Sunday, June 19, 2016

Way more than you ever wanted to know about my thoughts on AI

In my earlier post about rational thought, I'd started with a fairly limited focus: that if we assume our minds work on a natural basis, we can still think logically. That post generated more interest than I expected, and I'm glad of that. Much of the conversation has been beyond that original focus, expanding to related topics such as perception and its subjective qualities, whether thoughts can be physically captured, and the scope of AI. Those are interesting topics to me, even if not quite my original point. I should mention: because of the day job and other Real Life(TM) constraints, after today it may be next weekend before I have time to post again. 

Continuing the conversation with Stan, I wanted to start with some working definitions of terms, to give us better odds of understanding each other. After I put together the list, I checked that these definitions are in fact dictionary-compatible. The word "natural" had almost too many different dictionary definitions, so high risk of misunderstandings around that word.

  • brain - the physical organ commonly known by that name
  • thought - as a particular ("a thought"): an idea or set of ideas, usually can be expressed in words
    - in general ("thought" as phenomenon): the ability to reason or to introspect
  • consciousness - state of being aware of existence and surroundings; may also include self-awareness and awareness of internal states
  • mind - collection of all mental functions such as thoughts, consciousness; considered by some as "The Brain, collected works". 
  • material - physical (has mass and takes up space)
  • natural - operating according to laws of nature (physics, chemistry, biology, electromagnetics, etc)

So with that as a handy reference point, I wanted to talk to Stan some more. He was saying:
It is not clear at this point how the progression leads to the concept that mind is purely physical, 
Good point; I should state my premises more explicitly. Background: I use computers as a working analogy, and  as shorthand to talk about whatever functions of the mind can be reproduced (or mimicked, if you'd rather) by purely natural processes. Computers work in purely natural ways. So whenever we get to the point of demonstrating that a certain function of the mind can be done by a computer, we have shown that function can be done in a purely natural way. And I rely on Occam's Razor from there: once we have a sufficient explanation, that's our "definition of 'Done'". 

And then it looks like the examples I picked of "how to analyze thoughts" were aspects / approaches that address what I'm interested in, but don't correspond to Stan's own interests. Stan, am I understanding you correctly that what you're really looking for is whether a thought itself (e.g. "Almost time for dinner, wonder what I'll have tonight") can be found somewhere physical in the brain? Or am I not grasping your question yet? 

And Stan wants to know about my hypothetical system, an AI system that I've sometimes considered how I'd design. As a preface, I should mention: this is way beyond-scope of my original post arguing that rational thought can be handled by a natural system. Not only does it get beyond "thought" but it also gets beyond "rational" (see below). Still, it's interesting, so let's do it anyway. Stan was asking the following (and I'll vary font color and respond in line there.) 
While I’m sure you could code curiosity into a deterministic serial machine, can you code in creativity (To some extent. To a computer, that's "looking for combinations or applications not yet in your own data set". Imagine an AI system with a respectable starter data set -- similar to what we try to do for kids in school -- and a way to expand on it (e.g. library, internet, wikipedia), and a way to apply it.) followed by realization? (Realization depends so much on having a big picture of the significance of things. In order for something to be more significant than just information, that involves having motivations and values and priorities. I could get a computer to recognize that it had found something new. ("Record does not exist.") But whether it could judge if that was trivial or important would depend on how much perspective it had on the outside world and the world of need.) Do you really think that you can code in every human relationship (Lol, I seriously doubt that. So many human relationships are based on our biology, etc.), desire (Again, the non-living nature of the computer would handicap it. Desire is generally based on need.), lust (I'd put that down to animal nature in humans; hormone-based and not 'rational thought' even in us.), passion (If you mean 'lust' see above; if you mean being passionate then computers do the 'single-focus/driven' routine really well, if that's the kind of passion you had in mind. Though again I'd draw the boundary at whether they had any investment or personal stake in the outcome. Computers, as we know them, have no skin in the game. It's a handicap.), intellectual neediness (If that works out to 'thirst for knowledge', that would probably have to be an explicit instruction to them, since non-living things don't have motives.), intellectual fallacy due to improper axioms acquired by voluntary ideological bias (yikes, that's definitely not rational stuff in humans, so I'd hope to steer well away from that. Though it might be interesting to model it, if doing an AI model for use in psychology. Anyway, it almost seems like you're arguing it would be an advantage for a computer to be bad at thinking -- to match humans at our worst. I can only suspect I've missed one of your goals here.), or need for belonging, or fear of rejection (Needs and fears about belonging/rejection are basically the territory of living things that are also social creatures. There would have to be a whole community of distinct AI beings for that to be feasible and those AI machines would need actual stakes on the outcome in order for 'need' and 'fear' to apply. I'm not sure of how there could be stakes on the outcome.)? Is there nothing about your own job which an algorithm cannot perform just as well? Background: For the code I've written, aside from the "re-usable" standard, I've also written code-generator programs for some predictable / repetitive code. So there are sets of programs that were not written directly by me, but were generated by a program that I wrote. And there are other people at my company who have also written code-generators since they are time-savers. My prior job likewise. I don't think it's particularly unusual. So as far as being a coder, there are parts that are disturbingly machine-like and may be automated eventually. Still the systems are written for humans to use, and so I expect there will always be some advantage to having humans make the decisions. 
Stan continues:
You have to presume mental behaviors to be either (a) algorithmic or (b) huge full featured non-algorithmic programs with nearly infinite branching or (c) self-modifying on the fly, all the while not self-destructing (too often, anyway). Or maybe there is some sort of parallel programming you know about that I don’t. If so, please explain.
I expect mostly (a) and (c), with balancing mechanisms for resolving internal conflicts. From our point-of-view, it's priorities and values and -- as a significant part of that -- self-perceived identity. ("Am I the kind of person who would ____?")

Stan: Please give an example of the ability to create new processor instructions.
Imagine an AI system that could read source code libraries, and could add new functions to itself that it found there. Or if it had the ability to redefine one of its existing functions, if it wanted to be able to make a minor mod. E.g. picture a chess app that could read other chess apps and search them for features it didn't have. Of course it would have to be told that it should try to do that: a non-living thing has no reason to care about chess. 
Stan: Unless that means that the new instruction for the processor is actually a combination of instructions the processor is already designed to handle at the level from machine code
I think it's a "given" that an AI system would be hosted on some particular machine, and that any new code would have to be compatible with the processor on that machine. 
Stan: At this point I’m still not sure what you’re trying to say: is a mind/thought a completely physical thing, with the universal attributes of mass/energy existing in space/time? Or are you saying that the mind/thought merely uses the brain as a physical platform for operating in the physical realm?
I'm saying that mind/thought uses the brain as a physical platform, and that as far as I can tell, mind and thought occur in ways consistent with them being natural. 

I'm not quite sure whether we agree or disagree since we may not have shared definitions, but it's been a good conversation. I know I've imposed a lot on your time; let me know if you're interested in continuing. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The purpose and goal of the mind

This is a follow-up to the earlier post Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenon. , and a continuation of the conversation posted by Stan in An Analysis of the Purely Physical Mind and Rational Thought. My thanks to Stan for his interest in the topic. Since this post is in part a response to his, "you" in this post means Stan.


There are many people who are used to this topic being discussed between theists and atheists. So I'd like to start by clearing up my position on a few assumptions or questions that people may bring to the discussion: 
  • My view of a natural mind does not take sides in whether the preconditions for the mind are naturalistic. I'm a Christian myself and believe that there is a Creator; that doesn't mean that rational thought doesn't work through natural means. 
  • To the best of my knowledge, life comes from life in all known cases
  • I have no objection to the view that the First Cause is a non-material entity
  • I have no interest in steering people into a dichotomy between the mind being either deterministically controlled or due to quantum randomness
  • I'm not arguing whether or not we came by our goals ourselves or were given them from outside. For the present, the scope is whether the mind operates wholly on natural processes. 
Stan interacted with my post at some length, including the analogy of digestion. When I read peoples' responses to my earlier post, this seems to be a main area where I didn't succeed in getting my point across, based on reading what people thought I was saying and comparing that to what I actually wanted to communicate. So I'll make my point more explicit here.

The point of the original "digestion" analogy is that digestion acts with complexity and purpose that it could not manage in isolation. It manages to fulfill a purpose or goal beyond itself as part of a larger system, though I think everyone would grant that digestion works naturally.

Applying that to the mind, let's talk about the 'purpose or goal' of the mind. The short version (indented for emphasis, so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle): 
I believe the 'purpose or goal of the mind' is to provide us with a map or model of the world in which we live, and that the mind has an innate disposition to explore and understand its surroundings. 
So if we give a rational system (a mind) enough time, it will in fact turn to everything it can find, including paradox, dilemmas, self-evidence, and the nature of comprehension. I'd say that the mind is the natural function of the brain (and associated nervous system e.g. input from the eyes), and that the mind uses natural processes for operation.

How do we get to a point where I'd say that? I'd like to start with the simplest examples and step forward through a few layers of complexity.

Example 1: A simple creature may have the ability to sense heat, or may have an eye spot (not even quite an eye). Through their senses -- and probably without anything we'd recognize as thought -- they gain a simple awareness of heat and light, and can react in self-preservation.

Example 2: A dog or cat has fairly well-developed senses for perceiving its surroundings. It has a basic working model of its home that allows it to recognize people, tell when it's time for dinner, and try to avoid trips to the vet (good luck with that). It's got a more complete set of senses and a more developed mental model of the world. They have a grasp of how to be an actor rather than just a passive reactor; they try to cue us when it's time for dinner, or when they want to play. We're inching closer to something we might recognize as a 'mind', though we're nothing like what humans can manage.

Example 3: Humans have a mind with a drive to understand the world. We go looking for information. We look for new and better ways of storing information, communicating information, and exploring for information. We look for ways to model information, organize information, and put all that understanding to good use. If we find a limit, we look for a way past it. (There's more to our minds than information, but we'll start there, since 'understanding' does involve information.)

I know there's more to be said but for the sake of brevity we'll start there. And now we're far enough along that I can interact with something Stan brought up:
"Because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps amenable to be analyzed empirically ..."
Actually, just because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps, that doesn't stop us from analyzing them empirically. (If we find a limit, we look for a way past it.) Here are some ways we humans have come up with to empirically analyze our own comprehension, thoughts, and concepts, and we have come up with a good variety of ways. Some tools focus on the 'understanding' part of it, and some focus on the 'brain' electrical / biomechanics of it:
  • We turn our understanding into a hypothesis. We use that hypothesis to design an experiment, and then test our understanding with that experiment
  • We turn our concepts into a syllogism to test each thought's compatibility with other thoughts in the same system
  • We turn our comprehension into images -- maps, drawings, charts, graphs
  • We turn our understanding into words, and work to grasp the world by defining each thing or idea in words
  • We turn thoughts into mechanical models like little world-map globes or solar-system models
  • We turn concepts of events and people into stories. We also use stories to evaluate "what-if?" with different scenarios, or when we want to see how or why our struggles matter and grasp how our lives have meaning
  • We try to peek inside our own minds with tools like Rorschach blots, dream analysis, word association, and other tools for analyzing our own psychology
  • We have developed brain scans to give us a more direct view on the electrical impulses and brain functions involved in our thoughts and emotions
  • We're making progress towards being able to turn visual images in the brain into computer-output, e.g. take a mental image and turn it into a photo. Based on existing early work, I expect the day will come when we can take a daydream and download it as a movie. (Imagine the job listing for that: Help wanted. Daydreamer. Detail-oriented a must. Familiarity with Synapse-Interface Software required ...) (May Google Minds never develop a Mental StreetView camera ...)

So there are lots of ways in which we model our own thoughts and concepts so that we can examine them. At this point I'm not sure which of those were of interest to you (Stan), or if there's another direction you had in mind.

One thing that persuades me that the mind works naturally is (background: I'm a professional coder with an interest in AI) that I haven't yet heard someone propose a mental function that I couldn't imagine a way of coding into a computer. (No, I don't get to do anything near that cool for my day job, which is just the usual corporate coding to pay the bills. It keeps my mind exercised, though without a ton of creative leeway. But sometimes I mull over how I would go about designing an AI system, and there are people who have done more than mull it over.) There are perfectly natural ways to code awareness, evaluative framework, even the ability for a computer to add new abilities into its own design/framework and exceed its original instruction base.

I'm hoping that makes it somewhat clearer how I see the purpose and goal of the mind, and why that all seems like natural processing to me. I look forward to hearing other peoples' thoughts. I'm glad for the interaction and interest in the topic.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Can a human understand God? The argument from creation

I've been introduced to an atheist blog where the poster, an ex-Christian, was recently considering whether it's possible to know God. After he mulls over some time-and-eternity questions in creation, he puts forward this argument:
Besides, wouldn’t it be better for someone like God to have fellowship with an equal? Only another Creator could truly understand a Creator, right? Yes, only a deity could fully know and appreciate another deity. Created beings, which by definition are lesser beings, could never really know a deity anyway.
He considers his views to be self-evident to anyone with the most basic thinking skills ("This is Logic 101"). (Most people consider their views to be obvious and beyond rational dispute. Considering how many different starting points and premises we all have, really, very few things are beyond rational dispute.)

The reason I quote this fellow's argument is that he speaks for a lot of people, including some groups of Christians, when he says that. I think that deserves a look. 

"Wouldn't it be better for someone like God to have fellowship with an equal?" Let's say yes, and see where it goes. A problem comes up pretty quickly, though, if we go with the view of any monotheistic religion: God has no equal. But what if he could make someone who was as close as possible to equal? Sure, too late and the ship already sailed on whether the other person(s) would be eternal. And creating someone exactly like God is self-contradictory: God wasn't created, therefore any created being is already not exactly like him. But if we bracket the parts that are literally impossible or self-contradictory like that, is it possible to make a creature that is enough like God to have meaningful fellowship with God? 
So God made man in his image, like God did God make man: male and female he created them. (Genesis)
Keep in mind that I'm not arguing that an atheist should take the Bible's word that it happened; I'm interested in whether it shows God as trying to make someone like himself.

But are people capable of understanding God? The aspects of God that we can understand are in some way like us. We understand God in roles such as father, king, bridegroom, husband ... all human relationships, all understandable parts of the system in which we live. On the view that God has some role in describing himself in the Bible, God is seen as someone we can relate to. On the view that he created the world, he may also have filled it with analogies to himself that we can come to understand.

What exactly goes into the "image of God"? It's not spelled out for us. But we know at that point that God is a creator, and that he sets things in order so that the world flourishes. He also makes a garden -- and instructs the people to fill the world and rule over it. (I expect that his instructions to fill the earth and rule it, originally, would have resulted in the whole earth being made into various kinds of gardens and orchards and parks, based on Eden which is the pattern of "ruling" that people had seen.)

If God is Creator, then someone made in his image would also be a creator. Mankind is the most creative mind that we see at work on the planet. We have created works of music, painting, architecture, stained glass, literature, and drama. We have minds that are capable of imagination and fantasy. We have developed musical instruments and engineering techniques. Not many of our gardens are compared to Eden ... apparently the hanging gardens of Babylon once were worthy of notice, a masterpiece in that kind of living art.

Along the same lines: If God is in possession of all knowledge, then someone made in his image would also seek knowledge. If God is love, then someone made in his image would also be capable of love. If God is self-determining ... how far is it possible for a created being to be self-determining? And if God transcended the isolation of being the only Being like himself ... Is mankind hardwired to try to transcend our own limits?

We're lesser beings; we don't really understand all there is to know of God.
We know in part ... now we see through a glass, darkly (Paul, I Corinthians 13:9, 12)
 But there are promises that our capacity to understand will grow.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. (Paul, I Corinthians 13:12)

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenon

Some people try to prove the existence of the supernatural by talking about our minds. The claim is basically that, unless there is some supernatural involvement, we could not trust our own reasoning processes. If our minds work by electrical and chemical processes, why should we trust their results?

I'm posting both as a Christian and as a computer scientist. Computer science is my profession and has been for many years. I can tell you confidently that computers work by purely natural means, and we trust the results we get from them every day. If I asked you to multiply 327 x 418, how many of you would trust your own minds, and how many of you would use a calculator?







Here is why I think it matters: if you visit the atheist forums on the internet, you will meet so many ex-Christians who were (once, long ago) totally sold on the idea that either the Bible was infallible or the earth was 10,000 years old (or both). My argument here is not meant for those Christians who believe that the Bible is infallible or the earth is 10,000 years old. It is meant for those Christians who engage in and largely accept scientific findings as honestly derived and trustworthy. Young earthers are at risk of being picked off by atheist snipers because they believe things that are increasingly difficult to defend. In the same way I believe that insisting on a supernatural explanation for consciousness will become increasingly difficult to defend. And it's probably a peripheral issue, hardly worth risking your faith for it. I expect that all Christians -- and all people of good conscience -- want the truth of a matter. And so I'd like you to hear out my reasons why I believe that rational thought is a natural phenomenon.

There is an argument that our minds cannot be based on electrical and chemical processes. And when I have heard that argument, there is usually some reference to the mindlessness and randomness of the particles or chemicals involved. I will grant you that an electrical impulse in itself is not intelligent.  But that's not the question. There's a context to those electrical impulses and those chemical signals, and it's a living organism.

Let's define an organism as a biological entity where the electrical and chemical processes are directed towards the well-being of the system that contains them. That's a working definition; it might stand refining but let's start there.


Let's also start with a process that most people would agree is natural: digestion. Why exactly should the food we place in our stomach be put to use in strengthening our bones and other tissues? How does a totally irrational system like our digestive system manage the that? Consider our food going through the refining processes and the distribution system to get to the point where it strengthens other parts of us. A totally random chemical process could never manage it. But our stomachs are not totally random. There are biological processes that govern that. The chemistry in our stomachs is part of an engineered system that works toward a specific purpose and goal.

Let's move towards the topic of how our minds work. Why exactly should our minds conclude that 2 + 2 = 4? Let's set aside the background questions about what words mean and what numbers mean, and let's look at the question in the same way that a calculator would. Once the mind has been trained in the basic knowledge of what numbers are and how to add them, we get the right answer: 2 + 2 = 4. We get the right answer reliably ... unless we're sleepy or distracted or there are other perfectly naturalistic things going on with our minds. (The problems -- once we trace their causes -- tend to support the idea that there are biological causes behind how our mind works.) The reason our minds work is not because there are random electrical impulses in our brain.  Instead, the electricity and chemistry in our brains is an engineered system that works toward specific purposes and goals.

This is not said to diminish the amazing quality of our minds and of consciousness. It is not said to argue against knowing God with our minds. It is said in a quest for truth, and because I believe that the day will come - and sooner rather than later - that those who hold out for a supernatural component in consciousness will become a target for atheist snipers.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Warn a Divisive Person

There are few things that bring more discredit on the name of Christ than the divisions and quarrels among us. If we proclaim God's goodness and faithfulness, there are people who will not believe us even on that, because of how badly we disagree among ourselves. How do we reunite? Outside of Christ himself, there is no one person that all of us trust together to reach the right decision and settle the disputes and quarrels. Likewise there is no one group, and no one process of reasoning, that all of us together would trust.

On some level, the problem is a lack of leadership -- or, I should say, a lack of godly leadership. Over the years I have noticed something about the leaders compared to the people: in general the people in different groups of churches get along with each other fairly well, compared to the leaders. While there are some notable and noisy exceptions to that, it is more common for the members to get along than the leaders. Is it because the general people do not understand the differences, or because the leaders place less value on the common ground? I think there is some truth in each of those.

There are things that make different Christian groups incompatible; I wonder how many of those divisive things would remain, if there were no leaders advocating for them -- and no systems established to perpetuate those differences.

Paul's letter to Titus instructs him, as a church leader, to warn a divisive person once or twice -- and after that, if he persists in being divisive, to have nothing more to do with him. But if the leaders have become the divisive ones, who warns them?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What do we really want to see?

Which vacation places are most-visited? A friend of mine has gone to Paris to see the Eiffel tower. Another recently returned from Hawaii. I'd love to see the Grand Canyon. The ultimate vacation often includes some place that we really want to see. Generally our destination is a place of beauty, or something otherwise amazing.

If someone is going to an unremarkable place, it's fairly sure that place is home to someone they love.

Which youtube videos are most-watched? Again, the click-bait for the videos often promise something amazing. And the site designers keep track of what each of us likes to watch, so they can match our interests. There are videos where we say: I want to see that. We are looking for something worthy of praise, or something that inspires awe and wonder. And we're glad when we find it.

We look for -- we search for -- things that amaze us. If finances permit, many of us would travel across the world to see something truly beautiful or remarkable. For those of us on a quest for the ultimate and best in any category, we'll go to great lengths. I know a man so devoted to astronomy that he is saving money to go to other continents to visit the best observatories -- where the air is thin, and the telescopes are powerful and precise. The best telescope mirrors and glass are made with extraordinary attention to the precise measurements of the parts -- and the purity of the materials.

In the religious category, for many the ultimate quest is to know God, to see God, to understand the mind of God. To what lengths will we go? The natural world is full of awe and beauty -- and danger -- and incredible variety. The religions of the world have collected as much wisdom and beauty and holiness as they know how, each after their own fashion. And in life, it is easy to worry about its briefness. Are we willing to brave death in order to see the face of God, and have all our questions answered? That may be one of the few consolations of the end of our days: "now we know in part ... then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known." The religions of the world are window-shopping for heaven -- some with clearer vision than others, I think. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."

It's like my old friend the astronomer: he can tell me all about the lengths to which people will go for rare and pure materials for their own telescopes, and it's all so that they can see things of beauty that they would not otherwise be able to see, and understand things they could not otherwise understand. If we purify our hearts, it's not so that we can admire our own purity. It's so we can see God and see the people around us, and understand in ways that we could not understand before.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost: praising God in their language

Today, listening to the Pentecost readings, I noticed a couple of basic things:
  • People listen when we speak their language
  • Seekers listen when we praise God and tell the wonders he has done
At the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, the apostles' words were understood in the languages of the people around them. As Christians, part of our faith is to speak and to be understood. The Spirit equips us by guiding our words, even in our own language. Time and again, we hear of the Spirit guiding words in particular:
  • What the apostles were to say when brought into court -- and no worrying in advance because the Spirit would help.
    Jesus mentioned this to the apostles in advance. After the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we see the apostles actually on trial at times, and trusting that the words would come to proclaim what Jesus did.
  • What the apostles said the first Pentecost
  • What the apostles and other writers of Scripture would say, such as in their letters and in the gospels
    All Scripture is God-breathed ...
  • What the Christians would say to help and encourage each other
    Some have the gift of encouragement or of teaching; some have words of wisdom or words of knowledge; the Spirit gives gifts including prophecy, tongues, or the interpretation of tongues. Jesus' people "are a letter from Christ, written with the Spirit of the Living God on tablets of the human heart" (2 Cor 3:3 selected/ellipses removed for easier reading)
  • How the Christians would pray
    The boldness to call God "Father" -- and the trust to see him as Father -- come from the Spirit. And when we lack words, we pray trusting that the Spirit communicates for us. 
People look for the gifts of Pentecost today. If we encourage someone, teach someone, if we speak the truth with love, then the Spirit is among us.