Philosophy Corner: Trapped in a Chinese Room with Alan Turing

A reader writes and asks:

Do you think that the biggest barrier to building artificial intelligence is that we’ll never be able to build a computer program that can dynamically realize final causes?

Do you think this would actually be impossible?

If it would remain impossible, would this then equal proof that humans have souls?

(feel free to use this for a blog post)

Thanks, I will.

Before answering the question, ” Do you think that the biggest barrier to building artificial intelligence is that we’ll never be able to build a computer program that can dynamically realize final causes? ” surely we should answer the question, “Can anyone build a computer program that can realize anything?”

A computer program is not a thing, it is a set of instructions telling a person how to push buttons to push electrons to push one group of material things that have no innate meaning from one shape into another shape, also which has no innate meaning.

A second person, looking at the shape with the help of an instrument called a monitor screen will ascribe or attribute to it some anthropomorphic meaning to it, or, if he is wise, to the joint actions of the programmers and builders.

The concept “realize” has meaning only in the context of living and self-aware beings, that is, being which have a point of view of their own. Computers and instructions given to people who manipulate the parts of a computer do not have life, do not have awareness, do not have a viewpoint.

Now, keep in mind, we humans talk in manlike metaphors all the time. We say the Law, for example, makes no excuses for whoso does not know the law; or the that Constitution is no respecter of persons; or that the Stock Market is nervous, or that a book is ambitious, or a movie is sad. We are attributing to the symbol-carrying objects the mood and judgments of the persons using that object to carry their symbols.

But no one takes such things seriously, not do with think inanimate objects actually, from their own point of view, suffer the thoughts that the symbols marked on them represent. The inability to tell analogies from reality is insanity.

Now, I do not foresee any big barrier to giving birth to an artificial intelligence. All we have to do is do what nature does in the womb without understanding how it is done, and voila, a baby will be born. If it is a baby made of metal or something, what does that matter?

I do not foresee any big barrier to creating an artificial intelligence ex nihilo. How, praytell, would we accomplish this? We cannot look to see the exact process by which nature turns inanimate matter into living souls. Since we have never seen this process, and, indeed, honest scientists admit that there is not one scintilla of evidence to support the idea that inanimate matter can turn into living souls, this forms a barrier to the creation of articifical life from non-life.

What about creating a thinking being from his thoughts, or, specifically, from the matter on which marks are made to represent thoughts symbolically to outside observers that speak the language marked down? This is basically the method suggested by creating intelligence by programming a computer. Programming is making marks with electrons rather than ink, but an ink mark is not alive and does not mean anything to itself; no more does an electron in a computer.

The method of making a thinker by manipulating objects on which symbols are marked it is wagging the dog by the tail.

We know that there is exactly one creature in the universe we can see with our eyes who reasons and thinks: Man. We do not know how, why, wherefore, or by what process this is done. We do not know if thought arises by a natural process, or even if it is done by any process natural or supernatural.

A machine that goes through a mechanical process  nothing like thinking in the least, even if we somehow made it able to go through the thinking process step by forced step, would not from that effect somehow develop the cause of having a mind and will and desires that made it able and willing to think.

Here is why I call the mechanical process nothing like thinking:

We have machines that are something like clockworks into which we can stick something like playing cards. We can write words  on the playing cards that mean something to us and not to the machines, and we can arrange the gears so that when we turn the crack, the machine will drop a card in the hopper with something written on it.

By being very careful about what they write on the cards, we can make the machines drop cards in the hopper so that what seems to be an answer on the second card will have some sort of logical relation to what is written on the first card. We can write “WHAT IS TWICE TWO?” on one card, turn the crank, and if we put the card that says “FOUR” in the right slot in the cogwheel, then this card and no other will drop into the hopper.

Alan Turing, who, being a radical empiricist is easy to fool about such things, will claim that the clockwork is doing the thinking and reasoning, and will, from this claim, make the argument that the man who wrote the cards, when he thought about the answer to write, selected to write a correct rather than an incorrect answer by a process indistinguishable from the clockword shuffling cards.

Now, that only problem is that only a drooling  idiot, or Alan Turing, would be fooled by the clockwork. It is not thinking; it is not reasoning; it is not even moving except when someone turns the crank. The only thing written on the cards are symbols invented by humans that have meaning only for humans, who are the only creatures able to invent meanings or grasp symbols as symbols. If you shuffle out the card that says “FOUR” and instead write “KISS ME” then Alan Turing, turning the crank on the clockwork, will insert the card saying “WHAT IS TWICE TWO?” and the answer will come back “KISS ME” — whereupon, being a radical empiricist, he will conclude that the clockwork is alive, capable of reproduction, exicited by a sexual impulse, yearns for his kisses, and no doubt is able to see the poetical metaphor between the multiplication of numbers and the multiplication of the race: he will then marry the clockwork — or he would, if he actually and honestly could not tell the difference between a man who thinks thoughts and a machine that carries objects, which mean nothing to it, holding symbols, which have meaning only to the human makers and the human users of the machine.

Your question assumes that any object, such as a book, or a pair of dice with words and numbers written on their faces, or a computer, which carries symbols, is somehow the same as a man who invents, uses, and understands symbols. You might as well ask me when Billboards will evolve to the point when they will be ashamed of tasteless ads. The billboard is just a rectangle of wood. It does not think. It is not alive. It is not about to develop anything. If the billboard owner decides to post only tasteful ads, that is the decision of a man, not of a billboard.

It is impossible, even in theory, to take inanimate objects that have symbols written on them and, by the process of beliving in fairies and clapping really, really hard, make the inanimate objects have the animate non-physical property of a mind that invents and writes the symbols. You cannot crawl backward up the pen from the ink-mark on the page and make the letter create the brain of the penman who wrote it. Cause and effect does not work backward.

So, yes, not only do I think it impossible to build non-material thoughts out of material objects carrying marks on them that thinking beings define as symbolic marks, I also think it is impossible to build the non-material cause of thoughts out of non-material thoughts.

I have made up many characters in my career, and invented the thoughts they would think and the words they would say, were they alive; and while they come alive on the page, they do not come alive in real life. If I, who write the books beneath my hand that I write, cannot breath life through the thoughts I think to make a maker-of-thoughts, how much more futile and vain would it be to take my book, and the letters in my book, and attempt, by inscribing those letters on the teeth of a clockwork or imprinting them into electron shapes in a computer, to produce that maker?

If you find a dead and poisoned dog lying in a pool of its own poop, shoving the poop up its anus will not set in motion the reverse process that poisoned it, set the digestion to working in reverse, collect the nutriments out of the dead cells, set the blood flowing and heart beating and brain working, and breathe a living soul into the dog in time to have it vomit out the poison. The process does not work backward. Likewise, the thinker has the power to make think thoughts, and the thoughts have the power to invent and understand symbols, and inscribe those symbols on physical objects like in on paper or electrons in transistors. But the electrons and the ink do not have the power to made understanding come into being, and understanding does not have the power to make thoughts come into being, and thoughts do not have the power to make the thinker come into being.

And no, it would not prove anything one way or another about souls.

* * *

Second question from a different reader:

“Dear Mister Wright, is it true that you have an unhealthy obsession with Catwoman? If not, why do you post entirely gratuitous pictures of Catwoman in your articles? I think it is odd that fanboys would have such obsessions. It demeans the otherwise noble genre of science fiction to throw such cheesecake into otherwise serious literature and visual arts. Yours, Slave Princess Leia in a Metal Bikini .”

Your Highness, all I can say is that the accusation is utterly, totally, and in every other way, um, sort of analogous to something that would not be entirely true if circumstances were different.  And to prove it, I will post an entire gratuitous picture of the Baroness from GI JOE.  See? She is a Cobra villainess. Catwoman is DC. They have nothing in common.


The Baroness

( If you are wondering why I am using a cosplay photo rather than a still from the recent movie, I regret to report that the movie was about some international group of armed men based in Brussels, and they were not GI’s and they were not GI JOE’s, so, nuts to you, Hollywood freaks, for trampling yet one more of my pathetic yet precious boyhood icons. )