This book contains essays from the 2018 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. Subjects range from whether trees can think to the metaphysics of meat and beyond.The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.
David Pogue and others have raised the concern that AI generated works will disrupt the realm of art. As noted in the previous essay, this is a very real concern in the area of content art (art whose value is derived from what it is or how it can be used). However, I will endeavor to show that the realm of named art should be safe from AI incursions for the foreseeable future.
Named art, at least in my (mis)usage is a work whose value arises primarily from the name and fame of its creator. Historical examples obviously include the big names in art such as Picasso, van Gogh, and Rembrandt. An anecdote illustrates the key feature of named art.
Some years ago, I attended an art show/sale at Florida State University with a friend. She pointed to a small pencil sketch of a bird that was priced at, I recall, $1500. She then pointed to a nearby sketch that seemed to be of equivalent (or slightly better) quality but was priced at around $250. Since I taught aesthetics for years, she asked me what justified the difference. After all, the sketches were about the same size, in the same medium, in the same realistic style and were executed with similar skill. My response was to point to the names—one artist was better known than the other. If a clever rogue managed to switch the names and prices on the works, the purchasers would convince themselves they were worth the price—because of the names. The nature of named art can also be shown by the following discussion.
Imagine, if you will, that an amazing painting is found in an attic that might be a lost van Gogh. If the value of a work was based on the work itself, one would not need to know who created it in order to know its likely worth. Obviously enough, the value of the might-be-Gogh depends on whether it can be verified as a real-Gogh or dismissed as a mere look alike. It is easy enough to imagine that the experts first confirm that it is genuine (making it worth millions), then other experts confirm it was painted by Rick von Gogh (making it worth little), and then later experts re-affirm that it is genuine van Gogh (making it worth millions again). While nothing about the work has changed, its value would have fluctuated dramatically, because what gives it value is the creator and not the work itself. That is, a van Gogh is not worth millions because the painting is thousands of times better than a lesser work, but because it was created by van Gogh and the art economy deems it worth that much. As such, the value of named art is not a function of the aesthetic value of the work, but of the name value of the work. This feature provides the realm of named art with an amazing defense against the incursion of AI.
While an AI might be able to crank out masterpieces in a style indistinguishable from van Gogh, the AI can never be Vincent van Gogh. Named art, as repeatedly noted, gets its value from who created it rather than from what it is. As such, the works created by an AI in the style of van Gogh will not be of value to those who only want the works of van Gogh. This can be generalized: those looking for work created by Artist X will not be interested in buying AI created art; they want works created by X. As such, as long as people value works because of the creator, named art will be safe from the incursion of AI. But, one might wonder about AI created forgeries.
While I expect that AI will be used to forge works to sell as being by specific artists, successful deceit would not disprove my claim about named art being safe from AI incursion—the purchaser is buying the work because they think it is by a specific artist; they are merely being deceived. This is not to deny that AI forgeries will not be a problem, just that this would be a forgery problem and not an AI replacing artists problem (other than stealing the job of forgers, of course).
It might be objected that named art will not be safe from AI art because AI systems can crank out works at an alarming rate and, presumably, low cost. While this does mean that content artists are in danger from AI, it does not impact the named artists. After all, the fact that millions of human artists have produced millions of drawings and paintings does not lower the value of a Monet or Dali; the value placed on such paintings is independent of the works of these “lesser” artists. The same should hold true of AI art: even if one could click a button and get 100,000 original images ready to be painted onto canvas by a robot, the sale price of the Mona Lisa would not be diminished.
If AI systems become advanced enough, they might themselves become named artists with collectors wanting a work by Vincent van Robogogh because it was created by Robogogh. But that is a matter for the future.
While it certainly makes sense to consider the qualities of the creator when determining whether a work is art, it also makes sense to consider only the qualities of the work itself. On this approach, what makes a work art are these qualities. Naturally, it also makes sense to consider the effect of this qualities on the audience as a key part of sorting out art. For example, David Hume’s somewhat confusing theory of beauty seems to make beauty a matter of how the qualities of an object affect the audience. Other thinkers, such as Plato, take the quality of beauty to be an objective feature of reality. Defining art in terms of objective beauty would seem to entail that the qualities of the work determine whether it is art. Since one could go on almost forever considering various qualities, it is fortunate this essay does not require a theory of what qualities of a work make it art. All I need is the hypothesis, for the sake of the discussion to follow, that something being art is a matter of the qualities of the work—whatever they might be. This hypothesis is, of course, easy enough to challenge.
One practical reason to focus on the work itself rather than the artist (or other factors) is that there can be cases in which one has a work and yet lacks information about the artist and even about the context of the work. For example, the creators of most ancient works of art found by archeologists are unknown. As such, judging whether they are art requires judging the work itself. Or forever shrugging when asked whether it is art. This can, of course, be countered by pointing out that the creators were human, and much is known about humans that can be applied in sorting out whether the work is art.
One way to counter this is to imagine works found that predate humanity or alien works found on another planet by xenoarcheologists. It is easy to imagine that we might know nothing about the creators of such works. As such, there would be two possibilities. One is to claim that there is no way to judge whether the work is art. The other is to accept that the work can be judged on its own, keeping in mind the obvious fact that the assessment could be in error.
Another way to counter this is to consider the case of AI created works in the context of an aesthetic version of the Turing test. The classic Turing test involves two humans and a computer. One human communicates with the other human and the computer via text with the goal of trying to figure out which is human and which is the computer. If the computer can pass as human long enough, it is said to have passed the Turing test. An aesthetic Turing test would also involve two humans and one computer. In this case, the human artist and the art computer would each create a work (or works), such as music, a sculpture or a painting. Naturally, the test must be set up so that it is not easy and obvious which is which. For example, using a human artist whose style is well known and a bad art program would not be a proper test. Matching a skilled, but obscure, human artist against a capable art AI would be a fair test.
After the works are created, the human judge would then attempt to discern which work was created by a human and which was created by a computer. The judge would also be tasked with deciding whether each work is art. In this case, the judge knows nothing about the creator of a work and must judge the work based on the work itself. While it is tempting to think that a judge will easily tell a human work from a machine work, this would be a mistake—AI generated art can be quite sophisticated and can even be programmed to include the sort of “errors” that humans make when creating works. If the AI can pass the test, it would seem to be as much an artist as the human. If the work of the human is art, then the work of the AI that passes the test would thus also seem to be art.
If whether a work is art depends on the artist, then a judge who could not discern who created the two works in the test would not be able to say which (if any) work was art. So, if a computer created a brush-stroke by brush stroke identical work as the human and thus assured that the two works could never be distinguished, it would follow that the judge must rule that neither work is art. However, this seems to be an absurd conclusion. One could also imagine a joke being played on the judge—after the judgment, they are told that painting A is by the human and B is by the computer and then they are asked to judge again. After they reach their verdict, they are informed that the reverse was true and asked to judge again. As such, having art require a certain sort of creator seems absurd—what makes something art should be in the work itself.
One way to counter this is to use an analogy to a perfect counterfeit of a $100 bill. While the perfect counterfeit would be identical to the real money and utterly indistinguishable to all observations, it would still be a counterfeit because of its origin—being legitimate currency is not a matter of what makes up the money, but how the money is created and issued. The same, it could be argued, also applies to art—thus a work created in the wrong way would not be art, even though it could be identical to a real work of art. But, of course, just as the perfect counterfeit would seem to destroy the value of the real bill (if one is known to be fake, but they cannot be told apart, then neither should be accepted) the “fake art” would also seem to destroy the art status of the “real art.” This would be odd but could obviously be accepted by those who think that art, like money, is a social construct. But, suppose one accepts that being art is matter of the qualities of the work.
If it is the qualities of a work that makes a work art and an AI can create works with those qualities, then the works would thus be art. If an AI cannot create works with those qualities, then the work of an AI would not be art. The real challenge here is working out a theory of art that successfully sorts out the necessary and sufficient conditions for such works. Once that is done, it will be possible to know if an AI can create art.
As a philosopher, I tend to be concerned with meta-aesthetic matters, such as trying to define “art” or sorting out whether an AI can create “true” art. David Pogue has addressed the subject of AI and art more pragmatically by focusing on concerns about the economic impact of AI on art and artists. That is, the question of whether AI will be taking the jobs of artists. The impact of AI on art is certainly worthy of philosophical and pragmatic consideration, thus this series of brief essays of which this is the first.
As Pogue noted, AI (broadly construed)is already producing original paintings and music. It should be noted that these computer programs are relatively limited. For example, Amper is a guided system for assembling samples rather than an AI Mozart or Prince. To use an analogy, it is like an exoskeleton for music: it does the hard work but must be guided by a human operator. It is, however,capable of producing high quality results—those worried about digitized junk music will be pleasantly surprised.
As researchers and companies improve the technology, AI will continue to expand its reach into the realm of art and will also increase the variety and quality of its creations. As such, concerns about AI and art are not the stuff of science-fiction, but a real-world concern right now. And, like climate change, something that will only increase.
From a philosophical standpoint, a critical question is whether AI created works are art. The obvious problem with sorting this out is that there is, as far as I know, no necessary and sufficient definition of “art” that would allow a decisive and objective answer. As it now stands, the question can only be answered within the context of a specific theory. That is, the specific question is whether AI art is art under this or that theory. To use an analogy, being a work of art is rather like being a sin.Whether something is a sin or not is a matter of a specific religion. That is,the specific question of whether an action or thought is a sin is whether it is a sin in this or that religion (or interpretation of the religion). This is distinct from the question of whether it truly is a sin. Answering that would require determining which religion has it right (and it might be none of them—there might be no sin at all). As such, I cannot answer whether AI art is art with certainty until I know which, if any, theory of art has it right (if any). That said, it is possible to muddle about with the usual cobbled together messes of existing theories.
One broad distinction between theories that is especially relevant to AI art is between theories that focus primarily on the work and theories that focus primarily on the creator. In general terms, the first sort of approach involves art requiring certain properties in the work. The other sort of approach involves requiring that the work be created in a certain way by a certain sort of being. These approaches will be discussed in upcoming essays.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the key concern about AI and art is the impact of AI on the economics of art. This includes the general concern about machines taking jobs from humans and the impact of automation on the economic value of products. To illustrate, if someone who needs music for a Youtube video or TV show can simply be guided through its creation by an AI, then they have little reason to hire human musicians to create it for them—unless the humans are cheaper. As another example, if an AI can create thousands of original digital images with each click of the mouse, then what impact will this have on the value of visual art? While it is tempting to think that machines will not be able to match the creative abilities of humans, this seems to be mere wishful thinking—if programs are not already “taking jobs” from human artists, they soon will be. While these are practical matters, they also raise philosophical concerns and will be addressed as well in upcoming essays.
In this essay on the dearth of conservatives in higher education, the possible oppression of conservatives will be considered. I am obviously not the first to advance this hypothesis, but it is certainly worth new consideration. The idea is a familiar one: a group is being unjustly discriminated against in an institution and this accounts for the under-representation of this group. In this case, the group is not defined by ethnicity, religion, or gender but by political ideology.
The claim that conservatives are victims of oppression/discrimination might be met with snorts of derision or even the assertion they are getting what they deserve. After all, conservatives have generally not expressed concerns about the exclusion of other groups. As such, it could be said that their concern is not based on a principle of fairness but on their lamentation that they are not dominating or at least a major force in higher education. The logical reply to this assertion is that their apparent inconsistency and their allegedly selfish motives are not relevant to whether their exclusion is just. After all, if it could be proven that feminists did not care about fairness and are motivated by selfishness, then it would not follow that they are wrong to claim that the underrepresentation of women in various fields is wrong. To believe otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad hominem, that a person’s motives or bias must discredit their claim. It is, of course, morally fine to point out inconsistencies between claimed ideals and actual behavior—but that is another matter. As such, the claim that conservatives are being unjustly excluded from higher education cannot be dismissed so quickly. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence.
As noted in earlier essays, conservatives tend to respond to claims about oppression or exclusion by asserting low representation is due to the allegedly excluded being either uninterested or incapable. The same could obviously be done to their claim of discrimination, a matter discussed earlier in this series of essays. But the focus now is on trying to make the case for the claim of discrimination and I will set aside that counter and turn to considerations of evidence.
One obvious source of evidence is complaints from conservative faculty. This does occur and should be taken as seriously as any other claim of discrimination. Christopher Freiman, a fellow philosophy professor, has contended that a significant percentage of faculty have admitted they would discriminate against conservative applicants and he also points to claims of their being underplaced and fired at a higher rate than liberal faculty for political speech. This is the same sort of evidence that would be advanced to support a claim of discrimination against women or minorities and hence should be given the same sort of due consideration. To do otherwise would be mere prejudice and inconsistent with the moral principle that discrimination is wrong. That said, as conservatives will note when it involves others, claims about discrimination need not be actual evidence of discrimination. Ironically, the same tools and methods that conservatives have used to dismiss concerns about discrimination can be applied to their claims. However, to use them as weapons with the express intent of dismissing evidence would be a moral error—rather, the evidence should be examined neutrally with the tools of science and logic with a goal of determining the truth, whatever it might be.
Since I do not have the resources to conduct a proper large-scale investigation, I will begin with my own experiences. It must be noted that this entails a limited sample size and biasing factors. That said, I have served on or chaired numerous search committees over the years and not once was there an inquiry into the political ideology of the candidates. The job description, ranking standards and questions included nothing about political ideology and hiring decisions were made based on academic qualifications. As would be suspected, I and all the other members of the committees had to attend meetings about how to run job searches and the bulk of the meetings were spent on instructions on how to avoid discrimination (and lawsuits). Speaking with other colleagues across the country, no one has ever mentioned anything that would be evidence of discrimination against conservatives in their hiring practices. It should be noted that there was never a directive to seek ideological diversity in hiring—mainly because, as I said, ideology was never considered as a factor (positive or negative) in the hiring process.
There are a few obvious replies to my alleged evidence. One counter is to assert that I am lying—if I was discriminating against conservatives, I would surely deny it and carefully conceal all evidence. That is a fair point: as feminists and others have long pointed out, discriminators are inclined to lie about their discrimination. Those who think I am a liar will obviously not be swayed by my claims that I am not. Those would just be more lies to hide my other lies, at least in their eyes.
A second counter is that while I claim that we did not consider ideology or even inquire about it, we could surely infer a person’s ideology from their research, presentations and publications. For example, if someone gave a presentation entitled “reflections on the evils of capitalism within the context of cultural Marxism ideology” or “a stalwart defense of conservative values within the context of a biased academy”, then we could surely infer their likely ideology. This does have some merit: candidates can, of course, send signals to prospective employers via their research, presentations and publications. The influence can even be unconscious, as some claim occurs when people are biased against applicants with female or minority sounding names. The use of ideology signaling via these means is something I think is worth investigating—especially its potential for biasing (unconsciously or not) search committee members. As such, I would recommend this a research project—it would make an excellent subject for a dissertation.
A third obvious counter is that even if I am being honest, my experience is limited to one institution and a limited number of search committees. As feminists and others have long argued, the absence of evidence for discrimination in some cases is not evidence of the absence of discrimination in others. Of course, it is also the case that evidence of discrimination in some cases is not automatically evidence of broad or systematic discrimination. What is needed, then, is a proper investigation of the claim of discrimination. Fortunately, or unfortunately, discrimination against women, minorities and others has resulted in the creation of tools and methods to ferret out discrimination and these should be neutrally applied to see if there is evidence of the systematic oppression of conservatives within higher education. If it is occurring, then it can be addressed with methods analogous to those used to address discrimination against women, minorities and otehrs. For example, job descriptions might start including “we encourage conservatives to apply” and affirmative action programs might be created for avowed conservatives interested in academic careers.
As noted in previous essays, there is a diversity issue in higher education: liberals (or at least Democrats) significantly outnumber conservatives (or at least Republicans). Since the subject of diversity has long been addressed by conservatives, it makes sense to use their approach when inquiring into the lack of ideological diversity in the ivory towers.
When faced with claims about a lack of diversity in an area (such as a dearth of minorities or women), conservatives tend to have two replies. The first is one that I addressed in an earlier essay: the seemingly excluded group freely chooses not to go into that area. For example, one might try to explain the low relative numbers of minority tabletop gamers (D&D players, for example) by claiming that minorities are generally not interested in these games. The second explanation is that the seemingly excluded group is not as capable as the dominant group(s). For example, the shortage of women in top business, military and academic positions might be explained in terms of women being less capable than men in these areas. The more charitable might soften this claim by asserting that the excluded group is capable in other areas—areas in which they are more proportionally represented or dominant. For example, it might be claimed that while women are less capable than men when it comes to science or business, they are quite capable as nurses and grade school teachers. In some cases, these assertions are obviously true. For example, men dominate American football because the strongest men are far stronger than the strongest women. As another example, women are obviously vastly more capable than men as wet nurses or surrogate mothers. Since conservatives tend to find this explanation appealing, it is reasonable to advance it to explain the dearth of conservatives in the academy.
Put bluntly, it could be claimed that conservatives generally lack the ability to succeed in higher education. While there are some exceptions, the ideological distribution is fair because of the disparity in ability. This is analogous to how a conservative might claim that the lack of women in the upper levels of business, academics and the military is in accord with the distribution of ability: most women are not as capable in those roles as men, hence men justly dominate. Likewise, most conservatives are not as capable in higher education as liberals, hence liberals justly dominate.
One obvious reply is that ideology is different from sex or ethnicity. Conservatives can be of any sex or ethnicity (though they are overwhelmingly white and tend to be male) because ideology is a matter of the values a person accepts and not what they are. As such, it could be claimed, the idea that conservatives are less capable than liberals would make no sense. It would be like saying that deontologists are less capable than utilitarians, that impressionists are less capable than surrealists, or that Yankees fans are less capable than Red Sox fans. This does have some appeal, but I am reluctant to abandon the conservative explanation so quickly.
This reply can be countered by arguing that while ideology does not change a person’s capabilities, a person’s capabilities can determine their ideology. That is, people with certain non-ideological qualities would tend to be conservative while people with other qualities would tend to be liberal. While psychology is not even an inexact science, it does show some interesting claims about the differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, conservatives tend to be more afraid than liberals and hence have a greater desire for safety and security. Given these differences, it makes sense that people who tend to be conservative would be less capable than people who tend to be liberal in areas in which these differences would have a meaningful impact. Higher education, it can be argued, is just such an area: the qualities that would make a person more likely to succeed as a professor would also tend to make them liberal. In contrast, the qualities that would make a person more conservative would tend to make it less likely that they would be successful at becoming a professor.
While some liberals would be tempted to say that conservatives are stupider than liberals, this need not be the case. After all, becoming a professor is obviously not just a matter of being smart—most smart people are not professors and not all professors are smart. Conservatives can be just as intellectually capable as liberals, yet some of the other qualities that make them conservative could impair their ability to become professors. One factor is that the process of becoming a professor typically involves having one’s most cherished ideas questioned, challenged and even attacked over the course of years—something that those inclined towards being liberal might handle better. As charitable conservatives might say that women and minorities are well-suited for some areas, a charitable liberal might say that conservatives are well-suited for areas outside the academy.
If it is true that what makes people conservatives or liberals is relevant to their ability to become professors, then there are various solutions to the problem of diversity. One is to engage in a process of affirmative action for conservatives: preferential hiring and lower standard to balance out the numbers. The conservatives who oppose affirmative action would not be able to accept this approach—unless their stance on the matter is purely a matter of self-interest rather than a matter of principle.
A second approach is to see if the academy can be modified to be more inviting to conservatives without such affirmative action. For example, it might be that the way grad school classes are taught that tends to weed out conservatives from the ranks of professors. While conservatives are generally not fans of efforts of inclusion, they would presumably welcome such efforts when they are to their advantage.
At this point, some readers are no doubt thinking that the real reason conservatives are lacking in the academy is that liberals are to blame. It is to this that I will turn in my next essay.