Contemporary Questions in Philosophy

"Is your mind something different from your brain, though connected to it, or is it your brain? Are your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and wishes things that happen in addition to all physical processes in your brain, or are they themselves some of those physical processes (Nagel, 28)?" Maybe we are nothing more than biological machine, a chemical-electrical machine with a computer for a brain, although still far more complicated than our current technology can decipher. If we prove that humans can produce a machine that thinks, create, and can outperform us, have we proven we are no more than a type of machine? As a side note, the following discussion is a simple academic essay on one of many topics in contemporary philosophical issues.

FMRI Brain ScanCredit: Dr. O. O’Neil, 14 April 2014

We know that our physical bodies are made up of chemicals responsible for the body structure and bodily functions (being accomplished through chemical-electrical actions and reactions). Still a question remains as to whether the relationship between the body, brain, and mind and how these differ from a machine? Is the mind different from the brain and is the body independent from the body and or the mind? The answer to these questions help lead to conclusions regarding to whether or not people are machines, or there is something particularly unique to people that cannot or does not exist in machines.

People as animals have arguably continually evolved since standing erect on two legs. The human brain has continued to evolve, learn, and reason along the road of the human timeline. I say arguably since anti-Darwinians and those that doubt whether or not we have evolved as a people might want to debate my statement '" however, for the purpose of this paper, please accept the premise as stated. On the other hand, since the development and advancements in computer technology and robotics and the speed of those advancements, theorists present the possibility that someday computerized robots will exist that can perform "rational processes of human beings" (388). When this point is reached will man then still be considered to possess something beyond the machine he creates or will it prove that man is nothing more than a complex machine himself (389)?

Artificial Intelligence and the Robotic MindCredit: Pixabay Images

Christopher Evans describes ten objections proposed by Alan Turing  as to why some people reject the idea of a computer to think.

  • First the "Theological Objection," focusing on the idea that man was created, given a soul and consciousness by God (433). This philosophy follows that man is a spiritual being and machines are not; and as a machine is not a spiritual being, it has no soul and is incapable of thought (433).
  • The second argument, "Shock/Horror Objection" or "Head in the Sand," is simply the abhorrence of the idea of an independently thinking machine (433). This point of view does not have a chain of reasoning to support it: it simply refutes the idea itself.
  • The third argument, "Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) Objection," requires the acceptance of ESP as an attribute to the human brain. If we cannot prove that a computer had this ESP capability then we can deny the computer's capability of thinking at the same level as man (434).
  • The fourth argument, "The Personal Consciousness Objection," places the emphasis on establishing an ability to express thoughts and feel emotions: "Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto" by way of thoughts and the emotions felt, "and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that a machine equals brain -- that is, not only write it but know that it had written it (434)." Professor G. Jefferson's view is that no matter how impressive the product a computer creates, it means nothing unless it is the results of thought and emotion (434).
  • Fifth: The "Unpredictability Objection" argues from the position that computers operate according to a "set of rules" and carefully scripted programs (435); therefore, computers are predictable. Man's mind, on the other hand, is not so restricted and thus is unpredictable. Evans points out that, "It would be possible to build a random element into computers to make them unpredictable from time to time (435)."
  • Sixth: The "See how stupid they are" objection is based on past performance of computers using old technology and assumes continued limits to our technology (435-436).
  • Seventh: The "Ah but it can't do that" objection is what I like to think of as the moving target approach. Sure you made a computer that can do this, but you can't make one that can do that. In other words, if someone says that they can create an independently thinking machine (computer) that can teach your children to read or play a complex game like chess, a critic might come back with a charge that you can't make it climb a rope.
  • Eighth: The "It is not biological" objection infers that only living things can think. The focus is on how current computers handle or manipulate data as opposed to the human brain's manipulation or use of data (436).
  • Ninth: The "Mathematical" objection is the concept that statements can be formulated that cannot be proven or disproved; however, Evans points out, that those same statements apply just as well to humans as to computers (437).
  • And finally the tenth argument is the "Lady Lovelace's" objection. This argument states simply that, "A computer cannot do anything that you have not programmed it to (437)."

All this being said, isn't the human brain really programmed to some extent through the teachings of parents, teachers, society, and the environment in general?

AI MindsCredit: Pixabay images

Evans uses the term "biological computer" when comparing a traditional view of a computer and man. Man's brain or biological computer is born with programming; we begin life with programming that provides for the continuation of bodily functions, our beating heart, breathing lungs, transfer of oxygen, our body's ability to break down food to serve as fuel and all accomplished without our thinking about it; even what we like to call the natural tendencies of man to inquiry, explore, and care for one’s own security and that of others without apparently thinking. Evans refers to these as firmware or raw programming just as we refer to a computer's operating systems program and software. There are those that argue the only proof of a machine's thinking is for the machine to create the best literature, paint the best painting, or write the best musical composition. The fallacy of this argument is obvious. Again, man has to meet the same challenge. Many, if not most men cannot write the best, do the best, or create the best. But what about the argument as to creativity itself hinged on mans' creating something original without prior training or "programming"? Evans meets this argument by describing earlier episodes in history, whereas, computers solved previously unsolved mysteries dealing with mathematics and geometry.

How do we prove or disprove a machine's ability to think? Generally, it doesn't appear that we can find a tangible or unequivocal piece of evidence to rely on for proof. Our evidence seems to rely on our reaction to interactions with others, such as their telling us that they are thinking (though, I've known a few people that I would not accept their word as proof of their thinking). Turing addresses this in a test, whereby we place someone in a room where they must communicate over two terminals not knowing which one is a computer and which one is a person. If they can't tell which one is the machine and which one is the person, then the computer can be credited with the ability to have demonstrated independent thought.

More than a Game

Now I think it's time to re-address that computer-chess issue since it's referred to several times by modern philosophers as necessary for proof that a computer can think. So can ". . . a computer ever beat a human at chess?" The answer is yes. In the spring of 1997, Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov was beaten in consecutive games by a computer named "Deep Blue." Deep Blue shows that technology has come a long way from the poorly created computer chess games of the 1940's and 50's, when because of the inadequacy of the software, chess games were considered possibly too complicated and sophisticated for a machine to handle (433). For David Levy, Chess 4.7 had effectively passed Turing's independent thinking-reasoning test.


Morton Hunt tackles the issue of a thinking computer from a different approach: he doesn't focus on the issue of thinking; instead he focuses on the issue of consciousness. Is a computer cognitive of what it is doing? Will a computer, if not now, ever be conscious of its' own thoughts? Hunt uses a quote by Donald Norman to set up his arguments: "We don't have any programs today that are self-aware or that even begin to approach consciousness such as human beings have. I see this as a critical difference between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. The human mind is aware of itself as an identity, it can introspect, and it can examine its own ideas and react to them -- not just with thoughts about them but with emotions (444)." Our consciousness is the product of "our internalizing the real world in our minds in symbolic forms (445)." This theory proposes that our consciousness is the result of our processing and comparing the real world that we are aware of and the symbolic images in our head. The resulting differences cause consciousness in our minds. This theory as presented does not assume that we are born cognitive. Our consciousness "emerges as a product of the child's mental development (445)." And as to the computer, Hunt argues that it has no sense of experience and history to base its' comparisons.

Self Aware

"Awareness of self is the essences of what being alive means to us (446)." Self-awareness allows us to be conscious of choice (446). People are not automatic, always and only making their choices based on reasoning. This self-awareness impacts our decision making by our incorporating emotions, loyalties, moral values, and our own identity into the outcome (446). Hunt allows for the possibility of a machine to "want" if its' programming is weighted to reflect a prioritization on results that match or near match the preset "want". And yet, he points out how do you get a computer to reflect "motivation" or the lack of motivation? Or, how do you get a computer to be interested in something; could a computer ever pursue its' own interests, motivated by its' own desires? Pursue something that serves no real purpose other than pleasure? These questions represent the cognitive scientist's view as to why people are not machines in the same sense we consider computers (447). Nor, will we see computers develop emotional traits. For Hunt, "until artificial intelligence can duplicate human mental development from birth onward," absorb the intricacies and subtleties of cultural values, acquire consciousness, playfulness, curiosity, create new goals for itself, be motivated by some restless compulsion, be pleased or annoyed, the computer will not match human thinking (449). Hunt has one single standout statement as to "maybe the biggest difference between artificial and human intelligence is just that simply; we care about the things we choose to do (447)."

However, taking all this argument in mind, does this alter the fact that the brain is still a biological thing that functions by chemical-electrical processes and it is "we" that builds the machine and not the other way around? Is the mind the same as the brain or is there something unique between their relationships that elevate them above the "machine" concept? What about of the soul; is it simply the veiled manifestation of our highly sophisticated neural process or another yet to be discovered physical-electrical entity? Well the argument as to a machine lacking a soul can be countered by the opposite argument that no one can prove that the mind or body has a soul (Please don't throw stones; keep in mind that this is an academic argument and not religious debate). At the least we can agree that our physical brain is that "gray matter" encased within our skull (the physical computer case and parts) containing all the chemical and electrical impulses that store information support our mind's (the human software) ability to think, reason, store information, control electrical, chemical exchanges in our brains that further effect physical motions and reactions to stimuli as well as fashion our personalities.


AICredit: Pixabay Images

Proponents of Artificial Intelligence argue that a computer does have the ability to self-examine, recognize, compare, and modify itself accordingly. John McCarthy noted that it is possible to "ascribe beliefs, free will, consciousness and wants to a computer (445)." We can even build a reward system into a computer program. As the computer makes right choices its programming is rewarded with improvements that feed the process. But does this try to infer that the computer becomes pleased with its performance? Hunt doesn't accept these attributes being assigned to a machine. And for Hunt, "awareness" is a key to consciousness.

Final Words 

We can summarize Hunt's and Evans' arguments against the idea that our minds are machines through the following: Hunt's primary position against the notion is the issue that a machine does not display or have consciousness and emotions; while Hunt, however, never clearly defines what is meant by "consciousness," assuming that he meant what can also be said to be "self-aware." Evans also provides and refutes several arguments against the idea of a machines ability to emulate the human mind, although he recognizes the potential of technological advancement; our ability to create a brain, mind, or conscious may be simply a matter of the availability of technology sophisticated enough to emulate or duplicate the trillions of parts and actions of our brain.

Many people, however, don't want to see the mind relegated down to a matter of complex electrical, chemical, mechanical actions; there is the strong desire to keep the mind a separate issue from science. Maybe the question should not be, "Are people machines?" but rather "Are machines becoming people?"


(1) Referencing Christopher Evans's, The Micro Millennium, 1979

(2) Alan Mathison Turing , (1912 '" 1954), an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist; influential in the development of computer science; formalization of the concepts of "algorithm" and "computation" with the Turing machine, which played a significant role in the creation of the modern computer.

(3) Professor G. Jefferson (medical scientist), referred to this "Personal Consciousness Objection" in his writings entitled "The Mind of Mechanical Man" expressed on the Lister Oration in the British Medical Journal in 1949.

(4) In 1978 a chess match was played between the International Chess Master David Levy and Northwestern University's Chess 4.7. Levy was amazed at the uncanny moves the computer mad during the match and people without prior knowledge of the moves made during the game could not clearly determine what moves were made by Levy versus those made by Chess 4.7.

(5) Morten Hunt, well known author published many books on social issues.

(6) Dr. David A. Norman is currently the executive director of the Trinity Forum Academy, a highly selective nine-month residential post-graduate program in applied philosophical theology located on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology from the University of Edinburgh.

(7) John McCarthy and Pamela McCorduck's arguments in agreement on the potential of artificial intelligence and a machines ability for independent thought.

Our organic computer brains?

FMRI Brain Scan

FMRI Brain Scan
Credit: Dr. O. O’Neil, 14 April 2014