Comfort from not understanding?

I came across an anecdote including a quotation attributed to Alan Turing from 1949. Ruminating on the potentials of a computational machine, Turing purportedly stated, “I suppose, when it gets to that stage, we shan’t know how it does it.”

Let us assume Turing refers to the potential time when a machine begins to think–to orient, to imagine, to willfully choose, to cogitate–for itself. Clearly, the term ‘think,’ that I have offered my own synonyms for, needs explication. Whether it means something more than ‘following a pattern’–the capabilities of millions of current machines–is not certain. It is the possibility that the machine could get to this level–the level of deciding of its own accord/volition–that draws my attention. Once the machine achieves that which children and adults fall out of bed able to do, it will have passed some chimeric border that is, from what I can tell, not too different from the one separating my own thoughts and ideas from those of everyone else.

Impressively, the machine will have reached a level of complexity that appears tantamount to thought: something indecipherable and inexplicable. Descartes seemed to define the mind by that which it is not: physical extension. If it is not extendable in space, it becomes mind. That seems the only consequence of his dualistic system.

My parsing of Descartes is poor, and I do not intend it to stand in for the wonderful, detailed, and rich exegeses you can find elsewhere. However, Turing’s move, quoted above, points to a similar negative definition: once a machine reaches some sort of consciousness (and I do not claim Turing meant just that), we will not be able to explain it. If we cannot explain it, we cannot well understand it. Has our understanding of how the human mind works progressed much further?

Should we interpret Turing’s (supposed) line above as a kind of pretext, a way to maneuver around the tricky issue of consciousness? I think of David Toomey’s Weird Life book where he notes that biologists are fundamentally blinded to the possibility of life that does not resemble something found on Earth. It could be right on planets and moons in our solar system, but how would we know? We have in our minds that life resembles ______ or has ________ characteristics. And if it does not, then it is not life. That seems a weak distinction based on our own cognitive limitations.


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