Nazis, clairvoyants and robots

Readers respond to articles on Hitler's Jewish psychic and Robert Brooks' vision of the future.

By Salon Staff

Published March 1, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "Hitler's clairvoyant" by Stephen Lemons.

Stephen Lemons' review of the Mel Gordon book ignores the well-documented fact that many in the Nazi and SS leadership, Hitler included, entertained esoteric and occult beliefs. A scholarly case study of a strand of this phenomena is Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's "The Occult Roots of Nazism," available since 1994. It traces the effect of late 19th century ariosophy, the study of the Aryan race's allegedly mystical origins, on Nazi racial theory. This is one (not uncontroversial) example documenting the strange and diffuse links between Nazi ideology and the occult.

Other examples in a somewhat different vein abound. The very irrationality of Nazi ideology has attracted considerable attention from intellectual historians who have placed it in the context of anti-modern impulses present in 19th and 20th century European thought due to the social dislocations associated with the process of economic and political modernization. It isn't hard to see a possible link between the changes set in motion throughout Europe by the Enlightenment and the Nazis' rejection of these changes as well as their attempt to reverse them.

What is more difficult to pin down is the link between the Nazis' rejection of modernity and their embrace of a pagan, mystical ethos, with the belief in the occult that this implies. This latter correlation is what the book by Goodrick-Clarke attempts to establish and for which he has received some heat. In any event, his argument is suggestive, and the Hanussen-Hitler story is consistent with what we know about the bizarre set of beliefs to which Hitler and other Nazi leaders subscribed.

-- Ron Alquist

Read "Flesh, robots and God" by John Glassie.

I think John Glassie asked pretty simple-minded questions of Robert Brooks. The key question to the average person regarding artificial intelligence is, "When will computers be able to converse?" Every fictional robot that has ever been created talks, or at least understands, one or more human language. Our most advanced science right now can't get a computer to do what normal 2-year-olds do -- learn a language. The day you call a company on the phone and aren't able to tell whether a person or a computer talked to you, then we will be in an entirely new era. How soon will that be? If that's not on the horizon, what kind of robotics are we looking at, and how will it affect us? Those would have been good questions to ask.

-- Larry Letich

"We are nothing more than bio-molecules interacting," Mr. Brooks says. Ah, yes -- another scientist who's unfamiliar with the word "synergy." Another "genius" who looks at water and says, "That is hydrogen and oxygen, and up-quarks and down-quarks." Another proponent of the pervasive and eschatological inventory of our world and its half-assed reconstitution by governments and corporations.

Despite the obvious intensity of his endeavor, Mr. Brooks is no different than a small-town big shot who thinks his town is a fractal upon which reality ultimately could be understood.

On the other hand, though, maybe Mr. Brooks has only a couple of emotions. In that event, there might not be as much legwork in the conversion of humans to robots as I'd thought. Heck, sign me up: I wouldn't mind having a robot version of Mr. Brooks scrubbing my toilet.

-- Mark Tatara, Chicago

Again and again, in respected publications, we read that sooner or later we will be confronted with emotional robots, robots with human-like consciousness, and so forth. I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. The basic problem ignored by techies such as Professor Brooks is the age-old mind-body problem.

Neuro-scientists are able to elicit sensations (even emotions) in their subjects and observe specific brain activity which correlates to these sensations. A subject is shown the color red; some parts of the brain wiggle. The problem is that the wiggles in the brain in no way indicate the color red; they simply correlate to the perception. This is a big difference! From the photons of a particular wavelength entering the eye to the specific electrical firings in the brain, at no point does color appear. "Red" is a subjective phenomena -- you must experience it. It has no objective reality.

Professor Brooks is simply wrong to compare the notion of robot emotions with evolution. Evolution is a theory describing a mechanism. The theory is accepted because there is overwhelming evidence to support it. Subjective reality in robots is much less than this: It is a claim (or perhaps will be). It is not a theory or mechanism. It is something closer to faith than science.

How we get from wiggles in a human brain to the subjective experience of "red" is not understood by science (clearly, wiggles and experience go together, but the mechanism connecting them is a mystery). So, when wiggles in the silicon are observed when robot X is shown the color red, there is absolutely no reason to conclude that robot X is experiencing the color red, or anything else for that matter. And when confronted with the claim that robot X is experiencing the color red, we can always ask, "What's the mechanism?"

The "red" problem is a classic, and it is fun to use, but the same applies to other senses -- emotions, in short, and all of subjective experience.

So, please, editor, don't be duped! When a scientist makes this claim but cannot explain how the claim works, he or she is making a leap of faith, no more or less than those who claim the earth was created 10,000 years ago.

-- A. Anesko

Salon Staff

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