There is a pervasive conceptual blindness among scientists engaged in the effort to create ever more powerful computers.
Illustrating both a lack of insight and a surfeit of hubris, many are claiming that as cutting-edge computers now exceed 35 trillion calculations per second they are approaching the ability to mimic the human mind.
A famous philosopher, Plotinus (204-270 CE), once wrote, "Vision is not cabined by the bournes of magnitude."
Essentially he meant the mind is unburdened by linear processes; it is capable of understanding and creating in a manner free of the bonds of sequential calculation. You might say it is the difference between wisdom and logic.
A wise decision is not calculated, it is intuited. The logical decision would have compelled King Solomon to give the baby to one of the two mothers. His vision enabled him to transcend such unimaginative pedantry.
Therefore, no matter how fast a machine may calculate its method of arriving at a result is in principle fundamentally different from the holistic embrace enabled by the human mind.
To paraphrase the great Lenny Bruce, a computer may be able to figure out how much a whole bunch of 9s are faster than a CPA but it is inherently incapable of experiencing the intoxication concomitant with the contemplation of beauty.
By the same token, is intellect, the capacity to quickly calculate "how much a whole bunch of 9s are," necessary for the contemplation of beauty? By extension, is intellect necessary for wisdom?
How many calculations per second must a computer achieve before we may characterize it as wise? Or is the question irrelevant?
Why or how do you know the answer to this? Did you learn it in a book or is acquired knowledge irrelevant?
When someone tells you wisdom exists outside the mind, in a book for example, are they representing the position of computer scientists or Plotinus?
If you agree with Plotinus, that vision (or wisdom, or insight) transcends the limitations of calculation, then how should you respond to those who point to something outside yourself and declare, "Herein lies wisdom; acquire wisdom from this."? Is wisdom accessed with the eyes or does it rise up from within, a phenomenon synonymous with spontaneity?
Many are now engaged in the study of mind; they wish to understand consciousness, self-awareness. Sci-fi flicks like "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and "The Terminator" (1984) describe scenarios in which computers become self-aware.
What do you think? If "Vision is not cabined by the bournes of magnitude" are computers capable of self-awareness? Even in principle? Can a computer see the universe in a grain of sand?
Many scientists believe mind is simply a biochemical byproduct of that lump of rubbery gray tissue holding up your hair. What do you think, are mind and brain the same?
More importantly, as you consider the question do you rely upon some form of concrete calculation to determine the answer or something far more profound and indescribable?
Implicit in Plotinus's statement, "Vision is not cabined by the bournes of magnitude" is the difference between the infinite and the supremely large. One is unfathomable while the other simply requires a really big number (magnitude) to describe it.
Since everything you encounter has dimension and may be described mathematically, whence your awareness of the infinite, the incalculable? Do you learn it from a book or do books simply make reference to an essential part of the human experience, your experience?
Is awareness of the unfathomable different for the smartest kid in the class than it is for the dumbest? If intellect has nothing to do with this awareness, what does?
Where are you looking for the answer? If the smart kid turns to a book the dumb kid doesn't understand is she more likely to come up with the answer? If not, why not?
Is intuition synonymous with cerebration, vision with magnitude?
Considering all these questions, it behooves us to reexamine the scientists' assertion that beyond a certain number of calculations per second a computer will replicate the capacity of the human mind.
Will a computer one day be capable of an epiphany, a solution to a seemingly irresolvable problem such as the one that presented itself to King Solomon?
Are scientists kidding themselves, comparing apples to oranges?
R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.