Does Watson Have a Mind? - Evolution News & Views

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Does Watson Have a Mind?

There has been much discussion about the recent appearance on Jeopardy of a computer named Watson. Watson has played against human contestants, and has provided uncannily accurate answers to some questions. Can Watson actually think? Does Watson have a mind?

What does it mean 'to have a mind'? To have a mind, one must have mental states. There are two hallmarks of mental states: qualia and intentionality.

A quale (singular of qualia) is a raw subjective experience, such as the experience of pain, or taste of salt, or seeing blue. A quale does not intrinsically include an opinion or a proposition. It is mere experience, in the raw. If you stub your toe, the pain you feel is a quale. Your opinion that this is the worst pain you have experienced is an opinion about the quale, but not a part of the quale itself. Your viewpoint that 'if my kid didn't leave his toy where I could stub my toe on it then I wouldn't have stubbed my toe' is a proposition about your quale, but, again, not the quale itself. Qualia don't have meaning. They are pure experience.

Intentionality is different from qualia. Intentionality is the 'aboutness' of a mental state -- the characteristic of a mental state that it refers to something other than itself. Colloquially, intentionality is the meaning of a mental state. When I think about the White House, my mental state is intentional, in the sense that it is directed to an object outside of myself. Most mental states are intentional in one sense or another. Most thoughts are about something, and therefore intentional.

Now substances such as rocks and ink and copper and silicon are not intrinsically intentional. They are not, in themselves, about anything. They merely are. If you were to walk along the seashore and see a collection of rocks that seemed to spell "SOS," you would immediately recognize that the rocks might or might not exhibit intentionality. If the rock SOS merely arose by the waves and wind, then it would have no meaning. If the rock SOS were put there by a person in need of help, it would have meaning. Its meaning of course wouldn't in the rocks themselves, but would be imparted to the rocks by a person, who is capable of independent intentionality.

Philosopher John Searle has noted that there are three different kinds of intentionality:

1) Primary or intrinsic intentionality, which comes from a person.
2) Secondary or derived intentionality, which is inscribed in an object that is incapable of primary intentionality by a person.
3) 'As if' intentionality, which is the colloquial attribution of intentionality to an object incapable of intentionality (e.g. "the trees moaned in the wind as if they were frightened by the storm...").

Now back to Watson. Does Watson have a mental state? To refine the question, does Watson have qualia or intentionality?

Watson does not have qualia. Watson has no sensory organs, no pain receptors, no olfactory cells. Whatever Watson does, it (not he) does not have raw sensory experience.

And Watson does not have intentionality. Watson is a device, made of silicon and copper and whatever, that yields a defined output according to the modification of its input by its program. Its program was written by programmers who do have intentionality. Watson is quantitatively much more sophisticated than your pocket calculator, but Watson is not qualitatively different from your calculator. It's just electrons bumping electrons, in a system designed by people who do have minds. The appearance of intentionality in Watson's 'answers' on Jeopardy is really secondary intentionality, derived from the genuine primary intentionality of the brilliant engineers and programmers who built 'him.'

So, no, Watson doesn't have a mind. Watson experiences nothing and 'means' nothing. Watson is a computing machine, and computation -- syntax -- is not semantics. Watson's computation is a series of physical events without intrinsic meaning. The meaning that we perceive in Watson's output is derived from Watson's designers and our understanding of Watson's output. We have minds and do have primary intentionality. Watson doesn't have a mind, any more than an abacus or a wristwatch have a mind.

Watson would agree, if he could.