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Colin McGinn Reviews Ray Kurzweil

March 9, 2013

Philosopher Colin McGinn reviews our old friend Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed in the New York Review of Books.

The “secret of thought” is therefore mechanical pattern recognition, with hierarchical structure and suitable weightings for constituent features. All is revealed!

What are we to make of this theory? First, pattern recognition is a subject much studied by perceptual psychologists, so Kurzweil is hardly original in calling attention to it (I worked on it myself as a psychology student back in 1970). What is more original is his contention that it provides the key to mental phenomena in general.

However, that claim seems obviously false.

Read the whole thing here. We’ve read a number of figures who are quite sympathetic to the wilder ideas in AI, and it wise to balance this reading with responses by authors like McGinn (and John Searle, whom we read earlier in the semester) who are skeptical, to say the least.


A word or two more is in order. McGinn (see photo above) is well-known for what might be called his “tough-minded” reviews. For example, in a review of Ted Honderich’s On Consciousness, McGinn wrote

This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.

Note that this is not an isolated example and appeared in one of the most well-respected journals in philosophy. It generated rather a lot of chatter too, some of it quite insightful. There’s even a sort of clearing house of harsh reviews of one philosopher by another here. Who knew? Unsurprisingly, McGinn himself has been the target of a sharply worded review or two.

In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.

So wrote Nina Strohminger in her review of McGinn’s The Meaning of Disgust.

Okay, here’s the main point for the students in this class. There’s something amusing about this kind of discourse. It’s just a little like watching crash test dummies getting pulverized in old highway safety videos.

No one is really getting hurt (right?!?), but all the other visual cues are there. But whatever enjoyment you get out of this kind of rough treatment, please don’t take it as your model of good philosophical discourse. We can set aside for the purposes of this class the question of whether this level of scorn and ridicule is ever appropriate among people who work on philosophy for a living and who are already well-established in the profession. (I have my doubts, but whatever.) What matters in this class is that if you find yourself inclined in your term paper to react with every bit of sarcasm you can muster, there’s a significant chance that you’ve either (1) misunderstood what’s being said or (2) stumbled across a point of view that’s not really worth your time. (Or both, though that seems a little less likely.) If either (1) or (2) holds, it’s quite possible that your term paper needs a new topic, or at least a significant modification to the old topic.  So use the curled lips and rolled eyes in moderation.

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