Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

God, 21st century style

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Belief in the rosy future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t based on science or technology. The belief is based on something more fundamental, a characteristic of their humanity that even devout atheists seem unable to escape. It’s a religion that desperately hopes there is a way to fill the space in the heart of modern man that was once occupied by God.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee. (St. Augustine)

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. (Blaise Pascal)

Smart people don’t need God

In 1784, Immanuel Kant captured the spirit of the Enlightenment by declaring it humanity’s release from immaturity which he defined as “the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” The leading other in the Enlightenment’s birthplace, of course, was Biblical Christianity.

… what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)

Revealed truth, regardless of the source, was not now to be trusted unless confirmed by reason. The Bible – its origins, its significance, and every detail of its contents – was now subordinate to human reason. Priests and clerics everywhere were now regarded as little more than shamans perpetuating quaint myths and superstitions. The words of Augustine and Pascal were as outdated and irrelevant as tales about ancient gods frolicking on Mt. Olympus. And if the idea of revealed truth was childish nonsense, so too were ideas about the discredited giver of that truth.

The failure of reason I

Nowhere was this scorn for revealed truth more evident than in the horrifying excesses of the French Revolution of 1789 and its second chapter, the Reign of Terror (1793-94). If French peasants hadn’t read Enlightenment philosophers, their hatred of royalty and aristocracy together with widespread famine and unsuccessful foreign wars made them willing tools of newly mature Enlightenment intellectuals.

Priests and parishioners alike were slaughtered; churches were destroyed or transformed into temples of Reason. The Cult of Reason in Paris (intended to become France’s new civic religion) declared that there was “one God only, The People.” The altar at Notre Dame in Paris was dismantled and replaced with an altar to Liberty; the inscription “To Philosophy” was carved into the stone over the cathedral’s doors.

Freedom – to what end?

Like a college freshman suddenly liberated from his parents’ control, humanity celebrated its freedom by doing everything Mom and Dad had prohibited and giving no thought to the reasons behind the restrictions. Revealed wisdom had warned that “’Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is helpful. ‘Everything is permissible’ – but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

But how were humans to determine what would be helpful and who should be helped? How were we to decide what would build up and who should benefit from the building up? Human reason had come up with no replacement ethical system to provide guidance. To the enlightened mind, judgments of right and wrong were – and remain – nothing more than the opinions of individuals, legislatures, or despots. Life itself had neither intrinsic value nor purpose.

Reason taught that humanity was destined to progress beyond the bloodshed and destruction of the French Revolution, even if the objective was no longer known. Paul’s warning had been reduced to “everything is permissible.” All things were possible with the new gods, Science and Technology. Guided by unguided human reason, they would inevitably provide every good and perfect gift. In the absence of an objective moral standard, this naïve optimism lasted for over a century – until 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the streets of Sarajevo.

The failure of reason II

In an instant, all the progress, all the science, all the technology unleashed by the Enlightenment were turned to a single purpose, that of finding ways to kill as many people as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. World War I gave birth to most of the tools of modern warfare – tanks, machine guns, bombers, heavy artillery, and poison gas. These products of unfettered human reason turned the Enlightenment’s birthplace into a meat grinder, consuming a generation of its young men.

Much of the decadence and despair of the decades immediately following the end of the war in 1918 were the product of disillusionment. What went wrong? Weren’t things supposed to get progressively better? Weren’t science and technology supposed to improve every aspect of our lives? How could they be turned around to kill 20 million people in four short years? Wasn’t human reason sufficient to ensure a progressive improvement in the human condition?

The answer to these questions was plainly “no”, but that answer was unacceptable to the enlightened people of succeeding generations. The second half of the Twentieth Century saw humanity spiral down into even greater depths of warfare, destruction, genocide, mass murder, and slavery, all driven by human reason. Things have not improved in this century.

Beyond reason

Maybe naked, unrestrained reason is not enough to produce the bliss it promises. Maybe humans have a built-in longing for transcendence. A large majority of Americans believe in some sort of transcendent person or power. Maybe humans really do have an intrinsic hunger to know someone or something that is greater than ourselves and is not ruled by human reason.

God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor. (variously credited to Mark Twain, Henri Rousseau, and George Bernard Shaw)

Nature alone was showing no signs of meeting this need for transcendence. The only answer was for enlightened people to hurry Nature along (evolution once removed, so to speak) and invent a new god. The new version, like the old discredited one, would be smarter than man and would be more dependable in its application of reason.

The mind is a computer made of meat (AI pioneer Marvin Minsky)

Problem solved! All we needed was a bigger, faster computer running bug-free software and it would have a mind superior to any human’s. Materialists immediately embraced Minsky’s slogan because it seemed to point the way to a solution for a nasty little problem that had bedeviled materialists from the start. (It should be noted that Minsky’s claim was not science but philosophy – the beginnings of that good ol’ time AI religion.)

Materialism’s Achilles heel

It’s easy to think that matter is all there is in the world – it’s all we can actually see. It’s easy to imagine (as John Lennon famously did) that there is no soul nor any immaterial God to give it. What’s hard to imagine is how matter alone – neurons, synapses, and ganglia – could imagine anything at all. How could matter alone have written that silly, nihilistic song? How could we decide whether or not we like it?

How can we have a mind that operates apart from the meat? How can we think of something novel that our physical brains have never encountered?  How can we love? How can we have any sense of right or wrong? How can we even conceive of transcendence, much less hunger for it? How can we have a will free to do, decide, imagine, or think about any of these things? How could those Enlightenment intellectuals have compelled their material brains to reason? How could they decide they were right?

In short, how can we be conscious? The materialist answer is that we can’t be and we aren’t. Materialists are generally fans of science, putting extraordinary faith in its ability to discover truth. But can the materialist answer be science when it is unsupported by any scientific evidence? Does it explain how brain meat could understand the question and formulate the answer? No and No.

Maybe they just don’t understand science. For example, Newton’s First Law of Motion (inertia) is science. It’s not science because it accounts for what we observe in the natural world, it’s science because a conscious human mind discovered the existence of this law, recognized its importance, and wrote it down for other conscious minds to challenge and build on.

Signs of desperation

The material emperor’s nakedness is on display for everyone with meat to see and a mind to understand. Why cling to such nonsense? Because consciousness requires the existence of an immaterial mind. The implications are too terrible for most materialists to consider. They dare not allow the immaterial into their material world. The immaterial must originate somewhere else – somewhere outside of nature, outside of science, outside of human reason. This is bad news indeed.

Ultimately, AI is about nothing less than saving materialism from revealed truth. But can it? Materialists claim that the mind is simply a function of the brain but they cannot explain how the brain implements consciousness. If they can’t explain consciousness, they can’t explain any of its features – self-awareness, free will, altruism, imagination, even reason itself. They can’t explain how a lump of clay might invent a potter (although mathematician Kevin Buzzard hopes just that).

Further reading

Posted in Academia, AI, Culture, science | 1 Comment »

Next up: A lock-picking contest for students

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

I often read news stories about the special kind of foolishness exhibited by schools.  They leave me scratching my head wondering, what were they thinking?  How could they have possibly believed this was a good idea?  Most of the time, these stories concern hysterical overreactions to trivial misbehaviors, lame-brained “zero tolerance” policies, and dumb grading practices (such as half credit for zero work). 

Then I came across the story of a nearby school (Peru, Indiana) deliberately encouraging criminal behavior.  In this case, a misguided employee of the district decided it would be a great idea to interest students in the wholesome pursuit of computer hacking.  We’re not talking about hacking a game to inflate a player’s score.  Nor are we talking about hacking Lego Mindstorms or Roomba vacuum cleaners to add functionality.  No, we’re talking about a contest to see who could be the first to hack into the school’s computer network.

The entire hacker subculture is predicated on the idea that breaking and entering is acceptable if it happens in cyberspace.  This is not the legal view, of course.  Hackers – when caught – are routinely tried and sentenced to prison terms for breaking into servers.  In a recent case a “brilliant” hacker, who believed that his special cause justified his assault on servers at MIT, committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his clearly illegal enterprise.  Is this a culture to which we want to introduce our children?  Peru High School thinks it is.

The excuses are pretty flimsy: “They’re going to be sitting in the dark at home finding bad ways to use their skills.”  The solution to this alleged problem is to enhance those skills by substituting a “good” way to use them.  This is the same “they’re going to do it anyway” reasoning that leads to taxpayer-funded condoms for 12-year-olds (no parental consent required).

The employee responsible for the contest also claimed that “It tells us how much our students might know, how much danger they pose to our network.”  This sounds plausible on the surface, but in reality, it’s just lazy.  Current students are hardly the only threat.  For example, in a famous case involving an East German spy, the first step to gain entry into U.S. military networks was to hack into a server used by astronomers at Lawrence Labs at UC Berkeley. 

Learning the limitations of current students yields no useful information anyway – a student actually finding an unknown vulnerability would be bad news indeed.  Any network administrator should learn and apply best practices to securing the school’s servers and not worry about what complete amateurs (the winner “didn’t know anything when she started the contest”) might be able to do.

The contest was presented as an exercise in computer security, with students challenged to “inspect the security of [a client’s] network and find any potential security risks”.  But learning how to pick a lock does not confer the knowledge to design a better one.  Hacking was the only skill required and success in hacking was the only obvious outcome.

As a software developer for 40 years, I can understand why the programmer who ran the contest might enjoy putting this challenge before students.  But as a professor for 20 of those years, I have to ask, where were the teachers?  What professional educator thought it would be a good idea to promote skills that are used almost exclusively by criminals?

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Off to college – is your kid prepared?

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Most parents of recent high school grads who are now preparing for freshman year at some distant college or university are around 40-60 years old. That is, they are a generation or more removed from what their college experience was (or what they would have expected it to be had they gone).  And I suspect that a fair number of these parents don’t really understand how radically the experience has changed on residential campuses.

While I may have more to say in the future about the moral and intellectual quagmire of the post-modern academy, this post captures the spirit of contemporary college life:

The bacchanalia of the contemporary American college experience can be resisted, by young people who are strong enough and determined enough to oppose a personal code to the riot all around them. But lots of the young are not that tough. They’re weak and silly and susceptible—they’re young and uneducated, in other words—and they just want to do what everyone else is doing. In its way, that makes them just like the administrators of those colleges: weak and silly and susceptible.

What’s surprising – and terribly disappointing – about college in the 21st Century is the stifling sameness of schools that have become ashamed of who they were and where they came from:

The identity of American universities reaches deep into their psyches—where all of them want to be Berkeley and Madison, and all of them are ashamed of being elsewhere.

Valparaiso University has a new diversity program, of which the school is proud—oh, so proud—for it makes the Lutheran Valparaiso just like every other school. A friend recently took her high-school-aged daughter to a college presentation in which the representative from Georgetown never mentioned that the school is Catholic. The University of North Dakota is ashamed of its gender-segregated dorms. Everybody at the University of Texas in Austin will tell you, shamefacedly, that even though Austin is in Texas, it’s different. And everybody at the University of Texas in El Paso will tell you that they’re really just like the folks in Austin—different from other Texans. Their school is really like the universities in California or New York, you know. No difference. No difference at all.

Is your quasi-adult child equipped to survive intact in this chaotic world? I hope so, because if he or she is leaving this fall, it’s probably too late to begin preparations.

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