Minsky, Searle, Philosophy, Mind, and Computers

Marvin Minsky died at age 88. Let me quote from the beginning of his seminal book from 1985, “The Society of Mind”:

“This book tries to explain how mind works. How can intelligence emerge from nonintelligence? To answer that, we’ll show that you can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself.”

Once I have understood Minsky’s thinking, I found the same principle of “emergence” in many places: In my course “Computer Organization” I exemplify this principle on several occasions:

Example 1:

Two latches together understand the concept of the “positive edge of the clock signal” and react to it, although a single latch is completely ignorant to this concept.

Example 2:

If you look at a very simple computer, e.g. the TOY computer which we use in the course, we “see” that this computer “understands language”. However, we cannot attribute this ability to any of the computer’s components. This ability to understand language emerges
from the connection of several components like RAM, program counter, instruction register, control logic, and some more. None of the components itself has any clue about

Once I have understood the idea of “emergence”, I no longer had any major trouble with reasoning about such complex questions like the following ones:

  • Where does the cosmos come from? – Maybe it just emerged. From plenty of nothing.
  • Where does life come from? – It might have just emerged. From plenty of non-living items.
  • Where does intelligence come from? – You guessed it.
  • Which neuron in my brain is responsible for recognizing my grandmother?
  • Where is the exact location of “love” in my brain?

I do not claim that every complex question can be solved by using the trick of emergence; however, this concept provides a quite interesting “thinking tool”.

You now might want to read Marvin Minsky’s book “The Society of Mind”. It helped me a lot to impress even John Searle when we had lunch together during his 1-week seminar which he gave on his critical thoughts about artificial intelligence in the early 1990s in Graz. Marvin Minsky helped me to counter Searle’s so-called “Chinese-Room Argument”.

Read more about Marvin Minsky here: http://news.mit.edu/2016/marvin-minsky-obituary-0125

In case you happen to pass by my office door: Drop in and have a look at Minsky’s book. It’s lying on my desk.


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