Thursday, October 29, 2009

Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled*

I was disappointed to read the following in Jonathan Turley's Oct. 19 op-ed in USA Today, via Radley Balko:
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
But I was relieved to read the following today at the Washington Post, via Little Green Footballs, via Jeffrey Goldberg:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized on Monday an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. . . . I strongly disagree," Clinton said. "The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions."

Nothing too complicated at work here. Just two fairly non-committal comments by Obama administration officials about a non-binding UN resolution transformed by the medium of the press into the following seeming contradiction: when faced with the mutually exclusive choice between blasphemy and censorship, the Obama administration sides with both against both.

This reminds me of a wide-ranging essay I read (skimmed) about two years ago by Slavoj Zizek, "Tolerance as Ideological Category," in which he attempts to wrestle with the "impasse of tolerating intolerance":

Liberalist multiculturalism preaches tolerance between cultures, while making it clear that true tolerance is fully possible only in the individualist Western culture, and thus legitimizes even military interventions as an extreme mode of fighting the other's intolerance...
(I.e. if there's one thing I can't stand, it's intolerance!) It's a fascinating essay, but I'm going to give it short-shrift and boil the conclusion to this: "the particular ethnic substance, our 'life-world,' which resists universality, is made of habits," (emphasis mine) and:
[t]his obscene underground of habits is what is really difficult to change, which is why the motto of every radical emancipatory politics is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the exergue for his Interpretations of Dreams: Acheronta movebo - dare to move the underground!
Zizek, in this essay at least, seems still to consider humanity a universal a featureless remnant derived from the subtraction of particular differences (humanity is the nothing left when one subtracts from the American man the habits of his American-ness and male-ness), but it strikes me, and perhaps Zizek would agree, that humanity is also a habit and that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not seem so inalienable had I not learned them by rote. And perhaps, instead of horror and guilt at the news of Lakhdar Boumediene's treatment at Guantanamo Bay I should feel something else. Because it turns out that wisdom, if not information, is the fruit of torture.
"I'm an animal? I'm not human?"
You're welcome.

*from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Robot-Hell is Full, Will the Robot-Dead Walk the Earth?

I've done such an excellent job keeping up with this adventure, haven't I? Last post was in March. What have I done all summer and a good part of the fall? Some stuff, to be sure. But what can I say? The will-to-nothing is strong in me, and I think I should read more Schopenhauer.

Anyway, I came across an abstract of a decade-old essay recently posted by the author at On the Human. The essay is William G. Lycan's "Qualitative Experience in Machines," which performs a two-fold sort of thought-experiment comparing human beings and machines. (He refers to those who maintain essential boundaries between the two as "chauvinists," which is fun.) But the gist of the experiment involves Harry, a flawless human simulator, and Henrietta, a human who has been gradually, piece by piece, had her organic parts replaced with inorganic parts until no flesh is left.

It is fairly uncontroversial to me to suggest that the differences between humans and machines are only accidental (this is not meant as a slight against Lycan). But I found the conclusion of the essay

She [Henrietta] started out as a normal human being but was gradually turned into a machine. Did she go from being a living organism to being non-living, inanimate? In that case, if she had been alive and then ceased to live, she died, and obsequies are in order. It would be both hard and easy to make her funeral arrangements: Hard, because we would first have to persuade her that she was dead and that services should be held at all; she might resist that suggestion fairly indignantly, especially when we got around to the question of burial vs. cremation. But then easier, because we would not have to guess posthumously at her wishes; we could just ask her what hymns she wanted, whether there should be a eulogy or a general sermon, and so forth, right up till the last minute. I must say I think I would enjoy attending that funeral; I am not so sure that Henrietta would, herself.
A classic reductio ad absurdum, I suppose. Except that I've been coming around to the position that what makes aesthetic thinking different from other (more proletarian...pardon me if I just scoffed all over you) thinking is it's relationship to death, whether that relationship take the form of attraction or repulsion.

Certainly a machine could develop to experience 'qualia' but could it experience tragedy? Which, if un-conceiving the subject we also un-anticipate the inevitability of its death, is also to ask, can we [sic]? Tragicomedy, a la Beckett, maybe?

I'm in the middle of reading a longish story by Stanislaw Lem, "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius," which has a 1001 Arabian Nights structure sort of structure to it which is relevant to the point I'm trying to make as far as the connection between narrative and survival is concerned, but the reason I bring it up is because in the middle of one story within a story within the story, robotic organisms, acting out a revenge fantasy against a sort of robot Marx who died over a hundred years earlier (he suggested they all wire themselves together serially rather than in parallel), derive the algorithm (soul) of robot Marx from his writings and reconstitute him in a new body regularly in order to beat him to death once more.

Well, I don't know. My thoughts have become muddled again. I don't know what I'm anxious about. Henrietta can always pretend she did die, and that would be just as good, I think.