By Chet Yarbrough
The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
Written by: Marcelo Gleiser
Narration by: William Neenan
Marcelo Gleiser believes an A.I. singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil is a myth of science that will be stranded on “The Island of Knowledge”. His point is that the nature of science, human cognition, and quantum physics make computers incapable of superseding or equaling human intelligence. The horizon of the unknown will always be present for human beings, even with computational advances. Gleiser implies that the computer will only be a tool of humankind to explore the unknown.
Gleiser notes the nature of science is to explain natural phenomena. Sciences’ explanations create an island of knowledge that is like Plato’s Socratic cave; i.e. a cave for humanity that only reveals shadows of reality.
Human beings cannot leave the cave because every scientific discovery only leads to another question about shadows that represent the real thing. Gleiser prepares one for that conclusion by recounting the history of great scientists like Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Max Planck, Earnest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Edwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and others. Each of these scientists contributes to “The Island of Knowledge” but each raises more questions about phenomena that remain shadows of nature’s reality.
Gleiser acknowledges that Newton and Einstein sharpen shadowy outlines of nature’s reality but each fails to discover absolute truth. Newton misses the fundamental truth of time. Einstein misses the truth of quantum physics. Newton’s time is relative and Einstein’s presumed certainties are probabilities.
Gleiser acknowledges that Newton and Einstein sharpen shadowy outlines of nature’s reality but each fails to discover absolute truth.
Gleiser argues that human cognition is limited by “The Island of Knowledge” because cognition is influenced by the mind’s senses. Consciousness entails life’s experiences and interprets events within a closed system of understanding. For example, history is reported with facts that are selected by the historian. The facts may be accurate but not all facts of the past are reported and thereby history becomes a shadow of the truth.
In science, experiments do not prove truth; i.e. experiments only eliminate false positives, leaving only another experiment to disprove another presumed truth. Experiments theoretically get one closer to a truth but the truth remains a shadow because the new truth has to be explored by further experiment. As Karl Popper notes: “In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”
Finally, Gleiser suggests artificial intelligence will never supersede or equal human intelligence because natural phenomena are found to be probabilistic and not defined by yes and no, or ones and zeros. Artificial Intelligence is a misnomer in Gleiser’s opinion.
AI is a man-made construct, subject to “The Island of Knowledge” created by human beings. Gleiser argues there are serious dangers in expansion of AI because it reduces complexity to yes and no answers. One wonders if Gleiser takes into consideration experiments being conducted with quantum computing. These experiments are meant to create a neural network that emulates human consciousness but with improved probabilistic calculations.
Gleiser’s implication is that a computer that programs itself becomes a Frankenstein; not a sentient being. He argues that A.I. creations are likely to disrupt, if not destroy, human life. He believes A.I. will always be based on shadows of unverifiable truths.
Gleiser implies the idea of a Turing Computer that can know the origin of life is as specious as belief in the myth of the Holy Grail. He may be right. Although, Popper suggests there are no verifiable truths; only probabilities. The Holy Grail is a myth because nothing can ever be absolutly proven. If so, A.I. seems to have the potential of improving the odds of factual truth.
Gleiser touches on the mysteries of “spooky action at a distance” which challenges Einstein’s dictum that nothing exceeds the speed of light. Gleiser recounts experiments that prove “spooky action at a distance” are real.
Experiments with “spooky action at a distance” open a new field of inquiry. This and “string theory” are examples of challenges to belief that human beings will ever have a theory of everything. A.I. seems a credible tool for further experimentation. whether it is a “Frankenstein” or not.
Gleiser believes “The Island of Knowledge” is as close as humanity will ever get to a theory of everything and it will always be a shadow of nature’s truth. Karl Popper would agree. Gleiser is saying pursuit of truth is important but precise truth is unattainable. He argues that a final truth will never be found because discoveries of science will only lead to more questions, more experiments, and better tools of measurement. Nature’s truth will always be beyond human understanding; i.e. at best, nature’s truth will only be shadows of reality with sharper outlines. Humanity may not be capable of escaping the cave to discover the truth of life.
Gleiser is quick to point out that his concept of the human island of knowledge is not meant to discourage scientific exploration. He believes human beings have an innate desire to understand nature. Life experience suggests wanting to understand nature is true of all cultures because humanity desires immortality. Humans want to think of themselves as the center of the universe; as false as that may be.