer, was used to calculate planetary positions during different times of the year. Rather than demonstrating a belief that planetary motion literally operated mechanically, the antikythera mechanism can be thought of as a mechanical description of planetary motion — one that at the time, was thought of as a product of rational design. Researchers reverse engineering the mechanism are engaging in an epistemic project in itself, because details of the mechanism reveal certain assumptions of an astronomical mechanical worldview by its maker.

  12. Ibid., 67.

  13. Ibid., 68.