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Natural Intelligence • The Life of Meaning • Homosexuality & Christianity • Humanist Behaviour • The Apparently Undying Nietzsche • Risks and Trade-Offs
Dear Editor: I feel that there is a fundamental oversight in Dr Leben’s presentation of his argument in Issue 139 pertaining to whether or not Artificial Intelligence should continue to be developed. His entire argument overlooks the philosophical inquiry – Why? Thus, the question is not whether the scientific community should or should not continue research of AI, but why do they feel driven to do so? Why do we need artificial intelligence? What is it about the human species which causes us to create something outside of ourselves for our salvation? Why do we seek to make another entity other than ourselves to fix our world? To show us how to do things better? To think for us?
What happens to humanity when we do this? Well, what happens to a being with our extraordinary capacity to create who no longer has purpose to even think? So now we seek to invent an AI – a new god. If we’re so intelligent that we can build a supercomputer that could solve the world’s problems, doesn’t it beg the question – why don’t we just solve our problems ourselves?
Humans need purpose to survive. So, will AI be our destruction? Absolutely! Not necessarily because it will annihilate us (although it may), but because the paradox of AI will be the breakdown of human productivity and imagination. In short, purpose, and so, life. What are we left with when it does everything for us? Well, what happens to the man who suddenly gets everything he wants? He has nothing left to live for.
Kristina Banks, Fayetteville, Georgia
Dear Editor: In Issue 139 Brett Wilson delivers an interesting argument about robots and legal rights, but he should get a better lawyer – one who would tell him that the answer to his question already exists in the common law. His lawyer’s argument is about whether you can equate the responsibility of an autonomous machine with the capacity to learn, with that of a human being. But there are already in law non-human entities possessing autonomy and the ability to learn. They’re called animals.
The (UK) law is that if you bring on to your property a potentially dangerous animal and it escapes on to your neighbour’s property and causes damage, you, as the owner, are liable, under the tort of negligence. It is usually no defence that the animal’s behaviour was acquired after you obtained it. Having acquired the animal, it is your responsibility as owner to exercise proper control over it.
If Brett’s cat had been savaged by the neighbour’s dog rather than by their AI lawnmower, the case would have been clear. There is no need to confuse the issue with AI; and I suspect that in the current (and foreseeable) state of AI, the hypothetical lawnmower would have possessed no higher consciousness than a dog. I have known some very intelligent and empathetic dogs.
Martin Jenkins, London
Dear Editor: After reading the ‘Future Shocks’ Issue, I was struck by the following thought: if I were suddenly to discover that my life was lived in a computer simulation, I would be in bits.
Alan Whittle, Lancashire
The Life of Meaning
Dear Editor: Being myself a Westerner, and a Buddhist since 1987, I read with especial interest ‘Buddha Travels West’ by Peter Abbs in Issue 138. As Dr Abbs suggests, Buddhism will surely assume new forms as it takes root in this new and strange culture. But I fear that essential elements of the teachings, such as the doctrines of karma and rebirth, may be stripped away in the process.
The first aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is ‘Right View’: in order to succeed, the practitioner needs to look at the world in the right way. In the ‘Brahmajala Sutta’, ‘The All-Embracing Net of Views’ which opens the Digha Nikaya or Long Discourses of the Buddha, he makes an exhaustive inventory of the mistaken ways of looking at the world, finding exactly sixty-two of them. As close as I can tell, the Western scientific view embraces two of these: ‘annihilationism’, or the doctrine that the mind becomes extinct with the death of the body; and ‘fortuitous origination’, or the doctrine that both the world and its inhabitants originated by chance. These views preclude karma and rebirth. Will we in the West, in our eagerness to make the dharma [Buddhist ethics] conform to our prejudices, wind up practicing a ‘Buddhism’ based on views that were explicitly rejected by the Buddha?
Paul Vitols, North Vancouver
Dear Editor: I simply had to purchase Issue 139 of Philosophy Now, because of its magnificent celebration of Twentieth Century existentialists, especially Jean-Paul Sartre and Iris Murdoch, whom we may say is at least a ‘fringe existentialist’.
I was pleased to learn more about the ethical aspects of existentialism prior to this millenium. It is apparent to me that maintaining true authenticity is ever more difficult. This is even true in a democracy, for these days one is often faced with being outnumbered by an ‘automatic modality of conformity’.
It has often been claimed that the existentialist movement is over. Far from it! Indeed, I regard myself to be part of the ‘New Wave of British Existentialists’ since 2019. In reference to two key topics for existentialists, ethics and freedom, this planet needs new heroes and heroines who stay true to both their humanitarian and authentic journeys; for humanity would appear to be in deep trouble, and our jump to being a interstellar civilization could be in jeopardy. I provide evidence with a single statistic: officially there are now 100,000 slaves in the UK. Where is the modern Wilberforce? Such social problems could be the basis of research programs to help protect us and our planet.
Prof. John Vincent, Essex
Dear Editor: As an immense fan of Viktor Frankl, and a general foe of the dog-eat-dog capitalist system, I was riveted by the article ‘Meaning in the Executive Suite’ by Ken Hines in Issue 138. However, reading the name Starbucks on the list of corporate manipulators was slightly disconcerting, as I know that Starbucks makes real attempts to utilize ethical behavior within the retail market. They offer basic health care to line e mployees, and fair market wages to coffee plant growers. I therefore do not mind paying an extra dollar or two in their shops (which most of my friends will not do). So the real measure of corporate ethics is not their attempt to ‘build meaning’ into the work experience, but how they treat all parties involved, both employees and customers: with respect, consideration, and fair wages.
Tim Strutz, Harrison Township, Michigan
Dear Editor: In Ken Hines’ article about work and meaning, ‘Meaning in the Executive Suite’ (PN 138), he somewhat suspiciously manages to skirt around the edges of the philosophical tradition that concerns itself most directly with work and meaning. As the source of his discussion, he chooses Weber, Taylor, and Frankl – but avoids mentioning Marx, Adorno, or Fisher, all of whom directly address various of his concerns. But the issues discussed in this article are literally the central issues of Marxist theory. Marxist-lite arguments are used in several places, but never identified as such; for instance, part of Marx’ concept of alienation is described in the article, but never named or attributed to Marx. There is no reference to the penetrating works of Adorno or Benjamin in the discussion of the origins and cultural function of advertising. The author presents the exploitation of workers as a matter of fact, rather than a structural feature of capitalism, which has been treated in detail by all the authors named above. And he uses Taylor’s general discussion of meaning, admitting that Taylor doesn’t address work specifically, when the relationship between meaning and labor is central to Marxist philosophy.
I bring this up because Marx’s name has been made into a boogeyman for the last 150 years. The author – along with the rest of the philosophical community – is doing a disservice to working people everywhere by failing to explicitly link these criticisms to their Marxist origins. These ideas, so often suppressed by omission, if not by force, have the potential to deepen the working class’s and the philosophical community’s understanding of the world. The readers of Philosophy Now and the office workers of the world have nothing to lose but their lanyards!
Nick Boline, Chicago
Homosexuality & Christianity
Dear Editor: I am writing in response to the article by Rick Aaron in Issue 138, which argues that singleness is sometimes ‘not practically feasible’ and therefore ‘not morally obligatory’.
Let me begin by addressing the issue theologically, since the author expressly sets out to critique the ‘conservative Christian’ stance. He argues that, since the Christian requirement for a gay person to be single sometimes requires ‘supernatural help’, it cannot be morally binding. Theologically, this is the Pelagian heresy – the notion that people are naturally able to fulfil the moral law without recourse to divine aid. However, for many people I know, voluntary singleness belongs in the same category as sacrificial love, patience, fidelity, truth-telling – that is to say, something practised as they walk the narrow path of reliance upon divine grace. This interpretation of Christianity teaches that all moral obligations require divine aid to be fulfilled. Granted, ‘supernatural help’ can only be voluntarily embraced.
Now let me address the argument from a moral point of view. Firstly, the argument that singleness is not morally obligatory because it is ‘not practically feasible’ evidently opens itself up to refutation depending on the definition of ‘feasibility’. If singleness can be shown to be feasible, it could therefore still be a moral obligation.But singleness is certainly statistically feasible: in many modern societies, over 50% of households are single-person households (not to mention single-parent families). It is unhelpful to suggest all these people are living ‘loveless’ lives for which a romantic relationship would be a panacea, and to dismiss other forms of relational engagement.
Secondly, ‘feasibility’ is a flawed criterion for identifying right and wrong. We would not apply it in other cases. Someone might find social distancing unbearable, or their inner racist sentiments insurmountable; another might feel strongly drawn into inappropriate and damaging relationships, or compelled to succumb to addictive behaviour. It might be argued that the good is not ‘feasible’ in these cases too. But morality does not require the good to be ‘easy to do’ or that ‘most people can do it’. We only ever fulfil our moral responsibility partially and imperfectly. That does not change what is right or wrong.
Russell Phillips, Edinburgh
Dear Editor: In ‘Christianity and Homosexuality’ (PN 138) Rick Aaron mounts an argument against the conservative Christian belief that homosexuality is wrong. But the Christian belief itself falls foul of a similar argument to the one he presented. It goes as follows: 1. Homosexuality is a natural condition of some humans, therefore God created them so; 2. Some Biblical writers (eg the author of Leviticus, and St Paul) have interpreted God as condemning homosexuality; 3. It is wrong to condemn someone for a condition over which they have no control. Therefore either 4a. God is wrong to condemn homosexuality, or 4b. The interpretations of God’s will by the author of Leviticus and by St Paul are wrong. 5. God cannot be wrong. Therefore 6. The interpretations of God’s will by the author of Leviticus and by St Paul are wrong, and homosexuality is not condemned by God.
It is telling that Jesus himself had nothing to say on the subject.
Ian Robinson, President Emeritus, Rationalist Society of Australia
Dear Editor: Robert Griffiths (‘Beyond Humanism?’, Issue 138) criticises humanism both for defining itself by its stance against theism and for not grounding morality/ethics outside the human sphere.
On Humanism UK’s website, I found a quiz called ‘How Humanist are You?’. It appears that I am 60% humanist. What the rest of me is, I’m not sure. The difference appears to be that I do not accept that I ‘ought’ to act in a particular way, whereas the quiz is based on there being a moral imperative to be nice to others.
Prof. Joel Marks, your former ‘Moral Moments’ columnist, explained in Issues 80 and 81 that he had changed his mind and now accepted that there was no right and wrong. He said that just as the effects of natural selection gave an illusion of intelligent design, “so, there are no moral commands, but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection of behaviour and motives that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.”
In this light, it is a little strange that Griffiths takes Humanism to task for concentrating on human beings and not extending our morality to sentient life in general. If morality is only a form of human behaviour honed by natural selection, then why ‘ought’ we to do so? We don’t need an extension to our morality in order to act in a way which will benefit our survival.
Jack Jones, Cardiff
The Apparently Undying Nietzsche
Dear Editor: I was fascinated by Brandon Robshaw’s article on ‘Eternal Recurrence Revisited’ in Issue 137.
Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence idea is only useful as a thought experiment if there is free will. The idea of the eternal recurrence of our lives would only help us choose the serious option over a frivolous choice one would later regret, if one could make an actual choice. But to make an actual choice implies free will; hence an uncertain universe rather than a deterministic world with no degrees of freedom, as the idea of eternal recurrence implies! So the paradox here is that eternal recurrence as a thought experiment to modulate behaviour is only useful if eternal recurrence is not a reality.
Fatalism per se does not necessarily mean that the individual has no free will. The Ancient Greeks implied that certain events were determined by fate, such as the fall of Troy. However, how long it would take for Troy to fall was uncertain; hence choices could delay or hasten this event, yet could not prevent it. This reminds me of Aesop’s tale about a man whose son was destined to be killed by a lion. The father took many precautions to prevent his son coming into contact with lions, including not allowing him to leave the house. After a while the son became frustrated. He took his wrath out by hitting a picture of a lion hanging in the home, injuring his hand, the hand became infected. The son died from the infection.
There’s another consideration which Robshaw does not discuss, and that is the relationship between eternal recurrence and personal identity. Supposing that eternal recurrence occurs, in what sense am I the same person who has experienced or will experience the same events in previous or future iterations of the ‘long year’? With no memory recall, or any continuity of existence, the entities which experience the same events as I do during the other iterations are closer to being clones of me than being me.
Russell Berg, Manchester
Dear Editor: I got Issue 137 from the newsagent on July 3. If Nietzsche is right about eternal recurrence then this letter will be late, early or right on time. No wonder he’s insane; his brains have been picked by a thousand philosophers. A fate I will love forever is meeting him on a ferry. Eek! Friedrich and me on the river, before and after work at a time of unbearable stress. I didn’t abandon hope immediately but I never forgot. It makes sense to me. Hope is always hanging around in miserable situations. Fati amor scares it away. Hope is all pious and patronising, or matronising. Hope is the leaky boat. “The meaning of life is that it stops,” said Kafka. Live it!
Kate Stewart, Bellthorpe, Queensland
Dear Editor: I found Peter Adamson’s article ‘Back to the Future’ in Issue 139 particularly interesting as I have been considering the issues around the idea of eternal recurrence for a long time.
The view that we have lived before and will live again in an identical sequence seems entirely plausible. However, I find the often deterministic nature of this view problematic, in that it presupposes a life that is essentially a replaying of a recording with no free will. The interesting question for me though is, as Adamson asks, “Why must it be the same sequence of events?” Whilst all events and sequences prior to my conception would be the same, in as much as they must be to have led to my existence, is there any reason why from that point free will could not play out? It may be that different events and choices could then be made. For example, in one life I may be childless, whilst in another I may have children. And for each of those children, the events leading up to their conception would be an exact recurrence of sequences that led to it; but from that point on the path of their lives would be influenced by the choices they and others made. In other words, in some universes, some individuals would exist and in others they wouldn’t, depending on the sequence of events.
Whilst the number of possible permutations in this model would be incomprehensibly huge, in a system where the universe recurs an infinite number of times, my recurrence would be certain. It would also mean that every individual, whilst guaranteed eternal recurrence, would not be destined to play out a life identical in every respect to previous existences.
Dr Andrew Maybury, Wolverhampton
Risks and Trade-Offs
Dear Editor: Raymond Tallis raises some of the right questions on the post-Covid world in Issue 139, and not engaging with the like is going to be at our further peril. However, the piece is marred by a lazy, sour swipe at the EU referendum result. I don’t wish to go round the houses again on this subject, but what is concerning is his rejection of a democratic choice, especially as the 2019 general election was a de facto second referendum. He talks about a ‘triumph of simple lies’ when all political contests are characterised by distortion and untruth on every side – what’s new? It appears that he has fallen into the hole of underestimating the astuteness of the voters’ assessment of what trade-offs they are prepared to make, and what risks to take too. The question is always – at whatever level – about what structure best balances autonomy and culture with necessary co-operation. For me, political union here over-determines the system in this respect. Alliance and treaty provide a lighter touch, which need not necessarily be any less effective. The vehicle is not mistaken for the destination.
Guy Wood, Trecwn, Haverfordwest