Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Grand Inquisitor was Right

For me, one of the most memorable passages in literature is The Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky is not always enjoyable to read, because his novels, this one in particular, are long and rarely to the point, but rambling novels were popular when he wrote. They were often serialized, and both the writer and the publisher had incentive to keep them long. George Eliot, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, was initially offered today's equivalent of almost $500,000 for her novel Romola but declined because she thought she wouldn't be able to write it fast enough and that serialization might interfere with her conception of the novel. A slightly less lucrative deal, also including serialization, was subsequently reached; as it turned out, Romola was a commercial flop anyway. I don't think concise fiction came along until the twentieth century, and this may have had to do with new marketing techniques and an increase in the number of writers as much as anything else.

In case you don't know, the Grand Inquisitor parable concerns the return of Jesus Christ to earth in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor arrests him, lectures him, and finally sends him away, telling him not to return because he isn't needed. Although this may have relevance to themes that occur elsewhere in the novel, I've forgotten the rest and treat it as a stand-alone puzzle. The Grand Inquisitor argues that people are not ready for freedom, which he interprets as what Christ has offered mankind. This seems to be an odd take on Christianity, and I prefer to consider it artistic expression rather than a specific religious commentary. The concept of freedom does not seem central to the Bible as I understand it, and the passage has more to do with human nature than with religion per se. If you look at the parable from a purely religious point of view, it doesn't make much sense. The Grand Inquisitor seems to recognize that Jesus is a divine being who, therefore, could destroy him, yet he believes that he has the authority to banish him. Jesus himself doesn't challenge the Grand Inquisitor and simply departs; he never speaks, and there is no explanation of his thoughts, so there is a temptation to conclude either that he agrees with the Grand Inquisitor or that this is some abstruse sort of test for mankind that has yet to be deciphered. The standard interpretation today, which may or may not be correct, is that Dostoevsky sides with Christ and the parable is a critique of the Roman Catholic Church and socialist atheism, with the Grand Inquisitor as a symbol of both.

My interpretation of the parable ignores religion almost entirely. Although this may not be what Dostoevsky had in mind, I think of it as having to do with the question of how capable mankind is of governing its own affairs and whether totalitarian rule is preferable to self-determination. I don't find Christ at all compelling here. Since he seems to refrain from judging the Grand Inquisitor, the reader doesn't know whether he concurs with him or not. Conceptually it is more appealing to me to conclude that the Grand Inquisitor is right, and in the text he has made a convincing argument that provokes no rebuttal.

The position of the Grand Inquisitor relates to what I've said about democracy. In a contemporary context, I believe that we are at a crossroads in civilization that has been brought about by the limitations of human capabilities in conjunction with advances in technology. Some futurologists seem to think that technology may soon allow us to become immortal, either through medical advances or through robotics, or both. In my view this is an incomplete position, because it doesn't take into account the wild, biological nature of human beings. Like the Grand Inquisitor, I have little confidence in our ability to self-govern.

The history of mankind is a history of conflict, which I believe is part of our identity as organisms. The game-changer, I think, will be super-intelligence, which may arise in the not-too-distant future. Because democratic processes have worked satisfactorily enough in recent years and totalitarian regimes have generally collapsed over time, there is a misplaced confidence in the long-term feasibility of self-determination through democracy. It seems probable to me that increases in computing capacities will change this state of affairs forever. It should be obvious to any observer that the popular vote can easily become corrupted, and even when it isn't, irrationality and ignorance among voters often produce questionable results. Super-intelligence would be able to think better than any human ever has, and would make the future much different from the past. One of the points made by the philosopher Nick Bostrom is that our brains are simply too small to do massive computations. On brain size alone it seems clear to me that we are about to be surpassed in thinking ability. It seems likely that once artificial intelligence is capable of advancing itself without human assistance, progress will be made rapidly. Because this falls within the narrow purview of futurologists and computer scientists, not many people seem to be paying serious attention to it. I suggest that you think about it yourself.

Assuming that super-intelligence comes into existence, there are several possible outcomes, and one can only speculate on what will happen. It would be likely to cause radical change one way or another. Among the possibilities that interest me is what direction humanity will take. Even if the new technology isn't usurped and has no unintended consequences, I'm not sure what human life will be like. On the one hand we may continue to live the way we do now, but without having to work and with enhanced bodies that allow us to live longer than we do at present. It is possible that super-intelligence may somehow be incorporated into individuals despite our brain size. In these cases, the social changes alone would be radical, and a sharp break from the last several thousand years. On the other hand, there are also many less sanguine possible outcomes.

The main aspect of The Grand Inquisitor parable that has bearing here is the question of how we will organize our affairs in the long term. As a skeptic on human competence in this area, I would actually prefer life to be governed by a super-intelligent machine with suitable controls than by any of the systems of governance that have been tried so far. It is a little difficult to envision exactly what this would be like, but there is no question that it would be a radical change. Many would be shocked by the transition from centuries-old intellectual domination of the planet to the realization that we are all second-rate thinkers, not much better than chimpanzees. Anthropocentrism would take a big hit. Ironically, the humility that this could produce might simulate religious humility in the face of a vastly superior power. I don't think that keeping human arrogance, corruption and folly in check would necessarily be a bad development at all, and in this sense the Grand Inquisitor was right.

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