Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Do computers calculate? follow rules?

“Computers cannot correctly be described as following rules any more than planets can be correctly described as complying with laws. [….] Computers were not built to ‘engage in rule-governed manipulation of symbols,’ they were built to produce results that well coincide with rule-governed, correct manipulation of symbols. For computers can no more follow a rule than a mechanical calculator can. A machine can execute operations that accord with a rule, provided all the causal links built into it function as designed and assuming that the design ensures the generation of a regularity in accordance with the chosen rule or rules. But for something to constitute following a rule, the mere production of regularity in accordance with a rule is not sufficient. A being can be said to following a rule only in the context of a complex practice invoking actual and potential activities of justifying, noticing mistakes, and correcting them by reference to the rule, criticizing deviations from the rule, and, if called upon, explaining an action as being in accordance with the rule [I would add here that this includes understanding the nature of the limits of a rule and what it might entail or mean to go outside or beyond the rule, perhaps even what it means to act in the ‘spirit’ of a rule]. The determination of an act as being correct, in accordance with the rule, is not a causal determination but a logical one.”—Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker, in Maxwell Bennett, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson, Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

“That the events in the ALU [Arithmetic Logic Unit of a computer] seem to be intrinsically calculations or logical operations reflects only our habit of reading back from our consciousness of what machines can do for us into the events which take place within machines. Although it is a useful shorthand to speak of an ALU ‘performing calculations’ or ‘logical operations,’ it is obvious that what is going on in the ALU is not by itself either calculation or logic. In order to count as performing a logical operation or calculation one has to know what one is doing—one has to understand the significance of it. This understanding, this awareness, is denied the ALU.”—Raymond Tallis

“The frame problem—the fact that computational devices can operate successfully only with frames of reference that are very rigidly specified, with a narrow ‘world’ that has to be installed into them—underlines one of the fundamental differences between complex automata and conscious beings. The frame within which a conscious being operates is infinite, or at least, unbounded. [….] The explicit rules that may shape consciousness arise out of a background of explicitness; or the soil out of which rules grow, the solution out of which they crystallise, is a continuum of explicitness, a field of explicitness. The computer has only discrete countable rules, not this continuum of explicitness, this ‘rule mass,’ this boundless, ruly world.”—Raymond Tallis, The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed.)

Or...Deep Blue did not play chess.


Blogger Joseph R. Stromberg said...

Excellent! It is amazing to me how many people don't understand this.

3/28/2012 7:33 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Thanks for commenting (and noticing!). I certainly agree that most folks don't seem to get this although I understand the resort to anthropomorphic language is, perhaps, to some extent unavoidable. But forgetting it is metaphorical or simply a manner of speaking and to see it as something literal has, I think, pernicious consequences, unduly blurring the lines between animate and inanimate matter, for instance, and of course implying that robots, androids, what have, are capable of possessing (heretofore) distinctively human attributes and capacities (e.g., consciousness, a mind, etc.).

I hope to be writing more on this in depth at a later date, and I thought to quote from Tallis as he is part of the research I'll be invoking and relying on in whatever I come to write.

3/30/2012 6:19 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

erratum: "what have you"

3/30/2012 6:20 PM  

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