The Age of Disorientation

Electronic maps are great. Their route planning vis-à-vis current traffic conditions is terrifically handy. But I am sure I am not alone in finding that reliance upon electronic guidance for direction to destinations impairs my ability to build my own internal maps of new territory – to know where I am and find my way.

I’m pretty good at orienteering. It’s an occupational requirement for professional outdoorsmen. I know where North is almost always, and without thinking about it; and I can often find my way to a new place by the seat of my pants. I’ve trekked in the wilderness for weeks with no better map than what I could draw on the back of an envelope, and never got lost. To be fair, I’ve also found myself totally bewildered in company with three other experienced outdoorsmen equipped with good topo maps and compasses under clear skies. Too many cooks in the kitchen, perhaps.

But when I rely upon electronic guidance to get to a new destination – rather than map reading, memory, and dead reckoning – I find that *I can’t find my way there the next time without that same electronic help.* Why? Because, knowing that as I travel I can rely upon the electronic guidance to support me in my first foray, I relax my conscious attention to my environment versus my map, and turn it instead to my own thoughts of this or that. I arrive at my destination, but without a vivid memory of how I got there. It’s almost like driving a route you’ve known for years; you do it automatically, thinking of other things, and arrive with no vivid recollection of the trip. The difference of course is that when I get someplace new in that semiconscious way, *I have no clear idea where I am.* I am disoriented. I literally don’t know where East is, and must examine the shadows to calculate it.

That state of disoriented befuddlement is a fitting analogy for what is overtaking us in many departments of modern life.

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The Chinese Room Thought Experiment by John Searle

The Chinese Room Thought Experiment by John Searle

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John Searle

John Searle introduced the Chinese Room thought experiment in 1980 order to give people a way to picture the difference between what computers are doing and the human mind.

The thought experiment was rendered necessary because many analytic philosophers have promoted CTM – the computer theory of mind. CTM is almost certainly not true. Computers are machines and machines are rule-following devices. Goedel’s Theorem and Alan Turing’s analysis of the Halting Problem prove that even mathematics is not simply a rule-following exercise. If it were, then mathematics could be formalized – meaning it could be reduced to the manipulation of symbols without having to worry about what those symbols mean. In fact, in such a scenario, “symbols” per se are eliminated and simply replaced with zeros and ones. Mathematical formalism would mean that truth is irrelevant, but Goedel’s Theorem relies on truth at crucial moments in its proof. The human mind is capable of “seeing” or perceiving truth, at times, such as with Goedelian propositions, and self-evident axioms such as P = P, in a way that cannot be reduced to rule-following and algorithms. Because of these issues, no machine can replace human mathematicians for solving the outstanding problems of mathematics. And the halting problem demonstrated that non-algorithmic (i.e., non-computer) methods are necessary for testing algorithms. The process cannot be automated and thus the human mind is capable of doing something other than following algorithms.

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AI and the Dehumanization of Man

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

Strong Artificial Intelligence is the idea that computers can one day be constructed that have the abilities of the human mind. The contrast is with narrow AI which is already with us – that is the notion that computers can be made that can do one thing very well, such as the Watson computer that won in Jeopardy, or Deep Blue that bet Kasparov in chess.

Strong AI, artificial general intelligence, would mean that a robot fitted with a computer brain could move around in the world as competently as a human.  As F. H. George commented to the editor of Philosophy, 32 (1957), 168-169: “finite automata are capable of exhibiting, at least in principle, all the behaviour that human beings are capable of exhibiting, including the ability to act as poets or creative artists and even to wink at a girl and mean it.”[1] This reference to a wink itself has a poetic touch to it that captures a sense of genuine humanity.

Strong and narrow AI is the difference between an idiot savant who can do one thing incredibly well, such as recognizing prime numbers of incredible length,[2] reading two pages of a book simultaneously with over 90% recall like Kim Peek, and someone with enough nous to handle the wide range of tasks that any normal human being has to face; engaging in a lengthy conversation one minute and enjoying a work of fiction the next. Continue reading

The Schizophrenia of Strong AI

The Schizophrenia of Strong AI

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. Continue reading