July 21, 2023
Thanks to HMU Alumnus, Dave Seng, for today’s blog post.
I recently participated in the fall discussion series, What the Greeks can Teach us About AI. The series focused on four Greek plays — Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus; and Herakles, The Bacchae, and Medea by Euripides. The discussions were insightful and explored many fascinating questions related to the human condition and societal concerns centering around technology and artificial intelligence (AI). Among others, the discussion questions investigated what it means to be human, what rationality means, the nature of agency, and what wisdom might mean. The discussion series was so rich and thoughtful that I found it necessary to break up my reflection on it into three questions (each will serve as a different post). Today I will focus on the first question: “Can AI help us with the enduring human questions”? Two consecutive posts that will follow include: “can AI have human rationality”?; and “will AI ever be wise”?
What provoked my thinking, most of all, is that Socratic questioning is still a very important part of human flourishing. Sometimes, it is the questions that matter in life more than the answers. Even if one comes to the right answer, it is important to know why the answer is correct. It is the question that guides us in thinking rationally and critically about life’s most important concerns. Good questions frame our point of departure and put us on a quest for discovery. In life, we ask questions to learn from our mistakes and to evaluate what went right. We ask questions to reflect on where we have been, and to monitor and adjust our journey through life. The Greek plays that we read and discussed helped us to focus on what it means to be fully rational and human in the age of AI. If one were to attribute human-like qualities to artificial intelligence, then it seems a good starting question might be something like what does it mean to be human in the first place? If the Greeks have taught us anything, it is that questioning leads to human flourishing. As Socrates reminds us, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Similarly, an unreflective approach to the technology all around us may not be worth having. Such an attitude may not lead to a life of genuine significance or purpose.
Is it possible that AI can help us with questions? Certainly, AI is a useful tool. AI and modern computation can help us get from one place to another, take a person to the moon and back, play games for entertainments, and develop vaccines. Assuming one has digital literacy and critical thinking skills to understand what has been given them in an AI response, AI can at times provide factual information. AI does provide value and a certain level of progress to humanity. Where basic science, navigation, calculation, and computation are concerned these are relatively simple questions. It seems that the questions which require personal decision making or the enduring questions that humanity has always wondered about are much harder to solve through mathematical processing and moving electrons from one place to another.
Where is the algorithm for how to live a life with meaning, significance, and purpose? What chatbot can help us with a difficult ethical dilemma? Assuming there are good and bad things in this world to choose from, where is the algorithm that tells us what to aspire to as individuals or a society? Can all questions be reduced to logic and number crunching? In his book, Wild Problems, Russ Roberts explains that there are some questions, common to all of us, that cannot be resolved strictly scientifically, technologically, or mathematically. He calls these kinds of existential problems ‘wild problems’:
“Whether to have a child is what I call a wild problem—a fork in the road of life where knowing which path is the right one isn’t obvious, where the pleasure and pain from choosing one path over another are ultimately hidden from us, where the path we choose defines who we are and who we might become. Wild problems are the big decisions all of us have to deal with as we go through life. … But the big decisions we face in life, the wild problems—whether to marry, who to marry, whether to have children, what career path to follow, how much time to devote to friends and family, how to resolve daily ethical dilemmas—these decisions can’t be made with data, or science, or the usual rational approaches.”
I would suggest that strictly following a data set or reducing reasoning to a strict analytical formula is a mistake. We will talk about rationality and AI in our next post. For now, let us consider deeply personal questions. Questions such as where should I live? What school should I go to? or should I not go to school and do something else? And many others that cannot be reduced to an algorithm or mathematical analysis. Can everything in the human condition be reduced to strict analytical reasoning? The Greek plays we read in this discussion series suggest that there is something much more to the human predicament than a narrow understanding of human rationality. As we will discover in our next part, the Greeks teach us that being human is a mixture of rational, nonrational, and even irrational desires, appetites, and motivations.
But what about decision making or the great enduring questions? Enter any one of these above questions into an AI chat bot and you will likely be given a list of pros and cons and be told that you have to decide based on your beliefs and values. This is not bad advice to start with. But what if you do not have any values? Or maybe you do not know what your values are, or what if your values conflict with others? For these kinds of questions, the examined life, reading great books, and seeking answers from those who have lived experience and wisdom can help, but an AI can only take one so far.
Sometimes it is personal questions that turn out to be big enduring questions. A county commissioner, for example, while developing new zoning ordinances might begin to wonder whether the effect of the ordinances is discriminatory or unjust. Justice is a perennial human question. If one were to ask an AI “what is justice?” It might put out a series of various kinds of definitions (distributive justice, retributive justice, social justice, etc.). Although it is probably good to understand different applications of justice, such a list does little to help one understand whether justice is objective or purely subjective. A list of different definitions (sometimes conflicting) does little to explain what justice is in the first place. Is justice purely subjective? The question has significant consequences. If justice is only subjective then social order would certainly devolve into chaos. All the great questions of humankind have practical ramifications. So far, AI can do little to solve these kinds of questions.
Can technology solve uniquely human questions? This essay is only intended to lay out some tactical concerns, but the answers will require careful human reflection. Human beings, more than any other species, seem to be prone to asking questions. Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Answers may not mean very much if one does not truly understand the question or one’s situation in life. A final personal reflection is in order. Often, I will give open book quizzes in my classes. An open book quiz will only help students who have the prior critical thinking, interpretive, and evaluative reading skills in place. Without those skills, neither the question nor the answer will make much sense to the student. Discovering the correct answer requires a genuine understanding of the question. Likewise, AI will be of little help without significant human deliberation and careful reflection on the most important questions facing us. We must understand the nature of the questions that face us in order to move forward. Humanity will flourish by thinking carefully and critically about these enduring questions that do not seem to go away.
 Alternatively, a question may lead one to an incorrect solution, however, reflection, logic, and the use of reason can resolve that.
 Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, ed. Mortimer Adler and et al, vol. 6, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 210.
 Russ Roberts, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us (New York: Penguin, 2022), 2–3.
 Quoted in Garry Kasparov, How Life Imitates Chess, pg. 49.
Kasparov, Garry. How Life Imitates Chess. Penguin Books, 2007.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Edited by Mortimer Adler, et al. Vol. 6. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1990.
Roberts, Russ. Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. New York: Penguin, 2022.
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