Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 27 April 2009


It so happens that this topic arose indirectly on 2 blogs I follow: Stephen Law and Larry Niven’s Rust Belt Philosophy (see my blog roll).

Larry’s reference can be found in his 500th post, where he ‘deconstructs’ Dr. William Lane Craig’s argument that there is no hope without a belief in God. On Stephen’s site, a group was discussing the ethics of having or not having children, and hope came up in the context of what do we live for?

About 20 years ago, I started having conversations with a tobacconist in the underground section of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, because my traveling companion used to buy cigarettes from him. How we got onto philosophical issues I have no idea – this was years before I actually studied philosophy – he was just a bloke who had one of those stalls with standing room only in the middle of a passing throng of busy commuters every morning. But we must have done, because he lent me a book called HOPE by Arnold Hutschnecker, which was a sizable tome and obviously one he valued.

Hutschnecker was an American physician turned psychologist and his book was effectively a collection of case studies carefully reworked for public consumption. I only remember 3 things from the book. Firstly, he starts the book by recounting how he faced a firing squad, in circumstances that I can’t remember except that it was early 20th Century somewhere in Eastern Europe (obviously, he wasn’t actually shot, and I can’t remember how he escaped). Secondly, he worked on a programme under Richard Nixon to tackle problem gambling (according to references on the Internet he was good friends with Nixon). Thirdly, he proposed that there were 2 types of hope: active hope and passive hope. Active hope is where one perceives a goal and goes after it. Passive hope is when one buys their weekly Tatts ticket, or whatever, and waits for their ship to come in. He saw this distinction as particularly psychologically significant, and I think he treated all his cases around this dichotomy.

The other point that needs to be mentioned is how important hope is just for living. Suicide invariably results when an individual loses all hope: they can no longer see a future, or the one that they do see is so bleak that they literally can’t face it.

Lastly, I can’t ignore Dr. William Lane Craig’s particular version of hope, since it’s probably closer to Hutschnecker’s passive type than active type, though I’m sure Dr. Craig would disagree.

I actually submitted a challenge to Dr. Craig on his own Q & A site regarding this, but so far he’s failed to respond. I’m not that surprised - he’s done that before. Dr. Craig prefers people to ask him questions on what God thinks, to which he seems to believe, as well as some of the people who submit the questions, to be some sort of expert. He may yet prove me wrong.

Back to topic, Dr. Craig’s particular take on this subject is that it can’t be disassociated from the hope for eternal life. He quotes Russell, as well as referring to Sartre and Camus, as examples of how atheists must axiomatically view the world as one without hope.

Below is the quote from Bertrand Russell that Dr. Craig presents as his prize exhibit (my term, not his) that seals his case: Atheism is a philosophy without hope.

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; . . . that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

For a start, it’s worth pointing out that Russell is talking about humanity in general, with only an introductory reference to the individual for rhetorical effect. But more importantly, Russell is talking about reality rather than fantasy. It is truly humbling to realise that all the endeavours of humanity in all their glory will one day be no more. Dr. Craig, on the other hand, believes that all this glory will continue on in God’s kingdom, which is a hope of fantasy not reality. The biggest problem I have with the afterlife is the way some people (like Dr. Craig) seem to think they know exactly what it is and how it will feel to participate. I don’t mind if someone believes in an existence beyond death, I only mind that they place more importance on it than the life they are currently living.

Below is the argument I submitted to Dr. Craig.

You say: ‘if there is no God, there is no hope of deliverance from aging, disease, and death’. You must surely realise that the Buddha addressed this very issue 500 years before Jesus was even born, and founded a religion no less influential than Christianity, with no reference to God at all. The 4 Noble Truths that Gautama envisaged, arising from this reality, results in a psychological philosophy of ‘no attachment’, and, in particular, I would suggest, no attachment to the ego (the concept of 'no-self'), which is what death entails. (No, I’m not a Buddhist; I just acknowledge that his philosophy and influence is no less worthy of contemplation than Jesus’.)

So a belief in a life after death, that you espouse, arises from a specific hope that is obvious yet never articulated: the continuation of one’s personal ego. I think it is the giving up of this hope that is the real revelation, indeed, one could argue salvation, even from Russell’s rhetorical despair, at least psychologically. What you are offering, through your biblical bound philosophy, is the hope of the continuation of ego. On the contrary, I would argue that it is the psychological ‘letting go’ of one’s ego that provides the ultimate revelation and even spiritual freedom.

Unlike you, I don’t speculate about something of which I have no knowledge: a life after death. So I live my life in the knowledge that this is the only life I know and can influence. To do otherwise is to live a lie. And, believe it or not, in this intentional attitude of reality, rather than fantasy, I can find: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (a biblical quote cited by Dr. Craig, Galations 5.22), as do many people of various persuasions.

The problem with your idea of ‘hope’, even though you don’t spell it out, is that it’s based on the mythical concept of ‘original sin’. Your biblical bound philosophy insists that original sin is the impenetrable obstacle to all hope, except of course through Jesus. So if you want a mythical solution to enduring hope, the Bible provides it. Original sin, of course, was created by the very God through whom you find salvation, so I find it all a bit circular. Now you will say that God didn’t create original sin. No, he just created an intelligent, curious species called humanity and left them with the temptation of the tree of knowledge. Now, this is all metaphorical, as mythology always is, but if you equate metaphor with reality then you get the particular version of hope that you are writing about. And getting back to your quote from Russell, what he is really referring to is the logical end to all humanity rather than the individual. But, unlike yourself, he doesn’t seek solace or consolation from mythology.

Hope is what everyone lives with: hope to improve their life and the lives of others, spiritually and otherwise. No argument about that, but hope for the continuation of one’s ego beyond death is not necessarily a psychologically healthy one. It can lead to the most perverse behaviour, like flying loaded aeroplanes into occupied buildings. It can also lead to inquisitions and wars, and the demonisation of people with different religious views. History is full of the iniquitous deeds done in an attempt to fulfill that particular hope.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Singularity Prophecy

This is not a singularity you find in black holes or at the origin of the universe – this is a metaphorical singularity entailing the breakthrough of artificial intelligence (AI) to transcend humanity. And prophecy is an apt term, because there are people who believe in this with near-religious conviction. As Wilson da Silva says, in reference to its most ambitious interpretation as a complete subjugation of humanity by machine, ‘It’s been called the “geek rapture”’.

Wilson da Silva is the editor of COSMOS, an excellent Australian science magazine I’ve subscribed to since its inception. The current April/May 2009 edition has essay length contributions on this topic from robotics expert, Rodney Brooks, economist, Robin Hanson, and science journalist, John Horgan, along with sound bites from people like Douglas Hofstadter and Steven Pinker (amongst others).

Where to start? I’d like to start with Rodney Brooks, an ex-pat Aussie, who is now Professor of Robotics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s also been Director of the same institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and founder of Heartland Robotics Inc. and co-founder of iRobot Corp. Brooks brings a healthy tone of reality to this discussion after da Silva’s deliberately provocative introduction of the ‘Singularity’ as ‘Rapture’. (In a footnote, da Silva reassures us that he ‘does not expect to still be around to upload his consciousness to a computer.’)

So maybe I’ll backtrack slightly, and mention Raymond Kurzweil (also the referenced starting point for Brooks) who does want to upload (or download?) his consciousness into a computer before he dies, apparently (refer Addendum 2 below). It reminds me of a television discussion I saw in the 60s or 70s (in the days of black & white TV) of someone seriously considering cryogenically freezing their brain for future resurrection, when technology would catch up with their ambition for immortality. And let’s be honest: that’s what this is all about, at least as far as Kurzweil and his fellow proponents are concerned.

Steven Pinker makes the point that many of the science fiction fantasies of his childhood, like ‘jet-pack commuting’ or ‘underwater cities’, never came to fruition, and he would put this in the same bag. To quote: ‘Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.’

Back to Rodney Brooks, who is one of the best qualified to comment on this, and provides a healthy dose of scepticism, as well as perspective. For a start, Brooks points out how robotics hasn’t delivered on its early promises, including his own ambitions. Brooks expounds that current computer technology still can’t deliver the following childlike abilities: ‘object recognition of a 2 year-old; language capabilities of a 4 year-old; manual dexterity of a 6 year-old; and the social understanding of an 8 year-old.’ To quote: ‘[basic machine capability] may take 10 years or it may take 100. I really don’t know.’

Brooks states at the outset that he sees biological organisms, and therefore the brain, as a ‘machine’. But the analogy for interpretation has changed over time, depending on the technology of the age. During the 17th Century (Descartes’ time), the model was hydrodynamics, and in the 20th century it has gone from a telephone exchange, to a logic circuit, to a digital computer to even the world wide web (Brooks’ exposition in brief).

Brooks believes the singularity will be an evolutionary process, not a ‘big bang’ event. He sees the singularity as the gradual evolvement of machine intelligence till it becomes virtually identical to our own, including consciousness. Hofstadter expresses a similar belief, but he ‘…doubt[s] it will happen in the next couple of centuries.’ I have to admit that this is where I differ, as I don’t see machine intelligence becoming sentient, even though my view is in the minority. I provide an argument in an earlier post (The Ghost in the Machine, April 08) where I discuss Henry Markram’s ‘Blue Brain’ project, with a truckload dose of scepticism.

Robin Hanson is author of The Economics of the Singularity, and is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia. He presents a graph of economic growth via ‘Average world GDP per capita’ on a logarithmic scale from 10,000BC to the last 4 weeks. Hanson explains how the world economy has made quantum leaps at historical points: specifically, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and the most recently realised technological revolution. The ‘Singularity’ will be the next revolution, and it will dwarf all the economical advances made to date. I know I won’t do justice to Hanson’s thesis, but, to be honest, I don’t want to spend a lot of space on it.

For a start, all these disciples of the extreme version of the Singularity seem to forget how the other half live, or, more significantly, simply ignore the fact that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t live in a Western society. In fact, for the entire world to enjoy ‘Our’ standard of living would require 4 planet earths (ref: E.O. Wilson, amongst others). But I won’t go there, not on this post. Except to point out that many of the world’s people struggle to get a healthy water supply, and that is going to get worse before it gets better; just to provide a modicum of perspective for all the ‘rapture geeks’.

I’ve left John Horgan’s contribution to last, just as COSMOS does, because he provides the best realism check you could ask for. I’ve read all of Horgan’s books, but The End of Science is his best read, even though, once again, I disagree with his overall thesis. It’s a treasure because he interviews some of the best minds of the latter 20th Century, some of whom are no longer with us.

I was surprised and impressed by the depth of knowledge Horgan reveals on this subject. In particular, the limitations of our understanding of neurobiology and the inherent problems in creating direct neuron-machine interfaces. One of the most pertinent aspects, he discusses, is the sheer plasticity of the brain in its functionality. Just to give you a snippet: ‘…synaptic connections constantly form, strengthen, weaken and dissolve. Old neurons die and – evidence is overturning decades of dogma – new ones are born.’

There is a sense that the brain makes up neural codes as it goes along - my interpretation, not Horgan's - but he cites Steven Rose, neurobiologist at Britain's Open University, based in Milton Keyes: 'To interpret the neural activity corresponding to any moment ...scientists would need "access to [someone's] entire neural and hormonal life history" as well as to all [their] corresponding experiences.'

It’s really worth reading Horgan’s entire essay – I can’t do it justice in this space – he covers the whole subject and puts it into a perspective the ‘rapture geeks’ have yet to realise.

I happened to be re-reading John Searle’s Mind when I received this magazine, and I have to say that Searle’s book is still the best I’ve read on this subject. He calls it ‘an introduction’, even on the cover, and reiterates that point more than once during his detailed exposition. In effect, he’s trying to tell us how much we still don’t know.

I haven’t read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, but I probably should. In the same issue of COSMOS, Paul Davies references Dennett’s book, along with Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, as 2 of the 4 most influential books he’s read, and that’s high praise indeed. Davies says that while Dennett’s book ‘may not live up to its claim… it definitely set the agenda for how we should think about thinking.’ But he also adds, in parenthesis, that ‘some people say Dennett explained consciousness away’. I think Searle would agree.

Dennett is a formidable philosopher by anyone’s standards, and I’m certainly not qualified, academically or otherwise, to challenge him, but I obviously have a different philosophical perspective on consciousness to him. In a very insightful interview over 2 issues of Philosophy Now, Dennett elaborated on his influences, as well as his ideas. He made the statement that ‘a thermostat thinks’, which is a well known conjecture originally attributed to David Chalmers (according to Searle): it thinks it’s too hot, or it thinks it’s too cold, or it thinks the temperature is just right.

Searle attacks this proposition thus: ‘Consciousness is not spread out like jam on a piece of bread… If the thermostat is conscious, how about parts of the thermostat? Is there a separate consciousness to each screw? Each molecule? If so, how does their consciousness relate to the consciousness of the whole thermostat?’

The corollary to this interpretation and Dennett’s, is that consciousness is just a concept with no connection to anything real. If consciousness is an emergent property, an idea that Searle seems to avoid, then it may well be ‘spread out like jam on a piece of bread’.

To be fair to Searle (I don't want to misrepresent him when I know he'll never read this) he does see consciousness being on a different level to neuron activity (like Hofstadter) and he acknowledges that this is one of the factors that makes consciousness so misunderstood by both philosophers and others.

But I’m getting off the track. The most important contribution Searle makes, that is relevant to this whole discussion, is that consciousness has a ‘first person ontology’ yet we attempt to understand it solely as a ‘third person ontology’. Even the Dalai Lama makes this point, albeit in more prosaic language, in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom. Personally, I find it hard to imagine that AI will ever make the transition from third person to first person ontology. But I may be wrong. To quote my own favourite saying: 'Only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is'.

There are 2 aspects to the Singularity prophecy: we will become more like machines, and they will become more like us. This is something I’ve explored in my own fiction, and I will probably continue to do so in the future. But I think that machine intelligence will complement human intelligence rather than replace it. As we are already witnessing, computers are brilliant at the things we do badly and vice versa. I do see a convergence, but I also see no reason why the complementary nature of machine intelligence will not only continue, but actually improve. AI will get better at what it does best, and we will do the same. There is no reason, based on developments to date, to assume that we will become indistinguishable, Turing tests notwithstanding. In other words, I think there will always remain attributes uniquely human, as AI continues to dazzle us with abilities that are already beyond us.

P.S. I review Douglas Hofstadter's brilliant book, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Internal Golden Braid in a post I published in Feb.09: Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness.

Addendum: I'm led to believe that at least 2 of the essays cited above were originally published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine prior to COSMOS (ref: the authors themselves).

Addendum 2: I watched the VBS.TV Video on Raymond Kurzweil, provided by a contributor below (Rory), and it seems his quest for longevity is via 'nanobots' rather than by 'computer-downloading his mind' as I implied above.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Tampa revisited

I never intended this to be a political blog, but the front page of this morning’s Age (Melbourne daily) reignited a righteous anger I first expressed in writing in 2001 (before 9/11). The article tells of how 2 Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Tour Gul and Mohammed Hussain have been confirmed killed by the Taliban, after their application for asylum was rejected by the Australian government and they were deported (in 2002). I’m not an expert on international law, but I suspect Australia has breached UN Human Rights obligations in this regard. The gory details are that Tour Gul was shot through the head, and Mohammed Hussain was thrown down a well in front of members of his own family along with a grenade (according to The Age).

The Age had previously reported that 11 asylum seekers on Nauru (part of the Australian government’s notorious ‘Pacific solution’, following the Tampa incident) had been killed by the Taliban following their deportation. According to Phil Glendenning, director of social justice agency, The Edmund Rice Centre, ‘who spent six years traveling the world to investigate the fate of rejected asylum seekers… 11 deaths was a conservative figure.’

The Tampa incident involved a Norwegian container ship, captained by Arne Rinnan, who picked up refugees from a sinking ‘people smuggler’ vessel, after being notified of their plight by the RAAF, if I have the story right (a proper account can be found here). Then after he picked them up he was instructed to take them to Indonesia, not to Australia. That's right: after Australian authorities requested for someone to pick them up, the 'good Samaritan' was then told to take them away from Australian territorial waters, and thanks for your help.

This provided a grandstanding opportunity for Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, on the eve of an election to show how tough he was with refugees and win the xenophobic vote for Australia, after they had been primed by Pauline Hanson. The gutless opposition, knowing which way the votes were running, became the non-opposition and sealed their fate. Arne Rinnan was awarded a medal, by the way, in his own country. I thought he was the one decent and courageous soul to emerge out of the whole affair (after all he stood up to the Australian Government, even when bullied by our military). I was in America at the time of the election, and consequently wrote a letter to the re-elected Prime Minister expressing my personal disgust – something I had never done previously. (For you American readers, John Howard was later tagged 'the man of steel' by George W.)

I alluded very vaguely to this incident, or the social dynamics that surround it, in my closing arguments on an early post, Evil (Oct.07). What galls me is that we live such a privileged life yet we feel so threatened by these people who are literally in desperate straits. It makes me ashamed to be Australian, but it doesn’t surprise me. The Attorney General of the time, Philip Ruddock, seemed to take all these cases personally, and was determined to make any refugee’s life even worse than it already was. It was his unstated goal to make their life an absolute misery – I referred to him as the Australian Minister for Misery – and he did an exemplary job. The mental health damage he did to innumerable vulnerable people, including children, cannot be overestimated. Of course, these people have no vote, and no one to stand up for them, with a few outstanding exceptions, so the Government knew they could treat them like chaff.

Ex Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (same political party as Howard), was one of the few to speak out, and made the point in an early interview, well before Tampa, when Pauline Hanson first rose to prominence: ‘Evil always arises when we blame all of a society’s ills on one group of people.’

The irony is that we now have troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, whereas in 2002 it was considered a ‘safe’ country for these political asylum seekers, fleeing the enemy we are now mortally engaged with.

Addendum: it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the advocates as well as Malcolm Fraser; in particular, Julian Burnside QC. In 2005, some Liberal party backbenchers (same party as Howard) including Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan (whom I corresponded with) put a bill through parliament that stopped children being kept in mandatory detention (as refugees). John Howard liked to tout the virtues of his Christianity and Christian values. It should be obvious from other posts on this blog, that I'm definitely not a Christian, but Howard's policy towards refugees was the antithesis of the Jesus character depicted in biblical stories, whether he be fictional or real.