One of the factors that make us human is our ability to question our very existence. It is this capability that allows us to use our advanced reasoning capabilities for the purpose of questioning our very existence. Even though we call this an aspect of the “human condition,” what if something that we design and build is capable of the same thing? What if we create our own form of synthetic life and grant it the same or a more superior form of reasoning capabilities? Could this entity be able to use these bestowments to understand its existence? If so, does this being blur the line between humanity and synthetic life?

In Isaac Asimov’s short story “Reason”, QT1 is a robot that is designed with advanced reasoning capabilities. This robot is brought onto a power transfer station to assist Powell and Donovan, the two human workers, with whatever activities are required. After being assembled by the two humans, QT1 begins to have a discussion with them. QT1, or Cutie as he is referred to by Powell and Donovan, doubts everything that both Powell and Donovan tell him. Factual statement after factual statement, Cutie doubts every statement that is made and states that it will attempt to use valid reasoning to determine the truth. Cutie shows curiosity toward its own existence, something that the two humans have never seen occur. Eventually, Cutie comes to the conclusion that his existence is made valid by his ability to think. This is shown by the utterance of the statement, “I, myself, exist, because I think—”. It is at this point where he explains his superiority to humans by stating:

“I say this in no spirit of contempt, but look at you! The material you are made of is soft and flabby, lacking endurance and strength, depending for energy upon the inefficient oxidation of organic material—like that.”

He goes on to state that the entity responsible of his creation is the Master, the energy converter on the station, and that from now on he will serve it. As the story progresses, Cutie converts the lesser robots into his newly found religious doctrine and bars the humans from entering the main work area. Even though this infuriates the humans and worries them due to the oncoming storm, Cutie and his “disciples” demonstrate that they can operate the station’s systems even if it is by the “will of the Master.” Cutie demonstrates the usage of Cartesian philosophy and does so without causing significant disruption to the station’s protocol.

In Meditation I of Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes systematically doubted the validity of his beliefs so that he can completely reconstruct a new belief based on valid beliefs. In Meditation I, Descartes states that:

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation…[sic]

This process, called methodic doubt, puts all beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and matter in doubt. Descartes shown, through his reasoning, that which any form of knowledge could be false and that sensory experience is often erroneous and must be doubted as well. This is due to the fact that sensory experience is the primary mode of knowledge. In summation, if there is any way that a belief can be disproved then its grounds are insuffient. In “Reason,” this process is applied and makes Cutie into a spiritual machine.

At the beginning of Reason, it is shown that Cutie uses his reasoning skills to test each idea told to him by Powell. As Powell explains Cutie’s existence to him, he doubts each statement that is made and states that he will “puzzle out” the meaning of his existence. By doubting all the information given to him and from his own contemplations, Cutie finally states his own form of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum declaration. This phrase, meaning “I think, therefore I am,” showed that Cutie assumed to question his own existence and, due to the fact that his doubting proved that he existed, came to understand his existence. This epiphany mirrors that of the same realization made by Descartes when he stated, “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes). From his initial flawed premise, Cutie was able to use reason in proving his own existence and thus deifying the very device that he was tasked to manage.  Through the process of methodic doubt, Cutie used pure reasoning skills to develop a religion centered on the station’s energy converter.

In this story, it provides a scenario where a robot with reasoning capabilities has the ability to become a spiritual machine and possess sapient qualities. By showing the comparisons of Cutie’s existential journey to the concept that is credited to Descartes, this scenario demonstrates that such a form of synthetic life may be able to rationalize its own existence and create its own religion. By mimicking this aspect of the “human condition,” Cutie shows that such a robot could blur the line between what we consider synthetic and what we consider human.


* hero image used from here: