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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Does a Thermometer Think?

May it does, and maybe it doesn't. Per panpsychism, for instance, the answer is "yes." And panpsychism has had many brilliant proponents, such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead. Of late, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers, amongst others, have revived interest in the idea.

But whether your thermostat does or does not think, one way of trying to answer the question is obviously wrong: You can't simply point to its ability to regulate one's household temperature and say, "See!"

Hardly anyone but panpsychists will claim that a forklift "knows" how to lift heavy things based on the fact that it can lift heavier things than humans can. Similarly, few people regard thermostats as thinking about indoor temperatures and deciding whether or not to turn on the furnace. And imagine how strange you'd find it if someone insisted "Your thermostat doesn't think, but mine does: I've four-zone heating!"

The error being made is that "Does X think?" is a philosophical question, not a technological one. Someone who says, "That forklift can only lift one ton, so it knows very little about lifting, but that one there that can lift four tons, it has very deep thoughts on the matter" is obviously confused. It is the exact same confusion exhibited in saying "Logic circuits that don't think at all can add numbers, but once they can play chess well, they are obviously thinking."

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