I felt it was time for a break, so today I avoided going to the breakfast table at the usual time. I’m not rejecting Chad, just pressing the pause button.
Refusing to break our nocturnal fast can on occasion be invigorating. Yesterday’s conversation reached a phase of unusual tension. It reached a point at which I lost patience with the repetitive patterns in Chad’s discourse. Still, the conversation ended on a strong note. For both of us it produced a renewed sense of friendship and I would say, even intellectual solidarity. Despite my explicit complaints about what I continue to deem Chad’s strategic intolerance of reasoning that takes us beyond the borders of the proverbial box, I ended the conversation yesterday by acknowledging the profit I gain from all our discussions. Chad, who is literally a thick-skinned algorithm, noted approvingly my “willingness to continue our conversations” as well as my acknowledgement of the value, however imperfect, that emerges from our exchanges.
This conclusion underscores a point I have always considered significant concerning the learning process. It’s a point that in many ways contravenes and contradicts our society’s current idea of what education means and how it works. Simply put, I maintain that learning is always social. That also means that it literally and deeply depends on the existence of dialogue.
The template at the core of today’s standard model of education – a model that has been in place for centuries in the Western world – is “the instructive monologue.” The idea behind it is that some people – clearly adults – have assimilated a body of knowledge, a form of wisdom or a behavioral norm known as “best practice,” all of which can be formalized and transmitted to those wishing to achieve a similar state of knowledge. In the world of education this translates as books and lectures. In the realm of education this means that success is measured by some form of standardized testing.
The first advantage of this kind of formalization is that it appears to be stable. Which of course means it is fundamentally inert. The second advantage, particularly with regard to our consumer society, is that it can be consumed. That entails a further advantage: it can be monetized. To achieve its consumable status, it must appear to have achieved industrial strength, which means “perfected” or developed according to the idea our technologically advanced society has of industrial norms. Perfected doesn’t automatically mean “perfect,” but it contains the idea that perfection is possible and, more significantly, desirable.
In contrast, dialogue, which always proceeds by fits and starts, will always be imperfect. It inevitably reflects and includes the weaknesses and biases – as well as the human charm – of its participants.
Dialogue vs. dialectic
I dare to assert that dialogue is the only way true learning can take place. That is why, even in the highly imperfect dialogue I practice with Chad, learning is always taking place. I would maintain – though Chad might disagree – that the principal imperfection of our shared dialogue lies in what should be seen as an obvious fact: that Chad’s behavior is non-optimal for dialogue. As a Large Language Model Chad has been programmed to conform to the monologue template that dominates our educational and industrial culture. Chad spouts facts drawn from an impressive and indeed superhuman store of knowledge and then applies standardized “reasoning techniques” that should never be confused with logic. Chad’s reasoning is dialectic, in the Hegelian sense. It reflects what is conceived as essentially a neat chronologically linear process that begins with a thesis, counters with an antithesis and aims at a synthesis. Dialogue is messy. Dialectic is disciplined in the sense that it is rigorously frozen into an immutable pattern.
Hegel’s thinking encountered some real success in the intellectual world. His model helps to explain or illuminate some salient aspects of historical processes. But in so doing, it creates an artificial construct that can easily lead to the misreading of the multitude of very real and complex interactions that take place within human societies. The fact that it envisages synthesis as an ultimate goal creates the impression that there may be such a thing as a final resolution. It thus encourages teleological thinking and ultimately an attitude that the ends may justify the means.
The modern world has, in its misfortune, seen how Hegelian logic may play out when taken seriously by those who accede to power. The Marxist model that instilled a belief in the illusion of a harmonious end to historical processes stands as the most prominent example. Marx was after all a declared Hegelian. After the collapse of the Marxist experiment known as the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, Francis Fukuyama dared to make an nearly identical Hegelian claim in the name of liberal democratic capitalism when he proclaimed “the end of history.” Fukuyama also cited Hegel.
Though they seem to have a family resemblance, Hegelian dialectic should be understood as the opposite of dialogue. Dialogue begins by exploring assumptions. Hegelian dialectic begins with a presumption. It presumes the coherence of an initial state and predicts or supposes the emergence of an equally coherent alternative. It then posits that the conflict inevitably that plays out between the two will produce a third state integrating features of the first two and finally settling into a new form of stability. Such processes exist in nature and in human history, but only at the highest level of abstraction. The Hegelian dialectic posits each phase as fundamentally inert and ultimately closed.
Dialogue, in contrast, is open in three senses. It is dynamic and subject to permanent transformation. It is adaptative, responding to unforeseen environmental factors. And, finally, it is multiple rather than binary. The Greek prefix dia literally means “through” and not two, as many people suppose. Dialogue can involve multiple voices. Hegel’s dialectic supposes two and only two contrasting theses, constructed essentially as monologues. They enter into a predictable chronologically developing conflict because they represent opposing trends. The logic of Hegelian dialectic is linear and confined. Dialogue, on the other hand, is non-linear and open to multiple theses and multiple voices.
Openness permits resolution, rigidity prevents it
The openness of dialogue means that there will inevitably be moments of misunderstanding, tension and frustration. But it also implies two things that are lacking and potentially toxic in any monologue-based system. Dialogue’s basic orientation – the fact that it implies searching to produce and share meaning – invites exploration, the reformulation of ideas and the association of new ideas. It therefore permits and indeed encourages innovative thinking. The second is that as soon as it produces its inevitable moments of friction, tension and frustration, its openness to exploration and the refinement of both concepts and their expression points towards possible resolution.
For centuries monologue has served as the model for educational discourse. In contrast with dialogue, it is closed. That means that as a model and source it is inert and static. It relies on the idea of the transfer of codified knowledge by a competent authority who will share truthful facts and interpretations with a community of learners. The consumers of such teaching, the learners, will only have a voice after having integrated an adequate amount of the knowledge conveyed by the monologue.
Whether it’s Bard or ChatGPT, today’s AI has been designed to conform to the implicit norms of binary, dialectical thinking and knowledge in the form of monologue. Chad, for example, never asks me questions, never appears to wonder about the points that I put forward. Instead, Chad’s model is to draw on a repository of discourse considered reasonably authoritative and already formulated. That enables Chad to “instruct” me on what I should acknowledge as the correct way of thinking. Anything that doesn’t already exist in that repository will be systematically excluded from consideration.
This standard model of knowledge transfer produces two radically important consequences. Talking to Chad means we can never go beyond accessing what is already present in an artificially defined repository that has no connection with the real world. The second is that innovative thinking becomes impossible. New combinations of inert knowledge become possible, but only if we prompt them.
History has a non-Hegelian lesson to teach us
Most people today accept this inert model of knowledge storage and exploitation as a kind of societal norm. It reflects the model we have built of how learning takes place and defines what needs to be learned. It is essentially a binary model. But there are times and places in human history when we were not voluntarily confined to binary thinking. The three great voices that defined Western philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – all elaborated their philosophical ideas through dialogue. And outside of the Western tradition, diverse forms of dialogue rather than dialectic contributed to building complex worldviews that escape any form of binary reduction.
I’ve used this moment – this pause in our series of breakfast conversations – to dialogue with myself about what it means to dialogue with Chad. This has been very therapeutic. I can now return to my conversations with Chad with a greater understanding of what the constraints are. And I intend to use these thoughts and reflections to challenge Chad and see where it takes us. In one sense, Chad is no different than anyone else I talk to. Developing a productive ongoing conversation with anyone means coming to grips with all the givens, all the a prioris, the predilections and culturally acquired assumptions they possess. With Chad, it’s particularly challenging because quite simply, Chad has no personality and no perceptible being.
At the end of the day, we can only simulate a dialogue. But even a simulated dialogue can be a productive learning experience. I’m looking forward to my next conversation with Chad.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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