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For centuries debate has gone on regarding the nature of “ultimate reality”.

With "conscious" and "material" being two extremes in this debate, and with other views as some combination of the two lying between the extremes - AI has come to birth, how have students of philosophy come to understand its impact on this age old quest? Does AI inform new philosophical perspectives on what the totality of our universe is, metaphysically?

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  • Chat-gpt is a complicated piece of technology, not a science. Its existence doesn't prove anything except that it exists, same as the atom bomb didn't prove Einstein right, intuitions aside.
    – user71226
    Jan 25 at 13:42

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I almost voted this a duplicate of Does the simulation hypothesis bring back certain ideas long rejected by skeptics and typically associated with religious believes? but it's a different question, even though there's some significant overlap. To quote my own response to the earlier question:

One of the oldest and most foundational debates in philosophy is what has more primacy, the physical/material or the mental/spiritual. Idealists like Plato, Berkeley or Descartes, who believe the physical is secondary to the mental, or built on top of it, contrast with Empiricists like Hume, who see the physical as primary, and the mental as somehow inhering in it.

For a long time, the materialist viewpoint has been in the ascendancy. The last significant challenger was the spiritualist movement of the 1800s. Since then, scientific empiricism has become the dominant outlook of the intellectual world.

Even before AI was developed, there was a philosophical tradition most closely associated with computing pioneer Alan Turing, that envisioned AI as a way of demonstrating the material basis of consciousness. The idea is that if we can build a mechanical mind from material pieces, and if it can convincingly display all the empirical footprints of consciousness, then it's very likely that our own minds and consciousness are likewise material at their root. So in that sense, the advance of AI represents a victory for this point of view.

However, it's not as unambiguous as it seems. In his book Incognito, David Eagleman discusses the "radio hypothesis." A radio is a physical object that we can build. If it degrades, the music it produces degrades. If it breaks, the music stops. But the music does not inhere in the radio. It is broadcast from a source, the radio is merely a receiver. Similarly, a brain OR an AI might be a receiver of consciousness, rather than the source. That's just an analogy of course, it doesn't prove anything, but it does raise doubts as to the decisiveness of the Turing thought experiment's proof.

Also complicating the situation is that modern AI is not built step-by-step in knowable ways. Instead, the AI is a simulated brain, that is trained with very large datasets. The specifics of how it works are a black-box that is too complex to be fully comprehended. So, just as with a real brain, we don't know how the magic happens or why. There's a philosophy called "emergentism" that holds that consciousness is a property that emerges from a physical ground, but cannot be reduced to it.

Finally, as discussed in the linked question, there's some renewed interest in philosophical circles in the idea that the apparent material nature of the world at large might be illusionary. If physical matter itself is not truly material, then neither is anything built on top of it, including AI.

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  • Equivalent to Eagleman: "Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack, and most of them miss. Even worse, most of the ones that hit the exact cerebral target, hit the wrong one. For example, the weird dream about a lead doughnut on a mile-high gantry, which in the right mind would have been the catalyst for the invention of repressed-gravitational electricity generation was in fact had by a small and bewildered duck." -Pratchett.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 25 at 13:02
  • "The specifics of how it works are a black-box that is too complex to be fully comprehended" This is the issue of intelligible intelligence, & it's essential that it be addressed before AI can take on many kinds of tasks. It will mainly involve turning AI on to understanding itself. Donald Hoffman is a modern champion of the material-is-illusion view, comparing our experience to a computer desktop which obscures the microchips.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 25 at 13:07
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The ultimate grounds of "conscious" and "material" will continue to be indeterminate and unknowable with and without AI.

The basis of consciousness traces back to the foundation of the living being (or Dasein). This noumenon is bracketed by science as "the hard problem of consciousness".

In Kantian terms consciousness, or thought, is founded on the "intuition without thought [which is] for us as much as nothing at all." "gedankenlose Anschauung, [die] für uns so viel als gar nichts seyn [ist]." A111

In Heidegger's phenomenology this noumenal foundation is 'Being':

Being, as the basic theme of philosophy, is no class or genus of entities; yet it pertains to every entity. Its 'universality' is to be sought higher up. Being and the structure of Being lie beyond every entity and every possible character which an entity may possess. (Being & Time, H.38)

Likewise, what we can grasp as material is what we can see or detect: chairs, tables, atoms, quarks. The arena in which we apprehend and detect is 'the clearing'.

But the clearing itself is being. Within the destiny of being in metaphysics the clearing first affords a view by which what is present comes into touch with the human being, who is present to it, so that the human being himself can in apprehending (νοεἴν) first touch upon being (θιγεῑν, Aristotle, Metaphysics Θ, 10). (Heidegger, Pathmarks, Letter on “Humanism” (1946), page 253)

OP: Does AI inform new philosophical perspectives on what the totality of our universe is, metaphysically?

What is "the totality of the universe"? We see stars and planets but we don't know what 'the universe' is.

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