Viktor Frankl said that in the space between stimulus and response lay freedom, the human power to choose. A reaction takes the place of a response in the absence of this freedom.
Non-living entities are restricted to reactions. When baking soda meets vinegar, a spurting and bubbling reaction is guaranteed. On heating sodium in air, it burns with an explosive pop. Rainfall, rivers turning murky, the melting of glaciers and the swirling of desert sands are all natural reactions.
Living organisms are capable of responses. They can take in certain inputs – stimuli, apply their intelligence and synthesize a response rather than be restricted to a reaction. While salt always dissolves in water, a goldfish could choose to swim through a hoop. Intelligence, the gatekeeper of our freedom, also lives in the space between stimulus and response. This intelligence gives us the ability to think critically – to discern a response rather than be bound to a reaction.
However, living organisms are susceptible to conditioning. Animals can be domesticated or tamed. Dogs, monkeys and even human beings can be controlled with rewards and punishments. Conditioning weakens our ability to think critically. It undermines our intelligence. A conditioned response is similar to a reaction – it is predictable, repeatable and lacks discernment. Acceptance as gospel truth takes the place of skepticism empowered by critical thinking.
In the AI era, it helps to distinguish between artificial and real intelligence. Algorithms follow conditions. Given a set of inputs, an algorithm always responds with a conditioned response. We call machine intelligence “artificial” because it isn’t truly intelligence. It is merely a likeness.
When faced with certain information, it is our intelligence that separates us from chemicals, algorithms and domestic livestock. Critical thinking sits at the essence of our aliveness. I leave you with the immortal words of a song by Queen that reminds us to keep ourselves alive:
“Keep yourself alive, yeah
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money
Honey you’ll survive”