The notion —as widely reported— that chatGPT and similar AI bots will have a profound effect on the world’s economy and social stability may be exaggerated. Who will, on reflection, take serious advice from a source that has no “author” … someone who could be berated if the advice goes wrong? Who will faithfully remember this “voice” and its previous claims, when it becomes common knowledge that it possesses no “personal identity” whatever… i.e. no coherent track record of judgments which can act as a distinctive sign of its relevance, style, sincerity and resolve?
To let university and older school students use chatGPT in examinations and coursework as just “another useful tool they need to know” is surely blindingly absurd. If George, a university student, gets chatGPT to do his coursework, what he hands in as “his” coursework will be a fraud. The moral is that recourse to chatGPT is positively inimical to the point of education, because it makes it appear that the student has acquired a middling understanding of the topic under consideration… when all he has done is to trigger the AI bot. If it is tolerated in this role in universities and the upper classes of schools, it will be a dark day indeed for education.
An ‘educated student’ is a student who has engaged alertly and rigorously with large amounts of initially conflicting and puzzling information and has emerged with an in-depth, mentally satisfying, confidence-building understanding of her or his speciality. It is not the same thing as a student who has merely activated chatGPT to give the superficial impression that he has acquired this worthwhile mindset. Education should provide the student with a mindstyle which generates mental energy and ease, not a bag of tricks to con others into thinking that he has this accomplishment, when he hasn’t.
The current extent of widely accepted hype-speak about AI is itself shameful for education. It is a sign that large numbers of people walking in the corridors of power have completely failed to understand the message which a liberal education in the humanities ought to have delivered. It is a sign that large numbers of individuals have been taught the humanities badly, or not at all. The key message which they have not received is that the best kind of human mind is an autonomous, sovereign source of judgments about the relative value of objects, processes, set-ups, relationships, etc. It is not a blind acceptor of what has been asserted by others.
The trouble is that large numbers of individuals have picked-up the scientistic notion that their personal mindset is just a consequence of the combined causal effect of the various “influences” to which they have been exposed. They have allowed themselves to be brainwashed, lulled or cowed into swallowing information.
They should have been taught << Only connect, search for the kind of mental stability which comes from lots of triangulations!>>. The classic educational advice was <<Mark, learn and inwardly digest!>> where the key word ‘digest’ means <<Make sure that the new awareness fits smoothly into what you already know>>. This is the kind of seamless knowledge education should deliver.
Anything less than acquiring this hard ‘cultivated personal, rigorous input digestion’, can only count as an educational shortfall.
So how does it come about that education is in crisis or —to be more specific— that it has very nearly disappeared?
The answer can only be: <<Because there is a gross lack of leadership coming from the top>>.
Where is this ‘top’?
It is, of course, the philosophic spearhead —that circle of deep thinkers trying to make sense of the human condition. The trouble is that it no longer exists. There is still a circle of shallow thinkers who are supposedly trying to make sense of the human condition, but with one hand tied behind their backs: that is, their adopted defensive proviso that they are not going to take science or maths into account.
We can trace this sentiment back to Frank Ramsey and Ludwig Wittgenstein in the late 1920s. They decided that only experts could credibly handle the lessons of modern science and maths, In effect, they were presuming that the deep thinking needed was going to be done by the theorists (the scientists and mathematicians) themselves.
The only trouble was, it wasn’t.
These ‘theorists’ had been indoctrinated from an early age into the notion that science and maths can only make progress by working in a piecemeal way. They were ‘piecemeal theorists’ and they knew that if they tried to take-on the full gamut of the human condition, they would fail as surely as an aeroplane trying to fly off into empty space.
Peter Medawar summed up the problem when he observed that scientists must always pursue the <<art of the possible>>. There were bits of the jig-saw of physical reality which were ripe (ready) to be understood. A scientist’s best hope of making progress was to cultivate her or his awarenesses in such ripe problem areas. Trying to do more was hubris.
Unfortunately the wide problematic areas which already looked so daunting in the 1920s have spread and spread. Too much piecemealing and too little perceptive over-viewing have left us in an unholy mess. In ‘pure’ maths the results of a century of “doing your own thing” have created Ulam’s Dilemma —a wasteland of millions of idiosyncratic hyper-abstract efforts. (Sadly a demotivating wasteland, because what good has been achieved by all this effort?) The leaders of physics have been humiliated by their own discoveries. They have had to eat humble pie and acknowledge that most of the mass of the universe is “dark” … which means that we haven’t the faintest idea what it is like, or what laws it follows.
So what can be done? Well, for more than 300 years there has been a sense of unease in the humanities, because it was widely felt by the most perceptive and creative people that mathematics was being over-done. The outline values of maths were its push for rigid rules, structure and regimentation. For countless centuries it was the Official Story that maths was the supreme form of human knowledge… along with the corollary that you can’t have too much of a good thing. But you can. In the 18thcentury this was all-too obvious, in the toleration of dreadful satanic mills and obscene slavery —which supplied the tobacco, coffee, sugar and cotton the newly rich UK middle class craved.
Now the dust has settled, at last and… surprise, surprise… anti-mathematics has emerged. It explains exactly why there was a subliminal dread of too-much oppressive maths for so many centuries. Maths can no longer boast that it is the unchallenged, supreme pinnacle of human knowledge. A rival, 100% abstract, 100% lucid logos was lurking in the shadows all along: the potential study of the intrinsic logic of transience.
Some sceptics seem to think that anti-mathematics is a chimera. I’m afraid they are clutching at straws. It can no more be undiscovered than the binomial theorem. It is still in its infancy, but its mere presence dispels at a stroke the grandiose mystic overtones which have glorified ‘pure’ maths for more than two millennia. It implies a veritable summersault in our view of the human condition. There is, thank goodness, some light at the end of the tunnel.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st June 2023