There is no such thing as ‘western civilization’

Worth reading article by Kwame Anthony Appiah questioning the notion that the values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention.

Like many Englishmen who suffered from tuberculosis in the 19th century, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor went abroad on medical advice, seeking the drier air of warmer regions. Tylor came from a prosperous Quaker business family, so he had the resources for a long trip. In 1855, in his early 20s, he left for the New World, and, after befriending a Quaker archeologist he met on his travels, he ended up riding on horseback through the Mexican countryside, visiting Aztec ruins and dusty pueblos. Tylor was impressed by what he called “the evidence of an immense ancient population”. And his Mexican sojourn fired in him an enthusiasm for the study of faraway societies, ancient and modern, that lasted for the rest of his life. In 1871, he published his masterwork, Primitive Culture, which can lay claim to being the first work of modern anthropology.

Primitive Culture was, in some respects, a quarrel with another book that had “culture” in the title: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, a collection that had appeared just two years earlier. For Arnold, culture was the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Arnold wasn’t interested in anything as narrow as class-bound connoisseurship: he had in mind a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.

But Tylor thought that the word could mean something quite different, and in part for institutional reasons, he was able to see that it did. For Tylor was eventually appointed to direct the University Museum at Oxford, and then, in 1896, he was appointed to the first chair of anthropology there. It is to Tylor more than anyone else that we owe the idea that anthropology is the study of something called “culture”, which he defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Civilisation, as Arnold understood it, was merely one of culture’s many modes.

Nowadays, when people speak about culture, it is usually either Tylor’s or Arnold’s notion that they have in mind. The two concepts of culture are, in some respects, antagonistic. Arnold’s ideal was “the man of culture” and he would have considered “primitive culture” an oxymoron. Tylor thought it absurd to propose that a person could lack culture. Yet these contrasting notions of culture are locked together in our concept of western culture, which many people think defines the identity of modern western people. So let me try to untangle some of our confusions about the culture, both Tylorian and Arnoldian, of what we have come to call the west.

Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation, and he replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like many of the best stories, alas, this one is probably apocryphal; but also like many of the best stories, it has survived because it has the flavour of truth. But my own response would have been very different: I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time. I hesitate to disagree with even the Gandhi of legend, but I believe western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.

One reason for the confusions “western culture” spawns comes from confusions about the west. We have used the expression “the west” to do very different jobs. Rudyard Kipling, England’s poet of empire, wrote, “Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, contrasting Europe and Asia, but ignoring everywhere else. During the cold war, “the west” was one side of the iron curtain; “the east” its opposite and enemy. This usage, too, effectively disregarded most of the world. Often, in recent years, “the west” means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white.

Of course, we often also talk today of the western world to contrast it not with the south but with the Muslim world. And Muslim thinkers sometimes speak in a parallel way, distinguishing between Dar al-Islam, the home of Islam, and Dar al-Kufr, the home of unbelief. I would like to explore this opposition further. Because European and American debates today about whether western culture is fundamentally Christian inherit a genealogy in which Christendom is replaced by Europe and then by the idea of the west.

This civilisational identity has roots going back nearly 1,300 years, then. But to tell the full story, we need to begin even earlier.

For the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, the world was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. He knew that people and goods and ideas could travel easily between the continents: he himself travelled up the Nile as far as Aswan, and on both sides of the Hellespont, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. Herodotus admitted to being puzzled, in fact, as to “why the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s”. Still, despite his puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world.

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posted by f.sheikh

We think with our whole body, not just brain; and that is the missing link in Artificial Intelligence -Body.

Worth reading article by Ben Medlock who built communication machine for physicist Stephen Hawkins. He argues that our thinking process involves not just brain, but all our body cells that have evolved over centuries. The AI is missing this crucial component-thinking body cells.f sheikh 

It is tempting to think of the mind as a layer that sits on top of more primitive cognitive structures. We experience ourselves as conscious beings, after all, in a way that feels different to the rhythm of our heartbeat or the rumblings of our stomach. If the operations of the brain can be separated out and stratified, then perhaps we can construct something akin to just the top layer, and achieve human-like artificial intelligence (AI) while bypassing the messy flesh that characterises organic life.

I understand the appeal of this view, because I co-founded SwiftKey, a predictive-language software company that was bought by Microsoft. Our goal is to emulate the remarkable processes by which human beings can understand and manipulate language. We’ve made some decent progress: I was pretty proud of the elegant new communication system we built for the physicist Stephen Hawking between 2012 and 2014. But despite encouraging results, most of the time I’m reminded that we’re nowhere near achieving human-like AI. Why? Because the layered model of cognition is wrong. Most AI researchers are currently missing a central piece of the puzzle: embodiment.

Things took a wrong turn at the beginning of modern AI, back in the 1950s. Computer scientists decided to try to imitate conscious reasoning by building logical systems based on symbols. The method involves associating real-world entities with digital codes to create virtual models of the environment, which could then be projected back onto the world itself. For instance, using symbolic logic, you could instruct a machine to ‘learn’ that a cat is an animal by encoding a specific piece of knowledge using a mathematical formula such as ‘cat > is > animal’. Such formulae can be rolled up into more complex statements that allow the system to manipulate and test propositions – such as whether your average cat is as big as a horse, or likely to chase a mouse.

This method found some early success in simple contrived environments: in ‘SHRDLU’, a virtual world created by the computer scientist Terry Winograd at MIT between 1968-1970, users could talk to the computer in order to move around simple block shapes such as cones and balls. But symbolic logic proved hopelessly inadequate when faced with real-world problems, where fine-tuned symbols broke down in the face of ambiguous definitions and myriad shades of interpretation.

In later decades, as computing power grew, researchers switched to using statistics to extract patterns from massive quantities of data. These methods are often referred to as ‘machine learning’. Rather than trying to encode high-level knowledge and logical reasoning, machine learning employs a bottom-up approach in which algorithms discern relationships by repeating tasks, such as classifying the visual objects in images or transcribing recorded speech into text. Such a system might learn to identify images of cats, for example, by looking at millions of cat photos, or to make a connection between cats and mice based on the way they are referred to throughout large bodies of text.

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How much does it matter whether God exists? By Nathan Schneider

Two rooms, in two different cities, but pretty much the same scene: one man stands before a few dozen supporters, many of them middle-aged white males, plus a smaller, precocious cohort in early adulthood. As the man speaks, they interrupt him with good, earnest, detailed questions, which he ably answers more or less to their satisfaction. These crowds crave the intricacies of arguments and the upshots of science. The only thing that seems beyond their ken is how their counterparts in the other room could be convinced of something so wrong.

One of those rooms was in New York City, high in an office building overlooking the ruins that then still remained of the World Trade Center; the man was Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and ‘New Atheist’ polemicist. The man in the other room was his arch-rival, the evangelical Christian philosopher and debater William Lane Craig, speaking in a classroom on the sprawling campus of his megachurch in Marietta, Georgia. If one were to attend both events without understanding English, it would be hard to know the difference.

Whether such a thing as God exists is one of those questions that we use to mark our identities, choose our friends, and divide our families. But there are also moments when the question starts to seem suspect, or only partly useful. Once, backstage before a sold-out debate  at the University of Notre Dame between Craig and Sam Harris, Dawkins’s fellow New Atheist, I heard an elderly Catholic theologian approach Harris and spit out: ‘I agree with you more than I do with that guy!’

During the heyday of the New Atheist movement, a few years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was in the wake of a teenage conversion to Catholicism. One might think that my converts’ zeal would pit me squarely against the New Atheist camp. But it didn’t. Really, neither side of the does-God-exist debates seemed to represent me, and the arguments in question had little to do with my embrace of my new-found faith. I had been drawn by the loosey-goosey proposition that love can conquer hate and death, expressed concretely in the lives of monks I had briefly lived among and members of the Catholic Worker Movement who shared their homes with the homeless and abandoned. I actually agreed with most of what the New Atheists wrote about science and free enquiry; what I disagreed most sorely with them about was their hawkish support for military invasions in Muslim-majority countries.

Still, I became fascinated with the question of God as I tried to wrap my head around it for myself. I travelled around the world to meet God debaters, and studied the historical thinkers from whom their arguments derive. I found that I wasn’t alone in doubting the pertinence of the question.

The thinkers who crafted the classic proofs for the existence of God – from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, for instance – were writing to audiences for whom the existence of divine beings was uncontroversial. The purposes of these proofs had more to do with contentions about what we mean by God, and how far into such matters human reason can really take us.

posted by f. sheikh