Tabula Rasa

Bill Chapmanby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

According to our good friends at Wikipedia (the internet “Free Encyclopedia”), Tabula Rasa is the epistemological theory that individuals are born without built-in mental conduct and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception. The term in Latin equates to the English “blank slate” (or more accurately, “erased slate”). In Western philosophy traces of the idea appear as early as the writings of Aristotle, though it went largely unnoticed for 1,000 years. Tabula Rasa is also featured in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Freud depicted personality traits as being formed by family dynamics (see Oedipus complex, etc.). Freud’s theories imply not only that humans lack free will, but also that genetic influences on human personality are minimal. In psychoanalysis, one is largely determined by one’s upbringing.

While the ramifications of this theory are myriad (including for example the belief that gender identity is socially constructed rather than rooted in genetics – clearly a heady proposition for examination at a later date by better minds than my own), my present interest in the thesis is far more pedestrian and directed to a less highfalutin end. Specifically my curiosity was lately piqued by an invitation I received from one of the lead mechanics at my car dealership in the City. The mechanic and I (assisted by the owner of the dealership) have recently been entwined in a corporate effort to discover the cause or reason for an apparent transmission defect in my new automobile. Following three successive attendances at the dealership to correct the on-going though diminishing problem, the mechanic had I thought effectively resigned himself (as I too had done) to an accommodation of the flaw which at this point admittedly qualifies more as a glitch than anything else, though as I pointed out to the mechanic when he telephoned yesterday, the impairment is rather like a paper cut; namely, small but annoying.

In any event, to get back to what I was saying about the mechanic’s invitation, he called allegedly to enquire whether I was happy with the performance of the automobile following the most recent service visit. When I prevaricated he quickly turned to the subject of attending next week at my office to erase the computer memory of my car. He tells me that he has a portable scanner which he can connect to my car (right in the back parking lot if you please) and in about ten minutes erase the memory of the computers which run the machine. The mechanic then dilated upon the topic by adding that this automobile is so sophisticated that it actually “learns” the driving habits of the driver and that those habits once learned predict the performance of the machine. Extraordinary! It doesn’t require an inductive leap to concede that, if he is correct, the temperament of the automobile will be governed by its training; and, that if the machine has been sent different signals by different drivers there is the potential for the equivalent of psychosis. No longer is it sufficient merely to rely upon the hardware or genetic influences of the machine. The mechanic continued by saying that the machine is built to do three things: 1) sustain itself; 2) protect itself from calamity (for example, by cutting off fuel supply if there is a threat of fire); and, 3) to adapt to the conventions of its driver. Upon hearing this, I interjected that for the past week or so since the car was been returned to me I have noticed that by changing my driver habits I have partially at least been able to alter the performance of the car for the better. Interestingly this admission is a confession that the car is teaching me how to drive, rather than the other way around. Assuming therefore that it is possible to alter performance by changing driving patterns I can see no objection whatever to erasing the slate and starting from scratch. The mechanic was quick to emphasize that initially there may be hiccups in the operation of the machine but that I mustn’t modify my normal driving habits to accommodate the car; he insists that the machine will take its lead from me eventually. I likened the experience to riding a horse, where the rider is either taken for a ride or directs the locomotion. Indeed the metaphor of likening an automobile to a horse nicely captures the evolution of the automobile, particularly with regard to this peppy, spirited and at times moderately ungovernable automobile. The mechanic further explained that his purpose in attending at my office to conduct the scan was to avoid having him do any subsequent test-driving (which would of course contaminate the “clean slate”), and to avoid having me drive the car afterwards from the dealership in circumstances which didn’t approximate my normal driving vernacular in the country.

The entire proposal is exceedingly clinical, antiseptic and even a bit spooky! However I do not view my participation in the experiment as either acquiescence or mere indulgence. I have always imagined myself to be sympathetic to the material world, whether it be a Steinway piano or a Rolex watch, which, for example, require in their operation and use a degree of delicacy and “touch” for lack of a better word. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I am pusillanimous in the operation of machinery; rather, that the operation requires some sensitivity to the capacity of the device. Rachmaninoff is after all not lost on me!

Hearing all this reminds me of the movie “2011: Space Odyssey” wherein the sentient computer “HAL 9000” acquires increasing artificial intelligence. We’ll have to see just how clever this beast is!