Back in the 60s when there was no Facebook and no iPhones, teens had to handle their free time differently. For the nerdish among them, there were always good philosophy books to read. That’s how I happened to be reading the play "Huis Clos” ("No Exit") by John Paul Sartre. Although much of existentialism emphasizes building an authentic life based on choices, this particular book ended with a bunch of strange people trapped for life in a tiny room. “Other people, that’s hell”: What a depressing conclusion, and even more sad the denial of human freedom, God, and a more palatable eternity. Still, reading Sartre stirred up in me crucial questions about human agency.
Free will remains an important philosophical and psychological question--and belief in free will is crucial to Catholicism, as our entire system of morality emphasizes our free choice: to sin, or not to sin; to pursue grace, or to turn away; and finally, to cooperate with God’s plan, or to go the other way.
Last week I mentioned that I hoped readers would join me in reading The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes by Mortimer J. Adler, and to discuss this book online with me during the fall. The New York Times (and I am saying this with no irony or dry humor) has presented us with a gift this past month or so; first, by offering a series on free-will, computers, and determinism; and second, by including in Monday’s edition another essay on this topic written by a partner architect from Microsoft. The title: "The First Church of Robotics." Jaron Lanier writes:
The news of the day often includes an item about some development in artificial intelligence: a machine that smiles, a program that can predict human tastes in mates or music, a robot that teaches foreign language to children. This constant stream of stories suggests that machines are becoming smart and autonomous, a new form of life, and that we should think of them as fellow creatures instead of tools. But such conclusions aren’t just changing how we think about computers--they are reshaping the basic assumptions of our lives in misguided and ultimately damaging ways.
My own field of study--psychology--frequently compares the human mind to a computer in the subfield of information processing, and there is an underlying belief and faith (I have chosen these words carefully and on purpose) that one day computer intelligence will surpass the human mind and become its own entity, an eschatological event already planned for and named “The Singularity.”
You really have to read Jaron Lanier’s article and some of the great examples he gives about computer activities inappropriately defining human nature. He puts into words more eloquently than I the reason I proposed that we all read The Difference In Man and The Difference It Makes: “What bothers me most about this trend, however, is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.”
Computers and the Singularity: does anyone see these as challenging and opposing our tradition and sense of who we are as Catholics?
I would like to have a book discussion on the blog here in October/November on the topic of free will in psychology and theology. For those interested I’d ask that you try to get a copy of Mortimer Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes and dive into this exceptional work beforehand. If you can't find it at your local library, you can read it here as a Google book. As you read please feel free to discuss the book with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Van Ornum