The revolution is back
04 Jul 2014

The revolution is back

Reza Negarestani


Here is the first part of my talk at Incredible Machines conference on Turing and the problem of computational description. I will also post my second presentation at the Berlin summer school (on functions, mechanisms and hierarchies).

For anyone who has not seen it yet, there is an excellent blog on the Berlin summer school covering the ongoing presentations and discussions.


The revolution is back
(Turing, functional realization and computational description)

I philosophically endorse computationalism and even more so I am an ardent proponent of functionalism. I think–and I am fully prepared to defend this controversial claim–that a philosopher cannot intellectually survive without endorsing functionalism, at least one of its many varieties (strongly normative [Hegel, Brandom], normative-materially constrained [Sellars] or strongly mechanistic [Bechtel]). To this extent, what I would like to briefly address is the significance of the functionalist account of the human mind, or more broadly speaking, the functionalist account of the rational agency. In this respect, I take side with Alan Turing’s response to Arguments from Various Disabilities (AVD) where he challenges the common forms of rejecting the possibility of the functional realization of the human mind in different substrates–for instance, in machines.

Machines cannot think, machines cannot have emotions, machines cannot be purposeful, they cannot be proactive and so forth: Turing enumerates these under what he calls arguments from various disabilities, it is sort of straw machine argument that is baseless and precarious. It is more a fruit of our psychological fears and residual theological approaches to the universe and ourselves than the result of sound arguments.

The mind-preservationist is a person who believes that the mind cannot be functionally realized and implemented in different substrates. He is a person who not only rejects the functionalist realization of the mind but also as a result yields to a form of vitalism or ineffability of the human mind. The mind-preservationist always attempts to see the machine’s capacities from the perspective of an endemic disability. But if what the mind-preservationist really dismisses is not the machine as such but is the functional realization of the mind implemented in the machine, then what he actually denies is not the machine per se but the mind itself. Or more accurately, what the mind-preservationist ends up rejecting is the possibility of mapping the mind’s functions, the possibility of modeling it, defining and objectifying it. In this sense, machine-denialism is simply an excuse for denying what the mind is and what it can be. Correspondingly, disavowing the pursuit of understanding the mind coincides with acting against the evolution of the mind, since from a pragmatic-functional viewpoint the understanding of the meaning of the mind is inseparable from how the mind can be defined, reconstructed and modified in different contexts. Therefore, if we lack the definition of the mind which is itself a map for its realization and objectification, then how can we so readily rule out the possibility of a machine furnished with a mind? The mind-preservationist, accordingly, has a double standard when it comes to recognizing the mind as both the measure and the object of his critique. He says the machine cannot engage in mental activities as if he possesses the map of the mind. However, if he does not know what constitutes activities of the mind, which is to say, if he does not possess the functional map of the mind, then he cannot approach the functional account of the mind (that is, a mind realized by a different set of realizers and implemented in an environment different from its natural-biological habitat) from the perspective of an intrinsic disability.

If you don’t know what the mind is then how can you claim the machine cannot possibly have a mind? With the understanding that the ‘what’ posed in this question is the very map of the mind’s functional realizability that can be implemented in machines. Here ‘what’ can be described functionally as those activities which define what the mind is. The mind is therefore described as a functional item, in terms of its capacities for mentation (i.e. engaging in mental activities). From a functionalist perspective, what makes a thing a thing is not what a thing is but what a thing does. In other words, the functional item is not independent of its activity.

The activities of the mind are indeed special in the sense that they are not ubiquitous. But as William Bechtel suggests it is not in spite of being comprised of mechanisms but in virtue of the right kind of mechanisms that the mind is special and its set of activities has distinctive characteristics.

For this reason, if the attack or the argument from the perspective of disabilities is adopted as a standard strategy toward machines or what Daniel Dennett calls “machine mentation” or if it is exercised as a pre-determined reaction to the possibility of the realization of the mind in different substrates, then it no longer enjoys a genuine critical attitude. Why? Because such a critical strategy then has implicitly subscribed itself to a preservationist view of the mind as something inherently foreclosed to mapping and (re)construction. The mind it safeguards has a special status because it is unique at the level of mapping and constructability. It cannot be constructed, because it cannot be fully mapped. It cannot be mapped because it cannot be defined. It cannot be defined because it is somewhere ineffable. If it is somewhere ineffable, then it is everywhere ineffable. Therefore, the singularity of the mind is the effect of its ineffability. If we buy into one ineffable thing and if that thing happens to be central to how we perceive the world, then we are also prepared to regard many other things in the universe as ineffable. Consequently, we have committed ourselves to full-blown mysticism.