Articles  |  ,   |  April 1, 2010

Mathematics, Morality & Machines

Article by William Byers and Michael Schleifer. 
Published in Philosophy Now


A mathematician and a moral theorist use their judgement to calculate the improbability of a machine thinking like a human being. 

An ongoing debate, much discussed in the pages of this magazine, involves the extent to which the human mind can be modeled by digital computers. Is every human activity potentially programmable? Our response is “Clearly not.” We propose to support our case with considerations from an unusual combination of fields, namely, mathematics and ethics. Contrary to the views of some recent contributors to Philosophy Now (in Issue 72), we do not accept the possibility of ‘moral machines’, nor even of ‘mathematical machines’, if by the latter is meant machines which can replicate what a mathematician understands as ‘doing mathematics’. And morality and math (our fields of study) are not the only areas where an unbridgeable gulf exists between computers and human beings. Our general perspective is that the human mind – even the mathematical mind – is not reducible to the transistors of a computer or robot, nor even to the logical codes implemented by and within the circuits of a computing device.

We’re ready to wager against people like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Wendel Wallach (who advocates ‘moral machines’), that we will never see a robot of the sort they believe possible – the sort depicted by Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. Our reasons for this are not merely the practical problems (i.e. lack of time and resources), as Dennett contends they would be: they are also theoretical . . .

About the Authors

  • William Byers is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics (Princeton UP, 2007) and The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty (Princeton, 2010).
  • Michael Schleifer is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Quebec in Montreal. He is the author of Talking About Values and Feelings with Children (Temeron Press, 2006), Mutual Respect With Teenagers (Detselig, 2007), the co-editor of Religion, Science and Education (Temeron Press, 2009) and the author of Children and Death: From Biological to Religious Conceptions  (Cambridge UP, 2010).