Saturday, December 16, 2006

Machines into Humans?

Tibor R. Machan

There’s been a pretty impressive movement afoot for over a century or even more championing the idea that human beings are but complicated machines, nothing special at all in the world. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) folks tend to hold this view—machines, in time at least, will do whatever people can, maybe even much better than we do it, like thinking, feeling guilt, empathizing, regretting, apologizing, and the whole gamut of stuff many think is unique to human life. No, say the AI folks, it’s just a matter of handling some of the technicalities and then, voila, we will have machines just like us. After all, aren’t machines already doing many of the tasks most if us had once thought only people could do? Sure.

I recall when I first ran across this topic, in a course what was called “Philosophical Psychology,” back at Pamona College, in Claremont, where I took some of my undergraduate philosophy courses—we studied, among others, Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein both of whom addressed aspects of the issue. I even recall one of our tests on which we were asked what Wittgenstein would have said to the idea that machines could think and my answer was, “Wait and see, it isn’t something to know about ahead of time.” My professor was rather impressed with this little part of my test, not much else. But I, too, would have said the same thing—who can tell ahead of time? Although I have doubts that non-living beings could ever come up with all of what people can do.

So I was discussing this with my best friend the other day, we both serious students of philosophy, and he noted that if the AI folks are correct, we should soon have a way to purge ourselves of false beliefs, as well as useless information. We will just take some kind of drug—well, may be a pill with who knows what in it—that will purge our system of falsehoods and trivia, plain and simple, just like today computers have programs that can purge them of unused desktop icons, cookies, and the like. We laughed about this some, since the notion that there could be some mechanical or even chemical way to get rid of false ideas or beliefs seemed absurd. But why? Don't we use drugs to get rid of viruses now?

Well, one reason is that to learn what is true versus false involves elaborate research, reasoning, checking and double-checking, with the ingredient of self-generated, initiated mental concentration, clear focus, keeping one’s attention, and recalling all sorts of information the coordination of which is needed to make sure of what’s what. No mechanical process is sufficient here, not at least when it comes to some of the deeper issues such as religion, politics, ethics, metaphysics, even biology and the rest of the disciplines the findings of which require extensive work of the sort that's unique to human beings, using their higher level thinking, reasoning for which they possess their very complicated brains and minds. To think some machine or mechanism or even chemical agent could accomplish the purging of falsehoods from our minds is to assume there are minds much like ours that will program whatever it is that’s supposed to do this purging business and use it to do the job. But there aren’t. Nothing in the known world does this kind of work other than people. At least not yet. It takes other people—or oneself, if one is really self-ware—to come up with criticisms and discarding of the bad ideas one holds. Sure, some tools can help—like a calculator, but who made those tools? Whoever could would be, well, pretty much people.

Yes, we can fantasize about a falsehood-purging-pill or such—that’s been done since time immemorial. Take all those Disney-like movies, right up close to our own time, in which everything and anything is routinely animated, with all those animated beings doing what we do and more, sometimes. Animals in this imaginary world do philosophy and math and literature, as do desks and chairs and cars and flowers and mountains—the human imagination is very fertile with such remote, counterfactual possibilities. But they are not to be confused with real prospects, not unless there is evidence instead of mere speculation.

So if you are waiting for the pill that will fix all your mistakes, do not hold your breath.

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