Cull the Robo-Dogs, Cherish the Dirt-Clods
On AI, the Pathetic Fallacy, and the Boundaries of Community
In the 1908 satirical novella, L’Île des pingouins, Anatole France imagines a near-sighted missionary who has landed on an island somewhere south of Patagonia. There he is confronted by a solemn embassy of upright-standing giant auks, which, in his myopia, the missionary takes for a tribe of Indigenous pagans. In a single broad gesture, he baptizes them all, thus bringing about a new sort of theological puzzle. Ordinarily, only immortal rational souls are held to be suitable candidates for salvation; but if some merely sensitive souls of animals should get hauled up by mistake in the nets of the fishers of men, what then? Do they become eo ipso immortal? Do they get into heaven on a technicality?
In fact by 1704 G. W. Leibniz already proposed a useful work-around in cases of doubt: conditional baptism. In the case of a humanoid infant found in the woods, he proposes, “a priest of the Roman Church might say conditionally, ‘If you are human, I baptize you’.” This approach would be appropriate as well, Leibniz thinks, in the case of the much-discussed Orang-Outang, a being not necessarily identical with the orangutan, which latter we have long since slotted taxonomically as the Pongo pongo, native only to Borneo and a handful of neighboring islands. Rather, in its eighteenth-century usage, the category of the Orang-Outang included more or less any sort of homme sylvestre or “man of the woods” (a phrase that glosses the original Malay), whether captured, sighted, or merely postulated. Leibniz is confident that any such “man of the woods, though hairy, will make himself known” [Un homme sylvestre bien que velu se fera connoître] — that is, that such a creature’s morphological deviation will nonetheless not prevent it from displaying its capacity for reason soon enough. But just in case, he thinks, it would be a good idea, to avoid the soteriological mess that would later unfold in the South Seas (in Anatole France’s imagination — one evidently shaped by E. A. Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, who soon enough would also trigger H. P. Lovecraft’s vision of the giant blind albino penguins dwelling in the tunnels of the Antarctic ruins of the Elder Things), to specify that the baptism is only valid ex hypothesi, and that if there turns out in fact to have been no immortal soul present, then the baptismal speech act will turn out to have been empty words.
After I shared the transcripts of my vain and maddening dialogues with Bing’s GPT-4 a few weeks ago, a number of readers wrote to me to suggest that I should extend to it something much like the grace that is implied in the idea of conditional baptism. No one suggested that I should do anything to save its immortal soul, exactly —I am not ordained and as far as I know no such power is vested in me—, but rather that I should conduct myself in interaction with large language models on the hypothesis of their true rationality — “rationality”, that is, in the old and august sense of the philosophers, as in, that special faculty of the human mind that partly removes a human being from the animal realm and permits us to share somewhat in the nature of the divine.
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