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Re: FleshFactor: re: what is a machine?



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A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"
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Two bits follow:
I. Dennett and humans as machines
II. Dennett and a new ethics

I.

Mark Sottilaro writes:
> Perhaps the problem is the definition of the word Machine.

Exactly!

It seems to me that the question of interest is not whether or not we
ARE machines but why and under what circumstances the meanings of
'machine' and 'human' are set so that we (or 'they') think of them as
being identical.

The circumstances here are quite clear and do not need any complicated
industrio-technical conspiracy theories.  Dennett has spent a huge
portion of his life elucidating in loving and rich detail the
philosophical underpinnings of cognitive science, which starts with the
proposition "let us consider humans as though they were machines, and
see how far we can get."  From this point it gets easy to forget that
what we were dealing with is an "as though", and then end up saying
"humans ARE machines".  

This is essentially Ebon Fisher's argument, but I would add to it that
there are implications to this equation that go beyond a bunch of
old-school fogeys we can forgive and forget.

The result (one might say function) of claiming that humans are machines
is essentially to forget that we are dealing with metaphor.  If humans
ARE machines than cognitive science is basically able to know everything
about humans, i.e. there is no 'outside' to cognitive science, nothing -
at least theoretically - beyond its reach.

In this case the rhetorical point of saying that humans are machines is
to state that nothing human can be beyond the (eventual) reach of
science - which, while perhaps fitting into a conspiracy theory, is
actually quite likely exactly what Dennett and many other practicioners
of AI believe.

Though I am myself an AI researcher, I find the tenet that science is
capable of understanding everything there is to know about subjectivity
hard to believe for a variety of reasons.  My argument is not based on
mystical abilities of humans to supersede their physical form, but
rather on an understanding of the limitations of scientific knowledge
per se.  
1) argument from cynicism - Humans have a rather pathetic ability to
understand anything, so it seems unlikely that we could ever construct a
knowledge system that would be capable of explaining something as
complex as human beings in all detail.  
2) argument from scientific methodology - Science works by providing us
with general explanations.  An explanation that only applies to a single
circumstance is not scientific because it cannot be duplicated and
tested. Even if we were able to construct a correct and complete, dare I
say implemented, explanatory model of an individual, how could we test
it?  Could we run the model and compare it to the individual's activity?
Maybe the person will do something different tomorrow, or in 10 years,
or..  If we cannot develop a model of a particular individual, how will
we know the theory holds?  The best we can do is 'good enough', always
presuming there will be something left over that is not explained.

In my personal opinion it is not only dangerous but unscientific to
state that there is nothing outside of science, precisely because it
blinds us to the limitations of our knowledge and hence reduces anyone
who disagrees with us to the status of idiots who need more education.

II. 

Lest anyone think I am just dismissing Dennett's interview, I actually
enjoyed it - as well as much of his work - tremendously.  I particularly
am interested in his pointing to a new level of morality that is needed
by those who - by accident or on purpose - have been gifted with
technological power.  What is the role of practicioners of cognitive
science, AI, and information technologies in a world that is fast
heading towards environmental destruction and cultural homogenisation?
Is there anything positive that can be done within these communities or
are they simply impotent wrt these problems?  I'd love to hear some
ideas and/or opinions (the wilder the better).


Phoebe Sengers

Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA USA
phoebe@cs.cmu.edu

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