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Humanist Archives: Dec. 15, 2022, 7:37 a.m. Humanist 36.301 - death of the author 2.0 continued, or the opaque & the different

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 301.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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    [1]    From: William Benzon <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.297: death of the author 2.0 continued, or swinging on a star (74)

    [2]    From: James Rovira <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.297: death of the author 2.0 continued, or swinging on a star (72)

        Date: 2022-12-14 20:23:30+00:00
        From: William Benzon <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.297: death of the author 2.0 continued, or swinging on a star


With a computer program of the ordinary kind, the vast majority of them, you can
examine the source code and see how things operate. You can’t do that with the
model at the heart of ChatGPT. Well, sure, you can look at it, but it won’t mean
anything to you. There’s stuff there, but what it does, that’s opaque. From an
old blog post:

The only case of an intelligent mind that we know of is the human mind, and the
human mind is built from the “inside.” It isn’t programmed by external agents.
To be sure, we sometime refer to people as being programmed to do this or that,
and when we do so the implication is that the “programming” is somehow against
the person’s best interests, that the behavior is in some way imposed on them.

And that, of course, is how computers are programmed. They are designed to be
imposed upon by programmers. A programmer will survey the application domain,
build a conceptual model of it, express that conceptual model in some design
formalism, formulate computational processes in that formalism, and then produce
code that implements those processes. To do this, of course, the programmer must
also know something about how the computer works since it’s the computer’s
operations that dictate the language in which the process design must be

To be a bit philosophical about this, the computer programmer has a
“transcendental” relationship with the computer and the application domain. The
programmer is outside and “above” both, surveying and commanding them from on
high. All too frequently, this transcendence is flawed, the programmer’s
knowledge of both domain and computer is faulty, and the resulting software is
less than wonderful.

Things are a bit different with machine learning. Let us say that one uses a
neural net to recognize speech sounds or recognize faces. The computer must be
provided with a front end that transduces visual or sonic energy and presents
the computer with some low-level representation of the sensory signal. The
computer then undertakes a learning routine of some kind the result of which is
a bunch of weightings on features in the net. Those weightings determine how the
computer will classify inputs, whether mapping speech sounds to letters or faces
to identifiers.

Now, it is possible to examine those feature weightings, but for the most part
they will be opaque to human inspection. There won’t be any obvious relationship
between those weightings and the inputs and outputs of the program. They aren’t
meaningful to the “outside.” They make sense only from the “inside.” The
programmer no longer has transcendental knowledge of the inner operations of the
program that he or she built.

If we want a computer to hold vast intellectual resources at its command, it’s
going to have to learn them, and learn them from the inside, just like we do.
And we’re not going to know, in detail, how it does it, any more than we know,
in detail, what goes on in one another’s minds.

Such things are new to us. They didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Bill B

> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: 2022-12-13 18:26:43+00:00
>        From: James Rovira <>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.295: death of the author 2.0
> I'm curious how Bill can say a thing is "completely new in the universe"
> AND "opaque to us." It's unclear how we can make any claims about it at all
> until we know what it is.
> "The resulting model isopaque to us, we didn’t program it. The resulting
> behavioral capacities are unlike those of any other creature/being/thing
> we’ve experienced, nor do we know what those capacities will evolve into in
> the future. This creature/being/thing is something fundamentally NEW in the
> universe, at least our local corner of it, and needs to be thought of
> appropriately. It deserves/requires a new term." - Bill B.
> Is it made up of circuit boards? Run on electricity? 1s and 0s? Are we
> confusing ontology with functionality?

        Date: 2022-12-14 17:11:13+00:00
        From: James Rovira <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.297: death of the author 2.0 continued, or swinging on a star

Thanks very much for the response, Ken. I took issue with Bridgette's use
of the OED as being beneath the level of discussion needed to speak of
computers and "being" or as "beings" intelligently. The fact that we can
use a word a number of different ways does not mean that English speaking
people in general would ever refer to inanimate objects of any kind as
"beings," unless they are being deliberately anthropomorphic, or are
annoyed with their computer, etc. What I think is needed is a specific
definition of being and beings that is explained and then carried through.
The discussion of Shintoism is more to the point, but I have no buy in to
that paradigm. I'm not a Shintoist. I'd view that ceremony with curiosity,
act with respect toward the people in the room, but would still think on a
fundamental level the whole thing is ridiculous. I might do that for a dog,
but not a robot. I'd need to be convinced as a non-Shintoist how that
paradigm could help me think through anything other than -other people's-
responses to things. In other words, for the moment, it's important to the
history of ideas, but not to my own thinking.

We have to be digital and humanist, I think, which means reading enough
philosophy to use words more carefully. Most of the time I think a lot of
this language -- not you at all though -- is salesmanship.

Jim R

On Wed, Dec 14, 2022 at 3:25 AM Humanist <> wrote:

> Dear Jim,
> This wasn’t exactly my use. Rather, I was trying to say that there are
> several
> uses of the words “being” (sing.) and “beings” (pl.).
> Ontologists — and Heideggerians — are only two of the kinds of people who
> use
> the word. I also noted that folks who don’t use language our way also
> identify
> and relate to beings in other ways. My dog, for example, would not think of
> ChatGPT as a being of any kind because ChatGPT has no aroma.
> Brigitte Rath made a good point by using OED.
> I was just now imagining a remake of the 1944 Bing Crosby classic, “Going
> my
> Way.” The new version will be titled “Being My Way.”
> It will star Jeremy Renner as a singing theologian at a tough Jesuit
> university
> with Morgan Freeman playing a crusty old advocate of Thomas Aquinas. Like
> the
> Crosby original, I plan to win an Oscar when Renner and a choir sing the
> new
> version of “Would You Like to Swing on a Star” --
> Would you like to swing on a star
> carry moonbeams home in a jar
> and be better off than you are
> or would you rather be an ontologist?
> In the latter half of the film, Kevin Vanhoozer will make a cameo
> appearance
> explaining how dramatic theology accounts for being.
> Until then, I await the rebirth of the author.
> Yours,
> Ken

Dr. James Rovira <>

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