Brains and typewriters

Aristotle was not aware of any mind/body problem. He understood that all (well, almost all) of the things we do with our minds are capacities of the human body. “Thinking is something a human does” – what is especially problematic about that claim? It only became problematic when Descartes stripped matter of any capacities that went beyond what clay can do: to wit, keep its shape and get shoved around. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine clay thinking, so Descartes was compelled to postulate a non-clay substance – a mind – which is, by definition, a non-clay thing with the capacity to think. The resulting problem was to try to put the special non-clay thing into causal interaction with the clay. Thus the mind/body problem, or the non-clay/clay problem.


A view from the CRIHS.

But capacities are a better way to go. We ordinarily attribute capacities to all kinds of things without generating philosophical problems. A typewriter, for example, has the capacity to produce typewritten documents, from scrolls of gibberish to existential plays (or, at times, both at once). In order to actualize that capacity, there has to be paper in the platen, a well-inked ribbon in place, and some sort of fingered being at the helm. But more than that: in order for any of this to come about, there has to be a culture with a language in place (even for the gibberish to count as “gibberish”); there has to have been a level of technology to permit the production of both paper and typewriters; there then has to have been all the things required for such culture and technology. The point is that “capacity” does not name some magical feature that is inherent to a thing; it is a kind of abbreviation for a complicated network of items, forces, and active beings, past and present. Because a typewriter is located in that network, it has that capacity. If, through some quantum mechanical accident, a typewriter were to suddenly appear in the empty stretches of the universe, it would then lose the capacity to produce typewritten documents, except in a counterfactual sense that restores the required network: “If the typewriter were to drift to a planet populated by trees and monkeys and paper, it would have the capacity to ….”

Similarly, there is no magic feature inherent in the brain endowing it with the capacity to think. The brain, like the typewriter, resides within a vast social and historical network, and that complicated network – together with the brain’s own structural features (for they are not nothing!) – results in the brain’s capacity to think. Admittedly, it’s much harder to see what goes on here than it is in the case of the typewriter, but the point is essentially the same: capacities are not localized features, but – well – capacities to interact with other items and forces in complex environments. If the appeal to capacities is thought to embroil us in some sort of intolerable dualism, then we are similarly embroiled when it comes to our philosophical understanding of typewriters, tractors, pencil sharpeners, and gramophones: items which do not typically engender metaphysical wonder.

If this is right, then the AI people need to expand the scope of their inquiry to include a lot more social science and interpersonal psychology and communication studies, if they want to explore a machine’s capacity to think. Or, if they care more about establishing the actual fact of it than about understanding the fact, they can just do what Google, Apple, and Microsoft are already doing, and continue to integrate machine-type intelligences into our complex social network in ever-interesting ways, and wait for the capacity to emerge on its own. This is the central conceit of the character Nathan in the film Ex Machina: he grasps that the data compiled from people using search engines from all over the world itself presents the best model of human intelligence. The insight is only sketched of course, but he’s on target in thinking of intelligence as arising from broader relationships rather than as residing within some special lobe.

The one place where Aristotle did have some trouble in connecting the mind to the human body was in our grasp of the most abstract truths. We have the capacity, he believed, to engage in speculative inquiry whose objects are far more precise and universal than anything we meet on a daily basis. When we engage in the purest philosophy, we are in communication with a different sort of network – the network of the ideas of God, more or less – and our capacity is no longer limited by our earthly ties. This is where some sort of dualism needs to make an appearance it seems, if not between body and spirit then at least between the temporal and the eternal. In this respect, according to Aristotle, we might be qualitatively different from typewriters.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Metaphysical musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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