Have you truly considered the term freethought? It dates back to a letter written by the Irish philosopher William Molyneux in 1697. In his letter addressed to John Locke, Molyneux praised the skeptic John Toland as a freethinker, and the phrase has been an emblem of secularism, intellectual independence, and scientific inquiry ever since.
But what does it actually mean? If we consider freethinking on its own terms, and not simply as the antithesis of tradition and dogma, can we define it? Can we pin down the nature of cognition? Is it truly free, or is it constrained by the chemical and biological laws of the brain? And can we say with any confidence that the thought processes of human beings are meaningfully different from those of a machine?
In 1950, Alan Turing published a paper which challenged the assumption that the human mind possesses some exalted, mysterious quality that precludes replication. "The original question, Can machines think? I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted."
As evidence, he proposed an imitation game, what would later be dubbed the Turing Test: is it conceivable that a machine could be constructed which, upon interrogation, would exhibit cerebral functioning indistinguishable from that of a human being?
The implications are staggering. This thought experiment prompts us to take stock of technology and its trajectory, forces us pause to consider whether that trajectory is adequately aligned with our sense of ethics and morality and interpersonalism. What are our goals in creating machines? Are we actively working toward near-perfect artificial intelligence?
Turing's paper was controversial because it raised uncomfortable questions about consciousness. If a machine could be created to so perfectly mimic humanity, it would likely be impossible to ascertain whether or not that machine is conscious and, indeed, whether it has a soul. What does this mean for our own closely-held beliefs about souls, identities, emotion, learning, and experience?