Tuesday, 29 June 2010

God and Golem Inc. - Norbert Wiener

"I have spoken of the layers of prejudice which encumber our approach to those problems in the vital common ground where science and religion come together: we must avoid discussing God and man in the same breath - that is blasphemy. Like Descartes, we must maintain the dignity of Man by treating him on a basis entirely different from that on which we treat the lower animals. Evolution and the origin of the species are a desecration of human values; and as the earlier Darwinians found, to entertain these ideas is very dangerous for the scientist in a world fundamentally suspicious of science.
But even in the field of science, it is perilous to run counter to the accepted tables of precedence. On no account is it permissible to mention living beings and machines in the same breath. Living beings are living beings in all their parts; while machines are made of metals and other unorganised substances, with no fine structure relevant to their purposive or quasi-purposive function. Physics - or so it is generally supposed - takes no account of purpose; and the emergence of life is something totally new." p14-15.

"The learning of the individual is a process that occurs in the life of the individual, in ontology. Biological reproduction is a phenomenon that occurs in the life of the race, in phylogeny, but the race learns even as the individual does. Darwinian natural selection is a kind of racial learning, which operates within the conditions imposed by the reproduction of the individual" p21.

"Thus if we do not lose ourselves in the dogmas of omnipotence and omniscience, the conflict between God and the Devil is a real conflict, and God is something less than absolutely omnipotent. He is actually engaged in a conflict with his creature in which he may very well lose the game. And yet his creature is made by him according to his own free will, and would seem to derive all its possibility of action from God himself. Can God play a significant game with his own creature? Can any creator, even a limited one, play a significant game with his own creature." p24.

"However, even living systems are not (in all probability) living below the molecular level. Furthermore, with all the differences between living systems and the usual mechanical ones, it is presumptuous to deny that systems of the one sort may throw light upon systems of the other. One respect in which this may well be the case is that of the mutual convertibility of spatial and functional structure, on the one hand, and of messages in time, on the other. The template account of reproduction is manifestly not the whole story. There must be some communication between the molecules of genes and the residues to be found in the nutrient fluid, and this communication must have a dynamics. It is quite in the spirit of modern physics to suppose that field phenomena of a radiative nature mediate the dynamics of such communication. It will not do to state categorically that the processes of reproduction in the machine and in the living being have nothing in common.
Pronouncements of this kind often seem to cautious and conservative minds to be less risky than rash statements of analogy. However, if it is dangerous to assert an analogy on insufficient evidence, it is equally dangerous to reject one without proof of its inconsequentialness. Intellectual honesty is not the same thing as the refusal to assume an intellectual risk, and the refusal even to consider the new and emotionally disturbing has no particular ethical merit." p51-52.

"The orthodox Christian and the sorcerer agree that after the miracle of the consecration of the Host is performed, the Divine Elements are capable of performing further miracles. They agree moreover that the miracle of transubstantiation can be performed only by a duly ordained priest. Furthermore, they agree that such a priest can never lose the power to perform the miracle, though if he is unfrocked he performs it at the sure peril of damnation.
Under these postulates, what is more natural than that some soul, damned but ingenious, should have hit upon the idea of laying his hold on the magic Host and using its powers for his personal advantage. It is here, and not in any ungodly orgies, that the central sin of the Black Mass consists. The magic of the Host is intrinsically good: its perversion to other ends than the Greater Glory of God is a deadly sin.
This was the sin which the Bible attributes to Simon Magus, for bargaining with Saint Paul for the miraculous powers of the Christians. I can well imagine the puzzled aggrievement of the poor man when he discovered that these powers were not for sale, and that Paul refused to accept what was, in Simon's mind, an honourable, acceptable and natural bargain. It is an attitude that most of us have encountered when we have declined to sell an invention at the really flattering terms offered us by a modern captain of industry.
Be that as it may, Christianity has always considered simony as a sin, that is, the buying and selling of the offices of the Church and the supernatural powers implied therein. Dante indeed places it among the worst of sins, and consigns to the bottom of his Hell some of the most notorious practitioners of simony of his own times. However, simony was a besetting sin of the highly ecclesiastical world in which Dante lived, and is of course extinct in the more rationalistic and rational world of the present day.
It is extinct! It is extinct. Is it extinct? Perhaps the powers of the age of the machine are not truly supernatural, but at least they seem beyond the ordinary course of nature to the man in the street. Perhaps we no longer interpret our duty as obliging us to devote these great powers to the greater glory of God, but it still seems improper to us to devote them to vain or selfish purposes. There is a sin, which consists of using the magic of modern automisation to further personal profit or let loose the apocalyptic terrors of nuclear warfare. If this sin is to have a name, let that name be Simony or Sorcery." p57-58.

"I am most familiar with gadget worshippers in my own world, with its slogans of free enterprise and the profit-motive economy. They can and do exist in that through-the -looking-glass world where the slogans are the dictatorship of the proletariat and Marxism and communism. Power and the search for power are unfortunately realities that can assume many garbs. Of the devoted priests of power, there are many who regard with impatience the limitations of mankind, and in particular the limitation consisting in man's undependability and unpredictability. You may know a mastermind of this type by the subordinates he chooses. They are meek, self-effacing, and wholly at his disposal; and on account of this, are generally ineffective when they once cease to be limbs at the disposal of his brain. They are capable of great industry but of little independent initiative - the chamberlains of the harem of ideas to which their Sultan is wedded." p59.

"The gadget minded people often have the illusion that a highly automated world will make smaller claims in human ingenuity than does the present one and will take over from us our need for difficult thinking, as a Roman slave who was also a Greek philosopher might have done for his master. This is palpably false. A goal-seeking mechanism will not necessarily seek our goals unless we design it for that purpose, and in that designing we must foresee all steps of the process for which it is designed, instead of exercising a tentative foresight which goes up to a certain point, and can continued from that point on as new difficulties arise. The penalties for errors of foresight, great as they are now, will be enormously increased as automation comes into its full use." p68.

"It is unthinkable that all lives should be prolonged in an indiscriminate way. If, however, there exists the possibility of indefinite prolongation, the termination of a life or even the refusal or neglect to prolong it involves a moral decision of the doctors. What will then become of the traditional prestige of the medical profession as priests of the battle against death and as ministers of mercy? I will grant that there are cases even at present when doctors qualify this mission of theirs and decide not to prolong a useless and miserable life. They will often refuse to tie the umbilical cord of a monster; or when an old man suffering from an inoperable cancer falls victim to the "old man's friend", hypostatic pneumonia, they will grant him the easier death rather than exact from him the last measure of pain to which survival will condemn him. Most often this is dome quietly and decently, and it is only when some incontinent fool blabs the secret that the courts and the papers are full of the talk of "euthanasia."" p 72.

"No, the future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves." p74.

"Homeostasis, whether for the individual or the race, is something of which the very basis must sooner or later be reconsidered. This means for example as I have said in an article for Voprosy Filosofii in Moscow, that although science is an important contribution to the homeostasis of the community, it is a contribution the basis of which must be assessed anew every generation or so. Here let me remark that both the Eastern and Western homeostasis of the present day is being made with the intention of fixing permanently the concepts of a period now long past. Marx lived in the middle of the first industrial revolution, and we are now well into the second one. Adam Smith belongs to a still earlier and more obsolete phase of the first industrial revolution. Permanent homeostasis of society cannot be made on a rigid assumption of a complete permanence of Marxism, nor can it be made on a similar assumption concerning a standardised concept of free enterprise and the profit motive. It is not the form of rigidity that is particularly deadly so much as rigidity itself, whatever the form." p86.

"Here some recent work of Mandlebrot is much to the point. He has shown that the intimate way in which the commodity market is both theoretically and practically subject to random fluctuations arriving from the very contemplation of its own irregularities is something much wilder and much deeper than has been suppose, and that the usual continuous approximations to the dynamics of the market must be applied with much more caution than has been the case, or not at all." p93.

Written in 1963 at the height of the Cold War during a time when the threat of nuclear war hung over everyone.

Chapman and Hall, London, 1964.

No comments: