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August 2019

Skynet Is Never Going To Become Self-Aware

For the benefit of those who have managed not to have seen the Terminator movies, or even to have picked up the pop culture lore that originated with them: Skynet is the computer system that initiated nuclear war on its own volition, and began to rule the world in its own interests--which were not those of its inventors. Never mind the rest of the plot, as you probably either know it or don't care. 

Today is the day (or rather the 22nd anniversary of the day) on which, in the movie, the catastrophe occurs:

The system goes online August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. (from IMDB)

Hardly a week goes by that I don't see some mention, either a "science" article in the news, or discussion of a movie or a TV show, which deals with some variation of the idea that artificial intelligence will at some point develop human consciousness, "self-awareness," an independent will, emotions, and interests, and so forth: in short, become a person. Sometimes this is presented as a bad thing, sometimes a good thing. 

If this worries you, or if you are eagerly anticipating it, I'm here to tell you: forget it. Don't worry about it. It is never going to happen. If you like stories that play with the idea, fine, have fun, though they're not usually to my taste. But don't concern yourself with the possibility that it might actually happen. 

How can I be so sure? Well, of course I can't say it with 100% certainty. But I'll commit to 99.999%. The reason is that I know how computers work. I am not a computer scientist, just a journeyman programmer, but I do know how the things work at the most fundamental level. And I also can see, as anyone who bothers to think about it can, that the idea that they can develop consciousness is based on a naturalistic assumption about the nature of consciousness--that it is, in us, an epiphenomenon of the brain, and therefore a probably inevitable development in computing machinery that mimics certain functions of the brain. This is a pure act of materialist faith. There is no evidence for it. No one can actually describe in detail how it can happen; it's simply postulated.

We speak of computers "knowing" things, and in a sense they do. But in the same sense it can be said that a light bulb "knows" when it should glow. It "knows" because you flipped a switch that supplied electricity to it. If you set up an array of 256,000,000,000 lights (very roughly the number of on-off switches in a 32 gigabyte computer memory), and rigged up an elaborate mechanism in which symbols representing letters and numbers were encoded as sets of lights that are either on or off, and could be manipulated so that the information represented by the symbols was constantly shifting in accordance with your instructions, do you think the array would somehow have the capacity to "know" what the symbols mean? 

The fact--I feel justified in calling it a fact--is that there is no reason to believe that consciousness is a by-product of any physical process. For dogmatic materialists, it's a necessary belief: consciousness exists, therefore physical processes produced it. To the rest of us it only sounds plausible and reasonable because we're so used to looking at the world through materialist assumptions, or at least prejudices. 

If you want to worry about the risks of artificial intelligence, worry about the extent to which it is able to simulate human mental processes by means of a combination of calculation and symbol manipulation, and thus do things which once required human intelligence. In combination with very advanced robotics, these machines can do an awful lot of jobs that are now, or were once, done by people. That's been going on for some time now, and it has serious social implications. But the machines aren't going to start conspiring against us.

The speech recognition and synthesis involved in, for instance, Apple's Siri, and the fact that the computer that does it can fit in your pocket, do seem almost miraculous compared to the technology of forty years ago when I first got involved with computers. But we all know Siri is not in fact a person. That's part of the reason why it can be amusing to ask "her" silly questions, give "her" impossible commands, and so forth. I think if you dug around you could find predictions made thirty or forty or fifty years ago that computers with the speed and capacity of your phone could and probably would develop true conscious intelligence. But that's no closer than it ever was. Or ever will be.


Sohrab Ahmari: Through Fire By Water

I'm really trying not to say "Here's yet another conversion story." Every soul is unique, every soul's relationship with God is unique, every conversion story is unique (as is every story of a soul who doesn't have to be converted, in the sense of adopting a new religion). Yet there is also a certain degree of similarity in all these stories, and it's probably a good idea not to read too many of them in quick succession. 

Here's what is unusual about Sohrab Ahmari's story: he was born in Iran, to a not-particularly-observant Muslim family, after the Islamic revolution had, to the distress of his family, taken power.  He and his mother came to the U.S., and not just to urban or typical suburban U.S., but to Mormon Utah. There he had a very American adolescence which involved rejection of the mainstream (as it existed there), subsequent atheism, nihilism, communism, and other forms of modern Western alienation. As happens fairly often, actual experience led him away from cultural and political leftism in general toward the kind of conservatism that respects religion--which in this country means above all respecting Christianity--without believing in it or practicing it. a species of conservatism. That "actual experience" provides some of the most interesting moments in the book, including his covertly joining a group of young men attempting to emigrate from the Middle East to Europe.

I think I will leave the rest of the story for you to read. It is worth reading.


Okay, I know that sounds like faint praise, and I guess it is. I enjoyed the book but I don't expect to return to it, and my relative lack of enthusiasm is similar to what I felt about Hillbilly Elegy: while the matter is certainly interesting, the quality of the writing is not high enough to make me value it for that reason.


Ahmari has of course been in the news, at least in certain circles, because of his call, in First Things, for a more aggressive Christian tactic in the current religious conflict. Ahmari criticizes a different approach, to which he appropriated the name of one of its practitioners, calling it "David-French-ism." I don't feel obliged to take a side in this argument, or even inclined to.  As I said in a comment just this morning, the fact that the liberal democratic tradition has a fatal philosophical flaw does not mean that it must actually die very soon, and I see no reason why I myself need to take any definite view on whether I think the case is hopeless or not. At any rate I think French has a very good point, on display in this piece about a difficult but successful religious liberty lawsuit, that too many Christians and conservatives are much too quick to give up the fight even on the terms required by the liberal tradition itself. To that extent, then, my view differs from Ahmari's, that the "...the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us." 

I don't think anyone has ever accused me of optimism, and if anyone did he was mistaken or taking some anomaly for the norm. But I don't quite accept "inexorably." 

Johnny Tremain

I thought we had discussed this book here once, although I have not read it, but I can't find any mention of it. Anyway, here is an interesting discussion of it by Francesca Murphy at Public Discourse. She says it is

a liminal secular-religious book. It is on the border between the two, broad enough on both sides to pose a challenge in either direction. It challenges its secular readers to have a deep enough conception of the secular to encompass dying for the sake of freedom. It challenges its religious readers to deepen their pieties sufficiently to encompass the aspiration for freedom that is written in the human frame.

Well, I don't know about that, obviously, since I haven't read it. But apart from the identity of the author, this strikes me as an interesting indirect comment on the argument that's been going on among conservatives for a while now: is the liberal (and effectively secular) tradition a good thing or a bad thing, especially as it relates to religion? And in either case what are its prospects? 

The Funniest Monty Python Bit (?)

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone of my age and, um, general cultural inclinations, I've never been a serious Monty Python fan, the sort who can quote most of their stuff and finds even a mention of their celebrated skits funny. Truth is, I've never seen it all, not by a long shot. Sure, I think some of the classics, like the Dead Parrot, are very funny. (I just watched it again, and it still cracks me up.) But I always found them a very mixed bag, and have never seen Life of Brian, or all of the Flying Circus. Truth is, I think Fawlty Towers is more consistently funny. Very, very funny.

Well, I noticed recently that Flying Circus is on Netflix, so in the interests of furthering my education ("never too late!" people are always saying, which is self-evidently preposterous), I've been watching it now and then, ten or fifteen minutes at a time. As in the past, I find it a very mixed bag, veering from the hilarious to the more or less stupid. But a few nights ago there was a sketch which I think is as funny as anything else I've seen from them. I guess you probably have to have read some D.H. Lawrence to appreciate it--Sons and Lovers in particular, I think, though it's been a very long time since I read it. It's the confrontation of a tough, harsh, father and his son whom the father regards as effete, soft, and pretty much useless, as in Lawrence:  only their occupations are reversed. 

It's not on YouTube, but if you have Netflix you can see it in Series 1 Episode 2, starting around 17 minutes. I just watched it again and it was as funny as it was the first time. 

Yes, We Have Bananas

GreenBananasMany years ago, thirty-five or so, my father somehow or other obtained a little banana tree, which he planted in a wooden tub maybe two feet in diameter. This was in north Alabama, where the winter temperatures drop below freezing quite often, so he couldn't leave it outside or plant it permanently. So every fall he would drag the tub, which was quite heavy, into the basement, and in the spring drag it out again. It never grew more than a few feet tall, but it survived. 

About twenty years ago my wife brought a shoot from that plant down to our home 350 miles further south, where freezing temperatures are much less frequent. She planted it (maybe I helped, but I hesitate to claim that.) It has survived and to some degree thrived; it's now a clump of half a dozen or so trunks which by the end of the summer are ten feet tall. Most winters have at least one hard freeze that kills them back to the ground, but they always come back. Last year we really didn't have a serious freeze. Now for the first time it's bearing real fruit. We've had a few little ones before but they never got this big. 

J. D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Donald Trump probably deserves a bit of the credit for this book's popularity. It was published in 2016 when the Great Trump Freakout was well under way, and was often described as providing an explanation for some of Trump's support. There's this New York Times review, for instance: "In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump." Or this one from The Guardian: "Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance review – does this memoir really explain Trump’s victory?" These were among the top results from a Google search on the book's title.

If you aren't aware of the book, either of those reviews will give you a fairly good idea of what it's about, in spite of their emphasis on explaining Trump. On the other hand, this review in The New Republic borders on the bizarre. First the reviewer distorts, to say the least, or falsifies, to say more, what Vance says; then she goes off on a long campaign speech for the Democrats. It's something of a textbook case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Or I suppose I should just say Political Obsession Syndrome: the actual book under consideration aside, she seems to see most of life, good or bad, as being an effect of which government is the cause. 

This focus on Trump and on politics is odd and misleading because the book is not about politics, and only glances occasionally in that direction. It deals with a subculture, which in the deeper South and some other parts of the country is called redneck, but in the hills of Kentucky is...hillbilly. At any rate it's the proud and truculent subculture of the Scots-Irish, the poorer members of which are not doing very well these days.

The subtitle is perfectly accurate, and should perhaps have been more attended to by some of these reviewers: A Memoir of a Family and Culture In Crisis. The book is about a specific family with serious problems, the extent to which those problems are characteristic of their culture, and the author's own fairly narrow escape from them. The focus is, you might say, internal: it's especially on the self-inflicted wounds of alcoholism and drug addiction, and the damage that ripples out from them. Vance recognizes the difficulty of the historical, economic, and social situation in which these people find themselves, but he doesn't view them as helpless victims. No one is forcing them to drink or take pills or shoot heroin, and no one can force them to stop. 

When he steps out from his narrative into a broader view, it is to consider the ways in which the culture which he calls "hillbilly" does and does not--mostly does not--prepare and encourage its members to thrive in the society which, for better or worse, is the one that currently exists. His concern is to tell the particular story, not to explain it in general historical and political terms. The tendency of reviewers to turn it into a mostly political document may have boosted its sales, but it fostered a certain misreading.

Anyway, I have to say that although I enjoyed the book I was a little disappointed in it. I guess I was expecting a more literary work, a more artistically pleasing and interesting one. From that point of view, it's somewhat flat, straightforward but not especially vivid or rich. Still, I'd recommend it fairly enthusiastically if you're interested in the subject at all, especially if you know people like this. Or if you're one of them, in which case you may have a quarrel with Vance: if you're truly one of them, you don't take criticism of your people very well. That's not a putdown, as it's somewhat true of me. I'm not of the hillbilly/redneck class, but I guess I'm genetically pretty close, though with a large admixture of English. And although I am a timid person and don't actually respond with violence to criticism of my people, I'd sort of like to. 

Hillbilly_Elegy(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

And by the way, J.D. Vance became Catholic this past weekend. (The link is to Rod Dreher's account of the event--Dreher is a friend of Vance.) That's good news. There isn't much about religion in the book, but the glimpses that do appear are of an extremely individualist and probably ahistorical Protestantism. 

Sometime before too long I think I'm going to read James Webb's book about the history and influence of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting.

My Career in Information Technology...

...would have been far more interesting if malfunctioning computers would always shoot out noisy sparks, flames, and smoke. Like they do in that TV series I mentioned, Another Life

Even though my wife and I had officially abandoned it, I watched another episode and a half by myself because I really wanted to find out what those aliens were like and what they were up to. But I actually laughed out loud at a couple of not-at-all-meant-to-be funny things. So okay, I give up.

I mostly agree with this review at Some funny comments, too: "Entitled Millenials In Space." And:

Is there something elitist living inside me that I found the crew members unworthy of anything other than maybe stints on The Real World? 

I think "The Real World" is a "reality" series. I've only seen a few episodes of any of those, but the comparison occurred to me, too. Bratty young people engaged in heavy and extremely self-centered emotional dramatics. As another commenter mentions, it's hard to believe these twits would ever have been entrusted with any sort of important duty, let alone manning a spacecraft on The Most Important Mission In Human History.

Why am I even bothering to write this? I guess because I was disposed to like the show, and can't quite believe that it's this bad. It's material for a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

I am certainly not a scientist, or an engineer, and obviously you have to overlook, if not accept, a certain amount of miraculous future technology in most sci-fi. But this show seemed to me to grossly abuse its privilege. Unlike Star Wars-style space opera, it isn't content just to invoke "warp drive" (or whatever) and have the spaceship travel light years. Too much of it is directly based on applications of scientific or technological pixie dust to create and resolve crises. As best I can recall, this is pretty close to an actual bit:

"We don't have enough oxygen to survive much longer! What are we going to do?!?"

"I don't know...", "Oh my God," etc.

[a few seconds of brow-furrowing]

"Wait--there's a rogue moon ahead. We can mine captive oxygen from its caves!"

Chesterton's Non-Canonization

I suppose anyone who's interested has heard that the cause for G.K. Chesterton's canonization has been shut down, at least for now. Here's a brief notice about it in the Catholic Herald UK. Sounds somewhat disgruntled, or at any rate gives significant space to a disgruntled voice. 

I must say that I'm more in agreement than otherwise with this decision. I count myself as an admirer of the man and his work, but with a good many reservations. Like a lot of people I was wildly enthusiastic about his writing when I first encountered it, but I soon, or fairly soon, developed a more mixed opinion. At his best, he's great, astonishingly wise and perceptive. "Astonishing" is really not an exaggeration of the initial effect on me of some of his writings, that gift he has of pointing out things both obvious and unnoticed.

For me he's at his best in his essays. I often find his style tiresome at greater length, and don't care much for the fiction, except maybe for the Father Brown stories. And he wrote so very much that it sometimes seems that he is on a sort of GKC auto-pilot, maintaining the style but not so much of the substance.

But even if his writing were uniformly brilliant it would not justify calling him a saint. That hardly needs to be pointed out. I admit that I don't know all that much about his personal life, but though he seems to have been a good man I've never seen evidence of heroic virtue. 

Be that as it may, there's another reason why it's best that this effort not be pursued, and that's the fact that he can be fairly accused of anti-Semitism. 

I say "fairly accused." I've heard the argument made both for and against him on this point. But it does seem to be justified to at least some extent. The most generous thing you can say about some of his views in that line is that they are bizarre and rather creepy. I'm thinking in particular of that passage--I have no idea where to find it--in which he advocates some sort of special dress for English Jews, something by which they could always be identified.

That was pre-Holocaust and it wouldn't have had the same resonance at the time that it does post-Holocaust. And I don't for a moment think he would have had anything but hatred for the Nazi program of extermination. I think he's on record as being anti-Hitler. Nevertheless, that one notion makes the idea of canonizing him here and now a bad one. The Church has had, over the centuries and in some circles still, enough of a problem with anti-Semitism, and is enough of a pariah in the eyes of much of our civilization, that we don't need to do something unnecessary to make that situation worse. I think the British football term for that is "own goal." Nor do we need to suggest to actual anti-Semites within the Church that their animosity is acceptable.

His importance as writer and thinker won't be any the the worse for his absence from the official list of saints. I think the whole process is being misused these days, actually, with popes being canonized, it seems, in almost a pro-forma way. "All have won, and all must have medals" seems like a bad approach.

Who Would Dumbledore Vote For?

I don't care. But apparently a lot of people do. Apparently J.K. Rowling is "a major voice in world affairs". I've missed that development. The piece I linked to there is from 2017, and maybe she is not speaking out as much as she was then. I looked at her Twitter account and there is very little there from recent months.

But the fact that she would reduce her characters to political puppets in this way is to me of a piece with the general quality of the Harry Potter books. And, I'm sorry to say, of the general cast of Rowling's mind:

She has revealed Dumbledore was gay and that Hogwarts would have been a ‘safe place’ for LGBT students.

Oh, come on.

I really tried to like the books because one of my children was of exactly the age to be an enthusiast. I succeeded to some degree, and mostly enjoyed them, though the last couple seemed so diffuse and convoluted that the resolution they offered didn't have the impact that I think they were meant to. The books never truly engaged or moved me, not like the work of Tolkien and Lewis did. I don't think it's just me, either; I think my view of them is more or less objectively correct. I don't think they will be much read fifty years or so from now, or a hundred, whereas I think the others will move a great many people as long as the language remains accessible to the average person.