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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Secularism is not the problem in Silicon Valley

Arrogance, corporate hubris, and self-delusion, yeah maybe.

T here's a strain of thought among traditionalist thinkers like Thomas Nagel and some religious conservatives that the brain is more than a biological computer, a spirit perhaps, and has something that the most sophisticated algorithms can never achieve, even in principle. An example is Asia Times commentator David P Goldman, who writes

The Silicon Valley cult of artificial intelligence (AI)—and the related cult of brain science—is a main source of today's cultural despair. If the brain is merely a machine . . . then human existence has no purpose.

He goes on to say it would mean our free will is

the random effluvia of a deterministic process. If that is the case, then it doesn't matter what we do. We can pursue whatever pleasures or perversions strike our fancy at the moment, because nothing really matters.

This argument packs together three assertions common on the philosophical right:

  1. Humans have free will, which is a valuable but mysterious attribute unique to sentient beings.
  2. The mind has a spiritual aspect separate from perception and thought. Therefore, AI can never capture the essence of a conscious being.
  3. Value and ethical behavior originate from outside the physical world. If so, it follows that secularism is a threat to our values.

These ideas only make sense if there's some supernatural component to the mind, which is of course a religious viewpoint. This seems to be why many of them reject evolution, reserving their greatest bile for Darwin and Nietzsche. They believe that the idea that we're animals who evolved undermines the entire basis of moral behavior.

Free will

I wrote some time ago that ‘free will’ is two different concepts conflated together; one of them is tautologically true and the other is tautologically false. Mixing them makes it seem like a great mystery when it is not. Free will is, as Wittgenstein said about many philosophical problems, merely an artifact of language. I won't rehash that argument but you can read it here.

Secularism is not leftism

The second idea is that Silicon Valley represents a secularist and atheist viewpoint, which Goldman associates with leftism. There's no doubt that Silicon Valley is radically left-wing. They associate themselves with a fashionable collectivist, social constructionist ideology that claims that whatever gives one power must be the truth. The myths they have adopted—that one can become something merely by identifying as that thing, that emotions have probative value, and that pitting groups of people against each other for political expediency will create harmony—are the foundations of modern leftism, and reason that leftism is crumbling before our eyes into authoritarianism, as it has always done, is that they are false.

These collectivist and postmodernist beliefs threaten our culture today. But they are neither scientific nor part of science. In fact, they are repudiated every day by the facts of empirical science. By giving us a defensible understanding of truths about ourselves and the natural world, secular science builds a solid foundation for civilization. To put it in religious terms: you can never know what God is until you know what he is not.

I've written endlessly about how the latest wave of so-called artificial intelligence (AI) is a fraud: the theory that underlies it has no chance of achieving anything resembling human intelligence without a major leap in our understanding, and that leap does not appear to be forthcoming.

That doesn't mean it's impossible, only that those Silicon Valley youngsters who think their financial success makes them scientific geniuses are fooling themselves. You can tweak a feed-forward or feed-back multilayer neural network and add PCA or hidden Markov models until you're blue in the face and you'll never get intelligence out of it.

The Silicon Valley guys can't imagine that possibility, because all they can really see are dollar signs and the power they think is coming to them. I've seen this a dozen times before in science. Like those who came before who thought they were geniuses that had the solution, Silicon Valley will fail, and it will fail spectacularly.

Is the brain a mere machine?

Regardless of whether you believe that our sense of right and wrong came from a supreme being or that our concept of a supreme being came from our sense of right and wrong, it does not follow that understanding the brain in mechanistic terms as part of the physical world means that our existence has no purpose.

Such false beliefs will cause your entire worldview to crash into reality, and events will no longer make sense. Your world will be plunged into chaos. It is a formula for despair.

Calling the brain a machine helps us understand it, but it's only a metaphor. The brain has levels of physical and genetic programming that are only dimly understood in neuroscience and behavioral psychology. It has subtle and complicated behavior patterns that will take centuries to uncover. They are mysterious, complex, and magnificent, but this doesn't mean they can't be understood, or that they're in any way supernatural.

The myth that political activists want you to believe is not that we're animals. No one could seriously doubt this. What those on the left want you to believe—and I apologize to my fellow scientists if this sounds political—is that we are not individuals, only groups, and that individuals must submit to the collective will. They also believe they are smart enough to define what that collective will is, and that they can impose it by force.

Thus the problem with Silicon Valley is not the idea that the brain is a machine. It is that the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are arrogant, deluded, and naive. I worked with multilayer neural networks (so-called “deep” learning models) for years. They are not enough to create intelligence. The other scientists who worked on them also know this. We watched twice before as the field was destroyed by arrogance and hubris. We know that will be the fate of Silicon Valley. When it happens we might not say we told you so, but we'll sure as hell be thinking it.

mar 24 2018, 6:55 am

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