Monday, March 18, 2013

Do Smart Devices Make us Smarter?

Advances in computing have removed a significant amount of pressure from the human brain. Computers provide us with quick access to nearly an unlimited source of information with websites like wikipedia, imdb, khan academy, w3school, etc, to the point where human memorization is significantly less important than in previous decades. Computers also grant us access to powerful query answering tools such as wolframalpha and google as well as calculators of various sort that out-preform TI-89s, alleviating the need for 'manual' human research or computation. Moreover, computers make it possible for all of us to access communal pools of brainpower: forums where many minds come together to solve problems; places that exemplify the old adage "two minds are better than one". These include websites like stackoverflow, quora, physicsforum, etc.

While I believe that these peripheral upgrades to human intelligence are a great improvement to our species in general, I disagree with authors like Daniel Lemire who claim that they are sufficient (or even superior) substitutes to 'actual' intelligence. In his blog, Lemire makes the claim that China's attempt to increase its population's average intelligence is an unfruitful endeavor because the pace at which intelligence can be increased genetically is grossly overshadowed by the pace at which intelligence can be enhanced using computing. I agree insofar that computers will enhance our intelligence quantitatively more and in more rapidly increasing ways compared to genetic engineering, but I disagree with the idea that we shouldn't attempt to increase our "base-line" intelligence. 

My reasoning is that increasing our biological brain's intelligence is qualitatively different from adding peripherals to our intelligence. This is actually a fairly difficult position to maintain, especially if you're familiar with the Chinese room thought experiment. In essence the thought experiment can be distilled to the following. Say you have a man who can't speak any language but English in a room with a set of perfect instructions for translating Chinese into English and English into Chinese. The room is sealed, and the only way to communicate with it is by passing notes through a slot in the door. People from outside the room may pass papers with Chinese writing into the slot, and the man inside will carry out the instructions to decipher the text, compose a response, follow instructions to translate it back into Chinese, and then pass the paper back to the outside world. (Note that we must assume such a set of instructions exists if we are to believe that Strong AI is possible, otherwise we would be forced to conclude that computers are incapable of understanding natural language.) The question then is: Can it be said that the room understands Chinese? What if the room is replaced with a Strong AI who uses those same instructions as part of its programming, does the AI understand Chinese? Is there a difference between the two?

Now picture the following thought experiment I cobbled together based on Searle's Chinese room. Say you are forced to take the final exam of a course in a subject that you've never studied before. Assume further that you're allowed to use as many smart devices during the exam as you wish, but for all other students the exam is closed-book. Then there's a good probability that you will perform better than many students in the class merely because of your access to computing devices. Can it then be said that you are more intelligent in this particular subject than the students who you out-performed? 

The point of me posing this question isn't to say that it's obviously not the case that you are more intelligent than the students whose grades you beat (because it's not obvious at all), but rather to show that the idea of intelligence is nebulous. Do we simply define the intelligence of a person as the intelligence of his or her physical brain, or should we consider intelligence as the emergent property of a system of smart devices only one of which is the biological brain?

In any case, it's my assertion that increasing biological intelligence will increase intelligence in a fundamentally different way than increasing peripheral intelligence (at least with the technology available today). 

Allow me to illustrate this with yet one more thought experiment. Take a particularly cherished children's film (a book or anything similar will work too) that you enjoyed as a child. Remember the joy you experienced when viewing the film as a child and compare it to when you viewed it as an adult. With an adult-level intelligence, you have the capacity to appreciate the film at a much deeper level then you ever could as a child no matter what contemporary smart device your child counterpart is equipped with. This definitively shows that there are certain ideas and concepts which cannot be 'translated' down to our Cartesian theater by peripheral devices the way that languages can be translated from one to another; instead they must be understood at a fundamental level within our brain.

To clarify my point a little, I am not arguing that "biological intelligence" is somehow superior to artificial intelligence. In fact, I believe that the ultimate route to expanding human intelligence is through computation rather than biological enhancements. My argument is only concerned with technology at the present. In other words, with current technology our intelligence can only be augmented in asuperficial way--for the lack of a better word--that is fundamentally different (and in many cases inferior to) biological increases in intelligence. However, note that this doesn't say anything about which type of intelligence is more useful. It's entirely plausible that a doctor equipped with a myriad of smart devices will be a better diagnostician than a doctor with only a high IQ. Furthermore, few would argue that the combination of the two is not the obvious choice if presented with the possibility. I.e., why not have both if we can?

At present, technology can make us appear to understand more than we actually do, much like the Chinese room appears to understand Chinese, but so far technology can't make the man inside the room understand Chinese; that's a job for genetic engineering, at least for the time being. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Your Romantic Proposal Stories Aren't Impressive to Me

Nothing says "love" like an expensive rock from the earth.
If your partner proposed to you and you were surprised (or vice-versa), then you two are probably not ready for marriage.

It's a bold claim, but hear me out. First and foremost, let me say that I'm brutally skeptical of the value of marriage as a social institution and I hardly view it as an immutable contract, but the chances are if you proposed or were proposed to in the traditional western way, then you probably think marriage is a big deal.  Right about now, if you're the type of person I'm describing, you might be thinking "This can't possibly be true. Most marriages begin with a traditional proposal." You'd be right, but you'd also be forgetting that more than half of all marriages end in divorce (at least in the US). If you like fifty-fifty odds, then by all means go for it.

The next thing you might be thinking is "Well, I know my parents had a traditional proposal and marriage, and they've been together for my entire life and then some." That's sincerely nice for your parents and family, but anecdotal evidence doesn't amount to much. Especially considering the fact that we all know at least one person whose parents are divorced (unless you've been severely sheltered).

If you're the type of couple to take matrimony seriously, but yet have not for whatever reason discussed it openly and honestly enough that you can anticipate your partner's thoughts on the subject, then to me this implies that there probably are other important life issues that you two haven't discussed. It amazes me how many people know so little about their long-term significant others. Important issues too, like whether they want children or not, what their long-term goals in life are, what their political views are, what their financial situation is like, etc.

I don't mean to harp on this sort of couple, and I certainly am not proposing that only one type of romantic bond works (though some definitely work better than others). I'm merely suggesting that perhaps the reason you proposed or were proposed to in the exact same way as hundreds of millions of people before you is because of social norms and pressure, and not due to genuine desire. Keep in mind that I don't mean genuine emotion here, I don't deny that couples like the ones I'm describing feel genuine love; that's not the issue at hand. What I am saying is that perhaps sometimes people propose just because "it's what you're supposed do."

Consequently, couples rush into marriages that they're not ready for with partners whom they don't really know. Worse still, the people who tend to fall for this trap believe so much in marriage that they refuse to gracefully end the marriage when it's clearly failing. Instead, they pump an absurd amount of emotion, money, and time into attempting to resuscitate the failed marriage when it shouldn't have existed in the first place.

I view proposals as catch-22s. If you have to propose to get an answer from your partner about the rest of your life, then you aren't ready for the affirmative answer. If you're intimate enough with your partner to know that you two are spending the rest of your lives together, then you don't need to propose in the first place.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Criticism of William Lane Craig's Moral Argument For God

In his debate with Sam Harris, William Lane Craig makes the following argument:
  1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, god exists.
The argument seems simple enough. It consists of two premises and is in the valid logical form known as modus tollens. If we are logical, then we must accept his conclusion if we accept his premises. Fortunately, there is no compelling reason to accept either one of them.

The first premise hinges on the idea that only a fixed and unchanging objective creator can instill reality with an objective morality. Craig emphasizes that this is an ontological claim rather than an epistemological one. The difference is that the former only asserts the existence of this kind of morality whereas the latter would be a claim of what we can know about said morality. Craig very carefully chooses his language so that his argument is purely ontological; he makes no attempt to claim that there is any way for us to know what his proposed form of morality entails. 

This raises an important question: why would god create an objective moral standard (an ideal by which to live) but not grant us humans any objective means to access it? There are two ways that Craig can resolve this. The first would be to claim (as he actually does) that the abstract god whose existence he and Sam Harris debated can be specified to be the god of Abraham and the Bible. Moreover, Craig would have to argue that the Bible or perhaps the Holy Spirit or some other variation of Christian mysticism is god's way of granting humans access to the objective moral code. This obviously doesn't work because these "methods" of accessing the code have been available for centuries and yet there are almost as many interpretations of the code as there are humans interpreting it. Am I too believe that god could not devise a method of accessing his own moral code in an unambiguous way? Mathematicians and programmers have no problem writing unambiguous instructions, yet god does? The second way in which Craig can deflect this is to simply say that this is irrelevant to his claim. God simply created the objective moral code, but is under no obligation to reveal it to his creations. That's fine, but then Craig must admit that his argument implies that morality is inherently unknowable. 

Now let's approach the first premise sanely. Let's say we have the set of all objective moral values, laws, and duties, called OM. Additionally, say we have some law L that is in the set OM. The main disagreement in the debate is what makes L objectively good. In Craig's version of OM, L is objectively good simply on the basis that it is in OM, and OM was compiled by god. In Harris's version of OM, L is objectively good because it minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure; I'll call this "L is morally optimized". 

Craig's objection then is: what is objectively good about being morally optimized? In other words, what is good about minimizing suffering and maximizing pain? If we want L to be morally optimized, then we assume that there already is some moral standard against which to optimize L. Since there is a morality more fundamental than Harris's OM, his OM can at best just be a subset of a true and more basic OM, thus his OM is not objective. What Craig fails to realize, is that the same objection can be raised against his OM. Namely, what is objectively good about L being chosen by god? Is L good because god chose it, or did god choose it because it is inherently good? If the latter is the case, then Craig's OM suffers from the same defects as Harris's. If it's the former, then there are even more issues raised. If god chose all L in OM, then that implies that he could have chosen otherwise, therefore god's OM isn't objective (similarly, the natural numbers are objective because it's provably impossible to pick them differently). Put another way, if he could have picked otherwise, then there's nothing 'objective' about it.

To summarize, it now seems apparent that god's existence and the existence of objective morality are independent of one another. The argument used to show this can be somewhat generalized to show that absolutely no moral framework is objective. Let's show this by contradiction. Assume OM' is the most fundamental and objective moral system and L is an arbitrary law of that system. One can then ask, why is L in OM'? There are two possible responses:
  1. There exists some formal decision process, D(x), such that on any arbitrary moral question x, D says whether x is moral or not. For example, D("is child abuse good?") = no, D("is feeding the poor good?") = yes. Thus, OM' is the set of all moral values v such that D(v) = yes. 
  2. It just is.
If we assume (1), then we can always ask why does D produce laws that are good? What is objectively good about the laws that D produces? On the one hand we can say that D is good because D says so, i.e., D("are the values that D says yes to good?") = yes, but this would be trivially circular and would not be a satisfying answer. On the other hand we can say that D decides its answers based on some more fundamental morality, but this would contradict our initial assumption. Ergo, we can conclude that (1) is not a legitimate response. 

The only other response is (2), which may not seem like much of a response, but it actually carries more weight than (1). If you think about it, what is 'objectivity' other than something that "just is"? The natural numbers are objective because they follow from a small set of axioms; they simply are. However, this sort of reasoning makes little sense when it comes to questions like "what is good?" This is because if you say something is good just because it is, you can continue to ask "why?" and still make sense. Whereas you can't reasonably have this same regress of whys about the natural numbers; they actually just are. The axioms that they arise from (the Peano Axioms for those interested), constrain them into existence, and the natural numbers manifest naturally as their consequences. It would make no sense to ask "why?" because we know why: the rules of logic joined with the Peano Axioms force the natural numbers to exist, and no other set of entities could have taken their place, hence they are objective. 

Thus, if assume the existence of an objective morality OM', we are lead either into direct contradiction or a contradiction via infinite regress. In either case, we can conclude that Craig's second and last premise is also unfounded.

Despite what I wrote about Harris's moral philosophy above, I don't want to leave the reader with the impression that his moral system is just as bad as Craig's. In terms of my general argument against moral objectivity above, Craig's OM suffers by assuming response (2), and Harris's OM suffers by assuming (1). Harris's moral system (which he outlines in The Moral Landscape) is superior for the following reasons. As already stated, Harris's OM assumes response (1), which means that there is some decision process D that determines whether something is moral or not. For Harris's OM, this D is based on socially-evolved traits, namely mutual cooperation and empathy. Things are 'good' because they minimize suffering and maximize pleasure; they benefit the species as a whole. While this decision process doesn't yield objectively good values (and in fact it can't be as per my argument above), but at least it's not arbitrary, and is in some sense universal. Furthermore, Harris's OM gives us a perfectly reasonable way by which to know it: science, the best tool with which to know anything at all. 

Although Sam Harris can never conclude that his moral system is objective, there are plenty of arguments to be made for why his system is a good one in general (need it be objective to be useful?). My conjecture is that it's probably the best system of morality that's devisable, at least in terms of fairness. If you're interested in the full debate, it can be found here: