It is unusual for a philosopher to be the subject of headline news. However, in recent days the media has widely covered a high-profile campaign seeking an apology to Alan Turing from the British Government .
Of course, Turing was not just a philosopher: in academic terms, he was primarily a computer scientist, although he is perhaps most widely known outside of academia for his work at the code-breaking institute Bletchley Park during World War II, where he was a major contributor to breaking the Nazi ‘Enigma’ codes. Nevertheless, his contribution to the study of artificial intelligence provoked much debate in philosophy by way of his Turing Test.
The current controversy surrounds Turing’s private life. Turing was prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952, having admitted to having a relationship with another man. Turing was henceforth shamed: his security privileges revoked, meaning that he could no longer work for could the UK Government, and he was ‘treated’ for his ‘illness’ by way of an experimental chemical castration technique. (The UK was, of course, not the only state to have such an attitude to homosexuality at the time.) Two years later, in 1954, Turing took his own life.
Since then, Turing has received many posthumous honours in recognition of his work, including a memorial statue in Manchester’s Sackville Gardens. Nevertheless, campaigners – including Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan among a signatory list approaching 18,000 names (as at around midday on 01/09/2009) – are seeking an apology from the current British Government for the way Turing was treated. While John Graham-Cumming, the petition’s founder, admits that the prospects of an official apology are slim, the hope is that at least some symbolic recognition of this most unfortunate incident might occur.
British citizens can, if they wish, add their name to the campaign here.
By George W. Rainbolt, Georgia State University
(Vol.1, February 2006)