Can medical tests ever be absolutely certain?

In a recent high court case in Ireland, a Judge in the High Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision that in delivering an ‘all-clear’ result from a cervical smear test, the lab should only do so in cases where they have absolute certainty. The language used has raised significant concerns, as such a threshold is seen as too high to reach. As cancer specialist Prof Donal Brennan told RTE, there’s very little that is absolute in medicine; one presumes he was thinking of death as the sole exception to the rule. The reaction briefly opened up a dialogue on science and knowledge, truth and epistemology, revealing a fundamental flaw in the human condition, and just as quickly it closed again.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over The Rhone: such a lovely picture! But is that all? Sadly, perhaps, yes.

There are two aspects of the Tate Britain show ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ that to my mind are remarkable: first, the extent to which the artist himself is sensitive, but shallow; and second, that the connection with Britain is somewhat forced. Van Gogh is a painter of landscapes, flowers, and people, who introduced innovations in brush strokes and impasto, with occasionally fauvish colours that were radical in their time. Stylistically, van Gogh is instantly recognisable, with his wavy lines and deliberate forms; but where is the depth?

There are practical, ethical and theological challenges for religion posed by technology and AI. But what if the technology is actually becoming theological in itself?

AI poses several challenges for the religions of the world, from theological interpretations of intelligence, to ‘natural’ order, and moral authority. Southern Baptists released a set of principles last week, after an extended period of research, which appear generally sensible – AI is a gift, it reflects our own morality, must be designed carefully, and so forth. Privacy is important; work is too (we shouldn’t become idlers); and (predictably) robot sex is verboten. Surprisingly perhaps, lethal force in war is ok, so long as it is subject to review, and human agents are responsible for what the machines do: who those agents specifically are is a more thorny issue that’s side-stepped.

Velazquez’ Las Meninas: Could an AI do it better?

Tomorrow I’m going to visit Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid, and I hope to learn something about how we are designing AI machines. How can a painting from 1656 and a technology from the twenty-first century have anything in common? Well, in a sense, both address the problem of subjective and objective reality, perspectives on the world and on memory. Diego Velazquez would have been an outstanding AI ethicist!

Deleuze - Heidegger
Gilles Deleuze and Martin Heidegger. One thinks art a great act of resistance, the other an act of destruction. They can’t both be right. Right?

The recent BBC revisiting of the history of art – Civilisations – is fascinating for its juxtaposition against the 1969 predecessor by Kenneth Clark. The new version tries to be genuinely global, post-imperial, and generally woke, so to speak. However, it doesn’t quite get to the philosophy of the creative act, the artistic imperative. The series grapples with consequences and politics, with religion and hierarchy, but not really with any philosophy of art, or questions of meaning. The interpretations of Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuzes, while diametrically opposed in some ways, are illuminating on the subject.

Border wall
“In Bloom” – Zabou – 4x6m – Shtula, Israel – 2018; and Artists for Israel.

Ursula LeGuin’s outstanding novel The Dispossessed begins with the simple line ‘There was a wall.’ It is a setup to a binary exploration of us and other, rich and poor, anarchist and industrialist, on two different planets, Urras and Anarres. Walls are physical structures just as they are dividing lines; LeGuin’s wall was of ‘uncut rocks roughly mortared.’ Others are literal blocking mechanisms, such as the walls of prisons, to keep people in, and the walls of old towns, to keep people out. Still others are borders, political objects designed to designate territory and zones of control. These are man-made impositions on the earth, statements in technology announcing our collective will.