This post began a bit far afield and so ranges widely to circle closer to home.I’m revisiting some old ground here, and this is very notebook-post, more observation and juxtaposition than well-articulated statement.
Today, Stacey and I were driving into Greensboro and talking about the clever use of doors in Jessica Jones, about the way the doors serve to mediate interactions between characters, and about how the doors where the characters live tells us more than a little about the sorts of people they are.
That set me to thinking and talking about the tail end of the first season of Person of Interest (haven’t seen beyond that; I’m a slow consumer that way), where the almost invisible eye of the Machine starts to acquire its own independence, where its camera-eye view shows signs of being guided by some peculiar machinic sense of interest and concern. That, in turn, set us off talking about how disappointing, how banally villainous, the Ultron AI of the last Avengers movie was.
Have I talked about Daniel Dennett’s intentional stance before? It looks like I have just talked about his discussion of evolution. Well, let’s fix that.
It’s a useful bit of analytic philosophy that I keep in my back pocket. Dennett’s suggestion is that it is often useful and practical to treat a computer as-if it were an intentional agent, even when a fairly thorough account of its programming would allow us to map out the ways that its seeming intentionality results from strict and quite determined programming. The computer in question may not have intentions of its own, but if you are playing chess with it, you’ll do better treating it as a chess player than trying to map out its programming from playing with it.
We can push that discussion further, of course, because one of the reasons that we can treat a computer as an intentional agent is that in most cases what we are dealing with in programming is an intentional agent’s effort to model the behavior of another intentional agent. In other words, the chess program looks like a chess player because there is a human programmer who has worked to provide it the computer with instructions for behaving in a chess game that resemble those of actual chess players. (I’ve definitely talked about this sort of thing before.)
What defines this intentional scene, though? It’s the chess game itself. The rules of a chess game are what gives us the means to assign goals an intentions to the computer, as well as to other players. It is our capacity to create and project ourselves into these sorts of rule-spaces that make humans so interesting and so flexible and in many cases what we call culture is defined by these sorts of flexible but rule-driven activities (Robert Brandom is the analytic fellow to look to form more in this regard, though I find his account a little abstract for my own tastes).
Before we get too far along this train of thought, we need to be clear that these creative acts don’t occur in a vacuum; they occur within our being embedded within a specific world, one defined by our organic being, both as an individual and as an individual within an environment. We can create, but those creations are limited by opportunity. Despite those limitations, it’s amazing the cultural variety of which we as a species are capable of producing.
All this said, what we call intentional in a person really isn’t all that different from what we call intentional in our (well-programmed, no AI) computers. It is the capacity to take action in a situation structured by rules. Gurdjieff was definitely onto something here, though (as I have said before) he and some of his students seem to have overstated the case against mechanism. Consider the root of our word ‘barbarian’ in the Greeks identifying those who didn’t speak as they did, as those who lack the resources to discover and play by the rules.
There’s a problem with rooting an account of who we are in this world. It doesn’t capture our freedom to play or not play by the rules of a game, or our freedom to play with the rules themselves. The rules of the game are forms of interface, but they are not all that is sitting at the table. What is sitting at the table is hooked into the game, is changed by the game, but isn’t exclusively defined by the game. That something which continues, which changes, that kernel of conscious soul, that is what we are really working with the game.
This is where the computer metaphors may come in handy again. Computer programs are points of interface between ourselves and layers upon layers of other processes, both programmatic and material. The changes we produce at the interface have real effects on those other layers. Different codes are set in motion, different charges move through the hardware of the computer.
Though the interface is not identical with what it interfaces, it has real effects upon it. In a similar fashion, the techniques we use to access spiritual beings operates in a similar fashion. It provides us with the means of undertaking work with them that changes us and them in ways both subtle and gross. In spirit-centered work, the persons and personas of both the spirit workers and the spirits are one of the primary points of interface. Who we chose to be and who they choose to be (both subject to change) provide us with key tools, but what we should really be after lies on either side of the interface.
Which has some bearing on what I was talking about in a recent post, as well as some earlier posts about the value of play acting in the grimoire tradition (on role playing as a way of self-exploration and transformation, take a look at this interesting article over on Aeon; also my recent encounter with Milan Knížák).
So, when I got to see a glimpse of Quimbanda in action, one of the things I noticed was that there was a ritual gesture used that I have also seen some Paleros use, a ritual gesture that (as Jesse Hathaway Diaz elegantly put it) symbolizes being bound, liberated, and then choosing what to be bound to again. That movement fits neatly into this discussion, too. To be bound to an interface, to mechanism, to discover a way of being beyond it, and then to choose to work within an interface under the auspices of that freedom.
Which, yeah, might have something to do with David Bowie, too. Definitely more than a little of Nietzsche, too, with his injunction to give style to one’s character…
Okay, I’ll stop here. This sprawls and I want to pull it together to make a clearer statement.