Old Philosophy Is Still Good Philosophy

In response to a Wired article about preserving our digital selves for an "afterlife," Alan Jacobs writes:

Notice also — this is universal in such discourse — the unexamined “we”: “2023 will be the year we broaden our definition of what it means to live forever.” Depends on who “we” are, I think. I for one am not interested in broadening my definition of what means to live forever in such a way that it isn’t living and doesn’t last forever.

--defining immortality down

Connected to this, I'm thinking about the recent spate of excitement around AI and large language models (specifically ChatGPT). Tyler Cowen wrote some about the winners and losers as AI becomes a functional part of how we interact with one another, especially online. One thing he mentions is the idea that perhaps the unreplicable will become more valuable in our society: athletics, gardening, etc.:

Alternatively, many humans will run away from such competitive struggles altogether. Currently the bots are much better at writing than say becoming a master gardener, which also requires skills of physical execution and moving in open space. We might thus see a great blossoming of talent in the area of gardening, and other hard to copy inputs, if only to protect one’s reputation and IP from the bots.

Athletes, in the broad sense of that term, may thus rise in status. Sculpture and dance might gain on writing in cultural import and creativity. Counterintuitively, if you wanted our culture to become more real and visceral in terms of what commands audience attention and inspiration, perhaps the bots are exactly what you’ve been looking for.

--Who gains and loses from the new AI?

The first thing I thought when I read Alan Jacobs's response to that article was this: perhaps the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" is not so old-fashioned as 21st century philosophy has made it out to be. Cogito ergo sum could, in the day and age of AI and the preservation of our "digital selves," give us a way out of the frenetic online hive-mind thing we have going on right now. Cogito ergo sum allows me to reassert my individualism. I am more than a small bit of data that gets fed into a large language model so it can reproduce generic text about any given subject. I am more than a few terabytes of data at the end of my life so that "I" can be preserved for someone else to interact with.

(And I agree, who really wants to keep a lifelong record of everything we say digitally?? Have we not all watched those Black Mirror episodes?)

It seems to me that perhaps the early-to-late modern philosophers may still have something to say to us. Descartes can still teach us a thing or two about our humanity in the midst of AI.

Tagged: philosophy, modernity, existentialism,