Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

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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:

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.


  1. knowledge is made up of qualities approached directly or obliquely from the outside, while reality consists in simply being something.

    there is an assumption i think im catching in some of these dialouges, that by simply being one is not knowing as well. I may be wrong about that being an assumption, perhaps it is simply your working definitions.

    on one of your second points

    and it is explicit that greater snares await you on the inside than outside.

    I think this is true and probably the rationale behind God's very practicality based one-liner "It is not good that Man should be alone" by seeking isolation one is essentially one-upping the natural program so to speak, and personally upping the ante.

  2. Mark,

    The "assumption" you note-- "that by simply being one is not knowing as well" --is not mine, (the quote you get it from is one of Graham Harman's) though I am willing to entertain it. It is, however, a point among some of the thinkers who have been discussed recently, espec. Brassier and Harman (to name only the two who have figured most), that Being and Knowing are not identical. It's probably in the spirit of Brassier to go further and say that "knowing" can be said of a very small subset of things whereas "being" can (in a certain way, at least) be said of anytihng that exists. (Not sure Brassier wd. agree w/ how I've formulated this though). Harman might (in his panpsychist-friendly mode) go so far as to say that anything that "is" can also be said to "know", but I am pretty sure he wd. not say that knowing and being are the same.

    Now of course, "Thinking and Being are the Same" (to use one standard translation) is a line that goes back to Parmenides. One extreme version of this identification is Protagoras' "Man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not." One could say in a sense that the history of philosophy in the West plays out from Socrates' attempt to sort out the consequences of Parmenides in a way that does not lead to Protagoras, or at least to the radical subjectivist interpretation of Protagoras. There are plenty of full-fledged relativists out there still (e.g. some of Peter Unger's work). I take Harman and others to be articulating a strong version of the anti-Protagorean view (and some have explicitly negated the Parmenidean equation).

    As to it being "not good to be alone," well, yeah. I believe the prophet Muhammad said something to the effect of, "if you want to get closer to God, get married." (I think this is in some hadith somewhere, but I can't cite it for you-- it was quoted to me before I got married). In any case, there are a few who are cut out to be spiritual athletes in real solitude, but most of us need a human community. It's one reason I started this blog. Of course it's also necessary that the community be of a certain caliber. So far this blog has delivered.

  3. Personally, as far as I have been able to deduce, any kind of being that I can conceive of or have ever experienced is defacto also a knowing. Even were I to wish with all my heart to verify something outside of this i would feel forced to admit there is no means to verify such a something, I would have to admit I am taking it on faith.

    "knowing" can be said of a very small subset of things whereas "being" can (in a certain way, at least) be said of anytihng that exists.

    This is coming from the assumption that there is "an anything that exists" somehow outside of experience, I would like to know how Brassier justifies this stance. To say that "its obvious" would not cut it for me, because it is NOT obvious from human experience as i have it and as i hear it reported by other humans. Also to say "your being anthroprocentrically arrogant" also does not seem to be a convincing argument, it criticizes a tendency but does nothing constructive to explain the nature of experience. For instance one could say of a rock, it appears to have no knowing but you have to acknowledge when you think of things in this way you are saying there really is a rock out there outside of the Mind experiencing it AND (perhaps this is taking too much of a leap) if knowing is a small subset of the phantom things (phantom because we cannot perceive anything outside of our knowing)then you are debasing what you DO experience as a subset of something unverifiable.

    There is a bit of an impasse here between not wanting to go so far as to say that MY experience is all that can be said to be and the inability to verify anything outside of experience.

    The solution that works for me best is that there is more to sentient experience currently in process than I am able to acknowledging now. That any being I can acknowledge with certainty is also a knowing and that about whether there is a being somehow Outside or *somewhere* I must remain silent. I know its not much of a solution. It has always been a painful awareness that the conviction I hold, that the mind is able to acknowledge all aspects of experience entirely with veritas, is something I take completely on faith, probably for the psychological reason that this is what keeps me going. Perhaps saying completely on faith is being overly harsh with such a conviction as there are a few reasons to believe it possible- reports of historical men of integrity that they have done so, the fact that at times I see the interrelationships with more clarity and certainty than at others. and a comforting realization that if Knowing Mind is in fact inseperable with what we call being, Then it is already the case that such complete knowledge is already accomplished. Other than these consolations, there is not much to conclusively prove that gnosis of truth is in the realm of possibility.

  4. For me the meaning in the "not good to be alone" segment of genesis was that it is the natural program to recieve correction from what you perceive and that is most easily accomplished in company, when what you percieve will talk to you. If approached with humility then there is greater chance of misperceptions being corrected than from correcting them alone by summoning up personal thoughts. To use a negative rhetorical device -Going off on ones own to find truth bespeaks a certain arrogance. To use a positive rhetorical device- "- it bespeaks a certain confidence and dignity" People succeed and fail all the time in so many things, is this not so? Of course you see people in society so stubborn in view so incorrectable that even the most impressive corrections don't get through. So the natural mode of correction through others often fails as well. Its a philosophical or religious dilemma anyone seeking to find truth faces, i believe with no clear cut answers other than for each specific instance.

    I apologize if I am throwing out loaded words and terms that have no place in the sentence or idea. I am painfully aware of my own ignorance in these matters and no philosopher. I wish I knew the truth, thats about it, and in this post am only trying match the words I know with the ideas I think.

  5. I've been reading through Harman's blog and found this curious:

    tedious eveningFebruary 26, 2010
    I’m reading a philosophy book tonight that goes roughly like this:

    science science science SCIENCE science SCIENCE SCIENCE science science science science science SCIENCE

    Rather than writing philosophy books of this sort, it would be a lot more interesting just to go into science, I think. There are all kinds of chemicals and animals to study.

    End quote.

    I have to raise my eyebrows at this and would like to retort that if he doesn't think philosophy is about science perhaps he'd find it more interesting to just do poetry.

    I'm not simply being snide in that. I think poetry is very well suited to exploration of the internal experience, that world of ideas which we may never truly be able to escape and which contaminates if not determines every encounter with reality.

    Mark goes on to say this:

    ... because it is NOT obvious from human experience as i have it and as i hear it reported by other humans. Also to say "your being anthroprocentrically arrogant" also does not seem to be a convincing argument, it criticizes a tendency but does nothing constructive to explain the nature of experience.

    End quote.

    What is obvious, say the sun moving around the earth for instance, is often very wrong. I don't believe Brassier would say that it is obvious that there is a world outside the limits of perception. That is the position he is fighting hard to defend.

    As I understand it, the scientific method is precisely our best bet for avoiding the anthropocentric rock that has wrecked so many of our promising theories. I always point out every anthropocentric tendency I see as I consider them dangerous.

    I'm not sure if this link will paste here but I think these guys say it better than I do.


  6. I am not sure what to make of Harman's stance towards science. I think he wants to try a new ploy in the war of attrition he feels philosophy has been fighting with scientism. He's on record as holding that philosophy ought not to accept the ghettoizing and retreat into more and more ancillary roles. I think he would argue that anthropocentrism in philosophy is a function of its retreat in the face of science.

    Meillassoux claims that this anthropocentric stance ("correlationism") makes it impossible to understand science as science understands itself. The correlationist (says M.) always has to insert a caveat under his breath, and that caveat is not to the effect that our current theories are the best that account for the evidence we have available, but rather that there is of course no world aside from thinking and so our theories are not about the world as it is whether there is thought or not but only about the world as we theorize it. Meillassoux offers his counter-examples (E.g. the Big Bang, before there could possibly be anyone to think it) as a kind of uber-tree-falling-in-the-empty-forest, and Brassier goes in the other direction (the end of the universe long after all life is extinct) precisely to force the issue.

    I think Harman, for all his differences from M. and from B., is offering a similar argument; the inner life of any object is a kind of forest in which trees fall with no one around. He has said a few times that he thinks philosophy can speak of the same objects as science but in a different way. His efforts to articulate an account of "vicarious causation" are part of this. It remains to be seen if this adds anything essential to our way of thinking, or just winds up an unnecessary flourish on a basically scientific account of the world and what happens in it. (As Wittgenstein said, a wheel that doesn't turn anything else is not part of the mechanism). Since I think Harman is attempting something worthwhile, I keep paying attention. But I'm not sure my Wittgensteinian motives for this attention would meet with Harman's approval.

    Re. poetry: one reason I love Badiou (despite the current cooling of enthusiasm for him among some thinkers I admire) is his effort to wrestle philosophically with both poetry and science, in a way that eschews condescension or reduction. Eventually I'll get around to posting something on him. And, I hope, also on the relation between poetry and philosophy in general.

    thanks for the link--it works if you paste the URL into the address bar. I saw one of the earlier videos in this vein a while back which you may also have seen:

  7. Let me make clear something that may not come across in my laconic style. I am sympathetic to Harman and the other speculative realists. I offer criticism because I think them worth criticizing and I'm sure they would understand me in that spirit, no matter how much they may think me off base.

    A battle against scientism seems to be in itself a sign of despair. As if I would land a blow on the spirtiual tradition of the west by berating the door to door evangelists in my neighborhood. What philosophy needs to do is come to terms with is science itself and to do that might requre studying a few chemicals or animals. Harman takes pains to distance himself from those who hold disdain for the "furniture of the world" but seems reflexively at times to adopt the Gallic condescention of his teachers towards such mundane thinking.

    I detect something of the Moor's last sigh in the anxiety of philosophy. Once philosophers reigned supreme. It is no accident that philosophers were so often leaders of science at that time. But in the last century philosphy has been humbled, perhaps humiliated. At times it has been reduced to little more than terrorizing texts. But philosophers have not really been eclipsed by scientists, they too have been deflated. We are no more likely to see a modern Newton than we are to see another Kant. The scope of the human project has simply become too vast and too fast. We all stand of the shoulders of giants and are likely to become outdated before we leave our prime. We may all need to get used to living in our little ghetto of knowledge because this multi-generational, multi-discipline project of ours is emerging to be something greater than its parts. Is that something a something beyond biology? Perhaps we will pass the Turing Test *darkly* but I'm not willing to conceed that means we will be somehow *less* than we are now in doing so. We will become different, of that I'm sure.

    I look forward to your thoughts on philosophy and poetry. I threw out the science as the philosophy of the real world because I mean to underline that science remains a *human* project. That doesn't mean it has to be anthropoCENTRIC. But it will always have our smell on it. Also there is something about science that, like poetry, never really owns its objects. I accept that even the clearest formulas are still hinting at something beyond our grasp...so far.

  8. I meant science as the poetry of the real world. Sometimes I get the two confused.