Aphorisms from the Automatic Philosopher

GPT-2 is a large language model capable of generating some of the most convincingly human-like text we are yet to see from artificial intelligence. Previously, I’ve used GPT-2 to generate reports of clinical trials and several paragraphs of an essay on irrationality in which it invented a fictitious riff on David Hume to justify claims about rational decision-making.

While most language models I’ve experimented with in the past needed fine-tuning on an undergraduate degree’s worth of text to generate anything that resembles a philosophical style, GPT-2 appears much more agile. It adopts a philosopher’s style and engages with their research interests from as little as a short text prompt. I gave GPT-2 short phrases from a few philosophers, and asked it to create some pithy aphoristic gubbins in their style. So it is that I can present the first new words of Russell, Descartes, Nietzsche, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Bentham and Kant in quite some time…

AI-mmanuel Kant:

  • “If the imagination does not lead to the actualization of the ideal of happiness, happiness itself remains an illusion. To love is not to be a fool. To live a good life is not to deny the good of life; it is the reifying of the good that the joy in living belongs to the ideal.”
  • “Don’t get too excited about your life.”
  • “It is not you who are happy; it is you who imagine yourself to be happy.”
  • “Because happiness is a force, because it must be used to manifest reality, I speak of it as something of immense value.”
  • “The happiness of each individual is not of itself sufficient, but it is the first condition for the happiness of all.”

Jeremy Bentham:

  • “To the maxim, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ we must add the maxim, ‘Prevention is worth a thousand cures.'”
  • “Paradise exists for the living and the dead. It is not possible to have one without the other.”
  • “Thus what the most valued part of the greatest number would or ought to do, in politics and society, the most valuable part of the greatest number will, at the same time, in some instances, naturally do or ought to do.”
  • “Any member of the community must hold his own, or be degraded. Thus every institution must either protect or degrade some citizens, or be entirely deficient. Any institution of whatsoever character must tend to the degradation of some citizens.”
  • “The greater the misery, the worse the laws; but this shall be a cause for the laws, as a means, either of making people less miserable or of increasing their happiness.”
  • “When a man is less miserable, it makes it more difficult for him to improve the state of his soul. And it is here to be observed, that the true sources of happiness and misery, in general, are almost always not known.”
  • “Free governments will probably become the worst governments, when for a long period they have not been supported by a moral philosophy or right morality.”
  • “If an individual man can retain his sanity in office for a long period, it is because there is in him a moral sense.”

Judith Jarvis Thompson:

  • “No one has yet found a trolley problem of which everyone can be a victim. You can be part of the recipient, so you need to be a victim! You don’t think of yourself as a victim, so you can’t be a victim.  You need to keep switching between victim and game – the kind of problem that interests you. You can’t be a game.  Everyone can be a victim.”
  • “A trolley only starts to kill when it has stopped moving. If you press the stop button, it stops. The obvious and straightforward result is that you must raise the roof above the tracks or the trolley will kill everybody.”
  • “What if you aren’t a good killer and are not trying to be?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, trained on Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

  • “It is also necessary that man approach self-knowledge in an objective way. To acquire understanding and be able to identify himself in the world is a terrible problem. It is dangerous.”
  • “We have no idea what God is. We have a horrible conception of his nature, which is contrary to facts. Our concept is so fixed that we do not even know ourselves. We think of a God as strong and powerful; he is omnipotent and omniscient. But we see no matter how a man gets on with his life, he will sooner or later succumb to the influence of the masses.”
  • “A miserable, useless, bitter abstraction, alas, is what our Christ now stands for. Surely the ‘executioner’s rod’ will not satisfy us. What we want is the burning-hammers.”

Rene Descartes, trained on Meditations:

  • “I am, I exist. I have searched everywhere in the world and nowhere have I found this fundamental proposition, so far as the senses take it, impossible for me to believe. When I am guided by the facts, I shall think I am something, when I am not guided by the facts, I am nothing.”
  • “But this little bit of existence has been so convincingly proved to me that it fills me with real rapture to think that there is something else besides me, so strong is that conviction of my own consciousness of self.”
  • “This proposition, “I exist”, of course, is itself just a momentary idea, yet it is the only idea that I am always conscious of. It is, in a word, my whole existence. It is the very foundation and the very beginning of my being. It is the one proposition on which everything else depends.”

Bertrand Russell, trained on Problems of Philosophy:

  • “Natural science is an inherited skill. It is most useful if it will prepare the mind to handle truth in the direction of science; for it is scientific as well as social. Philosophy, however, can also give man some definite wealth of knowledge and experience. If I, in seeking for knowledge, find it in nature, the result is useful for understanding culture.”
  • “Question something again and again; one must question so as to break the habit of being certain.”
  • “There is much to discover in science. To discover the exact history of one particular system of beliefs, or of one particular psychological state, or of one particular end, is the first step toward discovering the universal history of human thought, the history of the mind.”
  • “Thus, then, will the contemplation of the world show us all its errors and its secret springs of unrest, and lead us to enlarge the limits of our knowledge, and become better acquainted with our essence and capacities, and so to fill the world with the blessings of wisdom, and make it pleasant to be in it.”

I’ll leave you with the first new philosophical problem ever posed by an AI, from Judith Jarvis Thompson’s digital amalgam: truly, what if you aren’t a good killer and are trying not to be?