In the context of what is called digitalization we are witnessing a stunning renaissance of an uncritical, almost metaphysical understanding of thinking machines. Alan Turing, however, in his famous article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, made it quite clear from the outset that the metaphysical question of whether machines are capable of thinking must be replaced by one of its many functional equivalents, i.e. by the test of whether it is possible for a human observer to distinguish “intelligent” behaviour displayed by a human being from the same behaviour displayed by a machine.
In this lecture it was argued that this—largely neglected—difference between the conjectured capacity to think and the impossibility of distinguishing between the “intelligent” behaviour of human beings and machine(systems) is to be understood as an “anticartesian experiment” representing the decisive turning point in modern thinking. Since Descartes, modern philosophy has been characterised by methodic scepticism, i.e. by the principle of taking nothing for granted unless it be clearly and distinguishably perceived (“clare et distincte percipitur”). The strongest test of this is the “Deus malignus” test of systematic deception.
In contrast, the Turing test and thus all digital machinery consists in systematically demonstrating indistinguishability, thus rehabilitating deception “in an extra-moral sense” (Nietzsche).
Walther Zimmerli is philosopher and honorary Professor “Mind and Technology” at Humboldt-University Berlin. Currently he is a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
Comments by Christoph Durt (University of Vienna, Department of Philosophy)