Monthly Archives: January 2018

Academic Geneology

 My Academic Geneology

I received my Ph.D. in philosophy in 1992, completing my dissertation under the direction of Richard J. Blackwell, who at the time held the Danforth Chair in Humanities at Saint Louis University. He is currently Professor Emeritus.

Professor Blackwell (1929 -) was educated at MIT, (where he studied history and physics) and St. Louis University, where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954. Later he did graduate work in physics. After a stint in the philosophy department at John Carroll University in Cleveland, he came back to St. Louis University in 1961. He is an authority in the history of philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, and is probably the world’s foremost living expert on the Galileo affair about which he written four books:

1) Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible
2)<img style=”border: none !important; margin: 0px !important;” src=”//” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ /> Science, Religion and Authority: Lessons from the Galileo Affair
3) Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial
4) A Defense of Galileo, the Mathematician from Florence

He was the 2001 recipient of the Aquinas Medal for: “Outstanding teaching; personal publications of permanent and scholarly value; [and] influence upon American philosophical thought without reference to membership in the American Catholic Philosophical Association.” Past recipients include some of the most illustrious names in 20th-century philosophy: Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Frederick Copleston, Yves Simon, Vernon J. Bourke, James Collins, and Ernan McMullin.

In addition to his outstanding record of scholarly achievement, Professor Blackwell directed more than 30 dissertations during his tenure at St. Louis. His Ph.D. students include Gary Gutting (Notre Dame) Robert J. Richards (Chicago) and Dominic Balestra (Fordham, 1947 – 2016), among others. He was especially proud to be a direct descendant of Elizabeth Blackwell,  the first female physician in the United States.

Professor Blackwell’s dissertation, Aristotle’s Theory of Predication, was completed under the direction of Leonard J. Eslick. Professor Eslick, who died in 1991, received his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in the early 1930s. I met him once at a Christmas party where he told me that Professor Blackwell was the best student he ever had.

I was especially influenced by Professor Blackwell’s belief that philosophical thinking not informed by modern science—particularly physics and evolutionary theory—was superfluous. Through a series of his seminars, I came to realize that physical, mental, social, biological and cosmic life all evolve. This led me to conclude that through the process of development lies the only viable hope for humankind and their post-human descendants. Moreover, Professor Blackwell was one of the most humble, kind, and generous men I’ve ever known. I will forever be indebted to him for his contribution to my education.

I was also influenced by Professor William C. Charron. He is an authority on game theory, modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and the literature and philosophy of T.S. Eliot. His clarity of mind and love of the craft of writing still influence me today.


Intellectual Heroes

The Thinker – Rodin

It is almost fifty years since my higher education began, and in that time there have been hundreds who have influenced me—most notably Plato and Aristotle, Shankara and Buddha, Epictetus and Aurelius, Hobbes and Descartes, Schopenhauer, Orwell, Piaget. But a few have had a special impact on my thought, and for whom I feel the greatest affinity. All are from the Western philosophical or scientific tradition, the only tradition about which I’m qualified to make good judgments. I list them in the order I encountered their thought.

Bertrand Russell’Why I am Not A Christian awoken me from my dogmatic slumber when I was still a teenager. I think Russell was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and— measured by his significant contributions to logic, mathematics, politics, ethics, and popular philosophy—this Nobel Laureate may have been the greatest philosopher in the history of Western tradition. He had the most impressive mind I’ve ever encountered.

Will Durant – I always love reading this wonderful prose stylist; you sense his presence on every page he writes. What shines forth is his intellect, integrity, and decency. I wish I could have known him, and if I had one biography to write it would be of Will and his beloved wife Ariel. I grow nostalgic thinking of those stacks of books in my undergraduate library where I found him so long ago. I’m glad he was there.

David Hume – I would love to have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy, gossiping, and flirting with the ladies! I admire the honest skepticism of this fearless intellect. He was a good and courageous man, who faced death bravely, and he was nobler than most of his detractors, past or present. “Be a philosopher but be still a man,” he advised, and then lived up to his credo.

Charles Darwin – Darwin may have been the most influential person in human history. Today multiple sciences converge on his basic insight—which is true beyond any reasonable doubt. He gave us the greatest idea we have, and perhaps will ever have, an idea applicable to everything from the cell to the cosmos. Without a basic understanding of evolution, one lives in intellectual darkness. Before encountering Darwin that’s where I lived, and I thank him for showing me the light.

Carl Sagan instilled in me a love of science and clear thinking—the only means that we have to tease truth from reality. He knew that disregarding reason and evidence invites superstition, folly, and atrocities as well. His moral concerns were for his fellow human beings, as well as for the planet and cosmos from which we all sprang. How I miss his articulate, humane and virtuous voice in our selfish, reckless and irrational times.

E. O. Wilson taught me many lessons—that human behavior has biological roots; that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution; that the biosphere is our only home; that most people would rather believe than know; that the evolutionary epic is the grandest narrative that we will ever have;  and that we must direct the course of our future evolution. He is a great scientist who is filled with childlike wonder for the natural world.

Nikos Kazantzakis.jpg

Nikos Kazantzakis – Perhaps no one thought more deeply or wrote more poetically about the search for meaning in life than the Greek novelist Kazantzakis. He believed that we find meaning by playing our role in the long chain that leads (hopefully) toward higher levels of being and consciousness. And we should proceed bravely, without expecting success. His own journey complete his epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” 


(I’m sorry there aren’t any women or people of color here. That I wasn’t exposed to more of them was a lacuna in my education.)

Good Books on Astronomy and Physics

This is a list of some good books on astronomy and physics that I have read and recommend. For more information click on one of the links below.

• Sean Carroll ~ The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
• David Deutsch ~ The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes … 
• Freeman Dyson ~ Infinite in All Directions
• Richard Feynman ~ The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of …
• Brian Greene ~ The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest …
• John Gribben ~ Hyperspace: The Universe and Its Mysteries
• Stephen Hawking ~ The Universe in a Nutshell
• Stephen Hawking ~ A Brief History of Time
• Michio Kaku ~ Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time …
• Lawrence Krauss – The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far: Why Are We Here?
• Lawrence Krauss – A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than …
• Lawrence Krauss ~ The Physics of Star Trek
• Alan Lightman ~ The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
• Ilya Prigogine ~ The End of Certainty
• Carl Sagan ~ Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
• Michael Talbot ~ The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality
• Steven Weinberg ~ The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe

Good Books on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

This is a list of some good books on artificial intelligence and robotics that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below.

Artificial Intelligence/Robotics

• Stuart Armstrong ~ Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence
• James Barrat ~ Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the …
• Blackford & Broderick ~ Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded …
• Marshall Brain ~ The Second Intelligent Species: How Humans Will Become as …
• Nick Bostrom ~ Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
• Rodney Brooks ~ Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us
• Ted Chu ~ Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential: A Cosmic Vision of Our … 
• Katherine Hayles ~ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics …
• Ray Kurzweil ~ The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human …
• Menzel & D’Aluisio ~ Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species
• Marvin Minsky ~ The Society of Mind
• Hans Morovec ~ Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind
• Paul & Cox ~ Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds
• Martine Rothblatt ~ Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril of Digital …
• Charles Rubin ~ Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress,
• Ilia Stambler ~ A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century
• Keith Wiley ~ A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading
• Sam Williams ~ Arguing A.I.: The Battle for Twenty-first-Century Science
• George Zarkadakis ~ In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of …

What Computers Will Never Do

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

Here is a reply from a computer scientist to my recent post about Ray Kurzweil‘s book. My brief reply is at the bottom.

There is a limit to computer intelligence arising from its database. Human beings require at least 18 years of experiences in order to learn the minimal requirements of an adult Homo sapiens. Moreover, they continue to learn throughout their lives, so that by the time they are our age, they’re just as brilliant as you and I are.

It is impossible to code a life experience into a computer database. To develop that life experience, a computer would have to live a human life. Moreover, it would have to do so with the emotional structures of a human being …

A computer in the future could probably store a life’s worth of such data, but how could it interpret it? The human brain regularly cleans out the meaningless crap of our daily lives … That’s what sleep is for — not resting our muscles but cleaning the garbage out of our minds. But how is a computer to know what to keep and what to throw away?

I think that Mr. Kurzweil is overly optimistic regarding the potential of computer technology. His direct comparison of computers to brains is erroneous. An automobile chassis with an engine is not the same thing as a pair of legs. A camera is not at all the same thing as the human eye. And a computer is not at all the same thing as a brain … [but] you’d never use a computer to decide whether to fall in love.

Technology will NEVER replace our biological faculties for certain tasks because those tasks will often be too closely tied to our entire biological processes to be taken over by technology. The most extreme example of this is provided by sexual interaction. I think we can all agree that the thought of making love to a robot is simply absurd …

Sure, there’s plenty of room for further advances … Yet few of these things will be anywhere near as revolutionary as the desktop computer and the smartphone were in their early years. Fewer people will rush out to buy the latest techie toy …

Nevertheless, I shall never have a deep conversation with any computer. Your philosophical musings on this blog will never be replaced by a computer’s thoughts. Computers will become smarter, but they’ll never be wise.

Brief Reflections

There is a lot to say about all this but here are a few thoughts. I’m not comfortable with saying machines will never be able to do this or that. A well-designed robot may not be a perfect human replica, but if it does what humans do it is similar enough for me to consider it conscious and worthy of moral and legal protection. In fact, good robots will probably be superior to us—think Mr. Data from Star Trek.

Kurzweil has an entire section on robot sex but let’s just say that it is easy enough to imagine having better sex if we are our partners were sexually upgraded. As for deep conversation, I’d prefer to converse with an AI rather than with most human beings. And I believe that minds can run on substrates besides carbon-based brains.

The University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills”.[1]  I don’t know whether we create such intelligence, or whether they will emerge on their own, but I think the survival of life on earth depends on intellectual enhancement. And, with oceans of time for future innovation almost anything is possible–including the emergence of superintelligence.

One thing I do know. If we have intelligent descendants, if they survive, and if science and technology continue to advance, the future will be unimaginably different from the past.

Computer Scientist’s Response

“I’m not comfortable with saying machines will never be able to do this or that.”

Well, yes, I’m just begging to be made a fool of with my comment. Perhaps I should constrain my statement a bit. How’s this version:

“Until computers can simulate the biochemical ties between brain and body, they’ll never be able to simulate humans.”

My thinking on this was powerfully influenced by Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio R. Damasio. It presents the neurophysiological argument that the brain is inseparable from the body. There’s no such thing as “the mind-body problem” because they are a single system. Hence, replicating human cognition with silicon is rather like trying to build an airplane as if it were a bird, with flapping wings.

An airplane can go much faster and further than any bird, and it can carry a much heavier load, but it can’t land on a moving branch, take off in a fraction of a second, or show any of the maneuverability of a bird. In the same fashion, a computer can do a lot of things that people can’t do, but pursuing replication of human cognition is, In My Vainglorious Opinion, a fool’s errand.