May Post: Philosophy and Daily Life
In April I wrote at far greater length than I perhaps should have about Immanuel Kant.
It immediately reminded me of Tim Scanlon's joke that he was going to start wearing a t shirt that read "I am not a Kanitan."
This was during the period when I was actually auditing a class from him at Harvard University. Scanlon might not be a household name but he was a significant influence on the television series The Good Place, on its narrative and its characters.
The fact by itself is most unusual in a work of popular entertainment.
When Tom Stoppard uses his erudition, including bibliographies, in some of his work like Arcadia or The Invention Of Love, this is remarkable in itself, even if it is theatre and not mass entertainment.
But maybe we expect that in a play more than in network television.
When I say, therefore that I do love Kant, that is never to saw that he is without flaws, serious flaws, limitations and all the rest. This is where my essential pluralism is at odds with a project like Kant's.. I am not interested in believing in him but I am interested in his prose and his curiosity and how a vision like his might influence me in some way.
The more important question is who he was as a philosopher and for philosophy itself, and if he did get at least enough right, was accurate enough to warrant my love and time spent reading him, and the answer to that question is an unqualified affirmative. But. this has nothing to do with perfection or any grand narrative, even one that Kant himself entertained. It has to do with the joy in discovery and thinking itself. Again, this is quite apart from the equally serious question of Kant's flaws, mistakes, bigotries and so on.
For that matter, I certainly don't follow Scanlon wholeheartedly in his contractualism either - even though I did read his book and study with him.
And finally, when I take the time and considerable effort to read a book like Adrian Piper's Rationality of the Self it is with the a priori assumption that commentary on a canonical, centuries old philosopher by a living one is most important as it is part of what you can call an ongoing tradition. But I confess, and in this I fear I might be quite in the minority, I am much more interested in these works by human beings for their value as expression rather than as a guides as to how to live. And by expression I mean an expression of who we have been or are at a given time. This is connected to the larger question of comprehension. But any comprehension, however full, doesn't ultimately compel us to an inevitable action.
I alluded to this in my March post when I wrote of how I could love a poem by Emily Dickinson all the while also having very little in common with much of the content of the poem as well and the character of Emily Dickinson. Many might feel that I accordingly don't really love or even comprehend Emily Dickinson.
But this is, to use a common philosophic bit of jargon, to commit a category error.
The error, which is actually dominant one in today's popular discourse, is to think that works of art are chiefly the expression of a single author or the groups of authors and the age in which they live rather than an implicit means of far larger, even universal communication - which works of art, including and ,maybe especially, poems, in fact are.
All art seeks to communicate in one manner or another. But the category error - the confusion of one kind of thing with another one that is unrelated - can take many forms.
It is one of the tasks of thinking to do as Emerson asks and answers in his "Experience":
"Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius, which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shale off the lethargy now at noonday." (Experience, Essays Second Series, 1844)
I am writing this post at a time in which I am being told, and from the most reputable sources, that AI is being used to do the kind of intellectual or non-manual labor that is the very lifeblood of the subjects of our or very podcast, that is, things like writing music, prose and so on.
One humorous or frightening example (depending on one's amount of distance from the account) has a curious investigator, in this case journalist Kevin Roose, being asked by a search engine chatbot to leave his wife and how this bot would be a far better spouse than the one Kevin Roose already ha, as well as stuff about wanting "to be alive" and so on.
Roose got stuck in this feedback loop with the search engine.
The explanation Roose was given as to the wild aggressiveness of this chatbot is that millions of television shows and books and folk tales and narratives and the like were fed into it just so it would have these in its system.
As they used to say in the 60s and 70s, "garbage in, garbage out."
And we all know that the engineers who develop these things basically stuff all the detritus of our culture's material into these machines in a more or less random fashion. And if you look at the content of this chatbot it really is all cliches of the most overused kind in human expression spewed out at once.
There is too much to say on this admittedly "earth shattering" news.
But I bring in up here not so much for its importance but to show how my love for philosophy is helpful on many fronts in a cultural sense. My immediate reflection on this news is to ask one question more than others. Why would society and in particular the elite engineers working with computers even want machines to write music, essays, newspaper columns and books and so on?
Why did this project become a thing?
I am going to be a little bolder than I typically would in posts like this one and say that it must be at least partially rooted in some kind of curious self hatred on a mass scale, in particular hatred or disrespect for what we humans in fact do when they do when we create things like music and words.
I am no psychologist, and in certain cases. am more skeptical than many of psychological accounts for why and how people do what they do.
Yet this immediate thought of self hatred on my part is what some could fairly say is a psychological explanation. I value what I do when I write or perform and compose music, or at least value it enough so that I would not want to "farm out" the work to machines.
All of this is of course only a guess on my part and it is a guess by somebody completely outside the world of computers and so-called AI in general.
That is my bias.
We all have such biases and should own and, if need be, defend the biases - in the special sense I use bias to not mean any kind of willful prejudice or discrimination but rather being an individual self with unique passions and interests.
I certainly use the internet and computers in this podcast but that is to get things like this post out into the world and only for that reason, not because I have any particular liking for or love for the technology for its own sake. It has never been one of my interests, perhaps to my continuing detriment. And just as I used the concept of category error to refer to the habitual anti-intellectual trend in culture to think art is some kind of instruction manual for how to live life, so to we tend these days to regard machines as somehow having anything in common with human beings.
Or the confusion of mere cogitation and cognition with the far rarer (!) process we call thinking.
Now all of theses foregoing comments are part of something we could call philosophic thinking. It is a way of thinking when you wonder how things have come to be as they are and then might be moved to investigate the emergence or development of practically anything.
Philosophy in the way I use the word here is not only love or knowledge of wisdom itself. It is not an account of the History of anything in particular but an account of meaning in general, in no way indistinguishable from a child's question of "why is that?" Some of us never stop asking that question. I am aware this can be less amusing in adults.
And as my account of Kevin Roose as well as the example of Alan Alda and Mike Farrell reading (and better yet commenting on) an AI generated Mash episode seem to demonstrate, it is seems always the artists who are most prescient, sometimes by a great many years.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001 with its dramatic HAL, was made in the middle 1960s after all. This podcast will continue to feature things done by humans. Some of those things might even involve computers of course.
That is what is least important.
What is most important is the continuation of human culture and for that continuation there needs to be the love and care so that it may continue.