Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: Jan. 23, 2022, 8:44 a.m. Humanist 35.483 - oracles and intelligence

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 483.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-01-22 09:07:58+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: oracles

This is briefly to comment on Jim Rovira's closing comment to the
posting, "intelligence, artificial and biological", specifically to the
Turing Test question:

> Let us not forget the very human tendency, also existing for millennia, for
> people to build things then kneel before them in veneration, offer
> sacrifices, treat as oracles.

In an effort to distance oneself from the belief involved, one has to be 
careful here not to sweep away what all such people were (and are, in 
fact are) trying to do. As Walter Burkert pointed out, one doesn't have to
share the belief to understand how oracular practices work. Further,
should we not be attempting to build bridges to them rather than
distance ourselves from them? Seek common ground, not signing up to
their beliefs but imagining what it is to be as they are?

Turing was perhaps the first to make room for an oracular function of
smart machines (in his 1938 dissertation); later, in an interview by a
Times (London) reporter at a presentation of the Manchester Mark I in
1949, he used prophetic language to advise that the readership should
keep its eyes open for what was coming: “This is only a foretaste of
what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.” Yes, he
was a mischievous, playful fellow, but do we not learn by entertaining
all manner of ideas playfully? Is there not a parallel between a diviner's 
and the combinatorial machine's manipulations? See Italo Calvino's 
"Cybernetics and Ghosts".


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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