Let me define a machine very broadly as something incapable of thought that reacts predictably to a given stimulus. Take a vending machine, for example. Someone puts money in, pushes certain buttons, and without thinking about it, the machine distributes the goods selected.
Now imagine another type of machine – a robot. Suppose every time this robot has an opportunity to acquire money it does so and then promptly spends whatever money it acquires. If it acquires more money in the future, it goes out and spends that too. This robot is designed so that no matter how much money it acquires, it will always be driven to go out and spend it. Indeed, its internal program revolves around the never-ending pursuit of more stuff. Robots like this never assess their genuine needs. They have no conception of material sufficiency. They are programmed to go through their functioning lives consuming as much as they possibly can.
Suppose, however, one day you see one of these robots seemingly give up the pursuit of a higher material standard of living and instead sit under a tree and have a cup of tea. When you ask the robot about its actions, suppose it tells you that, on reflection, it doesn’t actually need more money or stuff and so it decided to reprogram itself. Recognizing that it had enough, this robot tells you that it voluntarily stopped pursuing a higher material standard of living and decided instead to do something else with its life. Currently, this robot concludes with a smile, it is listening to the birds and enjoying a cup of tea. It draws your attention to three rainbow lorikeets shooting across the blue skies above. You both marvel silently at the moment’s unspeakable beauty.
How would we respond to this unusual robot, this strange machine? I should think that we would say that it is not a machine after all, but a thinking thing, capable of free choice and self-determination. ‘But aren’t you a machine?’ we might inquire. ‘Aren’t you?’ it may well choose to respond.
Looking at the world today, many people seem to lack any conception of material sufficiency. These people spend their lives seeking ever-more stuff without ever putting their minds to the possibility that they might actually be more content with less. But one day these people might come to ask themselves ‘why’ – and everything will begin anew in that ecstatic moment; the conditions of possibility will suddenly burst asunder. Weariness becomes exhilaration.
We are not machines.