Philosophy of Computer Science

Position Paper #5:

Can Computers Think?

Last Update: 5 April 2010

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 computer running 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-programmed computer will be cognitive?

    Pro: Yes.

    Con: But that's crazy! Computers and 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 a computer 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 computer executing a purely syntactic computer program can exhibit semantic cognition, even if it behaves in all relevant ways as if it were cognitive.

  1. For your peer-editing session next week, I will give you a choice:
    You may either:

    1. create a "thinksheet" like the one for Position Paper #4,
      • with one column listing the premises, conclusions, and arguments;
      • one column of "cells" to indicate your agreement or disagreement with them;
      • and one column of "cells" to indicate your reasons for your agreement or disagreement

    2. or write a 1–2 page, double-spaced (i.e., about 250–500 word), single-sided, first draft.

    (Of course, you might want to do option #1 for your own use before doing option #2!
    They are not mutually inconsistent :-)

    If your document 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 class on the due date.

  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 484 (or 584) (or PHI 584)

  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!

  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".
    And don't forget to give full citations to any sources that you cite.


Copyright © 2010 by William J. Rapaport (