Monday, April 17, 2023

Disenchantment of the world and the computational metaphors of our times.

I am doing a second reading of Meghan O’Gieblyn’s book “Gods, Humans, Animals, Machines” and extracting clips of text that I find most interesting.  I’m putting them in a MindBlog post, hoping they will be interesting to some readers, and also because MindBlog is my personal archive of things I want to remember I've engaged. At least I will know where to look up something I'm trying to recall.

 O’Gieblyn’s text has bursts of magisterial insight interspersed with details of her personal experiences and travails, and the clips try to capture my biased selection of the former. 

The first section of her book “Image”, has two Chapters, and this post passes on Chapter 1,  starting with the result of my asking ChatGPT 4 to summarize my clips in approximately 1000 words. It generated the ~300 words below, and I would urge you to continue reading my clips (976 words), which provide a more rich account. Subsequent posts in this series will omit Chat GPT summaries, unless they generate something that blows me away. 

Here is Chat GPT 4’s summary:

The concept of the soul has become meaningless in modern times, reduced to a dead metaphor that no longer holds any real significance. This is due to the process of disenchantment that has taken place since the dawn of modern science, which has turned the world into a subject of investigation and reduced everything to the causal mechanism of physical laws. This has led to a world that is devoid of the spirit-force that once infused and unified all living things, leaving us with an empty carapace of gears and levers. However, the questions that were once addressed by theologians and philosophers persist in conversations about digital technologies, where artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed them.  

Humans have a tendency to see themselves in all beings, as evidenced by our habit of attributing human-like qualities to inanimate objects. This has led to the development of the idea of God and the belief that natural events are signs of human agency. This impulse to see human intention and purpose in everything has resulted in a projection of our image onto the divine, which suggests that metaphors are two-way streets and that it is not always easy to distinguish between the source domain and the target.

The development of cybernetics and the application of the computational analogy to the mind has resulted in the description of the brain as the hardware that runs the software of the mind, with cognitive systems being spoken of as algorithms. However, the use of metaphors like these can lead to a limiting of our understanding of the world and how we interact with it. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff notes, when an analogy becomes ubiquitous, it can be difficult to think around it, and it structures how we think about the world.

And here are the text clips I asked ChatGPT 4 to summarize

It is meaningless to speak of the soul in the twenty-first century (it is treacherous even to speak of the self). It has become a dead metaphor, one of those words that survive in language long after a culture has lost faith in the concept, like an empty carapace that remains intact years after its animating organism has died. The soul is something you can sell, if you are willing to demean yourself in some way for profit or fame, or bare by disclosing an intimate facet of your life. It can be crushed by tedious jobs, depressing landscapes, and awful music. All of this is voiced unthinkingly by people who believe, if pressed, that human life is animated by nothing more mystical or supernatural than the firing of neurons

We live in a world that is “disenchanted.” The word is often attributed to Max Weber, who argued that before the Enlightenment and Western secularization, the world was “a great enchanted garden.” In the enchanted world, faith was not opposed to knowledge, nor myth to reason. The realms of spirit and matter were porous and not easily distinguishable from one another. Then came the dawn of modern science, which turned the world into a subject of investigation. Nature was no longer a source of wonder but a force to be mastered, a system to be figured out. At its root, disenchantment describes the fact that everything in modern life, from our minds to the rotation of the planets, can be reduced to the causal mechanism of physical laws. In place of the pneuma, the spirit-force that once infused and unified all living things, we are now left with an empty carapace of gears and levers—or, as Weber put it, “the mechanism of a world robbed of gods.”
If modernity has an origin story, this is our foundational myth, one that hinges, like the old myths, on the curse of knowledge and exile from the garden.

To discover truth, it is necessary to work within the metaphors of our own time, which are for the most part technological. Today artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality. These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.

Animism was built into our design. David Hume once remarked upon “the universal tendency among mankind to conceive of all beings like themselves,” an adage we prove every time we kick a malfunctioning appliance or christen our car with a human name. Our brains can’t fundamentally distinguish between interacting with people and interacting with devices. Our habit of seeing our image everywhere in the natural world is what gave birth to the idea of God. Early civilizations assumed that natural events bore signs of human agency. Earthquakes happened because the gods were angry. Famine and drought were evidence that the gods were punishing them. Because human communication is symbolic, humans were quick to regard the world as a system of signs, as though some higher being were seeking to communicate through “natural events. Even the suspicion that the world is ordered, or designed, speaks to this larger impulse to see human intention and human purpose in every last quirk of “creation.”
There is evidently no end to our solipsism. So deep is our self-regard that we projected our image onto the blank vault of heaven and called it divine. But this theory, if true, suggests a deeper truth: metaphors are two-way streets. It is not so easy to distinguish the source domain from the target, to remember which object is the original and which is modeled after its likeness. The logic can flow in either direction. For centuries we said we were made in God’s image, when in truth we made him in ours.”

Shannon removed the thinking mind from the concept of information. Meanwhile, McCulloch applied the logic of information processing to the mind itself. This resulted in a model of mind in which thought could be accounted for in purely abstract, mathematical terms, and opened up the possibility that computers could execute mental functions. If thinking was just information processing, computers could be said to “learn,” “reason,” and “understand”—words that were, at least in the beginning, put in quotation marks to denote them as metaphors. But as cybernetics evolved and the computational analogy was applied across a more expansive variety of biological and artificial systems, the limits of the metaphor began to dissolve, such that it became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between matter and form, medium and message, metaphor and reality. And it became especially difficult to explain aspects of the mind that could not be accounted for by the metaphor.

The brain is often described today as the hardware that “runs” the software of the mind. Cognitive systems are spoken of as algorithms: vision is an algorithm, and so are attention, language acquisition, and memory.
In 1999 the cognitive linguist George Lakoff noted that the analogy had become such a given that neuroscientists “commonly use the Neural Computation metaphor without noticing that it is a metaphor.” He found this concerning. Metaphors, after all, are not merely linguistic tools; they structure how we think about the world, and when “an analogy becomes ubiquitous, it is impossible to think around it. ..there is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behavior that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behavior could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity.”

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