The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 8 in a series

The photo shows creationists Walter Bradley and Ide Trotter at a workshop hosted by the Texas Education Agency, where they were assigned the task of reviewing high school biology texts for public schools.

I tend to devote this series to people being stupid about science, such as by using science and religion in the same sentence. That often comes about when people, caught up in religion, carry the contagion with them when they step across the line into fields of science—or into any other area requiring rational thought. Who does this a lot are the people at the Discovery Institute (DI), the premier organization in this country promoting Intelligent Design.

A rich resource on this kind of foolishness is the DI’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), founded by creationist Stephen C. Meyer, among others. the thinking of DI fellows and the CSC are made public on an associated site called Evolution News. More recently, I found the following posted on the Discovery Institute site:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: Why Machines Will Never Think

From remarks at the official launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence


This is interesting on multiple levels, one of which relates to Dr. Michael Egnor, whom we have met before:

Michael Egnor is a prominent neurosurgeon and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stony Brook University. He became inoculated against evolution (the science of biological evolution) after reading  Michael Denton‘s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Egnor has aligned himself with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC), one of the leading creationist organizations in this country and likely the absolute leader in support of the Intelligent Design version of creationism. An excerpt from one of his posts on the CSC’s Evolution News blog may be characteristic:

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team.

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations.

Follow the link and read the post for complete details. Anyhow, Dr. Egnor now proposes to  boldly step outside his realm of expertise and into the quagmire that is Artificial Intelligence (AI). I took some time to read through his thinking on the matter, and you are invited to do likewise. What I found is that, while Dr. Egnor is likely correct in some of his conclusions, he is correct for the wrong reasons. An illustration from Dr. Egnor’s monograph:

What is the hallmark of human thought, and what distinguishes thoughts from material things? Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher in the 19th century, answered this question decisively. All thoughts are about something, whereas no material object is inherently “about” anything. This property of aboutness is called intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind. Every thought that I have shares the property of aboutness—I think about my vacation, or about politics, or about my family. But no material object is, in itself, “about” anything. A mountain or a rock or a pen lacks aboutness—they are just objects. Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind.

Another word for intentionality is meaning. All thoughts inherently mean something. A truly meaningless thought is an oxymoron. The meaning may be trivial or confusing, but every thought entails meaning of some sort. Every thought is about something, and that something is the meaning of the thought.

That’s what I like about philosophers. First, they fall back on what other philosophers have said—with little or no attempt at confirmation, and they talk of things being true, apparently for the sole reason that they say they are true. How about, “Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind?” Whether he realizes it or not, what Dr. Egnor has just done is to write a definition for the word mind. Please note the statement does not preclude a computer becoming a mind. What it says is that if a computer attains intentionality, then a computer can become a mind. Dr. Egnor never offers any reason a computer cannot become a mind. He says it, so it must be so.

Under other circumstances I would pass off Dr. Egnor’s musing as the product of religious corruption. I cannot do this, because it happens that Dr. Egnor, in his musings, is in the company of mental giants, one being renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. It happens that Penrose is of the same mind as Dr. Egnor in this matter. Neither believes a computer can become a mind, and Penrose has written a book on the matter titled The Emperor’s New Mind. I have had a copy of the book since it came out in 1989, but I did not read through it. That’s because I quickly encountered conclusions I cannot sign off on. In the book, Penrose seems to invoke the argument from incredulity, much as Dr. Egnor does above. Martin Gardner wrote the forward, concluding:

Penrose’s achievements in mathematics and physics– and I have touched on only a small fraction– spring from a lifelong sense of wonder toward the mystery and beauty of being. His little finger tells him that the human mind is more than just a collection of tiny wires and switches. The Adam of his prologue and epilogue is partly a symbol of the dawn of consciousness in the slow evolution of sentient life. To me he is also Penrose– the child sitting in the third row, a distance back from the leaders of AI– who dares to suggest that the emperors of strong AI have no clothes. Many of Penrose’s opinions are infused with humour, but this one is no laughing matter.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 143-148). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Here is a sampling of Penrose’s own thinking, highlighted in my Kindle edition by earlier readers:

Most particularly, I argue that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be accommodated within the framework of present-day physical theory.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 153-154). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

My reasoning, as presented in this book, has two main strands to it. The first of these endeavours to show, by appealing to results of Gödel (and Turing) that mathematical thinking (and hence conscious thinking generally) is something that cannot be encapsulated within any purely computational model of thought. This is the part of my argument that my critics have most frequently taken issue with. The second strand of the reasoning is to demonstrate that there is an important gap in our physical picture of the world, at a level which ought to bridge the submicroscopic world of quantum physics to the macro-world of classical physics. My viewpoint demands that the missing physics falling within this gap, when found, will play an essential part in the physical understanding of the conscious mind. Moreover, there must be something outside purely computational action in this sought-for area of physics.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 164-170). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Penrose appears to set aside a special place for living forms, and he does not limit this thinking to the mind. I took four courses from  Wolfgang Rindler, and after I got my degree I came back to the campus to attend a 70th birthday party for him. Roger Penrose attended, as well, and he gave a talk in which he explained that living material needs to be explained in terms of  quantum physics. I  got that this was an explanation in terms of quantum  physics beyond the fact that quantum physics determines basic chemical properties of the elements, and I asked the question, “Are you resurrecting the concept of vitalism?” He assured me he was not, and I let it go at that. For the moment. The truth is, I consider Penrose’s invocation of quantum mechanics as vitalism dressed up in a lab coat.

Apparently anybody can be a philosopher, so I’m thinking about giving it a try. In future postings I will provide rational explanations for human thought, life, death, and the origin of the universe. Keep reading.

One thought on “The Years of Living Stupidly

  1. Pingback: The Years of Living Stupidly | Skeptical Analysis

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