Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Randon Thoughts On RUR and People As RAM

One of my young relatives asked me the other week if I'd ever read Karel Čapek's play, R.U.R. the play he invented the word "robot" for, something which someone said was the only memorable thing about the play.   I had read it a long time ago, in Esperanto, as it was.  A fact I mention only to push a button.  I found it online in English translation and read it again and was struck with not only how dumb the play was in terms of plot such as the way that Helena Glory ends up getting, I don't know, coerced into marriage, in the first act is downright bizarre. It's something the @metoo would have a field day with, but I don't think it really represents the author's thinking on women.   I think it's unfortunate that it's what most people seem to think of when they think of Čapek's work because I think his stories are better.  Since reading the play in English I went back to read a bit of his journalistic writing and it's a lot better than his fiction, if what I read is representative, that's what he should be remembered for.  But I'll get to that in a later post.

The biggest thing that struck me about R.U.R. was that the expected reaction of the humanitarian stereotype in the play, Helen Glory, to consider the masses of humanoid robots as oppressed workers, imagining them to have human personalities and minds and rights isn't what I see in real life.  What I see is not that it is people, especially those of some credentials and, allegedly, sophistication, making people metaphors for machines and imagining human beings in the limited terms appropriate for machines. 

When I first thought about this I immediately thought of the exception of the reaction of even scientists and others with educational credentials who took Joseph Weizenbaum's pretty obviously brainless bot ELIZA as having the ability to give psychotherapy to human beings, something that, at first, seems to be something like Helen Glory's silly attribution of qualities of human beings, of human minds and personalities and souls to machines.  But it was the opposite that was being demonstrated, even by the very psychiatrists, psychologists whose perceived role in life they imagined a 1964 era computer program could perform with good results.  They had already, before the first convincing human-like robot was possible, demoted human beings to mindless machines.  I wrote about that in 2013.

If anything, people are far more impressed with the far more powerful computers and sophisticated programs and far, far less impressed with people, even in their own minds.   The extent to which that is due to their casual experience with using computers and what influence that has had on the language people use to talk about our minds, I don't know.  I do know that what was commonly believed by people during that time, that people were really thinking, freely choosing, living beings seems to have given way to exactly the mechanical view that Weizenbaum warned about.    As he was surprised to find, it was among scientists who he, and earlier, Polanyi, believed should have known better that the mechanical view of humanity was already more common.   That it was, apparently, acceptable among psychotherapists and psychologists should tell us that there was something seriously wrong with the scientific identity of those academic fields.  I would say that the subsequent decades, as Behaviorism was succeeded by evolutionary psychology, the beliefs, assumptions and attitudes on display, have almost entirely dominated those and other "sciences" dealing with our minds.

You have to get people pretty young or pretty naive to get them to do the opposite, to imagine a really human like mind into a machine, but what these scientists and science-trained people do is really no different*.  The very idea that machines can achieve intelligence is based on the materialist assumption that minds are material entities that could be reproduced like robots.  As soon as you realize that it is not possible for minds to be material, you can see how absurd it is to think that any machine could have a mind. 

But our universities are staffed by such idiots, not only in the sciences but, also, perhaps even more so, the sadly demoted wreck of what used to be called "the humanities".  Perhaps that's what happens when you try to make man the measure of all things, you figure man can get the measure of ourselves and square us all away into a series of equations.  Or, at least, that's what you imagine if you didn't have the math and physics classes that apparently don't get the job done, either.

I started this thinking about following up a link at RMJ's blog, through Raw Story to a bit of academic atheist bullshit by one John G. Messerly to an earlier article he wrote for the often stupid Salon promoting the idiot fantasy of millionaire and billionaire geeks, "transhumanism" as a means of gaining immortality.  The idea is pretty daffy in details but it is also daffy in that it insists that we know that human minds are material and, as such, capable of being turned into bits and bytes of computer code and, so, we can all be downloaded to some kind of storage system to be eternally resurrected by reading devices and RAM or whatever.  It's an incredibly stupid idea but the kind of idea that comes with science geekery these days.  I might get around to dissecting the article but this is already getting long.


Only here's one point on  from the article which showed how stupid the guys who think like that are, a quote from the great thinkers of transhumanism with a list of Great Thinkers:

The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works of "old men" like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals -- a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein  -- enriching our world not for a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called "Childhood’s End" -- the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.

Having, unlike whatever idiot who said that, read the late product of several of those thinkers, the ones who, unlike Beethoven**, lived to actually get very old, it's a mixed bag.  Russell and Shaw decayed as they aged, Shaw, in particular was on the cusp of Nazism in the 1930s if he hadn't, like so many heroes of sciency modernism, already crossed that line. The product of his last years was shit.  His prefaces and speeches from that period make this weeks infamy, Steve King, sound pretty watered down.  I've heard Russell in debate, I believe in the late 1940s or the 1950s, it was cleverness and resting on his reputation, not impressive, much of it striking me as uninformed. I don't think you can make the case that Newton's best work was from his later years or Einstein's (physicists like mathematicians hardly ever produce great work in their old age, something Russell commented on). 

Sophocles reportedly had to write Oedipus at Colonus to keep his kids from getting the courts to declare him incompetent so they could take over his financial affairs.  Since the central theme of the play depends on Oedipus dying, the gods having decided that his grave will be lucky for the place it is located in, to use his only late work to have come down to us for such an argument for "eternal life"*** is rather clueless.  And, for Pete's sake , Arthur C. Clarke?  They're resting on the wisdom of that two-bit dime-store, pulp magazine mystic?  This is a laundry list of middle-brow, unread icons, not anything anyone should base any kind of serious argument in.  I'll bet none of those who subscribed to it ever read much of anything any of them wrote.  And that's not getting into the common received credulity about the one on that list who is just about certainly a pseudonym. 

Ain't sciency modernistic modernism great or what?

*  I remember, now, the story about the attempt to ban robot brothels in some Texas city from late last year and think it, also, is not really an exception to the rule.  Men who would have sex with an animated human doll are merely demonstrating that they demote women into objects, probably why they have to resort to having sex with robots in a business that caters to men like them.  The angry proud-boys of "incel" are like that too, only they're too lazy and stupid to get up from their screens to go out.  That is until one of them gets a gun and kills women, demonstrating the same dehumanization of women that their more active co-jerks who get out more do.

**  Beethoven was 56 when he died, his last quartet was from the year before then. Using Beethoven in such a list is rather stupid.

***  I always wonder what they figure is going to happen to their cyberminds as the atoms and molecules and, eventually, the protons decay. 


  1. Shaw is remembered for "My Fair Lady," ironically. HIs old age output was capped off with "Man and Superman," a Wagnerian length play cycle that nobody performs or revives, because it's intolerable. In fact, aside from superannuated college professors, who even reads Shaw anymore?

    Yeats got better as he aged, but that was through sheer strength of will. The exception that proves the rule, in fact.

    As for Messerly, I toyed with pointing out (and then discarded it in favor of just shredding his nonsense) that you could easily replace "religion" in his article, with "humanities," and get the same nonsensical result. Nowadays the popular acronym is "STEM," sometimes amended to "STEAM" in order to include "Art." But the wisdom of making the humanities the keystone of an educated populace (a post-Renaissance ideal, btw) still holds, or should; it is the humanities that remind us of the importance of, well, humanity. Remove the humanities as your starting point and core, and it's all too easy to reduce humans to machines (I'm old enough to remember when there was something of a crisis in medical schools, concerned as they were with teaching doctors-to-be to develop a "bedside manner" rather than treat patients as biological units and bags of chemicals). Humanities are not in themselves the panacea, but how do you treat people as human when you start with the assumption they are merely scientific curiosities?

    Well, "they" are; you and I are people. Right? That, too, is a lesson/observation from the humanities, not to exclude even a touchstone of religion. Even after the Renaissance, religion was behind the humanities. The loss of that connection, and of the core interest in humanity, has done us all more damage than we can calculate.

    1. I, of course, grew up being told that Shaw was the second greatest English language playwright, told that over and over again. Other than Pygmalion I've never, once, found any of his other plays convincing. I know most of them are never or almost never given, I would really like to know what the statistics are on productions of his plays. I would bet that other than about four of them they're pretty much never produced. I'd guess Pyg. Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren's Profession, maybe Candida or St. Joan are the most produced. I don't mean by the Shaw Festival, I mean by non-dedicated companies. The Shaw Festival, I see, have even produced the abomination Geneva which Shaw had to keep re-writing because he knew he couldn't get away with presenting Mussolini and Hitler in the positive light he had as Britain was getting closer to and entered into the war. That history of the revisions of that play is like a roadmap into the moral depravity that was GBH. His post-war behavior and production and his production during the war and in the years before that are probably the most disgusting of anyone considered to be a major and respectable writer of the stature given to him. I can't read him or hear him with anything like pleasure because I know about that, now. I think Pygmalion was his high-water mark. He might be the most disgusting human being given the Nobel in literature, though some of the scientists and politicians given the award match his depravity. The Nobel Prizes are a joke.