On December 24 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II finally pardoned the late Alan Turing for his ‘crime’ of being gay. After helping to shorten the Second World War by his work in breaking the codes used by the German military, Turing was persecuted by the British police and courts until he suicided in 1954. His overdue pardon had been in preparation for months during 2013, and it would be cynical to assume that the British Government chose to announce it on Christmas Eve in order to minimise public attention. Too, too cynical, even though the first rule of insecure authority is ‘never apologise, never admit a mistake’.
One of Turing’s most original ideas was a thought experiment that is now known as the Turing machine. This was an imaginary computer with unlimited memory capacity in the form of a tape carrying a linear sequence of symbols past a read/write head. At any moment only one symbol is in contact with this head, which may alter it and/or move the tape back or forward in a way determined by the symbol. The data symbols can therefore function as commands and encode a program of unlimited complexity with each command directing the machine to the next one in logical sequence even if this is physically located some distance away on the tape.
This was in the 1930s, before the technology to build a working digital computer existed. But it is no exaggeration to call Turing a founder of the computer age, since the Turing machine was the forerunner of all digital computer CPUs. However complex these have become, they still use linear programs that are loaded as input data. From the Turing machine came the concept of a stored program computer, in which input data could also act as instructions to the machine.
The early stored program computers developed in the late 1940s influenced Hubbard’s model of the human mind in dianetics. Dianetics is an empirical science of the mind, and it addresses the mind’s contents as reducible to a single linear time track (Hubbard, 1963) analogous to the tape in a Turing machine. It stresses the importance of action phrases: verbal content in past incidents that the mind interprets as instructions to move on the time track. For example, a painful past incident that contained the phrase “go away” would be abandoned whenever the person tries to contact it. On this model the contents of the mind may be considered as a stored program that can be modified – debugged, in fact – by an appropriate therapy.
The analogy with digital computers can only be taken so far. The mind is not linear, of course. It is more like the Buddhist metaphor of a three-dimensional net of diamonds where each gem reflects every other one. But the linear model first proposed by Turing has been very useful over the last 60 years in understanding the mind. First because the simple techniques of dianetics are workable in therapy, where a somatic can be traced back in time along an arbitrary chain of incidents to its basic occurrence. And secondly because it was a necessary step toward more sophisticated models of the mind – as a network (Gerbode, 1988), or a universe (Stephens, 1979), in each case indexed by the linearity of time.
Gerbode, F.A. (1988) Beyond Psychology: An Introduction to Metapsychology.
Hubbard, L.R. (1963) The Time Track. Saint Hill Special Briefing Course Lecture 293, 16 May 1963.
Stephens, D.H. (1979) The Resolution of Mind: A Games Manual.