Bringing Philosophy to Life
AI: MIND THE GAP!
BRINGING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE #15
AI: Mind the Gap!
Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to be a major topic in the current news, especially in the business sections of the various media. As I explained in the previous episode, replacing human beings with digital computers promises immense cost savings for the corporations that play such a strong role in contemporary life throughout the world. The purpose of this series is to bring philosophy to life by identifying and examining philosophical issues and principles connected with current events. The most important philosophical question concerns the meaning of life itself, so it is important to pause and remember that doing business is not the purpose of life. Business is a means, not an end. Money is a means, not an end. Too often, the media organize the news cycle around economic issues and events rather than the much broader range of activities and topics that make life worth living. The coverage of politics is dominated by economic concerns, so the dominant question in the media is how many jobs will be lost if artificial intelligence continues to replace the human brain. In the previous episode, I pointed out that “scientific materialism” is the worldview that has eclipsed other ways of thinking since the 17th century, leaving us with what Alfred North Whitehead calls “The Reason of Ulysses” (shared with the foxes) and ignoring “The Reason of Plato” (shared with the gods). Economic topics dominate the political realm because currently the two major alternatives—capitalism and various forms of Marxism—both embrace forms of materialism. In capitalism, owning the economic means of production is essential, even when those means are so-called “intellectual” property. Although Marxism, also known as dialectical materialism, is opposed to capitalism, it remains an economic and material model—even when the workers own the means of production. In the United States, especially in recent years, the so-called “culture wars” might seem to have shifted political discourse to policy differences and disputes about justice, fairness, freedom, and human rights. As welcome as that change might be, the truth is that the dominant rhetoric seldom includes genuine dialogue and tends to dissolve into propaganda and name calling. As Whitehead put it so well, we need to employ the primary function of reason, which is “to promote the art of life.”
In this episode, I will take a closer look at this philosophical issue by exploring Plato’s form of reason as an alternative to materialism. To understand and explain the gap between digital computers and human beings, I will take a closer look at the concept of “mind” (nous). The ancient Greek word “nous” is best translated into English as “mind,” which is the reason both Teilhard de Chardin (a Jesuit) and Vladimir Vernadsky (a Russian scientist) chose the term “noosphere” to designate the most recent stage of evolution in which mind emerges (not only in people but in other species as well). Plato’s dialogue Phaedo is a good text to help us probe that issue and get a better understanding of the meaning of “mind.” In the following passage Socrates is sitting in prison waiting to be executed because a jury of his peers condemned him to die for two serious offences: (1) Corrupting young people through his teaching and (2) Not believing in the gods officially recognized by the republic of Athens. At sunset, Socrates is scheduled to be given a potion made from hemlock, which will kill him. While waiting, he is having a dialogue with a few friends concerning what will happen to him after his body dies. To explore that existential question, Socrates is reflecting on the nature of the body that is about to die and the mind (nous) or soul (psuche) that some Greeks believe is immortal and therefore would not perish with the body.
Socrates is telling about his ongoing effort to understand both the material world, of which his body is a part, and the mind or soul, which may continue after he drinks the hemlock and dies.
Socrates: Then one day I heard someone reading from a book that he said was by Anaxagoras. It claimed that mind arranges and causes everything. I was delighted by this idea of cause, which seemed to be correct, and I said to myself that if mind arranges everything, then it does so according to what is best. This means that if we wish to find out what causes the existence or the creation and destruction of anything, we must simply inquire about what is best for that particular thing—what is best for it to exist, to act, or to be acted upon. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for us human beings to inquire about anything other than what is best for ourselves and for anything else, and then we will also know what is worse, since they are both part of the same inquiry. I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a like-minded teacher about the causes of things, and I supposed he would first tell me whether the earth is flat or round and then would explain what caused it and why it is necessary. Then he would surely explain the nature of what is best and why this is the best arrangement. If he said that the earth is in the center, I expected him to explain why this is so. Then I would not seek any other cause. After that, I planned to ask about the sun, the moon, and the stars. What is their relative velocity, their way of revolving, and their other movements? Why is it best for each of them to act or be acted on in this way? I could not imagine that because he said mind arranges everything that he would give any explanation other than that this is the best way. And I thought that once he had explained in detail the cause of each as well as the common cause of all of them, he would then account for what is best for each and what is best for all. I would not have exchanged my hope for a lot of money, so I quickly acquired his books and read them as fast as I could so that I might find out what is best and what is worse. Cebes, my friend, this wonderful hope soon flew away and disappeared. As I proceeded, I found that the man did not attribute to mind any genuine role in organizing things but appealed to air, ether, water, and many other strange things as the real causes. It was as if someone said that Socrates does everything he does with his mind, but when asked to explain any particular action — such as why I am currently sitting here in prison — responded by saying that I am sitting here because my body is made up of bones and tendons, that the bones are hard and have ligaments that connect them, and that the tendons are elastic and cover the bones, which also are covered by flesh and skin. As the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, it is possible to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here with my legs bent. That is what he would say, and he would explain my talking to you in a similar way.  He would attribute that to sound and air and hearing, and he would list ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is that the Athenians thought it best to condemn me, and I thought it is best to sit here and it is right to endure the penalty they imposed. By the dog of Egypt, I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off to Megara or Boeotia long ago, guided by the idea of what is best, if I had not decided that it is better and nobler to accept the sentence inflicted by the state rather than escape and run away. It is absurd to call such things causes, but it would be right to say that without bones and tendons and other parts of my body I could not carry out my decisions. But to say that those are the causes of what I am doing — that I’m doing it with reason but not by choosing what is best — is an extremely careless and sloppy way of talking. Imagine being unable to distinguish between the true cause and a condition without which it could not act. Many people talk that way, but they are groping around in the dark — applying the term cause where it does not belong. (Plato, Phaedo, Agora Publications, translated by Albert A. Anderson, Greek pages 97-99).
Whitehead’s use of Aristotle’s four causes presented in Episode #14 of this series, is remarkably close to what Plato explored in this section of the Phaedo. The main difference is that what Socrates says in the Phaedo leads us to push beyond the idea of mind as a calculating machine that imitates but does not create. Digital computers are part of the material world, but there is an essential difference between them and biological beings that manifest both mind and soul. We need to fill that gap in a way that allows us to include what really matters—the values that give us a reason for living or, as in the case of Socrates, the ideas for which we are prepared to die. One idea that makes life worth living is justice, to which Socrates appeals when he explains why he is sitting in prison in Athens rather than enjoying a pleasant life in exile (as his friend Crito proposed in Plato’s dialogue by that name). The true cause of his being there “is that the Athenians thought it best to condemn me, and I thought it is best to sit here and endure the penalty they imposed.” In the Crito, Socrates explicitly connects the idea of justice with the concept of soul. Socrates says that the body is an important aspect of our being while we live, but its ultimate value is far less than that of soul:
Socrates: We could not live if our body is destroyed?
Crito: Of course not.
Socrates: Now consider the aspect that is improved by justice and damaged by injustice. Would life be worth living if that, whatever we call it, is ruined? Is that aspect of our being inferior to our body?
Crito: It is not.
Socrates: It is more valuable?
Crito: Much more valuable.
(Plato's Crito, translated by Albert A. Anderson, Agora Publications, Greek page 48).
I follow Socrates by calling the aspect of our being that is improved by justice and damaged by injustice “soul.”
Digital computers and their programs have great extrinsic value, especially in the marketplace. The reason AI is currently getting so much attention is that the people who develop and use it are beginning to see just how much injustice might be done by people who misuse it and ignore the ideas that make life worth living. We do not need to look far to find other examples of misplaced priorities produced by similar misuse of technology. Why is it so difficult to control the production, purchase, and carnage caused by assault rifles and other military grade weapons, especially in the United States? Why is it so difficult to reduce the extraction of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and develop sources of energy that will not cause fatal damage to the planet? Why is it so difficult to reduce and eventually eliminate the nuclear technology that threatens a war that will end all war, along with the human species?
There is one significant difference between the idea of mind and soul that we find in Plato’s Phaedo, and the way of thinking presented by Whitehead and other contemporary thinkers who have accepted and applied Darwin’s theory of evolution. Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir Vernadsky have developed the idea of evolution of biological species to show how mind and soul have emerged from the biosphere and participate in creating the noosphere. Instead of being determined by the laws of physics and chemistry, mind and soul are free to imagine and explore new possibilities. Through the evolutionary process, we have acquired the power to be autonomous, not only in our individual lives but also in the life we share with other people and with other biological species. Unlike digital computers, we can transcend the physical realm and make laws for ourselves and for our communities. We can create and manifest political and moral laws in the actual world where we dwell with other people and with other biological species. It also means that we can incorporate a variety of other intrinsic values in the worlds we create through the arts and crafts, through relationships, and by interacting with other aspects of the natural world. These values include justice, truth, goodness, beauty, holiness, love, harmony, integrity, and empathy. They constitute the gap between us and digital computers. Through such creativity, we can mind the gap and use our natural intelligence to promote the art of life.