A Treatise on Alan Turing

By Sinead Li

Determinism is a philosophy that answers the following: If you knew everything about somebody – literally, every little piece of information, from all facets of personality to their sharpest memories to the depth of their personal relationships – if you knew everything, would you be able to predict their next action? Determinists would answer yes, essentially rendering the concept of free will obsolete. This idea is difficult for most to grasp and, more importantly, it’s not an idea that one would be willing to grasp. There is a special kind of hopelessness to determinism, a disturbing lack of control – nothing is the product of the individual, it posits, just a response to environment factors around them.

Determinism is an especially interesting topic in regards to the field of computer science. With the rise of deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence in which a machine emulates the learning process conducted by the brain, it became possible for computers to recognize patterns that alluded even the most brilliant of minds. For instance, a study released around a year ago developed a framework that could identify sexuality given a headshot with striking accuracy. Imagine that – A machine could distinguish a heterosexual man from a homosexual one with a single picture. And computers are getting only more and more powerful with each day. In the future, could a computer be able to predict your next action?

Alan Turing doesn’t think so. Widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence, Turing strongly believed in free will – and found his evidence in quantum mechanics. At a quantum level, certainty does not exist. Instead, the movement of particles is described by probability. Turing found solace in this uncertainty; it represented the freedom of the human spirit, unrestrained by the grounds of reality. There is a beauty in his thinking that is easily accessible, a beauty that all of humanity understands. However, I believe that the concept of free will meant something even more special to Turing.

Turing was a gay man in the twentieth century. History has a peculiar tendency to dismiss any figure that does not fit in a heterosexual narrative, but Turing’s homosexuality was never a highly contested matter – he was chemically castrated by the British government for “gross indecency” in his 40s. Turing’s first love was a fellow student by the name of Christopher Morcom. Here began his first dive into spirituality: the grief inflicted onto him following Morcom’s death could only be alleviated by faith. This is not a new story. Faith evolves out of necessity. We believe because there is no other option. Much like how water eases thirst, faith eases the heaviness of misery – Turing believed in reincarnation, in the separation of body and spirit, because Morcom was not allowed to just… die. Turing would not let him decompose, rotting beneath a grave, six feet under and miles away from Turing. I imagine his belief in free will only intensified from then. Otherwise, Morcom’s death during his youth would’ve been inevitable, and that’s no consolation for a grieving boy who lost a companion he wasn’t even allowed to love.

Now back to the castration bit – a year following his indictment and his subsequent “treatment”, Turing committed suicide. The last anyone saw of him was his face, pale and terrified, after conversing with a fortune teller. No one knew what they spoke of, but Turing bit into a poisoned apple the day after. I suppose he wanted his end to be beautiful – Snow White was his favorite fairytale – and there’s something to be said about swallowing death whole, a demise by Nature’s jewels, the crunch between his teeth ringing like a revolution. Would his faith save him?