Can Computers Think?

It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves some thought, especially in this day and age: can computers think? If not, will they ever be able to?


This question was the main topic in one of my college classes last week. While we, the students, were not force-fed a concrete answer to the question, we were encouraged to think about it and explain why we believe computers can or cannot (or will or will not) have the ability to think. I’ll keep this analysis brief and open it up to everyone else at the end.

So, to start, my answer to the question is this: no, computers cannot think, and they never will be able to, no matter how good technology gets. Now, why do I believe that? The first question that needs to be addressed is how I define “thinking.” One might believe that thinking is simply the ability to process information intelligently, and in this case, one could say that computers do or will have this ability. However, I believe that thinking is more than just this — it also involves rationalizing, philosophizing, understanding, emotion, creativity, things like that. These things do not come merely from chemical reactions firing in the brain; rather, a soul is needed in addition to gray matter.

This is why computers can never truly “think.” Being purely material, not to mention man-made, they cannot have a consciousness or dream up original thoughts. All they can do is process information. Now, obviously, they can do this exceptionally well, and advancements in artificial intelligence have proved helpful in many different fields. Not only have they been helpful, but they’ve also been quite impressive and entertaining. Take, for example, IBM’s Watson.

"I'll make it a true Daily Double, Alex."

“I’ll make it a true Daily Double, Alex.”

Jeopardy! fans should recall the time in 2011 when the supercomputer Watson competed against humans, and won. It’s apparent that A. I. has come a long way and will continue to improve — for good or for ill, but that’s another conversation. The point here is that intelligence certainly can be simulated incredibly well by technology, but because of the absence of a soul, true intelligence in computers will never be possible.

Putting the soul aside for a bit, let me give you a purely logical argument that I learned about in my class. John Searle, an American philosopher, is of the belief that computers cannot truly think, and to illustrate his beliefs, he came up with an analogy known as the Chinese Room.

Here’s how it goes: imagine a man sitting in a room with no windows, but a single door. From outside the room, a person writes messages in Chinese and slides them under the door for the man to respond to. Now, the man has absolutely no understanding of Chinese, but he does have two things in the room to help him: a guidebook written in English which tells him what symbols he should use in his message back to the person outside the room, and a collection of these symbols. For example, an instruction might read: “Take a squiggle from Box 1 followed by a curve from Box 3.” So, he uses these tools to make a response and sends it back under the door. This can go back and forth ad infinitum, and the person outside the room is under the impression that he is speaking to someone who understands Chinese. In reality, however, the man inside the room has no understanding of Chinese; all he has is a guide which tells him what symbols to send back.

The Chinese Room.

The Chinese Room.

This, Searle says, is directly analogous to how a computer works. It is programmed to calculate and execute the desired output for the input, nothing more. It doesn’t understand the information it is processing, and this is why a computer cannot truly be intelligent.

There are arguments against Searle’s thinking, but those are irrelevant to this post. My point is that the Chinese Room is a helpful and interesting analogy for the problem of “thinking computers.”

This, coupled with my personal belief that the soul is necessary for true intelligence, leads me to the conclusion that computers will never be able to think. And for that matter, even if they could, would it be a good idea to develop such technology? Hasn’t anybody read Frankenstein? Or, for that matter, seen or read Jurassic Park? Both of these stories deliver a strong message of the consequences of “playing God,” or trying to duplicate life. We all know how they turned out.

To close, here’s a quote from Jurassic Park:

“Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm

Wise words.

Wise words.

What do you think? Could computers ever truly “think?”



  1. Interesting post!

    Not entirely relevant, but this also reminds me of some math things before I found a better way to learn it… I could do a problem and get the correct answer, but I didn’t understand WHY because I didn’t understand the way the particular math problem worked, until I learned another way and it clicked. Just because one can answer, doesn’t mean one understands. (In that sense, maybe a lot of PEOPLE don’t actually think. :P)

    But some very thought provoking things there… True INTELLIGENCE is not merely a formula you can put into a computer. Like you said. :) Some good thoughts…


  2. Pingback: Reflection – Teaching and Learning in the Digital World

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