“The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. ”
— Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Concept of History
The philosopher John Searle wrote an essay in which he asserted that computers, no matter how powerful, would never be able to engage in the subtelties of human consciousness.
The argument is known as, The Chinese Room.
Essentially, Searle posits that a computer and a human, in a room, with appropriate tools, receiving inputs in Chinese and having access to everything required to understand Chinese (lexicons, dictionaries, and the ability to read and write Chinese characters) would be able to answer questions in Chinese with the result being that anyone outside of the room, would be unable to distinguish between the computer and human.
This is considered part of the proof of passing the (Alan) Turing Test by which one determines a computer is as “intelligent” as a human.
Searle’s point, extrapolated from this is that repetition, processing of input and providing accurate output, is not synonymous with consciousness.
Searle is of course correct but what has gone missing in the voluminous body of work that has grown up around his essay is of course the Joyce-Beckett Paradox, discussed in our previous essay.*
As a wider contextualization of the issues contained in the paradox it is worth highlighting that Searle not only does not mention Joyce’s interaction with Beckett and the “mistake” but that the Chinese room hypothesis is itself an updated version of a much older event that proved the same conclusion.
In the 18th century, Wolfgang von Kempelen, constructed what he called The Mechanical Turk.
This “device” was a hoax that Kempelen claimed was a machine capable of playing chess including being able to perform The Knight’s Tour, in which a knight is moved so that it lands on each square of a chess board.
In truth the “Turk” was a man inside the box and not a machine at all.**
Exposed as a hoax the “Turk” lived on as a curio and cultural artifact until destroyed in a fire in the middle of the 19th century.
What is of significance though is first, the idea that a machine could replace human consciousness. The anxiety of the age of industry, the terror of the advent of the machine manifested in multiple forms.
Benjamin Franklin, in the 18th century was appalled by a tour of factories and mills in England. The Romantics, distraught at the ever-expanding destruction of the environment rallied themselves to celebrate the sublime – the soul-shattering experience of the natural world as a rebellion against the age of the machine.
The rise of advanced optics, tools for increasingly accurate measurement, and advanced and more lethal weapons, and the expansion of trade and the blowback from imperialism all produced a sense of anxiety in the face of rapid change.
At one end of this spectrum we find Rousseau agitating for freedom while simultaneously demanding the closing of theaters in a regurgitation of the beta test of Plato’s fascism in which the ideal city state is defined by the forced exile of the poets.
Additionally one can find in early science fiction works from the Enlightenment era plots in which starvation and sexism and justice have all been either eradicated or perfected but what goes missing in these arcadias is the mess of freedom – books are reduced either to inert museum curiosities or are banned outright, leaving in their wake a placid void filled by emotional zombies and polite constabularies full of Big Brother gentility.
The context then of “The Turk” is this sense of human consciousness under siege.
Napoleon, recontextualized as a Promethean action hero exemplifying the enlightenment ideal of a common man rising to power through merit versus royal lineage, is said to have defeated “The Turk” at chess – precisely because, per Searle, the input and output of data, however accurate, lacks what for lack of a better word, we define as, soul.
The story of Bonaparte versus the machine has multiple iterations including, crucially, versions where he tests “The Turk” by making illegal moves – moves that require responces which in turn will prompt conscious learning from mistakes or reputation of programing by the machine.
Additionally other notable figures who played against “The Turk” include Franklin who while amused by the machine also kept a book in his vast library that detailed how it was a hoax.
But Searle does not mention “The Turk.” His critics, do not either and none of them of course would dream of contextualizing the issue through the prism of Joyce and Beckett.
The meta issue then is not the correctness of Searle’s point (though he is clearly correct when he defines the limits of Artificial Intelligence) but that a massive and dangerous elision of information has occurred and is on going at an ever increasing pace.
This in turn is a new kind of “Turk” performing inside a “Chinese Room.”
This hoax is a form of cultural suicide in which the victim of the hoax is, ironically, the person performing the trick.
*See the previous essay here:
*The use of “The Turk” as a narrative designed to convey “exoticism” and the “mysterious East” or “foreigner” would appear on the surface to fit the agenda of certain otherwise useful scholars pushing a counter narrative in which the imperialists project their unconscious bigotry and efforts at psychological colonization onto the victims of colonization.
Sadly for these authors the fact remains that these efforts were a two way street with all parties involved creating narratives for themselves at everyone’s expense.
The now traditional method is to posit the Europeans as “othering” their colonial victims. This in turn is presented as a pathological need to see the colonized as less than fully human, transformed into a fetish of sexuality, mystery and danger ultimately capable of corrupting the otherwise pure soul of the imperialist.
Among the vast number of problems with this approach are the well documented instances of European imperialism directed at Europeans.
These episodes of colonization, genocide, cultural elision and stupidity produced artifacts of great significance.
One could argue, for example that Joseph Conrad while a genius, was also a bigot, selling a racist version of African reality in his masterpiece, Heart of Darkness.
But one can only succeed in doing that if the facts are amputated from the truth.
Portraying “The Turk” or Conrad as examples of a European pathology that demanded seeing Africa or other colonies as less than human may be true but becomes problematic at best, when one remembers (or chooses not to forget) that Conrad’s Poland had been colonized by Europeans, that Ireland was part of Europe and had been colonized (along with Scotland and Wales and at one especially brutal moment, Holland courtesy of the Spanish) and that courtesy of everyone from Thomas Hardy to D.H. Lawrence to Dickens, and Joyce and Yeats we have a vast record of brilliant people pointing out that for the English it was the French Pox and for the French it was the Spanish Pox and so on.
Or we could pretend that Swift never wrote that old Blues standard, A Modest Proposal, and that the English never got their rocks off by turning Irish red heads into the engine of their fetishes as they held Oxbridge orgies while singing, Rule Britannia.
The Turks in their turn, had of course spent centuries kidnapping people, including Europeans, and using them as psychological stimulus packages designed to boost the local economy including, the itinerant story tellers guild, local artisans and to keep assorted pashas happy with a steady supply of slaves.
In other words, it was and remains a circular firing squad and when you hear someone yell, “fire” – your best bet is to duck.