Archive for the 'Science' Category

Beyond history

Gravity defines destiny. This might sound absurd. And not only because it would seem ridiculous to reduce existence to such a single bare physical fact, but also because of course gravity is not a process with some ultimate future product, but a force, which is (as far as is known) equally present at every moment. And yet of course it registers itself as a sort of precondition of existence, in the sense that every body in the universe must somehow conform itself to and engage with gravity’s force. In a sense, much the same could be said about evolution and yet, crucially, people equate evolution much more readily with human teleology than gravity.

Yet evolution, too, represents not a process but a force, in fact a kind of property of time. A property of time, and hence present at every instant of time. Maybe the mistake originates in the view of history embedded in the demonstration of the concept of evolution. We learn of bacteria over many generations leading to people. But this long train of happening represents not the force of evolution itself but merely its effect. Evolutionary pressure is no more historical than that which caused the king of France’s head to fall upon the ground after being guillotined. In its barest form evolution seems almost a tautology; that which survives, thrives, and that which cannot, disappears. And of course gravity itself represents but one of many obstacles to a living thing’s existence that together constitute evolutionary pressure.

The habit of thinking in terms of process and result betrays the mind into conceiving of evolution as having some end, into asking questions like “is the toe adaptive?”, or even worse: “is religion adaptive?” Such a question in one way can never be answered. So long as an organism bearing a trait remains alive and capable of spawning more, one could say: “adapted well enough.” Only extinction definitely proves a point about adaptation (and since all the living things on earth are relatives to some extent, true extinction has never yet been seen). Like a macabre parallel of Popper’s falsifiability principle, extinction proves non-adaptation but nothing proves adaptation, because evolutionary fitness is never ultimate or final, but always relative, temporary, ever-moving.

The genealogy of envy

The rulers of North Korea flail their domain like little demon kings, but for what? I’ve read that DVD players and vacations abroad remain exclusive privileges of the ruling class there. DVD players and vacations abroad!? That places them where, in the lofty company of the top 70% of Americans? Sure, Kim Jong-Il might have a couple of billion tucked away somewhere, but he’s squeezed the tube about as hard as one possibly can, driven half the population to the brink of starvation, so there can’t be much more to be had. Compare that to the commercial magnates of the outside world, some of whom have much greater wealth and almost limitlessly greater potential to gain more. So it’s not exactly a trade-off between personal gain and suffering for everyone else. It seems more like collective suffering, where even the rulers stand to lose from their oppression.

So from an economic sense it appears utterly perverse that the rulers themselves shouldn’t choose to release the vice a bit. Surely they could take the path that China has and contrive to hold on to their DVD’s and overseas holidays at the very least, and improve the lives of so many others. And as China proves, going that route there is not even a very big chance that they would all wind up hanged as war criminals. So why not change? Perhaps there’s something repulsively appealing to them about being so much better off than all those around them, which would not be possible in the comparatively greater equality of an open society even if they were richer.

Such an impulse not just to be well-off but specifically to be better off than one’s fellow man might not make sense economically, but it does evolutionarily. Almost every impulse accompanying an evolutionary function can be hoodwinked in a sense, satisfied without fulfilling that function: sex with contraceptives intentionally blocking conception, the offspring-nurturing impulse distracted by animals or adopted children (though these might not be wholly evolutionarily non-productive). Evolution is in its deepest grasping heart comparative (or I suppose “positional” is the currently fashionable term), actuated on being better off than everyone else in one particular sense. Why is it unreasonable to suppose that the mania for being #1 might lead to a situation, like in North Korea, where mercilessly guarding one’s own preeminence causes everyone to suffer materially? Or maybe it’s even evolutionarily adaptive, since the very specific sense in which evolution favors primacy lies in having the most offspring (actually it’s more about creating the maximum number of copies of DNA, but that distinction is not terribly important here), and even if the rulers of North Korea are not nearly as rich as the wealthiest non-North Koreans, in a society where the only possible path to a half-decent existence for oneself and one’s family and children runs through them their reproductive opportunities, to put it very crudely, are probably quite plentiful.

And yet so many thinkers continue to either ignore envy and the desire for preeminence as a fundamental human trait or pander to it. Strange that the free-marketers who generally pride themselves on their realism in acknowledging the self-interest and greed of humanity should so often dismiss the evidence of its enviousness, or at least the implications this has on, for example, their tolerance of income inequality. And as for those who believe envy worthy of being propitiated for its own sake… Envy cannot possibly be sated on a society-wide scale. It’s self-contradictory. And in a way, those that think it can be by, for example, imposing economic inequality are just as dismissive of the basic reality of envy as the others. Because how logical is it to think that the desire to be better off than others can be satisfied precisely by denying anyone the ability to be better off than anyone else?

The joy of not giving a damn

Various academic institutions and government ministries in America and Britain have recently begun dedicating specific groups and centers to the study and propagation of happiness. The cynical might question whether that means by implication that that quest does not lie at the root of the government and university’s other pursuits, and the even more cynical mean even surmise that the degree to which a person or society proclaims its commitment to pursuing happiness generally lies in inverse relation to their own happiness and reasonable chances of attaining it. The most deeply cynical would likely conclude (and already have, in some cases) that a government-sponsored or -affiliated program to directly increase peoples’ happiness without even the usual tired proxies of “anti-poverty initiatives” or simply sweeping the trouble-makers and discontented off to the dungeons, will probably take the form of some massive leveraging of the population into a state of pharmaceutical dependency to the point where their eyes will turn red and they’ll clamor for Prozac like the old junkies in “Naked Lunch” of whom “you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk.”

On the other hand, this type of program, if you can call it that, represents for a lot of academics and government ministers, coming on the heels of the comprehensive écrasement of their own preferred infâme, the degraded reality of a shitty little collectivist fantasy, something of a cheap escape from an ideological dead-end. Having seen that the only people willing to devote themselves to an advanced state of North Korean progressiveness are North Koreans, many seem to have concluded that the problem isn’t just with the institutions, there’s just something wrong with people themselves. Some sort of campaign directed at unhappiness itself at the psychological and physiological levels gives them a way forward out of all of that–the triumph of Freud over Marx.

Not that I’m opposed to the idea that much of what we thought was external in terms of causing happiness or unhappiness is actually internal, or even some sort of coordinated central response to that idea, particularly if it doesn’t involve massive expropriations of property or the commencement of hostile operations against various domestic and foreign “enemies.” But it’s not as scientific as all that, because happiness is just a word, like “good,” and any attempt to delimit its terrain precisely will probably be just as unsuccessful as G.E. Moore’s attempt a century ago to wall the concept of “good” in an ethical sense off from any particular qualities possessed by things which are considered good.

The problem with happiness is not that it’s an elusive concept but that it’s a manifold one; people in using it mean a million different things by it, since it’s basically an all-purpose word for a positive or desirable state of being. The Chinese character for “happiness” (well, one of them) includes the the radical that denotes clothing, as well as those for a roof, a dwelling-place and a cultivated field, the implication being that the one is equivalent to the possession of the others. Which is not probably something that many members of our wealthy society evidently so much in need of guidance in attaining happiness could probably accept without reservation, though if it were true it would make the famous (or notorious) substitution of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for Locke’s formula “of life, liberty and property” as the fundamental individual rights more interesting and less vacuous.

Nor, as much as this idea sells itself in the trappings of biology, and sometimes even with real biological research behind it, should one forget that natural selection, the fundamental concept driving most of biological science today, in its evaluative criteria doesn’t have anything to do intrinsically with happiness as such. Remember that what makes a being evolutionarily successful is not dying as readily as its fellow beings and being more reproductively fecund. While for most people being alive and mating is probably fairly essential to happiness, this makes no difference for the purposes of evolutionary theory, since survival and reproduction are important not as possible means but as ends in and of themselves. Which doesn’t prove anything by itself, except maybe that evolution isn’t about ultimate ends or goals, much less providing a Purpose in Life. It’s more just an observation about life, and fundamentally a pretty obvious one at that: those that are best at surviving (in a multi-generational sense) in the greatest numbers will tend to take over. Anyone that thinks this gives their life a direction probably shouldn’t be trusted or even touched by those around them, as they’re likely to be traitorous, careerist little bastards who don’t realize or don’t care that survival is no more inherently glorious than a half-drowned rat clinging to a a piece of driftwood. Give me the romantically self-destructive any day.

And I am now Jesus, as Bill Hicks would say.

The sneaky deck-shuffler

In this short piece, the mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to poke holes in the creationist stastical-probability-based opposition to Darwinian evolution. He basically makes the good point that in a long process with lots of steps and alternative possibilities, the result will almost inevitably be extremely improbable. As an example, he cites the fact that after shuffling a deck of cards the resulting card order has approximately a 1 in 10 to the 68th power of occuring. However, I would make a distinction between a simple (or random) arrangement, like that of a shuffled deck of cards, and meaningful order. Obviously a deck of cards will be arranged in some way, no one would find that strange, but if the cards, after shuffling, were all in straight suits from lowest to highest, even Paulos would no doubt find that a little anomalous. The reason is that, although it’s just as statistically likely as any other particular arrangement, it is much more likely to have been the result of an intentional ordering. That sort of intuition usually proves correct in daily life, and creationists seem to simply be applying that way of thinking to evolution (assuming, of course, that they are not simply opportunists or casuists). Living organisms appear to exemplify meaningful order, and intuitively we imagine it to be much more plausible that meaningful order is created by a conscious mind than by the random interaction of inert matter. Of course this could just be an anachronistic product of the fact that our conscious minds are also created by that random process, so the order that we create in our surroundings, which we imagine to be exclusively within our purview, is itself simply an extension, and a relatively crude one at that with respect to them, of those randomly created organic systems.

In any case, those who have been reading my thoughts recently know where I stand on this issue right now: I’m no creationist, but from what I know it seems to me that evolutionists pay much too little attention to the source of variation and change in living things, as opposed to how traits are selected among competing alternatives. I suspect that the new theories of emergent order, which suggests that that which is created may be superior in complexity to that which created it, which at least in philosophy has traditionally been believed impossible, will have some implications on this debate.

Masters of feelings

Temperament is habitually recognized in our daily affairs but overlooked in regard to society and history. How can the natural-born rebel communicate his fervor and dissatisfaction to the timid and meek? How can the good-natured and jovial persuade the militant to moderation? Or as Elsa Morante says in the dedication of her novel La Storia, a message sent from one of these to the other is “por el analfabeto a quien escribo.” We share over 98% of our genes with every other human in the world, yet almost all the means by which we can effectually communicate our emotions lies in the other 2%. One could then, then, expect a single reaction to events from all of humanity even if the feelings they provoked were substantially the same. And what to make of ideas themselves, limitlessly reproducible and communicable, at least in theory? Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to claim that human ideas are self-replicating evolutionary units like genes. He calls them memes. These are the real ghosts in the machine, the real spiritual entities if there are such, much more than the mind as a whole, which is irrevocably physical in nature at least in part, if nothing else because it cannot be liberated from a particular piece of matter. Ideas, on the other hand, can transmit from person to person like beacon signals, even though they cannot exist, seemingly, without some mind to receive or create them. Yet there’s the rub. While Dawkins would have it that the power of genes to replicate themselves arises from the fact that they are in a way information as opposed to matter, and hence universally transmissable, a property they share with ideas, at a further look it seems clear that their drive originates in a different engine, namely from the fact that they design the very organic systems which perpetuate them. This system is also the medium of transmission of ideas, i.e. a living organism, but it is designed by genes. It may well be that ideas can exert an effect on organisms in turn through feedback, but since genes establish the system which exists at the outset of every generation according to their own needs, one might expect that the receptivity to and ability to create certain ideas will ultimately be determined by its amenability to the perpetuation of genes, so that the tendency across time will be for ideas to subordinate themselves to genes (this is of course a trend, not an absolute reality at any given time).

Universal theories–the opium of the elite

Systematic thinking is like one of the roller coasters at a little amusement park, now seemingly practically defunct, that I went to as a kid called Lakeside. The roller coaster was, if I remember correctly, called the Chipmunk, and its distinguishing quality was that it made square turns which, combined with the outstanding quality of roller coasters in general that they never slow down except at the end, made for a rather jarring experience. And systematic thinking similarly makes smooth transitions between one model of the world and another rather difficult, leading to sudden massive revaluations (or paradigm shifts if you prefer the Kuhnian language which has been parasitized by barbaric business-speak), which are of course a result of pent-up dissatisfaction with the previous model and, on a society-wide scale, somewhat concealed by the piecemeal process by which disparate individuals accede to the new ideas, but nonetheless have their disorienting crucial moments of acceptance of a new mental reality. Perhaps this is why, much as one had to be 52” tall to ride the Chipmunk, Plato preferred not to teach students his formd of philosophy until the age of 40. Of course any new system embodies of necessity its own less evident strain of inflexibility. That is why if one reads a book like The Selfish Gene today, the arguments contained in its battling against pseudo-Marxist idealism, which was at its apex in the mid-70’s, seem beyond obvious today, because most people (outside of university humanities departments) have become wholly enmeshed in the view that innate genetic factors exert at least some influence on our bodies, minds and behavior. Less obviously this has been symptomatic of a progressive devaluation of the “spiritual” in considerations of human life in favor of a greater and greater continuity between the living and inanimate matter. So much so that the desire to simplify the terrain by dispensing with notions of volition or design in the evolution of life has virtually become a defining element of biological science.

And yet for all that it seems that remarkably little has been said relatively speaking about what actually generates the forms and traits of living things. The theory of how the trait best adapted for survival and reproduction is selected among those available has been chronicled almost exhaustively, but so many seem strangely content with the notion of random variations and mutations as the ultimate source of almost all the characteristics of life. Not that this is absurd a priori, but so much effort seems to have been expended in determining how traits are selected rather than how they are generated in the first place. Granted, the success of computer programs in learning complicated tasks like playing chess based solely on a random behavior generator with a command to repeat successful strategies has made the necessity of supposing some directing, controlling “élan vital” for evolutionary progress seem less evident than in the days of Henri Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice. The irony, however, is that as much success as has been attained in this fields, artificial intelligence researchers seem more pessimistic than ever as regards genuinely creating living intelligence. And the issue, as always, seems to be that of the self-sustainability of minds and living things in general, and their ability to be transferred from one environment or function to another and still operate. So perhaps it is time to consider that perhaps the essence of life lies precisely in its resistance or exception to physical laws such as “an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by another force.” One of the first things that made me think about this seriously is the disapperance of vestigial traits, like the tailbone in humans or eyes in cave-dwelling creatures. Now, I find it hard to conceive that the difference in survival value or reproductive value between primates with little tails and those without was severe enough to drive the tailed kind into extinction or even to cause a branching of species, though of course there is no evidence that it might not have. Nevertheless, such things as that or the steady progession of certain neutral proteins in the body to fixation points in the population leads me to think that perhaps life is somehow itself an original and ongoing force pushing the development of at least some traits even if not with some ultimate goal.

Capitalist biology?

Almost exactly a year ago I speculated about how ethnocentrism, racism and various other kinds of local identifications in human society might partly be explained evolutionarily. Here is what I wrote then, which I mostly still agree with. In the context of reading The Selfish Gene I would like to add one other point. The mathematical determination of degree of genetic relatedness between individuals in a group, as described by Dawkins and presumably as enumerated by W.D. Hamilton, shows by implication the minimum number of relatives necessary to sacrifice oneself for in a genetically sustainable way. For example, since siblings and children share half their genes with a given individual, in order for altruism towards them to be good for the continued survival of one’s genes the altruistic act has to have a benefit for at least two of them that equals or exceeds the loss incurred by the individual.

Even evolutionary biologists acknowledge that these ratios are somewhat misleading in the sense that in reality one’s genes are not 50% identical to one’s children or siblings but something like 99.5% identical, since roughly 99% of one’s genes are the same in all humans in the world. Just the additional 1% is the whole from which the kinship ratios are derived. Now, I do not dispute that humans and other animals show marked preferences for their kin over other members of the species and even pretty fine gradations between individuals of different levels of relatedness to them. But it seems intuitively wrong when scientists like Dawkins insist that this sort of discrimantion and favoritism only pertains among closely related individuals, in other words that the 1% of genes not shared by all humans (or other members of a given species) actively shape altruistic or cooperative behavior to perpetuate copies of themselves, but the other 99% are essentially passive in this regard. Nor do I believe that they are claiming this, but it seems to me to be one implication of the somewhat disingenuously precise ratios. Whereas, if we apply the same reasoning to the entirety of the genome, one would expect to generally see a preference for members of one’s own ethnic group or geographical area, preference for members of one’s own species over members of other species, and even a preference for more closely related animal groups like mammals over more distant groups like insects. And, at the risk of both generalizing and stating the obvious, it seems to me that is exactly what we do see. It all depends on context. For instance, generally it seems better for humans to cooperate to some degree, both because of the costs of competition for any given individual and because of the relatedness between them. But if a conflict arises between groups, it is evolutionary sensible to support the group to whom one is more closely related. Hence perhaps the frequent exemption of soldiers from the general prohibitions on killing and violence. This might seem to be begging the question, as one might ask why group conflicts would develop if cooperation was better on the whole. But conditions are always changing, and if a group were suddenly to find itself for example in possession of a valuable natural resource ownership of that resource, both for themselves and other groups, might override more communal considerations.

In any case, I have already talked about all this before, and I suppose what I am trying to get at is that the limiting factor for altruism seems to me to be probably less the proportion of total genes shared, which between members of any one species is overwhelming, than the efficacy of any particular altruistic acts. Dawkins himself acknowledges this by mentioning the “law of diminishing returns” and provides an example which I quoted in my earlier entry:

“Kin selection is emphatically not a special case of group selection…If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices being determined by the closeness of relatedness. Indeed this would lead to absurdity since all members of the species, not to mention other species, are at least distant relatives who could each therefore claim a carefully measured crumb! To the contrary, if there is a close relative in the vicinity, there is no reason to give a distant relative any cake at all. Subject to other complications like laws of diminishing returns, the whole cake should be given to the closest relative available.?

So the main issue here is not that the individual has no genetic incentive to help out more distantly related individuals but that dividing one’s own resources among everyone who has some claim to it will divide it up so finely that it will wind up not doing anyone much good.

Curt Shonkwiler, supreme patriarch of the Freudisdumma order

I posted a quote from a leader of the Cambodian Buddhist community which seems to me to have a strong seed of truth above, but I realized that anyone familiar with my intellectual proclivities or who had read this article from which it was excerpted might find it a little inexplicable, since I am not known as much of an enthusiast for Buddhism and the quote only appears in the article in the form of a passing mention to alternative philosophies of mental health in contrast to Western psychiatric approaches. But on the other hand, Britain’s National Health Service is staking a hell of a lot of money (ostensibly) on the premise that so-called “talking” therapy (as opposed to pharmacological, or medication-based, therapy) can greatly improve the mental health of the populace, and while the authors’ tone is not uncritical, since they neglect to cite any pharmacologists or neuropsychologists this random Buddhist cleric is really the only external voice questioning the efficacity of solving mental problems by talking them out.

Make no mistake, I am no follower of Buddhist doctrine. Although I saw a study somewhere claiming that a group of Buddhist monks in Japan are quantifiably the happiest people ever recorded because they have the highest level of stimulation of a particular region of the brain which is supposed to always be stimulated in conjunction with peoples’ professed feelings of happiness or contentment, the normative goals of Buddhism seem to be oriented to anything but happiness. I’ve never been able to accept the premise that life=feeling and feeling=pain, and therefore the ideal state is some soporific state of detachment not perhaps too dissimilar from the sedation of a patient under heavy anesthesia or, better yet, a corpse. So in other words I am not very greatly enamored by the advice to just “don’t think about it” as a general principle. But when it comes to thoughts that make us unhappy or at least symtomize unhappiness, there may be no better way in life.

For I have rarely found, in moments of depression or discontent, that trying to directly work out an intellectual solution to that state accomplishes its end. As I have already suggested, I think very often these splinters of unease are no more than symtoms of an underlying, probably physical, unwellness. So in many cases the very concept of trying to “work out” such an affliction by addressing the ideas that seem to provoke it directly may be inherently absurd. Or to put it another way, perhaps one is no more depressed about something than one is ill about something.

Now, I remember writing once that when I can write about something, it no longer afflicts me. But if anything that serves to indicate that it was never the thought that was the problem, it was a mental condition that seized hold of some discouraging thought as a visible proxy. Cogitation can help one’s mental state, but not I think head-on. Thinking is a form of mental exercise, and just like physical exercise it improves one’s health if done proportionately. But one cannot directly fight a disease by exercising. I think one has more control over the mind, simply because the mind itself is the organ by which we exert feedback control over our bodies.  There is a mixture between the mentally manipulable and that which is beyond its control.  But the analogy I think at least serves to suggest a sense of the possible limitations. So I concur to some extent with the Buddhist patriarch’s advice of non-responsiveness to that which is painful. After all, is not the very goal of all of these psychological approaches to make it possible, if not not to think about unhappy thoughts at all, at least not to be possessed by them?

The arrogant mitochondria? The lazy spermatozoa?

Steven Pinker here suggests a development that was all but inevitable at the nexus between cognitive science and evolutionary biology, that is the erosion of the distinction between “intentional” and “non-intentional” processes in organisms. Intentionality is usually attributed solely to the conscious operations of the human mind, or perhaps to a few other animals with large brains. Hence, emotions and intents are usually taken to be attributes solely of minds like that, and phrases like “the selfish gene” to be strictly metaphorical. But Pinker suggests that, since what we know scientifically of the mind suggests that it is merely a particularly elaborate mechanism of biological properties, there is no reason in principle to suppose that there is some fundamental division between the way that, for example, genetic coding works and the way that neurons in the brain function, and hence that one might be able to apply at least the concepts of intentionality and intelligence to the one in the same way (if not to the same degree) that we can to the other.

Obviously, we don’t know nearly enough about how the mind works to know whether it really is just a physical biological system like any other, or if there really is some distinctive “spiritual” property that gives it intentionality and intelligence that other organic systems do not possess. And it must be said that in a sense in order to study it scientists have to assume that it is essentially a physical system like any other, since that is what science studies. But it does represent a refreshing turn away from philosophers like Mary Midgley who announce a priori that “genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” as if it were a simple category mistake. Those people are extremely irritating, because instead of questioning whether intelligence and intentionality are exclusive to human minds or whether they can manifest themselves in other forms they simply presuppose them to exclusively human mental qualities as part of the definition. Cognitive scientists like Pinker are at least questioning these boundaries. And although it is often assumed that intentionality can only arise from the mind as a whole, the idea that it might exist in individual components of an organism’s physiology receives indirect support from the recent work of the great Robert Trivers, who suggests that the genome does not always work as a harmonious whole, that genetic elements sometimes aggrandize themselves and increase their chances of reproduction at the expense of others. In other words, orgnanisms are perhaps not unitary and indivisible from an evolutionary perspective, so perhaps intelligence likewise does not arise from a a single cohesive source. Perhaps particular intentions arise from one of the many possibly conflicting biological sub-systems. In any case, it is pretty evident that elements even at the molecular rules conform to rational rules of behavior and accomplish rational goals, so whether or not we wish to attribute “mentalistic” attributes to them there seems to be a continuity in objective output between microscopic and macroscopic systems in organisms.

If I know Chinese does that make me conscious?

“Of course, the failure to pass the Turing Test is an empirical fact, which could in principle be reversed tomorrow; what counts more heavily is that it is becoming clear to more and more observers that even if it were to be realized, its success would not signify what Turing and his followers assumed: even giving plausible answers to an interrogator’s questions does not prove the presence of active intelligence in the device through which the answers are channeled.”

It is fairly evident that Mark Halpern takes a low view of the proponents of “strong AI,” the idea that machines can actually be created which will be functionally indistinguishable from human minds. The above passage is the summation of his argument that not only have programmers manifestly failed to create any computer remotely close to passing the so-called “Turing Test,” but that even passing that test would be insufficient to demonstrate the possession of “active intelligence” on the part of the machine. The “Turing Test” was basically the claim by Alan Turing that scientists would have succeeded in creating artificial intelligence if, in responding to a set of questions, the interlocutor was unable to distinguish the responses of a machine from those of a human. Halpern gives several examples of incompetent judges who are unable to distinguish the real hallmarks of intelligence in conversation when placed in a position to interview machines.

He concludes that these failed tests basically confirm the “Chinese room” argument of John Searle. Searle presented a situation in which a man locked inside room was fed questions written in Chinese. The man, not knowing Chinese but having a lexicon of set responses to the questions posed to him, is able to provide intelligent responses to the questions without actually knowing what he is saying or what is being asked of him. This seems to offer strong logical evidence that a test of the sort proposed by Turing is quite inadequate to determine the existence of intelligence or consciousness.

Of course, almost any test where input can be anticipated and output “pre-programmed” is liable to this vulnerability. It is only by witnessing the continuous presence of apparently intelligent behavior, consistent through a variety of new and unanticipated scenarios, that the presence of intelligence can be inferred. I object, on the other hand, to the way in which Searle elsewhere uses his thought experiment to imply that the existence of consciousness can never be inferred from external signals, that its essence consists of the presence of the “qualitas” of perception, the experience of perception which is only accessible to the perceiver. But of course in that case the presence of conscious intelligence could never be inferred, for a conscious individual can only vouch for his own awareness, since he can only perceive his own qualitas. Needless to say, this is a very solipsistic conclusion, and even if it is metaphysically correct, it is not a useful basis for any potential interactions with other conscious entities. As David Hume has taught us all, in some strict sense all inferences are unjustified, but we don’t really have any choice at our disposal, and the “Chinese room” is only valid to the extent that it holds evaluation of artificial intelligences to the same standard as human intelligence, not by subjecting them both to unreasoanble skepticism.