Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Book on What’s Really Needed for Artificial Intelligence: Emotion, Spirituality and Creativity

July 6, 2019

The Muse in the Machine: Computers and Creative Thought, by David Gelernter (London: Fourth Estate 1994).

I came across this book looking around one of Cheltenham’s secondhand bookshops yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I fully intend to. Although it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, I think the issue it addresses is still very real, and one that isn’t acknowledged by many computer scientists. And it’s immensely provocative. Gelernter argues here that the brain is not like a computer, and by concentrating on rationality and logic, computer scientists aren’t developing genuine Artificial Intelligence – true minds – but simply faster calculating machines. What is needed instead is creativity and inspiration, and that can only come from emotion and spirituality.

The blurb for the book in the inside cover runs

Is Artificial Intelligence really getting any closer to understanding the workings of the brain? Or is it, despite generations of smarter, more logical reasoning machines and more refined philosophical theories, missing the point? Is the AI model, for all its apparent sophistication, simply too crude?

David Gelernter believes that it is. In this dazzling, powerfully persuasive new book he argues that conventional AI theory is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does the emotional elements in the human mind. AI can go on improving its creations as much as it likes, but as long as it insists upon seeing the mind as a machine, it will always been building machines and not minds.

It’s time to tackle a fundamental truth: feeling isn’t incidental to thought, a pleasant diversion or unwelcome distraction. It’s essential, a precondition and part of all our thinking. A mind that can’t be irrational can’t be rational; a machine that can’t feel can’t think.

Spirituality is not failed science, anymore than poetry is botched prose. Significant as recent developments have been, suggests Gelernter, the real renaissance is yet to come. The new science of the mind will involve art and theology as closely as it does technology, and will owe as much Wordsworth and Keats as to Papert and Minsky.

Bound to cause a furore in the field of Artificial Intelligence, the Muse in the Machine has far wider implications than this, and far great importance. It is a book which demands to be read by everyone who values human thought and its achievements. If it offers much to intrigue and to provoke in its daring, wide-ranging discussion of the mind and its workings, it provides much, too, to delight and move.

It’s probably no surprise that Gelernter believes that art, literature and spirituality/ theology should also be important components of genuine machine intelligence. Not only is he credited as an associate professor computer science at Yale University, but also a lover of philosophy and published poet, with an MA in Classical Hebrew Literature.

For all that the book and its thesis were – and no doubt still are – controversial, he has correctly identified a major problem. Other philosophers and scientists, both of computers and the human brain, have pointed out that the brain isn’t a computer. Rather, the computer is simply the latest metaphor for the brain. Before then, the metaphor was of an immense telephone exchange. And before that, in the 17th century, when modern neurology was only just beginning, it was as a series of fountains. I also understand that many neurologists now believe, following the ideas of the paranormal researcher Stan Gooch, that much of human thought and cognition actually occurs deeper in the more primitive sections of the brain, connected with emotion. And I can imagine many atheists distinctly unsettled by the idea that true rationality also requires a spiritual, religious and theological component. That’s enough to send Richard Dawkins completely up the wall!

It’s going to be an very interesting, provocative book, and one I shall look forward to reading. And I’ll definitely post about it when I have.
















A Prayer against the Exploitation of the Poor from the 16th Century

July 17, 2013

The Sixteenth century was a period of considerable poverty and unrest. In addition to the social and religious disruption caused by the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, a rising population caused increased demand for land. Inflation increased, and a series of bad harvests led to famine. The late medieval contraction in trade resulted in wid3espread unemployment, with many towns declaring that they were unable to meet the taxes set by central government. The populated area of many towns contracted, leaving whole suburbs in rack and ruin. Henry VIII’s antiquarian, John Leland, declared that 200 houses – a considerable proportion of the town’s housing stock – in Bridgwater were in ruin. Instead, whole families poured into occupy the very poorest districts. These people were too poor to pay taxes, and so largely went undocumented. Worse were the enclosures. Improving landlords began to enclose their land, denying their tenants and peasants the right to graze their animals their ancestors had enjoyed during the Middle Ages.

The Rich only Stewards of Land and Property in Sixteenth Century Theology

The results were rioting, and a vast literature of protest, based in Christian theology and belief, in pamphlets and sermons from the 1540s and early 1550s. Much of this literature was based on the notion of the stewardship of the rich. Their land was given to them by God, not for them to use it as they pleased, but to use wisely and morally. This included taking proper care of their tenants and the poor. Robert Crowley in 1548 declared, ‘If there were no God then would I think it lawfull for men to use their possessions as they lyste (please) … But forasmuch as we have a God, and he hath declared unto us by the scripturs that he hath made the possessioners but Stuards of his ryches … I think no Christian ears can abyde to heare that nore than Turkysh opnion.’

Poverty was still largely seen as the fault of the individual, but there was sharp, bitter criticism of the aristocrats and gentry who raised rents, and exploited and evicted their tenants. They were ‘the caterpillars of the commonwealth’, ‘ungentle gentlemen’ who neglected the duties of stewardship to their tenants that the Lord had placed upon them.

The preacher Brinkelow declared that ‘the erth is the poor mannys as wel as the rych’, and stated that ‘the earth O Lord is thine’, emphasising that the world was not the preserve of the wealthy alone, who were responsible to no one but themselves. A contemporary prayer for landlords prayed that God’s grace would change their callous attitude to the poor

A Prayer for the Rich to Rediscover their Christian Duty to their Tenants and the Poor

‘We heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth; that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings; but so let them out to other that the inhabitants thereof may both be able to pay the rents and also honestly to live, to nourish their families and to relieve the poor’.

Regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, the central lesson – that rulers and the wealthy also have a duty to act morally and defend and provide for the poor and their families – still remains. It is to be hoped that it will be rediscovered in this new age of poverty and discontent.

Bill Bailey on Alfred Russell Wallace and the Origins of Evolution by Natural Selection

April 27, 2013

Last Sunday the BBBC began a new 2-part series in which the musician and comedia, Bill Bailey, followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace to discover how he indpendently came to the theory of Natural Selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin. Russell’s been overlooked as the co-discoverer of the theory. Bailey points out that at the time, Natural Selection was known as the ‘Wallace-Darwin Theory’. It was Russell’s letter to Darwin discussing his theory of Natural Selection that prompted Darwin, after decades of independent research, to finally publish his own results. AS time went on, Wallace receded into the background until finally the theory was completely dominated by the towering figure of Darwin. Bailey went to the Natural History Museum in London to show the great statue of Darwin that was installed four years ago during the Darwin bicentennial celebrations. Wallace, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. He then briefly talked with David Attenborough, who duly paid tribute to Wallace’s genius and perserverance in researching and formulating the theory.

Unlike the aristocratic and university-educated Darwin, Wallace came from a humbler background. His education stopped when he was about 12 or 14, and he was forced to fund his expeditions by selling the specimens he collected. It was during his trip to Indonesia that he began to formulate his theory of Natural Selection by noting how the species very gradually shaded into each other.

It’s a fascinating story. Bailey’s a musician and comedian, as well as Rocker and SF/ Fantasy geek. His shows incorporate music, wittily playing on the different styles and genres. One of the funniest of his pieces about how the Dr. Who theme, when you slow it down, sounds like Belgian Jazz. He then does a Belgian Jazz song, to the amended Dr. Who theme, with vocals in French, about the Doctor defeating the Daleks ’cause they can’t climb stairs. A enthusiast of the theremin, he managed to seriously freak out Jonathan Ross by playing it on his show. In the programme, Bailey’s a genial, articulate and knowledgable host. He’s done some of the same pursuits Wallace did, such as butterfly collecting, and first travelled to Indonesia several decades ago. He fell in love with the place, and the programme shows him not only trekking through the Indonesia rainforest in search of exotic animal and poring over Wallace’s books and specimens, but also staying and talking with an Indonesia family. He talked about how Indonesians also ate dragonflies, downing a kebab skewer of them. He thus followed Ray Mears in eating insects and what westerner’s would consider revolting in the name of bushcraft and cross-cultural understanding.

Criticism of Programme for Presenting Evolution as Leading to Atheism

DEspite that, I have serious reservations about the programme. It’s underlying theme is that evolution naturally leads to atheism, and conflict with the Church. Bailey several times talked about how Wallace would eventually lose his faith, and the Church’s opposition to evolution, or transmutation as it was then called. The show presented a picture very much of the lonely genius ploughing his way to scientific truth against opposition from the religious Establishment.

Yet here and there there are hints to contrary. Bailey noted the setback to Wallace’s own research on evolution with the publication of Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. As well as angering the Church, it was also scientifically rubbish, with tales of a Platypus being produced by a bird. Bailey notes that the Vestiges was massively popular, and was even read by Queen Victoria. Wallace was afraid that without further research, his own theory of evolution would similarly suffer ridicule.

Philosophical and Theological Trends leading to Acceptance of Evolution

What the programme does not show or mention, is that attitudes at the time were changing. Victorian society was becomming much more open to evolutionary theory. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the work of the German explorer Humboldt in South America had made the Victorian public aware of the great variety of species in that part of the world, and the possibility that evolution may have played a role. A further boost came from Hegelian philosophy. Hegel believed that society advanced and evolved through a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. While his theory was confined to human societies, it nevertheless opened up the Victorian public to the possibility that other aspects of the world also similarly evolved. In the 1820s the Bridgewater Lectures led to Liberal theological opinion in the Anglican Church considering that the world and its creatures may similarly have been produced by natural law. In the 1840s Baden-Powell, the Savillian professor of Mathematics at Oxbridge set out his view considering that the world’s creatures had also evolved in a process similar to the contemporary manufacturing process. Just as the way an article was shaped and formed during manufacture by different industrial processes, so organisms were shaped and formed by the world. And just as the industrial techniques that produce a table, coat or pot are the products of an intelligent creator, so the evolutionary processes that create a living creature also indicated the presence and direction of a supreme intelligence: the Almighty. A number of other Anglican clergy, such as F.D. Maurice, also accepted evolution because it made the creation of the world less mysterious, and pointed to the action of a divine intelligence.

Wallace, Teleology and Spiritualism

Although he lost his Christian faith, Wallace’s own views departed considerably from a completely materialist view of evolution. He was a Spiritualist, who believed that evolution was teleological, working towards a predestined end. He also believed that the higher faculties in humanity – our intelligence and moral sense, could not have been the product of unguided evolution. Because of this there has been interest in him from the Intelligent Design movement. Yet Wallace’s unorthodox opinions were not mentioned in the programme, even if just to dismiss them. It will be interesting to see if they are mentioned in tomorrow’s programme.

In short, Bailey’s series is an excellent programme in many ways as an introduction to Wallace’s life and thought. There are some stunning footage of the plants and animals of the region, and eye-catching animated sections which bring Wallace’s notes to life. The series suffers, however, from the simplistic notion that evolution must always lead to atheism and its doctrinaire and uncritical acceptance of the belief that religion and science are in conflict. Very few historians of science accept this view, but it has been loudly promoted by Dawkins and many of his followers. The programme follows this line, thus distorting and obscuring oen of the most profound intellectual developments of the Victorian Age.