The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a humorous diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional espousal of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.

The Churchill Problem

Everybody knows about Winston Churchill- he was about the only reason that Britain’s will to fight didn’t crumble during the Second World War, his voice and speeches are some of the most iconic of all time, and his name and mannerisms have been immortalised by a cartoon dog selling insurance. However, some of his postwar achievements are often overlooked- after the war he was voted out of the office of Prime Minister in favour of a revolutionary Labour government, but he returned to office in the 50’s with the return of the Tories. He didn’t do quite as well this time round- Churchill was a shameless warmonger who nearly annihilated his own reputation during the First World War by ordering a disastrous assault on Gallipoli in Turkey, and didn’t do much to help it by insisting that everything between the two wars was an excuse for another one- but it was during this time that he made one of his least-known but most interesting speeches. In it he envisaged a world in which the rapidly accelerating technological advancement of his age would cause most of the meaningful work to be done by machines, and changing our concept of the working week. He suggested that we would one day be able to “give the working man what he’s never had – four days’ work and then three days’ fun”- basically, Winston Churchill was the first man to suggest the concept of a three day weekend.

This was at a time when the very concept of the weekend itself was actually a very new one- the original idea of one part of the week being dedicated to not working comes, of course, from the Sabbath days adopted by most religions. The idea of no work being done on a Sunday is, in the Western and therefore historically Christian world, an old one, but the idea of expanding it to Saturday as well is far newer. This was partly motivated by the increased proportion and acceptance of Jewish workers, whose day of rest fell on Saturday, and was also part of a general trend in decreasing work hours during the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until 1938 that the 5 day working week became ratified in US law, and it appeared to be the start of a downward trend in working hours as trade unions gained power, workers got more free time, and machines did all the important stuff. All of this appeared to lead to Churchill’s promised world- a world of the 4-day working week and perhaps, one day, a total lap of luxury whilst we let computers and androids do everything.

However, recently things have started to change. The trend of shortening working hours and an increasingly stressless existence has been reversed, with the average working week getting longer dramatically- since 1970, the  number of hours worked per capita has risen by 20%. A survey done a couple of winters ago found that of our weekend, we only spend an average of 15 hours and 17 minutes of it out of the work mindset (between 12:38am and 3:55pm on Sunday when we start worrying about Monday again), and that over half of us are too tired to enjoy our weekends properly. Given that this was a survey conducted by a hotel chain it may not be an entirely representative sample, but you get the idea. The weekend itself is in some ways under threat, and Churchill’s vision is disappearing fast.

So what’s changed since the 50’s (other than transport, communications, language, technology, religion, science, politics, the world, warfare, international relations, and just about everything else)? Why have we suddenly ceased to favour rest over work? What the hell is wrong with us?

To an extent, some of the figures are anomalous-  employment of women has increased drastically in the last 50 years and as such so has the percentage of the population who are unemployed. But this is not enough to explain away all of the stats relating to ‘the death of the weekend’.Part of the issue is judgemental. Office environments can be competitive places, and can quickly develop into mindsets where our emotional investment is in the compiling of our accounts document or whatever. In such an environment, people’s priorities become more focused on work, and somebody taking a day extra out on the weekend would just seem like laziness- especially of the boss who has deadlines to meet and really doesn’t appreciate slackers, as well as having control of your salary. We also, of course, judge ourselves, unwilling to feel as if we are letting the team down and causing other people inconvenience. There’s also the problem of boredom- as any schoolchild will tell you, the first few days of holiday after a long term are blissful relaxation, but it’s only a matter of time before a parent hears that dreaded phrase: “I’m booooooored”. The same thing can be said to apply to having nearly half your time off every single week. But these are features of human nature, which certainly hasn’t changed in the past 50 years, so what could the root of the change in trends be?

The obvious place to start when considering this is in the changes in work over this time. The last half-century has seen Britain’s manufacturing economy spiral downwards, as more and more of us lay down tools and pick up keyboards- the current ‘average job’ for a Briton involves working in an office somewhere. Probably in Sales, or Marketing. This kind of job involves chiefly working our minds, crunching numbers, thinking through figures and making it far harder for us to ‘switch off’ from our work mentality than if it were centred on how much our muscles hurt. It also makes it far easier to justify staying for overtime and to ‘just finish that last bit’, partly because not being physically tired makes it easier and also because the kind of work given to an office worker is more likely to be centred around individual mini-projects than simply punching rivets or controlling a machine for hours on end. And of course, as some of us start to stay for longer, so our competitive instinct causes the rest of us to as well.

In the modern age, switching off from a modern work mindset has been made even harder since the invention of the laptop and, especially, the smartphone. The laptop allowed us to check our emails or work on a project at home, on a train or wherever we happened to be- the smartphone has allowed us to keep in touch with work at every single waking moment of the day, making it very difficult for us to ‘switch work off’. It has also made it far easier to work at home, which for the committed worker can make it even harder to formally end the day when there are no colleagues or bosses telling you it’s time to go home. This spread of technology into our lives is thought to lead to an increase in levels of dopamine, a sort of pick-me-up drug the body releases after exposure to adrenaline, which can frazzle our pre-frontal cortex and leave someone feeling drained and unfocused- obvious signs of being overworked

Then there is the issue of competition. In the past, competition in industry would usually have been limited to a few other industries in the local area- in the grand scheme of things, this could perhaps be scaled up to cover an entire country. The existence of trade unions helped prevent this competition from causing problems- if everyone is desperate for work, as occurred with depressing regularity during the Great Depression in the USA, they keep trying to offer their services as cheaply as possible to try and bag the job, but if a trade union can be use to settle and standardise prices then this effect is halted. However, in the current age of everywhere being interconnected, competition in big business can occur from all over the world. To guarantee that they keep their job, people have to try to work as hard as they can for as long as they can, lengthening the working week still further. Since trade unions are generally limited to a single country, their powers in this situation are rather limited.

So, that’s the trend as it is- but is it feasible that we will ever live the life of luxury, with robots doing all our work, that seemed the summit of Churchill’s thinkings. In short: no. Whilst a three-day weekend is perhaps not too unfeasible, I just don’t think human nature would allow us to laze about all day, every day for the whole of our lives and do absolutely nothing with it, if only for the reasons explained above. Plus, constant rest would simply sanitise us to the concept, it becoming so normal that we simply could not envisage the concept of work at all. Thus, all the stresses that were once taken up with work worries would simply be transferred to ‘rest worries’, resulting in us not being any happier after all, and defeating the purpose of having all the rest in the first place. In short, we need work to enjoy play.

Plus, if robots ran everything and nobody worked them, it’d only be a matter of time before they either all broke down or took over.

The Chinese Room

Today marks the start of another attempt at a multi-part set of posts- the last lot were about economics (a subject I know nothing about), and this one will be about computers (a subject I know none of the details about). Specifically, over the next… however long it takes, I will be taking a look at the subject of artificial intelligence- AI.

There have been a long series of documentaries on the subject of robots, supercomputers and artificial intelligence in recent years, because it is a subject which seems to be in the paradoxical state of continually advancing at a frenetic rate, and simultaneously finding itself getting further and further away from the dream of ‘true’ artificial intelligence which, as we begin to understand more and more about psychology, neuroscience and robotics, becomes steadily more complicated and difficult to obtain. I could spend a thousand posts on the subject of all the details if I so wished, because it is also one of the fastest-developing regions of engineering on the planet, but that would just bore me and be increasingly repetitive for anyone who ends up reading this blog.

I want to begin, therefore, by asking a few questions about the very nature of artificial intelligence, and indeed the subject of intelligence itself, beginning with a philosophical problem that, when I heard about it on TV a few nights ago, was very intriguing to me- the Chinese Room.

Imagine a room containing only a table, a chair, a pen, a heap of paper slips, and a large book. The door to the room has a small opening in it, rather like a letterbox, allowing messages to be passed in or out. The book contains a long list of phrases written in Chinese, and (below them) the appropriate responses (also in Chinese characters). Imagine we take a non-Chinese speaker, and place him inside the room, and then take a fluent Chinese speaker and put them outside. They write a phrase or question (in Chinese) on some paper, and pass it through the letterbox to the other person inside the room. They have no idea what this message means, but by using the book they can identify the phrase, write the appropriate response to it, and pass it back through the letterbox. This process can be repeated multiple times, until a conversation begins to flow- the difference being that only one of the participants in the conversation actually knows what it’s about.

This experiment is a direct challenge to the somewhat crude test first proposed by mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1940’s, to test whether a computer could be considered a truly intelligent being. The Turing test postulates that if a computer were ever able to conduct a conversation with a human so well that the human in question would have no idea that they were not talking to another human, but rather to a machine, then it could be considered to be intelligent.

The Chinese Room problem questions this idea, and as it does so, raises a fundamental question about whether a machine such as a computer can ever truly be called intelligent, or to possess intelligence. The point of the idea is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to appear to be intelligent, by conducting a normal conversation with someone, whilst simultaneously having no understanding whatsoever of the situation at hand. Thus, while a machine programmed with the correct response to any eventuality could converse completely naturally, and appear perfectly human, it would have no real conciousness. It would not be truly intelligent, it would merely be just running an algorithm, obeying the orders of the instructions in its electronic brain, working simply from the intelligence of the person who programmed in its orders. So, does this constitute intelligence, or is a conciousness necessary for something to be deemed intelligent?

This really boils down to a question of opinion- if something acts like it’s intelligent and is intelligent for all functional purposes, does that make it intelligent? Does it matter that it can’t really comprehend it’s own intelligence? John Searle, who first thought of the Chinese Room in the 1980’s, called the philosophical positions on this ‘strong AI’ and ‘weak AI’. Strong AI basically suggest that functional intelligence is intelligence to all intents and purposes- weak AI argues that the lack of true intelligence renders even the most advanced and realistic computer nothing more than a dumb machine.

However, Searle also proposes a very interesting idea that is prone to yet more philosophical debate- that our brains are mere machines in exactly the same way as computers are- the mechanics of the brain, deep in the unexplored depths of the fundamentals of neuroscience, are just machines that tick over and perform tasks in the same way as AI does- and that there is some completely different and non-computational mechanism that gives rise to our mind and conciousness.

But what if there is no such mechanism? What if the rise of a conciousness is merely the result of all the computational processes going on in our brain- what if conciousness is nothing more than a computational process itself, designed to give our brains a way of joining the dots and processing more efficiently. This is a quite frightening thought- that we could, in theory, be only restrained into not giving a computer a conciousness because we haven’t written the proper code yet. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions of modern science- what exactly is our mind, and what causes it.

To fully expand upon this particular argument would take time and knowledge that I don’t have in equal measure, so instead I will just leave that last question for you to ponder over- what is the difference between the box displaying these words for you right now, and the fleshy lump that’s telling you what they mean.