Saturday, October 19, 2013

What Swift Has to Teach Us About Digitized Mind and Text Machines (III)

Swift's speculative learning machine is a fictional mechanical device for automatic text generation. The purpose of the machine it to “write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, etc.” Swift wrote about it in his Gulliver's Travels.

The novel came into existence in the general cultural context of suspicion towards the emerging world of machines in the XVIII century. Swift was no exception. In the end, it is the very business of the intellectual to doubt, not to take things on their face value. Perhaps you might wonder to see me employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations”, says the inventor of the machine, professor of the fictional Lagado Academy. Swift was essentially doubting about the possibility to acquire knowledge by purely mechanical means.

Philosophy – spirit VS flesh

Why? For philosophers, at least from Plato on, knowledge always represented the highest and finest achievement of the human spirit. What is more, the very essence of the human mind was seen to consist in knowing. The knowledge itself was conceptualized as theoria looking at things with the mind's eye. Now, the Latin word for Greek theoria is speculatio. The word “speculative” literally means “to look, to see, to gaze, to stare”. But in the philosophical jargon it designates the looking activity divorced from the sensual (perception). So, the speculation can be described as an intellectual looking at things. In addition, it is looking at intellectual things, things that do not exist in space and time, things like God, numbers, the idea of justice, etc.

Every machine is a mechanical device. And every mechanical device is made of some material. So, the machine is a material device. Simply put, it means that it exists as a concrete individual thing. It occupies some position in space and time. But the essence of spirituality resides in the intellectuality: intellectual speculation of intellectual things. Being material, machine must be opposed to the spirituality. Where there is machine, there is no spirit, and vice versa.

That is why the professor, inventor of the machine says to Gulliver: “Perhaps you might wonder to see me employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations.” Knowledge is something theoretical and not practical. Knowledge is something spiritual and not mechanical. 

Descartes – mind VS body-machine

But there is more to it. And in order to understand why we have to go back to Descartes (XVII century). He is the one who redefined the old Christian problem of flesh VS spirit into a more modern one. That of the body VS mind. What is absolutely new in the historical sense is that he defined the flesh as mechanism. So, body is a flesh became mechanical. Being mechanical now explains what it means to be material.

Descartes' philosophy is known as dualism. That means that there are only two kinds of things in the universe. And for Descartes everything was either a mind or a body, but not both. So, the spirit could never be material and body could never be spiritual. Corollary: there is no such thing as a spiritual machine. 

Cartesian method

The history is very ironic. And philosophy is no exception to that. Because the very essence of the Cartesian method – Descartes Latin name was Cartesius – made possible reflexion on thinking machines. Descartes was philosophically engaged in finding the perfect scientific method. The idea was simple. We all have the common sense that tells us perfectly what is true and what isn't. The only problem is that we do not use it well. So, let's find a method that would be trivially easy to apply, so that even a man with humble intellectual capacities could use it to find the truths. All of them. Even the most profound ones. The point is, with a method, whose workings consist in application of simple discrete steps one has to be no genius in order to find out even the most complicated truths.

The only thing one has to have is a patience and a concentrated mind. That means that the study is nevertheless required on the part of the prospective scholar. 

Speculative learning machine

But wait! If even the man with no genius at all could solve the difficult intellectual problems by making easy to follow simple discrete steps why wouldn't it be possible for the machine too? You just have to construct a machine that can reproduce these Cartesian method-like steps. And that is exactly what Swift's speculative learning machine does. 

It even pushes Descartes' idea one step further. Because not only one doesn't have to be a genius in order to write books in philosophy, poetry, etc. but also the usage of his machine dispenses one from the “study”. Only thing required is a little bodily labor to push and pull levers driving the machine. The machine itself applies the rules of the method and outputs truths in the form of the string of letters.

There is a strong analogy here between the tool-machine and mind-machine relationship. The tool demands the skill and labor on the part of the artisan. The machine dispenses the worker from both. Now it is the machine which skillfully handles tools. Man does not have to work, except for the “little bodily effort” needed to operate the machine. In the case of our speculative learning machine, the machine is doing the thinking, the truth discovery. It is gathering the knowledge for us. We do not need to be genius in order to use it. But we don't need either to indulge ourselves in a tedious and long study. We just need to put a “little bodily effort” in order to operate the machine.


Looking forward to the spiritual machines

The speculative learning machine was never made. Nevertheless, we made lot of thinking machines. Thinking in the sense of the application of simple discrete rules that are finite in number. Those machines are computers and their thinking is called “algorithmic problem solving”. So, at least in this sense some machines of our age do speculate.

In the next article we will go one step further. We will talk not only about machines that think, but also about machines that are longing to be spiritual. We will analyze android's quest for religion as it is described by Phillip K. Dick in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

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