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Selmer Bringsjord on Life and Logic

May 15, 2024


Selmer Bringsjord

This August, Bishop Barron’s home diocese of Rochester, Minnesota will host the second annual Wonder Conference, featuring a stellar lineup of speakers presenting their insights on this year’s theme, nature and the human body.

Among the speakers is Dr. Selmer Bringsjord. I seized the opportunity to get to know Dr. Bringsjord and get a glimpse of what he has planned for Wonder.

Caroline: Thank you for your willingness to speak with me, Dr. Bringsjord! Please share a bit about your background. How did you get started in your field?

Dr. Bringsjord: My work is invariably marked by the confluence of logic, cognition, and computation. I’ve been interested in logic since early high school, and, perhaps surprisingly so to many, my study of Spanish there was impactful, specifically Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I discussed with my AP Spanish teacher the reasoning in the novel, at length. A lot of it is comical, but a lot of it calls for logical reasoning that has a self-referential nature. (Statements that refer to themselves—such as the present one in claiming as it now does that it contains the word ‘present’—are important in formal logic.) I was also deeply interested in logic in connection with the core claims of credal Christianity since I was a little boy. My mother would get a bit frustrated at times, and direct me to the resident experts. The Resurrection, for example . . . I early on demanded to hear opinions as to whether such a staggeringly counterintuitive event could be established by logically valid reasoning. As to computation, in my high school it just happened to be a big deal. I was lucky. IBM essentially created my high school, in its world headquarters of Armonk, NY. The high school reflected this, in many ways.

How does faith inform your work? 

I view faith as more listening and trusting than something intellectual. The reason is because the core claims of orthodox Christianity are, for me, all supported by proof and argument, reason alone. Since I specialize in using logic, computational logic specifically, what I suspect others may take on faith (or take on some faith, at least), I do not. Now believing in God, or trusting in Christ . . . well there’s a different matter. That’s a continuous relationship. But again, for me, all the core claims of credal Christianity are provable.

Turning to artificial intelligence, as its capabilities continue to evolve, what new dilemmas do you anticipate and in which arenas? 

I anticipate many new dilemmas, unfortunately. Here’s a big one, what I call the PAID Problem: As AIs get increasingly Powerful, Autonomous, and Intelligent, they are Dangerous, and conceivably might Destroy us. For economy, I leave out psychological harm, which will be extensive (dead humans will, for example, increasingly get replaced by AI simulacra, and people will foolishly “love” them; and we see precursors to this in today’s still-primitive but highly suggestive “deep fakes”). But the realms of Defense and Intelligence are obvious, and—given today’s wars and rumors of wars—easy to see as “fertile” ground for PAI machines. Today’s primitive drones in combat point to tomorrow’s powerful-autonomous-intelligent successors. Adversaries of the US, NATO, etc. are not going to stop pushing in this direction. We shall need to respond in kind. Classic rudiments of an “arms race,” no?

We saw Catholic Answers recently pull the plug on their “Father Justin” chatbot after just two days in response to a number of issues—more than okaying Gatorade baptisms. As people of faith, how should we navigate a landscape that is continuously becoming more enmeshed with AI? 

Master—or be deep friends with someone who masters—the technical bases for AI. The more you know, the more you can see that human cognition and consciousness are superior to the AI brand of “thinking.” Whether theist or atheist or agnostic, everyone should do what I recommend. There is nothing like the serenity that comes from understanding something deeply, and thereby seeing that it’s not something to worry about in paralyzed ignorance. Deep learning, the main kind of purely numerical/statistical learning that serves as the basis for chatbots / large language models (LLMs), should never be used for such applications/venues, for the simple reason that the doctrines underlying Baptism (and other relevant age-old activities in Christianity) are defined propositionally, which is simply impossible to do with only numerical information. When Brant Pitre explains and defends key propositions, he doesn’t use numbers; he chains declarative propositions together.

As AIs get increasingly Powerful, Autonomous, and Intelligent, they are Dangerous, and conceivably might Destroy us.

What will you be speaking about at this year’s Wonder Conference?

I will be speaking about the contribution to human intelligence, to human cognitive intelligence, that stems from the fact that we have bodies—bodies that can perceive and move and manipulate. And that I’m doing this is saying rather a lot, because I tend to focus on immaterial objects (those in math and formal logic). So this is a change for me!

What do you hope people take away from your lecture? 

That the human mind, measured against computing machines, including those now touted in so-called “Generative AI,” is stunningly more powerful, in no small part because it’s connected to a physical body.

While Generative AI can accomplish a variety of helpful tasks for businesses, do you expect its evolution will lead us down a slippery slope? Though the human mind is much more powerful, will we increasingly settle for the new creations from machines?

Unfortunately, yes, without a doubt this is the slope humanity is on. There’s an interesting, and distressing, connection between apologetics and the slope you point to. The connection can be revealed by considering the simple imperative “Justify why you believe that!” Delivering on this is par for the course for apologists. But amazingly, many humans don’t issue this imperative much any more, even when it comes to what they see emerging from AI. If with others I can prove P, but no one cares about P, logic is at best dormant. When I was an undergrad at Penn, professors challenged me to defend my credal beliefs aggressively. Now such behavior might get a professor terminated. Some recent podcasts I’ve done get into some of this. My Roman Catholic professor at Penn, James Ross, claimed that proving God’s existence is no harder than proving 2+2=4 (though how many can actually prove the latter). I agree. But if no one asks how doing such a thing works, who will know? It’s a good thing I drove my mother crazy with demands for proof and argument, I guess.

To wrap us up—on a more cheerful note—what fuels your enthusiasm for your work day-to-day? 

That’s easy. I would love to talk to Rodin about this question. (I’m a huge Rodin fan.) I like to see things that exist, things that are first in a fog and not fleshed out let alone polished, and then do the fleshing out and polishing. You see the thing, then you sketch it repeatedly, trying to get it to come into better focus, and when it does you start making the sculpture slowly, here and there. Sculpting in my case is working with propositions, and words, and formulae, and equations, and inferences, etc. When it’s done, it’s great. I wonder how many rewrites it took David to arrive at his finished products like Psalm 23, or—for those interested in the nature of the human mind—Psalm 139.

Thank you very much, Dr. Bringsjord, for taking the time to help us get to know you and your thoughts. It was a true pleasure, and we are highly anticipating your talk at this year’s Wonder Conference. We’ll see you in Rochester! 

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