Ersatz Intelligence

Nick Williams
13 min readApr 4, 2024
Image by @tonyfutura & Jägermeister, taken from

There is something downright misleading about the term ‘artificial intelligence’ — the term is misleading because whilst what we’re talking about here might be artificial, it has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. No one is really trying to argue that it does at this stage, the point being more that one day AI will be properly intelligent (or that one day the technology will become self-aware), the suggestion being that we are well on the road to achieving this miracle, so we are allowed to skip ahead and market the tech under this label even though the key property — the property of actual, bone fide self-awareness — hasn’t been achieved quite yet…

What’s misleading is the name therefore — artificial intelligence isn’t about intelligence, but mimicry, and whilst AI can skilfully mimic intelligence perhaps, there is no actual point in doing this. There’s no point in doing in mimicking intelligence (or awareness) because all that’s only a cheat, a clever copy which has no original content. AI has the appearance of intelligence (or the appearance of awareness) but not the substance; if we wanted to be more honest about it we would say that we’re developing a technology that is so good at mimicking intelligence / awareness that we can’t tell the difference. This is of course a neat trick in itself but the bottom line remains that no matter how good the technology is at pretending to be self-aware, ‘pretending’ never actually turns into the thing that we are pretending to be. That would be like saying that if we get skilful enough at lying then one day our lies will become true! The reverse is the case — the better we get at lying (which is to say, ‘simulating reality’) the further away from the truth we travel…

There is a radical difference between what we might call ‘the outside’ and ‘the inside’, the appearance and what — if anything — lies behind that appearance. An appearance cannot be used to infer knowledge as regards content (despite the fact that we very often do just this) and the awareness of this principle constitutes — we might say — the difference between someone who is streetwise, and someone who is utterly naïve, someone who is totally gullible. The reason we’re saying this is because, collectively speaking — we really don’t seem to grasp this point at all. A copy will do fine as far as we’re concerned (as long as it’s realistic enough). In our distinctly non-philosophical culture ‘the outside’ is all we care about — if it looks the part then it is the part. Artificial intelligence is a perfect example of this; as we’ve just said, its great strength is in copying (or mimicking) not in ‘creating’, not in ‘coming up with new stuff’. If we say that ‘the ability to come up with something new or original’ is the content, then there is no content when we’re talking about AI. As long as it fools us into thinking that there is actual content there then that’s good enough for us…

It might sound a bit odd to talk of ‘copying’ in this context but that is exactly what’s going on — what AI does is to copy stuff this that is already there, do something with the data (i.e., manipulate it) and then trot it out again as something new, as something original. There’s no limit to how good we can get at reproducing stuff, and if we get good enough at it the result is very impressive — it really does look as if something new has been created. For example, when an AI generates a painting — which it can do it in the style of any artist we want, just so long as it has access to a sizable body of their work — there is nothing in the least bit creative going on here. It’s all just ‘technical manipulation’ and so whilst we can get all excited about the technological breakthrough that allows us to do this, there’s nothing really exciting going on. What’s so exciting about mimicry, after all? How is this a ‘break-thorough’ if all we’re doing is copying stuff, if all we’re doing is reproducing what is already there?

The point we’re making is that when the technology of copying gets good enough then it doesn’t look like copying any more. This might be seen as a version of Clarke’s Third Law of Science Fiction — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When dealing with sufficiently advanced tech, we can — in other words — infer the presence of agency. A highly sophisticated machine doesn’t have to look like a machine, therefore — it could look like anything we want. It could look like your best buddy. If we pay to have an AI buddy then we are free to imagine that our new friend is actually real, we are free to infer that there is somebody there behind the screen; we’re free to infer this but it isn’t true. ‘Copying’ and ‘creating’ are two radically different things and we don’t tend to appreciate just how profound this difference is. The former is a purely technical matter, as we’ve just said, which means that the all steps necessary for creating it can explained in an exhaustive fashion (which is a way of saying that there’s no mystery here). When we can explain every step that needs to be taken to produce a phenomenon then we can say that the phenomenon in question is trivial, it’s trivial because — as we’ve just said — there’s no mystery there at all. It’s like a card trick which only impresses us when we don’t understand how it was done.

When it’s creativity that we’re talking about then the problem of understanding what’s going on is not trivial — there’s no mechanism, no series of steps, no algorithm that can be identified. It’s not as if we’re going to be able to work it out in some point in the future either — this just isn’t a soluble type of problem. It’s an insoluble problem. What creativity comes down to — in mathematical terms — is generating randomness and the thing about ‘generating randomness’ is that there’s just no way to do it. There is no mechanism, no device or algorithm by which a random number can be generated, and we can be quite sure of this since the definition of a random number is ‘a number that can’t be produced on purpose,’ a number that can’t be produced via some sort of logical procedure’. Instead of talking about random numbers we equally well speak of accidental numbers and state that ‘it is not possible to produce accidental numbers on purpose’. Who could possibly argue with this?

Randomness is a core property of the universe and it is a way of referring to things that happen freely, without any sort of constraint or bias operating. When processes occur as a result of the operation of bias then the result is again — by definition — non-random; where there is no bias acting then whatever happens is going to be perfectly random, perfectly accidental. Our usually way of understanding this is to see ‘accidental stuff’ as being useless rather than valuable, we see randomness as being nothing more than error or noise. It is something to be avoided if at all possible. This is the result of us seeing everything upside-down however (in the same way that rationality sees everything upside-down). The rational mind is an instrument that has to invert everything in order to function at all; this is because thought is based on bias — without some bias or other to kick off from there could be no thinking, no logic, no rationalisation… We pick an angle or a position and then say that this position or angle was not ‘arbitrarily selected out of the infinite number of possible possibilities’ (which means tacitly denying that other viewpoints, other positions exist) and this unwarranted assumption is what gives rise to what we’re calling ‘the inversion’.

If we weren’t implicitly denying the existence of any other ways of looking at the world and could plainly see that our viewpoint was perfectly random just (as everything else — at root — is) then that would constitute — we might say — ‘an awareness of the relativity of all possible statements’. In this case we wouldn’t see the logical working out of our chosen bias as being ‘non-random’ (as being ‘orderly’); we wouldn’t see anything that goes against our biassed viewpoint as being noise or error. We would no longer be seeing the world in an inverted way. We only see everything in an inverted way when we say that our viewpoint isn’t random, that it hasn’t been arbitrarily selected (which immediately turns the world on its head). This is what we almost always do — we say that our chosen bias isn’t a bias but ‘the right and proper way to see things’, and this is what allows us to write off the part of the world that doesn’t agree with our stance as being erroneous, anomalous, or heretical, etc.

Our everyday way of seeing things — which for most of us is the only way we have — is therefore based upon a lie — a necessary lie perhaps, but a lie, nonetheless. The lie (or misrepresentation) has to do with our basic orientation in life — when we see the world in terms of our chosen bias (which we have misrepresented by saying that it’s the only valid way to see things and that all other ways are ‘wrong’) then what we’re doing is that we’re overvaluing the purposeful (or the intentional) and demonizing freedom (or randomness) — ‘freedom’ has been labelled as the enemy, as something to be eliminated if at all possible. This is inevitably going to be the case given the fact that we are operating on the basis of ‘a bias that is invisible to us’; when we use a bias in order to understand the world (which we can only do when it never occurs to us to question it) then we are actually constructing a world on this basis.

‘Bias confirmation’ thus becomes the ‘be all and end all’, it becomes ‘the beginning and the end’. It becomes ‘the creator of worlds’. What comes out of a biassed viewpoint is nothing but that same bias, however; what comes out of the lack of freedom is ‘this very same lack of freedom indefinitely extended in every direction’. Out of bias comes nothing but ‘more of that same bias’ — nothing else is allowed, after all! Out of a rule comes nothing but that very same rule — what we’re looking at here is pure copying, pure replication (or duplication). What comes out of a rule is linear change — linear change being ‘directed change’ or ‘change that obeys the rule’ (which is to say, it is ‘change that doesn’t go anywhere’). Randomness comes out of freedom not rules, as we have been saying; randomness is an expression of freedom, whilst stuff that we do ‘on purpose’, stuff that comes out of ‘intention’, stuff that has been caused, comes out of the ‘lack of freedom’, out of ‘necessity’! What else is purposefulness (or ‘order’) if not this?

What we’re looking at here is order (or necessity) on the one hand, and chance on the other, therefore. Because our outlook is a purely rational one we can’t keep help seeing order (or necessity) as the basic principle behind the Cosmos. We see it as being the case that nothing happens unless it is made to happen, in other words, and this includes the creation of the universe itself. Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall off the wall by accident, he was pushed; similarly, we say that the universe didn’t ‘pop into existence’ as a result of some random vacuum fluctuation, we say it was caused, we say it was ‘made’. We say that it is part of a ‘logical continuum’, which answers nothing. Either we could say that God caused the universe to exist (as Christians believe), or we could say that mechanical laws caused it to come into being. It’s the very same paradigm either way — the ‘Paradigm of Necessity’, the ‘Paradigm of Causality’, the ‘Paradigm of No Freedom’… The idea here is that the universe came into being ‘because of rules’, and that it continues to exist (in the particular way that it does) because the rules say it can, because ‘rules are being followed’. The idea that the laws which physicists have discovered not only determine everything that happens (but also determine that the universe has to come into existence in the first place) would have been readily accepted by the scientific community one hundred and fifty years ago, but our understanding of the physical world has become a lot more subtle over that time. ‘Laws’ are our way of describing what’s going on, not the thing that is responsible for it being the way that it is.

Coming back to AI and the vexed question as to what it can do and can’t do (or what it is and what it isn’t, we can summarise what we’ve been saying as follows. Our predominant interest in life is the outside of things rather than the inside (by ‘the outside’ we simply mean our way of approaching things, our way of describing or representing them). The outside of things is our angle on it, in other words, whilst the inside is the content, is what lies beyond the reach of our representations. We don’t have any interest in the inside, if we are to be perfectly blunt about it; in the West we don’t care about ‘content’ at all — we don’t care about content because it’s not useful to us, because we can’t exploit it. Artificial intelligence is all about the outside of things and nothing at all to do with the inside, which is composed — we might say — of pure spontaneity, pure randomness. The inside’ is something that we just can’t simulate, therefore. We can’t quantify it, and therefore we can’t duplicate it — we can’t make it into ‘our thing’. This is the bottom line, and it really is a bottom line — there is absolutely no way to make spontaneity or randomness happen. We might hear this, and understand it on one level, but still harbour this tacit, deep-down conviction that if only we were subtle enough, clever enough, sophisticated enough, etc., then we will be able — somehow — to ‘crack it’ and simulate spontaneity, even though this is a complete contradiction in terms.

Freedom, spontaneity, creativity are different ways of talking about the same thing. When we have a situation where there is freedom — which is to say — where there is no precedence and therefore no rules to obey no system to conform to the spontaneous activity happens because there’s nothing to stop it happening. It’s the lack of manipulation, the lack of interference has allowed spontaneity, not some kind of fancy thing that we ‘do’. It doesn’t matter how fancy we get — we can’t ‘do’ spontaneity, we can’t ‘pull it off’. We have to be careful about the way we phrase this since it’s not that we ‘allow’ the spontaneity (which would be granting ourselves too much importance by far!); there is no causal link between ‘us not interfering’ and ‘random stuff happening’ — we’re not in the least bit responsible for that. That would be like saying we are responsible for vacuum fluctuations — we are irrelevant as far as vacuum fluctuations are concerned. It is very hard for us to take on board just how irrelevant our thoughts are to reality. The spontaneity of the universe has nothing to do with us — it’s nothing to do with us (and our ideas) at all. The ‘world as it is in itself’ — the ‘unobserved world’, as we also might say — is always completely ‘other’ (which is to say that there is an abyss between ‘thought’ and ‘reality’ which can never be bridged. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna says,

All philosophies are mental fabrication. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.

This doesn’t tend to make sense to us — it doesn’t make sense to us because ‘the abyss’ (obviously enough) isn’t part of our regular everyday experience This isn’t because it doesn’t exist, but because we only ever concern ourselves with stuff on this side of the abyss, stuff that fits in with our ideas and theories. We only ever concern ourselves with ‘the Known’, which is why the world comes across to us as being familiar rather than strange. The abyss is — we might say — the discontinuity that exists between thought and reality, between the menu and the meal. When we put it like this then it’s clear why it would be helpful for us to be aware of this discontinuity — when we’re not aware of it then this mean that reality has turned into a cheap illusion show, a meaningless exercise in ‘bias-confirmation’.

This means that we can spin things any way we want — we can exploit the lack of awareness regarding the discontinuity between symbol and reality by ‘always choosing the interpretation that suits us’ and this is of course exactly the situation that we find ourselves in in everyday life. Because we have no connection with ‘what is real’ we’re free to believe whatever we want to believe — believing in bullshit has become our superpower. Thought has no end of interpretations (or excuses) up its capacious shirtsleeves and it very rarely gets to the point where it has nothing to say. We can select any version of reality we like and claim that it’s ‘not us’, that it’s ‘not our construct’, that it ‘isn’t our projection’, but it is and we absolutely did do it. In the virtual reality world which is the only world we’re able to relate to everything is a projection, whilst ‘the Other’ (which is the real world) has been eliminated completely.

It is this lack of differentiation between ‘the pointing finger’ and ‘the moon which is being pointed at’ that lies at the heart of our confusion about artificial intelligence. What we are basically assuming (without ever consciously realizing it) is that if we get good enough at describing reality then — at some point — the description will become the thing itself. The copy (or simulation) will become the thing itself. This is our plan — to advance through mimicking stuff. Or to put this another way, the unconscious ‘wish-fulfilling’ belief that we are all suffering from predisposes us to assume that if we get good enough at controlling, good enough at building things, then there’s nothing we won’t be able to do, and that is why we say that one day we will be able to create consciousness, that we will be able to create self-aware machines. Our assumption is, therefore, that if we get good enough at interfering (good enough at controlling stuff) then we’ll be able to play God. There’s no need for anyone to ‘play God’, however — even God doesn’t have to play God — the universe ‘does itself’ and no ‘Big Boss’, no ‘Ruler’, no ‘Controller’, no ‘Bestower of Order’, is needed. All there is is spontaneity, after all, and spontaneity isn’t caused.