Occasionalism and AI

There is a most subtle Occasionalism at work in the cluster-concept of AI. It is well-known that Descartes first comes up with the idea of Occasionalism (for anyone reading this and not familiar with the term, roughly put it is: a cosmo-theological doctrine that attributes all causation to an omnipotent God who constantly intervenes to ensure the workings of the world) is humans’ lack of knowledge of their bodies’ movement: how does one move one’s arm without knowing how, without even knowing what physiological processes are at work? For a philosopher with the highest regards for the cogitative capacities of humans, acting without knowledge is a scandal; the idea of an omniscient God intervening between my will (to move my hand) and its fulfillment (my hand moving), acting as the cause sets things right again, for Descartes’ God knows the what and the how of every act.

Now let us fast-forward to the present. In the preface to Ethem Alpaydın’s Introduction to Machine Learning, 2nd Ed. we read that one of the two principal reasons for using machine learning (as a sub-field of AI, it can be implemented in different fashions, from simple transfer functions to neural networks to genetic algorithms) is the inability of humans to “explain their expertise.” Language recognition is one among such cases. In a sense, the creation of intelligence can be seen as the final piece of what Freud termed the “Prosthetic God” humans are forever building. Some philosophers object to the use of the term “intelligence” for merely algorithmic behavior; but what about instances of artificial behavior for which no human-devised algorithm exist? I would also like to ask what forms of intentionality are valid in cases where we don’t know what we know, meaning of course the tasks we perform without knowing how to perform them.

There is also another point that I’d like to discuss, and that is the issue of the smart fire-detector (Jürgen Lawrenz had asked whether a “smart” fire-detector that calls your cellphone in case of a fire can be deemed as really intelligent or capable of judgment). Fully agreeing that such a gadget can in no way be deemed intelligent, I still feel it is important to remember that machines and technical objects were unable to respond to changes in their milieu before Wiener’s feedback-based cybernetic devices. The very possibility of “learning” even learning as bare memory accumulation (but there is also change in behavior) is of recent origin. All this aside, I too believe that the most important feat that distinguishes the human consciousness from the (perhaps) intelligent machine is judgment, something the latter is incapable of, but also something that it renders more or less obsolete.

Defined in terms of subsuming the particular to the universal, that is defined in loosely Kantian terms, judgment is a human process, and a costly one. Plato was somewhat right in disregarding the Sophists for their attempts at creating shortcuts (“short-circuits”, in Stiegler’s terminology), claiming that universal knowledge was essential to understanding and judgment. Such knowledge could only be amassed by years of study and learning and as such a very costly thing. This is one of the reasons why the earlier AI models based on human judgment failed to yield any efficiency. We must not forget that machines are built to be efficient, and the human process of judgment cannot be a successful model; Instead, we get the less-than-judgment machines; the cybernetic machines operating at a level below representation and knowledge.

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Monads and Cybernetic Organs

Leibniz’s monads do not have “windows” through which they could perceive the world; their milieu is unknowable to them. Yet they continue to function in perfect “harmony” with one-another, which is very crucial, given that according to Leibniz the whole world is made up of monads. Leibniz, whose invention of the integral calculus and life insurance alone might make him a fit candidate for the progenitor of the modern world (in which we are still living, although a bit less each day), explained the monads’ blindness through reference to their perfect design: being omni-scient and ditto-potent, God factored in all the world in its entirety in the workings of each monad and it is as such that each could be said to contain or reflect the whole world. The cult of design, the cult of the engineer, is only an extension of the ideas that gave birth to the Monadology. Leibniz is the progenitor of the modern world of engineering and design; his is a revival of mathematics in its true meaning: fore-knowledge. Heidegger explains the modern age as the time where the “principle of sufficient reason (ratio)” holds sway, a principle first stated by Leibniz (“nothing exists without a reason”). It is the same Leibniz who comes up with the idea now known as algorithmic complexity, of understanding as compression. He is the prime representative of the modern efficiency.

It was not until the WWII that modelling-prediction gained an alternative: real-time, feed-back driven prediction: cybernetics was born; the idea to end all ideas. For an introduction to what comes next see my presentation at the General Organology Conference held at the University of Kent in 20-22 November 2014 (the link will be up soon).

With the cybernetic organ (prosthesis), we are facing the exact opposite of a Leibnizian monad: the Leibnizian monad is the result of ultimate design, the kind of design only a God could be capable of: EVERYTHING has been factored in so that it functions smoothly without needing to see anything at all; it has no windows and yet functions perfectly. The cybernetic device, however, is the opposite of that. Not that it does away with blindness, like so many of the Capitalists and would-be technopriests might wish, but rather, it displaces the blindness: rather than being a blind work of perfect design, it becomes a seeing work of no design that turns a blind eye to the essence of its “object.” Instead of the blind monad, we get the black-box. What silently disappears in the process is human-ness, the capacity for thought and the possibility of science as knowledge of causes, of the “why” and the “what.”