Book 27 of 2014: Labyrinths of Reason by William Poundstone
This is a fun, fairly quick read, if you like puzzles. It’s a collection of paradoxes and thought experiments designed to show the limits of what we can know.
My favorite was this one: Imagine you’re locked in a prison cell. In the room there’s a book entitled What to Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door. Lo and behold, one day, someone does shove Chinese writing under the door. (Obviously, in this thought experiment, we have to assume you do not read or write Chinese.) So you get out the book and find a series of instructions telling you exactly what lines to draw on the paper before you pass it back.
What you don’t know is that the writing was actually a reading comprehension test, and the instructions in the book showed you how to appear to be responding appropriately to the test questions. But of course, you didn’t read or understand the passage, or answer the questions, you just mechanically went through the steps to simulate doing those things.
I like this one because it’s a neat way of asking whether artificial intelligence is actually intelligent, or whether it’s just simulating thought. I think you can also use it to describe the limits of what neuroscience can tell us about thinking and feeling—if we say these neurons are firing and these chemicals are moving through our brains, that’s only describing the mechanical process of having a thought, not the subjective experience of it.
Plus, What to Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door. Something about that title just tickles me.