Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Giulio Demands Clarifications, And I Provide Them. Nothing Changes.

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, just for shits and giggles. (Sorry for all the transhumanist discussion this weekend, to those of you who read Amor Mundi for its discussion of other topics -- frankly I'd rather talk about Robot Cultists than the current Obama versus Clinton follies. Talk about flinging feces! Ugh.)

Giulio: [I]t appears to me that, behind the poop jokes, you really mean to celebrate the weakness of the body against any hopes and prospects for improvement.

If that's how it "appears" to you, then this suggests that you certainly read carelessly and probably think more carelessly still.

[L]et's suppose radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies are developed within the next, say, 50 years.

Such suppositions are literally worse than useless. Let's suppose Jeebus raises the dead in a century, that unemployment numbers go down for four months thirteen years from now, and white calf length anti-gravity boots are distributed to everybody whose last name begins in letters O through Z in fifty years' time.

Let's also suppose that mind backup technologies are developed to offer the additional possibility to reload a mind lost to an accident to a new biological or robotic body.

Not only will I not suppose this, but I think this is a sentence filled with outright incoherent statements. To speak of a "mind backup" in this way is very likely to not understand what a mind is, and to speak of a "robotic body" in this way is very likely to not understand what a body is.

Would you call this a good thing or a bad thing?

Apart from the uselessness of some of this frame and the logical impossibility of the rest, well, I would have to say of this, as I would say of any technoscientific change or technodevelopmental outcome, that it is better the fairer and more democratic the actual distribution of risks, costs, and benefits attending its development and accomplishment.

Please answer just good or bad.

I won't be stupid for you. Sorry.

47 comments:

De Thezier said...

Dale said:

Sorry for all the transhumanist discussion this weekend, to those of you who read Amor Mundi for its discussion of other topics -- frankly I'd rather talk about Robot Cultists than the current Obama versus Clinton follies.

Although one could argue that there are others topics that you could discuss besides Robot Cultism or the Clinton smear campaign against Obama like, I don't know, the recent study that details the Bush administration's war on science or the recent study that shows how reporters often can't provide scientific evidence for claims they repeatedly report as factual; I do think that some H+ thinkers (Bostrom, Hughes, More, Vita-More, Sandberg, Vaj) are worth engaging and critiquing but giving cranks on the lunatic fringe of H+ undeserved attention is a waste of time which only serves to give them the hand they need to climb out of obscurity...

Dale Carrico said...

Once upon a time a small klatch of silly white guys (mostly) who thought they were the smartest people in the room while saying the most idiotic imaginable things were a bunch of obscure marginal sociopathic cranks, but because what they had to say resonated with the agenda of certain incumbent interests and complemented opportunistically certain larger sociocultural forces accidentally afoot in the world at that particular juncture they acquired a power nobody could have imagined and used it to kill hundreds and hundreds of thousands of innocent people and bring the world to the utter brink of destruction in more ways than one. We call them "Neocons." One of them, Fukuyama, likes to call transhumanists the world's most dangerous ideologues. There is much that is wrong in what he is talking about when he says this, but one also does very well to remember the adage: It takes one to know one. Better to nip this thing in the bud than cry later, is what I'm thinking more and more these days.

De Thezier said...

Dale, I agree with you which is why I think we should focus on the relatively influential H+ thinkers that are worth engaging and critiquing and whose replies might be intellectually challenging rather than the rants of H+ clowns that seem to only provide us with a good belly laugh.

Greg in Portland said...

Before you can upload a mind you've got to define it. This is where the >Hists make their mistake. This hasn't been done. There's the facile assumption that a mind is just a really, really, sooper computer implemented in bio-gunk. Abstract away the information and you've got the mind which can them be transferred to some other substrate. The problem is that no one really knows right now if any of this is correct and the whole problem quickly leaves the technical arena and drifts into metaphysics (is the guy who wakes up in the simulation really "you"). Mind could even end up being something quantized in some fundamental way that is beyond computation or requires a quantum computer and thus whose pattern can never be non-destructively copied properly. I would say the computational model needs more proof of concept before we embrace it wholesale and talk about how Moore's law will give us human level AIs in some few years.

Dale Carrico said...

I see what you are saying, Vladimir, but I actually disagree with it. First of all, I have heard lately from some of the non-transhumanists who read Amor Mundi and they report something that squares very much with my own feelings on this topic: Making fun of transhumanism is often funny and usually fun.

I laugh a lot when I write posts for Amor Mundi and I like to think that people laugh a lot in reading them. I do try to offer insight and provocation and inspiration and outrage as well, where my poor powers can manage the thing, but I honestly write a lot about things that crack me up. I like to read blogs that are written in that spirit as well, like Eschaton and Sadly No! and James Wolcott's blog (none of which I claim to be equal to).

It's true I take transhumanism rather more seriously than others do as a symptom of a certain default techno-transcendentalism in late-industrial-capitalist North Atlantic culture generally and of certain neoliberal developmental assumptions more specifically -- and it is also true that I know some transhumanist-identified folks and debate the finer points of their arguments in a somewhat more collegial way as well -- and all of this complicates the joy of ridiculing the most egregious weirdnesses of the viewpoint. But the fact is I spend a lot of my time puncturing pretensions (and I hardly excuse myself from the dartboard) and then laughing my ass off.

So, I say there is a lot to be said for the value of a big belly laugh and I am happy to contribute to the joyful measure of them available in the world, especially when they are directed at Bushite Killer Clowns, Libertopian Free Marketeers, Randroids, Would-Be Theocrats, Biocons, and Robot Cultists.

But as for your point that there are more intellectually challenging works that are transhumanist-identified out there, and it seems to me that the clownishness and dangerousness I ridicule is closer to the ticking Tin-Man heart of transhumanism than they are and that the clowns like to lean on more nuanced figures to lend undeserved legitimacy to their dumb dangerous Superlative project, a move I have absolutely no interest in abetting.

Rather, the more interesting figures should be persuaded to jettison the clowns and reactionaries clinging to their pantslegs or own them definitively and pay the price. I'm happy to do my part to force that choice. Everybody benefits from this, ultimately including, as it happens, the more interesting intellectuals you would prefer I engage on their own terms (which, I must say, I also do here and there, anyway).

Dale Carrico said...

Also, what Greg said. Yes-indeedy.

De Thezier said...

Dale said:

Rather, the more interesting figures should be persuaded to jettison the clowns and reactionaries clinging to their pantslegs or own them definitively and pay the price. I'm happy to do my part to force that choice. Everybody benefits from this, ultimately including, as it happens, the more interesting intellectuals you would prefer I engage on their own terms.

I get it now. I won't bring this up again. ;)

jfehlinger said...

"Greg in Portland" said:

> Before you can upload a mind you've got to define it. . .
> I would say the computational model needs more proof of concept
> before we embrace it wholesale and talk about how Moore's law
> will give us human level AIs in some few years.

Some people would say the "computational model" of mind has
already had all the "proof of concept" it deserves over the
last 50 or 60 years, and that the only thing it needs now
is the dumpster. Some people started saying this almost 40
years ago. More are saying it now. In a way, the more
naive transhumanists are to some of these ideas what modern
American Christian fundamentalists are to Christianity,
whose intellectual heyday is long over.

de Thezier wrote:

> We should focus on the relatively influential H+ thinkers. . .
> whose replies might be intellectually challenging. . .

I think these are disjoint groups of people (if the latter exist
at all).

> [G]iving cranks on the lunatic fringe of H+ undeserved attention
> is a waste of time which only serves to give them the hand they
> need to climb out of obscurity...

I'd say keeping your mouth shut gives them the tacit legitimacy they
need to climb out of obscurity. You think the Scientologists
**wanted** "undeserved" (critical) attention to help them take
over the world?

Dale wrote:

> I have heard lately from some of the non-transhumanists
> who read Amor Mundi and they report [that]. . . [m]aking
> fun of transhumanism is often funny and usually fun. . .
>
> It's true I take transhumanism rather more seriously than
> others do as a symptom of a certain default techno-transcendentalism
> in late-industrial-capitalist North Atlantic culture. . .

It's a symptom of something, all right.

Well, here's a book I was browsing in today that's sometimes
(unintentionally) funny. . .

From _Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation_
by Joseph Weizenbaum, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1976, Chapter 4,
"Science and the Compulsive Programmer"

p. 115

"The computer programmer. . . is a creator of universes for which
he alone is a lawgiver. So, of course, is the designer of any
game. But universes of virtually unlimited complexity can be
created in the form of computer programs. . . No playwright,
no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever
exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or field
of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or
troops.

One would have to be astonished if Lord Acton's observation that
power corrupts were not to apply in an environment in which
omnipotence is so easily achievable. . . [T]he corruption
evoked by the computer programmer's omnipotence manifests itself
in a form that is instructive in a domain far larger than the
immediate environment of the computer. To understand it, we
will have to take a look at mental disorder that, while actually
very old, appears to have been transformed by the computer into
a new genus: the compulsion to program.

Wherever computer centers have become established, that is to say,
in countless places in the United States, as well as in virtually
all other industrial regions of the world, bright young men of
disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen
sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to
fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and
keys on which their attention seems to be riveted as a gambler's on
the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at
tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like
possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they nearly
drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they
arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If
possible, they sleep on cots near the computer. But only for
a few hours -- then back to the console or the printouts. Their
rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their
uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their
bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least
when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These
are computer bums, compulsive programmers. They are an international
phenomenon. . .

The compulsive programmer spends all the time he can working on one
of his big projects. . . His grandiose projects. . . have the quality
of illusions, indeed, of illusions of grandeur. He will construct
the one grand system in which all other experts will soon write
their systems.

(It has to be said that not all hackers are pathologically compulsive
programmers. Indeed, were it not for the often, in its own terms,
highly creative labor of people who proudly claim the title
"hacker," few of today's sophisticated computer time-sharing systems,
computer language translators, computer graphics systems, etc.,
would exist.) [ :-0 ]

. . .

The psychological situation the compulsive programmer finds himself
in while so engaged is strongly determined by two apparently
opposing facts: first, he knows that he can make the computer do
anything he wants it to do; and second, the computer constantly
displays undeniable evidence of his failure to him. It reproaches
him. There is no escaping this bind. . . The computer challenges
his power, his knowledge. . .

It must be emphasized that the portrait I have drawn is instantly
recognizable at computing installations all over the world. It
represents a psychopathology that is far less ambiguous than, say,
the milder forms of schizophrenia or paranoia. At the same time,
it represents an extremely developed form of a disorder that afflicts
much of our society. . .

The magical world inhabited by the compulsive gambler is no different
in principle than that in which others, equally driven by grandiose
fantasies, attempt to realize their dreams of power. Astrology,
for example. . .

The gambler constantly defies the laws of probability; he refuses
to recognize their operational significance. He therefore cannot
permit them to become a kernel of a realistic insight. A particular
program may be foundering on deep structural, mathematical, or
linguistic difficulties about which relevant theories exist.
But the compulsive programmer meets most manifestations of trouble
with still more programming tricks, and thus, like the gambler,
refuses them to nucleate relevant theories in his mind.
Compulsive programmers are notorious for not reading the literature
of the substantive fields in which they are nominally working. [ :-0 ].

These mechanisms, called by Polyani circularity, self-expansion,
and suppressed nucleation, constitute the main defensive armamentarium
of the true adherent of magical systems of thought, and particularly
the compusive programmer. Psychiatric literature informs us that
this pathology deeply involves fantasies of omnipotence. The
conviction that one is all-powerful, however, cannot rest; it must
constantly be verified by tests. The test of power is control.
The test of absolute power is certain and absolute control.
When dealing with the compulsive programmer, we are therefore also
dealing with his need to control and his need for certainty.

The passion for certainty is, of course, also one of the great
cornerstones of science, philosophy, and religion. And the quest
for control is inherent in all technology. Indeed, the reason
we are so interested in the compulsive programmer is that we
see no discontinuity between his pathological motives and behavior
and those of the modern scientist and technologist generally.
The compulsive programmer is merely the proverbial mad scientist who
has been given a theater, the computer, in which he can, and does,
play out his fantasies.

Let us reconsider Bergler's three observations about gamblers. First,
the gambler is subjectively certain that he will win. So is the
compulsive programmer -- only he, having created his own world on
a universal machine, has some foundation in reality for his certainty.
Scientists, with some exceptions, share the same faith: what science
has not done, it has not **yet** done; the questions that science
has not answered, it has not **yet** answered. Second, the gambler
has an unbounded faith in his own cleverness. Well?! Third, the
gambler knows that life itself is nothing but a gamble. Similarly,
the compulsive programmer is convinced that life is nothing but
a program running on an enormous computer, and that therefore every
aspect of life can ultimately be explained in programming terms.
Many scientists (again, there are notable exceptions) also believe
that every aspect of life and nature can finally be explained in
exclusively scientific terms. Indeed, as Polyani correctly points
out, the stability of scientific beliefs is defended by the same devices
that protect magical belief systems:

'Any contradiction between a particular scientific notion and the
facts of experience will be explained by other scientific notions;
there is a ready reserve of possible scientific hypotheses available
to explain any conceivable event. . . . **within science itself**,
the stability of theories against experience is maintained by
epicyclical reserves which suppress alternative conceptions in the
germ.'

Hence we can make out a continuum. At one of its extremes stand
scientists and technologists who much resemble the compulsive
programmer. At the other extreme are those scientists, humanists,
philosophers, artists, and religionists who seek understanding, as
whole persons and from all possible perspectives. The affairs of
the world appear to be in the hands of technicians whose psychic
constitutions approximate those of the former to a dangerous
degree. Meanwhile the voices that speak the wisdom of the latter
seem to be growing ever fainter. . .

Science can proceed only by simplifying reality. The first step in
its process of simplification is abstraction. And abstraction means
leaving out of account all those empirical data which do not fit
the particular conceptual framework within which science at the moment
happens to be working, which, in other words, are not illuminated
by the light of the particular lamp under which science happens
to be looking for keys. Aldous Huxley remarked on this matter with
considerable clarity:

'Pragmatically, [scientists] are justified in acting in this odd and
extremely arbitrary way; for by concentrating exclusively on the
measurable aspects of such elements of experience as can be explained
in terms of a causal system they have been able to achieve a great
and every increasing control over the energies of nature. But
power is not the same thing as insight and, as a representation of
reality, the scientific picture of the world is inadequate for the
simple reason that science does not even profess to deal with experience
as a whole, but only with certain aspects of it in certain contexts.
All this is quite clearly understood by the more philosophically minded
men of science. But unfortunately some scientists, many technicians,
and most consumers of gadgets have lacked the time and the inclination
to examine the philosophical foundations and background of the
sciences. Consequently they tend to accept the world picture implicit
in the theories of science as a complete and exhaustive account of
reality; they tend to regard those aspects of experience which scientists
leave out of account, because they are incompetent to deal with them,
as being somehow less real than the aspects which science has arbitrarily
chosen to abstract from out of the infinitely rich totality of given
facts.'

One of the most explicit statements of the way in which science
deliberately and consciously plans to distort reality, and then goes
on to accept that distortion as a 'complete and exhaustive' account,
is that of the computer scientist Herbert A. Simon, concerning his
own fundamental theoretical orientation:

'**An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent
complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the
complexity of the environment in which it finds itself**. . . . the truth
or falsity of [this] hypothesis should be independent of whether
ants, viewed more microscopically, are simple or complex systems.
At the level of cells or molecules, ants are demonstrably complex;
but these microscopic details of the inner environment may be largely
irrelevant to the ant's behavior in relation to the outer environment.
That is why an automaton, though completely different at the macroscopic
level, might nevertheless simulate the ant's gross behavior. . . .

I should like to explore this hypothesis, but with the word "man" substituted
for "ant."

**A man, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent
complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the
complexity of the environment in which he finds himself** . . . .
I myself believe that the hypothesis holds even for the whole man.'

With a single stroke of the pen, by simply substituting "man" for "ant,"
the presumed irrelevancy of the microscopic details of the ant's
inner environment to its behavior has been elevated to the irrelevancy
of the whole man's inner environment to his behavior! Writing 23
years before Simon, but as if Simon's words were ringing in his
ears, Huxley states:

'Because of the prestige of science as a source of power, and because
of the general neglect of philosophy, the popular Weltanschauung of our
times contains a large element of what may be called 'nothing-but'
thinking. Human beings, it is more or less tacitly assumed, are
nothing but bodies, animals, even machines. . . values are nothing
but illusions that have somehow got themselves mixed up with our
experience of the world; mental happenings are nothing but epiphenomena. . .
spirituality is noting but . . . and so on.'

Except, of course, that here we are not dealing with the 'popular'
Weltanschauung, but with that of one of the most prestigious of American
scientists. Nor is Simon's assumption of what is irrelevant to the
whole man's behavior 'more or less tacit'; to the contrary, he has,
to his credit, made it quite explicit.

Simon also provides us with an exceptionally clear and explicit description
of how, and how thoroughly, the scientist prevents himself from
crossing the boundary between the circle of light cast by his own
presuppositions and the darkness beyond. In discussing how he went
about testing the theses that underly his hypothesis, i.e., that man
is quite simple, etc., he writes:

'I have surveyed some of the evidence from a range of human performances,
particularly those that have been studied in the psychological
laboratory.

The behavior of human subjects in solving cryptarithmetic problems,
in attaining concepts, in memorizing, in holding information in
short-term memory, in processing visual stimuli, and in performing
tasks that use natural languages, provides strong support for these
theses. . . Generalizations about human thinking. . . are emerging
from the experimental evidence. They are simple things, just as our
hypotheses led us to expect. Moreover, though the picture will
continue to be enlarged and clarified, we should not expect it to
become essentially more complex. Only human pride argues that the
apparent intricacies of our path stem from a quite different source
that the intricacy of the ant's path.'

. . .

There is thus no chance whatever that Simon's hypothesis will be falsified
in his or his colleagues' minds. The circle of light that determines
and delimits his range of vision simply does not illuminate any areas
in which questions of, say, values of subjectivity can possibly arise.
Questions of that kind being, as they must be, entirely outside his
universe of discourse, can therefore not lead him out of his conceptual
framework, which, like all other magical explanatory systems, has
a ready reserve of possible hypotheses available to explain any
conceivable event.

Almost the entire enterprise of modern science and technology is afflicted
with the drunkard's search syndrome and with the myopic vision which
is the direct result. But, as Huxley also pointed out, this myopia
cannot sustain itself without being nourished by experiences of success.
Science and technology are sustained by their translations into
power and control. To the extent that computers and computation
may be counted as part of science and technology, they feed at the
same table. The extreme phenomenon of the compulsive programmer teaches
us that computers have the power to sustain megalomaniac fantasies.
But the power of the computer is merely an extreme version of the
power that is inherent in all self-validating systems of thought.
Perhaps we are beginning to understand that the abstract systems --
the games computer people can generate in their infinite freedom
from the constraints that delimit the dreams of workers in the real
world -- may fail catastrophically when their rules are applied in
earnest. We must also learn that the same danger is inherent in other
magical systems that are equally detached from authentic human
experience, and particularly in those sciences that insist they can
capture the **whole man** in their abstract skeletal frameworks."


;->

Well, that was 30-odd years ago, already.

giulio said...

Re: "Such suppositions are literally worse than useless. Let's suppose Jeebus raises the dead in a century, that unemployment numbers go down for four months thirteen years from now, and white calf length anti-gravity boots are distributed to everybody whose last name begins in letters O through Z in fifty years' time."

Nice nonsense, I hope your intention was to be fun.

Contrary to Jeebus and anti-gravity boots, the possibility that "radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies are developed within the next, say, 50 years" is regarded as very realistic by many experts.

You might say that there are also many experts that do not regard it as very realistic, and you would certainly be correct. This is how science and engineering work: experts will hold and defend different opinions on the mechanics or feasibility of some proposed engineering objective, until a position is definitely proven wrong.

I am not telling you that radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies WILL BE developed within the next 50 years, but that radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies MAY BE developed within the next 50 years. If you think this is BS, well, I concede that you may be right!

But my non negotiable point is that the possibility that "radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies may be developed within the next 50 years" IS an engineering problem rather than a philosophical or metaphysical problem.

Unless we are talking of sacred cows. If this is the case, there is no point in discussing because in my worldview there is no place for such a thing as a sacred cow. A sacred cow is just as good for burgers as any other cow.

jfehlinger said...

Giulio Prisco wrote:

> Contrary to Jeebus and anti-gravity boots, the possibility
> that "radical anti-aging and life extension medical
> technologies are developed within the next, say, 50 years"
> is regarded as very realistic by many experts.

You know, not long ago I tuned the FM radio in my car
to a random station, and came across a creationist giving
a talk on some fundamentalist program. He made a
statement such as "Of course, most scientists today
realize that Darwinism is intellectually bankrupt,
that it just doesn't hold water anymore." He said this
in a completely confident, matter-of-fact tone of
voice, and I could imagine his listeners nodding their
heads sagely as he spoke.

I get the same feeling reading Prisco's "regarded as very
realistic by many experts" assertion. Are we speaking
the same language? Can the English in that sentence
mean the same thing to me as it did to the writer?
Do I have a firm enough grasp of the words "realistic",
"experts", or even "many"?

giulio said...

Re: Jim's comment "I get the same feeling reading Prisco's "regarded as very realistic by many experts" assertion..."

You know the script from this point on:

1- I provide a long list of experts who think that "radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies may be developed within the next 50 years".

2- Someone says that the opinions of the experts in 1- does not count because they are cranks without scientific credentials.

3- I, or someone else, provide for each of the experts in 1- a list of scientific credentials, doctoral degrees, awards received, peer-reviewed publications etc.

4- Someone says that, despite of the credentials in 3-, the experts in 1- are still cranks whose opinion does not count.

5- And we start calling each other names as usual.

Even if I am almost sure of the final outcome (5-), I look forward to doing this exercise and will start with the list 1- as soon as I receive a green light.

But I am not sure that you really want to do this, as it seems to me that having a discussion on these terms means accepting my premise that aging and life extension are engineering problems rather than philosophical or metaphysical issues.

I may be mistaken, and I will admit to a certain frustration at the apparent impossibility of understanding each other's point of view (for which of course I have to accept part of the blame), but I have formed the impression that no real discussion is wanted here.

jfehlinger said...

> I will admit to a certain frustration at the apparent
> impossibility of understanding each other's point of view. . .
> but I have formed the impression that no real discussion
> is wanted here.

Yes, many of us have formed that impression. We can at
least agree on that.

jfehlinger said...

Giulio Prisco wrote:

> 1- I provide a long list of experts. . .
>
> 2- Someone says that the. . . ["]experts["]. . . [do] not count
> because they are cranks. . .
>
> 3- . . . 4- . . .
>
> 5- And we start calling each other names as usual.

Yes, there is a deeper context here surrounding the questions
of evidence and plausibility. Whole philosophical careers
have been based on exploring these questions (see, e.g.,
_Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism_
by Susan Haack
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1591021170/
for an "educated layman's" introduction to the field).

One of the principles elucidated in Haack's book is that
"Justification [of belief] is not exclusively one-directional, but
involves pervasive relations of mutual support." Haack's
explication of "pervasive relations of mutual support"
relies largely on an analogy with how crossword puzzles are
solved by fitting together clues and possible interlocking
solutions.

So yes, a list is going to be insufficient by itself.
For you, there will be a whole network of (inexplicit)
assumptions and beliefs buttressing your list, and for
me those supporting assumptions and beliefs will be
absent.

It is **possible** to expose and criticize the whole
submerged network, but you're not interested in doing
that, either. You're just interested in PR.

giulio said...

Re: "So yes, a list is going to be insufficient by itself. For you, there will be a whole network of (inexplicit) assumptions and beliefs buttressing your list, and for me those supporting assumptions and beliefs will be absent."

I never said that a list of experts who support a given hypothesis is sufficient to prove it, or even to consider it plausible. But I think such a list of experts (with credentials and all that) would constitute at least an indication that the hypothesis concerned should be at least considered before rejecting it.

However, I will agree on your statement quoted. As, I am sure, you will agree that I can state exactly the same thing from my point of view: "For you, there will be a whole network of (inexplicit)
assumptions and beliefs, and for
me those supporting assumptions and beliefs will be absent".

Re: "It is **possible** to expose and criticize the whole submerged network, but you're not interested in doing that, either. You're just interested in PR."

Now suppose, just suppose, that this is not the case. How would you proceed to expose and criticize the whole submerged network?

jfehlinger said...

> How would you proceed to expose and criticize the
> whole submerged network?

Well, **I** would suggest things for you to read. (As I've
done, by implication, by posting things here. Do you think
yesterday's excerpt from Weizenbaum is **irrelevant** to this
discussion? Do you think earlier excerpts from George
Lakoff are irrelevant? Did you think the posts I made on
WTA-talk were irrelevant? -- apparently you did, as you were
part of the process that got me banned there.)

Dale, being a professional academic, might write things himself
that you could read. As he has done, in case you hadn't
noticed. But, like the compulsive programmer described by
Weizenbaum, "[you]. . . cannot permit them to become a kernel
of a realistic insight. [The transhumanist] program may
be foundering on deep structural, mathematical, or
linguistic difficulties about which relevant theories exist[,]
[b]ut . . . [you] refuse [to allow] them to nucleate relevant
theories in [your] mind [a mechanism called by Polyani. . .
suppressed nucleation]. [You do] not read the literature
of the substantive fields in which [you] are nominally working."

Here's another long quote. Determination of its relevance to
this discussion is left as an exercise for the reader. ;->

http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2005/07/index.html
----------------
The importance of being earnest

One of the most useful intellectual skills to
cultivate is the ability to enter into sympathetic
engagement with any idea or argument you are considering.
The only way to really understand what another person
is saying is to listen closely, and the only way to
listen closely is first to find, or at least pretend
to find, some common ground between the other person
and yourself. You need not maintain this sympathetic
engagement, this provisional or illusionary agreement,
for very long -- just long enough to absorb and
grasp the points at issue.

On the other hand, an inability or an unwillingness
to drop your guard and make room, even temporarily,
for an idea that you may find distasteful is the main
impediment to really understanding what other people
are saying and, therefore, to being able to effectively
refute what they say.

I thought of this today when flipping through a book
that I admit to having bought in the expectation of
a cheap laugh, and not for any intellectual merit
that it may possess: Ayn Rand's Marginalia. That's
right, her marginalia. In their continuing effort
to publish every word that Ayn Rand ever committed
to paper during the course of her 77 years, those
in charge of her estate have published her private
letters, her private journals, and yes, even the
scribbled notes in the margins of books she was
reading.

Supposedly, these notes give us an insight into Rand's
brilliant mind at work. No doubt this was editor
Robert Mayhew's intention, and no doubt this is how
the collection of jottings will be received by her
more uncritical admirers. Not being an admirer of
Ayn Rand myself, I had a rather different reaction.
I was simply amazed -- and amused -- at how consistently
she failed to understand the most basic points points
of the books in question.

In his introduction, Mayhew says he did not include many
of Rand's positive comments because they were generally
insubstantial. This collection, then, is not a representative
sample of her reactions to her reading material. Even
bearing this in mind, I found the fury and frustrated
rage exhibited by Rand in these remarks to be extraordinary.
Hardly a page goes by without encountering angry
exclamation points, and even double and triple exclamation
points, sometimes augmented by question marks in comic-book
fashion. ("!!?!") The terms "God-damn" and "bastard" are
unimaginatively and gratingly repeated. Repeatedly I came
across another burst of venom to the effect that whatever
sentence or paragraph Rand had just read is the worst,
most horrible, most abysmal, most corrupt, most despicable
thing she has ever, ever, ever encountered!!! The woman
lived in a simmering stew of her own bile.

She came at the books she read, it would seem, not from the
perspective of honestly and conscientiously trying to
understand the author's position, but instead by assuming
an adversarial and combative stance from the very start
and then finding the most negative and malicious spin to
put on the author's formulations. This approach enabled
her to vent a considerable amount of rage. It does not
seem to have aided her comprehension of the material in
front of her.

To me this is most obvious in her treatment of [C. S. Lewis's]
The Abolition of Man, which, other than John Herman Randall's
Aristotle and Ludwig von Mises's Bureaucracy, is the only book
in this collection that I've read. (I suppose someday I should
get around to reading Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom,
which is considered a classic of free-market polemic -- though
Rand of course finds it poisonously wrongheaded. The rest
of the books, except for von Mises's Human Action and two books
by Henry Hazlitt and John Hospers, are largely forgotten today.)

Lewis's book is hardly a difficult read. It was aimed at an
educated but not highbrow segment of the public, and his
cautions on the potential misuse of science seem chillingly
prescient in these days of genetic engineering, animal cloning,
and embryonic stem cell research. He develops his case
methodically, building on the premise that man's power over
nature translates into the power of some men over others.
Rand furiously contests this idea, though she makes precious
little argument against it, relying mainly on personal
invective against Lewis himself, who is variously characterized
as an "abysmal bastard ... monster ... mediocrity ... bastard ...
old fool ... incredible, medieval monstrosity ... lousy bastard ...
drivelling non-entity ... God-damn, beaten mystic ...
abysmal caricature ... bastard ... abysmal scum." (These
quotes give you the tenor of the master philosopher's coolly
analytical mind.)

In one marginal note Rand scrawls, "This monster literally
thinks that to give men new knowledge is to gain power (!)
over them." Of course what Lewis says is that it is the holders
and utilizers of new knowledge, who do not "give" it to
others but use it for themselves, who gain de facto power
over their fellow human beings. He is fearful of the emerging
possibilities of "eugenics ... prenatal conditioning [and]
education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology,"
which may someday be wielded by an elite he calls the
Conditioners. "Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of
some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a
few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men."
And "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases
means ... the power of some men to make other men what
they please." Should this come to pass, "the man-moulders
of the new age will be armed with the power of an omnicompetent
state and an irresistible scientific technique ...
They [will] know how to produce conscience and [will] decide
what kind of conscience they will produce."*

Lewis was clearly arguing against one possible vision
of the future, the dystopia best fictionalized in Aldous Huxley's
Brave New World. I find his points compelling, but of course
they are debatable. In order to be properly debated, however,
they must first be understood. Rand shows no interest in
even trying to understand what Lewis is saying -- which is
unfortunate, since recent headlines have made his concerns
more relevant than ever.

Earlier, Lewis develops the argument that basic moral values
cannot be rationally defended but must be accepted as given,
as part of the fabric of human nature, common to all
communities and societies, though not always equally
well-developed or implemented. This view, known as
moral intuitionism, is a serious ethical position and
one that has been defended by many prominent philosophers,
especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(It is enjoying something of a resurgence today.)
Rand was vehemently opposed to this view, believing that
it smacked of faith, which was, as she understood it,
the archenemy of reason.

Lewis argues that in the realm of values, as in other
realms of thought, you must begin with certain fundamental
assumptions; "you cannot go on 'explaining away' forever:
you will find that you have explained explanation itself.
You cannot go on 'seeing through' things forever."
Rand furiously rejects this idea, and you can practically
hear her pen stabbing at the page as she writes,
"By 'seeing through,' he means: 'rational understanding!'
Oh, BS! -- and total BS!" But Lewis's entire point is that
"rational understanding" must start somewhere, just as
geometry or set theory must begin with certain axioms
that cannot themselves be proven by the system in question.
It takes more than declarations of "BS!" to vanquish
this argument -- or, for that matter, any argument.

Rand is always telling the authors she reads what they
"actually" are saying. Most of the time what she thinks
they are "actually" saying bears no relationship whatsoever
to anything they have written or even implied. With
regard to Lewis, she says that his view boils down to the
claim that the more we know, the more we are bound by
reality: "Science shrinks the realm of his whim. (!!)"
This is a thorough misunderstanding of Lewis's essay --
an essay, let me repeat, aimed at the intelligent
general reader and not requiring any special expertise
to to decipher.

Thus, although Ayn Rand's Marginalia hardly demonstrates
the genius that Rand's admirers believe she possessed,
it does unintentionally serve an instructional purpose.
It shows how important it is to enter into a temporary
but sincere sympathy with an author whose view you are
trying to understand -- that is, if you are trying to
understand it at all. To put it another way, in reading,
it's important to be earnest -- to embrace a spirit of
respect, honest consideration, and goodwill. You'll find
those qualities in most serious thinkers. You will not
find them, I'm afraid, in Ayn Rand's marginal notes.
----------------

Khannea Suntzu said...

If it were as simple as to agree to disagree, and it were done. Sure, Transhumanists, of whatever stripe, *believe* in an unprecedented technological potential, believe in the theoretical right to change aspects of existence even as such practice is far in faerie lala land. And sure, I have quite a few f2f friends that, like Dale, say I am a fucking idiot for believing in mind uploads and AIs to emerge soon.

If it were only that simple! But it isn't. Nanotech is all but certain, WHATEVER that means in practical terms. AI will emerge, before 2050 (and most likely in some form before 2025) and a list of other remarkable technological shifts will produce a world both dystopian, utopian and most of all really weird.

What I am worried about is whether or not the time stream I'll be in will be Apocalyptical in nature.

Like with Dale I am in absolute certainty the world is ruled by a completely unaccountable elite of rich and powerful bastards, of assorted ilk, that screw us all every single day, and exploit people to a miserable pulp the lower we go - lower being poorer, more defenseless, more alienated and more undereducated.

What I seriously am at odds with, -with dale- is the rosy colored delusion that anything will change as soon as Dale makes sure everybody knows that selfidge, selfinterested idealists, of whatever stripe, are a bunch of superstitious nuts - if they do not instantly move beyond the dreamy eyed rhetoric and act according to dale's dictates.

I know dictates and I know dictators. I know good intentions, from whatever side of the debate. And I Do Not Care.

I want humanity, ALL of humanity to get better, real soon.

I am real poor, the poorest of the poor in one of the richest countries in the world. I am pretty sick too, close to puking 2 days of the week. So don't ever -EVER- classify me into some convenient category. I'd label myself as a Chomksyan and a socialist his week, but I'll stay a dreamy eyed neoraellian who'll fucking hope and pray to Old Cthulhu if need be that the technological change that WILL come, the technological and environmental collapse that IS certain, the conflict between rich fuckers and poor fuckers that IS unavoidable will not kill us all.

Because we are destined for a world where technology and society is so strange, so weird, so dangerous and so marvelous we can't even put it in words yet. And even though any cinematic portrayal of that technology in poetic sounding slogans (with *official extropian!* stickers on it) will most likely fail, I will tattoo on anyone's ass in bright red dayglo that We Will Have Transhuman Technologies in our lifetime.

My concern is that we have a livable world BESIDES. Because right now, I am living in one less so every fucking day and I am getting really really fed up with that.

Dale Carrico said...

I strongly sympathize with your circumstances and the outrage of your precarity and suffering in a world organized for the benefit of incumbent interests. Joining a Robot Cult will solve literally none of your problems, you can be sure, and I am not yet convinced that even well-meaning transhumanists aren't contributing to the consolidation of the power of the very incumbent elites who are making your life more miserable than it has to be.

De Thezier said...

Giulio:

I am not telling you that radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies WILL BE developed within the next 50 years, but that radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies MAY BE developed within the next 50 years. If you think this is BS, well, I concede that you may be right!

As you well know, you are on record as proclaiming that radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies WILL BE developed within the next 50 years or statements involving mind uploading and immortality that were even more hysterical. It wasn't a problem when were you preaching to the H+choir but it become one when I and other people starting calling you on it. That's when you started using "MAY BE" to seem more reasonable.

But my non negotiable point is that the possibility that "radical anti-aging and life extension medical technologies may be developed within the next 50 years" IS an engineering problem rather than a philosophical or metaphysical problem.

I actually agree (depending what you mean by "radical") but, although you have, you can't and shouldn't say the same thing about "friendly artificial intelligence", "mind uploading" or "immortality" even if you had 50 more years to your timeline. And that's point we have trying to get through your thick head.

Greg in Portland said...

jf: The woman
lived in a simmering stew of her own bile.


On Rand: But none of us really needed anyone to pour through her books to know that did we? Many thanks to Peikoff, et al for sharing though.

Khannea Suntzu: My concern is that we have a livable world BESIDES. Because right now, I am living in one less so every fucking day and I am getting really really fed up with that.

Well that's the basic problem isn't it? I read various "science blogs" and occasionally the source papers they reference every day. The world is getting cooler by the day isn't it. There's nano-this and gene-therapy-that. Yet the shit piles higher every day for all but a privileged few. Those of us who still believe in the "Enlightenment project" and still think that progress should actually benefit those of us who earn less than the GNP of a small country wait in earnest for the benefits to arrive. Tick, tick...

jfehlinger said...

de Thezier wrote:

> [Giulio Prisco wrote:]
>
> > But my non negotiable point is that the possibility that "radical
> > anti-aging and life extension medical technologies may be developed
> > within the next 50 years" IS an engineering problem rather than a
> > philosophical or metaphysical problem.
>
> I actually agree (depending what you mean by "radical"). . .

The usage here is provocative (or would be, for a native English speaker
who was doing it intentionally). Calling something an "engineering
problem" is not neutral -- it **suggests** that the basic
science is well understood, and that all that's left is designing the
factory plumbing. I think many medical researchers would bridle
at being called "engineers", and would protest that the basic science
here is **far** from being finished, or even properly begun.

But neither would I call medicine and biology "metaphysical" fields,
except to the extent that all human discourse is "metaphysical".

I do think that exaggerating the near-term prospects of medicine and biology
may be a symptom that has a psychological angle, and that mobilizing
cheerleaders, soliciting money, and attempting to influence public
policy has a political angle.

Again, to reiterate the question that Dale has asked many times before,
what's to be gained by framing anything in terms of "radical anti-aging and life
extension" except to whip up both exaggerated hopes and exaggerated
fears? Are we to believe that changing the rules for grant
applications to favor those researchers who claim to be pursuing "radical anti-aging
and life extension" will improve the quality of the research being
done, or hasten the arrival of these goals? I doubt it!

And I do not, I repeat, I do not say this because I'm trying to
undermine anybody's chances of achieving immortality, or because
I'm a crypto-Christian, or because I'm agin' blasphemy, or anything
as sophisticated as that. I just don't trust hype. I don't trust
TV preachers, I don't trust Tony Robbins, I don't trust the Scientologists.
Call me a cynic -- I'll cop to that.

> but, although you have, you can't and shouldn't say the same thing about
> "friendly artificial intelligence", "mind uploading" or "immortality"
> even if you had 50 more years to your timeline. And that's point we have
> trying to get through your thick head.

Yeah, I'm afraid that's true. And I say that as somebody who's been reading SF,
and reading about AI (and getting excited about Arthur C. Clarke's books,
and Moravec's books, and Kurzweil's books) my whole life, and who came sniffing
around the on-line transhumanist community more than a decade ago thinking
(hoping) that they might actually know what they were talking about. I discovered
that, alas, they don't. They may be young, they may have high IQs, they may
be enthusiastic, they may be well-intentioned and idealistic (at least on the surface)
but they just haven't done their homework. And there's a dark underbelly
to the movement that smacks of Scientology, Jim Jones, and other cultishness
and flim-flam that's as old as recorded history.


"It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
De things dat yo' liable to read in de Bible
It ain't necessarily so

. . .

To get into Hebben don' snap for a sebben
Live clean, don' have no fault
Oh I takes dat gospel whenever it's pos'ble
But wid a grain of salt

Methus'lah lived nine hundred years
Methus'lah lived nine hundred years
But who calls dat livin' when no gal'll give in
To no man what's nine hundred years?

I'm preachin' dis sermon to show
It ain't nessa, ain't nessa
Ain't nessa, ain't nessa
It ain't necessarily so."

giulio said...

Re: "that's point we have trying to get through your thick head"

You may get an answer, if of course you want one, if you reword leaving "thick head" out. I will ignore comments containing personal insults.

giulio said...

Re: "Calling something an "engineering
problem" is not neutral -- it **suggests** that the basic
science is well understood, and that all that's left is designing the
factory plumbing."

Not my intention - I am using "engineering problem" to indicate something that takes places within the physical world, is framed in a way compatible with the current scientific understanding of the physical world, and can be tackled by designing the factory plumbing once the basic science is understood well enough.

Saying that the basic science will never be understood well enough smells of preconceived religious notions to me.

I am ready to concede that radical life extension may not be achieved within the timeframe I usually refer to (the next 50 years), or that it may not be achieved within the next 1000 years, but I will not concede that it is in principle not achievable.

jfehlinger said...

> Saying that the basic science will never be understood well enough
> smells of preconceived religious notions to me.

Saying that "the basic science will never be understood well
enough" smells of preconceived religious notions to me, too.

But see, I didn't say that!

I said the basic science is clearly not well enough understood
**now** to say much of anything about when, or if, "radical
life extension" etc. will be achievable. I said the basic
science is not **yet** well enough understood even to be able
to predict **when** the basic science will be well enough
understood to predict when (**or** whether) those
"transhumanist" goals will be achievable. I suggested that
it's the business of sober scientists to leave the gee-whiz
goals (ones that also "smell" of religious notions, or
religious aspirations, dontcha know) to the SF authors,
and concentrate on this or that genome, or this or that
bit of biochemistry -- i.e., the business at hand.

Getting all worked up about radical transformations that **must be**,
**must be**, I tell you! near at hand -- Ray Kurzweil has
seen them in the entrails of a PC -- smacks of religious
enthusiasm to me (or worse).

"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the
way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

jfehlinger said...

BTW, speaking of usage, Giulio wrote:

> I am impermeable to Carrico’s insults. . .

I suspect he was thinking of the more idiomatically
mainstream "I am **impervious** to Carrico's
insults."

"Impermeable" works too, sort of, but it conjures up
visions of Prisco in a raincoat with -- poop? --
running off it.

;->

giulio said...

Re: "I said the basic science is clearly not well enough understood
**now** to say much of anything about when, or if, "radical
life extension" etc. will be achievable. I said the basic
science is not **yet** well enough understood even to be able
to predict **when** the basic science will be well enough
understood to predict when (**or** whether) those
"transhumanist" goals will be achievable."

I am more optimist with respect to whether those "transhumanist" goals will be achievable, and also with respect to the timeline, but I can certainly agree that your formulation is correct.

giulio said...

Re: ""Impermeable" works too, sort of, but it conjures up visions of Prisco in a raincoat with -- poop? --
running off it."

I would indeed say "impermeable" in my mother language, the term being used to conjure a raincoat with liquid running off it. The liquid should be rainwater, but I can certainly see some merit in your alternative suggestion.

jfehlinger said...

Giulio Prisco wrote:

> I am more optimist with respect to whether those "transhumanist"
> goals will be achievable, and also with respect to the timeline,
> but I can certainly agree that your formulation is correct.

Now this is a non-trivial piece of common ground.

I also agree that one is entitled to be more-or-less optimistic,
pessimistic, or uncertain, about 'whether [and how soon] those
"transhumanist" goals will be achievable'. Reasonable
people can disagree about such things, or suspend judgment
about such things.

Robin said...

First of all, I can't wait to go start lauding the oncoming anti-gravity boot revolution, since I'm one of the lucky group of people who get a pair! And now I can point people to Dale's blog as an expert in the field willing to entertain this idea.

More to the point:

I had several on-campus job interviews in the field of philosophy of mind - and I cannot even begin to tell you how often I ran into people asking questions that were either in principle incoherent or else simply re-edified the traditional cartesian split that I find incoherent (or at least as incoherent as ghosts and magic and such). The experience taught me a few things: that a fully embodied view of mind is still extremely hard for people to understand, after centuries (millenia?) of language and culture reinforcing the split, and it also showed me that even I can still be drawn into the discussion and stymied by the framing of certain questions with very implicit cartesian assumptions.

All this is by way of saying - it's hard to blame people with incoherent views of mind and body for being incompetent when even philosophers, who are supposed to be specialists at uncovering assumptions and dragging out implicit concepts, still can't get a handle on the implications of embodied mind. I found that many other philosophers *of mind* today DO, in fact, understand why the mind-body split is incoherent, but only a handful have useful approaches to the problem after a lifetime of education that assumes such a split. I nearly hugged someone I was in direct competition with for a job when he began speaking of Andy Clark, Katherine Hayles, and Lakoff and Johnson.

It's frustrating to understand the world in an entirely different way than most people you encounter. I wonder if this is what religion feels like, except with pure faith in the place of evidence and observation...

jfehlinger said...

Robin [Zebrowski] wrote:

> I had several on-campus job interviews in the field of
> philosophy of mind - and I cannot even begin to tell you
> how often I ran into people asking questions that were
> either in principle incoherent or else simply re-edified
> the traditional cartesian split that I find incoherent
> (or at least as incoherent as ghosts and magic and such).
> The experience taught me a few things: that a fully
> embodied view of mind is still extremely hard for people
> to understand, after centuries (millenia?) of language
> and culture reinforcing the split, and it also showed me
> that even I can still be drawn into the discussion and
> stymied by the framing of certain questions with very
> implicit cartesian assumptions.

In a book I mentioned 7 years ago (my God!) on the Extropians'
list, _Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness_
by John McCrone, 1999; Chapter 12 "Getting It Backwards",
the author remarks:

"[P]ersonally speaking, the biggest change for me
was not how much new needed to be learnt, but how much that was
old and deeply buried needed to be unlearnt. I thought my
roundabout route into the subject would leave me well prepared.
I spent most of the 1980s dividing my time between computer
science and anthropology. Following at first-hand the attempts
of technologists to build intelligent machines would be a good
way of seeing where cognitive psychology fell short of the mark,
while taking in the bigger picture -- looking at what is known
about the human evolutionary story -- ought to highlight the
purposes for which brains are really designed. It would be a
pincer movement that should result in the known facts about the
brain making more sense.

Yet it took many years, many conversations, and many false starts
to discover that the real problem was not mastering a mass of
detail but making the right shift in viewpoint. Despite
everything, a standard reductionist and computational outlook on
life had taken deep root in my thinking, shaping what I expected
to see and making it hard to appreciate anything or anyone who
was not coming from the same direction. Getting the fundamental
of what dynamic systems were all about was easy enough, but then
moving on from there to find some sort of balance between
computational and dynamic thinking was extraordinarily difficult.
Getting used to the idea of plastic structure or guided
competitions needed plenty of mental gymnastics...

[A]s I began to feel more at home with this more organic way of
thinking, it also became plain how many others were groping their
way to the same sort of accommodation -- psychologists and brain
researchers who, because of the lack of an established vocabulary
or stock of metaphors, had often sounded as if they were all
talking about completely different things when, in fact, the same
basic insights were driving their work."

> I found that many other philosophers *of mind* today DO, in fact,
> understand why the mind-body split is incoherent, but only a
> handful have useful approaches to the problem after a lifetime
> of education that assumes such a split.

Gerald M. Edelman is a neurscientist (getting old now, alas)
who seems to understand these things pretty well. He quotes
Unamuno's critique of Descartes as the first chapter epigraph in
_Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind_.

"cogito, ergo sum." -- Rene Descartes

"The defect of Descartes' _Discourse on Method_ lies in his resolution
to empty himself of himself, of Descartes, of the real man, the
man of flesh of bone, the man who does not want to die, in order
that he might be a mere thinker -- that is, an abstraction. But
the real man returned and thrust himself into his philosophy. . .

The truth is _sum, ergo cogito_ -- I am, therefore I think, although
not everything that is thinks." -- Miguel de Unamuno

Robin said...

That McCrone excerpt is fantastic. Thanks for sharing it. I share his experience thoroughly!

I'm a huge fan of Edelman's work. It's funny - Merleau-Ponty said "I am, therefore I think" back in the 1950s (I'd have to look up the chapter reference) but because he HAD a fully coherent viewpoint about the body and the world he was more or less entirely incomprehensible to most people (myself included) for a very long time.

One thing I constantly try to remember when dealing with these issues is just how hard it is for people who don't spend their entire lives working on these problems to understand how completely wrong our commonsense assumptions about them really are.

giulio said...

Re: "I also agree that one is entitled to be more-or-less optimistic, pessimistic, or uncertain, about 'whether [and how soon] those "transhumanist" goals will be achievable'. Reasonable people can disagree about such things, or suspend judgment about such things."

And this is exactly what I propose we do. Short of providing an actual example, there is not much I can say to persuade you to share my more optimistic outlook. Similarly, short of an actual proof of impossibility, there is not much you can say to persuade me to share your less optimistic outlook.

Of course I admit to that there is a certain bias on my side: I would _like_ to live in a universe where "transhumanist" goals are achievable and near, and tend to attribute importance to scientific findings that seem to suggest that this may be the case. And I am sure there is a similar bias on your and Dale's side. This is what tend to happen with deep core values: it is very difficult to talk people out of them.

But the question I wish to ask is: does it really matter? If we were called to vote on one or another of the many issues discussed on this website, we would probably vote the same. Isn't this enough? Why can't we just agree to disagree on this point?

I do not particularly wish to discuss transhumanism on this blog, because I know that the result is that I will insult and be insulted most of the times.

But whenever I intervene on this blog to say something about other things (and, I repest, _completely unrelated_ things), Dale quickly brings the discussion back to transhumanism. Which is _exactly the same thing_ as saying that your political opinions are stupid because you are black, or that her sporting preferences are stupid because she is gay.

And this is an attitude that I find disgusting when it comes from someone who claims to represent the dem-left. To the extent that, even if I believe that Dale is a very smart person and an excellent writer, I question his intellectual honesty.

I hope I have made my point cleary enough and I am wondering how many "you stupid transhumanist jerk" insults I will find when I come back later.

jfehlinger said...

Giulio wrote:

> [t]here is not much I can say to persuade you to share
> my more optimistic outlook. Similarly, . . . there is not much
you can say to persuade me to share your less optimistic outlook. . .
> This is what tend to happen with deep core values: it is
> very difficult to talk people out of them.
>
> But the question I wish to ask is: does it really matter?
> If we were called to vote on one or another of the many issues
> discussed on this website, we would probably vote the same.
> Isn't this enough? Why can't we just agree to disagree on this point?

If it were entirely a matter of an individual's private opinions,
then yes, of course we would (if we happened to be acquainted)
just agree to disagree.

But it isn't just a private outlook. Further, the transhumanist
identity movement is no longer just a matter of a bunch of SF-geeks
hanging out together on line. Now, it's a project. It has Principles.
It has Institutes. It has Conferences. It's looking for Money.

And what was "quirkiness" when it was just a bunch of geeks hanging
out -- the sort of SF Con atmosphere wryly portrayed by Sharyn McCrumb
in _Bimbos of the Death Sun_ -- now has far more unsavory potential:

-- It misrepresents the current and likely future state of science.
The enthusiasts are so noisy that they drown out the weaker voices
of any experts who can be bothered to comment at all. This is a disservice
to any members of the general public who might be listening in,
and it's a distraction to people of genuine talent who might otherwise
be doing genuine intellectual work.

-- It's an attractor for certain personality types. Autistic spectrum,
yes, but also Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These sorts of
people live inside "warp bubbles" of self-generated reality, and
tend to suck other people into their (self-aggrandizing) bubble
universes.

-- The default politics (usually disclaimed as "politics" at all)
are both naive, and ugly. Some of this follows from the psychology,
I guess.

-- It's a fertile field for outright con artists and flim-flam men,
out to make a buck.

> But whenever I intervene on this blog to say something about
> other things (and, I repeat, _completely unrelated_ things),
> Dale quickly brings the discussion back to transhumanism. Which is
> _exactly the same thing_ as saying that your political opinions
> are stupid because you are black, or that her sporting preferences
> are stupid because she is gay.

You are on record (in other forums) as being among the more, er,
enthusiastic (not to say "rabid") proselytizers for transhumanism.
I think I even saw you say, once, something like "Well, what's wrong,
then, with deliberately starting a religion, to spread transhumanist
memes? Whatever works!"

So why are you here, then? My answer -- you're here, whatever you
may ostensibly be "intervening" about, as part of the damage control,
the spinmeistering, in which folks like Michael Anissimov feel compelled
to engage in response to Dale's **daring** to criticize transhumanism
in public.

You think Dale should stop critizing transhumanism to spare your feelings?
Give me a break!!

------------------

"Exclusive: Kirstie Alley's Lawyers Demand That 'US Weekly' Fire Writer
Who Cracked A Scientology Joke"
http://defamer.com/351242

giulio said...

Re: "You think Dale should stop critizing transhumanism to spare your feelings? Give me a break!!"

My feelings are unimportant here, and actually I don't have hard feelings against Dale. If I had any, I could simply stop reading him and read other things. And this is his blog after all, of course he can write whatever he wants. Nobody forces me to read it.

Re: "So why are you here, then? My answer -- you're here, whatever you
may ostensibly be "intervening" about, as part of the damage control, the spinmeistering,"

Now, this is certainly an astute observation and a possible explanation of my presence here. I don't think it is correct.

But let's suppose it is.

Then I would say that Dale is falling into the trap and helping a lot with the damage control and spinmeistering.

Because, you see, what I wrote above is provably true. He has attacked and insulted people here, including but not limited to me, for comments on issues completely unrelated to transhumanism, and used their transhumanist afflitation as an "argument". See my analogy above, which is correct.

This is available in Amor Mundi archives for everyone to see. Next time I write "sunflowers are yellow" in a comment to a post about sunflowers, and Dale answers "shut up you transhumanist idiot, and screw you and your Robot God", he will give us more precious help in damage control by showing the world that _he_ is the one who does not know the difference between identity based insults and rational arguments.

Something for you guys to think about.

jfehlinger said...

Robin wrote:

> One thing I constantly try to remember when dealing with
> these issues is just how hard it is for people who don't spend
> their entire lives working on these problems to understand
> how completely wrong our commonsense assumptions about them
> really are.

And even, sometimes (apparently), for people who **do**
spend their entire lives working on them!

Here's some more stuff you might enjoy, from my archives.
You may well already be familiar with the Hubert Dreyfus
book.

---------------------

Subject: Let us calculate, Sir Marvin

This book makes very entertaining read after
my brush with the Extropians:
_What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of
Artifical Reason_, Hubert L. Dreyfus, MIT Press,
1992

Introduction, pp. 67-70:

Since the Greeks invented logic and geometry, the idea that
all reasoning might be reduced to some kind of calculation --
so that all arguments could be settled once and for all --
has fascinated most of the Western tradition's rigorous
thinkers. Socrates was the first to give voice to this
vision. The story of artificial intelligence might well
begin around 450 B.C. when (according to Plato) Socrates
demands of Euthyphro, a fellow Athenian who, in the name
of piety, is about to turn in his own father for murder:
"I want to know what is characteristic of piety which
makes all actions pious. . . that I may have it to turn
to, and to use as a standard whereby to judge your actions
and those of other men." Socrates is asking Euthyphro
for what modern computer theorists would call an "effective
procedure," "a set of rules which tells us, from moment
to moment, precisely how to behave."

Plato generalized this demand for moral certainty into
an epistemological demand. According to Plato, all
knowledge must be stateable in explicit definitions
which anyone could apply. If one could not state his
know-how in terms of such explicit instructions -- if his
knowing **how** could not be converted into knowing
**that** -- it was not knowledge but mere belief.
According to Plato, cooks, for example, who proceed by
taste and intuition, and poets who work from inspiration,
have no knowledge; what they do does not involve
understanding and cannot be understood. More generally,
what cannot be stated explicitly in precise instructions --
all areas of human thought which require skill, intuition
or a sense of tradition -- are relegated to some kind of
arbitrary fumbling.

But Plato was not fully a cyberneticist (although according
to Norbert Wiener he was the first to use the term), for
Plato was looking for **semantic** rather than **syntactic**
criteria. His rules presupposed that the person understood
the meanings of the constitutive terms. . . Thus Plato
admits his instructions cannot be completely formalized.
Similarly, a modern computer expert, Marvin Minsky, notes,
after tentatively presenting a Platonic notion of effective
procedure: "This attempt at definition is subject to
the criticism that the **interpretation** of the rules
is left to depend on some person or agent."

Aristotle, who differed with Plato in this as in most questions
concerning the application of theory to practice, noted
with satisfaction that intuition was necessary to apply
the Platonic rules: "Yet it is not easy to find a formula
by which we may determine how far and up to what point a man
may go wrong before he incurs blame. But this difficulty
of definition is inherent in every object of perception;
such questions of degree are bound up with circumstances
of the individual case, where are only criterion **is**
the perception."

For the Platonic project to reach fulfillment one breakthrough
is required: all appeal to intuition and judgment must be
eliminated. As Galileo discovered that one could find
a pure formalism for describing physical motion by ignoring
secondary qualities and teleological considerations, so,
one might suppose, a Galileo of human behavior might succeed
in reducing all semantic considerations (appeal to meanings)
to the techniques of syntactic (formal) manipulation.

The belief that such a total formalization of knowledge must
be possible soon came to dominate Western thought. It
already expressed a basic moral and intellectual demand, and
the success of physical science seemed to imply to sixteenth-
century philosophers, as it still seems to suggest to
thinkers such as Minsky, that the demand could be satisfied.
Hobbes was the first to make explicit the syntactic conception
of thought as calculation: "When a man **reasons**, he
does nothing else but conceive a sum total from addition of
parcels," he wrote, "for REASON . . . is nothing but
reckoning. . ."

It only remained to work out the univocal parcels of "bits"
with which this purely syntactic calculator could operate;
Leibniz, the inventor of the binary system, dedicated
himself to working out the necessary unambiguous formal
language.

Leibniz thought he had found a universal and exact system of
notation, an algebra, a symbolic language, a "universal
characteristic" by means of which "we can assign to every
object its determined characteristic number." In this way
all concepts could be analyzed into a small number of
original and undefined ideas; all knowledge could be
expressed and brought together in one deductive system.
On the basis of these numbers and the rules for their
combination all problems could be solved and all controversies
ended: "if someone would doubt my results," Leibniz
said, "I would say to him: 'Let us calculate, Sir,' and
thus by taking pen and ink, we should settle the
question.'" . . .

In one of his "grant proposals" -- his explanations of how
he could reduce all thought to the manipulation of
numbers if he had money enough and time -- Leibniz remarks:
"[T]he most important observations and turns of skill
in all sorts of trades and professions are as yet unwritten.
This fact is proved by experience when passing from
theory to practice when we desire to accomplish something.
Of course, we can also write up this practice, since it
is at bottom just another theory more complex and
particular. . ."


Chapter 6, "The Ontological Assumption", pp. 209-213

Granting for the moment that all human knowledge can be
analyzed as a list of objects and of facts about each,
Minsky's analysis raises the problem of how such a large
mass of facts is to be stored and accessed. . .

And, indeed, little progress has been made toward
solving the large data base problem. But, in spite of
his own excellent objections, Minsky characteristically
concludes: "But we had better be cautious about
this caution itself, for it exposes us to a far more
deadly temptation: to seek a fountain of pure intelligence.
I see no reason to believe that intelligence can
exist apart from a highly organized body of knowledge,
models, and processes. The habit of our culture has
always been to suppose that intelligence resides in
some separated crystalline element, call it _consciousness_,
_apprehension_, _insight_, _gestalt_, or what you
will but this is merely to confound naming the problem
with solving it. The problem-solving abilities of
a highly intelligent person lies partly in his superior
heuristics for managing his knowledge-structure and
partly in the structure itself; these are probably
somewhat inseparable. In any case, there is no reason to
suppose that you can be intelligent except through the
use of an adequate, particular, knowledge or model
structure."

. . . It is by no means obvious that in order to be
intelligent human beings have somehow solved or needed to
solve the large data base problem. The problem may itself
be an artifact created by the fact that AI workers must
operate with discrete elements. Human knowledge does
not seem to be analyzable as an explicit description
as Minsky would like to believe. . . To recognize an
object as a chair, for example, means to understand its
relation to other objects and to human beings. This
involves a whole context of human activity of which
the shape of our body, the institution of furniture, the
inevitability of fatigue, consitute only a small part.
And these factors in turn are no more isolable than is
the chair. They all may get **their** meaning in
the context of human activity of which they form a
part. . .

There is no reason, only an ontological commitment,
which makes us suppose that all the facts we can make
explicit about our situation are already unconsciously
explicit in a "model structure," or that we
could ever make our situation completely explicit
even if we tried.

Why does this assumption seem self-evident to Minsky?
Why is he so unaware of the alternative that he takes
the view that intelligence involves a "particular,
knowledge or model structure," great systematic array
of facts, as an axiom rather than as an hypothesis?
Ironically, Minsky suppose that in announcing this
axiom he is combating the tradition. "The habit of
our culture has always been to suppose that intelligence
resides in some separated crystalline element, call
it consciousness, apprehension, insight, gestalt. . ."
In fact, by supposing that the alternatives are either
a well-structured body of facts, or some disembodied
way of dealing with the facts, Minsky is so traditional
that he can't even see the fundamental assumption
that he shares with the whole of the philosophical
tradition. In assuming that what is given are facts
at all, Minsky is simply echoing a view which has been
developing since Plato and has now become so ingrained
as to **seem** self-evident.

As we have seen, the goal of the philosophical
tradition embedded in our culture is to eliminate
uncertainty: moral, intellectual, and practical.
Indeed, the demand that knowledge be expressed in
terms of rules or definitions which can be applied
without the risk of interpretation is already
present in Plato, as is the belief in simple elements
to which the rules apply. With Leibniz, the connection
between the traditional idea of knowledge and the
Minsky-like view that the world **must** be analyzable
into discrete elements becomes explicit. According
to Leibniz, in understanding we analyze concepts into
more simple elements. In order to avoid a regress
of simpler and simpler elements, then, there must
be ultimate simples in terms of which all complex
concepts can be understood. Moreover, if concepts
are to apply to the world, there must be simples
to which these elements correspond. Leibniz
envisaged "a kind of alphabet of human thoughts"
whose "characters must show, when they are used in
demonstrations, some kind of connection, grouping
and order which are also found in the objects."
The empiricist tradition, too, is dominated by
the idea of discrete elements of knowledge. For
Hume, all experience is made up of impressions:
isolable, determinate, atoms of experience.
Intellectualist and empiricist schools converge
in Russell's logical atomism, and the idea reaches
its fullest expression in Wittgenstein's _Tractatus_,
where the world is defined in terms of a set of
atomic facts which can be expressed in logically
independent propositions. This is the purest
formulation of the ontological assumption, and
the necessary precondition of all work in AI as long
as researchers continue to suppose that the world
must be represented as a structured set of descriptions
which are themselves built up from primitives.
Thus both philosophy and technology, in their appeal
to primitives, continue to posit what Plato sought:
a world in which the possibility of clarity, certainty
and control is guaranteed; a world of data structures,
decision theory, and automation.

No sooner had this certainty finally been made fully
explicit, however, than philosophers began to call it into
question. Continental phenomenologists [uh-oh, here
come those French. :-0] recognized it as the outcome
of the philosophical tradition and tried to show its
limitations. [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty calls the
assumption that all that exists can be treated as
determinate objects, the _prejuge du monde_,
"presumption of commonsense." Heidegger calls it
_rechnende Denken_ "calculating thought," and views
it as the goal of philosophy, inevitably culminating
in technology. . . In England, Wittgenstein less
prophetically and more analytically recognized the
impossibility of carrying through the ontological
analysis proposed in his _Tractatus_ and became his
own severest critic. . .

But if the ontological assumption does not square with
our experience, why does it have such power? Even if
what gave impetus to the philosophical tradition was
the demand that things be clear and simple so that
we can understand and control them, if things are not
so simple why persist in this optimism? What lends
plausibility to this dream? As we have already seen. . .
the myth is fostered by the success of modern
physics. . .


Chapter 8, "The Situation: Orderly Behavior Without
Recourse to Rules" pp. 256-257

In discussing problem solving and language translation
we have come up against the threat of a regress of rules
for determining relevance and significance. . . We
must how turn directly to a description of the situation
or context in order to give a fuller account of the
unique way human beings are "in-the-world," and the
special function this world serves in making orderly
but nonrulelike behavior possible.

To focus on this question it helps to bear in mind
the opposing position. In discussing the epistemological
assumption we saw that our philosophical tradition
has come to assume that whatever is orderly can be
formalized in terms of rules. This view has reached
its most striking and dogmatic culmination in the
conviction of AI workers that every form of intelligent
behavior can be formalized. Minsky has even
developed this dogma into a ridiculous but revealing
theory of human free will. He is convinced that all
regularities are rule governed. He therefore theorizes
that our behavior is either completely arbitrary
or it is regular and completely determined by the
rules. As he puts it: "[W]henever a regularity is
observed [in our behavior], its representation is
transferred to the deterministic rule region." Otherwise
our behavior is completely arbitrary and free.
The possibility that our behavior might be regular
but not rule governed never even enters his mind.


Dreyfus points out that when a publication anticipating
the first edition of his book came out in the late
1960s, he was taken aback by the hysterical tone of
the reactions to it:

Introduction, pp. 86-87

[T]he year following the publication of my first
investigation of work in artificial intelligence,
the RAND Corporation held a meeting of experts in
computer science to discuss, among other topics,
my report. Only an "expurgated" transcript of this
meeting has been released to the public, but
even there the tone of paranoia which pervaded the
discussion is present on almost every page. My
report is called "sinister," "dishonest,"
"hilariously funny," and an "incredible misrepresentation
of history." When, at one point, Dr. J. C. R. Licklider,
then of IBM, tried to come to the defense of my
conclusion that work should be done on man-machine
cooperation, Seymour Papert of M.I.T. responded:
"I protest vehemently against crediting Dreyfus with
any good. To state that you can associate yourself
with one of his conclusions is unprincipled. Dreyfus'
concept of coupling men with machines is based on
thorough misunderstanding of the problems and has nothing
in common with any good statement that might go by
the same words."

The causes of this panic-reaction should themselves be
investigated, but that is a job for psychology [;->],
or the sociology of knowledge. However, in anticipation
of the impending outrage I want to make absolutely clear
from the outset that what I am criticizing is the
implicit and explicit philosophical assumptions of
Simon and Minsky and their co-workers, not their
technical work. True, their philosophical prejudices
and naivete distort their own evaluation of their
results, but this in no way detracts from the
importance and value of their research on specific
techniques such a list structures, and on more
general problems. . .

An artifact could replace men in some tasks -- for
example, those involved in exploring planets --
without performing the way human beings would and
without exhibiting human flexibility. Research in
this area is not wasted or foolish, although a balanced
view of what can and cannot be expected of such an
artifact would certainly be aided by a little
philosophical perspective.


In the "Introduction to the MIT Press Edition" (pp. ix-xiii)
Dreyfus gives a summary of his work and reveals
the source of the acronym "GOFAI":

Almost half a century ago [as of 1992] computer pioneer
Alan Turing suggested that a high-speed digital
computer, programmed with rules and facts, might exhibit
intelligent behavior. Thus was born the field later
called artificial intelligence (AI). After fifty
years of effort, however, it is now clear to all but
a few diehards that this attempt to produce artificial
intelligence has failed. This failure does not mean
this sort of AI is impossible; no one has been able
to come up with a negative proof. Rather, it has
turned out that, for the time being at least, the
research program based on the assumption that human
beings produce intelligence using facts and rules
has reached a dead end, and there is no reason to
think it could ever succeed. Indeed, what John
Haugeland has called Good Old-Fashioned AI (GOFAI)
is a paradigm case of what philosophers of science
call a degenerating research program.

A degenerating research program, as defined by Imre
Lakatos, is a scientific enterprise that starts out
with great promise, offering a new approach that
leads to impressive results in a limited domain.
Almost inevitably researchers will want to try to apply
the approach more broadly, starting with problems
that are in some way similar to the original one.
As long as it succeeds, the research program expands
and attracts followers. If, however, researchers
start encountering unexpected but important phenomena
that consistently resist the new techniques, the
program will stagnate, and researchers will abandon
it as soon as a progressive alternative approach
becomes available.

We can see this very pattern in the history of GOFAI.
The work began auspiciously with Allen Newell and
Herbert Simon's work at RAND. In the late 1950's,
Newell and Simon proved that computers could do more
than calculate. They demonstrated that a computer's
strings of bits could be made to stand for anything,
including features of the real world, and that its
programs could be used as rules for relating these
features. The structure of an expression in the
computer, then, could represent a state of affairs
in the world whose features had the same structure,
and the computer could serve as a physical symbol
system storing and manipulating representations.
In this way, Newell and Simon claimed, computers
could be used to simulate important aspects of intelligence.
Thus the information-processing model of the mind
was born. . .

My work from 1965 on can be seen in retrospect as a
repeatedly revised attempt to justify my intuition,
based on my study of Martin Heidegger, Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, and the later Wittgenstein, that the
GOFAI research program would eventually fail.
My first take on the inherent difficulties of
the symbolic information-processing model of the
mind was that our sense of relevance was holistic and
required involvement in ongoing activity,
whereas symbol representations were atomistic and
totally detached from such activity. By the
time of the second edition of _What Computers Can't
Do_ in 1979, the problem of representing what I
had vaguely been referring to as the holistic
context was beginning to be perceived by AI researchers
as a serious obstacle. In my new introduction I
therefore tried to show that what they called the
commonsense-knowledge problem was not really a problem
about how to represent **knowledge**; rather, the
everyday commonsense background understanding that
allows us to experience what is currently relevant
as we deal with things and people is a kind of
**know-how**. The problem precisely was that this
know-how, along with all the interests, feelings,
motivations, and bodily capacities that go to make a
human being, would have had to be conveyed to the
computer as knowledge -- as a huge and complex belief
system -- and making our inarticulate, preconceptual
background understanding of what it is like to
be a human being explicit in a symbolic representation
seemed to me a hopeless task.

For this reason I doubted the commonsense-knowledge
problem could be solved by GOFAI techniques, but I could
not justify my suspicion that the know-how that made up
the background of common sense could not itself be
represented by data structures made up of facts and
rules. . .

When _Mind Over Machine_ came out, however, Stuart
[Dreyfus] and I faced the same objection that had been
raised against my appeal to holism in _What Computers
Can't Do_. You may have described how expertise
**feels**, our critics said, but our only way of
**explaining** the production of intelligent behavior
is by using symbolic representations, and so
that must be the underlying causal mechanism. Newell
and Simon resort to this type of defense of
symbolic AI: "The principal body of evidence for
the symbol-system hypothesis. . . is negative evidence:
the absence of specific competing hypotheses as to
how intelligent activity might be accomplished whether
by man or by machine [sounds like a defense of
Creationism!]"

In order to respond to this "what else could it be?" defense
of the physical symbol system research program, we
appealed in _Mind Over Machine_ to a somewhat vague and
implausible idea that the brain might store holograms
of situations paired with appropriate responses,
allowing it to respond to situations in way it had
successfully responded to similar situations in the
past. The crucial idea was that in hologram matching
one had a model of similarity recognition that did not
require analysis of the similarity of two pattersn
in terms of a set of common features. But the model
was not convincing. No one had found anything
resembling holograms in the brain.


Minsky gets the brunt of Dreyfus' exasperation and sarcasm.

Introduction to the Revised Edition, pp. 34-36:

In 1972, drawing on Husserl's phenomenological analysis,
I pointed out that it was a major weakness of AI that no
programs made use of expectations. Instead of
modeling intelligence as a passive receiving of
context-free facts into a structure of already stored
data, Husserl thinks of intelligence as a context-
determined, goal-directed activity -- as a **search**
for anticipated facts. For him the _noema_, or
mental representation of any type of object, provides
a context or "inner horizon" of expectations or
"predelineations" for structuring the incoming data. . .

The noema is thus a symbolic description of all the
features which can be expected with certainty in exploring
a certain type of object -- features which remain
"inviolably the same. . ." . . .

During twenty years of trying to spell out the components
of the noema of everyday objects, Husserl found that
he had to include more and more of what he called the
"outer horizon," a subject's total knowledge of the
world. . .

He sadly concluded at the age of seventy-five that he was
a "perpetual beginner" and that phenomenology was an
"infinite task" -- and even that may be too optimistic. . .

There are hints in an unpublished early draft of the
frame paper that Minsky has embarked on the same misguided
"infinite task" that eventually overwhelmed Husserl. . .

Minsky's naivete and faith are astonishing. Philosophers
from Plato to Husserl, who uncovered all these problems
and more, have carried on serious epistemological
research in this area for two thousand years without
notable success. Moreover, the list Minsky includes in
this passage deals only with natural objects, and
their positions and interactions. As Husserl saw, and
as I argue. . ., intelligent behavior also presupposes
a background of cultural practices and institutions. . .

Minsky seems oblivious to the hand-waving optimism of
his proposal that programmers rush in where philosophers
such as Heidegger fear to tread, and simply make explicit
the totality of human practices which pervade our lives
as water encompasses the life of a fish.

jfehlinger said...

Jaron Lanier is a contemporary computer scientist who seems
to have a clue, unlike many of his colleagues.

Unfortunately, all these people, Lanier included, are stonily
ignored by the transhumanists. They're just party-poopers,
dontcha know.

--------------------------------

"The first fifty years of general computation, which
roughly spanned the second half of the twentieth
century, were characterized by extravagant swings
between giddy overstatement and embarrassing near-
paralysis. The practice of overstatement was
initiated by the founders of computer science:
Alan Turing wondered whether machines, particularly
his abstract 'universal machines,' might
eventually become the moral equivalents of people;
in a similar vein, Claude Shannon defined the
term 'information' as having ultimate breadth,
spanning all thermodynamic processes.

One could just as well claim that since all
life is made of chemical interactions, any
chemical apparatus can be understood as a
nascent version of a person. The reason this
claim isn't made is that the difference in
complexity between the chemistry of living things
and what can be studied in contemporary
chemistry laboratories is apparent. We have
an intuition about the distinction. In contrast,
we do not have a clear intuition about the
differences in complexity between the various
kinds of information systems. A serious and
intelligent community of researchers who
describe themselves as studying 'artificial
intelligence' believed, in some cases as
early as the late 1950s, that computers would
soon become fluent natural-language speakers.
This hasn't happened yet, of course, and we
still don't have an intuition of how large
a problem it is to understand natural languages,
or how long it might take to solve.

The practice of overstatement continues, and it
is even common to find members of elite computer
science departments who believe in an inevitable
'singularity,' which is expected sometime in
the next half century. This singularity would
occur when computers become so wise and
powerful that they not only displace humans
as the dominant form of life but also attain
mastery over matter and energy so as to live
in what might be described as a mythic or
godlike way, completely beyond human conception.
While it feels odd even to type the previous
sentence, it is an accurate description of
the beliefs of many of my colleagues. . .

Because we've had no intuition of the relative
scales of information structures, we've had a
hard time comparing our computational
accomplishments to what nature has accomplished.
Both the technical and popular press are
awash with claims that human computational
prowess is about to catch up with natural
complexity. Examples include the repeated
claims that computers are about to finally
understand human emotions or language, or
that computers are about to allow us to bridge
the gap between complex organisms and
the simple sequences of DNA we have learned
merely to catalog.

One way to frame the nature of our ignorance
in this matter is to ask whether natural evolution
was a bumbling, slow, inefficient process or
the result of a naturally self-assembling
parallel supercomputer (perhaps even operating
on a quantum level in some cases) that
self-optimized to bring about an irreducibly
complex result in roughly the shortest possible
time. These two alternatives are the outer
bounds of what could be true. The truth,
which we don't know, is somewhere in between.
My bias is toward the latter bound: Evolution
was probably pretty efficient at performing
an irreducibly complex task. It seems, however,
that the other extreme -- that all it will
take is another thirty to fifty years of Moore's
Law magic and our computers will outrun
nature -- is accepted in most contemporary
dialog about the future of science and
technology. . .

A new computer and information science would
incorporate a theory of legacy. . .
We must learn to give up the illusion that we
can overcome legacies. This is the illusion
in play when otherwise well-informed technologists
propose radical additions to the human
metabolism or brain structure (and yes, there
are many such proposals).

One idea worthy of investigation is whether
'legacy' is the same thing as 'semantics.'
'Semantics' is a word that has been used to
describe whatever mysterious thing lies beyond
the syntax barrier characteristic of protocol-
based systems: For instance, natural-language
systems are always said to be progressing
but lacking in their understanding of semantics.
A legacy creates an immutable context in an
information system. Legacies are complex.
Legacies, in reducing the configuration space
of a system, act like lenses that enhance
the causal potential of bits. . .

[A] marriage ceremony is a legacy, a pattern
with a history that it is expensive to undo.
Similarly, DNA takes on meaning only in
the context of an embryo; an isolated strand
of DNA would almost certainly not be informative
enough for. . . clever aliens. . . to
re-create a creature. . .

In fifty years, if we're lucky, we might be
able not just to describe how DNA works and what
DNA is present (as we are beginning to now)
but to have a way of describing the intermediate
levels of complexity within which changes to
DNA are constrained. In effect, we might
learn to see the world to some degree from
evolution's point of view, instead of from
a molecule's or an organism's point of view."

-- Jaron Lanier, "The Complexity Ceiling",
in _The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half
of the 21st Century_

Robin said...

It took me awhile to come around to the arguments of Dreyfus (and Dreyfus!) after working in traditional AI theory for many years, but I began to "get" their objections around the same time I "got" Merleau-Ponty. I'm a fan of theirs now, and find it sort of funny how much time they spent on Minsky considering he's now pretty much a (great) historical figure with nothing *new* to contribute (in spite of his recent publications). I can't remember the last time I had to actually argue against Minsky's work (although I do still remember fondly an email exchange I had with him circa 1998 or 1999 - he was still quite a hero of mine back then!) And to bring this full circle to transhumanism - Minsky and I discussed the wonderful fiction (maybe I should capitalize that) FICTION of Greg Egan.

jfehlinger said...

Robin wrote:

> And to bring this full circle to transhumanism - Minsky
> and I discussed the wonderful fiction (maybe I should
> capitalize that) FICTION of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan is FABULOUS. Fabulous, I say.

Most of the first-rank SF authors are pretty clued-in and
sophisticated folks. Egan. William Gibson. Bruce Sterling.
David Brin. Even Vernor Vinge.

It's interesting that most of them (certainly all the
above, even arguably Vinge) steer plenty clear of what passes
for transhumanism or Singularitarianism these days. Except,
of course, to take the occasional pot-shot.

Sterling's talk "The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole"
from the summer of 2004 was pretty funny.
http://bruce-sterling-the-singularity-your-futu-mp3-download-kohit.net/_/71151

Vinge's latest, _Rainbows End_ (notice the absent apostrophe)
was interpreted, rightly I think, as a bit of a slap at the
Singularitarians (although I suppose we don't know how that
"story arc" is ultimately going to end).

One of Egan's later novels (which I never actually got around
to reading) contained what was interpreted as a rebuke of the
Singularitarians. It was quoted with some dismay on the
Extropians' list back in 2002.

`What do you think you're going to find in there [a new region of altered
spacetime]? Some great shining light of transcendence?'

`Hardly.' _Transcendence_ was a content-free word left over from religion,
but in some moribund planetary cultures it had come to refer to a mythical
process of mental restructuring that would result in vastly greater
intelligence and a boundless cornucopia of hazy superpowers--if only the
details could be perfected, preferably by someone else. It was probably an
appealing notion if you were so lazy that you'd never actually learnt
anything about the universe you inhabited, and couldn't quite conceive of
putting in the effort to do so; this magical cargo of transmogrification
was sure to come along eventually and render the need superfluous.

Tchicaya said, `I already possess general intelligence, thanks. I don't
need anything more.' It was a rigorous result in information theory that
once you learn in a sufficiently flexible manner--something humanity had
achieved in the Bronze Age--the only limits you faced were speed and
storage; all other structural changes were just a matter of style.

-- Egan, _Schild's Ladder_, p.55 (UK edition)

Dale Carrico said...

Funny topical turn -- I happen to love Egan's and Vinge's fiction also (and have done for nearly twenty years by now). Some amazing stuff. Fiction.

AnneC said...

Jim, could you *please* quit associating autism with narcissism? You may have read a lot of psychological literature, but you don't seem to have spent much time engaging with actual autistic people (and no, I don't mean "people with geeky personality types that to you match up with some stereotype of autistic-spectrum you have in mind). Having atypical emotional and reciprocal responses and an atypical style of thinking/perceiving does not mean that a person is stuck in a "static warp bubble".

And lest you think I'm just talking about myself here, I have spent time around other folks on the spectrum, and mostly I've just been shocked at the degree to which others (not autistics!) assume the autistics to be "locked in [our] own worlds".

That said, some people are just jerks, and there's no reason that someone on the autistic spectrum can't be a jerk. Jerkiness is pretty equal-opportunity. But don't mistake the jerkiness of a few people for some kind of scientific fact about an entire demographic.

And I probably don't need to say this, but hopefully you don't see this as an "attack" on you or on your posting style or anything like that -- I've mentioned on several occasions that the quoting doesn't bother me, and I can generally see its relevance. I just get irritated when I see "autistic" so frequently alongside "narcissistic" in your comments.

Dale Carrico said...

Anne's right -- there should be much more care around this. I mean, if we have to throw anecdotal evidence around, not a single person I know who is autistic-identified is a jerk at all, while many who are not are jerks! But I honestly don't think the force of Jim's point about narcissism and True Belief and the authoritarian dynamic and certain tendencies to reductionism among techno-utopians really requires the problematic association anyway, I think it's as much an outdated habit as anything else. You know, I have this odd sense that the term "Autism" has come to be deployed much more carelessly in recent years in public discourse while at the very same time it has acquired especially moralistic freighting... never an especially good discursive combination. It's good people are grappling with this and getting smarter and more sensitive in their thinking on this.

AnneC said...

Dale: regarding "autism" being deployed far too much in recent years: I wholeheartedly agree. I mean, we have people claiming that everything from "food allergies and yeast overgrowth" to "self-centered economic systems" are somehow autistic, which to me just seems like linguistic laziness (coupled with a bit of sociopolitical opportunism and a dash of plain old ignorance).

It's really ridiculous, and while I am all for making sure that people who are actually autistic (in the sense that they benefit from being recognized as such, nurtured with regard to their particular strengths, and accommodated as needed), I do think some lines ought to be drawn. There's way too much mouse research going on right now attempting to claim that mice who either engage in "excessive grooming" or who don't socialize much with other mice are somehow autistic, which I think is a very misguided approach.

IMO, autism is best understood as a how rather than a what -- that is, not as a behavior or set of behaviors (behaviorism be damned!), but as a way of perceiving and processing information. There's some neat research going on in that direction now, which makes me very happy. In particular I think folks like Morton Ann Gernsbacher are on the right track.

But I'll stop derailing the topic here for now. Just wanted to put in my figurative 2 cents on this one since it's been bugging me for a while.

Dale Carrico said...

Of the derailments presently in play in this Moot, I must say I like yours best, Anne. I feel I have plenty to learn from it.

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin wrote:

> Jim, could you *please* quit associating autism with narcissism?

I don't, particularly, in my own thoughts.

The reason the association exists in my observations about
transhumanism is that the "movement" seems to be an attractor,
more-or-less independently, for two kind of folks:

1. The kinds of folks attracted to math, computer programming,
and science fiction. Also to elaborate rule-bound systems like
role-playing games, contract law, and a certain idea of what
artificial intelligence might be like. More of these people
than in a random sample are likely to be on the autistic spectrum
(according to Simon Baron-Cohen et al.).

2. Folks to consider themselves "geniuses", who feel held back
by the ignorance of the masses, who don't like to have to pay
taxes to support their fellow human beings, who feel
chafed by "limits" in general. Many of **these** folks
exhibit the symptoms of what the DSM calls "Narcissistic
Personality Disorder".

That being said, I gather from my Web-surfing that the differential
diagnosis among Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD), Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder (in certain
phases), Asperger's and other autistic-spectrum disorders,
and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can be tricky even
for trained psychiatrists. Apparently they all have that
characteristic obliviousness to social context and social
feedback. See, e.g., "Misdiagnosing Narcissism - Asperger's Disorder"
by Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com/journal72.html ).

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin also wrote:

> [Y]ou don't seem to have spent much time engaging with
> actual autistic people. . .

On the contrary. "Some of my best friends. . .", etc.

I'm probably at least borderline Asperger's myself, at
any rate according to Simon Baron-Cohen's "Autism-Spectrum
Quotient" test
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html
The diagnosis didn't exist when I was a kid, but some of
the problems I had in school would no doubt be laid, today,
at the feet of Asperger's.

It is true that I don't know anybody who is **profoundly**
autistic.

jfehlinger said...

A personal anecdote:

I have dinner, practically every week, with a married couple
with two boys (a year apart, they're in 5th and 6th grade).
(I'm not going to mention anybody by name here, of course,
but I still hope they don't read any of this! I **think**
I'm safe. ;-> ).

Both the husband and wife are trained mathematicians. The
wife, though she has a PhD in math, basically gave up an
academic career to raise the kids, though she still has
a side job tutoring kids in math. The husband (a Russian
Jewish immigrant to the US, via Australia) once had aspirations
to become a world-class mathematician; when he decided,
for whatever reasons, that he didn't have a shot at the
first tier of mathematical brains, he quit short of his PhD
and is now a computer security honcho at a major New York
brokerage firm).

The husband is clearly spectrum -- a fact which nearly destroyed
their marriage. It was the **wife** who had to do all the
psychological research, figure out what was going on, and figure
out how to accommodate it. She has to do things like,
during a social event, signal her husband by pointing at her
eyes, to get him to make eye contact with his interlocutor.

The husband can be sweet, but he can also be **extremely**
abrasive (see, I hope nobody I know is reading this!). He's
very smart, and very knowledgeable in many fields (not only
math and physics, but economics, and history, and linguistics --
he speaks fluent Russian, and knows a lot of Hebrew, too),
but he tends to **lecture** people rather than conversing with
them. It's very difficult, sometimes, to get a word in
edgeways, as they say.

There's another fellow, a friend of the husband's from work,
who often shows up at dinner. He has two overriding topics
of conversation. Either he and his host go on and on about
computer issues at work (or about Net BSD, or about encrypted
file systems, or about Kerberos, or about Postfix, or what
have you), or this guest goes on and on about his libertarian
political views -- the awfulness of paying taxes, etc.
Everybody else at the table just grins and bears it. (or not --
one woman, a friend of the **wife's** -- just decided she
couldn't take it anymore and stopped coming. I rather missed
her.)

Of the two boys, the younger one is clearly "normal" (and though very
smart, suffers a bit from less-than-ideally articulate
speech), and the older boy his is father's son (spectrum, very
smart, hard to engage in a balanced conversation, but with
beautifully articulated speech as clear as a bell -- he sounds like
Mr. Spock [just as I did, at that age]).

The older boy (both kids have gone to private schools for their
entire academic careers) has been worrisome to his parents
because of his tendency to withdraw and "tune out" the
world -- both the adult world and his peers. He has always
been a natural bully magnet, and his parents assumed, from
the beginning, that he would not be able to function in
a public-school environment. He does very well in his present
academic circumstances, but a few weeks ago the parents mentioned
at table that some of the girls in S.'s 6th grade class had
come up with a "joke" with a slightly nasty edge. They
accost S. with the Vulcan salute (you know -- the Live Long
and Prosper spread-finger thing that Leonard Nimoy is said to
have invented) and ask him if he knows what it means.
Apparently this is a source of entertainment. I suggested that
S. give these girls Valentine's cards with an IDIC depicted
on the front. The adults thought this was a great idea, but
conceded that the girls in question probably wouldn't "get"
the deeper implications of the response.

Anyway -- yeah, I have personal experience with all this stuff.

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> Anne's right -- there should be much more care around this.

Well, I'm perfectly content to agree never to mention the "A"
word (**either** "A" word) on this blog again.

In any case, I'm far more interested in the "N" word. ;->

jfehlinger said...

Hm, I just noticed:

> Having atypical emotional and reciprocal responses and an
> atypical style of thinking/perceiving does not mean that
> a person is stuck in a "static warp bubble".

That was careless of me. I meant the "warp bubble" comment
to apply to NPD, not necessarily to spectrum.

"Warp bubble" is an allusion to a _Star Trek: The Next Generation_
episode -- "Remember Me". ;-> Something similar must have been
meant when Steve Jobs was said by his subordinates to generate
a "reality distortion field."

The technical term is "alloplastic defenses" -- "Of course
there's nothing wrong with **me** -- if anything's wrong,
it must be because **you**, or **they**, or somebody
else in this sick sad world full of incompetent mediocrities,
screwed up." Self-confidence, the certainty of one's own
superiority, can affect the social world much like a black
hole affects nearby matter. It reorients all frames of
reference to itself, and tends to suck everything else in.

This can have an effect similar to that of "gaslighting" -- a
term you seem to be familiar with, because you used it once
about me. ;->

Joanna Ashmun discusses this warping of reality on her site
about NPD ( http://www.halcyon.com/jmashmun/npd/traits.html ).
(This Web site is really worth reading, BTW -- it's relatively
short, to the point, and less verbose and technical than
Sam Vaknin's stuff.)

"The most telling thing that narcissists do is contradict themselves.
They will do this virtually in the same sentence, without even
stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they
want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not
they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they'll deny
ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only
seconds since they said it -- really, how could you think they'd ever
have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will
contradict FACTS. They will lie to you about things that you did
together. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them,
they'll say you're lying, making stuff up, or are crazy. [At this point,
if you're like me, you sort of panic and want to talk to anyone who
will listen about what is going on: this is a healthy reaction;
it's a reality check ("who's the crazy one here?"); that you're
confused by the narcissist's contrariness, that you turn to another
person to help you keep your bearings, that you know something is
seriously wrong and worry that it might be you are all signs that
you are not a narcissist]. NOTE: Normal people can behave irrationally
under emotional stress -- be confused, deny things they know, get
sort of paranoid, want to be babied when they're in pain. But normal
people recover pretty much within an hour or two or a day or two,
and, with normal people, your expressions of love and concern for
their welfare will be taken to heart. They will be stabilized by
your emotional and moral support. Not so with narcissists -- the
surest way I know of to get a crushing blow to your heart is to tell
a narcissist you love her or him. They will respond with a nasty
power move, such as telling you to do things entirely their way or
else be banished from them for ever."