Archive for July, 2013

July 23, 2013

AI Skepticism

by Neil Rickert

I am sometimes asked to explain why I am skeptical about the possibility of AI (artificial intelligence).  In this post, I shall discuss where I see the problems.  I sometimes express my skepticism by way of expressing doubt about computationalism, the view of mind that is summed up with the slogan “cognition is computation.”


I’ll start by clarifying what I mean by AI.

Suppose that we could give a complete map or specification of a person, listing all of the atoms in that person’s body, and listing their exact arrangement.  Then, armed with that map, we set about creating an exact replica.  Would the result of that be a living, thinking person?  My personal opinion is that it would, indeed, be a living thinking person, a created twin or clone of the original person that was  mapped.

Let’s use the term “synthetic person” for an entity constructed in that way.  It is synthetic because we have put it together (synthesized it) from parts.  You could summarize my view as saying that a synthetic person is possible in principle, though it would be extremely difficult in practice.

To build a synthetic person, we would not need to know how it functions.  Simply copying a real biological person would do the trick.  However, if we wanted to create some sort of “person” with perhaps different materials and without it being an exact copy, then we would need to understand the principles on which it operates.  We can use the term “artificial person” for an entity so constructed.

My own opinion is that an artificial person is possible in principle, but would be very difficult to produce in practice.  And to be clear, I am saying that even if we have full knowledge of all of the principles, we would still find it very difficult to construct such an artificial person.

As I shall use the term in this post, an artificial intelligence, or an AI, is an artificial person built primarily using computation.  In the usual version, there are peripheral sensors (input devices) and effectors (output devices), but most of the work is done by a central computer so can be said to be computation.

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July 20, 2013

An Alex Rosenberg interview

by Neil Rickert

This post is mainly to point you to an interesting interview with Alex Rosenberg.

which was brought to my attention by Brian Leiter’s blog post.

Rosenberg is a materialist/ naturalist/ physicalist — perhaps we could say that he is a die-hard materialist.  And in this interview, he explains his reductive naturalism.  I am on record as not being a materialist (or physicalist or naturalist).  So you can look to Rosenberg to express some of the views from which I dissent.

I am undecided on whether to have a full post about Rosenberg’s views.  In the meantime, here are a couple of quotes:

How to reconcile physicalism and antireductionism remains a vexed question in biology, in psychology, and of course among metaphysicians as well.

That pretty much summarizes why I am not a materialist or a physicalist.  Namely, I am not a reductionist, and materialism without reductionism does not seem to have any implications worth valuing.

Intentionality—the aboutness of propositional thoughts: a half century of the philosophy of psychology and we still haven’t figured out how it is even possible.

And this is where reductionism fails.

July 20, 2013

“What They Really Need. . .”

by Neil Rickert

I’m reblogging this, because it is so eloquent. I’ll add a comment shortly.

Itinerant Lurker

I heard something in church the other day that’s been bothering me ever since.  That’s not exactly right actually, it’s something that’s always bothered me – even when I was a Christian – but this brought it to the forefront of my thoughts.

Yes, I’m an atheist who goes to church.  I’m even on a first name basis with my pastor.  I even call him “my pastor”.  It’s weird, but I have a family who are all of them Christians, so compromise is kind of the order of the day.  Typically I don’t mind – but this service was different.


There was a team talking about a missions trip they’d recently returned from (a “missions trip” is when a small group of people raise money from a church to go do some sort of mission work in another country for a few weeks) to South America.  They’d worked with families…

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July 17, 2013

Phractal filosofi

by Neil Rickert

I will probably be misusing the words “fractal” and “philosophy” in this post, and that’s why I used that funky spelling in the title.  I’ll use the normal spellings everywhere else.

If you are looking for an explanation of fractals, you have come to the wrong place.  Try the Wikipedia article.  If you are looking for a philosophical discussion of fractals, you have probably come to the wrong place.  Perhaps there is some of that in Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach“.  This post is about a fractal way of looking at philosophy.  And yes, I am making it up as I go along.

If you look at something closely enough, you will see what appears to be a kind of disorder in the details.  If you magnify that to see in more detail, then you will see more disorder.  That’s more or less the idea of fractals being everywhere.

School grammar

Let’s start by looking at language.

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July 16, 2013

My view of knowledge

by Neil Rickert

In my posts on consciousness, I indicated that I saw knowledge as an important issue.  Today, I will say more about my view of knowledge.


The traditional account of knowledge by philosophers, is that knowledge is justified true belief (or JTB for short).  That has always seemed wrong to me.  It is my experience that when I express disagreement with that view, I get blow back.  So the JTB idea seems to have a lot of support, though I find it hard to understand why.

When people support JTB, they usually acknowledge the need for some additional requirement to deal with the Gettier problem, though they rarely say what that additional requirement should be.  Personally, I don’t worry much about the Gettier problem, since for me, the whole idea of knowledge as natural language statements seems mistaken.

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July 9, 2013

Consciousness 6: why it cannot be designed

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote: “To me, it seems very unlikely that a designed robotic system could ever lead to consciousness.”  I have received some push back in the comments.  In this post, I shall attempt to explain why I doubt that design of consciousness is possible.


When we design something, we typically start with an idea of what we want.  That leads to a stage of planning where we examine the requirements.  We use that planning to prepare a design.  Typically, a design is a set of specifications on how to build the final product out of component parts.

“Design” then, pretty much means mechanical design.  It means specifying how the components are put together mechanically to achieve the intended result.

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July 1, 2013

Does atheism lead to nihilism?

by Neil Rickert

The recent book

by John Loftus and Randal Rauser, has been made available as a free kindle book for one day.  I guess that is intended as a way of promoting the book.  And I guess that works, since here I am making a blog post that will help to promote the book.

I have not read the entire book so I won’t call this post a review, though I am categorizing it in “reviews”.

The book consists of 20 chapters, each covering a question that is supposed to be an issue between the religious and the non religious. For each chapter, John Loftus presents an atheists viewpoint on the question while Randal Rauser presents a theist’s viewpoint.  It will be no surprise to readers of this blog, that I tended to side with John Loftus in these debates.

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