October 16, 2016
Though technology, and in particular Artificial Intelligence, is generally helpful and often dramatically extends our abilities, it can also constrain us in subtle but morally important ways.
I was returning to Minneapolis today from a long weekend in south-western Wisconsin and decided to take the scenic route along the Mississippi instead of the quicker (but no more direct) interstate highway. So naturally i turned on my navigation system and selected the river-route to my final destination. But no sooner had i started off that the navigatrix told me she had found a faster route and that i should hit “accept” to take it. I didn’t want to, but she insisted a half-dozen times until i was far enough along that said faster route had mercifully become slower. Moreover, every time i stopped, for gas or to take a picture, she would reroute me as if i has lost my way and select a new, fastest route. So i had to continually go back and reselect my original, more beautiful, route.
My issue is not with the software’s abilities — i have no (well, few) complaints there, it’s basically magical — but with my options for deciding how that magic is carried out. The software designers decided that most people, most of the time would want the fastest route, so they made that the default behavior. Now, we are all slightly pressured into taking the fastest route, that is, into not enjoying the slow, scenic one. The software, technically the layout of the user interface, has made a decision for me, one that i did not want it to. And even though i can probably turn the “always select the fastest route” setting off somewhere, the developer’s choice of the default settings nevertheless tilts me towards a certain kind of behavior.
In effect, though i was able to achieve what i wanted (to get home), i couldn’t easily determine how that goal was to be pursued. Both of these are essential to exercising freedom. Good AI should not only help me get home, but should make it easy for me to tell it how best to get there.
August 31, 2016
A small parallel struck me the other night as i watched Brian DePalma’s movie Mission: Impossible. At the very end, a jumbled helicopter comes crashing through the Chunnel towards the hero (Tom Cruise), who is stuck against the rear window of a stationary train. The helicopter gradually slows, as do its blades, which finally come to halt a mere inch away from the hero’s jugular. DePalma leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this happy turn of events was sheer luck.
This reminded me of a scene towards the middle of the movie when Tom Cruise and Jean Reno were storming the CIA headquarters, and had just knocked out two security guards. Jean Reno’s character is about to slit their throats with his knife when Tom Cruise grabs his hand to stop him: the hero will allow no innocent bystanders to be killed.
There can be little doubt that DePalma has a clear message here: the good guy was saved at the end through luck because he had earlier spared the guards from an almost identical fate. It is because he was good that he became lucky. (If you still harbor doubts, I’ll point out that the very dead pilot of the helicopter crashing towards Tom Cruise was Jean Reno.) Is this not the doctrine that God favors the Just, with Luck merely substituted for God?
I believe many Hollywood action movies display this same feature. One need only point out how much better the good guys are at dodging bullets than their luckless opponents. But perhaps the best proof lies in Hollywood’s own self-conscious satire. Do you remember the (first) bathroom shooting scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson have just finished chewing out, and then shooting to death, a gang of petty two-timing drug dealers, when one last member emerges from the bathroom and empties his gun at them, missing both entirely. They shoot the unlucky man dead, but then fall into an argument as to whether it was Luck or God that had saved them.
Hollywood no longer believes in God, but it remains beholden to the hope that goodness leads to salvation, and since nothing on our moral scene has yet appeared that might fill God’s commanding role, our story telling has resorted to that old standby, incomprehensible luck.
August 8, 2016
In what follows i would like to suggest that the practice of yoga bears a strong resemblance to the modern idea of a scientific laboratory setting, and hence that certain aspects of yoga might be relevant to a broader set of moral practices.
The idea of a laboratory in the natural sciences encompasses a number of features. (1) a laboratory is a dedicated space that is (2) insulated as much as possible from outside influences. In a laboratory (3) various experiments are performed and reproduced usually by (4) a team of senior and junior researchers. The purpose (5) of such a laboratory is to produce new knowledge in a specific scientific discipline. Hence a laboratory is also (6)generally equipped with reliable instruments specific to the discipline which enable the scientists to easily construct and measure new experiments.
If we follow Patañjali’s classic exposition of yoga, we can locate, at least in nuce, all of the above six features of a laboratory. One important difference should be noted from the outset. Whereas the natural sciences are a theoretical endeavor looking for truth, yoga is a practical endeavor, which does not produce true statements but good practices. This one translation will inform how each of the above features is reinterpreted when applied to yoga.
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May 31, 2015
When Elijah returns, surely he will cry out:
Hear me, you proud moderns,
listen to age-old wisdom:
Your knowledge is polluted,
your science biased!
Markets and money, they
alone are free; your proofs
and baubles — you serve them.
See how they blind you!
Here is a greater technology,
a science of sciences: Purify
doubtful tech with indifference;
flee from all soiled, partial truths;
do not mix science and money;
sacrifice all useless things!
Then you will manufacture
wisdom, and know happiness.
April 24, 2015
From Heidegger i learned that technology has chained us to its dark view that the world is but a resource to be controlled—and that now we must somehow escape from this cavernous prison into the daylight of a greater truth. Perhaps, though, it is knowledge itself to which we have become too attached—and so instead we must set off with science, our most beloved child, having strapped every technology to its back, and ascend mount Moriah ready to sacrifice it.