If a person went to a psychiatrist and said “I think I am a machine,” the psychiatrist would be quite right in thinking he has his work cut out for him. This belief resembles the brain damaged patients described by Oliver Sacks in books like The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. One man thinks he is a machine; another, his wife a hat.
Proponents of Strong AI, or artificial general intelligence, regard people as machines and oscillate between extreme self-hatred and god fantasies. This cries out for a diagnosis as much as an explanation. In many ways, it turns out, this is just a particular variant of an omnipresent modern tendency.
Eric Voegelin makes much of Plato’s notion of the metaxy – man as the in-between; neither beasts nor gods. Finite beings confronted by intuitions of the infinite – neither omniscient nor completely oblivious. Metaxy can only exist if in fact something is recognized as transcending Man.
In a similar fashion, Nikolai Berdyaev comments that without the idea of God there can be no idea of Man. The sense of metaxy is lost and man is unable to find his existential situation.
Strong artificial intelligence is the ambition of creating a computer that can think at a human level or beyond – often including possessing an imagination and consciousness. Narrow AI is what exists right now which involves algorithms, step-by-step instructions, for one particular application that takes place within a strictly rule-bound environment. It is comparable to the difference between an idiot savant who can do just one or two things very well and a normally functioning person capable of intelligent responses to unpredictable events requiring creativity, initiative, and the ability to improvise.
One tendency among proponents of Strong AI is to talk down human intelligence to the level of algorithms. However, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing proved that not all human thought can be captured by algorithms; even when it comes to multiplication – in the case of Gödel. Mathematical truth must be perceived, at times, outside of axiomatic and therefore algorithmic proof.
The intent of Strong AI is to try to reduce the imagined distance between human minds and computers to make it seem more plausible the gap can be bridged. While Strong AI cannot plausibly claim that general intelligence has been achieved, some proponents seem to think it will emerge with sufficiently complex mindless algorithms. A computer can beat the world champion Go player partly because games like Go are strictly rule-bound and contained. The computer played itself at Go millions of times and was essentially just optimizing an equation. Of course, the computer does not even know that it is playing Go. The tendency to define mind along behavioristic or operational grounds, as can be seen with the Turing test too, is essential here – even though behaviorism was tried as a complete theory of mind (actually anti-mind) for fifty years by psychologists but was finally rejected since it was found to be completely inadequate. Cognitive behaviorism still exists today but usually in a limited role for therapeutic purposes only.
David Deutsch and a tender youth (uppity pipsqueak?) named Sam Ginn know that artificial general intelligence is not going to be just more and faster narrow AI. Deutsch is a professor of physics at Oxford University and thinks what is needed is a better epistemological theory to tell us how a brain turns something into knowledge, while Ginn is a sophomore computer science major at Stanford. Ginn seems a step above some of his peers because he recognizes that consciousness is necessary for responding flexibly to truly unpredictable environments. It is only possible to write an algorithm for a problem that has been anticipated, thus there can be no algorithm for the genuinely novel.
Inserted in Ginn’s discussion is a reference to David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher who has managed to convince materialists that consciousness is “the hard problem;” how physical brains can produce human subjectivity and self-awareness. But Chalmers also thinks that a human being could exist who could say and do everything a human does while not being conscious – the so-called zombie theory. That is precisely what is not possible. It is only conscious beings who have been seen to have intelligent, flexible responses to the unpredictable. Take that away and human behavior is unreplicable in principle.
The burden of proof that consciousness is redundant is absolutely on Chalmers. We know that conscious human beings can do what conscious human beings can do. We have no evidence that non-conscious human beings could do everything a conscious human being could do. In fact, this is not remotely plausible. Until Chalmers provides good evidence for his assertion there is no reason to take this idea seriously. So we have the perverse fact that Chalmers has managed to convince many materialists that they should worry about how consciousness and brains might be related, while at that very same moment, treating consciousness as functionally entirely unnecessary. The problem is identified and dispensed with in the same breath.
Ginn imagines that he already possesses all the skills and knowledge to produce genuine sentience. This is strange since he thinks algorithms are not going to be sufficient to produce consciousness and that is all computer programmers are in fact trained to write. He asserts that what is needed is a theoretical breakthrough concerning consciousness and that once achieved, with no further advance in ability, he will be capable of creating his homunculus.
Ginn draws, somewhat incoherently, on Martin Heidegger. A computer that had achieved self-awareness would be a computer that is in the world concernfully. Dasein, Heidegger’s term for Man, cares how things are going for it. There is definitely something it is like to be Dasein – being there; being-in-the-world with a past; concernfully choosing among possibilities that extend into the future.
Achieving this feat would make of Sam Ginn a god. Creating a being who was in the world concernfully would far surpass the behavioristic limitations of the Turing test. The Turing test, suggested by Alan Turing, aims to see if humans can distinguish between the typed “speech” of a human versus a computer. There is no requirement that the computer be self-aware as being-in-the-world concernfully would require.
In The Mechanization of Mind Jean-Pierre Dupuy comments that for an engineer, truly understanding something means being able to model it. Modeling subjectivity and being conscious are very much the same thing. Ginn rejects the idea that an entirely new science would be necessary to achieve this. He thinks he can, in principle, do this right now – in fact, anyone with a working knowledge of computer programming can.
Producing consciousness the old-fashioned way (sexual intercourse) definitely does nothing to diminish the mystery of consciousness. Likewise, if consciousness could be produced by following an algorithm it would be possible to do so without actually understanding what was being done – just as math problems can be solved with an algorithm without the student comprehending that either.
A question would be whether the original writer of the program that achieved consciousness would know precisely what was happening. If the programmer knew exactly what he was doing and why everything he did worked the way it did, the mystery of existence would be significantly diminished. It would seem a kind of god-like semi-omniscience. He would be up there and we down here.
The perennial philosophical questions would remain unanswered. Here we are. Now what? How should we live? But something profound would seem to have changed with awareness and consciousness in a test tube created at will.
Such delusions and hubris seem to be the result of the Enlightenment rejection of God. Here, at this point in human history, is the emotional and intellectual origin of Strong AI; a self-contradictory attitude of self-contempt and the most grandiose self-elevation.
The self-contempt is the notion that we are nothing but machines. We are not the product of any kind of divinity. We do not need God to provide goodness, beauty and truth. We have no soul. There is no afterlife. Philosophical questions that seem to face all human beings are generally the product of loose language and sloppy thinking. We are naked apes. We are animals. We are essentially irrelevant specks on a chunk of rock near a noticeably ordinary star. We are bits of nothing caught in a deterministic hell of unfreedom.
This suicide-inducing vision is intensely nihilistic. The ambiguity continues here with some agreeing that nihilism is truth, while others incorrectly insist that the death of God does not in fact entail nihilism – and they try to produce such things as morality out of biology.
Here a second crucial idea of Berdyaev’s is pertinent. God is the only ideal that does not tend to reduce man to means. If men are made in the image of God then they participate in divinity in some way, they have an immortal soul, and are not to be turned into expendable tools. However, if happiness, or equality, is the highest ideal, then killing a few million in the interests of achieving it becomes completely likely. The self-contempt swing in self-opinion enters here.
Grandiosity enters the picture as apotheosis – man elevated to the divine. With existentialism, man can create meaning. God-like, his life means whatever he chooses it to mean. But mostly religion’s replacement is Humanism; the belief in the perfectibility of man. It is essentially human worshipping. If God can be thought of in some ways as the highest good that can possibly be imagined, humanism has ordinary humans as this object of veneration.
Self-hatred combines with the false promise of human divinity: self-sufficient, original and autonomous. René Girard illuminates this dynamic in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Following philosophers like Feuerbach, man tries to wrest divinity from an imaginary God. A God upon Whom all man’s good qualities have been projected. Man must take back these projections and possess them as his own.
This is not the death of God. It is Man as God. But no one can live up to this false promise. We are all weak, needy, dependent and mimetic. We need each other and rather than enjoying our omniscience and omnipotence, we must grit our teeth to bear the burden of our limited existence. To exist is to be limited. To be limited is to experience frustration at those limits and to be prone to resentment; especially when all other people are imagined to have acquired the divine inheritance of self-sufficiency, autonomy and originality.
The twentieth century saw man as God in the form of Mao Zedong and Stalin and the results were tragic.
Computer scientists cum philosophers act out this schizophrenic attitude of self-hatred and self-admiration that was very much the product of the Enlightenment – the Dark Age for the soul. What is so bad about being a machine? How about the fact that machines are not even alive, or conscious, and are mere rule-following automatons incapable of love and imagination or of appreciating beauty? Such self-contempt is just the other side of the coin from the imaginary ability to program consciousness.
The death of God produces these wild fluctuations; man loses touch with reality, alternating between believing he is nothing to imagining that he is God. His failure to achieve the divine inheritance exacerbates his self-loathing.
Getting rid of God conceptually does not rid man of the desire for transcendence and the divine. That desire just gets perverted onto inappropriate objects of worship – money, things, other people as St. Augustine claimed.
The Great Chain of Being had man somewhere in the middle of things; God and angelic intelligences above him and animals and plants below him.
The self-loathers and self-aggrandizing are one and the same people. Many of them also enjoy calling human beings “apes.” This becomes just another rhetorical tactic for the self-loathers. This article makes a nice argument against the tendency.
Dogs are the only non-human creature to understand what human pointing means. They also closely track our eye movements for clues to where hidden things might be and scan our faces to pick up emotional nuances in the same way that other humans do – hence the strong emotional connection people often experience with their dogs. These things make dogs our fellow travelers more than orangutans or chimpanzees despite superficial morphological resemblances with the latter. Obviously, this is no argument in favor of us being included in the genus canis. To homologize us with apes is equally nonsensical.
In a memorably amusing scene in Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, Act II, Wagner succeeds in making a homunculus, a little man living in a flask.
[Homunculus’s vial is] rising, flashing, piling up—
another moment and it’s done!
A grand design may seem insane at first;
but in the future chance will seem absurd,
and such a brain as this, intended for great thoughts,
will in its turn create a thinker too.
Mephistopheles knocks on Wagner’s door who announces that a man is in the making. Mephisto’s response?
“A man? And pray what couple tender
Have ye shut up in the chimney there?”
Wagner is supposed to be using alchemy to achieve his goal. It now seems quaint. Predictions of an immanent singularity endlessly deferred will seem likewise perhaps not so very far from now.
 It is not necessary to know what you are doing to follow an algorithm and computers do not of course know what they are doing.