The dear, famous, Yoda like and sadly late Joseph Weizenbaum (the very guy we have to thank for the mother of all chat bots: Eliza) spent quite a bit of his time complaining about humanities overreaching optimism when it comes to the realization of Artificial Intelligence (see his: “Computer Power and Human Reason”, for instance).
The charming, but totally misguided Weizenbaum documentary “Plug and Pray” cherishes that same popular thesis. It is hard to see how somebody could see any justification for it, though. Contemporary AI research is a very humble affair, occupied with obscure exercises in applied mathematics, boring standardization of protocol languages or tinkering with soccer playing or car driving robots. Any vision for generally intelligent artificial minds plays an extremely marginal role at best. At the same time, AI research has always been extremely productive: most of the stuff in computer science, from speech recognition to computer vision, from planning to data base systems, from data compression to data mining, has been concocted in some AI lab or other.
So what’s the reason for the popular hostility towards Artificial Intelligence? Hmm, hmm: these guys are saying that the mind is a computer! Why is that such a blasphemy?
Interestingly, there is very little serious-people criticism when it comes to the computational theory of the physical universe, i.e. the idea that the universe can be functionally described in an exact scientific language. People are not offended by the notion that courses of planets, nuclear explosions, hurricanes or sports cars smashing into rocks are all governed by strict rules. But the very same people often insist that the mind (especially the human mind) is exempt from these rules. Quite inconvenient, if you accept that humans are made from standard issue atoms and molecules, and carry a normally evolved mammalian brain in their skulls. So why does the simple and elegant idea that thinking, like everything else, is a computational process, meet with such strong opposition?
This might get clear once we realize that at the heart of our cosmological intuitions, we carry a naive interpretation of Christian cosmology. You see, Christianity postulates a die-hard dualism. God resides outside of the spatial (and partially even temporal) cosmos of matter and energy, and is not bound to the same substrate as our pathetic bodies. God has even implemented our material world, settled it with our (physical) bodies, and retained root rights. God is a super-Notch, he is the all-powerful programmer of our World-of-MatterCraft. His designs are pretty much perfect, and all bugs and shortcomings are due to ungodly, or more specifically: diabolic influences. The devil, while metaphysically embodied, has a much more limited (even human) mind when compared to God. Like God, he is not bound by physics and has access rights to the fabric of our universe, so he may arbitrarily create and manipulate material phenomena. He has even created his own (but crude and strange) domain. Unlike God, he lacks the vision and scope for proper world creation, so his primary occupations are mischief, catastrophes and 4chan. The devil is a hacker.
Both God and devil may change the conditions of human physical existence at any time in any conceivable way. Like game masters in a role playing game, they may bestow riches, beauty and talents upon us. All these things are ultimately worthless, of course. They merely act as the strings that attach human souls to their superficially perceivable environment.
While humans appear to be physical, our true nature is metaphysical too, to warrant God’s and the devil’s interest in us. God offers us the chance to play our game properly and to be rewarded with a much refined existence after our inevitable return in the metaphysical domain. To do so, we will have to remember and embrace our metaphysical core (which only temporary controls our physical avatars). The devil attempts to distract us from this mission, by corrupting us with worthless physical glitz, which he attempts to sell us in exchange for our hard metaphysical currency.
This currency is usually called ‘soul’. In the course of Western cultural development, however, the soul lost most of its commonly associated properties. It is no longer seen as the carrier of our thought processes, memories and personality. It is now an essence, without any physical or interactional property. (But some people still harbor the intuition that phenomenal experience is not a property of the physical nervous system, but an epiphenomenal functionality of the soul.)
This world view offers consolation, in the face of the experience of the absence of meaning in our material existence. It postulates that our worldly ordeal serves a higher experiential purpose, and that there is a transcendent, meaningful, but currently hidden realm of existence waiting for us. The driving forces of the universe are not cold and impartial all-pervading machines, but they take an interest in our very existence, they watch us, even wrestle for our allegiance. The unfairly distributed physical commodities and opportunities are hollow glass-beads, without any true value beyond the godly or diabolic programmer second that went into creating it. Beyond the surface, there is a secret world, offering true satisfaction. Our futile hustling and bustling has a hidden significance with respect to that secret and sacred metaphysical domain.
Darwin’s objection (that humans are basically a species of Chimp) turned out to be a serious challenge to the simplistic Christian world view (as demonstrated by the unbroken popularity of anti-Darwinist sentiments in the United States and other Christian-fundamentalist countries). But where people accepted the evolutionary origin of our bodies, the Christian Dualism of physics and meta-physics underwent an overhaul and even sublimation. Physics is now seen as a dead, cold machine, in opposition to the universal and essentially divine power of life. This soul-stuff finds its most perfect organization in us humans, but is also an aspect of every living cell. In this light, John Searle’s idiotic idea: that consciousness could never result from functionally identical artificial neurons but only from the intrinsic powers of biological neurons, becomes comprehensible.
The dissipation of neuroscience and systems theory into common sense knowledge has led to a vitalist neo-dualism. The physically irrelevant distinction between dead and living systems is very meaningful in this perspective, and treating mental processes as a mere expression of the spatio-temporal organization of dead matter means heresy.
The heresy lies in the substitution of the metaphysical essence of our very being, our mystically vis-vitalis emergent soul substance, by a cold and dead machine process. We experience this as a violent expropriation, a robbery of our metaphysical currency, of the reason the devil takes an interest in us, and that we intend to use for buying meaning from God.
Intellectually, accepting the computational theory of the mind is not a big feat, but simply a token of epistemological fidelity. Its rejection is not a reasonable philosophical option. But culturally, it marks the transition from a Christian-dualist cosmology, to a position that looks like the dark vacuum of a cruel nihilism to those afflicted by it.