Newton was an alchemist. Napier a numerologist. Kepler an astrologer. And Giordano Bruno — Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s poster child martyr for scientists persecuted by irrationally superstitious and corrupt institutions — was an occultist.
The esoteric, the obscure, the fringe, the poetic, and the spiritual permeate the human intellectual landscape, both in the humanities and the sciences1. It’s a major motivator for intellectual investigation. When we come to that epiphany, realizing that our discovery affirms an underlying structural unity of the universe — an instantiation of the beauty of asymptotic change, or fractality, or symmetry, or equilibrium, and that laws seem to be baked deeply into the cosmos — it’s that realization, that glimpse for the mind’s eye, that causes within us a response of such dopaminergic climax and sense of profundity that even the most passionate session of lovemaking pale in its comparison.
To paraphrase the sentiment of a Gnostic text:
Sophia -- whose name means Wisdom, and who was God's divine co-equal and mother of Lilith -- was of such immense transcendental beauty and presence, that God, in his jealous love of her, covered her in the body-cloak of non-existence, never to have her name uttered, so that no mortal could look upon and covet her.
But how does one hide something so omnipresent as **Wisdom**? He thus inverted the *Tree of Life*.
The classic problems of the human condition, too, continue to motivate the scientific mind: the quest for eternal youth and immortality, for man-made sentient creature to aid us in our labors, for a Utopian society / Cornucopia where all resources infinite and people are thus (supposedly) happy, for whether there exists a substance that can turn into any other substance, for whether beings of similar intelligibility with us humans2 exist on other worlds or planes of reality, or for whether super-transcendent intelligence(s) have had some role in the creation or maintenance of our universe.
Whether a Renaissance natural philosopher is using alchemy to derive the philosopher’s stone, or a modern nuclear chemist is trying to miniaturizing nuclear transmutation for 3D-printing, quests of the above type are our intellectual motivators. But there is a tendency in our supposed post-“Enlightenment” climate of scientific and rational rigor to ignore, berate, or at least attempt to justify in some secular sense, a scientist’s interest in these bizarre Occultish ideas that go against the the Enlightenment model of scientific inquiry. In doing so, however, we ignore the underlying unity and composability of human abstraction: fundamental convergences of ideas that refer to the same higher principles of, i.e, symmetry, or man’s place in the universe — missing out on the shoulders of giants to stand on when probing these abstractions qua their nature as abstractions.
The notion that the universe is a hologram, as a theory, is but a drop in the ocean compared to the layers of emanated simulations, embedded virtualized realities, and multifaceted avatarism described in the Bhagavad Gita.
As any good scientist and mathematician knows, the process model-building to make sense of data is as much of a creative process as composing music or writing literature. Thus, could such pre-modern ideas of spiritual, religious, and esoteric origins offer insight into human abstraction qua abstraction, regardless of discipline? Would this enable greater fluidity between abstract ideas of different disciplines? Is there a kind of primordial ontological map of abstract concepts that construct any given discipline?
Often, too, we berate and ridicule these historical quests because of its supposed espousal of pseudoscience or dogmatism, only to be pursuing the same thing in our time. The quest for strong AI, is basically the modern version of the quest for the homunculus, or the Talos, or the Golem — we use Sci-Fi metaphors these days — basically, a man-made fully sentient being. A large part of AI’s history is already pockmarked by ebbs of disillusionment with the entire project because of grandiose promises, and putting our eggs in the dogmatic basket of a single technique like Symbolic AI. Since the AI Winter however, we’ve made some advances in pattern recognition and predictive feedback-control systems — often by using a connectionist correlation model called Artificial Neural Network — but there’s no reason to assume that Neural Networks / Deep Learning techniques will lead to the emergence of artificial sentience (the prerequisite for strong AI), or even that they’ll actually end up solving our hard pattern recognition problems.
While statistical correlation models have been used successfully in recommendation systems, fraud-detection systems, feedback-control systems, and beating world champions at Chess and Go, correlation models are what make superstition, popular horoscopes, pseudoscience, and popular delusions possible in the first place.
My point here isn’t that Artificial Neural Networks aren’t significant or hasn’t contribute to scientific understanding — after all, alchemy and herbalism have contributed to hard scientific understanding of chemistry and medicine — it’s that there’s a lot of “black magic” voodoo involved in Deep Learning that future historians may dismiss this current Renaissance in AI to be nothing more than hyped, superfluous pseudoscience.
That which constitutes our scientific and intellectual validity is always historically, socially, and politically determined, and always from the vantage point of the hindsight inherited from our intellectual forebears.
- CF. “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – [Carl Sagan] (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#Cosmos:A_Personal_Voyage.281990_Update.29) ↩
- I refrain deliberately from using “intelligent life” here. Assuming humans are even to be considered “intelligent”, the Earth has its share of intelligent life that we haven’t cared much to enter into meaningful dialogue with. ↩