Category Archives: philosophy

Miracles are everywhere

According to the “Don’t be how much longer can we pretend to not be evil?” folks, the following is quoted at 2310 places on the web. I can not resist being #2311. I usually think too hard about my posts. Why not an easy one now and then?


In Washington,DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:

The violinist received his first dollar.  A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly.  The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time.  This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:
The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while.  About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over.  No one noticed and no one applauded.  There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.  He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.  Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story.  Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. How many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Yes, we miss a lot. But give people a break. Subway-passenger-pokerfaces hide a universe of inner life. There have been times I took delight in a busker’s performance, but no observer would have guessed it. I bet at least one person thought “Wow, this guy plays just like Joshua Bell!.”

Advice to parents: Whenever your child is ever moved as those in this tale, you can probably afford to wait for the next train.

A lot of mental effort is spent on maintaining “belief” in miracles, or the mere possibility of such, that we really know just ain’t so. Better to recognize how much of what we take for granted, like just being alive, is miracle aplenty.

The true horror of artificial intelligence

There is so much to think about in that essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? that I must continue.

Carr opens and closes the essay with references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Even people who have not seen the movie know about HAL, the computer that conversed like a human.  I missed the point back then by assuming Hal was supposed to horrify me.  It did not, but I get it now.  The horror is not HAL, it is what happens when people hold the intelligence of HAL in the same or greater esteem than they hold their own.

Simulated Intelligence is the non-misleading term for chess playing computers, attempts to pass the Turing Test, and the like.  To speculate that even the most remotely possible achievements of so called artificial intelligence could belong in the same class as (it is already a tragedy that I feel the need to introduce this term) Organic Intelligence is to ignore or devalue most of what distinguishes intelligent beings from machines (and I include plenty of beings besides human ones).  Eager for a “Yes” when they ask “Can this machine think?”, technophiliacs unwittingly shrink the concept of intelligence.  Human nature strikes again. The pursuit of artificial intelligence with hope of gaining perspective on the very nature of intelligence blunts appreciation of what minds are for and what they really do.

Where to begin?  Eye contact.  Body language.  Why do we ever bother to touch each other?  The initial and most essential communications that we undertake with our fellow beings are nonverbal.  Infants and pets master this effortlessly.  Then there is poetry.  Music. Art. Gardening. Home cooking. Turing Test my a–.

No one has been able to provide a widely agreed upon definition of consciousness.  I will not try, but I will insist that the needs to survive, reproduce and, in the case of a social creature, connect with others are necessary to and inseparable from the whole that is consciousness.

Isolating parts from the whole is exactly what the manner in which computers process information is all about.  Those who think that with enough speed, memory, parallel processing, data, whatever, something we could consider consciousness might “emerge” are, in my opinion, today’s version of medieval alchemists who thought there had be some way to turn lead into gold.

None of this is a reason for scientists, programmers and engineers to cease their work.  Playing chess is fun, but building a machine that can beat anyone at chess is, no doubt, even more fun.  Mo’ better computers are coming our way!  However, the job of keeping it all in proper perspective must not belong to the people immersed in that stuff.  Have you thanked a philosopher today?

Some of us devise marvelous tools, even before their eventual uses are devised.  Then most of us adopt tools and proceed to shape our worlds without reflecting upon how our tools shape us too.  It is worth thinking about.  With today’s tools, the stakes are high.

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