Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Turing Test and the Chinese Room

Materialists have a difficult time fitting human consciousness into their worldview, because consciousness is a phenomenon which defies material explanation.

How does it happen that mere matter can produce qualia (e.g. the sensation of red or the taste of sweet)? How does matter produce a belief, a value, a doubt, gratitude, regret, or disappointment? How does material substance produce forgiveness, resentment, or wishes, hopes, and desires? How does it appreciate (e.g. beauty, music, or a book). How does it want, worry, have intentions, or understand something? How does matter come to be aware of itself and its surroundings? These are vexing questions for a materialist view of the world, yet some materialist philosophers remain unmoved by them.

Someday, they believe, computers will be able to do all that human minds can do and then we'll have a denotative example of how matter can produce the phenomena of consciousness. Indeed 57 years ago Alan Turing suggested a test for consciousness in a machine. In the Turing test, an investigator would interact with both a person and a machine, but would be blindfolded so that he did not know ahead of time which was which. If, after interacting with both of them, the investigator still couldn't tell which was the person and which was the machine, it would be reasonable to conclude that the machine, for all intents and purposes, was just as "conscious" as the person.

Proponents of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are confident that the day when the Turing test can actually be carried out is not far off, but many other philosophers are skeptical. Just because a computer can give the same answers to various questions as a person would doesn't mean that the computer experiences what the person experiences.

Philosopher John Searle illustrates the problem that AI faces with a thought experiment he published in 1980 that he calls "the Chinese Room:"

Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the book the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.

Searle goes on to say, "The point of the argument is this: if the man in the room does not understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the appropriate program for understanding Chinese then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis because no computer, qua computer, has anything the man does not have."

In other words, human minds understand, they feel and experience, computers do not. Minds, whatever they are, are conscious. Machines are not.

So the big questions are, what exactly is consciousness and where did it come from? The materialist answer is simply to deny that consciousness exists. That seems a little counter-intuitive.


Summer in the City

Journalist Michael Totten tells us what it's like being in Iraq in the summer. It sounds oppressive, but one of the points he makes in a somewhat incidental fashion drew my attention:

After having spent several days Baghdad's Green Zone and Red Zone, I still haven't heard or seen any explosions. It's a peculiar war. It is almost a not-war. Last July's war in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon was hundreds of times more violent and terrifying than this one. Explosions on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border were constant when I was there.

You'd think explosions and gunfire define Iraq if you look at this country from far away on the news. They do not. The media is a total distortion machine. Certain areas are still extremely violent, but the country as a whole is defined by heat, not war, at least in the summer. It is Iraq's most singular characteristic. I dread going outside because it's hot, not because I'm afraid I will get hurt...

...Baghdad is gigantic and sprawling. It looks much less ramshackle from the air than I expected. Individual cities-within-a-city are home to millions of people all by themselves. The sheer enormity of the place puts the almost daily car bomb attacks into perspective. The odds that you personally will be anywhere near the next car bomb or IED are microscopic.

It doesn't sound nearly as chaotic in Baghdad as Harry Reid and the other cut and runners in Congress make it out to be, does it? By September it may very well seem even less so. Will the Democrats still be calling for withdrawal if it looks like we're winning? We'll learn much about their character if and when this question is answered.


Hate Speech

Some Hispanic spokespersons are pulling out one of the favorite plays in the leftist playbook: Smear those who disagree with you with the label "haters." Don't worry about evidence, the allegation itself carries all the power. Trying to build a case for the smear only weakens its force since evidence is almost always lacking anyway. Just call the opposition "haters" and the uncritical masses will swarm to your side.

The tactic is blatant demagoguery, but when evidence is not on your side, when reason is not on your side, demagoguery is often all you have and it often works:

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - The nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group says it must come up with a strategy to combat "a wave of hate" its leaders say came from talk radio's efforts to sink the Senate's immigration bill.

"That had an extraordinary impact in the Senate, and as a nation, I don't think we should be comfortable with the fact that the United States Senate responded to what was largely a wave of hate," Cecilia Munoz, the National Council of La Raza's senior vice president for research, advocacy and legislation, told The Washington Times after meeting with NCLR affiliates to talk about a new strategy.

According to Ms. Munoz, it's "hatred" to want to control our borders, to limit who can come in, and to believe that we cannot afford to subsidize millions of poor immigrants. It's hatred to want the United States to be able to assimilate its immigrants and not to be a dumping ground for corrupt, dysfunctional states like Mexico. Ms Munoz's rhetoric is either dishonest or stupid.

I have a couple of questions for Ms Munoz and for anyone who agrees with her that opposing open borders is an act of hate. Is it hate that causes people, including probably Ms Munoz, to lock the doors to their homes or to build a fence around their property? Is it a sign of hate that people live in gated communities in retirement villages? Is it a sign of hate that people want to control who wanders into their home to avail themselves of kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom? If an indigent family in Miami were to walk into Ms Munoz home, raid the refrigerator, refuse to leave, and demand that she allow their relatives to join them, and demand that she pay their education, food and medical bills, would she call the police? Would it be "hate" if she did?

I doubt that many people would see any of this as a sign of hate, but our country is our home writ large. Just as we have a right, indeed a duty, to exercise control over who comes into our home we have a right and a duty to exercise control over who comes into our country. For Ms Munoz to claim that those who call upon Congress to effecetively exercise that right are engaging in hate talk is frivolous and asinine.