Sunday, January 29, 2006


D. R. Khashaba

Soon the term ‘personal’ in the expression ‘personal computer’ may become ambiguous. So far it has had the same meaning as in 'my personal agenda' or 'my personal locker'. But soon it may also have the same meaning as in 'Christians believe in a personal God'. Computers are threatening to become persons. Is that possible? What would be the philosophical implications? In what follows I do not seek to provide answers to these questions but to offer some thoughts that may help us think somewhat less confusedly when considering such questions.
Computers, as we have them today, may be said to be instruments of thought. Perhaps most people would accept this statement without demur. I mean by this that computers are aids to and extensions of our thinking in the same way as a screw-driver is an extension of my hand. The screw-driver cannot turn the screw; my hand alone cannot; supplemented by the screw-driver it can. But are computers thinking instruments? Are they likely to become at any future time instruments capable of autonomous thought?
In an interview with Jeremy Webb published in the NEW SCIENTIST, 19 August 2000, Igor Aleksander, author of How to Build a Mind (Wedenfeld & Nicholson), says, "When they don't understand something engineers try to build it. But there is an intended frisson in that you might expect to be able to build a brain, but not a mind, whereas I'm arguing that a mind is an emergent property of brains one might build." [My quotations are from the electronic version of the interview for which I am indebted to the PhilosophyNews website.]
There are two issues here. (1) If we make a mind, by putting bits and pieces together, does that mean we understand what a mind is? (2) If we make a thinking computer, a computer with a mind, we may perhaps reasonably speak of that mind as an emergent property of the man-made brain, but what should we then understand by that? I believe that there we stand in danger of putting a perniciously wrong interpretation on our statement. (As these two problems substantially overlap and intertwine, I have not, in what follows, tried to package them out neatly.)
Scientists are happy to say they understand something when they know how it works or, better still, how to make it work. That may be one legitimate use of the word 'understand', but there is another sense of the word, a deeper one: I do not understand a gesture of love, a kind word, a smile, by analyzing it, but by feeling it. Maybe we can reduce a smile to chemical, neural, etc., analyses. But we lose much if we stop at that, thinking that we have fathomed the mystery.
The fundamental error of naturalism (materialism) is that it seeks to – and believes that it can – explain the realities of immediate experience in terms of objective actualities, which are the staple food of the 'exact' sciences. We are in danger of believing ourselves, becoming confirmed reductionists, and being blinded for ever to the mystery, which is all the reality. We would then be things, clever things, living among things, but would no longer be persons. That would be the end of all poetry and genuine art.
A man-made brain that can think and act autonomously would not provide an argument for reductionism. A laboratory-made organism does not prove that life is nothing but a combination of chemical elements. A poem is a collection of words but its reality is not reducible to the words that constitute its body. Emergence must be understood in the light of the principle of creativity, that all process is creative and engenders a reality that is not reducible to the material out of which it developed.
We should not speak of 'the mind and the brain'. Rather, in the same way as Spinoza spoke of 'God-or-Nature' we should speak of 'the-mind-or-the-brain' as one whole inseparable reality. The physiological brain is not the mind. It is only the brain-in-action and in unison with the whole body that is mind. That is the element of truth in the theory of the identity of mind and brain, but when the identity is taken in a reductionist sense, when we say that the mind is nothing but the brain, we lose sight of reality. We also err if we think of the mind and the brain as two entities rather than two concepts.
The distinction of mind and brain, like all ideal distinctions, is a fiction, necessary for theoretical thinking, which, if taken as final, breeds error. Either concept taken alone is a mere abstraction; either taken separately for the whole involves falsehood.
In the New Scientist interview, Aleksander says of his Magnus, "It learns what [various objects] look like. It has an internal depiction of what these things look like so when I say cup, it would visualise internally a cup. … It produces images on a screen. And these images tell us if it's imagining properly or not." When I tell a computer to 'imagine' something and it produces the required image, that shows that it has the capacity to put together various elements to produce an image, and there is nothing to prevent us calling that imagining, but that does not tell us that the computer has subjectivity. I am not arguing against the possibility that at some point computers may attain subjectivity. My point here simply is that when we use a word like 'imagine' we should be clear as to what exactly we are speaking of.
To mimic purposive action proves nothing, shows nothing. The mystery is in initiating the action, in the will, which is a creative act. Likewise instinctive action in animals or insects proves nothing. We do not know what goes on in a bee's head, or in God's head when directing the bee, but I know what goes on in my head, and that is what no reductionist analysis can explain. Subjective experience, the mind in action, creative intelligence, is the one reality we know immediately.
So, if and when (and it may well be more a question of when than if) we make a computer that is completely autonomous, we will not thereby have usurped the throne of God. We will only have prodded 'God or Nature' (to resort once more to Spinoza's seminal phrase) to make anew, in a shorter time, what It had made before more leisurely. But if the new Phronetes, or whatever its parents may christen it, is completely predictable in its doings, then we will not have really made anything new. It will still be a machine. Only if it is capable of creativity can we say that we have induced God to give us a new sister or brother, not essentially different from one who may any day come to visit us from some nearby or far away solar system.


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