TfE: Sincerity vs. Honesty

I often talk about the virtue of sincerity, and how important it is to me. There’s even a section of my book devoted to disputing Harman’s interpretation of sincerity as authenticity (‘being oneself’) and contrasting it with my own take on sincerity as fidelity (‘meaning what one says’). However, a question William Gillis asked on Facebook gave me a concrete opportunity to articulate my ideas more concisely, by contrasting sincerity with honesty:

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TfE: Immanentizing the Eschaton

Here’s a thread from a little while back in which I outline my critique of the (theological) assumptions implicit in much casual thinking about artificial intelligence, and indeed, intelligence as such.

Another late night thought, this time on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): if you approach AGI research as if you’re trying to find algorithm to immanentize the eschaton, then you will be either disappointed or deluded.

There are a bunch of tacit assumptions regarding the nature of computation that tend to distort the way we think about what it means to solve certain problems computationally, and thus what it would be to create a computational system that could solve problems more generally.

There are plenty of people who have already pointed out the theological valence of the conclusions reached on the basis of these assumptions (e.g., the singularity, Roko’s Basilisk, etc.); but these criticisms are low hanging fruit, most often picked by casual anti-tech hacks.

Diagnosing the assumptions themselves is much harder. One can point to moments in which they became explicit (e.g., Leibniz, Hilbert, etc.), and thereby either influential, refuted, or both; but it is harder to describe the illusion of coherence that binds them together.

This illusion is essentially related to that which I complained about in my thread about moral logic a few days ago: the idea that there is always an optimal solution to any problem, even if we cannot find it; whereas, in truth, perfectibility is a vanishingly rare thing.

Using the term ‘perfectibility’ makes the connection to theology much clearer, insofar as it is precisely this that forms the analogical bridge between creator and created in the Christian tradition. Divinity is always conceptually liminal, and perfection is a popular limit.

If you’re looking for a reference here, look at the dialectical evolution of the transcendentals (e.g., unum, bonum, verum, etc.) from Augustine and Anselm to Aquinas and Duns Scotus. The universality of perfectible attributes in creation is the key to the singularity of God.

This illusion of universal perfectibility is the theological foundation of the illusion of computational omnipotence.

We have consistently overestimated what computation is capable of throughout history, whether computation was seen as an algorithmic method executed by humans, or a process of automated deduction realised by a machine. The fictional record is crystal clear on this point.

Instead of imagining machines that can do a task better than we can, we imagine machines that can do it in the best possible way. When we ask why, the answer is invariably some variant upon: it is a machine and therefore must be infallible.

This is absurd enough in certain specific cases: what could a ‘best possible poem’ even be? There is no well-ordering of all possible poems, only ever a complex partial order whose rankings unravel as the many purposes of poetry diverge from one another.

However, the deep, and seemingly coherent computational illusion is that there is not just a best solution to every problem, but that there is a best way of finding such bests in every circumstance. This implicitly equates true AGI with the Godhead.

One response to this accusation is to say: ‘Of course, we cannot achieve this meta-optimum, but we can approximate it.’

Compare: ‘We cannot reach the largest prime number, we can still approximate it’

This is how you trade disappointment for delusion.

There are some quite sophisticated mathematical delusions out there. But they are still illusions. There is no way to cheat your way to computational omnipotence. There is nothing but strategy all the way down.

This is not to say that there aren’t better/worse strategies, or that we can’t say some useful and perhaps even universal things about how you tell one from the other. Historically, proofs that we cannot fulfil our deductive ambitions lead to better ambitions and better tools.

The computational illusion, or the true Mythos of Logos, amounts to the idea that one can somehow brute force reality. There is more than a mere analogy here, if you believe Scott Aaronson’s claims about learning and cryptography (I’m inclined to).

It continually surprises me just how many people, including those involved in professional AGI research still approach things in this way. It looks as if, in these cases, the engineering perspective (optimality) has overridden the logical one (incompleteness).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you cannot brute force mathematical discovery; there is no algorithm that could progressively search the space of possible theorems. If this does not work in the mathematical world, why would we expect it to work in the physical one?

For additional suggestive material on this and related problems, consider: the problem of induction, Godel’s incompleteness theorems, and the halting problem.

Anyway, to conclude: we will someday make things that are smarter than us in every way, but the intermediate stages involve things smarter than us in some ways. We will not cross this intelligence threshold by merely adding more computing power.

However it happens, it will not be because of an exponential process of self-improvement that we have accidentally stumble upon. Self-improvement is not homogeneous, or without autocatalytic instabilities. Humans are self-improving systems, and we are clearly not gods.

The Going Price of Power

I’m really enjoying using twitter as a medium in which to do philosophy, because it forces me to make an argument that is organised in chunks, and to ensure that those chunks are more or less well formed and reasonably compressed. It then allows me to capture those thoughts here, and edit, extend, or recompress them. It also lets me use hyperlinks instead of references, which is impressively liberating. What comes out isn’t exactly perfect, but that’s the point: to enable one to make things better and better beyond the suffocating bounds of the optimal. As I have said many times before, I can be concise, but I find it much harder to be brief, but the twitter-blog feedback loop is helping me to work on that. Moreover, it has allowed me to think a bit more about the writing processes of different philosophers throughout history, some of whom are more or less accessible depending on the way they were able to write and permitted to publish.

I feel like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would have loved twitter, while Leibniz would have preferred the blogosphere, and Plato would have immersed himself in youtube (Socrates: That’s all very well Glaucon, but you have not answered question with which we began: are traps gay?). I think Hegel would have preferred a wiki, and would have been a big contributor to nLab. I would have loved to have been Facebook friends with Simone Weil or Rosa Luxemburg, but I can imagine getting caught in flame wars with Marx and Engels if I stumbled into the wrong end of a BBS (Engels: Do you even sublate, bro?). I desperately wish I could subscribe to Bataille’s tumblr, or browse the comments Baudrillard made on /r/deepfakes before it got banned. I know the world would be infinitely richer for de Beauvoir and Firestone’s Pornhub comments, but we should be thankful we were spared Heidegger and Arendt’s tindr logs. However, I’m pretty convinced that nothing would have stopped Kant from thinking very hard for a couple decades and then publishing all his thoughts in several big books. We’d have gotten a few good thinkpieces from him (Clickbait: ‘This man overturned the authority of tradition using this one weird trick, now monarchies hate him!’), but nothing could have stopped his architectonic momentum.

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TfE: Zero-Sum Politics and Moral Logic

Here’s another Facebook interaction that grew into something interesting, initiated in response to an observation by the incomparable Mark Lance:

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I think that this is an interesting observation that I’m sure will feel familiar to anyone who pays attention to politics on FB, either because they use the medium for political communication, because they take a more anthropological approach to the ways this medium is changing the public sphere, or some combination of the two. It’s also something that will be of no surprise to anyone who has encountered the concept of intersectionality, no matter what they think about the evolution of the concept and the debates surrounding it and the cursed concept of ‘identity politics’. I was also not aware of Liam‘s post on the fallacy he calls ‘political omega-inconsistency‘, and I was absolutely delighted to learn about it. However, I was interested in articulating a slightly different sort of fallacious reasoning, and how it is involved in this phenomena of ‘one dimensionalism’ that Mark was putting his finger on:

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OftA: So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?

Now that I’m trying to rekindle the blog, I’ve realised that I should probably consolidate some bits of writing that I’ve done elsewhere. I started a tumblr several years ago for lighter writing about more general topics. That didn’t really work out, for various reasons, so I’m going to port the best bits back over here. Following previous convention, these posts are classified as ‘One from the Archives’ or OftA. I’m going to start with one of the most seemingly influential, and yet largely underground things I’ve ever written: ‘So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?’

This was a piece written in response to Malcom Harris’ review of the #ACCELERATE reader in The New Inquiry. Since I’ve now written something about ‘neorationalism‘, I’ve been thinking about returning to ‘accelerationism’ and talking a little about the emergence of the term, my relation to it, and my thoughts about it. I’ll save the details for a later post, but now that there’s a renewed interest in the definitiongenealogy and taxonomy of accelerationism, it seems like a good time to dredge this piece up. I wasn’t the first to name the difference between left and right strands (I heard it from Benedict Singleton in Berlin in 2014), but I think I might have been the first to write about it. I’m still the top reference on the wikipedia page, at least.


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The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia

Since the beginning of the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school, I have had numerous discussions with people about the state of contemporary philosophy, and the state of contemporary academia more generally. Some of my thoughts on the matter are expressed in the posts on the Transmodern Philosophy blog accompanying the Summer school, and others were expressed during the first public panel. I’ve had numerous questions put to me about the perspective out of which these thoughts were developed, as people have rightly surmised that there’s a certain systematic account of academia underlying them, but this is an account that I’ve never actually published in any public forum. I did begin writing something on this topic just over two years ago, an essay somewhat ambitiously titled ‘The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia and their Solution’, but, although I was quite happy with my analysis of the problems, it turned out to be much harder to articulate their solutions (somewhat unsurprisingly). This isn’t to say that I didn’t (or don’t) have some ideas about this, but rather that the amount of effort required to seriously think them through within the framework I’d laid out was too great to justify spending the time on it (ironically, for reasons well explained in the problems section). Despite some abortive attempts to rework the material with the brilliant Fabio Gironi, I haven’t done anything with the portion of the essay that was completed. It seems to me that now is as good a time as any to put it out here, to give some background to the things I’ve said elsewhere, and to encourage some more discussion about the predicament we philosophers and academics find ourselves in.

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Burning Bridges

I’ve read a couple interesting posts over the last few days on the topic of the analytic/continental divide. The first was Jon Cogburn’s post linking to Ray Brassier’s talk on Sellars’ Nominalism at the Matter of Contradiction conference in London in March (the video unfortunately cuts out before the Q&A that I was involved in). Jon presents some interesting remarks on the ‘divide’ from the perspective of someone with analytic training who has subsequently attempted to enter the world of continental philosophy, at least in its American form (the centre of which seems to be SPEP). The second was Roman Altshuler’s post on the importance of dialog between continental and analytic philosophy. Roman’s post is a fantastic contrast to Jon’s insofar as it seems to come from the opposite direction: someone with loosely continental training coming to analytic work later, albeit from a European perspective (in which the ‘divide’ is configured quite differently). In addition, the comments on Roman’s post raise some very interesting issues, such as the problems caused by differences in the way AOS/AOC distinctions are configured between the traditions (i.e., thematics vs. history) . This is something that causes me serious headaches when trying to put my own CV together. I usually find discussions of the divide to be severely worn and uninteresting, but these were exceptions and are very worth reading.

Still, I think I should probably briefly state my own view of the issue here, as it has mutated quite a bit over the years. In short, I think the ‘bridging’ metaphor in terms of which these debates are usually configured has become part of the problem labelled by the word ‘divide’ and that it must be burned if we are to solve this problem (or any subset of problems that constitute it). I studied both analytic and continental philosophy at undergraduate, did an MA in Continental Philosophy with a dissertation on Deleuze’s metaphysics, did a PhD on Heidegger’s account of the Question of Being and its relation to metaphysics, and am now heavily bound up in work on Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and a number of self-identifying analytic thinkers. I have discovered time and time again that I simply do not fit in to the neat set of categories that the divide/bridge framing sets up. Continue reading

More Atheology on Deleuze

Atheology has just put up another post on my interpretation of Deleuze, this time based on my more recent paper ‘Ariadne’s Thread: Temporality, Modality, and Individuation in Deleuze’s Metaphysics’ (available here). It’s a very generous and thorough reading of the paper, in relation to the other things I’ve written about Deleuze on the blog. Though he expresses a certain dissatisfaction with the unfinished character of the essay (it was written for an hour length presentation, and alas, was inevitably consumed by preliminaries) in parallel with his dissatisfaction at the unfinished character of my posts on Deleuze and Sufficient Reason (available here), he also says:

This strikes me as an extremely promising angle of approach and one which could easily yield a book-length treatment, perhaps under the title Ariadne’s Thread: Deleuze and the Song of Sufficient Reason. For me this approach represents tangible progress in the study of Deleuze’s thought.

I can only feel humbled by such praise, and would love to write this book one of these days. Alas, I am stuck in the same position as many of my compatriots, unsure as to which aspects of my work will lead to stable employment, so it’ll have to wait for now. That being said, I do intend to extend the ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ paper for publication at some point, once a few other commitments are out of the way. As such, the comments in Atheology’s post are very helpful and useful. However, there are a number of possible misunderstandings and points that can be addressed quickly, and so I will endeavour to do so here. I’ll try to number the points to keep them brief and organised. Continue reading

The Art Kettle

This post is in many ways long overdue. I received a free copy of Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle last year, with the promise that I’d review it. The book made an instant impression on me, but for various reasons (personal and professional) the review went by the wayside. I returned to the book recently with the intention of finally finishing the review and submitting it to the British Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics. However, I found it even richer than the first time I read it, and the piece quickly spiralled beyond the word limit of a short review (it was meant to be 2000 words, and is now around 6000). Re-reading the book and writing the review has helped me to focus and develop some of the ideas about aesthetics and beauty that I’ve been discussing for a while now, and which I discussed with a number of people at the recent Speculative Aesthetics event in London. It thus contains a brief, but reasonably thorough overview of my more mature thinking on these topics, and may be of interest to those who read this blog.

As such, I’m putting up the current draft for people to read: ‘The Ends of Beauty: Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle. This should get edited and adapted for publication soon (possibly in Pli, possibly elsewhere), and so comments are thoroughly welcomed. Finally, it should go without saying that I think you should all buy this book. If you’re interested in art-theory, and particularly if you’re fed up of the state of contemporary art, The Art Kettle will stimulate you and give you new theoretical tools to deal with it. Plus, it’s cheap, short, and well written. What’re you waiting for?