Are conscious beings always fallible?

From: David Barrett-Lennard <>
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 2004 00:43:59 +0800

I'm wondering whether the following demonstrates that a computer that can
only generate "thoughts" which are sentences derivable from some underlying
axioms (and therefore can only generate "true" thoughts) is unable to think.

This is based on the fact that a formal system can't understand sentences
written down within that formal system (forgive me if I've worded this
badly). For example, the expression "3+4" is both equal and not equal to "7"
depending on your point of view. If a mathematician was wearing special
glasses that mapped every expression into the object represented by that
expression, she couldn't possibly make sense of what she was doing. Eg
"3+4=7" wouldn't even appear as "7=7", but simply "true". An interesting
theorem would be replaced by "true" which is not very interesting!

When a mathematician thinks about the expression "3+4=7", there seems to be
a duality of perspectives that must be juggled simultaneously. I think this
duality is implicit to thinking. It seems to be associated with the
relationship between a language and a meta-language.

There are some good theorem proving programs around today. The output (and
internal trace) of these programs always correspond to true sentences,
making them infallible (but only in the sense of never making a mistake).
However, every step is based on rules expressed in a meta-language where
the underlying mathemetical truth seems to be isolated to the computer
scientist who wrote the program.

Consider that a computer has a rule "It is a good idea to simplify 3+4 to
7". If this rule is applied to itself the semantics of the rule is changed.
Clearly 3+4 is not equal to 7, for the purposes of the meta-language used to
represent both the computer's line of reasoning and the rules that it uses
to advance its line of reasoning.

This suggests that thoughts must be expressed in a meta-language that can't
directly be modelled on productions from a set of "true" axioms. Does this
demonstrate that any conscious being must be fallible?

Consider that we allow an expression to have sub-expressions *quoted* within
it? Eg We may write a rule like this

        It is a good idea to simplify "3+4" to "7"

Somehow we would need to support free parameters within quoted expressions.
Eg to specify the rule

        It is a good idea to simplify "x+0" to "x"

It is not clear that language reflection can be supported in a completely
general way. If it can, does this eliminate the need for a meta-language?
How does this relate to the claim above?

- David
Received on Mon Jan 19 2004 - 11:41:30 PST

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