I’ve been reading this book by Steven Pinker that goes by the name , ‘Blank Slate: Modern denial of human nature’. I must admit, the book has left me massively humbled. As I struggle to comprehend the theories and brave one paragraph at a time, I’m also left with a lot of thoughts around the whys of the way of my world.
Interestingly enough, with mom and dad in the new city , I opted to hit a few temples to gain brownie points. I must admit, I do enjoy the temple experience. The architecture is quite breath taking. I also happened to notice that a few of the temples, in their efforts in being inclusive, had left a few brief descriptions to describe the significance of the deities and what they mean to Hindus. With that introduction on one hand and the book on the other, my thoughts have started running wild.
Now what if I tell you that it is believed that once upon a time there was a bloke. Boringly monogamous at a time where polygamy wasn’t frowned upon. A little red herring deal that soured and he had to relocate bases. The new land led to newer challenges and in course of the process, the bloke ushered himself into a new social circle of sorts. The social circle was trippy at best. Humanoids , who varied in genetic splices, were a part of that social gathering. Bada boom, another unforeseen adventure later, he eventually returned home.
And millennia later, the land saw a nasty riot that shed a lot of blood.
Reading that verbose, one can conclude that the riot was an ludicrous outcome and was barely a warranted response. Which society in its right mind would encourage, tolerate or even allow such a violence. And then suddenly everything changes perspective if I were to tag a name to the bloke. Ram. There is an ocean of difference between Ram and Lord Ram.
While Ram is just a name, Lord Ram is a symbol. Lord Ram , or the place that name has in our hearts and minds is a reflection of culture driven behaviour. There is nothing instinctive or innate around the fact that the name espouses respect and reverence. We hold it valuable because we learnt of its sanctity. We learnt it by aping the behaviour of our parents, grand parents and possibly neighbours. We learnt it because it was embraced and adopted by our immediate world.
Man has no culture. Man has a history.
The book does introduces us to thoughts that can help us debunk the mythos of our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The story of Lord Ram is a classic example. Unless one is aware of the history behind that name, the legacy associated to it, the wider script of God that it stands to represent, the story remains unknown. We aren’t born with our faith. We aren’t born with the culture that we choose to be a fanatic over. In a way, we are born as a blank slate. The book possibly goes on to explain why we aren’t blank slate either, but it meets the current agenda and I shall use it out of sheer convenience.
The values, the moralities, the definition of good and bad and what’s tolerable and what’s not, all of these are born out of personal and borrowed experience. Through intellect, we run a sorting hat to translate things into different buckets. Speaking of intellect, there was a passage in the book that simply blew me away.
Man, us, could possibly be one of the best machines ever devised. The brain is a machine too. Through the senses, it sees, feels, hears, tastes, touches and then translates all these into different interpretations. These interpretations are factored by our experience and hence bias comes into play. It’s this ability of the mind to personalise every stimuli based on experiences that makes artists out of us. Some draw, some write, some paint, some make music. This ability to create, based on the simple complicated machine that is human, makes us a human.
So can AI do a lot of that. We have BOTs writing symphonies today. AI is writing reading materials. AI is moving away form parroting responses to triggering new responses and creating new directions for conversations. Where does an AI end and a human start.?
The immediate answer is that behind every successful AL algorithm, there is either an overworked, underpaid, stressed employee or a super passionate bloke who is giving a 10000% into the job. The distinction of Creator versus Creation comes into play. Even if an AI gains sentience, Man would still be it’s creator and hence it is not human. The same logic applies to mankind too. Since , arguably, God created us and by virtue of being a creation, we can not be God. The best of human can only aspire to mimic God. The best of AI can only aspire to mimic Human.
I like the reading experience so far. So far, I’m fascinated by the world that Cognitive Science has unlocked. While I don’t really understand a lot about it, it does ask simple questions that challenges the boundaries of our assumptions. Having an open enough mind is very helpful in this journey. As a spiritual aspirant, it kindles my curiosity even more. If man wasn’t born with it, if culture doesn’t come from my blood, Why did I still manage to take the steps that I took to reach here?
That question is not unique to me. It’s to all of us. The current outcome of our reality is a trail of choices either made under the influence of the world around or just made for the heck of it. The choices don’t interest me anymore. The motives of what took us to embrace those choices is far more interesting. It’s going to be an interesting month ahead, as I inch across each paragraph.