AI and Materialism

     Recently I read John C. Wright's series of posts about artificial intelligence called "The Cabinet of Wisdom."  This topic is connected with many others such as science, materialism, and the connection of the mind to the body.  Richard Cocks of the Orthosphere also has several good posts on these topics as well: "Godel's Theorem", "the Halting Problem", and "AI and the Dehumanization of Man."  This post was inspired by those posts but is not a response to any of them.

    In this post, I am using the term "artificial intelligence" to mean mimicking human behavior by a machine.  In theory, I believe AI could be developed to a greater degree than it currently is, in the sense that a great deal of human behavior could, in principle, be mimicked.  However, I do not believe that this will actually happen.  One reason is the absence of scientific geniuses.  Translating human behavior into a form such that it can be imitated by a machine requires creative genius.  

    But not only that, genius requires strong motivation and I think AI has reached a point now that very few geniuses would be really motivated to work on it.  Deliberately trying to design a machine so that you can replace human workers is literally dehumanizing work.  Most scientific geniuses have historically been motivated by a desire to understand nature, not to replace it with something worse.  Presumably an evil genius who was paid well and expected power or social prestige would work on such a project, but the vast majority of geniuses simply would not or even if forced to do so would not have the motivation to perform genius level work.  

    Furthermore, artificial intelligence is such a difficult task that it would require multiple geniuses working together and making breakthroughs that build on each other.  It would also be necessary to have many people at the other high levels of the "pyramid of technology" such as the creative and intelligent "sub-geniuses" as well as skilled technicians.  Yet, exactly what has declined since the 1970s is this kind of organized science.  In the modern world, we have had multiple geniuses working on projects that support each other.  And this is exactly what you need for the really big projects, like the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing.  But, from a historical perspective, this is a rare phenomenon.  Most scientific geniuses worked either alone or with a few collaborators (possibly separated by large geographic distances).  And I believe that this is what the science of the future will return to.  How far AI development will progress, I am not sure, but it will not go anywhere near as far as its proponents believe it will. 

    But there are other issues at the theoretical level.  Every development of artificial intelligence and computers requires human intelligence.  The fact that computers are as sophisticated as they are now doesn't prove that machines can think; it proves that human beings can design machines to perform many functions.  The human intelligence and creativity is the motive force behind the development.  The machines do nothing spontaneously; they only do what they have been designed to do.  So, even though the issue is presented as something that dispenses with human consciousness, that is mere philosophical sleight of hand: the human beings are there, they have simply been moved offstage.  

    I do not believe that true artificial intelligence, that is, a self-aware machine, is actually possible because I believe the mind and body are connected by a spiritual means.  It is a top-down, not bottom up process.  Valentin Tomberg says something suggestive of this in his book Meditations on the Tarot: 

    "matter is only condensed energy and energy is only 'condensed' consciousness"

    But there is another matter related to artificial intelligence.  Many proponents of it will make arguments of this type, "Just you wait, we'll build an AI and then you'll have to believe."  Now, as a theoretical argument, this has no force whatsoever.  The fact that a machine can be made to mimic human behavior does not mean that the machine is thinking.  However, this type of argument is psychologically powerful.  The reason is that in our current age, we are forced to think mechanically and bureaucratically (at least some of the time) because of how our world is structured.  We are surrounded by machines that affect our lives in ways great and small and mechanical thinking is required of us, in ways both conscious and unconscious. 

     In contrast to materialist thinking which is embodied in the system of our world and presses upon us every day,  anti-materialist arguments are rather subtle: they cannot coerce, they can only persuade.  I have been wondering, why is that?  One reason is related to how scientific genius works.  Part of the power of scientific genius is that a scientific genius can perceive truths about nature and then translate them into a form that can be understood and used by the rational mind.  Both the initial perception and the translation are important.  I believe that the genius apprehends these truths by intuition (which may come after years of hard work) and then they filter down into the rational mind and can be set down on paper.  

    Once these truths are translated, they can be understood and used by non-geniuses.  However, it still requires a high level of thinking and understanding to make use of science.  Technology goes one step further.  It translates these scientific facts into machines that require minimal to no understanding or thinking to be used.  If technology convinces people that science is a correct description of reality, then what if someone could change the world by use of spiritual means, wouldn't that convince people the spiritual is real?  Could we imagine a "spiritual technology" to accomplish this? 

    Well, first of all, there would still be people who would explain everything away.  But even more than that, such a spiritual technology wouldn't really be spiritual in its motivation.  Many people would think of the immaterial as just one more thing to be manipulated to satisfy their desires.  And if misuse of science has led to disaster, misuse of spiritual power would be much, much worse.  Fallen human beings will never be permitted anything like that.  

    Another reason is that we must raise ourselves up to the spiritual, not try to bring it down to our level.  If we must raise ourselves up to know the spiritual, then we come to appreciate it, but if not, then we regard the spiritual as, to paraphrase a turn of phrase from John Fitzgerald, "a different part of Plato's cave."

    So, there are two questions before us: 

1. How can we know that materialism is false? 

2. How can we live out this truth?  

    To do 1. will be different for each person.  Since no argument can coerce, people must seek for themselves.  I have put forward one idea that has helped me in a previous post.  Another thing I found very helpful is C.S. Lewis's essay Transposition.  The was one of the first things I read that helped me understand how the immaterial could exist.  In this essay, Lewis explains that the immaterial does not displace the material, but acts through it.  Those who only look at the motions of matter will only see that but those who look to what is higher will be able to discern the true causes.  The immaterial is a higher dimension of reality, not simply unaccountable behavior of matter.

    For 2., we also have to find our own ways.  True religious practice, where we consciously think about and seek the spiritual is one means.  Another is primary thinking.  Galileo said that the book of nature was written in mathematics.  But imagine a different book, a deeper book written within Nature herself.  But this book cannot be translated into the lower mind.  We must raise ourselves up every time we want a glimpse.  But, the beauty of this book is that it can never be co-opted, as technology has been.  Let us develop Romantic Christianity and read that book, which is in Nature but goes beyond.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent post - raises a lot of issues.

    Your point about geniuses of the past working for a good cause but not now, is well made. In the past, men were used as machines - to provide sheer mechanical power. Think of galley slaves - perhaps the most miserable life that has ever been inflicted - to be worked to death as a ship's motor. The replacement of galleys by steam ships was a good ideal.

    But that no longer applies. Indeed, by the 1970s it was accepted quite generally (through society) that technology was sufficient for such essential purposes (hence the future of technology should have different aims) - and nothing that happened since has made me change that view.

    The questions you mention are, of course, only answerable within a framework of assumptions; and these assumptions are not-scientific, and do not depend on scientific processes.

    AI makes the assumption that AI is possible because intelligence assumed to be nothing-more or other than what is done by a computer (i.e. it excludes the spiritual by definition); but AI also denies that it is making these assumptions. It claims that its assumptions are facts.

    The pragmatic arguments are, indeed, what most often convince people about assumptions. For example the one you mention about But such as case is nowadays dishonestly or incompetently presented.

    " If technology convinces people that science is a correct description of reality, then what if someone could change the world by use of spiritual means, wouldn't that convince people the spiritual is real? Could we imagine a "spiritual technology" to accomplish this? "

    This is a powerful argument for many people; but to be valid it needs to take into account that nearly all of the great science was done by geniuses who worked within the metaphysical framework of Christianity (or, from the later 19th century, Judaism) in which they were born and raised. This is a spiritual fact behind the success of technology.

    But mainstream science nowadays asserts (without any such proof, or indeed any logic or honesty about assumptions) that scientific genius leading to major technological breakthroughs can be replicated by a wholly materialist attitude, and project-managed teams of non-genius (mostly not very high IQ, feebly-motivated) technicians who approach their long term goals via the requirement to be continuously productive in the short term - and to be continually approved by multiple committees - and driven by top-down 'mission statements.

    Thus, mainstream Big Science (with its hundreds of thousands of 'personnel' and trillions of dollars) is some combination of lies, manipulation and ludicrous wishful thinking!

    "understand how the immaterial could exist" - A key matter. For this we need a radical metaphysical analysis, and change. The primacy of spirit (Barfield's "Interior is Anterior") is the proper assumption, I believe - with reality beginning as spiritual, and the material seen as a 'condensation' of spirit (intended to enable greater autonomy and freedom).

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    1. Thanks for this comment. It's almost a post unto itself.

      "AI makes the assumption that AI is possible because intelligence assumed to be nothing-more or other than what is done by a computer (i.e. it excludes the spiritual by definition); but AI also denies that it is making these assumptions. It claims that its assumptions are facts. "

      Exactly.

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  2. Another - deeper - aspect of metaphysics is related to the Barfield point I mentioned below of 'Interior is Anterior'.

    Mainstream modern science assumes that the unconscious, unalive material realm comes first as live and consciousness evolve from it.

    But this is a metaphysical assumption, and those who have thought deeply about science realize that it leads to serious and ineradicable incoherence among the various results of various sciences - and is therefore not true.

    But either way, it is an assumption, and we can legitimately put forward the alternative assumptions that everything always has been alive and conscious - and that we do Not observe a reality divided into alive and 'mineral' into conscious and non-conscious; but instead a reality with everything (in divine creation) alive and conscious - with differences (certainly quantitative and probably qualitative) in consciousness and life.

    This is, pretty much - made simpler and more explicit, what everyone has always been born believing, and we later 'un-learn' it ('learn' that it is Not) - but shouldn't!

    (I think Steiner confused and muddied these waters with his qualitative division of the world into physical, etheric, astral and ego - corresponding to mineral, plant, animal and human-divine. But these are Not distinct categories, and it is deeply confusing to suppose that they are.)

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  3. First of all, thanks for sharing this post.

    A little bit on the etymology of the word "genius," I believe it was initially used as a something outside of someone else. Meaning, it wasn't to describe an individual attribute, but rather an outside inspiration or a muse.

    As for: "Deliberately trying to design a machine so that you can replace human workers is literally dehumanizing work. Most scientific geniuses have historically been motivated by a desire to understand nature, not to replace it with something worse."

    -I will take the risk to speculate, but many so called advancements in the past decade haven't been much OTHER than dehumanizing. People need a paycheck at the end of the day, and who's funding who to do what and for what purpose? I'm sure there are many creative geniuses who are not thrilled about their job, but it may not be enough to keep them from taking a job. In a cold logical, materialist point of view, humans are bad for the planet, and they need to be controlled and stop breeding.

    In relation to question #1, how can we know that materialism is false? If materialism is true to it's full extent, then everything purported by it must be able to be measured. Yet, the very same people will use equations and complex formulas to describe invisible phenomena which cannot be measurable by any perceptible means. In terms of a view of reality, materialists contradict themselves.

    This article reminds me of a quote from Feynman:
    "Learn from science that you 'must' doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." (going on...)
    "When someone says science teaches such and such, he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach it; experience teaches it. If they say to you science has shown such and such, you might ask, "How does science show it-how did the scientists find out-how, what, where?" Not science has shown, but this experiment, this effect, has shown. And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments (but we must listen to 'all' the evidence), to judge whether a reusable conclusion has been arrived at."

    I would argue, based on Feynman's insight here, that today we live in an anti-scientific world. Scientism has turned into a dogma, which is completely counter to the zetetic approach. It's not about inquiry, understanding, truth. True science has been sidelined over a century ago when the 'aether' was taken out of equations.

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    1. "I will take the risk to speculate, but many so called advancements in the past decade haven't been much OTHER than dehumanizing."

      I completely agree.

      "I would argue, based on Feynman's insight here, that today we live in an anti-scientific world."

      Yes, exactly. As the Feynman quote implies, A real scientist is always willing to explain why he thinks what he thinks and how confident he is and so on. Once someone who calls themself a scientist tries to browbeat someone into accepting their opinion, you know they are no scientist at all.

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  4. I fear that a collection of evil geniuses might be able to imitate a human being to a level that would convince most people if they were limited only to the written word. Say for example, a blog, or a facebook account run completely by AI. And then, why not make a whole population of such phantoms, who's "opinions" would influence popular trends? Hell, they could even have them writing news articles!

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  5. @Brief - Ye, that has been the trick of AI researchers. The apply reductionism to the discourse, until eventually AI becomes indistinguishable.

    Indeed, at a deep (Ahrimanic) level - people are being cognitively trained to think like computers (I got this from Jeremy Naydler); until eventually people will not be able to distinguish AI from people, because everything distinctively human will have been 'edited out' and discarded as irrelevant/ misleading. Life in a modern bureaucracy (such as, in my experience, the NHS and universities) is already very like this.

    Except at the top there are individuals who make arbitrary assumptions and enforce them above the 'machine learning'.

    We see this with all the stories about image recognition software (and other decision-making programs) being 'racist' in their outcomes; and therefore needing to be over-ridden by PC humans. Because the AI researchers cannot reliably convert politically-correct habits of 'not noticing' to algorithms.

    Something similar happens with 'virtual reality' - a lot of it is training the user not to do things that reveal the virtual world as unreal.

    In essence, if the user could be rendered cognitively impaired (training, drugs, brain damage, illness...) he will eventually become unable to distinguish the real from the virtual.

    Just as a delirious patient cannot tell the difference between a shadow, or a coat hung on the door - and a sinister, looming person.

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