ChatGPT and the Abolition of Man
Brian Thomson | May 1, 2023
It was on January 2023 when a fellow Writing Tutor, Dylan Braun, suggested we start a research project on ChatGPT. The conversation lured me into a seemingly endless series of rabbit holes about ChatGPT, such as its implications for writing centres, education, and our society’s future. This future is near, but I firmly believe—if the reader may forgive my melodramatic expression—the light of the humanities will shine brightest in the dark. As we increasingly depend more on AI technologies for our education, we risk withering our intellectual powers and writing abilities. The solution is to emphasize the knowledge of humankind and the art of writing, and for this reason, I believe the humanities will gradually become more valued in universities. In particular, writing centres may offer sanctuaries for the human mind’s potential to grow.
Our increasing dependence on AI will be fraught with risks. In our “technological culture,” as ethicist Oliver O’Donovan (1984) writes, human-made tools are products of human will, since artifacts are designed to accomplish human purposes (2–3). Consequently, technologies influence our thought processes in turn, making us conform to what the inventor intended. Renowned cultural critic Neil Postman (1998) clarifies, “Every technology has a prejudice [emphasis mine]… a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds” (3). Cherie Harder (2023) notes one such example: social media encourages “speed, snark, and superficiality” in its users, rather than the “connection, care, and curiosity” needed for genuine intellectual exchange (para. 14). In the past, technologies like the calculator sacrificed our mathematical abilities for speed, as the internet traded our long-term attention for short-term gratification. However, never has a technology artificially replaced our intelligence before. By sacrificing to the god of efficiency, will we become nothing better than the fleshy appendage of computers, gadgets, and software?
If society heeded C.S. Lewis’ (1947) Abolition of Man, this dystopian future may be avoided by doubling-down on an education that values the humanities. A proper education, Lewis (1947) argues, trains the desires of the human will (i.e. the heart) by reason. The harmonization between the affective and rational aspects of human nature is best exercised in studies which cherish humankind, morality, and aesthetics, such as philosophy, literature, and history. The humanities do not primarily educate one for supposedly practical, real-world results, as demanded by our culture’s technological mindset; rather, the humanities educate one in a way of being. To dismiss the humanities as a useless pursuit is to manufacture for ourselves hearts of chromium, instead of begetting hearts of human flesh. As our wills conform to the will of AI applications by our technology providers, our minds will gradually lose their intelligence, leaving us quite susceptible to our immoderate desires. The intellectual talents one exercises in the humanities will thus be more relevant than ever. The problem of how to align AI systems to human values is a case in point, as demonstrated by the latest kerfuffle between Elon Musk’s and Rumman Chowdhury’s mutual accusations of political bias in Twitter algorithms.
What do the aftereffects of ChatGPT and the humanities have to do with the writing centre? Quite a lot, actually. As a Writing Tutor, I strongly believe the one-on-one interaction between the tutor and tutee is ideal to practice human ways of learning. This experience is not the same as uploading fragmented pieces of information into a student’s memory files for easy quick-fixes. Original, creative, and critical thinking can only flourish by engaging with other human beings through reading, writing, listening, speaking, arguing, and affirming. Librarian William Badke (2023) from Trinity Western University says academic learning takes place in the research process, not the final product. True knowledge exists in the real, messy world where humans roam, rather than the abstract models of learning constructed by the technological mindset.
Badke, William. (2023, April). AI challenges to information literacy. Information Today. https://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/apr23/Badke–AI-Challenges-to-Information-Literacy.shtml
Harder, Cherie. (2023, April 28). Cultivating Intellectual Hospitality. The Raised Hand. https://theraisedhand.substack.com/p/cultivating-intellectual-hospitality
Lewis, C.S. (1947). The abolition of man. The Macmillan Company.
O’Donovan, Oliver. (1984). Begotten or made? Clarendon Press.
Postman, Neil. (1998, March 28). Five things we need to know about technological change [PDF]. University of California-Davis. https://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/materials/postman.pdf