McCarthy, Hofstadter, Hume, AI, Zen, Christianity

A number of posts have noted the importance of John McCarthy's third design requirement for a human level artificial intelligence: "All aspects of behavior except the most routine should be improvable. In particular, the improving mechanism should be improvable." I claim here, here, and here that this gives rise to our knowledge of good and evil. I claim here that this explains the nature of the "is-ought" divide. I believe that McCarthy's insight has the potential to provide a framework that allows science to understand and inform morality and may wed key insights in religion with computer science. Or, I may be a complete nutter finding patterns where there are none. If so, I may be in good company.

For example, in
Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter writes:

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it is done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. (pg. 37)

Over 400 pages later, he repeats this idea:

This drive to jump out of the system is a pervasive one, and lies behind all progress and art, music, and other human endeavors. It also lies behind such trivial undertakings as the making of radio and television commercials. (pg. 478).

It seems to me that McCarthy's third requirement is behind this drive to "jump out" of the system. If a system is to be improved, it must be analyzed and compared with other systems, and this requires looking at a system from the outside.

Hofstadter then ties this in with Zen:

In Zen, too, we can see this preoccupation with the concept of transcending the system. For instance, the kōan in which Tōzan tells his monks that "the higher Buddhism is not Buddha". Perhaps, self transcendence is even the central theme of Zen. A Zen person is always trying to understand more deeply what he is, by stepping more and more out of what he sees himself to be, by breaking every rule and convention which he perceives himself to be chained by – needless to say, including those of Zen itself. Somewhere along this elusive path may come enlightenment. In any case (as I see it), the hope is that by gradually deepening one's self-awareness, by gradually widening the scope of "the system", one will in the end come to a feeling of being at one with the entire universe. (pg. 479)

Note the parallels to, and differences with, Christianity. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again." (John 3:3) The Greek includes the idea of being born "from above" and "from above" is how the NRSV translates it, even though Nicodemus responds as if he heard "again". In either case, you must transcend the system. The Zen practice of "breaking every rule and convention" is no different from St. Paul's charge that we are all lawbreakers (Rom 3:9-10,23). The reason we are lawbreakers is because the law is not what it ought to be. And it is not what it ought to be because of our inherent knowledge of good and evil which, if McCarthy is right, is how our brains are wired. Where Zen and Christianity disagree is that Zen holds that man can transcend the system by his own effort while Christianity says that man's effort is futile: God must affect that change. In Zen, you can break outside the system; in Christianity, you must be lifted out.

Note, too, that both have the same end goal, where finally man is at "rest". The desire to "step out" of the system, to continue to "improve", is finally at an end. The "is-ought" gap is forever closed. The Zen master is "at one with the entire universe" while for the Christian, the New Jerusalem has descended to Earth, the "sea of glass" that separates heaven and earth is no more (Rev 4:6, 21:1) so that "God may be all in all." (1 Cor 15:28). Our restless goal-seeking brain is finally at rest; the search is over.

All of this as a consequence of one simple design requirement: that everything must be improvable.

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