Saturday, December 16, 2006

Machines into Humans?

Tibor R. Machan

There’s been a pretty impressive movement afoot for over a century or even more championing the idea that human beings are but complicated machines, nothing special at all in the world. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) folks tend to hold this view—machines, in time at least, will do whatever people can, maybe even much better than we do it, like thinking, feeling guilt, empathizing, regretting, apologizing, and the whole gamut of stuff many think is unique to human life. No, say the AI folks, it’s just a matter of handling some of the technicalities and then, voila, we will have machines just like us. After all, aren’t machines already doing many of the tasks most if us had once thought only people could do? Sure.

I recall when I first ran across this topic, in a course what was called “Philosophical Psychology,” back at Pamona College, in Claremont, where I took some of my undergraduate philosophy courses—we studied, among others, Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein both of whom addressed aspects of the issue. I even recall one of our tests on which we were asked what Wittgenstein would have said to the idea that machines could think and my answer was, “Wait and see, it isn’t something to know about ahead of time.” My professor was rather impressed with this little part of my test, not much else. But I, too, would have said the same thing—who can tell ahead of time? Although I have doubts that non-living beings could ever come up with all of what people can do.

So I was discussing this with my best friend the other day, we both serious students of philosophy, and he noted that if the AI folks are correct, we should soon have a way to purge ourselves of false beliefs, as well as useless information. We will just take some kind of drug—well, may be a pill with who knows what in it—that will purge our system of falsehoods and trivia, plain and simple, just like today computers have programs that can purge them of unused desktop icons, cookies, and the like. We laughed about this some, since the notion that there could be some mechanical or even chemical way to get rid of false ideas or beliefs seemed absurd. But why? Don't we use drugs to get rid of viruses now?

Well, one reason is that to learn what is true versus false involves elaborate research, reasoning, checking and double-checking, with the ingredient of self-generated, initiated mental concentration, clear focus, keeping one’s attention, and recalling all sorts of information the coordination of which is needed to make sure of what’s what. No mechanical process is sufficient here, not at least when it comes to some of the deeper issues such as religion, politics, ethics, metaphysics, even biology and the rest of the disciplines the findings of which require extensive work of the sort that's unique to human beings, using their higher level thinking, reasoning for which they possess their very complicated brains and minds. To think some machine or mechanism or even chemical agent could accomplish the purging of falsehoods from our minds is to assume there are minds much like ours that will program whatever it is that’s supposed to do this purging business and use it to do the job. But there aren’t. Nothing in the known world does this kind of work other than people. At least not yet. It takes other people—or oneself, if one is really self-ware—to come up with criticisms and discarding of the bad ideas one holds. Sure, some tools can help—like a calculator, but who made those tools? Whoever could would be, well, pretty much people.

Yes, we can fantasize about a falsehood-purging-pill or such—that’s been done since time immemorial. Take all those Disney-like movies, right up close to our own time, in which everything and anything is routinely animated, with all those animated beings doing what we do and more, sometimes. Animals in this imaginary world do philosophy and math and literature, as do desks and chairs and cars and flowers and mountains—the human imagination is very fertile with such remote, counterfactual possibilities. But they are not to be confused with real prospects, not unless there is evidence instead of mere speculation.

So if you are waiting for the pill that will fix all your mistakes, do not hold your breath.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

General Pinochet—Some Lessons

Tibor R. Machan

It is interesting just how real politics works. When the chips are down, we can often detect from little gestures and moves where people really stand on basic issues.

When General Pinochet died the other day, there was not a great deal of discussion about him and those that did appear tended to make a great deal of his having been supported by the American CIA when he overthrew the regime of Salvador Allende. Now for my money if it took the CIA to do this, it could well be to its credit, even though technically Chile was a so called sovereign country and Allende a sovereign leader (or ruler!). Of course, all this stuff about people being sovereign leaders or rulers of countries is nonsense, no less so than being kings or queens of countries. It fairy tale talk—there are no kings or queens, actually. There are only some men and women who dress up in fancy clothes as they impose their will on other men and women—“subjects.” And since Allende was about to take Chile into the Soviet bloc, joining Cuba as another Latin American country to be ruled by the Kremlin’s thugs, frankly I thought the CIA, never mind its technical malfeasance, did the right thing. I would have thought the same had it done this against the rulers of South Africa back then!

But all this bellyaching about Allende having been put down by the CIA instead of focusing on his allegiance with the Soviets and with Castro makes it clear that even after the fall of the Soviet Empire—a vicious Left wing, totalitarian dictatorship far worse then Pinochet’s petty military regime turned out to be—a great many intellectuals in the West are loyal to the fantasies of socialism and communism. If the brutality is done for the sake of the socialist or communist revolution, if a country is brought to its knees for that wonderful cause, well never mind the destruction and the sacrifice it takes. But if the goal is some other fantasy, say fascism, well then it is worth harping about it forever, never mind what the other choice happened to be. Never mind, also, that Pinochet voluntarily relinquished his rule in Chile after some years, ushering in a more or less democratic form of government, while no country under the rule of the likes of Stalin, Khrushchev, Cuba or North Korea ever managed to do this. Even Grobachov didn’t to this but merely toyed with some reforms hoping to keep the USSR a Soviet style social country, essentially. Yet he was hailed as some kind of savior of humanity and is still on the lecture circuit being widely welcome throughout the West. Pinochet, however, was hounded to the day he died. And by all accounts, he had committed serious crimes against many Chileans and there is little question that he should have been punished for this. But what about ex-KGB Gorbachov and Putin and the rest?

It seems that in the minds of too many on the Left what Pinochet did was only criminal because it was done for undesirable ends. The means, hell, they were routine among Leftist dictators and far more consequential. But just as after the fall of the Berlin Wall most of those on the Left kept silent—there were a few exceptions!—so when it comes to comparing fascist authoritarian brutal dictators to socialist totalitarian brutal dictators, the latter will routinely come off squeaky clean. The reason is mostly this loyalty to the fantasy of the revolution, although in some cases it is something else. That is the desire to pain the USA as dirty in all cases, as never having done the right thing, even comparatively speaking. When it was revealed that Radio Free Europe, where I did a short sting as a child actor back in the mid 1950s, and Encounter magazine, both got support from the CIA, the Left hollered from glee and some of my own libertarian pals were ecstatic—after all, the government once against did something bad and isn’t that wonderful for the cause of discrediting it. Hell with real politics, never mind what Allende would have done with Chile, never mind that those in Eastern Europe benefited a lot from RFE and that Encounter was a very fine magazine. Those goals aren’t worth it to these folks, and perhaps they aren’t. But to make these matters the focus of attention here shows how little people appreciate the evil of that evil empire!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Comparing Political Systems

Tibor R. Machan

Islam is not explicitly a political system but it has strong implications about political economy, as most religions do. Something will be forbidden in a human community if Islam dominates, something will be taken as acceptable by those in charge. This is so with Christianity, too, of course, as well as with any other religion. Some religions, however, do not aspire to rule everyone, not at least by coercive force. Islam, as it is understood by a great many Moslems, does consider the use of coercive force acceptable for certain vital purposes, notably the one of having people convert to Islam.

Now the real community value that we all, regardless of our faiths, ought to prize is people living a freely chosen moral life. But this is something impossible if coercive force is used in any realm of human affairs. Only in defense of liberty is the use of force justified—in that case it is not coercive but defensive force. Most Moslems do not share this priority of liberty over any other public good—they insist that the public good amounts to willing or unwilling service to Allah as understood from the Koran.

So the fight is over the importance of liberty. Those who deny its importance easily can reach the conclusion that killing innocent people, including children, is OK for certain, if rare, purposes, such as achieving religious dominance throughout the world. It is sad but acceptable, given the stakes.

This is wrong and however much those in the West may have failed at living by our own principles—some of us have been or supported coercive force ourselves—we are responsible to resist the attempt to make any religion, including Islam, dominate the world. We must defend human liberty.

Of course, a free country, one that does really honor liberty, can be either flawed or wonderful. There just is no guarantee. But such a country at least makes it possible for all of its citizens to aspire to their own best selves, their human excellence, however they conceive of this except for when the aspiration interferes with what other people choose to do peacefully in their lives. In short, a free country is open to many experiments with how the best life should be lived and even with what that best life is.

No, this isn’t utopia, a society with perfect lives lived in it, which is the political goal the imperialist religions pursue and plan to implement. (Here, by the way, is where Islam as understood by most of its current world leaders, resembles Communism as the Soviets understood it. No wonder the Left has taken its side recently.) It is however the kind of human community that is most likely to foster human excellence—everyone must decide how to live, which means those who decide correctly will have personally chosen the pursuit of their excellence. They will not merely have been coercively forced to behave right! This, ultimately, is why Western style liberal constitutional democracies are superior to what Islam and some other religions and ideologies would promote.

We can pretty much also judge a system of political ideas by considering how bad things can get while it is used to guide a country's legal order. Liberal constitutional democracies can be pretty bad; people can be pretty immoral--say, hedonistic, materialistic, or whatever other sort of malady the West is supposedly suffering from. But with all this, the West is not likely to glorify in violence, brutality, murder, cruelty, and so forth against innocent human beings. This really is a QED. When a religion’s or philosophy’s political implications can legally find such conduct acceptable, the system is has proven to be unacceptable, period.

Sure not all those who subscribe to Islam prefer—just as not all those who embraced Communism chose—to act violently, brutally, etc. There are moderate Moslems as there were moderate Communists, even Nazis. But those who went off the deep end had no systematic objection offered to their conduct from within their position, none. It is OK by their convictions to perpetrate murder, etc., no problem, even if not universally practiced.

Yes, there can be much amiss with the Western type liberal constitutional democratic idea and how it is practiced but at its very worst the position will not construe systematic violent sacrifice of children and innocent adults as acceptable in the pursuit of any goal whatsoever, not even the goal of self-defense (as evidenced by how many Westerners stand up for the rights of those who attack us). That is a very strong reason for its superiority!