The great French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty is credited with being the first phenomenologist to actively engage with the sciences. He was fascinated with cognitive science and psychology and used examples from both of the fields in his copious writings. He was particular interested in mental illness and often wrote about various experiments he had read about or conducted himself involving the mentally ill and their caretakers. Many times these studies involved patients suffering from schizophrenia, and who experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of varying magnitudes. As a phenomenologist it makes sense that he would be interested in hallucinatory episodes. In one particularly interesting case he wrote about an experiment, an ethically questionable one to be sure, with a schizophrenic who was recalcitrant to all standard treatments of the time. This particular patient was unique in that he could and did describe his various hallucinations (visual only in this case) in great detail as he experienced them. Moreover he experienced the exact same hallucinations every day in the exact same manner. He sat in the same chair from morning to night all day each day staring out of a hospital window looking into a garden. He ‘saw’ a number of people dressed in very particular ways and doing very specific things in a specific order at specific times. This he described in great detail to his doctors. One day his caretaker made arrangements to have actual people ‘substitute’ for the patient’s hallucinatory ones. He made them dress the same, act the same, do everything exactly as the patient had described at exactly the same time as he had always reported it. His question was a simple one, would the patient notice any difference? Imagine Plato’s allegory of the cave brought to real life. Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, it turns out the patient did not notice any difference though he was said to remark that his hallucinations “seemed particularly strong” that day.
I prefaced my remarks in this article with that anecdote as a way to illustrate just how difficult it can be to separate illusion from truth. In the case of the schizophrenic he could not recognize that the illusion he had experienced for so long had suddenly become real, and the opposite can sometimes be the case for the mentally “well”. A thing seems so real, feels so real, is so real, that the fact it is actually just an illusion escapes us completely. Such is the way of world today with respect to artificial intelligence and “machine learning”. The fact that there is no AI and that a learning machine is a logical impossibility is of no consequence, and the illusions of their existence and reality persists unabated. Who is the mentally ill here?