Oh, Jupiter, a robot Descartes!

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In I, Robot by Asimov, the short story “Reasons” depicts the creation of a robot named Cutie and his search for answers about his existence. Similar to Descartes, Cutie is curious and determined to discover the truth. Set in space in 2015, Cutie is a self-aware and reasoning robot with limited knowledge of his surroundings. As a result, he questions the validity of everything he is told within his realm of existence.

Although Descartes and Cutie have different worlds around them, they both possess a sense of curiosity that can have both positive and negative effects on everyday life, depending on how deeply one embraces it. I feel that Asimov’s character, Cutie, supports the first three Meditations discovered by Descartes through his actions of interpreting the world around him. The narrative begins with Cutie questioning the beliefs he is expected to accept. When Powell explains the vast emptiness of space, the Earth, and the observable stars from the station, Cutie fails to comprehend, stating, “But where do I come in Powell, you haven’t explained my existence (Asimov, pg. 8).” From this point on, he begins to doubt the existence of a world beyond the station, as it is the only place where he has verifiable evidence of his own existence. Like any creature capable of reasoning, Cutie desires an explanation for his origins and purpose for existing there. When the QT models were designed with reasoning abilities, I believe their creators overlook the burden of these unanswerable questions that arise when we possess the ability to decipher and comprehend the information we are presented with.

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Throughout history, people have always questioned their existence. Despite being presented with explanations such as the theory of evolution or the story of Adam and Eve, we still have numerous unanswered questions about life that we are expected to simply believe. This is evident in Cutie’s response to Powell’s explanations – he cannot comprehend the idea that he must believe in complex and implausible theories. Instead, he chooses to think for himself and figure things out independently. This echoes Descartes’ approach of disregarding others’ opinions and seeking his own answers. Both Cutie and Descartes start with a blank slate, allowing them to form their own conclusions. After contemplating for two days, Cutie arrives at a peculiar realization similar to Descartes’ – “I exist because I think.” (Asimov, pg. 51)

It is as if he has familiarized himself with Descartes’ statement in the second Mediation, where Descartes expresses that “I am, I exist” is simply a product of its moment of utterance or mental conception (Descartes, pg. 11). Consequently, Cutie’s regard for those who do not share his perspective, such as bosses, begins to diminish. He now adopts the stance of “accepting nothing on authority” as described by Asimov (pg. 51). Similar to Descartes’ treatment of his senses, Cutie no longer allows them to influence his actions and judgments. Notably, Descartes devotes substantial pondering to the topic of God.

Does he exist? What is he like? Descartes eventually concludes that based on the characteristics he observes, it is unlikely that they could have originated solely from himself. Thus, he concludes that God necessarily exists (Descartes, pg. 18). Asimov, on the other hand, never seems to have questioned the existence of a God and quickly reaches the conclusion that there must be a creator who is not Powell and Donovan. Asimov argues that no being can create another being superior to itself, which undermines the notion of a hypostasis. Therefore, Asimov believes that his creator must be the more powerful “Master”, the energy converter (Asimov, pg. 52). These different perspectives align with their respective ideas in the Meditations.

Descartes’ belief in the existence of God is based on his own finite nature. He argues that his limited understanding of the world and his imperfections indicate the existence of an infinite being capable of creating the finite. As Descartes stated, “I should not have the idea of an infantine substance since I am finite if it had not proceeded from some substance which was veritably infinite” (Descartes, pg 20). Both interpretations of God presented here are valid arguments that complement each other.

Ironically, Descartes initially believed that God was a deceiver. He stated, “I shall suppose, not that god…is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful and employed his whole energies in deceiving me (Descartes, pg. 9).” Cutie, on the other hand, does not believe that his “Master” is trying to deceive him, but instead views the “Master” as a deceiver of humans. When Powell mentions the books they have that should undermine Cutie’s argument, Cutie responds, “I certainly don’t consider them a reliable source of information.”

According to Asimov (pg. 61), the master’s creations were intended for the reader, not me. In Mediation three, Descartes employs a metaphor involving the sun to elucidate the notion of there being only one truth. He highlights that while we perceive the sun as a small object in the sky through our senses, its actual scale must be much larger than Earth for us to experience its rays. Two paths of reasoning emerge from this scenario, but one is more easily embraced due to our limited perspective. This mirrors Cutie’s disregard for books that do not align with his own logical framework and resembles the astronomical truth about the sun.

While Cutie remains devoted to his Master, he embraces the idea of the “Masters” plan to deceive humans, which aligns seamlessly with the Meditations. Lacking any other grounds to believe in scientific evidence, he opts for the path that appears more acceptable and develops his own rationale. Descartes’ Meditations leave readers with a peculiar sense of uncertainty due to his skepticism and doubts. Personally, when reading the first Meditation, it forced me to question my own senses and reconsider instances where I believed I had heard or seen something, only to be proven mistaken.

Donovan and I were both struck by something Donovan said while reading Reasons: “Say, Greg, you don’t suppose he’s right about all this, do you? He sounds so confident that I- (Asimov, pg. 62).” Donovan and I both had the same reaction. Cutie and Descartes are so certain in their beliefs that it causes others to question their own. Their dedication to their philosophies is incredible, particularly Cutie’s confidence which astounds Donovan. It’s almost as if Donovan and Powell are the audience witnessing a live production of Descartes’ Meditations. So yes, I firmly believe that Asimov’s story provides support for Descartes’ Meditations through this example.

In my opinion, Asimov’s intention when writing this was to closely align it with “Meditations”. Cutie follows each of the three Meditations as if they were a guidebook, leading him to be seen as the robot embodiment of Descartes, as Powell himself confirmed. This setup is ideal for supporting the Meditations. Additionally, the story’s setting (perhaps unintentionally) references another piece of literature we have discussed—Plato’s “The Republic”. Being on a space station strongly reminds me of Plato’s analogy of the divided line. Cutie finds himself above the Earth, literally outside the realm of our senses and in the realm of forms: space.

Both in space and the intelligible world, reliance on the senses is impossible. Cutie and Descartes both inhabit this realm of understanding, where they surpass the need for senses and acquire knowledge through reasoning. Their utilization of dialectic enables them to exercise their ability to reason. Asimov’s depiction of the Meditations serves as a flawless representation, whether by design or not.


The books mentioned are “Meditations on First Philosophy” by Rene Descartes, published in 1960 by Bobbs-Merrill, and “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, published in 2004 by Bantam.

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