Computers Don’t Know Jack!



(The FreeThinking Theist)


March 30, 2020


Dear Tim,

Why does one have to ‘freely’ infer [knowledge claims]? Do computers require free will to make accurate calculations? Evidently not – they seem to get by just fine! Imagine giving two computers sentience. They argue between them over a particular course of action and which option is the best. What’s wrong with describing what they have as ‘knowledge’?

– Andy

Tim’s Response:

Thanks for your question, Andy. Please allow me to break it down in a step-by-step manner. You said:

“Why does one have to ‘freely’ infer [knowledge claims]?”

Well, if something or someone else is causally determining all of your beliefs, then you stand in no epistemic position to know if your beliefs are any good — let alone true. All you can do is assume your beliefs (which would not be based upon your thinking and are not “up to you”) are good or true, but those assumptions are not even up to you — something or someone else forced you to commit this fallacious error. It is simply not your fault!

This is easy to comprehend once one considers one of my favorite thought experiments:

Suppose a mad scientist exhaustively controls (causally determines) all of Jack’s thoughts and beliefs all the time. This includes exactly what Jack thinks of and about and exactly how Jack thinks of and about it. All of Jack’s thoughts about his beliefs and all of Jack’s beliefs about his thoughts are caused and determined by the mad scientist. This also includes the next words that will come out of Jack’s mouth.

Question: How can Jack (not the mad scientist) conclude and rationally affirm the current thoughts and beliefs in Jack’s head as good, bad, better, the best, true, or probably true without begging the question?

Good luck with that, Jack… it is impossible!

Since begging the question is logically fallacious, anything Jack claims to think or know is not based upon justification, but rather, logical fallacies. Any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all! This seems to be the primary reason as to why more and more atheist philosophers — academics in the Ivory Tower (as opposed to the internet atheist still living in his parent’s basement) are beginning to affirm premise (3) of the FreeThinking Argument.

So, Andy, right off the bat, we can see how the argument you offered is derailed.

Calculation vs Inference to the Best Explanation

You continued: “Do computers require free will to make accurate calculations?”

No, they do not! But calculation is not the same as inference to the best explanation or what I refer to as the process of rational deliberation. This is clear to anyone who thinks about the nature of calculation: Does a calculator think of and about what is shown on the screen? Of course not! To make this point crystal clear, consider the words of the imminent philosopher of mind — and ATHEIST — John Searle:

“Computation has no intrinsic intentionality, but only secondary intentionality imparted by the programmers. Computation is not thinking. Computation is a mechanical process and nothing more.”

According to Searle, a computer only appears rational only if rational agents designed it and programmed it to work according to basic rules and a design plan. If the computer functions properly, ignorant humans can be deceived.

As one computer scientist told me, “A computer is just as rational as a power drill!”

Consider the words of a philosopher from Duke University. Alex Rosenberg is also considered to be one of the most influential atheists in the world today. In his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Rosenberg writes:

“… the internal working of your laptop can’t really be about anything at all.”

So, Andy, if you are thinking ABOUT the FreeThinking Argument, and a computer or calculator “can’t really be about anything at all,” then there is big difference between you and your computer.

The process of rationally inferring reason-based or propositional knowledge requires both intentionality and libertarian freedom.

In fact, without intentionality, one could never possess the volitional ability to choose between competing hypotheses as to which one ought to be preferred. Why? Because if one cannot think of or about these different options, one cannot freely choose between these different options. If there is no intentionality or free will, then there is no free thinking about anything!

This is another reason as to why the objections from basements are typically different from those coming from ivory towers.

FreeThinking About Hypothetical Computers

You continue: “Imagine giving two computers sentience.”

Okay, are we saying that we are going to IMAGINE giving a computer the ability to think of and about a range of options each of which is compatible with the computer’s nature? If so, Andy, then you are simply saying, “Imagine giving two computers libertarian freedom to think.”

Great! Please imagine that because it proves my point. But, perhaps you are only wanting to imagine two computers possessing intentionality with no ability to choose between a range of options each compatible with the computer’s nature. According to this weird thought experiment, the computer is nothing more than a box of beliefs — none of which is up to the box. It cannot ever be of or about anything other than what it is of or about. If that is the case, the computer runs into the same problem Jack previously ran into with the mad scientist.

You said, “They [the two computers] argue between them over a particular course of action and which option is the best. What’s wrong with describing what they have as ‘knowledge’?”

If the computer only has one option compatible with its programmed nature, then the computer can only assume (not that the computer could do otherwise) that its programming is accurate. Moreover, what if the two computers — which are both completely determined — both reach different conclusions?

How can one computer “rationally compute” that it is justified and the other is not? Again, all we are left with is question-begging fallacies.

It is, however, important to clarify one issue. Jack does not need libertarian freedom to hold true beliefs — that is not the debate. Jack does, however, need to possess this freedom if he is going to be able to rationally infer and rationally affirm knowledge claims.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


This question was originally sent to Evan Minton to pass along to me. Evan asked me Andy’s question in a previously recorded interview on the Cerebral Faith Podcast. I encourage all to listen to the interview in its entirety (click here).

Tagged with:

About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

Learn More

More from this author