Artificial Intelligence and Nietzsche


I’m working my way through Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s easy to read, and more profound than I expected.

Take this quote:

The self says to the “I”: “Feel pain!” And at that it suffers, and thinks how it may put an end to it – and for that very purpose it is made to think.

The self says to the “I”: “Feel pleasure!” At that it is pleased, and thinks how it might often be pleased again – and for that very purpose it is made to think.

Nietzsche is saying that pain and pleasure aren’t just one small piece of consciousness. Rather, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is the mind’s entire job, its sole function.

This defies tradition, and common sense too. We’re used to thinking of the mind as something noble and elevated, for which the body is merely a tool. Most people believe the mind can even exist apart from the body, as an immortal soul. Yet Nietzsche claims the mind is not a master but a slave, whose elaborate calculations serve only to avoid an ouch.

Here, you might say: “That sounds silly, but what’s the point of arguing about it? We’ll never know. We can’t test it one way or another, it makes no difference to anyone’s life, so this is all a bunch of hot air.”

I would’ve said that myself, not so long ago.

But one of the great beauties of artificial intelligence is that it’s a proving ground for philosophy, especially philosophy of the mind. (And after all, it’s all philosophy of the mind.)

Statements like “experience is the foundation of knowledge” seem airy and abstract. But to an AI engineer, it’s all very real. Every day, I write programming code that constructs the foundation of knowledge. When you’re building a mind, philosophical questions become practical.

And from what I’ve seen so far, I believe Nietzsche was exactly right. The mind is a noble, elegant, powerful thing, but at its roots, it has one main job: seek pleasure, avoid pain. Everything else is subordinate to that primary function.

You may argue that lots of people do things that could be considered pain-seeking: going to battle, even volunteering to be crucified. But I would say that these acts are driven by pursuit of a higher “pleasure” or a deeper “pain,” encoded in the conscience.

Well, you say, then isn’t my argument circular? Isn’t such a definition of pain and pleasure so broad as to be meaningless?

From a human, subjective viewpoint: perhaps. From the objective stance outside of the AI’s code: no, it’s not meaningless at all. Pleasure and pain are values that can be calculated and measured.

Of course, my AI design is not the only one possible. Even if my architecture works, it may be very different than how the human brain operates.

Maybe. But I don’t think so – not about this, anyway.

What’s on your mind this Monday morning?


9 responses to “Artificial Intelligence and Nietzsche

  1. Pingback: Artificial Intelligence and Nietzsche | Educational Leadership and Technology |

  2. I once heard an interview where the souldier said, “I go to war to find peace” … I think i understand what you are saying, and from my interpretation of your words I AGREE with you! I know nothing about AI, but I can grasp at the idea that the mind’s ultimate goal is to find pleasure and avoid pain not just as a thought but as a corporeal experience… Of course, those are the ULTIMATE goals, to achieve them many other experiences are lived and felt… Not forgetting that the concept/feeling of pain and pleasure differs from person to person… This is a wonderfully complex topic…and I fear I have made little sense :/ doesn’t matter it brought me pleasure to think about it and try to explain it despite the pain of possibly being wrong, Alexandra

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