We have consistently overestimated what computation is capable of throughout history, whether computation was seen as an algorithmic method executed by humans, or a process of automated deduction realised by a machine. The fictional record is crystal clear on this point.
Instead of imagining machines that can do a task better than we can, we imagine machines that can do it in the best possible way. When we ask why, the answer is invariably some variant upon: it is a machine and therefore must be infallible.
This is absurd enough in certain specific cases: what could a ‘best possible poem’ even be? There is no well-ordering of all possible poems, only ever a complex partial order whose rankings unravel as the many purposes of poetry diverge from one another.
However, the deep, and seemingly coherent computational illusion is that there is not just a best solution to every problem, but that there is a best way of finding such bests in every circumstance. This implicitly equates true AGI with the Godhead.
Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.
… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.
The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.
The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.
I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.
Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.
I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.
(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)
Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.
The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.
Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)
This is not special pleading for philosophy. The same argument holds for innumerable other subjects which don’t have any direct economic benefit. I always cringe when people quote Socrates’s line “the unexamined life is not worth living” as though it were an argument uniquely for philosophy. All the humanities, arts and social sciences have a role in helping us to live examined lives. If we cannot find spaces for them in our universities, education becomes nothing more than professional training, churning out people who can help run society efficiently but none who routinely and thoroughly ask what all that efficiency is in the service of.Julian Baggini on Hull Uni’s decision to axe its philosophy undergrad offer.
We’ll never find proof for the existence of consciousness by picking the animal apart, or by looking at its parts in isolation. That’s like trying to understand the caching behavior of ravens by grinding them up, examining ever smaller parts down to the molecules, and studying them through the laws of physics or chemistry. That’s backwards. To the biologists life is made of matter, but the nature of every living thing in the cosmos is time-bound. Every living thing is, like a book, more than ink and paper. It is a record of history spanning over two billion years. The more we dissect and look at the parts disconnected, the more we destroy what we are trying to find—the more we destroy what took millions of years to make. Mind, like life or liveness, is an emergent property that is a historical phenomenon, though also still a wholly physical one. It reveals itself far above and beyond its component parts, in this case, primarily the nerve cells with their infinite interconnections that cannot and will not ever be unraveled one and all. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a continuum without boundaries. We can most readily see its presence or absence in the extremes.
Excerpt from Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heirrich (1999), p339.
Been enjoying this book about late-20th-Century studies of the birds that are my family namesake, my picking up of which had absolutely nothing to do with a rapidly developing Odin complex, no sirree.
The most remarkable thing about it, besides the insights into the complex (and quite probably conscious) behaviours of ravens, are the descriptions of Heinrich’s experimental methods, which involve a great deal of living out in the woods of Maine and dragging around animal carcasses of assorted sizes and origins; guy scrapes up a whole lotta roadkill. Lab-coat-and-test-tube biology, this is not; I believe one of the labels for this sort of work is behavioural ecology, but even that seems a little too restrictive. A lucid (if sometimes pedestrian) writer, cautious and careful in his descriptions of experimental processes but, as indicated above, not afraid to share his philosophies and theories when they go beyond the boundaries of what peer reviewers will accept (which is quite often).
This whole fake news phenomenon is hugely important and historically significant. At the moment I’m completely captivated by the strength of an analogy between the Gutenberg era and the internet era, this rhythmic force coming out of the connection between them. Radical reality destruction went on with the emergence of [the] printing press. In Europe this self-propelling process began, and the consensus system of reality description, the attribution of authorities, criteria for any kind of philosophical or ontological statements, were all thrown into chaos. Massive processes of disorder followed that were eventually kind of settled in this new framework, which had to acknowledge a greater degree of pluralism than had previously existed. I think we’re in the same kind of early stage of a process of absolute shattering ontological chaos that has come from the fact that the epistemological authorities have been blasted apart by the internet. Whether it’s the university system, the media, financial authorities, the publishing industry, all the basic gatekeepers and crediting agencies and systems that have maintained the epistemological hierarchies of the modern world are just coming to pieces at a speed that no one had imagined was possible. The near-term, near-future consequences are bound to be messy and unpredictable and perhaps inevitably horrible in various ways. It is a threshold phenomenon. The notion that there is a return to the previous regime of ontological stabilization seems utterly deluded. There’s an escape that’s strictly analogous to the way in which modernity escaped the ancien régime.
My tendency is not to draw a huge distinction between [scientists and artists]. In all cases one’s dealing with the formulation or floatation of certain hypothesis. I am assuming that every scientist has an implicit science fiction. We all have a default of what we think the world is going to be in five years time, even if it’s blurry or not very explicit. If we haven’t tried to do science fiction, it probably means we have a damagingly conservative, inert, unrealistic implicit future scenario. In most cases a scientist is just a bad science fiction writer and an artist, hopefully, is a better one. There is, obviously, a lot of nonlinear dynamism, in that science fiction writers learned masses from scientists, how to hone their scenarios better, and also the other way around. Science fiction has shaped the sense of the future so much that everyone has that as background noise. The best version of the near future you have has been adopted from some science fiction writer. It has to be that science is to some extent guided by this. Science fiction provides its testing ground.