Who’s Afraid of Big Bad AI?


Silver didrachma from Crete depicting Talos, an ancient mythical automaton with artificial intelligence.

“We think, we have consciousness, with our hands and feet, guts and muscles, just as trees “think” with their roots and leaves. To be sure, there is a way to make a machine that is identical to all the functions we have as human beings. The polite term for it is sexual intercourse.”

My latest at Eclectica: http://www.eclectica.org/v24n2/hubschman_salon.html


About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on April 20, 2020, in Other Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Fascinating post. But as someone who has grappled with the mind-body question for most of my adult life, it seems to me you seem to avoid the whole question of what comes first and come down instead solely on the side of physical reality.

    For myself, I agree with those scientists who say that the question of how our body produces something that has no apparent physical reality is the greatest unsolved question in science. And perhaps the reality isn’t that it is the physical reality that somehow produces and supports what we experience as thought, but the other way around. And almost all of us do have experiences in which it seems that it is our minds that determine our physical states and not vice versa.

    What I do agree with is your belief that it isn’t just our brain that is central to our experience of thought and emotion but our entire physical selves. And not many people appreciate just how fulsome that reality is. I’ve not read many people who have thought about it as fully as your post suggests you have.

    The older I get and the more aware I am that my death, even with the longest life expectancy I might hope for, is not far away, the more I appreciate the kind of exploration.of the subject that is reflected in your post.

  2. Thanks, Terry. Interesting thoughts.

    Do you mean that you think the “mind” literally produces the flesh, or only that the mind has a powerful influence on it — health, etc.?

    I see the basic assumption to be the fallacy that the mind is not “physical” (remember how Chomsky said in that lecture that Newton destroyed the _physical_ world of the New Science, making the word “physical” or “material” useless). Our thinking on this seems to be predetermined by our language which in turn was created to describe what seemed to be “obvious” — that mind and body are not one thing, that mind is non-“physical,” whatever that means.

    Animals certainly have minds, but for some reason (human arrogance) we don’t allow that they do, not in the immaterial way we like to think we do. This seems to me absurd.

    I don’t know why we should think of consciousness as material or immaterial (a distinction without a difference). Mind is an experience. We know we have consciousness because we experience it, the same way we have “free” will. We experience freely making a choice, ergo we have free will. We experience consciousness, it feels like more than just flesh, ergo we have mind.

    What consciousness “really” is is well beyond our current or probably our future understanding. I suspect so-called primitive humans understood themselves better than we do. They knew they were a part of the world around them, like it, not different except in accidentals. They knew their smarts were good for some things but inferior to other animals’ for other things. I think our religio-philosophizing has led us into greater and greater ignorance.

  3. Yes, Tom, really fascinating thoughts — and I couldn’t agree more with your conclusions!

    Some of this comes down to the fact that we are trapped in the idea that the world is how it presents itself to our senses, and we tend to apply our anthropomorphic thinking to everything that surrounds us. There is one area where I see this was totally appropriate, desirable (and only too often lacking) is in human interaction: empathy, in other words.

    For the bulk of the “rest”, however, one could claim that “nature” is just physical interactions—or, one level up, chemical reactions / mechanisms—or, another level up, and in more abstract terms, merely “algorithms”. “Thinking” & “feeling” could be seen as “anthropomorphic constructs”. Nature (including viruses, bacteria, diseases, predators) is not—as some people see it—vile, evil, or benevolent—merely opportunistic (chemists would say “driven to an energetic minimum”, physicists would say “driven to higher entropy levels”. Needless to say that this runs against what religion wants to make us believe … Realizing this can be a mind-shattering, maybe devastating, depressing experience.

    The above possibly leads to a “philosophical crisis”. I had my personal (very mild) “existential crisis” when I contemplated the apparent impossibility of the 3D universe having no end, i.e., my three-dimensional thinking making me think that there can’t be no end to “behind what I pictured as the outer rim of the universe”. To me, this was (and remains, to some degree) mind-boggling, truly impossible. I contemplated whether the universe is just an idea (an algorithm? Greetings from the “Matrix” trilogy!)—but even then, a mere thought / philosophical concept can’t exist without a brain thinking it—and that again can’t exist in a non-existing universe… and so, I ended up with Descartes’ “I’m thinking, hence I am”….

    I guess that most people—if they think that far—resolved this with religious concepts. Looking back at human history, religion appears to be the natural “solution” (for more “evolved brains”, possibly not limited to humans) to the challenge of coping with unimaginable, seemingly “impossible” concepts / facts in nature (or / up to cosmology). I more or less abandoned religious thinking (even though instinctively / occasionally it may still pop up)—it is not a solution to me. Particularly when I consider all the devastation that religious wars / conflicts have brought onto this planet … (sorry for taking this beyond the scope of your original article…)

  4. Fascinating to discuss this with people who have already struggled with it. Tom, you asked if I thought that mind literally produces the flesh. No, I don’t put it that way. The approach that most appeals to me at the moment is that mind and body are two different states of the same thing. I suspect that just as until Einstein we thought that matter and energy were two different separate and independent realities, we now have an equation E=mc2 which gives us an equation describing the transference of matter to energy, and which enables us to produce nuclear energy.

    Actually, although we can apply it, we don’t altogether understand that equation, and know that we need to study both energy and matter independently. (As Hawkins said, the more we understand, the bigger our questions become, and this is an prime example.)

    Someday the mind-body question may actually produce another Einstein-kind of relationship. It won’t answer all our questions, but in any case, I doubt we will ever reach the point where we can eliminate the need to observe and study both mind and body. We know they are connected. But the fundamentals of how they interact are still beyond the reach of human intelligence.

    I do think it is a mistake to assume that matter is superior or more powerful than mind or vice versa. Just as we can no longer assume that energy is completely independent of matter and vice versa.

    Am I making sense?

  5. Our vocabulary determines how we think about these things, doesn’t it. “Body” and “mind,” e.g. Then we try to resolve the difficulties that arise from these received ideas. I think we also assume that they, the ideas, occur naturally in all peoples, though in different forms. I doubt this. Ancient Hebrew thought didn’t seem to recognize anything like a spirit/mind versus a body. The closest they came was the word “breath.” When breath left the body it died. But breath didn’t go anywhere or have any independent life of its own. When you were dead you were dead. And the Hebrew bible seems to have been very much a product of its time and place on the periphery of the great cultures surrounding them.

    Plato caused a lot of mischief in many ways, in my opinion, and his notion of “soul” is just one of them. Christianity latched on to the concept and it became a given from then on. When some neurologists in the 1990s found they could detect decision-making taking place in parts of the brain before the conscious part seemed to be aware of making any decision, they apologized for their brashness, not realizing David Hume among others had written two centuries earlier that consciousness is a function of the brain in the same way digestion is a function of the gut. (Don’t tell the children!)

    Distinguishing ourselves as human, (at least as that word applies at any given time, i.e. for most of history, excluding women, certain “races,” religions and of course all animals), has been an obsession for us. But we are not in the least any higher or lower than any other life form. Nor are we exclusively “conscious.” We just have to believe we are. Probably rats and robins believe the same thing, deep down.

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