Author : John E. Charalambakis
Date : December 28, 2017
I boarded my end-of-year flight from Cincinnati to Paris, excited of whom I would meet this year, and as I was boarding I heard a deep voice stating: “You have posed the wrong question, provided the wrong argument, and therefore reached an irrelevant conclusion. Furthermore, the arcane dissatisfaction of the people is a reflection that all of us long for something deeper than technology can provide, and you better check that with Auguste Comte.” The distinct voice was none other’s than George Berkley’s who is credited with pushing to the limit the idea that what we actually perceive is not the outside world but rather ideas or perceptions (continuing, of course, the legacy of John Locke).
‘Wait a minute” George Frederic Handel said. “Perception and sensation always interplay. The sensible particular is not the terminus of perception, but the objectum quo – through which the intellect grasps the intelligible reality – is the real thing, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not the culmination of Pierre-Simon de Laplace ideas but rather its graveyard”.
I took my seat and while I never participate in those discussions, I did not want to miss a thing: “Remind me please about Comte’s ideas and Laplace’s thesis,” I said, to be reminded by Berkeley that in 1814 Laplace wrote an essay titled “Essai philosophique sue les probalites” stating that “A mind that in a given instance knew all the forces by which nature is animated and the position of the bodies it is composed, if it were vast enough to include all these data within his analysis, could embrace in one single formula the movements of the largest bodies and of the smallest atoms; nothing would be uncertain for him; the future and the past would be equally before his eyes”.
“But isn’t that the vision of Edmond Kirsch in Dan Brown’s new novel titled “The Origin” where technologically advanced AI replaces humanity?” Handel asked. We each recalled how Handel himself had replaced the study of law with music and how he reached the edges of financial ruin when the Church of England ostracized him for performing the oratorios “Esther” and “Israel in Egypt” in secular theaters. As he was facing debtor’s prison in 1741 his health was deteriorating. It was then that three Dublin charities commissioned him to compose a work – based on a libretto for an oratorio on the life of Christ given to him by a friend – for a fundraising. On August 22, 1741, Handel began composing. He was so consumed and inspired by his composition that he finished his masterful work by September 14, 1741. He named it simply “Messiah”.
“How did you do that?” Berkley asked. “Do what?” Handel replied. “You know, composing 260 pages of the most amazing music the world has ever heard in just 24 days. Bach says that he visited you and while secluded in your room – we all know that you never left that room – he heard through the door sobbing with emotion he had never heard before”, Berkley responded.
“I am not embarrassed to say it, but as I have stated before whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not. However, I can unequivocally state that no AI machine helped me compose the Messiah. My liberation came at the premiere on April 13, 1742, in Dublin. The benefit freed 142 persons from debtor’s prison. When you visit my grave at Westminster Abbey pay attention to the manuscript page I am holding… ”
“Let me tell you about Auguste Comte”, Shakespeare said. “As the founder of positivism his arguments for the unreality of anything that could not be seen and measured laid the foundations of human beings as objects. In Comte’s new world, ideas exist to serve machines and people’s lives are treated as machinery. In such world, this may be unfortunate but it is necessary for the advancement of technology. Technology evolves – as in Edmond Kirsch’s story – but where Dan Brown misses the boat (among other places) is when technology becomes a technopoly grandmaster where reductionism rules. Under the rules of such grandmaster, humans find their meaning in machinery and technique. Frederic Taylor (the father of scientific management) in 1911 foresaw the moment when humans are at the disposal of their technologies.”
“Comte’s brave new world found fertile ground in the research labs of America,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer added. “You see, the American mind lives in a land of wonders, as Alexis Tocqueville wrote. Everything in America is in constant movement. Every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in the American mind the idea of newness is closely linked with the idea of progress and improvement. Nowhere does the American mind see any limit placed by nature on human endeavor. For such a mind, something that does not exist is just something that has not been tried. Recall that in my home country, Germany, we also liked experimenting with new ideas and we triumphally elected Adolf Hitler as our grandmaster Fuhrer. That left me with no other option but to participate in the plot to assassinate him. Handel talked about his liberating moment. Mine came when the Nazis hanged me at the Flossenburg prison for my participation in that plot. When you visit my grave in Berlin at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery just off Chaussee Straβe, I will tell you a special story about harvesting time, and the laborers wanted. However, there is a cost to pay for a life worth living which is not cheap…”
It was obvious that Bonhoeffer was referring to the need for us all to regenerate a sense of sublime madness in our inner souls. The concept of course was articulated in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, but it can be first seen in Shakespeare’s plays and reflects the internal drive that keeps societies healthy and alive. Maybe it was sublime madness in 2003 that drove two guys to the hospital bed of the then ailing Attorney General in order to stop the unconstitutional ploys of the White House. “Yeah, I happened to be there too,” came a voice from nowhere. We were are puzzled, someone was eavesdropping….
“You know it’s not just the mind that is exploring new things, it’s also about the culture that supports unconstrained ‘new’ growth that robs the future from their past”, Berkeley said and he continued: “Isn’t that the reason that we called the Robber Barons by that name? Those guys accumulated so much wealth, power, prestige, and influence that would have amazed even Richard Arkwright!”
“Comte’s ideas and the technologies of tomorrow seem to be evolving in people’s minds from placebo to panacea,” Shakespeare added, and continued. “Moreover, AI and the internet of all things seem to be the ultimate sources of fulfillment, of life purpose and of creativity. To every old-world belief, habit, or tradition, there seems to be a technological alternative. To reading the alternative is TV; to family the alternative is mobility; to prayer the alternative is social media and addictiveness; to restraint the alternative is immediate gratification; to lose your mark and target in life the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology the alternative is to manufacture your own truth and proclaim it numerous times through your own polling so that even the manufacturer of it believes it to be true. They are even working on finding an alternative to the riddle of death through cryogenics.“
“Sometime in the Flossenburg prison, I was told about the White Rose resistance movement,” Bonhoeffer said, and continued, “hope is not the same thing as optimism. Those who possess sublime madness, know well that hope has nothing to do with a conviction that things will turn out well. Those with the hope of sublime madness lay down their beings to the certainty that they need to act because it is the right thing to do, regardless of how things turn out. On the contrary, optimism – and especially naïve optimism – engenders self-delusion and passivity and is the enemy of the hopeful sublime madness.”
“Imagination is neither the language of nature nor the language of people, but both at once, the medium of communication between the two,” the eavesdropping voice declared. “Who is out there, eavesdropping on us?” Shakespeare inquired.
“I am just a student of you all,” the voice responded. “Isn’t that you, Shakespeare, who taught us about the tension between the dying ethic of the pre-modern and the modern, a theme later explored by William Faulkner? Of course, if we dig deeper, we will also find that John Milton called imagination and its sister a.k.a. sublime madness ‘things invisible to the mortal soul’. Unfortunately, we live in a Machiavellian era, where the ethos of believe me, self-promotion, manipulation, and deceit is personalized by the meta-moderns leaders like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. That ethos deforms society and human beings, transforming them both into things they are not via the mechanisms of identity crises. The “believe me” of today’s voices defy Percy Shelley’s lines that sought to lift the veils of ignorance and stupidity, and lead us into becoming the Rigolettos of meta-modernity who orchestrate the murder of own daughters.”
“Somewhere I met Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglas, and they both told me that it was sublime madness that led them to resistance during slavery and Jim Crow,” Berkley proclaimed, “simply because as they both stated ‘the hope generated by sublime madness comes by way of defeat, and that’s how suffering and death do not have the last word’. And that’s how you snatch victory out of defeat.”
“Modern slavery is reflected and crowned nowadays with timidity, fear, and blindness to what Immanuel Kant called ‘radical evil’, and can be found in those who serve the desires of self-adulators who in their own evolutionary process manufacture systems of destruction, as Hannah Arendt explains,” Bonhoeffer added, and continued, “The moral bankruptcy of the Athenian system did not allow Socrates to participate in the charade of justice it perpetrated. That was sublime madness too”.
As we all were warming up to the discussion, the eavesdropping voice stated: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I was told to reroute through Washington D.C. in order to pick up two very special persons that some passengers are gossiping about. ‘Believe me’ they are making special progress in their work and just wanted to say a few things to those passengers about sublime madness in the Machiavellian era in which we are living.”
Happy New Year!