From the Parthenon to Patterns: Ancient Greek philosophy for the AI Era
Ancient Greek philosophy has served for millennia as a profound wellspring of ideas. Throughout history, when societies encountered pivotal changes, they often sought guidance from the eminent trinity of Greek philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Capturing the deep-seated reverence for Greek thought, the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that the ‘history of philosophy is only a footnote to Plato.’
We have already drawn inspiration from Socratic dialogues for effective AI prompting. This text continues this exploration by focusing on Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, a seminal text that has guided philosophical thought on technology for generations.
Phaedrus emerged at an intriguing historical juncture, when oral traditions of Ancient Greece, which Socrates championed, were challenged by the emerging technology of writing. The most pertinent section of Phaedrus to our current debate on AI and society is King Thamus’ response to Theuth’s enthusiastic promotion of writing:
Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.
…the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. … out of fondness for your off-spring you have attributed to this invention of writing quite the opposite of its real function.
Those who acquire it (writing) will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources.
What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.
And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
These few sentences rom King Thamus triggered many philosophical reflections throughout history. To name a few, Jacques Derrida dissected Phaedrus in his seminal work, Dissemination. The writings of Plato frequently resonate in Martin Heidegger’s examinations of the intricate dance between language, existence, and technology. Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher of hermeneutics, referred to Phaedrus in his discourse on interpretation and understanding.
In our dealings with the fast growth of AI technologies, a few ‘recycled ideas’ from Ancient Greece could be helpful, as elaborated below.
Limits of predicting technological developments
Despite Phaedrus’s warnings, writing technology has been at the core of humanity’s progress, facilitating, among other things, the growth of literature and science.
Even the wisest minds in human history, such as Socrates and Plato, failed in their predictions. Phaedrus provides a healthy warning about the limits of our anticipation of technological developments. This warning is particularly pertinent today, as many try to anticipate the impact of AI on society. With full awareness of limitations, we should aim to develop new approaches such as ‘micro-anticipation’ as we follow the impact of technology on society.
Ancient philosophy and a lesson from Phaedrus can teach us, at least, to be modest about our agency in predicting the future.
Both Plato and Socrates can be characterised as techno-sceptics, with dialogues like Phaedrus illuminating technology’s potential hazards to humanity.
Despite the universal acceptance and triumph of writing technology, King Thamus’s cautionary words retain relevance. They emphasise that every new technology carries the promise of societal benefits and the potential for harm—often in ways not immediately apparent.
In debates on AI, techno-pessimism dominates, with quite a few scientists suggesting that AI could threaten human civilisation’s existence. While concerns about AI’s overarching effects are valid, lessons from Phaedrus encourage a more nuanced understanding of technology’s societal impact.
Inspired by Phaedrus, we can also transition from superficial techno-scepticism about AI to a deeper contemplation rooted in Plato’s profound philosophical and cognitive perspectives.
Philosophical perspective: Writing technology made truth even more distant
Phaedrus techno-scepticism is driven by Plato’s core philosophical view that any technology, including writing, can distance us from the truth. Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that humans see only ‘shades’ instead of reality (see box).
According to Plato, the cave represents the world as seen by the unenlightened; the shadows are their limited understanding of reality, and the outside world represents the deeper, truer understanding of reality. The story is a commentary on human ignorance, the challenge of learning new truths, and the resistance new ideas often face.
In essence, Plato suggests that without philosophical education and enlightenment, people might go through life without ever understanding the ‘bigger picture’ of reality.
In today’s digitised epoch our perception of reality, from mundane weather predictions to navigating urban landscapes, is shaped by technology. As we progress further into realms of virtual and augmented realities, ‘shadows’ will look more realistic, but we will remain in Platonic caves. Likewise, with the rise of AI and the omnipresence of social media, these ‘shadows’ proliferate, potentially muddling our discernment of knowledge.
Faced with this increasingly ‘shadow’ dominated perception, we are likely to remain confined to Plato’s cave. Will this escalating detachment from reality herald humanity’s downfall, or might Plato’s assertions ultimately be challenged? This question remains a pivotal conundrum as we venture deeper into the AI-driven age.
Cognitive perspective: The erosion of memory and introspection in the Age of Writing
Socrates warned that an over-reliance on writing would herald the waning of human memory. It happened over time. Even more recently, one generation ago, it was commonplace to memorise phone numbers. Yet today, with smartphones acting as external memory repositories, the imperative to remember such details has evaporated.
Another cognitive ability that is disappearing is navigating space. Since the time memorial, we have been navigating space by combining visually observable signs in stars and nature. Today, we rely on GPS systems.
Although Socrates’ reservations sound counter-intuitive as they challenge the notion of technological progress, they are worth keeping in mind, as AI technology will further impact human cognition and our ability for introspection.
Data abundance, wisdom scarcity
Socrates contended that writing merely furnishes ‘a recipe for recollection, not for memory.’ He discerned the chasm between mere knowledge and profound understanding within this distinction.
He asserted that writing would erode human wisdom. Dialogue, which he held in high esteem as a medium for exploration and inquiry, doesn’t thrive amidst written words since these words lack the agency to ‘stand up for themselves.’ The inherently disjointed nature of written communication strips away the human interaction vital for cultivating wisdom in search for deeper truths.
This predicament echoes strongly in our contemporary landscape. Our age is replete with data and information. In our fervour for an evidence-based society, we optimistically assume that AI-deduced patterns from vast data sets automatically translate to genuine understanding or wisdom. As posited in Phaedrus, this might merely be a mirage of knowledge.
However, some new possibilities emerge as well. For example, AI platforms such as Chat GPT could simulate dialogue around AI prompting, as elaborated in one of the prior episodes of the ‘Recycling Ideas’ series.
Technological progress and societal perils
Plato warned of the ‘conceit of wisdom’ as the ultimate risk that writing technology poses to society. Individuals armed with cursory knowledge become vulnerable to manipulation, especially when they overestimate their own understanding. This vulnerability is particularly pronounced in democratic societies. Phaedrus dialogue recognised the ramifications of an inadequately informed populace on the smooth functioning of a democracy that champions critical public discourse and embraces divergent viewpoints.
This ancient caution holds significant relevance today. Rather than fostering constructive dialogue, social media platforms often devolve into battlegrounds of harsh rhetoric and conflict. They provide fertile ground for mis/disinformation that pose a risk to the very societal fabric.
From binary divisions to analogue trade-offs
Although predominantly techno-sceptic, Greek philosophers’ views are more profound and multifaceted. French philosopher Jacques Derrida criticised over-simplified binary interpretations of Phaedrus and argued for a more nuanced approach to technology and society.
In his writing Dissemination, Derrida used the Greek term pharmakon as a metaphor for the dual-edged impact of the writing. Intriguingly, pharmakon translates to both ‘cure’ and ‘poison’. Just as pharmakon embodies this duality, writing, Derrida suggests, stands as a beacon for knowledge preservation yet simultaneously serves as an instrument for inducing forgetfulness and abetting deception.
Derrida would be – applied to AI era – among those who oppose the simplified binary categorisation of AI as good or bad for society. Instead, he would argue for a continuous balancing act between AI’s potential benefits and societal pitfalls.
The voyage from Ancient Greece to the AI frontiers of the 21st century unfurls a tapestry of philosophical thought that remains remarkably relevant, showcasing the timeless nature of human concerns. Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Plato, illuminated the dual edges of technological advancement: its potential to both enrich and endanger the human spirit.
Despite the sweeping advancements from the Parthenon to AI patterns, their insights remind us of technology’s unchanging conundrum. While the written word has indisputably driven human progress, Plato’s and Socrates’ reservations about memory’s erosion and society’s susceptibility to superficial wisdom echo our relationship with digital technology and AI.
As a transformative force in its time, writing faced scepticism, much like today’s AI confronts caution and scrutiny. As we immerse ourselves deeper into the age of AI, the ‘shadows’ cast by our technological marvels grow denser.
Essentially, the philosophical lessons embedded within Phaedrus and the broader Greek philosophical tradition serve not as antiquated relics but as invaluable compasses. They urge contemporary society to engage with technology mindfully, ensuring that in our quest for advancement, the essence of humanity remains inviolate.