Aristotle on AI

Apparently the world is all agog over a computer program called ChatGPT. It’s a harbinger of yet another emergency disaster crisis! The singularity is near! We’re facing an imminent reality collapse! We won’t be able to tell fake from real, machine from human, false from true! How will we know what information to trust?!?

Well, we might try some of same methods we’ve used at least since Aristotle wrote the Rhetoric about 2400 years ago, and likely since time immemorial. There are two key questions: (1) do you trust the speaker? and (2) are you persuaded by the speaker’s argument? (Or as Arnold Kling puts it: “we decide what to believe by deciding who to believe“.)

As to the first question, at line 1378a8 of the Rhetoric Aristotle identifies three primary characteristics that lead us to trust a speaker: the person’s φρόνησις (wisdom, good judgment, intelligence), εὐνοία (benevolence, goodwill, friendly feeling), and ἀρετή (excellence, virtue, integrity).

Yes, I know, computer programs don’t exercise wisdom or good judgment, they don’t experience feelings of benevolence (or anything else), and they don’t develop character traits. That pretty much answers the first question, eh?

The second question is slightly more knotty, but let’s recognize that it comes second for a reason. If you “consume” some arbitrary “content” over the Internet, there’s no guarantee that it was made by a human being (except to the extent that the programmers were human, although ChatGPT can produce passable software code so it’s unclear how long that will last). ChatGPT and its successors will simply make it even less likely that there was a human directly involved.

It strikes to me that there are several primary mitigations here. First, consume less arbitrary content from the Internet. Second, focus on essentials instead of ephemera (as Thoreau said: “Read Not the Times; Read the Eternities“). Third, read and watch and listen to people you trust: people who have the wisdom, integrity, and self-respect not to publish AI-generated content. Fourth and most important, spend your time interacting – preferably in person – with people you know: family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and everyone else in your circles of friendship.

Perhaps Socrates was more prescient than he knew when he distrusted the written word because you can’t have a conversation with it…

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