Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 31–46 | Cite as

Continuities and Discontinuities Between Humans, Intelligent Machines, and Other Entities

  • Johnny Hartz Søraker
Special Issue


When it comes to the question of what kind of moral claim an intelligent or autonomous machine might have, one way to answer this is by way of comparison with humans: Is there a fundamental difference between humans and other entities? If so, on what basis, and what are the implications for science and ethics? This question is inherently imprecise, however, because it presupposes that we can readily determine what it means for two types of entities to be sufficiently different—what I will refer to as being “discontinuous”. In this paper, I will sketch a formal characterization of what it means for types of entities to be unique with regard to each other. This expands upon Bruce Mazlish’s initial formulation of what he terms a continuity between humans and machines, Alan Turing’s epistemological approach to the question of machine intelligence, and Sigmund Freud’s notion of scientific revolutions dealing blows to the self-esteem of mankind. I will discuss on what basis we should regard entities as (dis-)continuous, the corresponding moral and scientific implications, as well as an important difference between what I term downgrading and upgrading continuities—a dramatic difference in how two previously discontinuous types of entities might become continuous. All of this will be phrased in terms of which scientific levels of explanation we need to presuppose, in principle or in practice, when we seek to explain a given type of entity. The ultimate purpose is to provide a framework that defines which questions we need to ask if we argue that two types of entities ought (not) to be explained (hence treated) in the same manner, as well as what it takes to reconsider scientific and ethical hierarchies imposed on the natural and artificial world.


Continuity Moral status Levels of explanation Artificial intelligence Turing Scientific revolutions 



Since this is an idea that has resisted precision, hence publication, for more than 10 years, I can no longer thank everyone who has given me advice over the years. Most importantly among them, my then-supervisor Magne Dybvig played a very important role in the initial development. More recently, I am indebted to the helpful comments from several colleagues from my department, in particular Marianne Boenink, Mieke Boon, Philip Brey, Mark Coeckelbergh, and Pak Hang Wong. I am also indebted to the feedback and encouragement from the participants at the AISB/IACAP 2012 conference symposium on ‘The Machine Question’, in particular Joanna Bryson, David Gunkel, Steve Torrance and Wendell Wallach. I would also like to acknowledge the very useful and constructive feedback from the journal’s anonymous referees – in particular “reviewer #1” who provided an extraordinarily detailed and insightful analysis that was of immense help. The usual disclaimer applies.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of TwenteAE EnschedeNetherlands

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