Philosophical Foundations for Understanding AI

    These are my thoughts in response to this question:

    Would a dominant pantheistic or pagan cultural tradition have prepared the West better for the reality of intelligent machines?

    The way I tend to approach things is by looking through the lens of violence. In my estimation, the first century Roman Empire had nearly reached the ultimate level of control over human resources, using the tools of slavery and war and violent domination better than any previous organization in history.

    But this was a dead end. My tendency is to think that their very success at utilizing the tools of violent power undermined their ability to develop science and technology.

    In order to get past this log-jam, society would need to develop a sort of individualism, a sense that individual human life was so valuable, it really shouldn’t be sacrificed to the needs of the collective. Most societies have valued the needs of the collective highly enough to justify the killing of innocent people, if that was considered best for society. Humanity needed a sense that individual human life was so valuable, that society really shouldn’t be making those kind of trade-offs.

    This, in my estimation, is the philosophical core of science. Science does away with communal truth, with things being accepted as fact for the sake of society. Instead, in embracing universal verifiability, it elevates the value of individual perception to the most advanced degree possible. Truth is not something determined by the intellectuals or the elites, it’s something determined through tests — a system that is inherently designed to allow any individual to play the role of truth-finder.

    So the way I see things, in order for science and technology to take off, the value placed on individual human life had to increase dramatically. In order for this to happen, the Roman Empire as it was had to fall, and a society inspired by new philosophies had to rise.

    Fortunately, Christianity played that role. In its quite checkered history, it created a crisis in Rome’s existence, and ultimately allowed for the somewhat graceful collapse of the empire, and the rise of a society inspired by a new set of ideas.

    Don’t read that as some kind of idealization of the post-renaissance West. Far from it. But the scales did tip, just enough to allow for science to take root. And science was built by increasing the value placed on individual human life.

    So now we’re facing a future in which machine intelligences will increasingly play a role. And many people have felt, or will feel, as if this is a challenge to the value of human life.

    The question is, would a different set of philosophies have prepared us better for this future?

    Would pantheism, with its sense that consciousness is in all things, have given us better mental tools for understanding machine intelligence? Would paganism, with its sense that spirits might possess anything, have given us better ways of talking about non-human intelligent agents?

    I don’t know. But I suspect that those philosophies might not have given us the necessary valuation of human life, early enough in history, to have gotten us to this point.

    That doesn’t mean those philosophies should be downplayed. In fact, if the West gave us the primary tools to reach this level of technological development, perhaps the East will give us the tools to navigate the oncoming technological changes. Perhaps the philosophical East and West are like two batteries powering technological society, and we have reached the point where the primary power source will flip.

    In any case, I’d be happy to see some of these changes. The philosophy of the West may have provided the needed individualism to kick off modern science, but its assumption of a deep Cartesian divide between mind and body went overboard. Even Christian and Jewish source documents would have found this troubling.

    Reclaiming a more earthy, holistic, and fluid understanding of consciousness will be advantageous both now and in the oncoming future. And it will ultimately put us in better alignment with both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions.