Let us calculate.

Of Men and Machines

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Funny thing how philosophy jumps out to bite your head off when you’re relaxing with a nice classic (dim lights, hot tea, Gymnopédie no. 1 on heavy rotation, that kind of thing). And then you read:

The King [of Brobdingnag], although he be as learned a Person as any in his Dominions, and had been educated in the Study of Philosophy, and particularly Mathematicks; yet when he observed my Shape exactly, and saw me walk erect, before I began to speak, conceived I might be a Piece of Clock-work, (which is in that Country arrived to a very great Perfection), contrived by some ingenious Artist. But when he heard my Voice, and found what I delivered to be regular and rational, he could not conceal his Astonishment. He was by no means satisfied with the Relation I gave him of the Manner I came into his Kingdom, but thought it a Story concerted between Glumdalclitch and her Father, who had taught me a Set of Words to make me sell at a higher Price. Upon this Imagination he put several other Questions to me, and still received rational Answers, no otherwise defective than by a foreign Accent, and an imperfect Knowledge in the Language, with some rustick Phrases which I had learned at the Farmer’s House, and did not suit the polite Stile of a Court. (Gulliver’s Travels, ch. 3)

This royal lack of confidence, of course, strikes you as very much resembling Descartes’ thoughts on the matter—according to him, machines

could never use speech or other signs as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others. For we can easily understand a machine’s being constituted so that it can utter words, and even emit some responses to action on it of a corporeal kind, which brings about a change in its organs; for instance, if it is touched in a particular part itmay ask what we wish to say to it; if in another part it may exclaim that it is being hurt, and so on. But it never happens that it arranges its speech in various ways, in order to reply appropriately to everything that may be said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do. (Descartes, Discourse de la Methode, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Volume I. Edited by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. Cambridge University Press, 1931, p. 116)

Hold on a minute, wasn’t the King of Brobdingnag supposed to be a sensible person, with a sane contempt for the European politics of the early 18th century and the use of gunpowder? And educated in „Mathematicks”? I was expecting something like this from the good monarch…


Written by Stefan Ionescu

septembrie 10, 2008 la 5:55 pm

Publicat în Blah, EN, Mind

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