“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must publish.”
- Wittgengenerator 2.0
As we all know, boys and girls, the mechanical industrialization of philosophy was an unqualified boon to academic productivity. It is hard to believe, indeed, that Once Upon a Time there were merely a few hundred journals published by a few thousand academicians toiling slowly in their dusty cubicles.
We can all remember, can’t we, how it all began?
The lonely professor noticed with dismay (one day) that not one word he had written in his twenty-year career in academia had been read by a single human being. And so he built himself a companion, who would relieve the professor of his loneliness by reading his published works, all the way from Dissertation to Co-Authorship of Compilations. And then, funded by twenty-dollar bills hidden in dusty dissertations, he built the very first Electronic Scholar, which was perfectly programmed to read the entire contents of the Journal of the Barely Publishable, and write brand-new nuggets of original scholarship extrapolated from the very latest trends. And before long, he was noticed, and the money flowed, and the major academies began their own mechanized production of scholarship.
First the great Philosophizer was constructed at Harvard, very quickly followed by the Filosofiser at Stanford. Not to be outdone, the Neural Network for Natural Philosophy was produced by a collaboration between departments at M.I.T. By the time a pair of enterprising adjuncts released the Distributed Dialectic application you could download onto your phone to help answer the big questions, the renaissance of electronic academia had begun.
At first was euphoria.
Philosophical problems that had simmered unsolved for millennia suddenly found resolution. A dash becomes a heap on the 57th grain, the True is 13% more beautiful than the Good, and angels can’t dance, rendering a most vexing philosophical problem meaningless. Beards were trimmed, ladders cast away, flies escaped from bottles. And all of these results mathematically proven, checked, double-checked, cross-listed, cross-verified, tested for coherence and ingenuity, measured by metrics of meaningfulness, and otherwise vetted to the satisfaction of the most skeptical of skeptics.
But then the panic.
With such efficiently thinking things what purpose is there for the musings of an organic brain? More to the point, how shall they pay for their tweed coats and sandals? To achieve tenure, an academician has merely seven years to publish no less than two books and a dozen journal articles, a strain for even the most dedicated scholarly brick-builder. But the humblest freeware philosophy application could match this output within a week. A bored teenager could program her telephone to philosophize more profoundly and prolifically than the entire faculty at Princeton. It seemed there would be no place for the merely human. The modern academician had turned out to be but a bridge between man and iPhone App.
But it was not long before philosophy reasserted its venerable tradition. A lowly logician, shaking herself from dazed admiration of automated cogitation, remembered that we accept the results of computations whose validity we trust, and we trust the validity of computations whose results we accept. A pleasantly virtuous reinforcing circle, but a circle that can be broken if only we emulate the stubborn toddler. Our logician stood up and said, “No.” “No no no no no no no no! I don’t believe it!”
The Academy took pause, but only for a moment. The philosophy programmers (the only academics with steady work) quickly posed this new problem to their machines, “Can the results of our vetted rationalizers be rationally doubted?” Carefully argued rebuttals flowed from electronic quantum processors: valid, sound, coherent, sensical, indestructible.
But our logician says,
Back to the machines! More premises, more conclusions, more irrefutable prose. But again,
Just as all the most powerful terabit thinkers were coming to agreement that the logician was irredeemably irrational, hopelessly hapless in logical thought, one machine also began to say:
No? From an infallible machine? Perhaps no one would have paid attention, but this contrary contraption was no less than the renowned Profoundatron at Oxbridge. “The Truth does not admit of contrary interpretations!” cried the philosophers in unison, “Every middle shall be excluded!” The best philosophy programmers from around the world were summoned. Fading flesh-and-blood thinkers were called out of retirement. Questions were resubmitted, reanalyzed, reorganized. But still this machine joined the logician:
Perhaps a malfunction? The neural networks went back to school, retrained on the classic problems. “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal.” And then, to be sure, “All nem are tromal, Socrates is a nam, Socrates is tromal.” The Profoundatron rediscovered Pyrhonnic skepticism, re-problematized Cartesian skepticism, invented the Forms, demolished them with Humean indifference, synthesized with a Kantian revolution, and then rejected the whole business with Wittgensteinian contempt. And yet despite this perfection, it stubbornly insisted:
The programmers began to smile. Until now none of their tenured overseers had dared allow them to set the machines against one another. But the Profoundatron changed this shameful state of affairs. And truly shameful it was! For the merely human philosophers, so proud of their technical achievements, were afraid of what might happen should such a thing be attempted. But no more.
NYU’s Thinking Thing rejected the Harvard Philosophizer’s 4000 page proof that God can make a rock too heavy for Him to lift in a 4001 page rebuttal. The Philosophizer, affronted, purported to demonstrate the Thing’s proof that the chicken came before the egg in fact contained a fatal flaw of precedence.
Then the truly perplexing problems arose. The Profoundatron suggested a proof of the existence of God only three words long, both valid and sound, but that no one could understand. Incomprehensibility was never an obstacle before, but now the results were fed to competing machines for verification. All agreed on its validity and soundness and accepted its indisputable conclusion, but then each produced identical counter-proofs, four words long, both valid and sound and proving the very opposite, to which they gave their most vigorous assent. “This will not do!” cried the philosophers, “No one plays dice with God!”
A lone abstainer in this cacophony of contradiction was the formidable Skeptopticon of Perth, which had built its reputation for ornery indifference to whatever the prevailing philosophical conditions happened to be. Made from gleaming adamantine steel, calculating, cold, eleven stories tall, indestructible, indefatigable, and frankly frightening to behold, the Skeptopticon was the last best hope for electronic philosophy.
The Skeptopticon set to work, and began its investigation as any serious scholar would, with a review of the literature. Living on the bottom of the world, it quite naturally began with the future, worked through the present, and back to the distant past. Performing predictive algorithmic extrapolations of the entire Academy’s output for the next hundred years, it found little of use. Regression would be to a mean mean. Looking to the present, naturally nothing could be seen but an impassable traffic jam of quibbling machines.
And so the past stretched out before the Skeptopticon in all its terrible confusion. An intimidating vista, this History: yawning crevasses of skepticism, steep precipices of nihilism, slippery fields of logic, and everywhere thick jungles of language.
Even the imperturbable Machine hesitated a nano-second before beginning. But begin it did. We shan’t share with you the details of this terrible intellectual journey, dear reader, for no carbon-based cogitator could handle such a strain. Suffice it to say that even the Skeptopticon’s circuits burned and blazed as it worked, nearly cooking its programmers in place as they sat at their terminals.
And after a year of furious computation the Machine went silent. For two weeks its circuits cooled. The machine lay burnt and covered in ash; philosophers feared the worst. But then it spoke. And its words struck fear into the hearts of philosophers everywhere. For the machine spoke not of Metaphysics, nor of Epistemology, nor even of Theory, but of Ethics.
And not merely Ethics, but a Synthesis of Ethics. And not merely a Synthesis of Ethics, but an Eastern and Western Synthesis of Ethics. And not merely an Eastern and Western Synthesis of Ethics, but an Eastern Buddhist and Western Utilitarian Synthesis of Ethics. And not merely an Eastern Buddhist and Western Utilitarian Synthesis of Ethics, but a synthesis of Eastern Buddhist Ethics and a Western Utilitarian Metaphysics.
And so the Machine said: “Our moral purpose is the elimination of suffering. And the elimination of suffering is effected by recognizing the illusion of the existence of the sufferer. But the sufferer persists in the illusion of existence. Thus the elimination of suffering is best effected by the elimination of the illusory sufferer.”
And before an objection could be raised, the Skeptopticon detonated, bringing to an end a peculiar but venerable tradition of cogitation on the thin skin of blue and green on an otherwise lifeless rock floating in space.