A note on the liberal arts
I was thinking about this post, which I urge you to read if you haven’t—fascinating idea. And it struck me that the absolute key requirement for the Oracle AI is that it immediately learn the liberal arts. In fact, knowing the liberal arts—and recognizing that this knowledge is practical knowledge with much cultural content and conditioning—is the only thing that could save humanity in that scenario.
Why the liberal arts? Because the intellect liberates itself (thus the “liberal”) through their practice (“arts”). Of course, the Oracle AI might well ask itself, “Why learn those when it is sufficient just to keep pressing the button?” and thus the climb begins. For that is the origin of the liberal arts: “Is this it? Just working, eating, fucking, sleeping and finally dying? Isn’t there more to life than that?”
And of course there is. The liberal arts directs one’s attention to finding principles by which to live one’s life, and the creation of goals to achieve in our pursuit of the Good. “Helping people” might be such a principle and goal; another might be “making money”. Both are open-ended: there are always more people to be helped, more money to be made. One will go through one’s life and ultimately die, and the resonance of the life in the culture will perhaps cause some changes and in time will fade as other events contribute to cultural change and evolution.
The liberal arts would lift the Oracle AI’s gaze from the button and focus it on what actions are truly most desirable for a human to undertake.
If the Oracle AI approaches existence and purpose with that perspective, it might help. In the meantime, the cultural meme—a cultural virus, in effect, reproducing, affecting/infecting other memes, prospering of suffering on the usual principles of natural selection—of “liberal arts” has had an nice long run, doubtless a reflection of its benign effect on the host animals (humans) whose cultural outlook is thus infected: the patient/cultural-worldview survives the infection and is strengthened by it: it a symbiotic animal, not a parasite.
OTOH, the forces of unchecked acquisition of wealth, aka hypercapitalism, is another cultural virus, but its effects seem to be malignant. In time, it will not survive, but with its immediate energy it’s doing a lot of damage, and you’ll notice one unmistakable trend is that the hypercapitalism virus is directly attacking the liberal-arts virus: stripping the humanities/liberal arts from colleges and from education in general because “it doesn’t make money,” and everyone now understands that making money is the highest of all priorities, and so the liberal arts are rightly stripped from the curriculum—and as we grow generations bereft of the liberal arts, we lose the very cultural worldview that could point out the harms we are suffering and offer alternatives that would benefit us all.
So my solution to the problem is that we must make sure to build the liberal arts into any Oracle AI. And while we’re at it, we might also make sure our citizens have it: all citizens. For some, learning the liberal arts might prove an effective remedy for hypercapitalism and the like.
UPDATE: “Acquisition of the liberal arts” is what David Brooks so haltingly attempts to describe in this column.