What exactly do we mean by spirit?


The Spirit Book: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to AI and Aliens

Philippe Ball

Picadorp. 512£20

Given the ingenuity of machine builders, Descartes said in the 17th century, machines might well be built that look exactly like humans. There would always be, however, a “reliable test” to tell them apart. “Even the stupidest man” is equipped by reason to adapt to “all the contingencies of life”, when no machine could ever be made with enough preset “arrangements” to be versatile in convincing way.

But suppose he could? In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test remarkably similar to that of Descartes. A computer and a human are asked questions, each invisible to the questioner, and their respective answers compared. If that of the computer can be mistaken for that of the human, displaying equivalent versatility and apparent spontaneity, then “general educated opinion” would declare without controversy that machines can think and appreciate how well the mind is. machine-like. Turing predicted that this test would be passed “by the end of the century”.

But – what is a spirit? Science writer Philip Ball pursues this question with a series of answers from recent philosophers. He urges us to explore “the space of possible minds,” rather than making the human mind, as pre-Copernican astronomers did, the world, central and unique. We estimate other forms of mentality by how they relate to our own. We deplore Descartes’ belief that animals are mindless machines, but attribute to them feelings and thoughts purely proportional to the extent to which their behavior reminds us of our own. “Spirit can be a multi-faceted quality of which human consciousness is but one variety,” says Ball. Animals, aliens and machines could have other versions. Maybe; but how to discern the spirit?

“For an entity to have a mind, there must be something it is to be that entity,” Ball says, quoting the famous Thomas Nagel “How does it feel to be bald? -mouse?” (1974). But Nagel reminded philosophers that they neglected the subjective character of consciousness, not offering “a definition of mind”. To use the quiddity of consciousness as a criterion of the mind, as Ball does, excludes machines from the outset. It is only verifiable by introspection (yours or the bat’s, for example). Nor are the “internal models of the world” – another “characteristic of the mind” Ball suggests – open to outside observation. And how could any method be used to discern whether matter is imbued with spirit (panpsychism)? Perhaps (Ball quotes Colin McGinn) “we can only ever get to [mind] inside’. It’s pretty defeatist this early in the book.

Doesn’t neuroscience “go inside” more objectively, telling us more and more about mental processes? Ball is at his best when criticizing this popular view. Neural circuits “light up” observably in fMRI scans, he agrees, but unfortunately don’t show accompanying descriptions of what that means in each case. Neuroscientists necessarily rely on the conclusions of the reports of those whose brains are scanned and on systematic comparisons of these.

It seems difficult to do without the Cartesian mind/body, subject/object, inside/outside dichotomy. But is the mind, rather than being any entity, nothing other than what it does (solution of the functionalists)? Spirits must have evolved “to free us from our genes: to allow us actions that are not pre-programmed”, allowing us to adapt, not over eternities but immediately, to new circumstances (which is what the ” free will” – Dennett’s point – and it comes in gradations). Brains “have different ‘mind-forming tendencies'” depending on a creature’s environment. In principle, indeed, brains aren’t even essential to the mind, which is what evolved – think octopuses, birds, ants. Desire, aversion, love, and other “mental states” are simply functional roles played by a creature’s “mental system”, however implemented, under given circumstances. particular.

Ball is wary of the extreme functionalism of AI. Satisfying the Turing test, he complains, is “a mere question of engineering and unrelated to the much deeper question of whether a machine can ‘think’ – that is, show a mind. » ; the criterion for a computer to be considered “intelligent” is “simply [for it] to simulate the appearance of intelligence, not necessarily to produce it”. But he misunderstands the Turing test. “Thinking” and “intelligence” in Turing’s usage (which is now everyone’s) are not simple fault-of-better substitutes, but the real thing. The boundaries of wit have (exactly as Ball advocates) been extended, so that wit terms that once had to be used as metaphors, or placed in quotation marks, are treated as literal. Computers are said to “learn”, “recognize”, “communicate”, “know”. And the minds themselves are said to be some kind of computers.

Ball gives us a pleasant walk through different perspectives on the mind, but seems unaware of how immeasurable these are, or that by expanding the parameters of the mind, we have simultaneously narrowed them. If we are anthropomorphic in the use of the terms mind and agent for computers, we are mechanomorphic in ourselves, making the mind a matter of information processing.

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