Intelligent Design bad for CS too

It’s not often that I turn on the television to see breaking news banners nowadays and am actually happy about what they are announcing, but yesterday’s ruling in PA that Intelligent Design cannot be taught as a science, even if only in the Dover school district, was heartening. The judge’s accusation that efforts by the defendants to claim that intelligent design and creationism are entirely separate things were flat lies was also entertaining.
It occured to me today, as I was thinking about this ruling, that I could imagine, in an alternate reality where schools actually decided that these computer things weren’t just a fad and computer science was worth teaching at a pre-college level, that artificial intelligence could see itself coming up against similar problems. After all, as a field, we’re asking questions about what it is to be intelligent, and generally rejecting the “having a soul, as bestowed by God” definition of the term.

But then I felt better, because I remembered that Turing, back in his seminal 1950 paper on the topic, had the following to say in the section where he considered arguments others might likely have to his proposed, measurable definition of intelligence:

(1) The Theological Objection
Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think.
I am unable to accept any part of this, but will attempt to reply in theological terms. I should find the argument more convincing if animals were classed with men, for there is a greater difference, to my mind, between the typical animate and the inanimate than there is between man and the other animals. The arbitrary character of the orthodox view becomes clearer if we consider how it might appear to a member of some other religious community. How do Christians regard the Moslem view that women have no souls? But let us leave this point aside and return to the main argument. It appears to me that the argument quoted above implies a serious restriction of the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal to two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this sort[. An argument of exactly similar form may be made for the case of machines. It may seem different because it is more difficult to “swallow.” But this really only means that we think it would be less likely that He would consider the circumstances suitable for conferring a soul. The circumstances in question are discussed in the rest of this paper. In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing .mansions for the souls that He creates.
However, this is mere speculation. I am not very impressed with theological arguments whatever they may be used to support. Such arguments have often been found unsatisfactory in the past. In the time of Galileo it was argued that the texts, “And the sun stood still . . . and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua x. 13) and “He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not move at any time” (Psalm cv. 5) were an adequate refutation of the Copernican theory. With our present knowledge such an argument appears futile. When that knowledge was not available it made a quite different impression.

I am aware that I am exaggerating the importance of this question for many AI researchers – the majority of us do not spend our time pondering these philosophical depths, but instead pick away at the accessible corners of improving the intelligent behavior of computers. However, as an educator, I think that any student of artificial intelligence should learn about these philosophical questions underlying the field – not the least because the very name of the field cries out for those questions to be asked. It makes me cringe to think that I would have to allow equal footing to an objection that a computer cannot be intelligent because “God says so” as compared to more credible objections based on an understanding of how computers perform their calculations and their abilities and limitations.
This is not to say that I am particularly bothered if a student of mine has a belief that only humans can be intelligent because of their relationship with God – it is not a component of my faith, but it may be of theirs. What I am bothered by is the idea that, so long as I am respectful of that belief, I cannot ask them to put that aside to engage in the scientifically grounded question of what it is that characterizes intelligence in an observable manner.
I suspect that every field has it’s theories that contradict strict Biblical readings. It’s interesting that evolution has become the one that most agitates those who follow such strict readings. Perhaps because the question of where we came from and how this all started is so fundamental – the answer to that directs the answer to everything else. Perhaps people reallly are squicked out by the idea that they are related to a monkey – something that I actually find comforting more than disturbing. Or perhaps because the other obvious candidates, things like the Big Bang, are not taught as frequently in schools. Whatever it is, I’m happy for the biology teachers out there today.

2 thoughts on “Intelligent Design bad for CS too

  1. Hurray for a major defeat for ID!!! The biology teacher in my household is particularly ecstatic. The scathing quotes I’ve read from the judge’s ruling make me want to read the whole thing. (well, maybe not too much…since here I am blogging instead.)
    Your analogy is chilling! Imagine if you had to read a statement at the start of your class saying that computers can’t be intelligent because only God confers intelligence. Yikes! I wish I thought it could never happen. Sadly, I think the Bible-huggers will go to any lengths.
    I like your idea that being related to monkeys is more comforting than disturbing. I never thought about it, but it is for me, too.
    Excellent piece by Turing, whoever he is. Something tells me he is some famous computer scientist whom everyone knows (but me).

  2. Turing is, as you guess, a famous computer scientist – he did groundbreaking work in a variety of fields in and out of computer science as well as being known for working on the Enigma code-breaking effort during WWII in England. He committed suicide at the age of 42 after having been arrested for being gay and agreeing to taking libido-reducing drugs instead of going to jail (with no proof, but much belief, that this contributed to the suicide). The major annual computer science award (the “CS nobel prize”, if you will) is called the Turing Award.

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