What is ‘the Secret of Life’? The Mind-Body Problem in Čapek’s Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.)

In Jitka Cejkova (ed.), Karel Capek’s R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life. MIT Press (forthcoming)
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Abstract

One of the recurring themes in Čapek’s play is the existential question of whether the reductionist materialist worldview – the belief that we can fully explain the world, including ourselves, in terms of nothing but physical processes – can accommodate all that is essential to the human being. The materialist worldview triumphed with the scientific revolution, which in turn laid the foundations for the military-industrial complex. This historical shift is represented in the play by the business-minded young Rossum inheriting the bio-engineering methodology from the mad scientist old Rossum. A key difference between the two is that old Rossum’s materialist stance is an ideological commitment, whereas for young Rossum working within a materialist framework is more a matter of convenience: for him it is sufficient for most practical purposes to replicate the machine-like aspects of a person. Where does this leave the soul, or what we today might prefer to call consciousness? The question of whether human nature goes beyond its physical aspects, and whether these subjective aspects can also be artificially replicated, is extremely challenging to address in scientific theory and practice –100 years ago as much as now.

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Tom Froese
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University

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