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Marvin Minsky

AI Researcher

Minsky of MIT is known in computer science as the father of artificial intelligence. He has posted on alt.atheism before.


The Professor has offered a relevant passage from Chapter 5 of his book, The Society of Mind:


And while it shall please thee to continue me in this world, where there is much to be done and little to be known, teach me, by thy Holy Spirit, to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous enquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved. -SAMUEL JOHNSON

When we reflect on anything for long enough, we're likely to end up with what we sometimes call "basic" questions -- ones we can see no way at all to answer. For we have no perfect way to answer even this question: How can one tell when a question has been properly answered?

What caused the universe, and why? What is the purpose of life? How can you tell which beliefs are true? How can you tell what is good?

These questions seem different on the surface, but all of them share one quality that makes them impossible to answer: all of them are circular! You can never find a final cause, since you must always ask one question more: "What caused that cause?" You can never find any ultimate goal, since you're always obliged to ask, "Then what purpose does that serve?" Whenever you find out why something is good-or is true-you still have to ask what makes that reason good and true. No matter what you discover, at every step, these kinds of questions will always remain, because you have to challenge every answer with, "Why should I accept that answer?" Such circularities can only waste our time by forcing us to repeat, over and over and over again, "What good is Good?" and, "What god made God?"

When children keep on asking, "Why?" we adults learn to deal with this by simply saying, "just because!" This may seem obstinate, but it's also a form of self-control. What stops adults from dwelling on such questions endlessly? The answer is that every culture finds special ways to deal with these questions. One way is to brand them with shame and taboo; another way is to cloak them in awe or mystery; both methods make those questions undiscussable. Consensus is the simplest way -- as with those social styles and trends wherein we each accept as true whatever all the others do. I think I once heard W. H. Auden say, "We are all here on earth to help others. What I can't figure out is what the others are here for."

All human cultures evolve institutions of law, religion, and philosophy, and these institutions both adopt specific answers to circular questions and establish authority -- schemes to indoctrinate people with those beliefs. One might complain that such establishments substitute dogma for reason and truth. But in exchange, they spare whole populations from wasting time in fruitless reason loops. Minds can lead more productive lives when working on problems that can be solved.

But when thinking keeps returning to its source, it doesn't always mean something's wrong. For circular thinking can lead to growth when it results, at each return, in deeper and more powerful ideas. Then, because we can communicate, such systems of ideas may even find the means to cross the boundaries of selfish selves -- and thus take root in other minds. This way, a language, science, or philosophy can transcend the limitation of each single mind's mortality. Now, we cannot know that any individual is destined for some paradise. Yet certain religions are oddly right; they manage to achieve their goal of offering an afterlife -- if only to their own strange souls.

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