Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Through the Turing test, darkly.
Joe has made a couple of masterful comments that I have let languish too long.
In one, he asks: is there is difference between Kierkegaard's willing-to-be-oneself-by-grounding-oneself-in-the-transcending-power (sorry for all those hyphens, but that's S.K. in his para-Hegelian mode for you), and the plain old narcissism of humanity that seeks mirrors precisely when it should seek windows?
Everyone knows the line of Nietzsche's about the dangers of abyss-staring:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. (BGE, 146)
There's a reciprocal influence between the starer and the stare-ee, Nietzsche warns. In saying this, Nietzsche is actually part of an old tradition that knowing more and more about an object brings one closer and closer to being like it. The tradition as Nietzsche would have known it is specifically Christian: the more one contemplates the goodness and the energies of God, the more one becomes like God; the more one becomes like God, the more one can contemplate. Nietzsche is constantly subverting received Christian opinion, but usually it's been filtered and diluted through generations of bourgeois mercantilism. Once in a while, however, he veers closer to the source, and often it is in connection with asceticism.
This particular ascetic assumption --subject to a host of caveats and careful distinctions which guard the doctrine of the ontological difference between Creator and creature-- is elaborated at length in the mystical writings of both Eastern and Western churches. It is certainly grounded in part in both Platonic and Aristotelian notions of contemplation (only the most obvious example being the ascent from the Cave), but these are inverted in many ways, as even the common terms mean different things for the writers of the Philokalia than they do for the Academy. The mystical tradition includes specific practices (a simple instance might be the Prayer of the Heart, which probably got its most press from the late, great J.D. Salinger in Franny & Zooey), but the bulk of the tradition concerns attention to ones own spiritual struggles in the moment-to-moment course of life, and devotion to the transcendent source of goodness that makes our aspirations possible.
My counter-suggestion to Joe would be that there is no pure window, and there is no mirror, though it may be that a mirror is what humankind often hankers for. One becomes like what one contemplates, and one makes what one contemplates into the bearers of ones own image.
Graham Harman has argued strongly in the opposite direction, insisting that his reworking of the Kantian noumenon/phenomenon split, his claim that real objects "withdraw" each other while their phenomenal counterparts present themselves, is a variation on the distinction between being and knowing:
knowledge is made up of qualities approached directly or obliquely from the outside, while reality consists in simply being something. Knowing one trillion facts about a black hole does not turn you into a black hole. And that’s the point of withdrawal. It’s not about epistemological barriers to total knowledge, but about the absolute gap or incommensurability between being a thing and merely knowing it.
The difference between "likeness" and "identity" is pretty basic, one might think, but easily let slip. Harman is right: one does not encounter crystalline gemologists or completely abstract mathematicians orindeed even silicon-based neural-nets espousing strong A.I. (Yet). The Athonite monk would agree. This spiritual tradition does not balk even at speaking of the deification of the human person (and indeed of the world), but always, always, with a distinction between the divine essence, which is always unknown and infinitely beyond knowing or experiencing, and the divine energies, no less infinite, which are expressly said to be experienced and participated in by the blessed saint, to the point of saying that the saint experiences theosis, deification. (The essence/energies distinction is a theological point that, like most, has been contentious (see especially the comments to that link), and not everyone accepts the language; it's a sticking point between Rome and the Orthodox, for instance. But there is always some language that preserves the difference between God's mode of being and the mode of participation by the human).
The context of spiritual askesis may all seem very rarefied, so here is a more down-to-earth example:
Jaron Lanier, who I mentioned a while ago, notes that the Turing Test can be "passed" by a computer in two different ways. The "test," proposed by and named after that tragic and brilliant figure Alan Turing, is that a human being must be unable to discern the difference between a human being and a computer in conversation for an arbitrarily long time. One way for this to happen is for the machine to become more and more human-like. This is of course the sense meant by most adherents to the "strong A.I" thesis. But, says Lanier, there's another way for machines to pass the Turing Test: the human being doing the "testing" can become more machine-like. This, Lanier suggests, is the shadow-side of the A.I. program. The assumption has been that human beings would stay more or less constant while machines "caught up," and eventually surpassed them. Lanier suggests that this is, in some sense, naive. Spend enough time with machines, and thinking of them as models for the human person, making them your mirror, and you start to elide the differences between humans and machines. He doesn't mean you'll sprout wires or implants (though read Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, for some speculations on this score, among other things), but he does suggest that in subtle but important ways it shapes how you think. And how you think is a great measure of who you are.
This is also an underlying intuition of the philosophical tradition, which began as an unapologetic pedagogy. And within the ascetic and mystical tradition, one might even call it an empirical observation, since the tradition is so fraught with careful commentary on the mechanics of the soul. Of course the counter-examples are close at hand: the religious hypocrites, the weak- or uncommitted, those for whom such contemplation was never an engagement but always-- unbeknownst even from themselves-- a way of hiding from life.
This is a side-issue--I don't wish primarily to defend spirituality's relevance, but to assume it--but it deserves addressing. Bad monks and pseudo-believers and religious self-congratulators there may be, but this does not in itself invalidate the ascetic intuition. The tradition knows them very well. Most of the literature of any great spiritual tradition is aimed at people who are already committed to it to one degree or another, and it is explicit that greater snares await you on the inside than outside. To this strain of spiritual writing, the apotheosis of evil is not the raging of Milton's Satan proudly defying God; it's the self-deceived soul that has perfected the simulacrum of good, that indeed believes itself devoted to good, that says nothing but "goodness," and always means "me." (This is for instance how Soloyvov writes about the Antichrist). In contrast to this, Milton's dark egoist is a breath of fresh air. This should serve notice that an ascetic tradition like monastic Christianity (e.g. Carmelite spirituality in the west, and of Athonite monasticism in the east) is not naive about this "becoming like" ones object of contemplation.
Nor should we be. In his essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," in which Trilling discusses his experience in the classroom:
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: "Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men." (in Trilling, Beyond Culture: essays on literature and learning, ch 1).
This says loads about the commodification of culture and even commodification of the abyss; but it does not mean that those who gaze thus do not become monsters; there is also such thing as an abyss of shallowness.
Lanier worries that it is we who are passing the Turing test, and he sees the possible future as very different from the starry-eyed expectations of uploadable culture one hears from Ray Kurzweil, who really does anticipate not just Intelligent, but Spiritual Machines any day now, and The Machine of Forster's story (only truly beneficent this time) the day after that. What interests me most is neither the specifics of Kurzweil's (possibly fringe, possibly not) predictions, nor Lanier's naysaying, but the fact that for both of them, "ideas have consequences." This is, I take it, what is at issue in Joe's and my dispute. Declarations of the Kali Yuga are cheap, but one might be forgiven for seeing our age, more than a half century after Trilling wrote, as approaching a kind of perfection of the pseudo-abyss.