I want to be foolish like this

Writing about the death of MIT computer science professor, Joseph Weizenbaum, Harvard crank Nicholas Carr and Discover columnist Jaron Lanier use Eliza's tale to assay against errors of the computational kind.

Let me explain.

In the 1960's Weizenbaum created a program called Eliza that would rephrase statements as questions and pose them to test subjects in what became an infamous test of computer-human interaction. Some individuals came to believe that the computer program was a human and lessons drawn from the episodes found their way into Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, which Carr references in his post, Eliza's World:

Perhaps we are beginning to understand that the abstract systems — the games computer people can generate in their infinite freedom from the constraints that delimit the dreams of workers in the real world — may fail catastrophically when their rules are applied in earnest. We must also learn that the same danger is inherent in other magical systems that are equally detached from authentic human experience, and particularly in those sciences that insist they can capture the whole man in their abstract skeletal frameworks [emphasis supplied].

It's easy now to poke fun at the subjects who came to believe that Eliza was human. But the larger lesson that I take - and the one suggested by Carr - is that reason and logic are only part of the human experience.

That is particularly true when it comes to thinking because it is belief - and theatrically, the suspension of disbelief - that makes us human. Belief combined with experience holds out possible worlds for our examination; it is on the superstructure of belief that we can absorb wisdom, practice empathy, strive for justice and extend mercy where none may be merited.

As cheaply amusing as it might be in hindsight, what Eliza demonstrated was not that we can foolishly ascribe feelings to objects, but that it is the suspension of the facts that makes foolishness - as well as soul-stirring grace - possible. The rules be damned.

An interactive Web-based version of Eliza is here.