Monday, March 27, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

Luciano Floridi has published a highly interesting paper in The New Atlantis titled “Why Information Matters”: Central to Professor Floridi’s paper is a lucid discussion of Alan Turing’s contribution to Information science and of his famous imitation game. Over many years I have written repeatedly on the ‘Alan Turing Question’ and my first impulse on looking at Professor Floridi’s paper was to revert once more to the question of thinking machines. But as I read on I found that a wider discussion of points raised by the paper is called for.

First I have to register a reservation. Professor Floridi defines the field of his academic work as Philosophy of Information. For two decades, from 1998 when I published my first book when I was past seventy, I have been emphasizing that the failure to completely separate philosophy and science is causing grievous error on all sides. Professor Floridi’s discipline is an important and much needed new branch of science. Let us call it Information Science or Information Theory or Theory of Information Science or invent for it a new name. To call it Philosophy, I am afraid, not only magnifies and enforces the damaging confusion of science and philosophy but further consolidates the detrimental displacement of genuine philosophy by science. Indeed all the remarks and objections I shall be advancing in this paper focus on claims that this science deals with philosophical questions which no science as science can approach.

Alan Turing devised his ‘imitation game’ (‘Turing Test’) to test artificial intelligence. Let me remark marginally that intelligence in one sense of the word, the intelligence that can be tested and measured, is neither peculiar to humans nor is it what makes humans human nor again is it what is best in humans. I need not give examples of feats performed by birds and insects that humans and their present-day computers would find difficult to imitate.

In Turing’s imitation game a human being and a computer play a game in which “certain variables (are set) in a rules-based scenario that is easily implementable and controllable”. I maintain that this rules out all that is specifically human. Questions are put simultaneously to the human being and the computer. “If after a reasonable amount of time you cannot tell which is the human and which the computer, then the computer has passed the test — that is, the computer is at least as good as the human in providing answers to the questions you asked.” But what questions? Clearly the questions asked have to be limited to ones relating to, let me say, ‘informational content’. You cannot bring in emotions or ideals or principles unless you have fed the computer with the answers in advance. This is not a fault in Turing’s project. He only wanted to test artificial intelligence. But we can seriously err when we permit ourselves to speak of ‘answering philosophical questions’.

Floridi writes: “By suggesting the imitation game, Turing specified a level of abstraction for asking a complex question about the capability of computers”. The idea of ‘levels of abstraction’ is fundamental in Floridi’s approach and it is this ‘level of abstraction’ that turns a philosophical question into a scientific question by sealing off all subjectivity. When I speak of Turing;s Fallacy I mean the inadvertent infiltration of the objective into the subjective domain.

Floridi says that computer science and its technological applications “have cast new light on who we are and how we are related to the world”. I will put my view briefly since this is a subject on which I have already written often and extensively. In my view, ‘who we are’ will always be determined by the idea we form for ourselves of who we are; our relation to the world likewise will be significantly determined by our interpretation of phenomena, by the vision we form for ourselves of the world. These are strictly philosophical questions. Science can examine our physical, chemical, biological, physiological makeup, but this is not who we are. Who we are is our internal reality and what we make ourselves to be by our ideals, values, aims, principles: these are created by the mind, within the mind. Science can study their objective manifestations but not their inner reality.

Floridi goes on to say that “we are not the only smart agents able to carry out complex tasks. Our computers are often better than we are at dealing with information.” Can the information be dealt with without there being an end towards which the dealing is directed? Feed a computer with as much information as you will: without specifying the goal, the purpose to be served, the information is inert. Even for inferring the product of an arithmetical sum, you have to feed in the question to be answered. (Pardon my clumsy formulation; I confess my ignorance but am confident that what I am saying makes sense if taken in goodwill.) What Kant said of Nature, that it will not give you an answer unless you put the question to it, applies with more force to the computer. Or shall we leave our computers to determine the direction and the goal? So when he further goes on to say that “we see ourselves increasingly as informationally embodied organisms”, I can only say, that this again leaves out purposes and values. That is why I shudder when Professor Floridi so nonchalantly takes computers to be ‘agents’: this conceals serious moral and practical implications that have to be scrutinized.

Speaking of the consequences of Turing’s ‘fourth revolution’ (after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud) Floridi says: “Turing has changed our philosophical anthropology as much as Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud.” These four are great scientists, but what effect their work has had on our view of ourselves was extraneous to their scientific agenda as might be the effect of a plague or a natural catastrophe. The assessment, evaluation, and, if necessary, correction of that effect is the business of philosophical thinking. Floridi seems to acknowledge this when he goes on to say that “philosophers now face the task of how best to understand ourselves in this new era.” But I have to insist that the only way to understand ourselves is to probe our inner reality inwardly, subjectively, not to study its objective concomitants and manifestations.

In the final section of his paper Professor Floridi draws an inventory of the benefits of Information. I wanted to pass this inventory by but could not resist making a brief rejoinder at certain points:

Floridi : “Information is, in a way, the Cinderella in the history of philosophy.”

Khashaba : Philosophy proper has nothing to do with obtaining or engendering information or objective knowledge but only and wholly with meanings and values and purposes.

F.: “Logic … today … is also if not mainly a question of information extraction …”

Kh.: Logic was always a science and a non-essential accessory of philosophy.

F.: “Ontology, the study of the nature of being, would be meaningless without informational patterns — real, virtual, necessary, possible, or even impossible.”

Kh.: Here we have the common confusion of the metaphysical notion of being or reality with the physical notion. Science is only competent to deal with physical ‘reality’ but has no access to metaphysical reality.

F.: “The philosophy of mind needs informational mental states”.

Kh.: The so-called ‘philosophy’ of mind is the worst of all impostors. There is a science of the brain and the workings of the brain and there is the pseudo-science of psychology but the mind and the psyche can only be probed subjectively and that does not yield factual knowledge (‘informatuon’) but insight into our proper inner reality. Likewise there is science of the body and of living organisms but there is no science of Life.

F.: “…the philosophy of language without communication of information is pointless. Any philosophy of the logos is a philosophy of information”.

Kh.: The ambiguity of the word logos is a trap. If we mean ‘speech’ we can say there is a science of speech; if we mean ‘reason’ this, in one sense, is the concern of philosophy.

F.: “Christian philosophy of religion is inconceivable without the informational concept of revelation.”

Kh.: I confess myself nonplussed. Are we to take “the informational concept of revelation” as a scientifically validated objective fact?!

F.: “To paraphrase Molière, Western philosophy has been speaking informationally without knowing it for twenty-five centuries.”

Kh.: How gratifying to know that Plato’s Form of the Good or ‘ tokos en kalôi’ or Socrates’ ‘it is never right to return harm for harm’ is informational!

F.: Baconian-Galilean project of reading and manipulating the alphabet of the universe has begun to be fulfilled

Kh: And this, without proper philosophical understanding, will spell our doom.

To sum up: We are deluged by oceans of information. The interpretation and understanding of that information is the business not of science but of philosophy (and not Professoe Floridi’s kind of ‘philosophy’). When science completes its usurpation of the rightful role of philosophy that will be the end of humanity.

D. R. Khashaba

March 27, 2017

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