Thursday, February 21, 2019

Asimov and the Great Conversation

Isaac Asimov’s books may not be considered “Great” as in canonical, but he does contribute to what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation, exploring in his stories questions of human agency and free will, of what minds are, what thoughts are, and what emotions are. Sometimes I don’t agree with his answers, and sometimes I don’t know if I agree with his answers, but he always makes me think.

Although it was written rather late in Asimov’s life, Robots of Dawn takes place relatively early in his world’s history: to give a rough indication, over the course of this ten-year reading plan, I’m going through all of his robot, empire, and Foundation novels in in-world chronological order, and this is only year three of my schedule. Humans have settled a few planets, but there is no empire yet. So what will happen as they expand? Will the future empire be designed by robots? For robots? Or will robots, bound by the Laws of Robotics not to harm humans, stay out of the way and let humans do the work themselves since challenges are good for society?

Asimov seeks the truth behind the truth (I’m tempted to say the foundation under the foundation, but that’s getting ahead of the story) in asking this question of whether robots will best help humanity by not helping humanity. I would add yet a third layer by asking whether strengthening society is in fact keeping humans from harm. The First Law of Robotics says nothing about Humanity in the collective plural but only one-at-a-time humans: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Many individual humans have led happy lives in societies less knowledgeable than ours or Asimov hero Lije Baley’s, less scientific, less crowded, less organized. Since the Robot Daneel Olivaw recognizes that challenges are good for humans, might it not be good to make society weak so as to give societal challenges to individual humans? In other words, I’m asking if robots would best help individual humans by not helping society, which they would in turn do by helping to make it easy for human society to expand to other planets.

Near the end of the book, it is stated as undebatable that robots have no feelings, only positronic surges interpreted (mostly by us) as feelings. But perhaps, the narration suggests, humans have no feelings, either – that what we call feelings are only neuronic surges interpreted as feelings. I don’t really understand how Asimov can ask this. Humans do interpret these phenomena as feelings, and that very interpretation makes them feelings without a doubt. How can I think I’m feeling something and not have a feeling? As the old philosophers pointed out, if you think you see a green man, that is in fact the visual sensation you are having, even if you are hallucinating, which is likely in this scenario. On the very next page after this supposition, Baley envies the robots for having no fear of rain, while Baley himself is terrified. Believing that the fear is irrational and comes from neuronic activity doesn't negate the terror that he knows exists in at least one conscious mind: his own. No one could hold a hot coal in the hand and believe that pain was only a neuronic surge.

Suppose you’re reading a book, and at the bottom of page 3, you find the words "Please don't turn the page." You turn the page anyway (who wouldn’t?), and on the left side of the next spread, page 4 says, "That hurt." Page 5 says, “Please don’t do that again,” but of course you again turn the leaf over. Page 6 bears a single word, “OUCH!” The next says, "If you continue turning pages, you will kill me." And on and on it goes. The book responds to every page turn you make; it delivers a message that would not be delivered if you didn’t turn the pages. But would anyone consider this series of responses the equivalent of a human’s internally felt pain after stepping on a nail?

A random note as a coda: I was thinking the other day about the Turing Test, which a computer would pass if its part in a conversation with you – a conversation carried out in written form as, for instance, in phone texts – made you believe you were talking with a human. I think that Alan Turing imagined the test as an incentive to make AI grow ever more sophisticated. But does it take all that much sophistication for a computer program to convince you that you are texting with a typical teenager?

One month later, I have to add a coda to the coda of this post by recommending a story by my friend Jared Oliver Adams. Here my buddy speculates on what might happen if God were to give robots sentience, that is, if they were able to feel the pain indicated (or caused by or accompanied by) their “positronic surges.” At least that’s one interpretation of the story’s wonderfully speculative setting. The tale of Pope Packard also has suspense and adventure, theology and philosophy, and possibly ghosts. If you enjoy it, please visit Jared’s website and let him know!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dombey Redux

Well, it’s happened. I’ve kept up this blog long enough that I’ve reread a book I already blogged about. So this return to Dombey and Son creates a problem for me. (Admittedly, this is a first-world geek’s problem!) My first post about this forgotten jewel is one of my very favorites on this site: a tribute to Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’s greatest comedic creations. So what else am I to say this time?

One option is to praise Captain Cuttle even more – especially easy to do when seen next to characters from some other recent reading. In a double dose of Dickens this year, I’ve also made my third visit to Barnaby Rudge, surely my least favorite novel by the Inimitable. I remembered thinking that the part of BR that isn’t dreadful was as good as anything else by Dickens, and innkeeper John Willet a very funny fellow. But this time through, John, although funny as far as being dull-witted in a Dickensian way goes, just struck me as self-centered and cruel. Captain Cuttle, by contrast, compounds his hilariously challenged intellect with kindness and heroism, even risking exposure to the frightening Mrs. MacStinger in order to protect young Florence. On top of that, he prays perhaps more than any character in the Dickens world other than Mrs. Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities, even if he does have a very difficult time understanding the words of the Prayer Book.

Or perhaps I could mention some of the other fabulously funny characters in Captain Cuttle’s circle. There’s Susan Nipper, caustic yet nurturing, and ever ready with twisted aphorisms such as “Though I may not gather moss I'm not a rolling stone.” Then there’s the man the Nipper calls “that innocentest creetur,” Mr. Toots. Toots is hopelessly in love with Florence, but interrupts every rebuff before it can be completed with the assurance that “it’s of no consequence.” While on a mission to identify sources of laughter, we cannot omit those two wise counselors, Jack Bunsby and the Game Chicken. The Chicken, a boxer by trade, can’t give Mr. Toots advice that doesn’t involve punching, and Bunsby, with a voice that appears out of a head that seems to have no moving parts, delivers guidance as cryptically ambivalent as anything from any ancient oracle, always to the appreciative amazement of the good Captain Cuttle.

Considering the direction this post has taken, I think my best conclusion is to pay tribute to my favorite funny characters throughout the Dickens world. I don’t know how to order them by level of humor, so I’ll just mention them as they come to me.

• Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield. In any method of ordering, this author of overeloquent epistles has to come at or near the top.
• Fanny Squeers, Nicholas Nickleby. Douglas McGrath, writer and director of the 2002 film adaptation, calls her letter one of the funniest pages in all of literature. Amen.
• The Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby. Their pony is in the theatrical profession!
• Prince Turveydrop, Bleak House. He has that name and runs a dancing school. ‘Nuff said.
• Dick Swiveller, The Old Curiosity Shop. Dick finds his routes through London getting longer and longer along with his list of streets he must avoid because of unpaid shopkeepers.
• Mr. Wemmick, Great Expectations. How can you top either the humor or the human kindness of a man who sets off a cannon every evening because his Aged Parent looks forward daily to the only sound he can hear?
• John Chivery, Little Dorrit. John’s unrequited love for Amy Dorrit results mostly in daydreams about how his tombstone will describe his tragically lonely life.
• Matthew Bagnet, Bleak House. Friends seek Bagnet’s wisdom, which he dispenses by asking his wife to “Tell them what I think.”
• Tony Weller, Pickwick Papers. How to explain in twenty words or fewer his eccentric view of the spelling of his own name?
• Mr. Twemlow, Our Mutual Friend. Mr. Twemlow holds his palm on his forehead most of the time, unsure whether the Veneerings consider him their best friend or don’t know him at all.
• Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol. Tight-fisted, hard-hearted, and hilarious.
• Sarah Gamp, Martin Chuzzlewit. Some critics put this drunken nurse with the possibly imaginary friend at the top of the list.
• Mr. Mantalini, Nicholas Nickleby. The ludicrous Mantalini tries to manipulate his “heart’s joy,” Mrs. Mantalini, into loving him by threatening suicide with butter knives. “Oh, demmit!”
• Mrs. Plornish, Little Dorrit. The good woman repeatedly offers to translate her Italian friend’s utterances to neighbors into loudly spoken pidgin – even though he speaks in perfectly understandable English.

I know I’m forgetting someone obvious and important. But whatcha gonna do? I’ll have to amend the list the next time I read Dombey and Son.