Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Minds, Machines and Meaning

What can the mind do that a machine cannot?

Mind and Meaning
A working definition of mind is 'that which assigns meaning' So how do computers deal with assigning meaning?

Well in fact they don't - they do quite the opposite...

I'm sick and tired of this machine
I wish that they would sell it
It never does do what I mean
But only what I tell it!
- Programmer's Lament

Computers are not only incapable of understanding meaning, but they actually strip all meaning out of anything fed into them. All those well-written programs with their informative and explanatory names go through a compiler which removes all meaning.

The loss of meaning

When I was a lad I was always taught to write understandable program code, for example.

If Tank3Level = Hi and Tank4Level = Lo then Call AdjustTankLevel

But understandable for whom? For other programmers? For myself in six months time? For the code inspectors?

Certainly not for the computer, because the computer has to strip out all meaning from its instructions before it can execute them. The computer turns all its variables and subroutine names into arbitrarily numbered addresses. So the instruction

If Three = 1 and Four = 0 then Call TheFunnyFarm

...nonsensical though it may appear, would have worked just as well, and been accepted by the compiler because all that appears to the computer operating system is a linear series of boxes and an instruction such as

If there is 1 in Box3 and 0 in Box4 go and carry out the procedure which starts at Box 600

This critique of the possibility of machine intelligence has been further developed by John Searle in the famous Chinese Room Argument, which claims to demonstrate that a computer cannot understand what it is doing or why.

So procedure and structure, no matter how programmed, or as implemented on any sort of physical machine, are inadequate to describe the capabilities of human mental processes. (See computationalism).

This limitation will not be solved by hardware improvements.
No matter how many terabytes, gigaflops, neural nets or iterations of Moore's law we throw at the problem of producing artificial intelligence, the difficulties will remain insurmountable as long as the hardware is only capable of dealing with truth values which can be treated as binary or numeric, and as long as compilers strip out all meaning from the source code in order to produce machine code. But what other computer architecture is there?

Mind and Machine
The Turing Machine provides one of the most easily understood refutations of materialism, physicalism and the mechanistic model of the mind.  Turing believed that "When the body dies the 'mechanism' of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately."

The argument is as follows:

- The behavior of all machines, computers and physical systems is reducible without remainder to the operations of a Turing machine.

- The behavior of the mind shows at least two functions - 'aboutness' (intentionality)  and qualitative experience (qualia) - that cannot in principle be reduced to the operations of a Turing machine.

- Therefore, there are some aspects of the mind that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

See Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine for a full explanation.

- Sean Robsville


Rational Buddhism

Buddhism versus Materialism

Objections to Computationalism and Arguments Against Machine Intelligence

Non-algorithmic phenomena

Qualia - Objective versus Subjective Experience

Reductionism and Buddhist Philosophy

Consciousness and mind are not emergent phenomena

Meaning and Mind




Anonymous said...

Well, if you're a Marxist, The alternate computer architecture is something like, "All undesirables who agree with this man will immediately report to Shower Room 7 for detox". Unless of course, you're in a tiny, third world South American dictatorship, where the program is changed to "All dissidents will load onto the army trucks to take a pleasant ride into the countryside..."

Sincerely Yours,


Anonymous said...

1. What if the mind is an 'Emergent' phenomenon?
The 'Chinese room argument' can also be applied to individual nerve connections. A neuron in a Chinese persons brain cannot understand the meaning of Chinese either.

2. If we agree that the mind occurs independently, what's so special of biological human brains that these minds seem so intent of attaching themselves.
Why would it not possible that in the case of my death my mind does not attach to a computer?

seanrobsville said...

@ Anon 4th Jan

1) The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest. See

2) For mental processes to interact with physical processes may require a quantum-level interface, whereby mental attention is capable of producing physical effects, as in the quantum Zeno effect:

Computers, with their discrete binary energy states, are incapable of providing such an interface.