Of thinking machines and the centred self

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  • AI & Soc (1995) 9:184-192 9 1995 Springer-Verlag London Limited A I & SOe l [ ' l~

    Of Thinking Machines and the Centred Self

    A. Raghuramaraju Department of Philosophy, University of Hyderabad, India

    The field of artificial intelligence (AI) like most other fields, has its votaries and its critics. Within these terms, one also finds an ongoing debate over approaches to AI, that between human-centred and machine-centred approaches. The votaries seem to have found their enterprise on the idea of a thinking machine, a machine imitative of the human mind. The critics, who challenge the project of AI reject the reduction of the human person to its "intelligent" functions. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986), for instance, seek to widen the ambit of what constitutes the human to include such non-cognitive qualities as institution, judgement, emotion, etc. They seem to be thus confronting the cognitivist closures of the AI thrust, highlighted thereby its exclusions and opening up of what they consider to be the realm of the "human". It is not as though the field of AI has been a mute witness to those challenges. Indeed there have been efforts within AI to develop programs that "have the elements of a theory of heuristic (as contrasted with algorithmic) problem solving". This theory can be used "both to understand human heuristic processes and to stimulate such processes with digital computers. Intuition, insight and learning are no longer exclusive possessions of humans: any large high-speed computer can be programmed to exhibit them also" (Simon and Nowell in Vivek, 1992) 1.

    This almost ready made co-option of the terms of the radical critique represented in Dreyfus is due, primarily, I should think, to the ambiguity in their concept and ontological substantiating of the realm of the non-cognitive. Importantly, it illustrated that the radical critique of AI inhabits the very ground that it arraigns against. The questions: how is the non-cognitive to be postulated and constructed? These seem to be beyond the frames of Dreyfus' s critique. Even as the critics challenge the reduction of the human within the project of AI, they do not seem to explore the contents facilitating, indeed necessitating, this reduction. In this paper, I shall explore the intellectual context of facilitating this idea, as also the critique, of the thinking machine. I will argue, that this self is a self transported from the notion of the modern man.

  • of Thinking Machines and the Centred Self 185

    Following an introduction to the nature of the Cartesian self which reduces the human being to human intelligence, I shall endeavour to show how this reduction facilitates an affinity between man and machine, and a hostility between man and nature. This hostility is rooted in the disjuncture between the modern self and nature. I will discuss subsequent attempts at overcoming this disjuncture which culminates in the making of what can be termed, following Habermas (1987) the philosophical discourse of modernity. In the course of this discussion I shall try to clarify: a, How the self of modernity which attempts to dominate and subjugate nature now comes to be threatened, in turn by the machine; and b, What accounts for the alleged violence exercised by the centred self and not only on nature but also on other human beings. I will conclude by drawing certain striking similarities between the making of modernity and the discussions within AI.

    The Enlightenment formulated a man-centred universe, a centrality unprecedented in human history. This idea of centrality has two aspects to it: 1. What the self asserts nature to be; and 2. What it excludes from its domain. The self in the Enlightenment anthropocentrism asserts its nature as being independent from its immediate and mediated surroundings, locating itself outside history. The Cartesian self refuses to have any relation with the impirical man. To borrow a term from Alasdair MacIntyre (1985) the Enlightenment has no account of "man-as-he-happens- to-be". The Enlightenment self, therefore, is purely and exclusively a cognitive self -a self privileging its claims to centrality, certainty, universality, rationality, etc. Within the Enlightenment theories, the non-cognitive comes to be constructed as something "other", to be excluded and subjugated. Let me also clarify that the point is not about the identification of cognitivity in human beings, but to a view which determines human beings as thinking beings devoid of non-cognitive aspects. This determination easily facilitates the idea of a thinking machine. If man is exclusively rational, this rationality can be performed, perhaps more effectively and efficiently, by machines. The success or otherwise of this performance is secondary: what is important is to note the nexus between cognitivity and the idea of AI. Before discussing the relation between the cognitive and the non-cognitive realms, let me digress and clarify the ground - a plausible ground - making for the emergence of a self-centred universe.

    The rise of the Enlightenment self cannot be accounted for exclusively by social and economic transformations. Perhaps we may find a clue in the coincidental rise of heliocentrism and anthropocentrism - a coincidence which I think is yet to be explored in the scholarship. Thomas Kuhn (1959) has suggested that the Copernican revolution though initiated "as narrowly technical and highly mathematical revision of classical astronomy ... became one focus for the tremendous controversies in religion, philosophy, and in social theory, which, during the two centuries following the discovery of America set the tenor of the modern mind". This remark, problematised in the context of this paper allows us to juxtapose heliocentrism and anthropocentrism. As the Earth was removed from the centre of the universe and replaced by a Sun, man and his habitat were relegated to the periphery. This lost centrality of man is sought to be compensated by a thorough going anthropocentrism whereby man becomes the source and the creation of society at its institutions. The compensation seems, even if incomplete and distorted, an existential need indeed. The fall of geocentrism is the precondition for the rise of anthropocentrism.

  • 186 A. Raghuramaraju

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    This centred self is at variance with nature, contributing to the tension between man and nature. Passmore (1975) amongst others, traces one of the roots of this tension to the Cartesian anthropocentrism and its dualism. He sees in Descartes a proclamation making man the master and the possessor of nature. For Passmore, this Cartesian metaphysics results in an I-It relationship. This view, while explaining the man- nature tension, however, fails to explain: a) how the human self comes to wield immense power, and exercise large scale domination on nature (seeking an answer in modern science and technology is to beg the question, as point I shall return to later); and b) how does one account for the alleged violence perpetuated by a human- centred system not just on nature but also on human beings. The answer to the first lies in the making of the philosophical discourse of modernity; and the second calls for a clarification of the series of exclusions that the modern self came to exercise. I will begin with the latter.

    The Cartesian self in identifying itself exclusively as cognitive self, comes close to the idea of a thinking machine and, in so doing, moves away from nature and other concrete realities. Alternatively, the Cartesian self in locating itself as distinct from nature collapses into the idea of a thinking machine. There is not only a distance postulated between the self and nature but also a disjuncture suggested between the two. The self therefore, asserts its centrality by a set of systematic exclusions.

    1. The modern self excludes from the outset all that is traditional. This is clearly recognised and endorsed in Habermas' project of retrieving modernity. Hegel, according to Habermas, initiates the "communicative medium of the subjects", which even while overcoming the solipsism of the Cartesian subject does not do away with the subject. For Habermas, Hegel conceived the communicative medium within a framework of an "ethical totality along the guidelines of a popular religion in which communicat ive reason assumed the idealised form of historical communities, such as the primitive Christian community and the Greek polis". Hegel conceived the idea of the communicative medium within the context of historical communities. Since he did not want to embrace the latter he abandoned the former. Habermas endorses Hegelian rejection of the transitional domains. This restricts the universality of the discourse of modernity, and also the framework of communicative action.

    2. The idea of the modem self equates morality with rationality, and further equated women with the senses, bereft of reason. This, as feminists such as Young and Okin have argued, makes the human centredness actually a male centredness. They charge Rousseau and Kant as advocating this view: Okin shows how Kant, in founding morality on rationality, excludes women as moral subjects. She writes (1989):

    [Kant] in most of his central works of moral philosophy.., defines the moral subjects of whom he speaks as not only human beings but also "all rational beings as such", in less noticed works from the earliest to the last he makes it clear that women are not sufficiently rational and autonomous to be the moral subjects. In an early essay, entitled "Observations on the feeling of the beautiful an sublime" he says of women that their "'Philosophy is not to reason but to senses."

    Okin's statement has two points: a) regarding the identification of morality with rationality, and b) the identification of women with the senses not with