To what should I aspire? by Thomas Schenk

The theme for the rest of this month at HP is “Finding Meaning”. 

What do the limits of artificial intelligence tell us about human aspirations?

The limits of artificial intelligence

The success of artificial intelligence, though limited, suggests that intelligence is a rather mechanical operation.  To the extent that we humans have prided ourselves, or felt ourselves set apart by our intelligence, this should be a bit of a blow.

It is apparent, however, that the goal of making machines intelligent is a human one.  It has never been a computer’s goal to beat people at chess or Jeopardy; developing computer programs that can accomplish those feats is a distinctively human aspiration.  Computers have yet to set their own goals.  Artificial intelligence, it would seem, is a tool for achieving ends; since there seems to be little difference between artificial and organic intelligence, we might infer that any intelligence is a tool for achieving ends.

While we now share the domain of abstract intelligence with computers, the domain of intending remains unique to us.  To intend is to reflect upon a range of possible ends, select one based on some criteria or standard, and develop strategies to achieve that end.  Machines certainly don’t do this (though undoubtedly, based on some human’s intention, a computer program that simulates intentional behavior can be developed).  Some animals seem to have a rudimentary intentionality, but at least for now the stress is on “rudimentary.”

The question no one can answer for us

As it is, we humans uniquely have the opportunity to ask the question “to what should I aspire?”  We have the opportunity to think through the various possible ends available to us, to reflect on our life in relation to these possibilities, to make a choice, and to work toward the realization of that choice.  We also have the ability to change our mind with the passage of time, and to re-envision our ultimate aspirations.

Intentionality itself can be either externally or internally directed.  Wisdom can be worldly or spiritual.  We can aspire to such external values as power, possessions, prestige; or we can aspire to internal values such as truth, beauty and virtue.

El Capitan, Yosmite National Park

To what end, ultimately, ought I aspire?  There are no facts, no system of logic that can lead me to a clear answer.  People may say “you ought to aspire to this!” and point to one or another value.  This “ought to aspire,” however, will not be supported by logic.  An “ought” only has logical force within the context of a goal.  Thus, if you aspire to X, and it is necessary to do Y to achieve X, it logically follows that you ought to do Y.  But in seeking an ultimate goal we are outside of a goal context.   We’re on our own.

Seeking an answer to the question of ultimate aspiration is something of a lifelong quest; our imagination, our emotions, our intuition, our intelligence: each has something to contribute.  The testimony of others may be of value as we seek answers — it is wise to be open to such testimony; it is also wise to be skeptical of it.  Perhaps most important of all, we need to pay attention.

To be able to choose our ultimate goals is a wonderful freedom, but can also be rather time consuming and even frightening.  It is not surprising that many people forsake that freedom and simply follow the herd.  Not surprising, but I think unfortunate.  We are each given but one life; why aspire to anything less than the highest values we can envision?

Don’t forget to comment below.

The author

Thomas Schenk

Thomas Schenk: “If asked, I’d call myself a Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum.   In other words I am a kind of spiritual and philosophical mutt.  I’m not out to change the world, for I believe the world has a much better sense of what it is supposed to be than I ever could. But I do try to promote the value of the contemplative life in these most un-contemplative of times.  Thomas is also the author of the naturalistic spirituality blog Golden Hive of the Invisible.

Check out Thomas’ other articles:

Next Sunday

Next Sunday, we continue the theme of finding meaning with B. T. Newberg, “Naturalism: Every second of your life is meaningful”.

The theme for late autumn here at HP is “Death and Life”.  Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at] by Nov. 6.

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