Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dangerous Ideas

Steven Pinker has a very odd definition of the word "dangerous." He writes an article in The Chicago Sun Times in which he lists twenty two questions that he calls dangerous ideas, the sort of thing to get your blood pressure up.

Well, a good antidote for high blood pressure is laughter and Denyse O'Leary's answers to Pinker's dangerous questions offer some of that.

The fact of the matter is that there are indeed dangerous ideas, but they're dangerous because they transgress materialist or PC orthodoxies and are liable to get you fired, shunned, or otherwise hated by the keepers of the materialist dogmas at our colleges, universities, and newsrooms.

Here are a few (In fairness, Pinker does give more general variants of #1 and #5):

  1. IQ, like other human attributes, is racially linked.
  2. The structure of the cosmos is best explained in terms of intentional engineering.
  3. Homosexuality is a perversion of human sexuality.
  4. Abortion is murder.
  5. On average, men are better at math/science than women.
  6. Global warming is a hoax.
  7. We are succeeding in Iraq.
  8. Purposeless processes cannot account for the attributes of living things.

I'm not arguing here that any of the above are true, only that it's much more dangerous to espouse them in some settings, especially the academy, than it is to voice most of the ideas that Pinker lists.


Human Consciousness and AI

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, has a fascinating article on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Technology Review. Gelernter argues that AI will never be able to produce simulated conscious minds and that even if it could, it shouldn't. Along the way he offers a number of wonderful insights into human cognition and what makes human consciousness different from unconscious processes that machines can carry out.

Here's part of what he says about the ethical problems involved with AI. Assume that we have downloaded the memories of a person (Joe) into the software that comprises an artificial mind:

[U]nderstand the enormous ethical burden we have now assumed. Our software mind is conscious (by assumption) just as a human being is; it can feel pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, ecstasy and misery. Once we've transferred Joe's memories into this artificial yet conscious being, it can remember what it was like to have a human body--to feel spring rain, stroke someone's face, drink when it was thirsty, rest when its muscles were tired, and so forth. (Bodies are good for many purposes.) But our software mind has lost its body--or had it replaced by an elaborate prosthesis. What experience could be more shattering? What loss could be harder to bear? (Some losses, granted, but not many.) What gives us the right to inflict such cruel mental pain on a conscious being?

In fact, what gives us the right to create such a being and treat it like a tool to begin with? Wherever you stand on the religious or ethical spectrum, you had better be prepared to tread carefully once you have created consciousness in the laboratory.

It's a long essay but well worth the time.


What He No Longer Believes

Joe Carter responds to Rod Dreher's list of things he used to believe before the Iraq war but which he no longer does by posting his own list of five such items. It depresses me to say this, but I think he's correct on all five.

Read them and see what you think.


Hitch Pushes Back

Christopher Hitchens is at his best in this essay on the student at Pace University who was arrested for the "hate crime" of tossing a Koran into the toilet. His anti-theistic predilections notwithstanding, Hitch says many things in this piece that need to be said. On the matter of the arrest of the Pace student, for example, he writes:

This has to stop, and it has to stop right now. There can be no concession to sharia in the United States. When will we see someone detained, or even cautioned, for advocating the burning of books in the name of God? If the police are honestly interested in this sort of "hate crime," I can help them identify those who spent much of last year uttering physical threats against the republication in this country of some Danish cartoons. In default of impartial prosecution, we have to insist that Muslims take their chance of being upset, just as we who do not subscribe to their arrogant certainties are revolted every day by the hideous behavior of the parties of God.

Read the whole thing.