Alan Turing famously devised the Turing test, which was intended to test whether a machine can think. If it could show enough behavior consistent with thinking, Turing claimed that it really does think.
Turing tests have come under quite a lot of criticism for relying on the fallacious inference from something appearing to have a certain property to the conclusion that it does have that property. Turing tests take the behavior that follows from genuine thinking to be sufficient to establish that there is such thinking, even if the same behavior can be produced by a computer program. I would take the fact that it comes from a computer program to be sufficient reason to think such behavior can occur without genuine thinking.
So the usual criticism of Turing tests is that they assume thinking is occurring just because the usual behavior resulting from thinking is occurring. While I'm not interested in diminishing that objection, it occurred to be recently that Turing tests aren't just not sufficient for thinking (things that pass the test might not be thinking). They're not even necessary (things that think might fail the test). For one thing, someone who thinks might simply refuse to comply with the test and thus could fail. But more poignantly, someone with a communication-related disorder, e.g. someone with autism and dyspraxia who is completely non-verbal, simply cannot display the behavior the test is looking for. Being unable to communicate is certainly not a sign of being unable to think.
I would argue that more harm is caused by those who take passing a Turing test to be necessary for intelligent thought than is caused by those who take passing such a test to be sufficient for intelligence. We recently attended a communication seminar for parents and educators of non-verbal and mostly non-verbal children. At one session an autistic college senior was present. He can now speak in a somewhat limited manner, but he can communicate by typing on a portable device at a level that's almost certainly far beyond what most kindergarten teachers would have ever expected if they had seen his communication level in his younger years. He had no verbal language until age 12, but because his teachers taught him to type they knew that he was able to grasp much higher levels of thought than most teachers would have even speculated. At last night's session, there was a guy with Down Syndrome and autism who, as far as I could tell, can even as an adult do little more than grunt was typing out sentences that indicate a pretty high-level grasp of some pretty abstract and complex phenomena.
With a son who can't speak much more than five syllables at a time (unless he's singing or engaging in echolalic repetition of Veggie Tales or some other TV show), we've been able to see something like this firsthand. We knew in kindergarten that he was reading fairly complex words for the level of verbal behavior we normally saw, because he'd occasionally see a word and say it. (I remember him saying "banana" one time when there were no pictures of a banana, just the word.) But it's been very hard to get him to demonstrate his intelligence with writing, until this year, with his teacher and support staff working very hard with him to get him typing. Six months ago we could get him to trace over words we wrote out with a highlighter, or we could get him to point to words sometimes on a communication device, which could then pronounce them for him (but they had to be programmed in first, since he wasn't typing them). Now he's showing reading comprehension by completing "because" clauses to answer why certain characters did certain things. It makes me wonder how much he's been wanting to be able to communicate for years but unable to get his mouth or hands to do anything to show it.
The Turing defender might now say that he is able to show it, so it's not an objection to the test, but he's only now able to show it, and there's no reason to think he just started to be able to think on this level. I suspect most teachers would have assumed he couldn't handle the level of math that he's doing (basically right on second grade level) or the vocabulary and reading that he's doing (which is, as I said, at a pretty good level for demonstrating reading comprehension, better than his older brother could demonstrate at that age). He happens to have a teacher with 25 years of experience working with kids like him, who is informed about technology and methods to get kids like him communicating. Many educators encountering a kid like him might well assume low ability levels and not work to get him to communicate. In effect, they're using a reverse Turing test and concluding that someone isn't intelligent because they can't show it in the typical ways.
I heard late last night about William P. Alston's death earlier in the day, strangely not through any departmental channels but through a friend who never met him. He was one of the professors I've most respected in my entire academic career. He wrote his dissertation with Wilfred Sellars on the work of Alfred North Whitehead but spent most of his career on philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. Along with Alvin Goldman and Alvin Plantinga, he helped spearhead the externalist/reliabilist revolution in epistemology, a tradition that I think took things in the right direction. He also was one of the most important figures in the revival of philosophy of religion in the last four decades from a point where it had become looked upon as a joke except to reject traditional religious views to a point where some of the most important philosophers today are Christians or other theists. Alston himself was not a Christian when he began his philosophical career, a path shared with several other notable Christian philosophers (Norman Kretzmann and Peter van Inwagen come to mind).
It was always encouraging to me to think about how successful he was in philosophy given his personality and philosophical temperament, which I think are similar to mine in a number of ways that I'm not like most of my philosophical colleagues. He wasn't a system-builder. He wrote about what he had something to say about but wasn't trying to put together a comprehensive philosophical view on every issue he could have something to say about.
Most of his work didn't involve coming up with brilliant views on cutting-edge issues that no one had ever thought of before (although I think there are a few occasions of that in his work, especially in his most recent work in epistemology). He tended to favor traditional views, sometimes so traditional that the majority in philosophy had left the view so far behind that they considered it a joke until people like him came along to disabuse them of such notions by defending the views in novel ways.
Some of the most important philosophical figures are noteworthy for one or both of those reasons (system-building and novel views). Alston, however, filled a role of simply doing good philosophy, often in small but important details. He might see a fallacious argument that was nonetheless popular and apply an important distinction, perhaps one known to the medievals but often ignored by contemporary philosophers, to show why the argument fails. He found elements of competing views that might be compatible and explained why a moderating position might be better than either original view. He applied new arguments in epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, or metaphysics to some problem in philosophy of religion to show why a new trend in a completely different area makes Christian belief more favorable (e.g. his application of functionalism, a recent view in materialist philosophy of mind, to explain how language about God can be literally true even if not used in exactly the same sense as the same terms are used for us).
It was clear to me that his long-time colleague and friend Jonathan Bennett had little interest in a lot of the issues in philosophical theology that Alston spent a good deal of time on. In one instance in their Locke/Leibniz class, Bennett dismissed an objection I was raising against his criticism of Leibniz because he didn't want to get into the particular theological issue of God's relation to time, whereas Alston had been nodding along with my objection the whole time. Yet Bennett had tremendous respect for Alston and had been so thoroughly impressed with Alston's argument in Perceiving God that he insisted he publish the bits that weren't about God separately so as to get a wider audience, which resulted in his The Reliability of Sense Perception. Bennett had so much respect for Alston that he insisted on having Alston teach four of the six sessions on Locke in his Locke/Leibniz seminar whenever Alston was available to do it, and he tried for two decades to get Alston to publish his fascinating paper on how Locke's philosophy of language in a relatively obscure section of the Essay requires innate ideas, which he famously rejects earlier in the Essay.
Several directions in his work were influential in my own thinking:
This entry will spoil one of the major plot elements of the new Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (and I assume the book too, though I haven't read it), so don't read any further if you don't want to ruin it. It might also ruin my favorite episode of Andromeda and one of the most interesting elements of Babylon 5, but you can avoid that by skipping the last part (when I address other movies and TV shows) if you just want to read what I have to say about Harry Potter and the philosophy of time involved.
I'm not talking about the political view. I'm talking metaphysics here. For those more familiar with theology than philosophy, I'm talking about the view Arminians assume about free will. The libertarian view can be expressed in two non-equivalent ways (and some people hold one and not the other, in which case I don't know if I would call them libertarians).
1. Your action is free only if you could have done otherwise than you actually did. It has to be genuinely possible for you to have done otherwise. If determinism is true, then (on most views) this condition fails.
2. Your action is free if it's caused by you and not by prior events. This condition by definition rules out freedom if determinism is true.
The first principle is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). Harry Frankfurt famously argued against this principle (I think successfully) but still thinks you can meet condition 2 without having alternative possibilities, so he considers himself a libertarian. He just only adopts the second condition. There are compatibilists who accept 1 and give a complex account of possibility to explain how we can be predetermined and still possibly do otherwise. So not everyone who accepts 1 accepts 2, and not everyone who accepts 2 accepts 1. Still, I think 2 is essential for libertarianism, whether 1 accompanies it or not. Therefore, I'm going to argue against 2, which is commonly called the concept of agent causation.
There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.
Some people say yes, but can there be if theological determinism is true? The idea is that if God stands behind every action in some way, good or evil, then there cannot be potentiality in God. It's somehow inappropriate to say that something different could have happened, I could have done something different, etc. I am the one who did it, and I am responsible for doing it, but could it have been different if God stands behind it in some fundamental sense? Many Reformed thinkers will say no. There is no potentiality in God.
I disagree with the conclusion, though I think the general picture behind it is correct. To get a sense of why I think the fundamental picture behind it is correct, read through chapter 10 of Isaiah's prophecy and Peter's speech in Acts 2 and Acts 4. Evil actions are described -- first the king of Assyria and his attack on God's people, then Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the Jewish leaders -- follow-through that led to his being put to death. These are evil actions. There's no question about that in the minds of Isaiah (who gave the prophecy from God but presumably through his own mind and ways of expressing things, including through his own divinely inspired theological reflection), Peter (who gave the speech in the Acts narrative), and Luke (who gave us the Acts narrative). These people are blamed by the biblical writers for their evil actions. However, it's also true that God stands behind these events. The actions of Judas and the Jewish leaders, while evil, were necessary for God's plan of salvation. They are, in effect, part of that plan. Similarly, the actions of the Assyrian king are evil but are part of God's process of judging Israel. Isaiah goes so far as to call him a tool in God's hands, and yet somehow he's responsible for what he did! There is a mystery here. I'm not trying to sort it out, but its background is important for this issue.
Now about the conclusion many Reformed thinkers draw -- does this mean that only one thing is possible? After all, God has his one plan, which includes evil things in it, so we can't insist that the evil things are not part of God's plan and say that they allow for the various possibilities. If it's possible that God can in some way stand behind evil actions without himself being morally responsible for the evil people do, then we don't need to insist on human free action as something outside God's control. Then there really only needs to be one possible outcome, and it seems as if there aren't real possibilities. I once thought this was a good argument, but I'm now convinced that it's not. The biblical data from above points us one way. What you'll find is another set of passages in tension with the ones above, pushing us in a different direction. First let's consider those, and then we'll move on to discuss the philosophical implications.
Reformed thought affirms the idea that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross covers only the elect, only those God has predestined to be saved without regard to anything they deserve. Arminians question much of the Reformed picture, but limited atonement comes under fire even by middle-of-the-road people. One way Calvinists often put the doctrine is misleading, and they often have to give what seems to me to be a strange reinterpretation of very straightforward passages about God’s love for the world or for everyone or about Christ’s death for all or for the whole world. However, I don’t think you have to give up the doctrine of limited atonement to affirm these passages the way that seems most obvious. These reflections below explain why I think that. They were written in a context of an online debate, and I’ve included some of the statement that I’m responding to.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.