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ChatGPT and AI: What does it mean to think?

ChatGPT will never be able to compose Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” paint the Sistine Chapel, or determine E=MC2.

ChatGPT, artificial intelligence
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The media has gone wild over ChatGPT and artificial intelligence. Some see it as becoming a new tool for discovery and scientific progress. Beyond the hype, the reality is that what it does is far from what is thinking and how humans make decisions, including about some of the most important choices in our lives.

I write as a person with advanced degrees in the sciences, social sciences and humanities (philosophy) who has spent a career thinking about what it means to think. But I am not the only one who has done that.

Philosophers have long debated what knowledge is and how we know what we know. AI and ChatGPT fundamentally misunderstands first what it means to think.

Thinking is structured by what scientist Thomas Kuhn once called paradigms. He and others argued that scientific knowledge and progress is not merely the linear accumulation of more and more facts which lead to discoveries. Scientific knowledge is often the shifting or rejecting of paradigms which are based on certain assumptions about the world. For hundreds of years the Earth was accepted as a fact to be at the center of the universe and all knowledge literally revolved around that idea. Facts were defined by a geocentric view of the world.

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When Copernicus proposed a heliocentric alternative it was not the result of an accumulation of facts. It was a rejection of a model premised upon a new set of facts as defined by that model. A Newtonian vision of the universe had its own assumptions and definition of facts, as does a view based on what Einstein proposed or which quantum mechanics holds.

The point is that thinking and knowledge are not the mere accumulation of pre-existing facts amassed inductively to reach new conclusions. There is a connection between how and what we know and what is considered knowledge. ChatGPT and AI are pre-programed schema based on a specific definition of facts defined by a particular paradigm or set of assumptions about the world.  If its inputs or assumptions are wrong, so will be the outputs.

The boldest discoveries occur when paradigms are challenged and rejected. It is about seeing the world in ways others have not. This is what true thinking is about. It includes creativity. This is not just true in the arts but also in science. ChatGPT will never be able to compose Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” paint the Sistine Chapel, or determine E=MC2. Each of these examples are forms of knowledge and thinking, but they are more than grabbing facts and bunching them together.

photo of article author
David Schultz
Finally the mere accumulation of facts is not knowledge for other reasons. Immanuel Kant pointed this out. Many important things we know are a product of judgment or what later philosophers would call understanding. To know is to understand and that too is more than an accumulation of facts. It is rendering a judgment, making normative choices.

Many of the most important choices we make are about values. Does life begin at conception? Does God exist? Should I marry her? Should we raise taxes? These questions mix facts and values together. Many of the most important personal or social choices we make such as what we should ethically do cannot be made based on facts alone. When someone does something stupid or wrong and we say to them, “What were you thinking?” It is not always a question about ignoring facts, it is often a question of exercising bad judgment or because someone did not know better.

Empathy, emotion and making value judgments are included in what we mean when we say we think, and this is not what ChatGPT or AI currently does.

David Schultz is a distinguished professor at Hamline University in the departments of Political Science, Legal Studies and Environmental Studies.