Extract from "When Philosophers Encounter AI", in: Daedalus, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 117, 283-295, Winter 1988. Reprinted in S. Graubard, ed., The Artificial Intelligence Debate: False Starts, Real Foundations, MIT Press, 1988. Spanish translation, Gedisa, 1993; Polish translation forthcoming in Znak, Cracow.
This clash of vision was memorably displayed in a historic debate at Tufts University in March of 1978, staged, appropriately, by the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Nominally a panel discussion on the foundations and prospects of Artificial Intelligence, it turned into a tag-team rhetorical wrestling match between four heavyweight ideologues: Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor attacking AI, and Roger Schank and Terry Winograd defending. Schank was working at the time on programs for natural language comprehension, and the critics focussed on his scheme for representing (in a computer) the higgledy-piggledy collection of trivia we all know and somehow rely on when deciphering ordinary speech acts, allusive and truncated as they are. Chomsky and Fodor heaped scorn on this enterprise, but the grounds of their attack gradually shifted in the course of the match. It began as a straightforward, "first principles" condemnation of conceptual error -- Schank was on one fool's errand or another -- but it ended with a striking concession from Chomsky: it just might turn out, as Schank thought, that the human capacity to comprehend conversation (and more generally, to think) was to be explained in terms of the interaction of hundreds or thousands of jerry-built gizmos -- pseudo- representations, one might call them -- but that would be a shame, for then psychology would prove in the end not to be "interesting." There were only two interesting possibilities, in Chomsky's mind: psychology could turn out to be "like physics" -- its regularities explainable as the consequences of a few deep, elegant, inexorable laws -- or psychology could turn out to be utterly lacking in laws, in which case the only way to study or expound psychology would be the novelist's way (and he much preferred Jane Austen to Roger Schank, if that were the enterprise).
A vigorous debate ensued among the panelists and audience, capped by an observation from Chomsky's MIT colleague, Marvin Minsky, one of the founding fathers of AI, and founder of MIT's AI Lab: "I think only a humanities professor at MIT could be so oblivious to the third interesting possibility: psychology could turn out to be like engineering."