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Data Doesn’t Suffer

Apparently, ChatGPT is coming for us all.  You’ve heard of ChatGPT, yes? The artificially “intelligent” content creator that can spit out essays and website content and legal briefs and who knows what else based on a simple prompt. It’s changed how universities teach (I have several professorial type friends who say it’s become a massive problem on campus in the few short months it’s been out). And, apparently, it’s also going to do to white collar work what automation did to things like manufacturing. Robots have been able to put cars together for a while. Now, it seems, they can also churn out the content that those of us who sit behind desks buzzing importantly around on our computers produce. Who knows, perhaps, in the end the only jobs left will be to manage the intelligence that is managing us.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that I have a rather dim view of ChatGPT. “Intelligence” is a property of purposive agents. It’s not an algorithm. I thought about writing a blistering paragraph or two outlining why I feel this way, but then I saw the most recent edition of Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files did it better than I could. Mark, from Christchurch, NZ, asked ChatGPT to write a song in the style of Nick Cave and wanted to know what he thought of the result. Cave’s whole response is worth reading, but I was especially drawn to this part:

This song sucks.

What ChatGPT is, in this instance, is replication as travesty. ChatGPT may be able to write a speech or an essay or a sermon or an obituary, but it cannot create a genuine song. It could perhaps in time create a song that is, on the surface, indistinguishable from an original, but it will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque.

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

Well, the only thing I object to in that is the inclusion of the word “sermon” above. I say this only partly in (self-interested) jest. I would say that pretty much everything Cave says about the creation of a song also goes into a good sermon or a piece of writing, or anything I create that touches on anything that ultimately matters.

But, yeah. Algorithms don’t feel. Can’t feel. Will never feel. Consequently, ChatGPT can only ever be a hollow imitation, a greedy parasite on all the things that make human experience and communication and art and beauty real and worth striving for. This is what I’ll tell myself, at any rate, when the robots come for me.

Image source.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fred Pauls #

    Maybe we should celebrate that university professors are evaluating their assignments. If their students can produce a B+ paper by using ChatGPT, maybe it’s just a bad assignment?
    I hope that Professors value interaction with their students and make an effort to make personal connections with them.


    January 20, 2023
    • I hope for the same, Fred.

      January 21, 2023
    • I think Mr. Cave might be missing the point of the existential danger. It isn’t that the program can feel or even think, it is that Chat gpt is the birth of a technolgy, that overtime, will be able to quantify all thought and all potential responses (intellectual and emotional) to all thought.

      If I am understanding the threat correctly Chat gpt technology doesn’t have to be human in order to eventually replicate and replace the sum total of all future human potential.

      Humanity made redundant.

      January 21, 2023
  2. As an aside, thank you so much for reintroducing me to the music of Nick Cave. I’d forgotten how brilliant his work was.

    If you are interested, I would highly recommend his double album, “Ghosteen”. A moving tribute to Mr. Cave’s deceased son Jethro. An atmospheric work of love, loss and grief. Not so much a redemptive story but one of acceptence.

    Mr. Cave’s music speaks of a place, however efemeral and shrouded, where he and his son can still communicate.

    The album will likely haunt you.

    January 24, 2023
  3. I have listened to Ghosteen. Your descriptions are apt—ephemeral, atmospheric shrouded, haunting. Yes, certainly. It is very moving.

    Having said that, I’ll confess that, try as I might, I just can’t get into Cave’s music. I’ve really tried. Listened to most of his albums. It just doesn’t grab me on a musical level. Probably an indictment of my lack of musical sophistication…

    For me, his writing and lyricism, and his spiritual depth of insight is what I admire. I love his Red Hand Files. His most recent one was phenomenal.

    January 24, 2023
    • I don’t think it is a lack of sophistication, your writing says otherwise. 🙂 Perhaps a lack of exposure.
      Like many of my generation born in the 50’s, we were fortunate to experience a breathtaking array of musical expression. Not only from the diverse catalogue of popular music; folk to pop to psychedellic to rock et al….reiterations of blues, jazz and classical music gave us new forms like british blues rock, fusion and prog and sent many of us running towards the original works and a rebirth of interest in musical forms no longer a part of the mainstream.

      A diversity of musical ideas and expressions not seen since the late 70’s.

      Video killed more than the radio star it would seem. 😉

      With regard to Mr. Cave’s work, I lean more towards the music then his writing but I do agree he is a thoughtful and thought provoking author.

      While I would agree with him that pessimism is toxic, even satanic, I’m less sure that optimism and joy are the antidote. Realism seems more appropriate to me. A realism that acknowledges God as love and a love that believes, hopes and endures.

      January 25, 2023
      • Can “a realism that acknowledges God as love and a love that believes, hopes and endures” ultimately fail to be joyful and optimistic, at least on some level?

        (Yes, video killed much more than the radio star, sadly.)

        January 25, 2023
      • Nested in a relationship with God, optimism and joy are desired and possible but ultimately a cross is to be carried and we are called to bear it’s weight even to the point of crying out “my God, my God, why hast thou foresaken me?”

        Optimism in salvation and heavenly joy confound me as they seem obscure and distant from my experiences but I know through faith, that they are true.

        Temporal understandings of joy and optimism are even more confounding to me. Too often my optimism and joy have been placed in and drawn from, experiences that took me even further away from God.

        January 25, 2023
      • There are certainly moments—perhaps many moments where joy seems remote, even unlikely. I have known some of these moments. But increasingly I am trying to see joy as something of a spiritual discipline, not least because I am convinced of how corrosive pessimism can be (in the world and in my own life). I resonate very much with these lines from the link above:

        For me, to strive toward joy has become a calling and a practise. It is carried out with the full understanding of the terms of this hallowed and harrowed world. I pursue it with an awareness that joy exists both in the worst of the world and within the best, and that joy, flighty, jumpy, startling thing that it is, often finds its true voice within its opposite.

        January 26, 2023
      • Joy as a spiritual discipline. Yes, that’s it. That’s the idea I’m struggling to relate. Thank you. ❤️

        A, “first seek the things that are of God” approach to all our desires and objectives.

        In spite of our disagreements and my periodic lack of charity, this space, your space has been crucial to my spiritual developement.

        If at my judgement my participation here speaks well of me, you will be the first one I give credit to. If it starts trending in the other direction, you’ll likely be the first one I fire under the bus.

        Just sayin’ 😉

        Your curmudgeonly friend,


        January 27, 2023
      • Sounds good to me, Paul 🙂

        I struggle with joy as a spiritual discipline, too, incidentally. Increasingly, I am seeing it as a necessary and honourable struggle.

        January 29, 2023
  4. Jimmy the Kid #

    Does it need to be an all or nothing?? For example, take a pastor who want to put together a sermon on marriage… could he/she use ChatGPT to get all references to marriage from the old testament with a summary, and then get references from the New Testament with a summary… what are the similarities/differences…then compare Paul’s verses (not married and seems to prefer the single life) to maybe Peter who was married. And then maybe CS Lewis musings on marriage pre marriage and post… so now you have all this data which might be quite fascinating… and you can add the human element, your marriage, your experiences and put together quite a sermon I would think….

    January 25, 2023
    • I’m probably just enough of an obnoxious purist to be suspicious of this sermon strategy. If it would run afoul of plagiarism rules in an academic context, the same should hold for sermon writing.

      Also, what Cave says about the struggle and humanity and feeling that goes into the creation of a good piece of art also applies to a sermon (at least it does for me). Personally, I wouldn’t feel good about doing this kind of “research.” I feel like the listener deserves more.

      January 26, 2023
    • “Does it need to be all or nothing”? Yes I believe it is so.

      The, “all” is predicated on a shared sense of humanity where our very best efforts strive to improve the lives of everyone, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. A shared understanding that however potent AI becomes at replicating and exceeding human intellect and every potential emotional response imaginable, it lacks and will always lack, the very thing that that makes humans, humane. Makes humans devine. AI does not have an immortal soul.

      On the other hand, the, “nothing” is every other human social construct apart from a life in Christ, we have ever lived or can imagine living. And the denial of the very existance of the soul.

      AI is where the existential, “rubber hits the road”. The very meaning and purpose of existence is at stake, nothing less.

      The beginning of the end is at hand.

      January 27, 2023

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