A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A New Turing Test

Anyone familiar with this blog will have figured out by now that I am a stickler for elegant and correct prose, even if my writing rarely measures up to my own exacting standards. Until a little over a year ago, I taught philosophy in a large university. As such, I would often receive e-mails from my students. Reading students’ e-mails, as well as their term papers and exams, was always exquisite torture for a man of my rather rarefied literary tastes. Reflecting on this torture recently led me to thinking about Turing’s Test. You're scratching your head. Don’t worry. I’ll explain the connection.

Alan Turing (1912-1954), the great father of computer science, first proposed his test in a paper entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (Mind 59 (1950), 433-460). He wanted to address the question, “can machines think?” He seems to have thought that if a computer could fool a human interrogator into thinking it was human, then the question could be answered in the affirmative.

There are many versions of Turing’s test, but the most basic idea goes like this. Imagine yourself (the interrogator) place in front of an interface, say a computer monitor, connected to an agent. You pose questions, and on the basis of the answers you receive, after you are satisfied enough to make a judgment, you are to guess whether your interlocutor is a human or a computer. This is one trial. After repeated trials, the computer’s score is to be determined by the percentage of trials in which you wrongly guessed that the computer is a real person.

Turing thought that if a computer passed this test, it was for all intents and purposes a human mind, and that, therefore, the machine could think. He further predicted that by the year 2000 such a machine would be built. Despite many attempts, that prediction has so far proved to be wrong, though such a machine may exist in the future.

There have been many criticisms of the Turing Test. For one thing, it seems to confound intelligence with simulated intelligence. This is, perhaps, a result of the crude psychological behaviourism that was fashionable at the time that Turing wrote. In any case, I do not intend to go over the finer philosophical implications of the test.

Instead, by reflection on my former students’ communications, I am brought to consider a different implication of the Turing Test. Rather than expecting computing technology to come up to our standards of rationality, I think Turing neglected to consider another possibility, which is that human rationality might someday sink to the level where human discourse becomes indistinguishable from crude technology. I am thinking here of those e-mails I used to receive from my students, begging for an extension or a grade reappraisal, which I was unable to decipher because they were written in an inchoate pidgin, an impoverished amalgam of bizarre grammar and orthography, and text-messaging contractions.

Given that I could not understand many of these e-mails (nor in many instances could I understand their term papers), I see no reason why a machine need have any fear of failing to “measure up” — if that is even the right phrase — to such a low standard of discourse. Indeed, if things get any worse, a computer that generated random strings of characters and spaces could not fail Turing’s Test. I had to wonder myself sometimes if the e-mail I was reading had been generated by a human or a virus-infected computer.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Donation of Constantine

For those not familiar with it, the “Donation of Constantine” was a forged decree, purportedly by the Emperor Constantine (“the Great”), granting dominion of the Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I in 4th century. If the decree were genuine, subsequent Popes would thereby have inherited dominion over the territory by right of succession according to the Roman Civil Law. The Donation was used to legitimate Papal authority in Western Europe, trumping the authority of kingly rulers.

The Donation was fraudulent and was known to be so by the 15th century. Nonetheless, even if it had been genuine, the Church should have been wary of relying on it.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator of Judea who handed Jesus over for execution, was portrayed in the Scriptures as a man ruling without right in a foreign land. Whatever putative political legitimacy he might have claimed derived ultimately from the Emperor at Rome — the same source from which the Catholic Church claimed to derive its similar powers via the Donation. Therefore, if Pilate lacked right and authority, then so too must the Church of Rome.

However, let us assume that the Church was willing to grant the legitimacy of Pilate’s imperium over Judea, an imperium granted by the authority of the Emperor. If the Church had inquired from whence the Roman emperors themselves derived their authority, they likely would have found that it was based on usurpation and tyranny. If Constantine's title was acquired by usurpation, either his own or his predecessors', he could not have passed good title of his realm to the Church, for the obvious reason that he lacked good title himself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rumblings in Persia

Is it possible, despite the reticence of the mainstream media to admit as much, that President Obama is capable of the occasional misstep?

Recent events in Iran are exciting, to say the least. It is widely believed that last week’s presidential election in that country was rigged. This is by no means a unanimous opinion, but I, for one, am inclined to believe it. I saw four different opinion polls in the days leading up to the election. Of those four, only one pegged Mr. Ahmadinejad as leading, and even then it was by a mere percentage point. All the rest had Mr. Mousavi leading by a significantly larger — though still quite small — margin. In any case, given that there were four candidates running, a further run-off vote was to be expected. And yet, presto! Ahmadinejad ended up with an astonishing 60% of the vote, rendering a run-off unnecessary. No foreign observers were allowed to scrutinize the voting, and the votes were counted in record time, despite a remarkably high voter turnout. In my opinion, it all gives off a rather ripe odour.

Still, it is possible that Ahmadinejad won, and that the polling somehow simply failed to track the real voter preference. Unfortunately for Ahmadinejad and Iran’s despotic “Guardian Council” of clerics, even if Ahmadinejad did win, he has in another sense now lost. The Guardian Council announced that although it would sanction a limited recount, it would not nullify the election results even if evidence of fraud is found. By taking this stance — which I understand they have subsequently softened — they thereby lost any remaining claim to democratic legitimacy. They revealed how little respect they have for their own “democratic” process, flawed though it is (for example, the Guardian Council vets all candidates before they are allowed to run).

While history is being written on the streets of Tehran, President Obama’s voice has been cautiously muted, not venturing to do what, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy has done in calling the election a “fraud”. Now, I know that Mr. Obama has his reasons for adopting a quiet approach. He has had a long-standing policy of rapprochement with Iran, hoping to engage them in dialogue, a hope which he fears will be scuttled if he sticks his nose in Iranian domestic affairs. He reasons that, due to the troubled history of US-Iranian relations, it is best that the US stay out of the fray, lest it be accused of meddling.

Unfortunately, the US is already being accused by the hardliners of meddling, and they always have been and always will be accused of meddling, because it’s all the hardliners have. They will make this accusation regardless of how the US conducts itself. So, Mr. Obama, you may as well go ahead and meddle.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Mr. Obama’s critics are correct: the people on the streets in Iran could use the world’s moral support in their courageous effort to effect change. To fail to stand with them looks dishonourable and cowardly.

There is a parade that is already underway in Iran. I would advise Mr. Obama to get in front of it before he’s too late.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

That Dread May Be Disinterested

June 16, 1755

You will pardon me for taking this Opportunity to subjoin a few Remarks that I neglected to include in my last [“Of an Argument That Death Is Not to Be Dreaded,” June 17, 2009 — Ed.]. I therein played the critick Part in showing how from the Fact that we dread not the Time before we were born, it does not follow that we therefore shou’d feel no Dread at the Prospect of a coming Time when we shall cease to be.

‘Tis to be remark’d that when we speak of a Man’s dreading something, that which is dreaded needn’t be an Object of direct Interest to that Man who dreads it. In short, Sir, Dread may be disinterested.

Even if it were the Case that our Souls no longer exist after we are dead (an Assumption by no means congruent with the Doctrine of our most holy Christian Religion), and that therefore we will not be able to experience the Loss of that Life of which we so much wish to remain in Possession, yet we may still dread such a Loss, just as we may dread the Prospect of many a Thing which concerns ourselves not in the least.

Do we not feel Horror when we see portray’d upon the Stage Queen Gertrude’s mistaken draught of Poison? Do we not feel a momentary impulse to stand upon our Seats and exclaim “Stop, dear Lady! Pray, do not drink!”? How is it, then, that we may take such interest in a Character, whose Death we can have no personal Interest in, whose Loss we can have no true Reason to grieve, and whose very Existence is owed to a Poet’s Fancy?

In short, if I am not an insensible Brute, I am capable of dreading not only the Prospect of my own Demise, but also the Demise of others, even those unrelated to me by Blood, Interest, or Affection. It is this very Propensity to experience Sentiments in a disinterested Fashion that is the Foundation and First Principle of our Nature as moral Beings.

You see, Sir, that I may dread the loss of my own Life in the same way that I may dread the loss of Life of another. The two kinds of Dread are Wares that come out of the same Shop. Thus, if I may be brought to doubt the Genuineness of the one, why may I not also be brought to doubt the second? In neither Case will I directly experience the Loss; nonetheless the Dread of that loss is very real, and we shou’d shun as monstrous a human Creature who was incapable of dreading the Death of his fellow Man, or of regretting it after it hath come to pass.

There may be other very good Reasons for regarding our Mortality with a philosophical Equanimity. But to lose this sensitive Faculty of disinterested Concern for the Welfare of ourselves or others is to make ourselves morally unfit for the Company of our Fellows.

I am, Sir, your humble Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Of an Argument that Death is Not to Be Dreaded

June 14, 1755

I read your last with great Pleasure, and I most heartily concur in the Sentiment express’d therein. Too often the Flights of Philosophers soar too far from Safety when not tether’d to the firm Bedrock of a virtuous Way of Life.

I was of late reading LUCRETIUS (though it shou’d be made plain I am no Partisan of the Epicurean School). There is a Passage in the third Book of the De Rerum Natura that I affirm to be an Example of just such a loose Argument. I do not claim to blame this Failure on the Man’s lack of virtuous living. However, although I cannot swear to the illustrious Poet’s Virtue, ST. JEROME wou’d have it believ’d that he died after being driven mad from a love Potion he had imbib’d, a Circumstance which, if true, wou’d discover a certain Licentiousness in his Character.

In any event, Lucretius advances his Argument in support of the Proposition that we ought not to dread the Prospect of our impending Mortality. Here are his lines:

Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,
Quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur;
Et, velut anteacto nil tempore sensimus aegri,
Ad confligendum venientibus undique Poenis,
Omnia cum belli trepido concussa tumultu
* * *
Sic, ubi non erimus, cum corporis atque animai
Discidium fuerit, quibus e sumus uniter apti
Scilicet haud nobis quicquam, qui non erimus tum,
Accidere omnino poterit sensumque movere,
* * *
Respice item quam nil ad nos anteacta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit, quam nascimur ante.

[“Therefore death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal; and as in time past we felt no distress, while from all quarters the Carthaginians were coming to the conflict, when the whole world, shaken by the terrible tumult of war… so, when we shall no longer be, when the parting shall have come about between body and spirit from which we are compacted into one whole, then sure enough nothing at all will be able to happen to us, who will then no longer be, or to move our senses… Look back also and see how the ages of everlasting time past before we were born have been to us nothing." De Rerum Natura, III.830-834,838-841, and 972-973 — Ed.]

Lucretius’ Argument is thus: Just as we do not bother ourselves over the vast stretch of Time when we did not yet exist, so we ought likewise to feel no dread of the coming stretch of Time wherein we shall have ceased to be. From this I can teaze out two different strands of Argument, the first of which has too little Import to merit our Admiration. The second, though more interesting, depends on a verbal Trick which, when discover’d, makes the philosophical Victory slip through the Author’s fingers.

Lucretius might intend the following: our not existing during the Time before our Births was no Evil, because we were not there to suffer it; likewise, we will not exist after we are dead; therefore, our being dead is likewise no Evil. Now, if this be his Meaning, and further granting him that which is plain Pagan Error, namely that there is no Existence after Death, then the Argument is plainly true. But we are concerned with the Attitude towards his own Death of that Person who yet lives. Plainly such a Man would not obviously be mistaken in mourning the loss of that which he is now in Possession, namely his Life. Therefore, the Argument is of limited Utility.

Perhaps Lucretius intends the following: I do not now dread the time before my Birth, in which I did not yet exist; so likewise I should not now dread the time to come when I shall not exist. Now here is an Argument of more Import. It is nonetheless erroneous for at least two Reasons. First, the time of my Birth is an Event unalterably fixt in the Past. Because I can do nothing to Shift that Event, it can make no sense to mourn or fear it. But the Time of my Death is not yet fixt (or not yet known, which is much the same); therefore, it makes sense to dread that unknown Time when I shall lose what is of utmost Importance to me, which is my very Life. ‘Tis true that all must succumb to Mortality, the common Lot of all Men. Therefore, it boots us little to dread the fact that we must die. But we may yet dread the dying before we have sufficiently savoured of Life. Which is why we mourn for those who pass early but not so much for those who have spent their allotted fourscore and ten.

But there is yet another Way in which the Argument errs. The two Stretches of Time, the one before Birth, and the one after Death, are not enough of a kind to bear such comparison, and not only because — as we have seen — the one is fixt and the other is not. It is patent Nonsense to be told we ought not dread that which is to come because we do not dread that which passed; for it makes no sense to say that “I do (or do not) dread the Flood, or the invasion of HANNIBAL.” To say such a thing is to misemploy the very word “dread”, in such a way that the utterer must put himself in jeopardy of Bedlam. We may, of course, regret that which is past, but to dread it is incomprehensible. But when we substitute Terms, we derive a Conclusion which is invalid: from the Premise “I do not regret not existing in the Time before my Birth,” it does not follow that therefore “I ought not to dread the time when I shall cease to be,” for we are missing a Middle Term.

Such an absurd construal of the term “dread” makes evident the Observation of TULLY, that sed nescio quo modo nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquot philosophorum [“somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make.” Cicero, De Divinatione, Bk. II, ch.119 — Ed.].

We may derive more Comfort from a Saying of the witty Monsieur BRUYÈRE, that if some Men died while others did not, then Death would truly be a terrible Affliction [Jean de La Bruyère, Characters, “Of Mankind”, §43 — Ed.].

I remain, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

On Philosophical Self-Refutation

I am a great believer in the rather naïve notion that a philosopher’s morals and way of life ought to match the ideal he professes in his theory. Thus, I believe it perfectly legitimate to argue ad hominem from the mismatch between the philosopher’s life and his theory. As a matter of fact, there are some examples of this style of argument that I find particularly elegant and persuasive. The best example I can give is one by Lord Shaftesbury directed against Thomas Hobbes’ egoistic theory of morality.

It is fairly well-known that Hobbes espoused a theory in which human nature was portrayed as essentially self-interested, and that no-one did anything that wasn’t intended to further his own perceived interests. In essence, for Hobbes “man is wolf to man” and can only be kept on the straight and narrow if it is to his own private advantage to do so.

To this narrow view, Shaftesbury answered as follows: “Sir! The Philosophy you have condescended to reveal to us, is most extraordinary. We are beholden to you for your Instruction. But, pray, whence is this Zeal in our behalf? What are We to You? Are You our Father? Or if You were, why this Concern for Us? Is there then such a thing as natural Affection? If not; why all this Pains, why all this Danger on our account? Why not keep this Secret to Your-self? Of what advantage is it to You, to deliver us from the Cheat? The more are taken in it, the better…. ‘Tis not fit we shou’d know that by Nature we are all Wolves. Is it possible that one who has really discover’d himself such, shou’d take pains to communicate such a Discovery?” (Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Vol. I, p. 92).

If man is really wolf to man, why would a true wolf wish to undeceive his sheep? Would it not be more in Hobbes’ self-interest to keep this secret to himself? His need to share his discovery betrays the very sociability his arguments deny.

Shaftesbury borrowed this argument from Epictetus, who had leveled it against Epicurus. Epictetus, in Discourses, 2.20, said: “For what does he [Epicurus] say? ‘Be not deceived, men, nor led astray, nor mistaken; there is no natural fellowship with one another among rational beings; believe me. Those who say the contrary are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasons.’ Why do you care, then? Allow us to be deceived. Will you fare any the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that we do not have a natural fellowship with one another, and that we ought by all means to guard it? Nay, your position will be much better and safer. Man, why do you worry about us, why keep vigil on our account, why light your lamp, why rise betimes, why write such big books?... Come, do you interest yourself in sheep because they allow themselves to be shorn by us, and milked, and finally to be butchered and cut up? Would it not be desirable if men could be charmed and bewitched into slumber by the Stoics and allow themselves to be shorn and milked by you and your kind [i.e. Epicureans]?” (There is a similar example in Discourses, 1.20.)

In his commentary on Hugo Grotius’ De Iure Belli ac Pacis, Jean Barbeyrac (1674-1744) refers to both Epictetus and Shaftesbury on this subject: “The late Lord Shaftesbury has reasoned in the same manner [as Epictetus], but with a lively Turn, which gives his Piece the Air of an Original, against Hobbes, who with still more Warmth than his Master Epicurus, undertook to persuade the World that all Men are by Nature so many Wolves one to another. See that Lord’s Essay on the Use of Raillery, &c. p. 64, & seq. printed at the Hague in the Year 1710” (Barbeyrac, in Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, anonymous 1738 English edition, vol. I, p. xv, note).

A somewhat similar point had been made before Shaftesbury, as an explicit animadversion on Hobbes, by Richard Cumberland (1632-1718), in his De Legibus Naturae (1672; English translation, 1727), ch. V, §15: “The Understanding has a strong Natural Propension, to make itself Master of those things, which may be useful to others as well as to ourselves. Hence all the Sciences, which have been found out by great application of Mind, and made Publick for the Common Benefit, have taken their rise.” In other words, the practice of scientists, and their need to share their discoveries, demonstrates their natural sociability

The argument from self-refutation was deployed, with indifferent effect, by Plutarch against the Stoics. At the beginning of his essay “On Stoic Self-Contradictions” (in Moralia, Vol. XIII, Pt. II), he justified the practice of refuting an argument by appealing to the practice of one’s opponent as follows: “In the first place I require that the consistency of men’s doctrines be observed in their way of living, for it is even more necessary that the philosopher’s life be in accord with his theory than that the orator’s language, as Aeschines says, be identical with that of the law. The reason is that the philosopher’s theory is a law freely chosen for his own, — at least it is if they believe philosophy to be not a game of verbal ingenuity played for the sake of glory but, as it really is, an activity worthy of the utmost earnestness.”

As an argument form, appeal to practical self-refutation can be well done (e.g. Shaftesbury) or poorly done (e.g. Plutarch). But there is no reason why philosophers should consider it an illegitimate way of arguing, unless one’s conception of philosophy is so perverted as to preclude the belief that theory ought to bear a relation to practice.