What is a mind?


Monday 3rd March 2014

One of the surprises of this enquiry was that the majority of participants agreed that mind was grounded in the physical brain: no brain; no mind.

This not only allowed us to bypass discussions of substance dualism (Descartes’ idea that mind and body are separate entities), but also exemplified Alan Turing’s hope that by the end of the twentieth century, we’d be…

Well, the group of KEHS Sixth Form Phil Soc students is only a small sample size (about 15!), so we shouldn’t get carried away!

Nevertheless, here was the next surprise.  While students accepted that mental states or thought was a function of neurons firing in the brain and that this process could be replicated in machines through complex electronic circuitry, there seemed to be a problem with accepting that machines could actually feel.

So we discussed the Chinese room thought experiment, which is often adduced to dismiss the argument that machines can think: all they do, like the non-Chinese person in the locked room, is shuffle symbols according to a set of rules; machines don’t understand the symbols, much like the non-Chinese speaking person doesn’t understand Chinese.  In fact, the argument goes, a machine, unlike the non-Chinese person in the room, could never understand anything, because it’s made of the wrong stuff.

Now, one important starting point for the discussion was that students agreed that ‘mind’ is defined not by the stuff of which it’s made, but by the things that it does.  A fruitful starting point.  So reasoning, imagining, arguing and all those jobs that you do when you think constitute a mind or mental activity.  And yet people generally thought that the there was a key difference between a human and machine mind: machines cannot feel the things they think.

Really?  What assumption about emotion underlies this belief?

In the last post on emotion, one implication of the belief that emotions are built into our bodies is, of course, that machines don’t (and can’t) have emotions; emotions are the sole monopoly of most mammalian species.

Isn’t there a bias here?  Are we saying now that a machine can’t feel because it’s made of the wrong stuff?  Surely this contradicts the already acknowledged view that minds aren’t defined by the material of which they’re made?

We know that minds can process data so quickly that thinking becomes intuitive.  Machines can process data even more quickly than human minds.  Would we deny them intuition too?

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