My very first exposure to computer programming was with Digital Equipment in 1970, working with a paper-tape BASIC interpreter. An interpreter looks at your code a line at a time, taking appropriate action based only upon current conditions. If you wanted the interpreter to generate a bunch of random numbers, you would give it the command “Randomize.” You could then use those random numbers in whatever game you were writing (or playing).
My brain works the very same way, sometimes, and I don’t even have to give it the command, it does it anyway. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s the very best way to be, with an “interpreter” inside your head instead of the alternative, a “compiler.” The way programming used to work (perhaps some still does, I don’t know), was that you would use the command-line interpreter to check the syntax of your code, and once it was working to your satisfaction, you would “compile” it, meaning fix it so it would run the same way all the time. Once your code was compiled, the program would always respond predictably. Input “A” would always give you output “X.”
Works great if you’re programming yourself to do math, but it you wish to approach an ethical dilemma, say; a pre-programmed response might not be the best thing in all cases. “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness (lie)” is an example of a “compiled” program. Ask a question of someone to whom that is an axiom, and you (should) always get a response that represents the truth (as they understand it). Well, that’s fine ‘till the Gestapo bangs on the door looking for the family of Jews you happen to be hiding in your attic! Now, you are faced with a ethical dilemma that your programming didn’t account for, so what do you do?
Of course, you dump the “compiled code” in your head, and run your interpreter. As a human being, you have to. So, what’s the difference between you and some of us who run an “interpreter” all the time? There really is no difference at all!
Those who say they are running moral “compiled code” that was generated in the bronze age, are really kidding themselves. When they bump up against the 21st century, they constantly dump the compiled code and revert to the interpreter just as the rest of us do, they just don’t realize it. Instead of seeing it for what it is, they use various contrivances to convince themselves that they are “really” following the “code” when in fact they are doing nothing by cherry-picking in order to justify doing what they really believe is right.
No thanks! I’m really happy running with my interpreter (of course I don’t use the “randomize” command, at least for a moral question). After all, it’s the result of a million years or so of human evolution, and it’s hard-wired to be the natural way we operate. Trying to function as a moral agent with the handicap of a contrived compiled program would do nothing but bring an unnecessary order of complexity to my otherwise simple life. Besides, too many of the world’s problems are caused because some people have a hard time realizing that their compiled code is simply not designed to fit all possible situations, so they try to change the situation instead of the code.
Another subject: Frank Rich has an excellant piece in the Times this morning, dealing with violence and the threat thereof:
…(T)he biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change. As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, “What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world — now overwhelmingly technical and complex — that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.”
There is also this to deal with, as the media is ignoring it. Where are all of these conservatives? They aren’t in the Republican party, that’s for sure, so where are they? I have some ideas, and will explore them in a future post. I’ll give you a hint: many of them are not where you may think, and the answer might surprise you.
As I said, Randomize!