Penrose redux

In 2006, I posted my thoughts on Roger Penrose’s argument that human thought must be noncomputable. Penrose’s argument follows from the fact that Godel’s incompleteness theorem states that there exist true statements in a consistent formal system (e.g. arithmetic with integers) that cannot be proved within that system. The proof basically boils down to showing statements like “this statement cannot be proved” are true but cannot be proved because if they could be proved then there would be an inconsistency with the system. Turing later showed that this was equivalent to saying that there are problems, known as undecidable or uncomputable problems, that a computer could not solve. From these theorems, Penrose draws the conclusion that since we can recognize unprovable statements are true then we must not be a computer.

My original argument refuting Penrose’s claim was that we didn’t really know what formal system we were using or whether or not it remained fixed so we couldn’t know if we were recognizing true statements that we can’t prove. However, I now have a simpler argument, which is simply that no human has ever solved an uncomputable problem and hence has not shown they are more than a computer. The fact that they know about uncomputability is not an example. A machine could also have the same knowledge since Godel’s and Turing’s proofs (as are all proofs) are computable. Another way of staying this is that any proof or thing that can be written down in a finite number of symbols could also be done by a computer.

An example is the fact that you can infer the existence of real numbers using only integers. Thus, even though real numbers are uncountable and thus uncomputable, we can prove lots of properties about then just using integers. The Dedekind cut can be used to prove the completeness of real numbers without resorting to the axiom of choice. Humans and computers can reason about real numbers and physical theories based on real numbers without actually ever having to deal directly with real numbers. To paraphrase, reasoning about uncomputable problems is not the same as solving uncomputable problems. So until a human being can reliably tell me whether or not any Diophantine equation (polynomial equation with integer coefficients) has a solution in integers (i.e. Hilbert’s tenth problem) or always know if any program will ever halt (i.e. the halting problem), I’ll continue to believe that a computer can do whatever we can do.

3 thoughts on “Penrose redux

  1. We (say our brains) have a finite number of parts. These parts are subject to the laws of physics. Hence, there is no fundamental difference between humans and computers. This is an old argument, but I have yet to see a reason to abandon it, even after having attended Kauffman’s lecture.


  2. Hi Jon,I agree with you but there are others who do disagree. Here are my interpretations of what some of them would say in response.Penrose: Physics is not computable so hence the brain is not computable. (By computable, I mean algorithmic in the Turing sense). Penrose doesn’t disagree that you could possibly build or grow some machine that can think he just doesn’t believe that you could write a computer program to do it. Searle: The brain can be simulated by a computer but the simulation would not become conscious like we are. He uses the Chinese Room to demonstrate his point.Analog machine: If the brain uses an analog code like infinitely precise timing or positions of molecules then the brain could possibly have a cardinality of the reals and thus not be computable.I think all of these arguments can be refuted but it is not as trivial as it would appear. This is what I’ve been thinking about for the past few,Carson


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