“COMPUTERS CAN WRITE POETRY”: “YES THEY CAN”; “NO THEY CAN’T”.

THis is how the powerful critic F.R. Leavis described the possibility back in 1970 in his essay “Literarism” versus “scientism”“.

I was, I confess, a little amused when, sitting at a formal lunch next to the director of a City Art Gallery, I was told by him, in the tone of saying something very impressive: ” A computer can write a poem”. I replied, very naturally, that I couldn’t accept that, adding that it was one of the things I knew to be impossible. When he responded by being angry , fierce and authoritative, I reflected he was a German, if an emigre, and that in any case his business was Kunst and he hadn’t said a computer could paint a work of art. The other occasion on which I was confronted, point-blank, with the preposterous and ominous claim, which by then I had discovered to be pretty current, it made a profound impression on me. The testifier was a philosopher, a lady and cultivated; her place and conditions of residence gave her access to a friendly computer laboratory. She had taken advantage of the opportunity, I gathered, to develop an intense experimental interest: “It’s incredible” she said, ” what a computer can do; it’s awfully fascinating; you know a poem can write a poem.” I couldn’t let that pass; with the appropriate urbanity I said: ” Well, “poem” means different things” there was no Teutonic anger this time. There was a sudden descent, a heightened nuance of pink, a concessive philosophic laugh, and then “O well, yes; but it’s great fun”.

Leavis is a very fine writer. As criticism this works in a novelistic way. The two characters encountered are made vividly alive (we are perhaps less happy with asserting national cultural characteristics so boldly, as Leavis does with the art director, but in 1970 our kind of political correctness in these matters was less common ) and the types of contrasting ways of defending the idea are very effectively presented. On the one hand, there is what one might call dogmatic materialist fundamentalism that does not brook dissent; on the other, a kind of philosophical playfulness, subject to embarrassment when it senses opposition, while resting on a self- indulgent sense of fun. Both kinds of response , one might add, remain characteristic of our modern Britisn intelligentsia.

You might read the passage and say however, “Well this was fifty years ago, in a different world in which people had not adjusted to the new reality computers were to bring”. Leavis, however, goes on to ask the fundamental question and to demonstrate the danger of letting go the meanings of our most important words.

That any cultivated person should want to believe that a computer can write a poem!-the significance of the episode, it seemed to me, lay there. For the intention had been naive and unqualified. It could be that because of the confusion of different forces of the word “poem”. And yet the difference is an essential one; the computerial force of “poem” eliminates the essentially human- eliminates human creativity.

We can , of course, choose to “want” to believe a computer can write a poem. The technology is far advanced from its rudimentary 1970 stage and computer addicts can develop programmes in which an Emily Dickenson poem, say, is broken up into individual words which when fed into a programme can be so managed as to produce a combination of words and phrases put together in short lines which can give it the look of a quizzical Emily Dickenson style composition-until, that is, you begin to read it. Or you can organise rhythmic and rhyme pattern that present a ballad-form. You can even-for I have checked You Tube- organise events in which you get people to choose between two “poems”- one written by a human the other by a computer, and find the audiences, by immediate reaction with a show of hands can mistake one for the other. “Great fun!” as the philosopher in the story said.

Or is it? The value we put on the word ” poem” and the creativity it manifests is made a mockery of if it can also mean it is “created” by a computer programme being designed to follow the human brain’s linguistic patterning. Because poems are not cerebral constructs, they are not merely or mainly brain-work but creations of the whole person, body, mind and spirit working together.

To pretend a computer can write a poem is to reduce the significance of the word and the wondrous power of the creative imagination as it expresses itself in language.

But in an era, dazzled by technology, in which science and technology are made the central agents of progress it is vitally important to insist what it is science within its limitations can do and what it cannot and what computers can do and what they cannot.

So let us be grateful for well-designed and programmed computers; but for the sake of what is precious in our humanity don’t become over-impressed.

WHEN SOMEONE TELLS YOU GOD DOES NOT EXIST QUESTION IF HE MEANS GOD OR DOES HE REALLY MEAN THE DEMIURGE?

Suddenly God-or the demiurge- has entered the conversation! The exciting thing about running this blog-post is I have ideas as to where I might like to take them but nothing is pre-determined. It is all a rather exciting journey. I did somewhere early on promise an evolving series. If we have evolved towards God that may seem to be the wrong direction to go about things. If, however, we are discussing the demiurge we might be on the right track. Because whoever God is he is not the demi-urge.

The “demiurge” is here because recently I have posted late poems of D. H. Lawrence on the nature of creation which brought in Lawrence’s idea of the demiurge. Lawrence’s poems distrust an-all- planned- in- advance creation and suggests God is an urge working through creating seeking incarnation. It is a polytheistic vision of God. I was also interested in it as we have been looking at the connection between creative activity, divine and human, raised by Coleridge (see post “Let There Be Light” )

Well the word “demiurge” sent me into further exploration. I turned to a theological writer I have found brilliant, David Bentley Hart. His work The Experience of God Yale University Press 2013 lays the basic understanding of God the great faiths agree on in opposition to what he considers to be a weakness of modern thinking; we have come to rely -under pressure from the arguments of scientific naturalism, mechanistic thinking , scientism- on a stereotype of God which is not the reality the major faiths proclaim. Our “world-view”, that is, has increasingly since Newton (again see post “Let There Be Light”) become dominated by the idea of scientific process: how did things start, get going, what was the originating cause. The argument has become framed by science which is seen as providing the answers and the arguments theists make are therefore often conditioned to be made within this framework. If God exists, western theists assert he directs the process; the argument of thinkers like Dawkins and the new atheists is that such a god does not exist. Hart’s argument is that the subject of such an argument is not God merely the demiurge :

he is the god who made the world “back then”, at some specific point of time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal act of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell.”

That strong, critically alert, combative power is one aspect of Hart’s style. He combines philosophical assurance, expansive knowledge of the spiritual works of the various theistic traditions, with a confident and knowledgeable critical appraisal of the limitations of modern scientism. But he is not simply cerebral. Elsewhere he has a marvellous passage introducing the significance of the sense of wonder, which both Plato and Aristotle recognised as the starting point of all true philosophy. However, I shall explore Hart’s work more widely in a future post. For the moment with our eyes focused on the word “demiurge” let us return to Hart’s discussion. Here is a passage from Hart’s first chapter, entitled “God is not a proper name”

The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God-especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side-is the habit of conceiving God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude,power and duration, but not ontologically [ Ed. ontology: the study of the nature and essence of being ie. the assumption is God does not differ in being; he is simply another thing given a proper name] and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.…….

As it happens, the god with whom most modern atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a demiurge (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine world-maker or cosmic craftsman.. In Plato’s Timaeus the demiurge is a benevolent imtermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability [ed.ie change] ; he looks to the ideal universe-the eternal paradigm of the cosmos-and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to higher as the interactable resources of the material nature allows. He is , therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part.

In following this characterisation of the demiurge Hart demonstrates the inadequacy of the conception of God in much of the kind of debate we hear around us in which we become aware God is seen to be or not seen to be the Great Originator of Things. But to see God in this way is not to see him as God, simply as the demiurge. Hart’s work is not, however, simply focused on the negative aspect of our conceptual understanding but in raising our eyes to an understanding going back to Plato and shared within the spiritual understanding of theistic thinkers from all the major faiths :

God, is not in any of the great theistic traditions, merely some rational agent, external to the order of the physical universe, who imposes some kind of design upon an otherwise inert and mindless material order. He is not some discrete being somewhere out there, floating in the great beyond, who fashions nature in accordance with rational laws upon which he is dependent. Rather, he is himself the logical order of all reality, the ground both of the subjective rationality of mind and the objective rationality of being, the transcendent and indwelling Reason or Wisdom by which mind and matter are both informed and in which both participate.

Futher explication of this is required for a future discussion of Hart but in the meantime if someone argues with you about God make sure it is God you are talking about and not the demiurge!