Wednesday, July 07, 2010
David Gelernter on Rilke's mental descent and artificial thinking.
Losing control of your thought stream equals losing reality. Partway down the spectrum, as you look out that window and your thoughts wander, you have not yet lost reality; you are still aware of your environment. But you are day-dreaming, distracted, less aware of reality. As your focus drifts still lower and you approach sleep, loss of thought-control and loss of reality progress. ("Dissolving," lösend, writes Rilke, describes your sense of reality as you approach sleep.) When you sleep and dream, your thoughts are beyond ordinary conscious control — dreams make themselves; and reality is gone.

"On ne doit pas dire, je pense," wrote Rimbaud, "mais, on me pense." "One should say not `I think' but `I am thought.'" Like nearly all poets, he frequented the mental neighborhood between wakefulness and sleep: just beyond conscious control, just before sleep and dreams. "What is time? When is the present?" asks Rilke in a letter after completing the Duino Elegies. He was a master of low-focus thought; he watched his own mind carefully as he descended the long, stout rope of the cognitive spectrum into mental regions where external reality fades and imaginary reality brightens; where thoughts flow freely and strange new analogies emerge. (Rilke himself uses the image of mental descent: "I have descended into my work farther than ever before.")
Could human-like intelligence emerge on the internet? No. First, the raw materials are wrong. Human beings and animals are conscious and, as the philosopher John Searle has argued (in effect), a scientist must assume that consciousness results from a certain chemical, physical structure — just as photosynthesis results from the chemistry of plants. You can't program your laptop or cellphone to transform carbon dioxide into sugar; computers are made of the wrong stuff for photosynthesis — and the wrong stuff for consciousness.
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