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Can A Computer Have A Mind

A new issue has come about since the building of computers. But the idea behind it is not such a new issue, for as long ago as Plato and Aristotle, the idea of a mind was pondered about. With the up-and-coming technology, the idea of artificial intelligence has exploded. It is one that many fiction writers have prospered on. But how far away are they from the truth? Take the story of The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov, written in 1976, when most of the population didn’t know what a computer was capable of. The idea of the unknown scared us, a robot that appeared to be just like us, but it was also intriguing, as demonstrated by the story’s success. What was it that attracted the population to this story? The reasonable answer lies within the question this paper will attempt to answer. That is, Can a computer have a mind?

The answer to this question is an obvious one, but we will examine it anyway, as it needs to be addressed because of all of the popular science-fiction writings. A computer can have a mind, and as you read further into this, you will see that computers are made of the same things we are, they transfer information using the same techniques we do, they are complex enough, and they are aware. This is enough to give them the possibility to posses a mind. Starting with the first part of the definition of mind, one might conceive of a computer that can posses a mind. The Biologist might make an argument against me, stating that only living things can have mind, that it is only those things that are biological, consisting of organic compounds, that may have the potential to posses mind. But I say to the Biologist, what is it that makes up these organic compounds? What is it about these molecules that make them construct themselves into a biological being?

The answer is a simple one to any Chemist, for he knows that organic molecules are made up of elements and these elements are indeed atoms. The Physicist will most definitely agree that these atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These protons, neutrons, and electrons are what make up every atom in the universe; the same three particles come together and form all the materials known to man. The biological systems that produce mind are made up of the same particles as the inorganic computers. Therefore organic and inorganic are just ways of explaining the same thing. Think of a cat, either white or black. But it is still a cat; the same way that organic or inorganic explain matter.

So it is not the fact that computers and humans are made of different things, but in reality, that they are made of the same things that gives the possibility of a computer to have a mind. Examine for a moment if you will, just what is it that causes an image of your first love to appear in a field of wildflowers. We will revisit this image again, but first we will examine the aspects of the brain relating to the physical attributes that some insist make a human mind different and therefore unattainable by a computer. Anything that occurs in the brain requires a firing of synapses. This can be understood by thinking that as you read this, there are millions of neurons firing. But I ask you this, what is a neuron firing? And one will very easily respond back that it is the transferring of electrical impulses, which can also be defined as a motion of electrons from one nerve to another. Electrical impulses, such as the ones of this computer, allow the letters as I have typed them to appear on the screen and then finally be transferred to the paper you are reading.

They are of the same particles that of the biological body as well as in the mechanical body, and they transfer information in the same manner. You see, it is beyond the level of organic chemistry, even deeper than just the elements themselves, but those things that make up the elements, they are what hold the key in comparison and answering this difficult question. These electrons, those things we have in common, could be a basis for giving a computer a mind. Returning to the topic of biology in just a moment, let’s examine John Searle’s argument for believing that computers cannot posses a mind. He claims that the mind is an emerging property from the biological functions of the brain (which we have already proven to not be limited to biological functions), and that the complexity of the brain has lead to the production of a mind.

He uses the image of water and wetness, saying that one molecule of water doesn’t feel wet but many water molecules together become more complex and have this property of wetness or the feeling of wetness (DesAutels lecture 6-14-00). From his point of view in verifying that only biological systems can be complex enough to have mind, this is true. Back to the Biologist, first we must assume that you, the reader, has some understanding of the theory of evolution. Lets assume that humans evolved from a single cell, like that of a single celled bacterium. We know that bacteria do not have brains, but they do have biological functions that might lead one to believe that the bacteria has some sort of mind, but remember that Searle will say bacteria don’t have minds because they lack complex brains. So the bacteria got together – literally, and stayed together after many years of evolution and a slug was formed. Now the slug, a bit more complex than just a single cell, still does not have a brain and therefore it has no mind because in Searle’s terms, it’s not complex enough to allow a mind to emerge from it. So the bacteria got together again and eventually after a few million years, a human is formed. This human has a brain, which entitles it to a mind, and according to Searle, it has this mind because its brain is complex enough, or in his terms, there is enough water to make it wet (DesAutels Lecture 6-14-00). I would now like to ask, did that bacterial cell have a mind, the one we started with? NO. Did the slug have a mind? NO, it too lacked a brain. Do the cells in a human have a mind?

Remember they themselves have no brains, so they can’t have mind, but collected together as a whole they do, and the human is attributed with mind. So the question still remains, Can a computer have a mind? It is made up of parts, like the cells that make up a human, and these parts on their own lack mind (like the cogs in a clock. Just as an aside, the clock that Searle doesn’t believe is complex enough to have a mind is equivocal to the slug in biological terms) (DesAutels Lecture 6-14-00). So we, like the bacteria, go back to the drawing board, in search of another way to obtain mind, complexity. And what we return with is something as complex as a human, a computer. Now who is to argue the complexity here? Searle’s argument falls short because it works both for him, in the case of the clock, and against him as time moves on and computers become more complex, comparable to the biological analogy.

The problem he faces is the more complex a computer may become, the more of an emerging mind it may show. But back to biology for just a moment, humans too are made up of parts, cells, which do not know what they are doing, in the sense they are unaware while a combination of these cells into an entire human, is aware. Using this analogy, it can also be said that the computer components are not aware, in the sense that the cells aren’t aware, but the computer, a collection of parts, (like the human of cells) can be aware. There is a technology that has a learning capacity based on its awareness of a situation. The example we will be looking at here is used in car computers that are “aware” of how the driver drives. If she is a consistent driver, it will set itself to obtain the maximum gas mileage. When a new driver gets behind the wheel of the car and drives very inconsistently in speed, (like), the computer then sets itself to obtain the myself on my way to this class maximum torque (Baker Interview 6-14-00). This technology has a bit of awareness, doesn’t it? Lets now move away from the biology aspect in specific terms and move more towards a problem that has been raised. Return with me if you will, to the image of your first love laying in a filed of wildflowers.

It has been suggested that one cannot program a computer to be entirely like a human in all of its behaviors etc., due to the fact that the storage capacity of a computer is no where near the size it would need to be to store the information needed to be completely human. In other words, a computer cant possibly remember its first love laying in a filed of wildflowers, because computers don’t know what wildflowers are, or what a field is, and they don’t know what a first love is, in the same way we do. They point to the human brain, and take particular notice of the incredible amount of storage space. The brain takes in every second of every day and stores it for later access that can be retrieved when the information is desired or under hypnosis (DesAutels Lecture 6-12-00). How can a computer take in this much information and store it? Although it is true to date that storing this amount of information hasn’t yet been achieved in a computer, it may soon be able to be done. Just look at how far we have come from just ten years ago in the technology industry.

Even in the age of the compact disk, we have already seen the making of a mini disk, a smaller version of a CD that stores just as much information, if not more. It is only a matter of time before information storage will no longer be seen as a limiting factor. I would like to close with some thoughts from Thomas Nagel. He insists that although we can be told what it is like to be something else, we cannot truly know what it is like. He uses the example of a bat, claiming, “that there is something it is like to be that organism” (Nagel 391), but that we will never know what it is like to be a bat. We can be told what it is like, but we will never experience what a bat sees, or what it hears (DesAutels Lecture6-16-00). He calls this subjective experience, and no matter how hard we try to explain what it may be like, even to be ourselves, no one will understand, because it is our own unique point of view (DesAutels Lecture 6-16-00).

The problem with science is that it is objective, you can only learn about it, but you can never truly experience it (DesAutels Lecture 6-16-00). You may be wondering just what this is, consciousness. You have consciousness and you can tell me about it, but I can’t prove that you have consciousness; the same way that we can’t prove a computer has consciousness. But we can’t say that a computer can’t have consciousness, either, because no proof can be provided either way. So we still sit, wondering if a computer can have a mind, most things I have pointed to here would indicate yes, a computer could have a mind. But the truth of it is, as Nagel had claimed, that we would never know. A computer may already have a mind that is unlike our own, so we cannot explain it, and we don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean that the computer can’t have a mind. So yes, I believe that a computer can have a mind, and one-day, we may better understand this.

Baker, Brent, Electronics Engineer and Sales Rep. Interview on 6-14-00.
DesAutels, Peggy Dr. Lecture dates from 6-12-00 through 6-16-00.
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it Like to be a Bat?” A Historical Introduction to Philosophy of Mind.
Peter A. Morton. Orchard Park; Broadview Press, 1997.

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