Metaphors Have a Power That’s More Than Metaphorical

Joy Clarkson peels back the veil of overfamiliarity from commonplace expressions and images.

I’m afraid these men would only slow me down,” says a cocksure Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the godfather of computer science, Alan Turing. A 2014 biopic, The Imitation Game, portrays Turing as a lonely, world-changing genius who reluctantly takes on help from less intelligent colleagues who’d only threaten his efficiency and from whom he has to hide secrets that threaten his clearance, career, and life. As it turns out, he will need his friends’ help to keep his job, and together, they crack the Nazis’ Enigma code and create the prototypical model for a computer, the Turing machine (this is history, not a spoiler!).

One of Turing’s many contributions to the development of computing intelligence was the Turing test—a method designed to probe a machine’s ability to display intelligent behavior a human observer might confuse for human behavior. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way in that department. In (successfully) designing computers to match and exceed many aspects of our own cognitive faculties, we find ourselves in a chaotic battlefield where grim doomsday jeremiads about AI and utopian techno-optimist manifestos vie for the soul of humankind.

Guiding these rapid-fire developments is a powerful metaphor: the human mind as computer. And the more we use this metaphor, the more readily we come to believe it. And yet, as this mindset has infused itself into our collective unconscious, it’s been met with more and more resistance.

Consider philosopher and cognitive scientist Tim van Gelder, author of the 1995 essay “What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation?” In it, he suggests that the Turing machine (a computational model) is less helpful for …

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