Is Trump a nascent Hitler?

May 25, 2016

Just recently I opined that Trump probably can’t win. Already I’m less sure. Republicans are drinking the Kool-Aid en masse, trying to sanitize him, or at least sweep under the rug all his repellent points. imagesI’d been thinking, he’s getting killed with blacks, with Hispanics, with women – how could enough white male votes compensate? But it seems I’m becoming the odd man out not just in my political party, but even in my gender group.

Part of it is Hillary’s negatives. I always thought her vulnerable; now she’s being shredded from within her own party. UnknownBernie seems to have drunk his own Kool-Aid, intoxicated with his campaign and adulation. Likewise his supporters, with breathtaking ferocity. It resembles a religion whose believers torture logic to convince themselves of untruths. Here it’s the belief that Bernie still could – should! – win the nomination. This truly puts reality to the torture, inasmuch as Hillary has gotten millions more primary votes than him.

images-1The Daily Show had a great send-up of Bernie-ite shrillness, exaggerating only modestly. It shows how polarized America has become, when most Republicans embrace a vile fraud because they consider Hillary too left-wing, while much of the Democratic party condemns her as not left-wing enough.

At a recent social gathering, someone read from his phone what he deemed a very reasoned appeal to Trump backers, to embrace a totally different narrative. I finally stopped him, saying, “This is preaching to the choir.” Trumpites would reject it as just the kind of thinking they despise. Unknown-1Too many Americans live in echo-chambers of confirmation bias, impervious to facts, let alone arguments, contradicting what they already think. (The phone-reader himself has a great appetite for online screeds mirroring his views. Discordant views, not so much.)

Voter bloody-mindedness isn’t uniquely American. That’s what made Dutch voters recently say no, in a referendum on the Ukraine-EU trade deal – bizarrrely playing into the hands of the pro-Russians who, remember, shot down a Dutch passenger plane. And British voters might opt out of the EU – not for any good reasons so much as sheer bloody-mindedness, to stick it to the political elites.

Hitler comparisons should always be avoided. But regarding Trump, we’re hearing, “They thought at first Hitler was a clown too.” (Alan Chartock, head of the local NPR station, loves this trope.) And Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, has fresh cachet.* We’re reminded that Hitler was democratically elected. images-2It’s not true. He lost the 1932 presidential vote, and Nazis never got an electoral majority. But once appointed chancellor, Hitler mounted a coup, ditched the constitution, and literally burned down the parliament.

Could Trump do likewise? There’s no comparison between 1933 Germany and 2016 America. Germany was in the throes of the Depression, having also, just nine years before, experienced a total currency collapse. Today’s U.S. economic problems are nothing like that. And Germany’s institutions were far shakier, the age-old monarchy gone, replaced by a weak new government inspiring no loyalty. In contrast, America’s constitution is an icon of veneration, guaranteeing free speech and press, with a strong system of checks-and-balances, rule-of-law, due process rights, and an independent judiciary.

Yet God did not decree we must have all this forever. Its continuation depends upon a citizenry that understands and truly values it. Such a citizenry would not elect a Trump.

That even 45% would even consider it reflects a collapse in norms of civic responsibility and seriousness. Make America great again? Trump voters are shitting on what makes America great.

* I’ve read it; it’s plausible; with some Trumpian parallels.

Big buttocks

May 23, 2016

Striving to maintain for this blog an elevated standard of excellence and seriousness, I don’t normally comment about buttocks.

(OK, I did write about overhearing a gal say she wanted Frida Kahlo tattooed there.)

imagesHowever, a line in a local newspaper story got my attention: “police say they caught him with 69 bags of heroin hidden in his buttocks.”

A reasonable person naturally wonders: how big were they? The bags. And the buttocks. Inquiring minds want to know.

The newspaper did not specify any dimensions. But, hypothesizing the smallest bags one can plausibly envision, it’s still a log of bags. Unknown-1And so we come to the size of the buttocks. Need I say more?

And what, pray tell, was this guy’s comeuppance, for being busted with 69 bags of heroin up his rear? The City of Schenectady is paying him $25,000. To settle his lawsuit claiming illegal search.

Only in America.

(He was a passenger in a car stopped because of a warrant for the driver. Courts ruled the cop needed another warrant to search the passenger; so drug charges against him were thrown out. Was his lawsuit against the City cheeky?)

The agony of an undecided voter

May 18, 2016

UnknownA person of strong views, in half a century of voting I have never before been “undecided.” But this time it’s an agonizing choice.

Not voting is unthinkable. Voting is, for me, a sacrament.

In some past elections, where I was not enthused about either major candidate (well, the Republican), I’ve voted Libertarian. It’s wrong to think such a vote is wasted. Elections are not games where the aim is to pick a winner. And one vote won’t change the outcome. Instead, the purpose is to express one’s civic opinion, which has value even if few others share it. Maybe especially so.

images-1Actually there’s no party that totally reflects my own politics: I’m a classical liberal (not to be confused with contemporary U.S. “liberalism”). In a nutshell, it’s laissez faire both in economics and personal life. (It’s the editorial stance of The Economist magazine, one of the world’s most respected journals.)

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

America’s Libertarian party does not embody that stance perfectly, but comes close. (Its foreign isolationism is my main sticking point.) Its candidate hasn’t been named yet, but will likely be, again, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.* And he seems a great guy, with views close enough to mine that I could gladly support him. (It’s still possible, though unlikely, that another good third party candidate will run.)

And this, if ever, should be the time for such a vote. I’m sure “not enthused about either major candidate.” Both, indeed, are awful. However, one is more so. A lot more.

So we come to the proverbial “lesser of two evils.” For a quarter century I’ve loathed Hillary Clinton. (Sorry, Berners, it’s over.) There’s not room enough here to itemize her indictment. But – to quote P. J. O’Rourke (on the radio show, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”) – while Hillary is wrong about everything, she’s wrong within normal parameters. She would not be an existential threat to the America I love. Trump would be. The Economist has explained why: click here.

The Republicans drinking the Kool-Aid and falling into line for the sake of party unity and winning the election are not thinking. They’re treating this like normal politics. It isn’t. Winning isn’t everything. If (God forbid) Trump wins, they’ll regret it even more than if he loses. (See this Michael Gerson column on the GOP ship of fools.)**

I’m pretty sure Trump can’t win (though like so many I was mistaken about his getting the nomination; and a major terrorist episode before the election could spook voters into doing something dumb). However, I want him not just defeated, but crushed, humiliated, annihilated, with all his “winning, winning, winning” talk shoved down his throat. Because I want it proven, finally, that Trumpery is wrong and is not, and never can be, a route to political power in America.

Unknown-2So will I hold my nose and vote for Hillary – piling mine onto, hopefully, a mountain of votes burying Trump? If my top wish in this election is Trump’s repudiation, isn’t it logical to vote for Hillary? And thereby also slap my own party’s face for the mess it’s made?

Still – a vote for a candidate is a positive act, an endorsement. In voting for someone, I feel I take some responsibility for that person in office. And I keep saying that ultimately it’s voters who are responsible for our wretched politics, through their ballot box choices. That’s why a third party vote can be justified. (What a pity so few voters are even aware of Johnson as an excellent alternative choice.) I do not support Hillary’s positions. And if I withhold my vote from her, then later I can criticize her freely, saying, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for her.”

Unknown-3But is that a kind of cop-out, a refusal to exercise responsibility as a citizen? Detaching myself from the battleground and climbing into an ivory tower? Wouldn’t it be the adult thing to face up to the true choice, which is between Trump and Clinton?

And I actually have hopes that Clinton might not be so bad after all. Fortunately I think she’s being (typically) dishonest about all the left-wing rubbish she’s felt compelled to spout, to fend off Bernie, like protectionism. Her foreign policy hand will be a lot stronger and steadier than Obama’s, a welcome change. And dare I imagine she’d have the strength to force Democrats into desperately needed entitlement reform? And might even – unlike Obama – seriously seek detente with a chastened Republican opposition?

So – should I just bite the bullet for Hillary?

Or should I stop overthinking this, and simply vote for policies I actually believe in, and hence for Gary Johnson?

images

I have not made up my mind. Count me “undecided.”

* My daughter in 2012 tortured me by refusing to say who she voted for, letting me suspect it was Obama rather than Romney (my choice). Finally, months later, she blew me away by revealing, “I voted for Johnson.”

** Climbing on board for example is Rick Perry, who once denounced Trump as a “cancer,” but now angles for the VP slot. Democrats would surely run ads featuring Perry’s scathing condemnation.

The bathroom battle: what am I missing?

May 14, 2016
Transgender female

Transgender female

Scenario 1: A transgender woman – who looks female – enters a women’s room. Nobody notices.

Scenario 2: A transgender male – who looks male – enters a women’s room. The women there freak out.

Transgender male

Transgender male

The controversial North Carolina law requires Scenario 2. That is, using the bathroom of your birth certificate gender. Transgender males must use the girls’ room. How in God’s name does this protect the women who use it? Or prevent freak-outs? Doesn’t it do exactly the opposite?

So why the law? Because some people freak out at the very idea of changing one’s sex. They’re totally confuzzled and put off by it. Trying to find some way to vent this feeling, they came up with the bathroom law. Which actually, if enforced, would do the opposite of what they profess to want. That is how confused these people are.

Unknown-1Of course it can’t be enforced. Will they post guards by toilets to check birth certificates? If men’s rooms are used by people who look male, and women’s rooms by those who look female, how will anybody know there’s a problem?

And of course there never was one. Transgender people are a fraction of one percent of the population, and before this nonsense blew up, nobody ever noticed anything amiss in our restrooms. Besides, women do their business there privately, in stalls; and in men’s rooms guys mind their own business too. In literally thousands of visits I can’t recall ever seeing a penis not my own.

The law’s proponents might say they’re worried about men putting on dresses to go into women’s rooms to molest females. Do we know of a single case of this? (Molesting anyone was always illegal.) And what does it have to do with transgender anyway? Unknown-2Transgender women are not men wearing dresses. They are women.

Admittedly some rare individuals are in-between, mostly in a transition process. But surely it makes sense for them to use whichever facility they prefer at the time.

This is merely the latest example of a typical American phenomenon – periodically getting all worked up over a totally trivial, meaningless issue. A nation facing huge fiscal and economic challenges, huge overseas challenges, huge environmental challenges, is arguing instead about who can use what bathroom.

Another new currency design

May 11, 2016

After seeing my recent blog post about currency redesign, here’s what my wife gave me, to celebrate May 2, the anniversary of the day we met. This design incorporates (according to her) my heart’s desires. However, note that it’s the chocolate I appear to be fixated on.

dollar

Republicans drink the Kool-Aid

May 6, 2016

Unknown“Resistance is futile,” said Star-Trek’s Borg.

And so most Republicans are giving up – drinking the Kool-Aid.* Convincing themselves it’s not so bad. Maybe even a good thing. But anyway just go with the program. Stick with the team. Get on the bandwagon. Right over the cliff.

Some at least, like Paul Ryan, are holding back. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte says she’ll support Trump but not endorse him. A fine distinction. Rep. Elise Stefanik says she’ll support the nominee but won’t utter the name. A few – too few – Republicans outright refuse this Kool-Aid. (Bravo to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.)

images-1I had said Trump was not entitled to the nomination if a majority of GOP primary voters opposed him. (His complaints against the system are bizarre since it’s actually given him a higher percentage of delegates than primary votes.) However, in each of the last seven primaries, over 50% drank the Kool-Aid. And now no candidate remains against him.

I’m a great believer in democracy. In voters, not so much. Too susceptible to demagogues. Like Hugo Chavez. Or in Brazil, where voters rejected really good alternatives and fell for Rousseff’s rubbish; now the country is predictably in deep doo-doo. Or the Philippines, with a presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, who is Trump Times Three. It’s like he’s running for dictator; he promises a bloodbath. Literally. Commenting on a gang rape, he said he wished he’d been first in line. And this guy leads in the polls.

images-2Mencken said nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But at least we always elected serious, credentialed, more or less responsible people – we actually strove to elect our betters. Until now. Trump’s appeal is the opposite, as an avatar of his voters’ lowest impulses.

I’ll say this again. I get it that people want an outsider, who tells it like it is, and will shake things up. I’d vote for such a candidate. But not for an irresponsible liar, loudmouth, buffoon, whose policies (to the extent they can be dignified with that word), far from “making America great again,” would be ruinous, stupid, and un-American (like a religious test for immigrants).

Not for one who covered himself with shame promoting bogus “birtherism.”**

Not for one who (never having served) denied John McCain is a war hero because he was shot down and taken prisoner.

Not for one who vulgarly degrades women, mocks the disabled, and calls Mexicans rapists.

images-3Not for one who falsely insists he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11.

Not for one who promises to pay the legal bills of people who punch protesters.

Not for one who advocates torture (waterboarding not enough) and murder (of innocent family members of terrorists).

images-4Not for one Putin admires, and who admires Putin.

And just wait for the upcoming Trump University fraud trial.

How can Republicans overlook all this? Time was, any of these things would be totally disqualifying. What we’re seeing is a collapse of civic responsibility, at least (so far) within the Republican party. Citizenship in a great and good nation requires more from us.

I weep for my party, and for my country. I’m heartbroken. And I am one Republican who will never drink this Kool-Aid.Unknown-1

Never.

* For younger readers, the reference is to “Jonestown” 1978, where “prophet” Jim Jones convinced followers that drinking poisoned Kool-Aid was a good idea. Over 900 died.

** It’s actually Trump who lies about his origins, claiming Swedish, not German, ancestry.

Something horrible is happening: reading the obituary page

May 1, 2016

UnknownSomething horrible is happening. Dozens of local people die every day. It’s a holocaust.

I read the obituary page, and feel bad for everyone there. What’s happened to them is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. (And someday it will happen to me.)

imagesIt’s gotten worse since the local paper went to full color printing. Now the people pictured in obituaries seem more real to me.

Dying at, like, 83, is uninteresting. But I’m always drawn to those listing younger ages. “Passed away suddenly,” “died at home,” etc. – it makes me wonder what could have happened. It’s a reminder of life’s fragility. Though actually such wording – especially, “died unexpectedly” – can be a euphemism for suicide. Tragic how common that is.

Speaking of euphemism, of course most obituaries avoid words like “died.” Some read as though the person merely moved away – to a better neighborhood, at that.

Unknown-1What I like is obituaries with high ages. “Sally Jones, 103.” I say to myself, way to go, old Sal! Made it to 103! It gives me hope. And for centenarians I’ll glance over the details, to see what a person did in such a long life. It seems that high achievers in the age department are often high achievers in other ways.

One recent obit was for a Vera Lister, 100. I read it. Said she was a “homemaker for most of her life.” Zzzz. But also that, in the British navy in WWII, she participated in breaking the German enigma code. Holy smoke!

There are some amazing people among us, and we don’t always know it. One local acquaintance, the most unassuming of men, I recently learned worked on the Manhattan Project.

Of course, a big reason for checking the obits is to look for names I know. I’m not very social, yet it’s amazing how many folks one has encountered in half a century in Albany. Seeing someone on that page can be a shocker. Not long ago, a guy I knew from work; younger than me; a lively fellow, in rude health when I’d seen him just shortly before. Died in some stupid accident. Another memento mori reminder.

Sometimes merely the age is a shocker. Just saw the obit of a young feller I once knew slightly. He was eighty. How could that be? Time gets away from us.

"Hap" Hazzard

“Hap” Hazzard

Yet the obituary page – occasionally – offers some yuks too. One recently made me laugh out loud. Guy’s name was Harold Hazzard. The obit included his nickname: Harold “Hap” Hazzard. He must have had a sense of humor.

But this holocaust must stop. And we’re working on it. This is what medical science is ultimately all about. It’s not enough to cure illness when people must die in the end anyway. But aging and death too are medical problems. A key factor is telomeres, little extensions on the ends of chromosomes. When cells divide, telomeres get shorter. And, when you’re out of telomeres – you’re out.

images-2There’s an enzyme called telomerase that can replenish them. Unfortunately, a dose of telomerase gives you cancer. But maybe we can fix that.

And someday, you’ll turn to the obituary page, and it will say: no deaths to report.

African-Americans on currency – too politically correct?

April 25, 2016

UnknownAndrew Jackson will be replaced, on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, a black woman. Inevitably some (like Trump) cry, “Political correctness!” Others, much worse.

Meantime, proposed designs were also recently made public for a future special-issue gold coin. imagesPast U.S. coins often portrayed “Lady Liberty.” Now she would have African-American features.

In the numismatic publications, reactions from the coin collector community were again sadly predictable. People always like what’s old and familiar and hate what’s new and different. The proposed design is seen as traducing a hallowed tradition. And Coin World’s editor called out the racism behind many of the comments.  Some seem to think the Goddess of Liberty is caucasian.

Morgan Dollar

Morgan Dollar

A lot of commenters called the image ugly. I wonder where they get their aesthetic nous. This design seems far finer than most modern U.S. mint productions. The gal depicted “I wouldn’t kick out of bed.” She’s certainly lovelier than many of our past Lady Liberties – like the bloated battleaxe on the Morgan dollar, so beloved by collectors. (Maybe they had different notions of feminine beauty in those days.) But I doubt Michelangelo could make a coin showing a black person that these people wouldn’t find ugly.

As for the $20 bill, Jackson has never been one of my heroes. He once said, “The Supreme Court has made its decision – now let them enforce it.” Spitting on the rule of law. And Jackson was talking about a court ruling that Georgia couldn’t steal Cherokee land. No friend of Indians, he. Indeed, his policy could be called genocidal.

Get that SOB off our money.

. . . or how about this comely lass?

. . . or how about this comely lass?

Harriet Tubman was a great, heroic personage, a humble woman of outstanding virtue, who fought slavery not just with words but deeds. She actually freed slaves. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that would put her on its currency.

And as for that new Lady Liberty, I would remind critics, so wedded to traditional portrayals, that one of the greatest things this nation ever did, to live out its creed of liberty, was to fight a war to free the slaves. In light of that, an African-American Liberty goddess is an entirely fitting and deeply meaningful representation of the liberty this nation stands for.

But the mentioned hostility to the proposed designs doesn’t mean America is deeply racist (as cynics continue to say). This isn’t your grandfather’s racism, but more a reaction to the affirmative action culture and what’s seen as privileging blacks (an ironic counterpoint to “white privilege”). Reverse discrimination (say, in hiring) can indeed be a legitimate issue. But portrayals on currency are just symbolism, the wrong battle to fight. Given what blacks have suffered, no one should begrudge their pictures on money. And those who do are not the American mainstream. We’re a better country than that; these currency designs prove it again.

What explains the vicious left?

April 20, 2016

images-2I recently wrote about a talk by scientist David Gelernter, at the state university. A student got up to ask about an article he’d written – “What Explains the Vicious Left?” The student said he’s politically moderate, and a pervasive, aggressive campus left-wing atmosphere makes him feel under attack.

I too have written about the poisoning of American politics by those who believe people with opposing views are not just wrong but wicked. And that, while both left and right are guilty, the left is far the bigger culprit.* imagesThis is especially true on campuses, where the left totally dominates, and seeks to disallow dissent. This is the “political correctness” that is so vile.

Its latest manifestation is to “protect” students from words or ideas that might make them “uncomfortable.” We hear much about verbal “micro-aggressions” having that effect, especially on minority students. Ethnic and gender minorities, that is. images-3But what about the minority that is truly persecuted – non-leftist students – like the questioner at Gelernter’s talk? Where is the concern about their being made uncomfortable, by efforts to browbeat them into silence?

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” On campuses today, conservatives have no rights a leftist is bound to respect. “The left seems to have lost its taste for democracy,” Gelernter’s article said.

Responding to the questioner, he noted that at Yale, where he teaches, conservative students have come to his office in tears because of the left’s “frantic fervor” and bullying. Gelernter suggested the phenomenon has to do with the fact that campus leftists are almost exclusively atheist/agnostic, whereas conservatives are frequently religious.

UnknownThe latter, he said, are cocooned in a strongly held moralistic belief system, satisfying a fairly universal psychological need. And with that box checked off, they don’t infuse their political views with a similar moral fervor. For them, politics is just politics. Atheist leftists, on the other hand, have only their politics to fill this psychological need, which is why they become so fierce. “Politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.”

And naturally they are very protective of that faith, responding ferociously to any challenge; unwilling even to let opposing ideas be heard. (Just like some religious faiths, even today – apostasy is punished with death in some Muslim lands.)

More generally, politics is becoming very tribal, “us against them,” and for many it’s their core identity – virtually their ethnicity. As for why this is more true on the left, Gelernter’s religion-based theory may be at least a partial explanation. But there’s much in his article I find problematic. He’s evidently religious himself, and argues that the problem could only be cured with a religious revival — “a miracle.” Yet he seems to think it possible – ignoring why religious belief is declining — its sheer implausibility. (Though implausible ideas aren’t hampering certain presidential contenders.)

In googling Gelernter’s article, I found comments from left-wingers that were . . . surprise . . . absolutely vicious. Exemplifying the very syndrome he discusses. (Somewhat ironic, with leftists also full of talk about kindness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, and so forth.)

images-4At one time, the kind of moralistic fervor Gelernter discusses drove people to burn dissenters alive. At least we haven’t reached that stage in politics.

Yet.

*Journalism professor Rosemary Armao, frequently on local radio discussion shows, supporting Hillary, has remarked upon the viciousness of messages she’s received from Bernie backers. (But none from Republicans.)

Could a machine ever feel emotion? – David Gelernter

April 15, 2016

UnknownI recently heard a talk by Yale Professor David Gelernter, notable guru of computer science and artificial intelligence.* His new book is The Tides of Mind. That’s his metaphor for human consciousness cycling between varying states: early in the day we’re full of energy, seeing the world differently from later, when attention shifts from the external to the internal realm, and insistence of memory crowds out use of reason. After reaching a mid-afternoon low point, one cycles back upward somewhat before cycling back down again toward sleep. (I’ve always felt sharpest, doing my best work, in the morning; I’m drafting this at 5 AM in an airport; in mid-afternoon I’m soporific.)

Gelernter spoke of his project to emulate these workings of the mind in a computer program. He said the spectrum’s “top edge,” where rationality predominates, is easiest to model; it gets harder lower down, where we become less like calculating machines and more emotive. And Gelernter said – categorically – that no artificial system would ever be able to feel like a human feels.

Unknown-1This I challenged in the question period, suggesting that everything a human mind does must emerge out of neurons’ information processing – admittedly a massively complex system – but if such a system could be mimicked artificially, couldn’t all its effects, including consciousness and emotion, arise therein? I referenced the movie Her.

 Gelernter replied at great length. He said that some man-made systems already approach that degree of complexity (actually, I doubt this), but nobody imagines they’re conscious. He quoted Paul Ziff that a computer can do nothing that’s not a performance – a simulation of mind functioning, not the real thing.

Unknown-5Making notes, I wrote the words “Chinese Room” before Gelernter spoke them. This refers to John Searle’s famous thought experiment: a person in a room, using a set of rules, can respond to incoming messages in Chinese, thus appearing to understand Chinese, without actually understanding Chinese. Likewise a computer, using programmed rules, could appear to converse and understand, without actually understanding.

images-1Gelernter contrasted the view of “computationalists” like Daniel Dennett who – consistent with my question – regard the mind as basically akin to a computer – the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Gelernter acknowledged this is a majority view. It says that while a single neuron can do nothing, nor can a thousand, when a brain has trillions of interconnections, mind emerges. But this Gelernter dismissed, analogizing that a single grain of sand can do nothing, but a trillion can’t either.

images-2Gelernter asserted that computationalists actually have no evidence for their stance, and it boils down to being an axiom – an assumption, like Euclid’s axiom that parallel lines never meet (though never meeting is the definition of parallel lines, which is something different).

I found none of this persuasive. Someone later asked me what’s the antithesis of “computationalism.” I said “magicalism.” Because Gelernter seemed to posit something magical that creates mind, above and beyond mechanistic neural processing. Unknown-3This argument has been going on for centuries. But it’s really Gelernterists who engage in axioms – that is, assuming something must be true, albeit unprovable. And I call the opposing view materialism – that all phenomena must be explicable rationally – and the mind must arise from what neurons physically do – because there is no other possibility. I do not believe in magic.

Talking with Gelernter afterward, he offered a somewhat better argument – that to get a mind from neurons, you need, well, neurons. That their specific characteristics, with all their chemistry, are indispensable, and their effects could not be reproduced in a system made, say, of plastic. He analogized neurons to the steel girders holding up the building – thanks to steel’s particular characteristics – and girders made of something else, like potato chips, wouldn’t do.Unknown-4

But I still wasn’t persuaded. Gelernter had said, again, that computer programs can only simulate human mind phenomena; for example, a program that “learns” is simulating learning but not actually learning as a human does. I think that’s incorrect – and exemplifies Gelernter’s error. What does “learning” mean? Incorporating new information to change the response to new situations – becoming smarter from experience. Computer programs now do exactly this.

Neuronal functioning is very special and sophisticated, and would be very hard to truly reproduce in a system not made from actual neurons. But not impossible, because it’s not magical. I still see no reason, in principle, why an artificial system could not someday achieve the kind of complex information processing that human brains do, which gives rise to consciousness, a sense of self, and feelings.**

Those who’ve said something is impossible have almost always proven wrong. And Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

* In 1993 he survived an attack by the Unabomber, whose brother, David Kaczynski, has been to my house (we had an interesting discussion about spirituality) – my three degrees of separation to Gelernter.

** See my famous article in The Humanist magazine: The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement.

 


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