Thoughts // Patterns – Part 1

Some people might object to the notion that computers can have thoughts. Indeed, some did so in the wake of my previous post. The popular argument went along the lines of “humans can have original thoughts, computers only do what they’re programmed to do”. For the sake of further discussion, let’s examine the premises of this argument.

The first is that humans have original thoughts, which I suppose implies free will. But let’s start with the second premise: that computers don’t have ‘original’ thoughts, only predetermined processing of input. One could respond “go ask someone whose computer just crashed what input they used to make it do that”. But even if we chalk such occurrences up to thermodynamics. it’s not as easy to dismiss some of the seemingly creative products of AI development (like the image shown below). Of course you could argue that this “AI” is still a program, only with enough layers of complexity to produce unpredictable results.

Computer-generated image on the theme 'pagodas'.

Image generated algorithmically from random noise, on the theme ‘pagodas’ (by Google).

Which naturally brings us back to the first premise, the originality of human thoughts. I don’t have anything original to add to the fundamental debate of free will vs. determinism, so let’s limit ourselves to a weaker question: Can we confidently say that our conscious thoughts do not arise from a very complex ‘program’?

One objection from the field of biology is that we haven’t yet learned to read the instructions of this ‘program’ we’re born with, so how could we say what might arise from it? Sure we’ve sequenced the human genome, but until we know the function and regulation of each gene (plus the epigenetics and protein interactions) all we have is a text, without punctuation, in a language where we don’t have much grammar or vocabulary.

Another confounding fact is that a neuroscientist can put you in a scanner and tell you things that you didn’t know were happening in your brain. Heck, a trained poker player can do that. And if we’re only partially aware of our own thought processes, how well-founded can a subjective notion of having original, voluntary thoughts be? It doesn’t seem like such un-thought thoughts are confined to background processing. One can easily point to instances where we act with little guidance from our conscious thoughts, or where we have thoughts which we can’t control (e.g. dreaming, by day or by night). I’m guessing that at some point you’ve done something that you told yourself you wouldn’t. How could that have happened, if not by your brain sending your body signals that didn’t go through conscious processing? Which engine of motivation thus set you into motion? We could of course argue that you simply changed your mind a moment before acting. But, in my case at least, this doesn’t quite ring true; at times, the conscious desire to resist persists right through the offending acts. Passion, or lust, is a good example. There is a certain moment at which, empirically, things become inevitable. It can be felt throughout the body, a bit like the adrenaline rush of a fight-or-flight response, and it’s safe to say that it renders conscious thought irrelevant.

If we act without thoughts, and think without active control, is it possible that our actions are for the most part spurred by something other than cognition? That, like the elements of Aristotelian physics, we simply gravitate towards some desired state and subsequently create the narrative that portrays a conscious decision. I’ve often heard it said that fish don’t feel pain, let alone fear. Nevertheless, they clearly try to avoid undesirable situations (e.g. being caught). We call this “instinct”, but how do we know it’s different from what makes us run away? Perhaps the only unique trait of human intelligence is that we’ve somehow acquired a module for creating narrative, and thus our experience feels special. This would make human thought unique the way a child is; it has traits that make it unlike any other child in the world, but at the same time it’s just one member of the class “children”.

It’s easy to imagine a goldfish unable to understand our thoughts, but does that imply a clear-cut distinction where we have thoughts and it doesn’t? It’s harder for us to turn the argument around and imagine the perspective of a more advanced intelligence, and perhaps that’s just the point. A proverbial alien observer might see us as more intelligent than the goldfish, yet not consider either one capable of real thoughts. This conclusion might offend us, but how could we argue against it if we accept the goldfish as unthinking?


The catalyst for this post was Elie Maksoud, who by the way takes pretty pictures.

Leave a Reply