Disciplinary Normativeness and the Artificial General Intelligence Conference

Ben Goertzel and Jürgen Schmidhuber, Artificial General Intelligence Conference 2009, keynote question and answer, 6 March 2009

S. and I are spending the weekend volunteering at the Artificial General Intelligence Conference 2009. Last night we saw organizer Ben Goertzel’s introductory talk and Jürgen Schmidhuber’s talk on various aspects of intelligence as compression and formalism in AGI (post-talk discussion, Goertzel left, Schmidhuber to the right). Today we attended Cognitive Architectures I and II and the poster session. Matthew Ikle and Ben Goertzel’s discussion of using formal economic models as a means to generate attention in the OpenCog framework and Eric Baum’s presentation on the relation between evolution and intelligence both blew my mind. I cant wait for these talks and their attendant slideshows to be up on the website.

For now the most interesting thing about the conference from the standpoint of a social scientist is the degree to which the organizer, Ben Goertzel is a Kuhnian revolutionary disciplinarian. His talk on the challenges of AGI was a perfect demonstration of the problems of prerevolutionary or pre-paradigmatic science. Pre-paradigmatic is the current state of AGI research and it would be an excellent candidate for history of science study as it will probably remain so for many years to come, but its revolution is coming.

It has gradually become clear to me the degree to which Mr. Goertzel is a leader in the field, by which I do not mean his role as an innovator — though he is definitely that — but that he is someone drawing the discipline together from its disparate strands and goading it on in its proper objectives. The problems that he identified in his opening talk — the lack of a common language, a dominate model shared by at least a plurality of researchers, a road-map for future problem identification, again, shared by at least a plurality, the lack of any metric of progress — are all classically Kuhnian problems. The conference obviously serves a number of objectives, many very traditional such as professional networking and facilitation of communication of findings. But unlike one might expect from a conference of a more mature science, there was a considerable amount of normative, discipline-definitional activity. First is the very conference itself. There is clearly no well-defined research area of artificial general intelligence. The bizarre diffusion of backgrounds and affiliations represented displayed no coherence or institutional establishment. Participants had backgrounds in neurology, cognitive science, anesthesiology, evolutionary biology, bioinfomatics, mathematics, logic, computer science and various strands of engineering. Creating the problem of a shared language, people had to be fluent in the languages of multiple disciplines and were mixing and matching as well as engaging in isolated terminological innovation. People worked as academics, corporate researchers and developers, engineers, entrepreneurs and so on.

Ill-definition means that things don’t cohere, or that what has come together naturally dissipates. It is in this sense that Mr. Goertzel is a disciplinary revolutionary. He really has a personal goal and a vision regarding AGI. At one point in his opening talk he actually delivered a brief bit of a lecture to conference participants on the problem of focusing on sub-general level intelligences for the expedience that they are achievable and money-making, though admitting to culpability in that respect as well. It is also clear what a small clique of researchers constitute the AGI world, as well as Mr. Goertzel’s position as a hub of the social and intellectual network. During the question and answer, he was able to call on most people in the room by first name. And he is clearly an intellectual celebrity with few peers. As Kuhn argued, non-scientific factors feature more prominently in the definition and direction of a science than rhetoric of objectivity would lead one to expect.

The Grand Historical Narrative of Postmodernism

When people think of postmodernism in philosophy, they usually have in mind a pretty specific list of thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and a number of lesser lights among the French post-structuralists. But I am thinking of an alternate trajectory where the key figures would be Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger (Heidegger is at least a bridge figure in any version of postmodernism). In the grand historical narrative spun by these two, there is a founding period of the Western intellectual tradition where a series of conceptualizations dramatically circumscribed the realm of possible future development, determined the course of the developments that would occur and cut us off from other potential futures. For Heidegger it was the impressing of ουσια with the form of λογος in the metaphysics of Aristotle. The remainder of the Western tradition has unfolded within the confines of this original conception.

A point made by Spengler in The Decline of the West but similarly prominently by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence is that such an original conceptualization has only a limited potential. It is a potential of sufficient abundance as to play out over the course of millennia. Nevertheless, some time in the midst of the Long Nineteenth Century the Western tradition hit its pinnacle and has now entered, in Spengler’s terms, the autumn of its life. Either at some point in the recent past, or at some point in the imminent future the West will have exhausted itself. The parlor game is in arguing for various watershed events: the death of god, the First World War, “on or about December 1910” (Virgina Woolf).

In its negative mode, postmodernism is that attempt to clear away the debris of the wreckage of the West (Heidegger’s Destruktion or Abbau, Derrida’s deconstruction). In its affirmative mode, it is the attempt to get behind that original conceptualization, revisit that original openness to that unbounded potentiality of ουσια and to refound the Western intellectual tradition — or something more cosmopolitan still — on that basis. Hence the interest in Heidegger with the pre-Socratics, with Parmenides and Heraclitus.

I have lived in sympathy with similar such ideas for some time now in that my trajectory out of natural science into philosophy started with my first encounter with Thomas Kuhn in the May 1991 issue of Scientific American (Horgan, John, “Profile: Reluctant Revolutionary“). In Kuhn I was introduced to the notion of a domain formed by an original act of genus insight (a paradigm), but with only a limited potential, eventually to be exhausted and superseded by subsequent reconceptualization of the field.

I suspect that one of the causes of the structure of scientific inquiry as Kuhn describes is that the object of scientific inquiry is, at least phenomenologically, a moving target. A theory is derived within a certain horizon of experience, but just as quickly as a theory is promulgated, human experience moves on. The scope of human experience expands as our capabilities — for perception, for measure, for experiencing extremes of the natural world — increase. Consider that when Albert Einstein published the special and general theories of relativity people had no idea that stars were clumped into galaxies. They thought that the milky way was just one slightly more dense region of stars in a universe that consisted of an essentially homogenous, endless expanse of stars. They had identified some unusual, diffuse light patches that were referred to as nebula, but they had not realized that these nebulae were each entire galaxies of their own, tremendously distant, and that the local cluster striping our sky was the galaxy containing our sun, as viewed from the inside. And no one realized that the universe was expanding. They imagined that the spread of starts was static. Einstein — in what he later called the greatest error of his professional life — contrived his equations of relativity to so predict a static universe, whereas they had originally predicted one either expanding or contracting.

Notice that if one were to accept these ideas above, the intellectual scheme with which we would be faced would be one of cycles within cycles of superior and subordinate ideas, e.g. the Newtonian and Einsteinian and quantum mechanical scientific revolutions all take place within the horizon of ουσια qua λογος.

This is a romantic series of ideas, that a primordial act of genius is capable of radically redirecting the course of history. Of course postmodernists reject such totalizing abstractions as “Western civilization,” “the Western intellectual tradition,” and “the West” as well as the practice of constructing such grand historical narratives as the one I have sketched above. But there it is. I think that postmodernist thought is riddled with tensions, especially between its macro structure and micro tactics.

The Legitimacy of Argumentum ad Hominem

Will Wilkinson and Crispin Sartwell consider the satisfactions of environmental soothsaying:

As I’ve said, the insane jackup of rhetoric with regard to global warming, “the greatest crisis the species has ever faced,” the death of the planet, etc, is the secular humanist liberal apocalypse. It’s a sheer competition for who’s most dire, most obsessed, and who’s more unanimous than whom. It’s the flood, complete with the reasons: our moral culpability. I predict this: when Obama is elected, liberals will feel better about themselves and the probable verdict of cosmic judgment, and they’ll tone down the eschatology, the ranting cant.

(“Ranting Cant,” The Fly Bottle, 2 August 2008; untitled, Eye of the Storm, 2 August 2008; respectively)

For my part, I imagine there is something to this argument. Every faction has its share of less than completely rational members. But if it is the contention of Messrs. Wilkinson and Sartwell that the behavior of some of the advocates of anthropogenic climate change bears one iota of relevance on the soundness of the theory itself, then this is a picture perfect instance of the falicy of argumentum ad hominem. The emotional satisfaction that someone takes in holding a particular position would seem irrelevant to the ultimate adjudication of said position.

Some time ago when I originally made the formal cognition post (1 January 2008) K.S. said that he didn’t see the point. What was my advocacy of formal cognition meant to achieve? I couldn’t quite answer him at the time, but Mr. Wilkinson’s post really clarifies the matter for me. I’m an advocate of formal cognition against rhetoric generally, but most especially against some of its more pernitious tactics of Freudianism broadly construed as an interpretive style, sociobiology in its normative aspect (an epistemological relative of Freudianism), and secularization thesis.

For every purportedly empirical statement out there, there is built up a detritus of extraneous belief. There is the psychological baggage of the proposition: the advocacy or denial of an opinion is motivated. Cui bono? Or advocacy or denial becomes a part of one’s identity. People build an emotional complex around certain beliefs. Certain propositions become tropes mapping us into desired cultural categories. A proposition becomes cornerstone to an elaborate worldview into which their constructors invest vast amounts of intellectual energy. These people tend to become conservative about such propositions all out of proportion to the weight that the casual observer might assign to such beliefs.

It’s really easy to succumb to the desire to set aside the mater per se and argue the detritus. It’s certainly more emotionally satisfying. The purpose of a catalogue of validated logic and methodologies is to determine the soundness of a proposition and cast out the irrelevant considerations in a systematic way.

So, for example, the scientific veracity of anthropogenic climate change is within range of rational risk assessment. The systems concepts of a tipping point and self-reinforcing, accelerating change are legitimate and the potential implications of these concepts applied here are alarming. The perennial libertarian Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” worldview has its own short fallings, namely that disasters are plausible and occasionally systemic.

On the other hand, there is no proposition beyond the proposing hominid. I’m not so sure that the distinction between rhetoric and formal decidability is tenable, especially once one admits the scientific method into the corpus of formal cognition. Given that induction is logically and experientially unsound, the scientific method becomes merely a highly stylized rhetoric, a rhetoric whose admissible tactics are more narrowly circumscribed. It is most certainly a rhetoric that is more reliable than others, but it nonetheless exists with other rhetorics along a continuum of variably reliable tactics, rather than being cordoned off in a privileged category all its own.

If nothing else, the absolute prohibition against argumentum ad hominem seems incompatible with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Is it even possible for the behavior, psychology, constellation of attendant beliefs and rhetorical strategies of the advocates for a proposition to be irrelevant to the acceptance or rejection of the proposition? I think that once one dispenses with the notion of truth or falsity of a proposition in any strong sense in favor mere acceptance or rejection (the sociology of knowledge), then these previously considered extraneous factors become relevant. They are real channels by which information and belief are transmitted throughout society. They are part of the practice of acceptance and rejection as they actually happen. Argumentum ad hominem seeks to make explicit and disrupt these channels. It reduces their efficacy through ridicule.

(This is not to deny the truth or falsity of out beliefs in some ultimate sense. The truth is out there — it just doesn’t intervene in our deliberations in any radical way. Prima facie, incomplete beliefs about the world can be made workable.)