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English review - Making Sense of Thinking

On 5 September, 2019, the internationally renowned German philosopher Markus Gabriel delivered a lecture in Nijmegen for Radboud Reflects. Holder of the chair for Epistemology, Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn since 2009 and the youngest philosopher ever to become professor in Germany (beating Schelling’s record), Gabriel is celebrated as the father of the popular philosophical style or method known as ‘New Realism’, which challenges the excesses of both postmodernity and scientism. His lecture, entitled ‘Making Sense of Thinking’, dealt with the issues presented in his latest book, The Meaning of Thought (Der Sinn des Denkens). The event was attended by approximately two-hundred people and concluded with a discussion between Gabriel and philosopher Arjen Kleinherenbrink.

The Truth About Truth, Thought, Perception and Reality

In the first part of the lecture, Gabriel made the ambitious promise to tell the audience what perception, truth and reality are, contending that these concepts are simpler than the way we tend to think of them today. Perception involves being in touch fallibly with other things, i.e., having it within our reach to check whether something is the case or not. For example, if we read in the newspaper that ‘Angela Merkel is in Brussels’, perception is what allows us to somehow check whether this is true. Conversely, «the existence of truth is obvious», Gabriel asserted: if Angela Merkel is indeed in Brussels, then Angela Merkel’s being in Brussels is true. To talk about ‘alternative’ facts is an oxymoron. Finally, truth and perception are connected to reality: «reality is what you can be wrong about», claimed Gabriel. To summarize: thanks to perception we can verify whether something is the case or not, and that involves being in touch with reality.

Professor Gabriel then proceeded to argue against scientistic materialism, or the idea that we can reduce reality and perceptual processes to physicalist descriptions. For example, if I think that seeing this table, i.e., if I think of my perception of this table as involving photons emerging from a light source and undergoing a series of transformations once they have reached my nerve ends, then I am ‘brutally alienated’ from my perception. What I see is a table, not sensory data. Similarly, when I perceive this sugar cube, I do not detach its sweetness from its having a cubic form or its being white: thinking joins all these qualities together, and that is why I perceive the sugar cube as a unit rather than a list of sensory data, so to say. So why not think of thinking as one more sense organ?

We Could Not Have Been Angels

The way we think about our thinking matters, claimed Professor Gabriel: «what you think about your thinking determines who you are», and nowadays we call this our ‘identity’. Hence, in the second part of the lecture, Gabriel defended how he thinks of us as thinking beings through a position he labelled as ‘biological externalism’: namely, the idea that we are necessarily animals, that our ability to think depends on certain biological preconditions. I can only raise my left hand because I have a left hand made of cells, just as I can only have a visceral reaction to Trump’s electoral victory because I am a biological being capable of visceral reactions. We are doing something wrong when, like Descartes, we think of ourselves as minds detached from our bodies. The fact that we are mortal animals is not contingent: had we not been mortal animals, we would not be able to think, and thus, we would no longer be who we are.

Gabriel labelled as ‘AI ideology’ the position that our being mortal animals is contingent, the idea that we could have been or could become immortal minds, having its birthplace, amongst others, in German Idealism, according to which nature is only a subset of the realm of Spirit. We are doing something wrong when we think of ourselves as having the possibility of uploading our minds in the ‘cloud’ and getting rid of our animality: this currently popular transhumanist fiction is the impossible fantasy that Facebook and Google feed and exploit, but it is indeed impossible. «The fact that we are animals is a necessary fact about ourselves. We could not have been angels».

Fighting Facebook’s ‘Bullshit’

The third part of the lecture was dedicated to unpacking the political consequences of the way we currently think about thinking. There is no such thing as artificial ‘intelligence’, Gabriel contended: we are intelligent beings because we face problems every day through artefacts, but artefacts do not face problems themselves. Centuries of problems have led us to inherit ways to solve problems, precisely through the creation of artefacts. Smartphones do not have problems; rather, we created smartphones to solve our own problems, and because they do not face problems, but we do, the continued existence of such artefacts depends on us. Were humanity to vanish, all software would cease to function within a few days, and the idea of a ‘coming supra-intelligence’ that will relieve us of our problems is ‘bullshit’ (to borrow Harry Frankfurt’s term), a way of thinking about our own thinking that spreads regardless of whether it is true or false.

So-called ‘artificial intelligences’ are nothing but models of how we think, and a model of thought is not and cannot be a copy of our thought. The difference between model and copy is like the difference between Madurodam and the Netherlands: Madurodam could not be a copy of the Netherlands, otherwise it would be the Netherlands. AI ideology is leading us to think falsely of ourselves, to live a ‘false life’: social media, being a mode of communication in which we are only in touch with other people’s thoughts but not their bodies, «has the problem that it constantly produces ways of thinking about each other that are then harvested by people who can use this information to fight us».

The lecture concluded with a conversation between Gabriel and philosopher Arjen Kleinherenbrink, who pointed out the similarities between biological externalism and Sartre’s existentialist thought. Kleinherenbrink and Gabriel also discussed what it is that we fear about robots, as well as ethical questions and Enlightenment values.

This report was written by Anna Rafecas Sogas, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.