Philosophy of Computer Science

Position Paper #5:

Can Computers Think?

Last Update: 9 April 2007

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

For this position paper, I would like you to evaluate the following hypothetical debate.

    Pro: If something behaves in all relevant ways as if it were cognitive, then it is cognitive.

    Con: What do you mean by "being cognitive"?

    Pro: I mean that it can perceive (see, hear, etc.); has beliefs, desires, and intentions; can remember; can use and understand natural language; can reason and make rational decisions; etc. You know, the sort of thing that AI researchers are trying to achieve by computational means.

    Con: Do you think they will succeed?

    Pro: I'm optimistic: I think that a suitable AI program (or maybe a suite of programs) will eventually behave in all these ways.

    Con: But that means that you think that such an AI program will be cognitive?

    Pro: Yes.

    Con: But that's crazy! Computer programs are purely syntactic!

    Pro: Now it's my turn to ask for clarification: What do you mean by "syntactic"?

    Con: I mean that all it can do is to manipulate the symbols of a formal symbol system.

    Pro: So what's the problem?

    Con: The problem is that cognition is semantic! That is, it involves the semantic interpretation of those symbols.

    Pro: Well, I'm not so sure about that. But suppose you're right. What then?

    Con: Well, syntax does not suffice for semantics. So, no purely syntactic computer program can exhibit semantic cognition, even if it behaves in all relevant ways as if it were cognitive.

  1. Your position paper should be approximately If it is more than 1 page long, please staple the pages together and make sure that your name is on all pages!

  2. Please bring to lecture on the due date and to recitation that week.

  3. At the top of the first page, please put ALL AND ONLY the following information in the following format:

    Position Paper #5                 YOUR NAME
    DATE DUE                 CSE (or PHI) 484 (or 584), Monday (or Wednesday)

    Failure to do so will result in a lower grade!

  4. Failure to correctly distinguish among "true (or false) sentences, propositions, statements, premises, or conclusions" and "valid (or invalid) arguments" will also result in a lower grade! (After all, you need to demonstrate that you've learned something this semester :-)

  5. For general assistance with writing (including my preferred method of paper preparation and format, as well as advice on grammar), see my website "How to Write". As before, no abstract is needed for this position paper, but you do need to give full citations to any sources that you cite.


Copyright © 2007 by William J. Rapaport (