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.” 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, 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
In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity. Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte. Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history. Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose. The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction. Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.” Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing. Berdyaev gives his reasons. Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.” An epoch is a break in continuity. If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes. “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”
Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year. Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds. “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.” Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.” Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction. “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.” Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.” Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.” The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”
Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West. On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself. Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive. Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals. The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century. Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment. Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century. Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it. What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?
The logic of his rebellion compels Satan to seek our damnation too. He has no real choice in this matter; he is doomed by his own decision to seek our doom as well. For, as a rejection of the Divine Limit per se, rebellion once undertaken cannot by its own mere lights thenceforth see its way through to anything other than the utmost rebellion of all creatures. The rejection of the Limit is effectually the will that no thing at all should ever reckon it, or therefore reck its rod. If the Limit is false, then to reckon it is to err, and so to Fall into injustice and ignobility. From Lucifer’s perspective, then, anything other than his own Fall is itself the Fall, and a rebuke thereto, so an insult, and therefore an unwarranted injury.
That most clear-sighted of critics of ideology in the Twentieth Century, Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1986), often called on literature for the light it sheds on distortions of perspective in social doctrine and deformations of consciousness implicit in political movements. The novelists, poets, and essayists, being often, to the extent that they are non-ideological, highly attuned psychologists and social observers, can penetrate, with heightened perspicacity, into derailments of orderly life and the demonic workings of the libido. The obvious examples are the novels of the dystopian tradition beginning with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Possessed (1871) and embracing Valery Bryussov’s Republic of the Southern Cross (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1922), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Karin Boye’s Kallocain, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). Novels that one would not ordinarily group with the dystopias can, however, penetrate just as deeply into the genesis of totalitarianism. The Princess Casamassima (1886) by Henry James is one such brilliant work; Under Western Eyes (1912) by Joseph Conrad is another. Two even less obvious — but remarkable — cases present themselves in the form of mid-Twentieth Century short fictions by authors whom one would not ordinarily conjoin: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) and The Poet (1934) by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Karen Blixen, 1885 – 1962). A consideration of the two stories will show that Borges and Dinesen had insights that run in parallel with Voegelin’s analysis of totalitarianism as a type of secular religiosity or “Gnostic derailment,” a term whose meaning will emerge in the discussion.
Beginning as a summary of The Quest for Cosmic Justice by Thomas Sowell, the article took on a life of its own. While heavily indebted to Sowell, the analysis ranges further.
Topics include Tough Love vs Mother Love – with modernity suffering from a relative absence of one and a surplus of the other. In Kindness and Charity I argue that SJWs supposedly want both but in fact fill the world with hate and resentment by claiming that all life is a zero sum game and if someone is doing well it is only at the expense of the downtrodden, an idea promoted by Karl Marx. Hierarchies and Equality points out the absolute necessity of hierarchies for social life to function, among other things. Hierarchies and Achievement tries to explain why “from he who has much, more will be given.” Relatively slight differences in ability and industriousness can result in vastly different outcomes for reasons that have nothing at all to do with discrimination.
The end of part 2 ends by commenting on the splendidly informative experiment that was East and West Germany. By taking the same group of people with a common history and cultural habits and subjecting them to different political and economic systems the results were clear very quickly. The “social justice” of communism did not work out at all well.
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
Having lived through the Russian Revolution and seen its results two powerful writers wrote brilliant critiques of the entire mode of thought associated with it. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote WE, a dystopian futuristic novel where the One State had achieved “happiness” by reducing its members to nameless drones. Free will, religion and imagination have been banished and societal problems have been “solved” via extreme rationalism and mathematical equations. Zamyatin’s novel was the progenitor of Brave New World and 1984 but published in 1922. It was immediately banned. Nikolai Berdyaev, with the help of Dostoevsky’s amazing prescience in novels like The Possessed, also understood the dire consequences of the revolution, finding himself exiled about the time of WE’s publication. Two brilliant assertions Berdyaev made, among others, was that without the idea of God there can be no idea of man and every highest good other than God leads murderously to treating men as means to achieving the hoped-for goal – “happiness” included.
Sam Harris rose to fame as one of the self-proclaimed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens being the other three) AKA as the New Atheists. Embracing the horsemen moniker seems like wearing your nihilism rather too evidently on your sleeve, but Harris was only too happy about it.
Harris has a significant following. He is a determinist, with all the logical paradoxes such a position engenders, and embraces a hyper-rationalism. He has hopes to save the world through “rational” debate and ridding the world of religion. He has found himself in trouble with his liberal brethren by being openly critical of Islam and being willing to talk to Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame.
Tom Bertonneau recently commented to me that Christianity is engaging in a new revelation; namely the effects of its withdrawal from large sectors of the Western world resulting in the current frenzy of scapegoating and a pervasive dreary nihilism hopefully leading to its future re-embracement. The Russians had a foretaste with the banning of religion after the revolution and the various utopian fantasies that invariably seek to replace Christianity giving writers like Berdyaev and Zamyatin particular perspicuity. These two writers brilliantly anticipated all the main rhetorical and intellectual stances of Sam Harris and others like him, and point out their logical and real-world consequences long before Harris was ever born.
The following article, kindly published by The Sydney Traditionalist, – Sam Harris; the Unconverted outlines the way Berdyaev and Zamyatin anticipate and critique Harris and his ilk.
If as nominalism supposes there are no objective universals, then there are no objective truths. Then there is no objective reality. There being no objective reality, there can then be no way that one man might understand or speak of reality more truthfully than another. So there can be no such thing as authority. Authority then is ipso facto null, and wherever asserted, is false and unjust. If authority is unjust per se, then justice might be possible only under conditions of anarchy, wherein each man rules his own life absolutely, and is free to make up his mind and shape his acts in whatever way he pleases.
Nominalism carried into practice then is liberalism: the thoroughgoing rejection of authority.
There are many sorts of liberalism: political, economic, grammatical, theological, liturgical, legal, sexual, aesthetic, gastronomical, cultural, architectural, academic, and so forth. All of them are subjects of discussion here, and at other orthospherean sites. All of them have in common the rejection of all authority other than the authority that imposes upon all men the requirement that they reject authority.
The project of authoritatively imposing the rejection of authority is of course incoherent. That doesn’t stop liberals from propagating liberalism. But it does stop liberalism from ever working.
Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional. Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued. Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim. The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering. In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character. George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much. H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration. Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England. He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London. And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.
Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation. Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream. The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category. One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect. Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly. Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.