An Approach to the Greek Genius

Two opposite attitudes towards the Greeks are common at the present day. One, which was practically universal from the Renaissance until very recent times, views the Greeks with almost superstitious reverence, as the inventors of all that is best, and as men of superhuman genius whom the moderns cannot hope to equal. The other attitude, inspired by the triumphs of science and by an optimistic belief in progress, considers the authority of the ancients an incubus, and maintains that most of their contributions to thought are now best forgotten. I cannot myself take either of these extreme views; each, I should say, is partly right and partly wrong.

...As to the nature and structure of the world, various hypotheses are possible. Progress in metaphysics, so far as it has existed, has consisted in a gradual refinement of all these hypotheses, a development of their implications, and a reformulation of each to meet the objections urged by adherents of rival hypotheses. To learn to conceive the universe according to each of these systems is an imaginative delight and an antidote to dogmatism. Moreover, even if no one of the hypotheses can be demonstrated, there is genuine knowledge in the discovery of what is involved in making each of them consistent with itself and with known facts. Now almost all the hypotheses that have dominated modern philosophy were first thought of by the Greeks; their imaginative inventiveness in abstract matters can hardly be too highly praised. What I shall have to say about the Greeks will be said mainly from this point of view; I shall regard them as giving birth to theories which have had an independent life and growth, and which, though at first somewhat infantile, have proved capable of surviving and developing throughout more than two thousand years.

The Greeks contributed, it is true, something else which proved of more permanent value to abstract thought: they discovered mathematics and the art of deductive reasoning. Geometry, in particular, is a Greek invention, without which modern science would have been impossible. But in connection with mathematics the one-sidedness of the Greek genius appears: it reasoned deductively from what appeared self-evident, not inductively from what had been observed. Its amazing successes in the employment of this method misled not only the ancient world, but the greater part of the modern world also. It has only been very slowly that scientific method, which seeks to reach principles inductively from observation of particular facts, has replaced the Hellenic belief in deduction from luminous axioms derived from the mind of the philosopher. For this reason, apart from others, it is a mistake to treat the Greeks with superstitious reverence. Scientific method, though some few among them were the first men who had an inkling of it, is, on the whole, alien to their temper of mind, and the attempt to glorify them by belittling the intellectual progress of the last four centuries has a cramping effect upon modern thought.

There is, however, a more general argument against reverence, whether for the Greeks or for anyone else. In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.

The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Chapter 4


Feel the Creativity!

'Quantity becomes quality" in a limited domain activity like chess where there is a premium on a prodigious memory, quick recall and rapid elimination of alternatives. The process does not work when it is applied to an activity where "feel" is involved. Human awareness, as Locke pointed out, involves "feel". "Red" is a colour, not a mere word or name, because a sentient human being has a "feel" for the colour. For a person born blind, on the other hand, "red” will be merely a word or a name. In this sense, the machine is also blind. It knows the word "red" and would be able to place its finger on it and even reproduce it. But the "feel" of red would be beyond the scope of the machine.

And what Locke said about colour holds good for "feel" in other areas, when it is applied to computer. The computer can be given a stupendous vocabulary. It can serve as an excellent dictionary and thesaurus. But not even John Shannon would claim that it can ever be programmed to acknowledge, let alone appreciate, the mystic significance of words. Words will not reverberate in the mind of the machine. No program can feel the glory of the "magic casements opening on to the foam of perilous seas forlorn".

The computer has manifest proficiency in number crunching. It can be programmed to solve Fermat's last theorem but it will be a stranger to the "feel" for numbers of mathematicians like Gauss and Ramanujam. The hieratic effect which mathematics has had on the mind since the days of Euclid will be lost on the computer. And as Roger Penrose has argued, mathematical insight cannot be reduced to algorithms.

The computer can be a very efficient calendar. Its chronological sense is excellent as far as cardinal calibration of lime is concerned. But the computer can never be programmed to have man's "feel" for ordinal time, the awe which man feels at the thought of the ancient past or the distant future. The mystic grandeur of Tyndale's lines "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void" will be lost in the innards of the machine. For the computer it will be a flat historico-geological statement by a religiously inclined person. The emotive content of place names can never be registered by the machine. Though it will be an excellent atlas, it will not have a "feel" for places. Mention Byzantium or Jerusalem and the computer can reel off all the historical and geographical data on these places. The computer may have all their poems with detailed annotations in its ready memory, it is not conceivable that the computer can ever have the "human feel" for the "Byzantium" of Yeats or the "Jerusalem" of Blake.

The "feel" for words, for numbers, for places and for time which man carries with him, which is the prerequisite for creativity arises because man is gloriously subjective. The area of creativity demonstrates what thinker after thinker from Descartes to Eccles to Searle to Penrose have proclaimed—that human consciousness is of a different order to machine consciousness. Mysticism, fervor, imagination, insight, inspiration—all of them vital components of creativity cannot be instantiated by algorithms or by artificial intelligence. Creativity is exclusively the talent of the human mind.

Last Frontier of the Mind - Challenges of the Digital Age, Mohandas Moses, Chapter 15