Turing, Searle, Singer

The events of the world are so often dreadful, the history of philosophy almost seems to offer an escape. But it won’t do to pretend. Yesterday’s terror in Boston reminds us that our national gun obsession is part of a larger violence problem in America. In the world. 

[A runner in the Boston Marathon wearing a camera got footage of the first explosion: http://thebea.st/10Z17Pb ]

It was the last sort of news a parent wants to hear, after packing his child off to the nation’s capitol. (And where were the kids yesterday afternoon, while the news from Boston was breaking? At the national holocaust museum, and then Ford’s theater. I do hope today’s itinerary takes them to the sunnier side of human possibility.)

Imagine running for four hours, finally arriving at your finish line and what should be your triumphal moment of earned ecstatic rest, in a horrible flash to find the legs literally cut off beneath you.  Now try not to imagine it.

To the 78 year old who was felled by the blast wave but got up and finished: thank you. Such splendid examples of courage and perseverance are too rare.

To the parents of children who fell in Boston: no words. We simply must act.

==

We’re to the end of Little History of Philosophy today, with Alan Turing [PhilDic], John Searle, and “the best known living moral philosopher” Peter Singer (who also turns up in Philosophy Bites).

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. But more on this later.

My mind this morning is on Alan Turing, a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma

Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.

Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be replicated in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.

And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.

Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.

But, what a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me.

The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.

To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, ask yourself: how did we?

Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. 

ALAN TURING, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”

Singer’s challenge.

Peter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.


  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

Singer’s website… Practical Ethics… The Life You Can Save… Animal Liberation… The Singer Solution“… “Unspeakable Conversations

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