Surfing the internet last night I ran across Why Minds Are Not Like Computers, a very interesting 2009 article by Ari N. Schulman in The New Atlantis.
Schulman describes the way computers work by running algorithms, and he explores the question of whether the human mind can be reduced to similar computational terms. Of course, most materialists are philosophically committed to a positive answer to that question, and Schulman quotes Rodney Brooks from his 2002 book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, where Brooks asserts that “the body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according to a set of specifiable rules,” and hence that “we, all of us, overanthropomorphize humans, who are after all mere machines.”
Has Brooks’ assertion been demonstrated or is it merely assumed on the basis of his philosophical prejudices? Schulman gives good reasons for concluding the latter is the case. It is a great article and I recommend that you follow the link. Here’s a taste:
The game, now popularly known as the Turing Test, is above all a statement of epistemological limitation—an admission of the impossibility of knowing with certainty that any other being is thinking, and an acknowledgement that conversation is one of the most important ways to assess a person’s intelligence. Thus Turing said that a computer that passes the test would be regarded as thinking, not that it actually is thinking, or that passing the test constitutes thinking. In fact, Turing specified at the outset that he devised the test because the “question ‛Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” But it is precisely this claim—that passing the Turing Test constitutes thinking—that has become not just a primary standard of success for artificial intelligence research, but a philosophical precept of the project itself. . . .
Suppose that the mind is in fact a computer program. Would it then be possible to conclude that what’s inside the mind is irrelevant, as is supposed by some interpretations of the Turing Test? If we have some computer program whose behavior can be completely described as if it were a black box, such a description does not mean that the box is empty, so to speak. The program must still contain some internal structures and properties. They may not be necessary for understanding the program’s external behavior, but they still exist. So even if we possessed a correct account of human mental processes in purely input-output terms (which we do not), such an external description by definition could not describe first-person experience. The Turing Test is not a definition of thinking, but an admission of ignorance—an admission that it is impossible to ever empirically verify the consciousness of any being but yourself. It is only ever possible to gain some level of confidence that another being is thinking or intelligent. So we are stuck measuring correlates of thinking and intelligence, and the Turing Test provides a standard for measuring one type of correlate. . . .
AI proponents understand that communication is possibly the most important way of demonstrating intelligence, but by denying the importance of each agent’s internal comprehension, they ironically deny that any real meaning is conveyed through communication, thus ridding it of any connection to intelligence. While AI partisans continue to argue that the existence of thinking and social interaction in programs is ¬demonstrated by their mimicry of observed human input-output behavior, they have merely shifted the burden of proof from the first-person experience of the programs themselves to the first-person experiences of the people who interact with them. So although behaviorists and functionalists have long sought to render irrelevant the truth of Descartes’ cogito, the canonization of the Turing Test has merely transformed I think therefore I am into I think you think therefore you are.