Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Apropos some time spent recently at Crooked Timber.

Some people can only imagine one kind of machine. Most machines follow unified logical structures so it only makes sense to many that we do as well. To say otherwise would seem to them to necessitate a metaphysical cause or reality. Rational Actor theory and the theory of intelligent systems all begin here I suppose, though I never really understood this until recently. No wonder so many thinkers have such a hard time with the idea of consciousness. Perhaps because I grew up with in an environment suffused with contradictions - I'd say I've lived a truly dialectical reality- I've never had a problem with ambiguity. I base my entire life upon it, though some would think otherwise.

I'll return again to the strange popularity of speculative fiction among some of those who would otherwise claim to be intellectually sophisticated. Speculative fiction, the narrative art of concepts, is crap; is in fact the opposite of an art of consciousness, of the complexity of lived experience. The best art is not cerebral. This is taken for granted by most readers of literature, and by most critics, but of course not all of either. Still it is the general assumption. Why? The answer is the first clue to understanding the absurdity of imagining systems theory as a guide to an understanding of conscious intelligence, and the stupidity of the whole AI business.

When I hear or read arguments for AI or intelligent systems I feel ill; my body rebels against such thoughts, and I get angry. Any attempt to build a structure that does not contain and support it's opposite fills me with rage. How's that for an odd sentence? But it's true. To me that dream is the worst of modernism, of Fordism, of capitalism and of Stalinism. It's everything Adorno described with bitterness as instrumental reason. And worst of all it's predicated on a misunderstanding of the nature of the machines that we are. For we are after allmachines. I make no room for the spirit realm, unless you want to call spirits machines we can't see. But for most philosophers of machinery, of the body, of numbers and of language, our mechanical reality must be defined by a system, a single logic or series of related logics. I rebel against this on pure instinct: Homer vs H.G. Wells? Jules Verne? William Gibson!? For Me that's like picking some sectarian leftist from the middle of the last century over Marx. Any argument that there now exists, or should exist, a new kind of art is as full of shit as an argument for a new kind of economy. Again this is all Freshman Comp. stuff.

But here we get back to my old theme. And this time I'll try to describe it in a way a systems theorist can understand.

Think of the above as an image of consciousness. The figure on the left, standing for rational awareness and observation, is Noam Chomsky. On the right, standing for conditioned response in all animal behavior, is B.F. Skinner.
Two different systems of analysis, two different forms of software: two separate and opposed programs existing simultaneously inside the same machine.

Separate and Opposed.

We experience conditioned response. I don't think anyone of any intellectual seriousness doubts this. We are capable of rational action, at least sometimes. I take this for granted as well, and I'm in no mood to argue with idiots.
These two come into conflict. I've written enough on this, recently in some anger.
I'm not going to repeat the rest here. Consciousness is not a system. It is the result of a conflict between systems. It is the state of being of a confused machine. Like great art, like all languages and cultures, it is not either this or that. Systems designers in the last century, using the ideas of their grandfather's generation, of those who understood their own -human- complexity, tried to design unified systems to describe the world, to define it morally and politically. They failed. The thought that people are still playing these games, are still theorizing absolutely everything so simplistically and in terms of such cold mechanization, disgusts me.

You really get the sense that Bush is toast. If there is another terrorist attack, there's no question that he'll share the blame. Under different circumstances I'd think a lot of people might disagree, but now I'm not so sure.
It's not a question I ever want to know the answer to.

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