Monday, March 14, 2016

Man v. machine

i) Lots of current stories about AlphaGo besting Go master Lee Sedol. This revisits the familiar issue of human exceptionalism. What, if anything, makes humans special? What, if anything, sets man apart from the animal kingdom? What's the foundation of human worth and dignity? 

ii) Secularists have a suicidal impulse to deny human exceptionalism. There are secular special interest groups that try to tear down human exceptionalism. That includes AI researchers, Darwinians, environmentalists, and animal rights activists.

Take the attempt to hype the intelligence of dolphins. Or chimpanzees. 

Hyping primates (Koko, Nim Chimpsky) that can be taught sign language. Here's one takedown:

iii) Aristotle provided one influential paradigm of human exceptionalism. According to him, what distinguishes man from animals is the faculty of reason. Although man is an animal, he's a rational animal. That, in turn, was picked up and popularized by Aquinas. 

iv) One difficulty with this approach is that, on the face of it, some animals are clearly intelligent. Take a wolf. That's a clever animal.

If human exceptionalism is grounded in reason, then that's a difference of degree, rather than kind. Sure, humans are smarter than animals, but it's not a unique property of humans. It's just that humans are more intelligent than (other) animals.

To be sure, it's quite possible that humans have a unique kind of awareness. That introspection is singularly and solely human. We have a capacity to objectify our situation, mentally distance ourselves from our surroundings, reflect on what it's like to be alive. 

That may well set us apart from animals. But, of course, that's unverifiable. We can never know, from the inside out, what it's like to be a dolphin. There's no direct basis of comparison. Human experience is our only frame of reference. 

v) If reason is what grounds human exceptionalism, then AI poses a potential challenge to human exceptionalism. Whether AI has, or even can, rise to the challenge, is philosophically contested. That goes to the definition of consciousness or intelligence, and how, or whether, we'd be able to determine of a machine is conscious or intelligent. Can we distinguish that from a machine that merely imitates or simulates human consciousness or intelligence (e.g. Searle's Chinese Room).

vi) Another problem with that standard is elitism. Chess masters and Go masters are hardly representative of humanity in general. They exhibit a narrow, freakish intelligence. 

vii) In historical theology, the imago Dei is what sets us apart from the animals. And in Gen 1, that is, indeed, a distinguishing human prerogative. However, it depends on how the imago Dei is defined. 

In historical theology, it tends to be equated with reason or the soul–in contrast to the body. That, though, is exegetically dubious. Because the imago Dei isn't defined in Genesis, scholars struggle over what it means. 

a) There's the question of whether its an ontological category or a functional category. Of course, that runs the risk of a false dichotomy. In context, the imago Dei is certainly functional. However, unless humans were distinct from, and superior to, the subhuman order, they couldn't exercise dominion over the subhuman order. Certain prerogatives can be conferred on man, and man can discharge them, by virtue of being a certain kind of creature–in contrast to other creatures. So the functional aspect is logically embedded in a metaphysical aspect.

b) In Biblical usage and cognate usage, image and likeness can refer to artistic representations. Portraiture. In that case, representation involves resemblance. Take the famous bust of Nefertiti. (Actually, there are two different busts.) Her legendary, but perishable, beauty was immortalized in stone.

c) But they can refer to symbolic representation. Take the regalia of a priest or king. The purpose of the depiction is not to capture his individual appearance, but to emblemize his prerogatives (e.g. Exod 28; Dan 3). 

d) These are secular examples, but you also have sacred statuary or idols–which represent the deity or deities. This would signify the presence of a god. 

e) Apropos (d), there's representation in the sense of someone who acts on behalf of another, in another's stead. 

viii) In Genesis, the imago dei probably trades on several of the aforementioned connotations. Man is God's surrogate on earth. His vicegerent. 

Because Gen 1-2 foreshadow the tabernacle, the representational aspect of the imago Dei has a religious dimension. Man is an "icon" of God in the sense of reflecting and representing God's presence on earth. 

In many theophanies, visions, and dreams, God assumes human form. In that respect, there can even be a visual correspondence between God and man–although that's symbolic. 

ix) In Gen 5:1-3, we have a unifying principle in the sonship category, where the imago Dei is related to sonship. There's a father/son analogy between God and man, Adam and Seth (cf. Deut 32:6). A son resembles his father, physically and psychologically. Like father/like son. And a son can act on his father's behalf, or in his stead. 

x)  If human exceptionalism is grounded in the faculty of reason, then successful AI would dethrone human exceptionalism. But why should that be the standard of comparison? Scripture puts far more stock in moral attributes rather than intellectual attributes. Why should intelligence be more valuable than love, courage, compassion, and altruism? Why should intelligence be more worthwhile than soul-making virtues? 

xi) Likewise, immortality differentiates man from animals. God made humans to live forever. Humans have an immortal soul. And God will raise the dead on the day of judgment.

We were made for eternity, whereas most animals are essentially disposable organisms that exist to supply and sustain the ecosystem. (It's possible that God will resurrect some Christian pets.)

xii) In addition, human exceptionalism is grounded in the fact that we were made by a rational and benevolent God. Our lives have objective purpose. 

xiii) Suppose computers illustrate the limits of human intelligence. But, then, we already knew that humans have limited intelligence. Even geniuses hit a wall. You don't need AI experiments to demonstrate that fact. By itself, that doesn't take us down a peg. 

During the Manhattan Project, Hans Bethe and Richard Feymann were good at mental arithmetic. Nowadays, a cheap electronic calculator could vastly outperform their mental arithmetic. Does that make the calculator intelligent? For that matter, is an electronic calculator essentially different from an abacus? 

xiii) Deep Blue and AlphaGo certainly demonstrate the intelligence of computer programmers. Do they demonstrate that computers are smart? I don't have an informed judgment about the technicalities. There's an interesting discussion over at Uncommon Descent–both in the original post and (especially) the feedback:

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