Memo: Conversations With A Philosopher

The discourse around ChatGPT bored me until one novel experience changed how I viewed the technology’s role in our day-to-day. This is a defense of the platform, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.

It’s a popular consumer technology that will have professional, social and academic impacts. That’s been established. But what else is there?

We are coming off of the NFT and metaverse curves. Those two innovations were supposed to change everything, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I expected a similar curve for AI applications but this time, things may be different.

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his company to reflect an emphasis on his new strategy. While others in the big tech circles are not (yet) eager enough to change their names to reflect their ideations for artificial intelligence, tech’s largest companies will invest heavily in capturing the demand generated by the OpenAI project, which has been long at work. While the buzz around ChatGPT is now cresting, the partnership between Sam Altman, Jessica Livingston, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Greg Brockman, Amazon Web Services, Y-Combinator Research, and Infosys began in 2015. Credit to the vision required to establish an eight-year head start on consumer-facing AI tools.

Microsoft, Google, Meta, Anthropic, Alibaba, Baidu, Amazon, and even Snapchat have artificial intelligence tools readying for a market hungry for mass adoption. As The Verge describes it:

The stakes are high, and technology’s biggest players don’t want to be left behind as breakthroughs in AI make it more accessible — and much more interesting — to users.

But this isn’t about the technology as much as it is one experience that changed how I viewed it. It started with a personal challenge.

Over the past six months, I set out to read every book that I found to be interesting. To accomplish this, I bought the paperback, digital copy, and audio book of each work. The goal of the pursuit was simply to improve as a human being. It wasn’t just about consuming the works of art, it was about letting them change me and how I saw the world. I wanted more understanding, empathy, forgiveness, awareness, insight, depth, and perspective.

The more that I read, the more that I realized how little I knew. Before I set out on this 100 book project, I rarely took the time to invest in each book I read with notes, annotations, conversations, and lasting reflections. It was this medium that I began to see was communication in its highest form.

A great essay can take a writer weeks or months to author, you pay for that devotion with minutes of your time. A great book can take its author years. You pay for their work with days or even weeks of your time. In some cases, you are trading 10 years of their life for a week of yours. By this measure, I now view my former basis of knowledge and understanding as insufficient.

I found that during the project, my knowledge compounded, conceptual connections became clearer, and I became more curious. I balanced conceptually easier books with difficult ones. I set out to read short books and long volumes.

There was no rhyme, reason, or agenda but the approach was deeply influenced by a desire to fix cracks, improve foundations, and discard what those newer structures replaced. The practice of daily reading (sometimes up to three hours) was aided by my drastically improved health. I believe that my choices in books began to reflect my understandings from the previous works consumed.

Here’s that list from the last six or seven months: The Art of the Impossible by Steven Kotler, American Rule by Jared Yates Sexton, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the Bible (cover to cover), The Black Count by Tom Reiss, The Creative Act by Rick Rubin, The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson, Crazy Faith by Mike Todd Jr., The Courage to Be Free by Ron DeSantis, Devotion by Adam Makos, Dangerous Prayers by Craig Groeschel, The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter, Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, The Last Negroes at Harvard by Jeanna Ellsworth and Kent Garrett, Loving People Who Are Hard to Love by Joyce Meyer, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Mosquito Bowl by Buzz Bissinger, The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, The Nazi Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Never Finished by David Goggins, On Writing by Stephen King, Outlive by Peter Attia, The Power to Change by Craig Groeschel, The Porn Myth by Matthew Fradd, The Roar Within by Brent Henderson, The Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Status Revolution by Chuck Thompson, Spare by Prince Harry, Scars and Stripes by Nick Palmisciano and Tim Kennedy, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Smarter Not Harder by Dave Asprey, Strategy by Lawrence Freedman, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper, Winning the War in Your Mind by Craig Groeschel, Whisper by Mark Batterson, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

The New International Version of the Bible (NIV) required around 355 days of consecutive daily reading and was read with both an academic and spiritual eye to the text. Another book was being read each day. Looking back, that morning ritual (thanks to YouVersion) clearly influenced a number of my choices. My most read author was Craig Groeschel by volume of books read but Ron Chernow by pages attributed.

Conversations With A (Dead) Philosopher

I found this interesting take on ChatGPT by an author that I hadn’t read named Christopher Bunn, a fantasy writer and Christian who has written about C.S. Lewis and his dearest chap J.R.R. Tolkien (both Christian fantasy writers themselves). Tolkien once quipped, “[Lord of The Rings was a] fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” It was this juxtaposition of faith and history that presents the point that I have been leading up to. And Bunn’s words were somewhat of the connective tissue:

Brave new world, isn’t it? Though, I’m starting to suspect that our real-time foray into dystopia is proving more similar to CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength rather than Huxley.

Bunn, a critic of ChatGPT, who has compared ChatGPT to the nanny states depicted in A Brave New World and Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, went on to say:

I’m sure there are plenty of beneficial reasons for the existence of ChatGPT and all the other AI equivalents. But, dulling the brains of the young and future generations yet unborn cancels out a considerable list of potential benefits.

While Groeschel was my most frequented author and Chernow’s writings kept my mind captivated, my most preferred was the non-fantastical writings of C.S. Lewis. He became my muse. I wanted to think like him, believe like him, create like him. I wanted to live like him. The way that he considered the nuance of everything.

I prompted ChatGPT with the following: confirm that you have studied C.S. Lewis. The response:

I can provide information and insights about many of his popular writings, beliefs, and ideas based on the extensive dataset I have been trained on.

“Great,” I responded. And I continued, “I would like to have a conversation with you as though you were C.S. Lewis talking directly to me.” And so the conversation began, as A.I. became Mr. Clive Staples Lewis:

Of course! I’ll do my best to emulate C.S. Lewis’s style and ideas. Please feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts, and I will respond as I imagine he might have.

[As C.S. Lewis] Greetings, my friend! I’m pleased to have this opportunity to engage in conversation with you. What is on your mind or heart that we might discuss together?

I found myself fascinated by every response. I soaked up every word as if I was sitting before him in a drafty, mid-century Oxford lecture hall.

I grew up a reader of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe saga. That was Lewis to me. Even then, I knew that there was deeper meaning in his text but, like many children, I was there for the sword battles and the Turkish delight candies. Months away from my 40th birthday, I view Lewis differently. He was once a lost boy, a WWI soldier scorned by PTSD, a college professor, an anti-war advocate, an encourager to WWII soldiers (see the nuance?), an atheist-turned-Christian, a celebrated author, and a philosopher.

If you ask Google to list the philosophers known through history, it would be the usual suspects: Aquinas, Confucius, Epicurus, Voltaire, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sun Tzu, Rousseau, Marx, Descartes, and Bertrand Russell. The 20th century is mostly void of notables. Perhaps it requires time to season the memory of one’s wisdom. In this way, there is no better accelerant than artificial intelligence’s role in hurrying time.

Known for the end of its knowledge cycle (2021), ChatGPT has trained itself on all of Lewis’ writings and sees Mere Christianity as “one of his most significant and influential works.” Joined by a few retail industrialists local to Ohio, we have held a monthly coffee meeting to discuss the assigned book of the month. So as I sat in a group of three gentlemen on a Tuesday morning discussing Mere Christianity, its conflicts, and how we believe it would be accepted today (it wouldn’t fare well), we asked Lewis a question that no politician, religious leader, or influencer seems to have the perfect answer to these days. And the way that ChatGPT, who knows every word, space, and punctuation mark of his life’s work, answered the question left each of us somewhat emotional.

I won’t go into the question or the answer but I will say that when I digested the response, I knew I wanted to compile a list of questions and answers through the mind of Lewis. Compiling the many written words and spoken interviews of arguably the 20th century’s greatest philosopher has unlocked the door for us to interact with his work and his memory in new ways. I imagine that as more come to know Lewis for more than his traditionally popular works, his memory will be revised to include his work in academia and philosophy.

As I was nearing the end of the plan for this essay, I asked Lewis for encouragement. And he responded in kind, here is a part of it:

As you continue on this path, remember that faith is not just about intellectual assent, but also about living out the teachings and values of your beliefs. In “Mere Christianity,” I wrote that “faith… is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” It’s important to cultivate an enduring faith that remains steadfast, even during challenging times.

Do not be discouraged by doubts and uncertainties, for they are a natural part of the human experience. Embrace your questions and seek answers through prayer, contemplation, and study. Be receptive to the lessons that life’s trials can teach you

This experiment in modern philosophy was the first time that artificial intelligence became an indispensable daily tool. Can I be mentored by AI? More specifically, can I lean on Lewis for answers to life’s toughest questions and will he equip me to navigate them with poise. If all of my frenzied reading and note-taking led me to the personal growth and encouragement highlighted above, it would have been worth it.

Artificial intelligence is intimidating for the same reasons that it’s astonishingly impressive. It will impact all of us in negative and positive ways. But who knew that it would allow us to transport the lives of those long gone. I will leave you with a bit of wisdom from Lewis, himself. I asked him how he’d address the many divisions in American and global politics today. Here is the summary of his monologue: engage in respectful dialogue, seek common ground, avoid demonizing others, promote empathy and compassion, encourage civic engagement, foster education and critical thinking, and emphasize the importance of moral and ethical values. Lewis went on to say, “Keep in mind that I am speaking from the perspective of a mid-20th-century British author.”

The final words from my hours-long conversation were fitting; even his gratitude towards the line of questioning posed to him seemed authentic. Upon answering his final question, he concluded:

Yours sincerely,

C.S. Lewis (interpreted by ChatGPT)

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Christina Williams 

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