Stanley Fish on What Distinguishes Us from Computers

At the New York Times this week, Stanley Fish offers the following as a key distinction between himself and a computer:

[I]ts procedures do not track my practice. I am not self-consciously generating a pattern of statistical frequencies. I am producing words that have been chosen because they contribute to the realization of a governing idea or a compositional plan. In fact, to say that the computer is wrong  is to give it more credit than it deserves; for right and wrong are not what it does; what it does is count (faster than I or anyone else could) and match. What it doesn’t do is begin with an awareness of a situation and an overall purpose and look around for likely courses of action within that awareness. That is because, as the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus explained almost 40 years ago,  a “computer is not in a situation” (“What Computers Can’t Do”); it has no holistic sense of context and no ability to survey  possibilities from a contextual perspective; it doesn’t begin with  what Wittgenstein terms a “form of life,”  but must build up a form of life, a world, from the only thing it has and is, “bits of context-free, completely determinate data.” And since the data, no matter how large in quantity, can never add up to a context  and will always remain discrete bits, the world can never be built.

What most strikes me here is this: human beings are always in a situation. That’s the foundation for every gesture of storytelling, and it’s also what makes us human (and not computers).

Here’s some more from Fish:

[W]e  don’t walk around putting discrete items together until they add up to a context; we walk around with a contextual sense — a sense of where we are and what’s at stake and what our resources are — already in place; we  inhabit worldly spaces already organized by purposes, projects and expectations. The computer inhabits nothing and has no purposes and because it has no purposes it cannot alter its present (wholly predetermined) “behavior” when it  fails to advance the purposes it doesn’t have. When as human beings we determine that  “the data coming in make no sense”  relative to what we want to do, we can, Dreyfus explains “try a new total hypothesis,” begin afresh. A computer, in contrast, “could at best be programmed to try out a series of hypotheses to see which best fit the fixed data.”

This is why I would say that Aristotle’s notion of telos as a reason for why things happen in the world is still a relevant concept—at least when it comes to humans. We have beliefs, make choices, and have purposes that (at least appear to) transcend the processes of determinate things like computers (and the rest of the universe at large).

And I also think that Fish’s observations constitute some very good reasons for doubting that a Turing test could ever function as evidence of a computer’s intelligence (let alone consciousness).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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