Notes on “Turing”

What made Alan Turing decide to commit suicide? This no-one knows. Although the official verdict is that he killed himself, there are too many gaps in the story. He was not depressed. The hormone therapy he was ordered to undertake had finished a year before. He had circle of good friends and a new research interest in morphogenesis.

In trying to imagine the sequence of events that led to his death I’ve made three basic assumptions, based on my research. The first is that his homosexuality not only remained a target for state persecution but it became more of an issue. As Cold War tensions heightened the era of paranoia descended both upon the US and Britain. It seems that he was certainly followed by the intelligence services, and perhaps harassed as well.

The following is a very rare video of an old documentary on Turing. I have based much of the plot on what is being said here, by people who knew him.

Secondly, Turing had picked up an interest in Jungian psychoanalysis. Without access to detail, and on the basis of my understanding of his life and interests, I am led to the conclusion that Turing saw psychoanalysis as a method to observe his mind from outside his mind.

Thirdly, and strongly associated with the second, is his life’s quest to understand the limits of reason. His seminal paper on computable numbers has showed that logic is limited. A computing machine can go on forever trying to solve an improvable problem, without ever halting. Yet, Turing with his other paper, the one explaining the “imitation game” (later called “Turing Test”) explicitly took the view that logical machines could be programmed to behave like humans; and when they do so humans must accept them as equally intelligent.

Although Turing never bought into the “hard problem of consciousness” he seemed to have had doubts how to reconcile those two ideas of his: logical machines with limits which could be as intelligent as humans. If these two ideas were both true, then how comes he, a human, was able to see that a logical machine would not halt? What made him, a human, decide to switch off the machine? Evidently it was something called “free will”. But could free will be programmed? He has suggested throwing random wheels in an logical machine (an idea called an “oracle machine”), in order to introduce randomness in the logical process. Would that suffice as “free will”? Is “free will” something like a Russian roulette?

In the play I take the view that his suicide was, in many odd ways, an exploration of the limits of free will. Maybe he did not exactly intend to commit suicide, but wanted to test the mechanism of free will: which part of the mechanism was mental, a result of logic, preparing the poison, injecting it in the apple, and so on – and how much was random, affected by external factors. State persecution may have acted then as a catalyst: society preferred lies from truth, imitation from honesty. Societal perception of his homosexuality as an abomination and a threat to national security unraveled the very imitation game that Turing proposed in order to distinguish humans from machines. In the play these ideas climax in the last scene with Christopher’s ghost. Turing explains what he is about to do, and asks for Christopher’s opinion.