Can Computers Think? Posters

August 31, 2010

I was going to write something up about the question of artificial intelligence and whether or not computers can think. But then I came across this set of posters. So instead of writing anything I’m just going to spend a few hours reading all of them. Sorry.

But you can read them too.


Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)

Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.

Causal Reduction

May 15, 2010

An interesting essay:

But also an eminently frustrating one. Why? Because, while I agree with most of what the author says, I don’t buy most of her arguments. She seems to rely more on rhetoric – and she does write beautifully – than on logic. And she’s more interested in saying that we just can’t know most things than in saying what she thinks we can know.

Her basic point, though, I think is a good one; the mere fact that we can describe the mechanical functionings of our brains perfectly (and we can’t even do that) does not imply that there’s nothing more to them. She doesn’t use this language, but I think it mostly boils down to scientists thinking that because they’ve identified the material and efficient causes of things, they have proven that the formal and final do not exist. Which is kind of absurd.

Art and Sub-creation

March 16, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily (whose RSS feed is well worth subscribing to, incidentally) was better today than it usually is. It linked to two quite interesting articles. The first was “Addiction and Freedom,” which discusses (among other things) the strange substance dualism implicit in how people seem to equate showing that something is linked to a certain activity of the brain with showing that it cannot be a free choice.

The second was “Avatar and the Flight from Reality,” which used the movie Avatar as a springboard for an argument that true art is mimetic, and works such as Avatar that attempt to create an alternate reality that “alludes” to our own, rather than imitating it, are egocentric and not artistic. He argues that the Western tradition has always consisted of art that attempts to describe the world, and the modern fantasy and sci-fi genres are radical breaks from tradition, however traditionalist Tolkien and Lewis might have thought they were.

It’s an interesting thesis, though one I disagree with. Did Homer really believe in the gods he describes? (Perhaps – the article argues he did.) What about Shakespeare and “A Midnight Summer’s Dream” or “The Tempest”? Are those entirely mimetic?

But I think he does make a valid point when he says that the idea of creating entirely new worlds – rather than just modifications to our own – is relatively new, and indeed a break with tradition. There’s  a reason Tolkien insisted that Middle-Earth is not a fantasy world, it is Earth – because that means he’s writing (fictional) mythology/history, not creating his own entirely distinct world with no relation to our own. Of course, most sci-fi is set in Earth’s future, and fantasy often connects the created world to our own (e.g. Earth children can visit Narnia).

But sci-fi and fantasy do, at heart, promise new realities, one different from our own. Is this a bad thing? Is it as radical a break as the article suggests? I’m going to try to write something about these questions in the near future, but for now I won’t draw any definite conclusions. But I do advise people to read the article and think about it – it’s worth your time, even if you disagree, as I do, with its conclusions.


March 10, 2010

My professor for the class “Faulkner’s Vision,” a Cistercian monk named Fr. Robert Macguire, while talking about Vergil’s Aeneid (and don’t ask me why he was talking about Vergil in a Faulkner class), defined Aeneas’ virtue of “pietas,” i.e. “piety,” as “blood-duty-bondedness.” I interpret this to mean, roughly, that love of family and country that creates a bond based on the duty one has towards them.

What I think is interesting is that connection between “love” and “duty.” This showed up again while reading Jean-Luc Marion; he said, while discussing “The Intentionality of Love,” that to love another is to allow one’s “I” to become a “me”, to surrender oneself to objectivity. This entailed, he said, an accepting of ethical responsibility, of duty, towards the other that perceives the “me.”

I take this responsibility to mean that “love,” i.e. “charity,” is not a pure gift; rather, though the act of love is free, made without constraint, it involves acceptance of a situation (the subjectivity of the other) which entails an obligation. It is like the lover, in loving, realizes that he is constrained by shackles which he could throw off by simply not believing in them, has certain obligations which he could disregard, but which would be obligations nonetheless.

But the important point is this: if he does believe in them, they are no gift on his part. He cannot claim credit as benefactor for the charitable deeds he does; rather his acts of love are acts of piety, blood-duty-bondedness.

A strange result of this, I think, is that if the lover’s love is unrecognized, he cannot (without it ceasing to true love) point it out; to do so would be to say “look at me, I’m performing acts of charity!” He would, in doing so, claim that he deserves honor for his good deeds; but good deeds, the lover knows,  are obligatory.

It’s an interesting connection, I think, that between piety, love, and humility. No wonder that Dostoevsky’s catch-phrase in The Brothers Karamazov is that “each is responsible for all,” and Melville in Moby-Dick is always going on about how “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world.”

Book Review: Prolegomena to Charity

March 4, 2010

I was recently talking with a friend of mine (a philosophy major) about the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Apparently he has been called the first post-modern Catholic theologian. I was intrigued, and so went to the library and checked out his Prolegomena to Charity, a collection of seven essays approaching love from a phenomenological perspective.

The book is a strange mix of philosophy, psychology, and theology – a result, I think, of Marion’s phenomenological bent – and occasionally delves into esoterica that I don’t have enough background to understand. But for the most part, it is reasonably comprehensible. He tends not to make formal arguments, but rather to sketch an outline of a particular phenomenon and then examine its implications. Thus when I disagreed that the experience described was one common to humanity, his analysis of it was uncompelling, but when I recognized truth in his portrayal, I found his elucidation of it intriguing and often quite insightful. Since I agreed far more often than I disagreed, I learned a great deal from the book; in fact, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the questions it addresses. It has seven sections, each of which can stand on its own, though they also work together as a whole. Here are my attempts to summarize each section, hampered by my inexperience in reading phenomenological philosophy and the fact that I already returned the book to the library:

  1. Evil in Person: Marion argues that “evil” is the logic of revenge, and Satan the voice that prompts us to seek vengeance for wrongs done to us. If we even accept the idea of revenge as normative, evil acts as a counterfeit bill we have been given in payment; it doesn’t matter whether we seek revenge or absorb the insult, we lose either way.
  2. The Freedom to be Free: Marion says that we cannot prove our own freedom, but it is in fact this uncertainty that allows us to be free; we become free by choosing to be free despite our inability to know we are acting freely.
  3. Evidence and Bedazzlement: Examining the purpose of apologetics, Marion argues that the goal is not to provide a line of reasoning that leads inexorably to Christianity – for such a line would be a chain, dragging its victim into belief and denying him free will and thus personhood. Rather, apologetics should elucidate the choice that Christianity proposes, a division that boils down to an acceptance or rejection of love.
  4. The Intentionality of Love: In the longest and most involved chapter, Marion proposes a definition of love as the willing of the other’s existence. When looking at the other and trying to love her (Marion consistently uses the feminine “her” to refer to the other, and the chapter throughout describes love in romantic terms, though he means it to apply to all forms of Christian love), an unseen mirror descends between us, and I begin to love my own reflection rather than the other for her own sake. To escape this, I must allow the “I” to become “me,” to be an object perceived by her subjectivity, while simultaneously perceiving her; this situation is impossible, but the attempt, symbolized by two lovers’ gazing into each others’ eyes, results in two subjects trying to perceive each others’ subjectivity and in the process creating, where their visions cross, an experience, love, which only they can perceive. At least that’s a vague approximation of what he describes. There’s also a lot of complicated phenomenological language I don’t quite understand.
  5. The Crucial Crisis: There is a crisis (a crossroads) in our lives, Marion says, because we do not know where the crisis is, do not know what our choice is between. Christ solves this by refusing to judge, and forcing us to judge him; in doing so, we judge ourselves, and make our choice in the moment of death. Or something like that. This chapter confused me, and served primarily to reinforce Marion’s love of paradox and the importance of free will and choosing to choose.
  6. The Gift of a Presence: In the most explicitly Christian and biblical of the sections, Marion provides an exegesis of Christ’s Ascension. Christ removed himself to heaven in the act of blessing us; the creation of distance between Christ and us is thus itself the blessing, as it allows us to enter alongside Christ into the Trinitarian circle of love.
  7. What Love Knows: Marion examines the objection that when we love, we cannot know the object of our love, and responds that in fact love offers a form of knowledge, a grasp of the haecceitas of the other. Through love, we grant the other her being and allow ourselves to become a “me” to her “I”; in doing so, we know her. This article seemed, to me at least, in many ways a recapitulation of chapter 4 in particular, though with some new insights.

All of these are really quite worth reading. But what struck me while reading was how literary Marion’s imagination is – he philosophizes in terms of metaphors, with his “counterfeit bill,” “unseen mirror,” and “crossing gazes.” I get the feeling that what he is doing could be better accomplished in literature – and, in fact, much of it I have already seen in what I’ve been reading recently – Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Melville, even Shakespeare – all considerably older than Jean-Luc Marion or even phenomenology proper.

I’m not sure what to make of this. My inclination is to say that what Marion is doing is trying to translate literary truths into philosophical language – a perhaps not worthless attempt, but one I think necessarily subordinate to the literature itself. It is less philosophy than literary criticism – it elucidates the truth found in literature, but should be read as a supplement to literature, rather than a replacement for it.

But don’t take that as a reason not to read the book. It’s really great stuff, well worth the time spent trying to understand it. Honestly, I don’t understand why Marion isn’t discussed more often.

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