Today, guest scientist Andrew Boyd explores how we
think. The University of Houston presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Consciouness. Such a familiar
word -- we never give it a second thought. Yet it
remains a great puzzle to philosophers.
As far as we know, consciousness arises from the
working of the brain. The brain is a physical
object made up of material elements, just as rocks,
celery, or my toaster oven are. How do un-conscious
bits and pieces give rise to consciousness?
While you and I may not fully understand why, we
can still agree that consciousness exists, and even
marvel that it does. However, as Berkeley
philosopher John Searle argues, modern
philosophical inquiry suffers from a fundamental
"terror of consciousness." Consciousness doesn't
easily fit into the prevailing viewpoint, and the
essence of Searle's writing is that when it comes
to the mind, much of modern philosophy is sorely
Searle speaks frankly. Challenging those who deny
the existence of consciousness, he wonders how to
argue with them. "Should I pinch [those people] to
remind them they are conscious?" remarks Searle.
"Should I pinch myself and report the results in
the Journal of Philosophy?"
Searle's most famous argument criticizes a theory
known as strong artificial intelligence.
In this view of the world, when a computer behaves
like a human, it also experiences thoughts,
feelings, and understanding -- the traits we
associate with consciousness. When we weep for the
mechanical boy in Steven Spielberg's film
or feel compassion for Mr. Data on Star Trek,
The New Generation because we believe they
must be conscious, we are accepting the theory of
strong artificial intelligence.
Advocates of this theory are keenly influenced by
modern computers. Brains are like computers, and
minds are like computer programs; so a mind can
exist on any suitable computer, whether it's made
of gray matter, silicon, or, as Searle points out,
a suitably arranged collection of beer cans.
Consciousness isn't anything special by itself,
Searle says, it's just something that happens when
you run the right computer program.
Arguing against strong artificial intelligence,
Searle imag-ines himself locked in a room with
instruction manuals that allow him to reply to any
question or comment posed in Chinese. Searle does
not understand Chinese, and the manuals do not
provide English translations. They simply provide
rules that allow him to meaning-fully respond to
any string of Chinese characters.
A person conversing in Chinese with this room by
passing slips of paper under the door would
conclude that the room is behaving exactly like
someone who understands Chinese. But clearly, the
room and its occupant do not comprehend the content
of the conversation. In the same way, there is no
reason to assume a computer that behaves like a
human must feel, think, and understand like a
Searle is one voice among many, and his viewpoints
aren't universally shared by his peers. But he
reminds us that consciousness shouldn't be casually
dismissed. It's a special quality, and a quality
that we human beings are fortunate to enjoy. We
are, in fact, most remarkable engines.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice
President at PROS, a provider of pricing and revenue
optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B.
with Honors at Oberlin College with majors in
Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in
Opera-tions Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to
joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year career
as a university professor.
Much of the material in this essay was taken from:
John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the
Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
1992. See especially pages 8, 9, 30, 32, 44, 45,
Searle brings together many of his ideas in the
wonderfully lucid book for general readership: John
R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society:
Philosophy in the Real World, Basic Books, New
Image from de Occulta Philosophia
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, 1533
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.