A Sentient Computer? I Think Not…

Some readers might have seen a version of this story that appeared in the Washington Post last weekend about a Google AI program called LaMDA that one of its creators claimed was sentient and “conscious.” Here is the CNN version of that story, “No, Google’s AI Is Not Sentient.” Even the description of what it can do makes it clear this machine is just operating a sophisticated version of John Searle’s Chinese Box example. See Robert Kuhn’s interview here with Searle on his amazing program Closer to Truth-which, by the way is now being uploaded to Youtube. And for dozens of other programs exploring these fundamental questions do the search on the Closer to Truth web site for the “Mind Body Problem.”

I am a historian of ancient Mediterranean/Ancient Near Eastern religions so my comment here is stictly “outside my field,” as the saying goes. I have to agree with Roger Penrose, this idea that intelligent and consciousness—not to mention self-consciousness—is based on this kind of a computational model of complex data association is a basic category mistake, see his enlightening interview with Lex Fridman, “Consciousness is Not a Computation.”
I don’t think one needs to move to some “wholly other” force and call it “Mind,” as if naming a phenomenon conveys understanding it. I am quite sure our self-conscious minds are rooted in “this” world—I remain a Monist in that Whiteheadean sense, but our reductionistic assumption that the “material” is just STUFF…in contrast to some “spiritual” other—is just wrong headed. As if naming Gravity, Light, and the Strong and Weak Nuclear forces somehow means we have understood them and made them part of some so-called “material” aspect of the cosmos. The problem here, as I see it, is the very assumptions that are built into our dualistic categorization that seems to be built into our language anytime we discuss the so-called “spiritual.”

I Was There! 70 Years to the Day…

I usually use this personal blog for historical, philosophical, and artistic ruminations. But today is different.
This day, June 2, 1952, marks the 70th Anniversary of Queen Elizabeth–the longest reigning monarch in English history. My two sister and I were there in London for the Coronation Day! My father was a USAF military officer stationed in Buttonwood AFB–near St. Helens–where we lived. It was in the Liverpool area–so Ringo (1940), John (1940), Paul (1942), and George (1943) were maybe already playing around with their instruments–and who knows–might have made the trek to London as so many millions of citizens did. I have only vague memories–do the math and you can figure out my age (b. 1946).
I have vague memories of that day. I know my father hoisted me up on his shoulders–taking turns with my younger sister. We were on the procession route–with the countless throngs waving flags and cheering. I got a toy Buckingham Place guard–the one with the black fur hat! I loved it so much. My sisters got golden plated metal models of the royal carriage. And we all got a five shilling piece–I still have mine–minted especially for the Coronation.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo from that day–I think we might have home movie Super 8 footage somewhere–I need to check. My father was avidly into filming everything we did–as many of you will remember who grew up in the 1950s! But today I am thinking of 70 years past–in my own life, and that amazing beginning I had growing up in England those early years (1950-1954). I did find a picture of the house we rented in St. Helens and another of us in the driveway of that house around that time. I will leave it to you all to see if you can spot which boy is Jimmy Dan Tabor. Perhaps someone out there will recognize the house. I also remember, for you trivia old folk, Dad had a 1949 Convertible Studebaker. I would like to go back someday and find that house. I had endless adventures in that house–you can imagine, remembering back when you were ages. I love that house–the endless rooms, closets, and even the attic and courtyard. Talk about letting your imagination run wild.
Anyway, I wanted to share this bit of personal trivia with you all

I Love the Word Ennui

I have loved the French loanword word ennui for as long as I can remember hearing it. To pronounce it is compelling, almost like an onomatopoeia–though it is more the “feeling” than the sound. Turns out it comes from the Latin inordinare that also gave us our English word “annoy.” It reminds me in sentiment a bit of the word listless–though the meaning in English is more direct. It apparently means a lack of energy or interest, whereas ennui is sometimes defined as boredom–which to me misses its core meaning of a simple lack of interest or engagement with any kind of joy or enthusiasm. In each case one can ask–about what is one lacking engagement, interest, or energy?

In my case it would be the everyday business of human life itself on this planet with all its diverse complexities of celebration, tragedy, joy, and grief–and a thousand other contrasts, all hitting us at once like a firehose. I think even in the height of the opposites–enthusiasm, engagement, and the most intense interest, there is always listless ennui lurking on the horizon, not as a sabotage of joyfulness but as an underlying reality. It is just there. And I welcome it, lest one be carried away too much with what likely is projection of rather capricious moods or momentary diversions as if they have any kind of cosmic permanence. In a group or crowd or even with friends when one feels ennui the typical response is to ask “Are you okay,” “Is anything wrong,” as if any person’s individual failure to keep up the façade is some kind of indication that the mask might be slipping. We don’t abide well with sitting quietly, saying nothing. I think deep dives into the pools of listless ennui is as honest as it is therapeutic.

Dreaming by David S. Tabor circa 2010

The Bad Idea that Took Over the World

Most forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–not to mention more “eastern” modes of thinking, have gone down this path pretty much wholesale–that this earth is not our Home–a kind of alienation from the world. Salvation is beyond. I call this the “bad” idea that took over the world. My next book, once The Lost Mary is published in English, is on this topic. I prefer Robert Frost’s line Birches: The earth’s the right place to be; I don’t know where its likely to go better…” Here is a lecture on Youtube on this topic I gave some years ago. Please subscribe to my Channel if it looks interesting. I have recently uploaded about 80 videos!

Light and Darkness…

I love this one. That is you and me and everyone one of us, both the child within and the adult stumbling through many paths. I will not identify it, so those who don’t recognize can have fun finding the poet if they so choose. For those who are sticklers on the Upper/Lower case for God/gods, recall that ELOHIM is the “Powers,” i.e. the sum total of the Power of all powers…so-called forces of “Nature” and all that “Is.”

The darkness is apparent in every generation, in every life…as is the light. Tales of horror, loss, and grief, alongside those of joy and amazing grace and sacrificial kindness. Thank you Buk. I love your heart and soul.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion

Dylan Thomas – 1914-1953

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

What is Art and How Does it Transport us to Another World?

My oldest son David died in September, 2019 of cancer–way too early at age 51. He was a wonderfully creative painter. He lived in Vienna for years and toward the end of his life outside Austin. I love his work, not because he was my son. You can read about him and some of my favorite paintings he created here: Remembering David Tabor. I miss him so much every day. I find I have to “block out” the grief in order to go on with my own life, but his paintings fill our house and I am reminded of him in every room, staircase, and alcove daily.

This article about how art transports us to other worlds I found propounding moving and I thank my friend Stuart Segall for pointing it out to me: “When Art Transports Us Where Do We Actually Go?

I also highly recommend the new series on the amazing program, “Closer to Truth,” now in its 20th year exploring Cosmos, Consciousness, and Meaning–hosted by my life-long friend Robert L. Kuhn: Art Seeking Understanding.

I hope my readers enjoy both these links, and thanks for reading about David and his wonderful work left behind for all of us. I love this one, wondering what dreams are in the heart and soul of this woman as she pauses from her daily work.

Does God Care for Hummingbirds?

I have a group of older friends who go back in our various mutual associations for over fifty years.  We regularly write one another via email of this, that, and the other. Totally spontaneous. Our topics range from the sublime to the mundane, the personal to the galactic. We particularly seem to get into intersections between spirituality and science–along the lines of the topics and questions Robert Kuhn has been exploring for 20 years on his PBS program, Closer to Truth, namely “Cosmos, Consciousness, and Meaning” [1]Kuhn has provided an incredible “Content Guide” for endless browsing here.. We all were brought together in our younger years by our interests in biblical studies–several of us pursued Ph.Ds, but our exchanges are more personal than formally academic.

Recently one of the group wrote the rest of us something that that really stood out to me and I have thought about deeply since receiving it:

That quality of mercy you all show to sentient beings was not apparent in the material universe for 14 billion years.  Recently it began to emerge. Now in you all, it flows generously.  You give me hope and faith in Future.

This observation was in response to an experience of one person in our group who lives up in Washington where the recent cold snap put many good creatures “great and small” in danger. Many were unprepared for the sudden plunge from lovely sunny days to a sudden deep freeze. He related to us his desperately successful attempts to save the hummingbirds in his yard who had not migrated. We all found it so very moving.

He and his wife attempted to construct a bit of shelter, trying various alternatives from duct wrap, bubble wrap, and Xmas lights strung around the feeder with aluminum foil wrapped to preserve the heat.  So far, he reports the aluminum foil seems to be the most effective. While they were doing this act of mercy several of these amazing creatures landed on his shoulders–and even his wrists and fingers. He was awestruck at their desperation but was able to save most of them, though one he found dead on the ground the next morning. If you know little of hummingbirds—these most amazing of all creatures—the Wiki article “Hummingbird” will totally blow your mind.

So does “God” care for birds–as Jesus famously affirmed about the One he called his “Heavenly father” who knows even a single sparrow? If one has a classic view of theism–it seems not, given the violence of nature, “red in tooth and claw,” and the unspeakable suffering we humans have brought upon each other and the billions of creatures we cruelly “manage” for our purposes. We appear to be perfectly “free” to wreak whatever suffering we choose on others, limited only by our power. And that is not to mention our unimaginably violent and vast universe–which operates by what we call “physical laws,” that seem dead our values. Such a “God” seems either indifferent or unable to assure mire peaceful and harmonious outcomes. But if one holds more to what the philosophers call “Process theism,” as I do, in which the emergent qualities of compassion and love are expressing themselves consciously and willfully in sentient beings–then even such tiny acts of kindness, as my dear friend showed to these hummingbirds, are an undeniable reflection of such realities in our cosmos. Thus “God” is not so much “outside” our universe pulling puppet strings, as the core ground of our being. As the ancient Greek poet Epimenides expressed things,  we “live and move and have our being” within that Force of all Forces that the Hebrews called self-expressive “Being.” That great I AM. And those acts of kindness we show to one another, and to our fellow creatures “great and small” on the planet, are reflective of our better angels.

Painting by Angelika Wagar


1Kuhn has provided an incredible “Content Guide” for endless browsing here.