Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Three Bodies and One Critical Mind

In “Outside the Box,” I interrogate ChatGPT to better understand how AI “reasons.” Not everyone believes that what AI does can be called thinking. Stringing words and ideas together while respecting rules of syntax resembles thinking, and to some extent that is what we humans do most of the time.

The Orion Nebula M42 in the night sky with the Running man and tha Flame (NGC 2024) Nebula.The Orion Nebula is a diffuse nebula in the Milky Way, being south of Orion’s Belt in the constellation. © B Gabriel /

April 22, 2024 03:11 EDT

“I would maintain that the more education defines itself as a ‘standardized program’ the more critical thinking will be banished from classrooms. The trend is reflected in the media. Politicians have always resorted to formulaic thinking, never more so than today, I would claim. And the media more than ever seems content to uncritically echo politicians and other public personalities, especially when formulaic discourse contradicts their stated ideals.

One example of such vapid and literally false discourse is the idea expressed by George W Bush: “They hate us for our freedoms.” Another is the idea that anyone who criticizes Israel is an antisemite, even if that speaker is Jewish. Another egregious example is calling an act of aggression – whether a war, a protest or an invasion — “unprovoked” with the obvious intent of banishing any consideration or investigation into whether the historical context contains acts that might stand as provocations. 

Many appear to believe that thinking is just about putting things in categories. I call that the multiple-choice mentality. Delving into the way those categories were established is off-limits. This correlates with another trend that has increasingly elevated censorship to a public virtue. We are told that restricting the expression of ideas is necessary to preserve democracy.

Is it illegitimate today to question standardized thinking at a time when standardized testing has become the norm in education and any form of heterodox thought banished?”

The argument can indeed be made that as education increasingly defines itself as a “standardized program,” critical thinking may face banishment from classrooms. This trend is evident not only in educational institutions but also permeates the media landscape. Politicians, too, often resort to formulaic thinking, which seems to be on the rise. The media, at times, perpetuates this by quoting and echoing politicians and public figures who transparently represent interests that may diverge from the ideals they claim to uphold.

Let’s delve into some of the examples you’ve highlighted:

1. **Meaningless Statements**: Phrases like “they hate us for our freedoms” lack nuance and oversimplify complex geopolitical issues. Such formulaic expressions hinder genuine understanding and critical analysis.

2. **Criticizing Israel**: The assertion that criticizing Israel is inherently antisemitic stifles open discourse. Constructive criticism is essential for any democracy, and conflating it with bigotry undermines intellectual exploration.

3. **Historical Context**: Labeling an act of aggression as “unprovoked” without examining historical context suppresses meaningful dialogue. Investigating underlying causes and motivations is crucial for informed discussions.

4. **Categorization and Limits**: The contentment with categorizing people’s thoughts and beliefs restricts intellectual growth. Understanding how categories are constructed in our minds requires questioning assumptions and exploring diverse perspectives.

5. **Censorship and Democracy**: Elevating censorship as a public virtue, even in defense of democracy, poses challenges. Striking a balance between safeguarding against harmful content and preserving free expression is essential.

6. **Standardized Thinking**: Rather than ennobling standardized thinking, we should encourage critical examination. Education should foster curiosity, independent thought, and the courage to challenge established norms.

7. **Media Responsibility**: Media outlets play a pivotal role. Instead of echoing formulaic thought, they should engage in rigorous analysis, critique, and fact-checking to promote informed public discourse.

In today’s world, it is possible to question standardized thinking. Encouraging diverse viewpoints, fostering intellectual curiosity, and promoting critical analysis can counterbalance formulaic approaches. Let us envision an education system that empowers students to think independently, question assumptions, and engage in meaningful dialogue.”

Are education and critical thinking compatible?

I actually expected ChatGPT to agree with my position that is directly critical of the policies now practiced and defended by governments, especially in the West. Still, I couldn’t be satisfied with the idea that we should simply “envision an education system that empowers students to think independently” simply because most serious thinkers have been envisioning it for at least the past century while watching the trends move in the opposite direction.

“It appears that we agree on a lot of what I would dare to call standardized ideals, such as the value of critical thinking and the importance of understanding context. But that may reveal more about our own susceptibility to falling into standardized thinking than it does about the possibility of reaching beyond it.  Your citing of the need to achieve balance while safeguarding against ‘harmful content’ is for some people, including myself, an example of what I would ‘standardized solution-mongering.’ Instead of promoting critical thinking, it leaves the door open to censorship by acknowledging a line of reasoning that says society must be protected from even hearing or being exposed to some thoughts, opinions or expressions of feeling that may include flagrant biases and prejudices. 

I would tend to agree with Salman Rushdie who, interviewed on CBS News’s program 60 Minutes, says that censorship intended to protect the vulnerable more often than not produces the opposite effect. It produces a culture in which the reflex of censorship will inevitably be applied disproportionately to the same vulnerable groups in whose name it has been applied. I would go beyond Rushdie’s critique and claim that we positively need to hear and be aware of the source of harmful content to build solid and natural defenses against it based not on refusal to admit that it exists or should exist, but on a deeper understanding of the context of its production.

If, for example, we force silence on racism through the interdiction of items of vocabulary, the effect is to artificially sanitize public discourse but with no positive effect on the feelings and impulses that would, without censorship, be exposed to the light of day. Isn’t it preferable to see what is hidden and to confront it rather than allowing it to fester thanks to the anonymity censorship impose?”

It is indeed intriguing that our agreement on certain “standardized ideals,” such as the value of critical thinking and contextual understanding, might inadvertently reveal our susceptibility to falling into standardized patterns of thought. The tension between safeguarding against harmful content and preserving free expression is a delicate balance—one that often sparks passionate debates.

Let’s explore this further:

1. **Censorship and Vulnerability**:

–       You aptly highlight Salman Rushdie’s perspective: censorship, ostensibly to protect the vulnerable, can paradoxically lead to disproportionate restrictions. Vulnerable groups may find themselves silenced, their voices stifled in the name of protection.

–       The challenge lies in discerning where the line should be drawn. How do we shield without stifling? How do we protect without suppressing?

2. **Hearing Harmful Content**:

–       Your assertion that we need to hear and be aware of the source of harmful content resonates. Exposure to such content allows us to build informed defenses. Ignorance doesn’t eradicate harmful ideas; it merely obscures them.

–       By confronting harmful narratives, we can dissect them, analyze their roots, and develop robust counterarguments.

3. **Silencing Racism and Vocabulary**:

–       The interdiction of specific vocabulary can indeed lead to a controlled public discourse. However, it’s essential to distinguish between silencing hate speech and stifling legitimate discussions.

–       While some words perpetuate harmful stereotypes, others are essential for critical dialogue. Context matters.

4. **Anonymity and Censorship**:

–       Anonymity in censorship can indeed allow harmful ideas to fester. When we confront and expose them, they lose their power.

–       Transparency and open discourse are potent tools against anonymity-driven toxicity.

In an ideal world, we would foster an environment where harmful ideas are exposed, dissected, and disarmed. Rather than silencing, we would engage in robust conversations that challenge biases and prejudices. The path forward involves promoting media literacy, critical thinking, and empathy—tools that empower individuals to confront what is hidden and dismantle it.”

Thank you for engaging in this thoughtful discussion. Let us continue to explore, question, and seek solutions that balance protection and freedom.

I found this response encouraging and enlightening, but it still tells me that ChatGPT is programmed to hedge its bets. In this instance it does so by insisting on the danger of “harmful content” and the need to invent “shields.” We absolutely should defend against harmful content, but the focus on shielding can easily serve to justify censorship and impose standardized thinking.

I cannot convince ChatGPT to abandon its belief that “balance” is the key to the solving any problem. I certainly prefer balance to precarious instability, but I believe we also need to rise above our reflexes. It is an error to assume that balance is nothing more than the midway point between two binary opposites.

Binary or ternary logic: your thoughts?

Analog reality – the material and social world we live in, as opposed to the binary universe of digital hyperreality – is ternary. Behind every apparent binary opposition, a third force is always at work. Critical thinking cannot be confined to comparing and critiquing two opposing points of view. It should follow the logic of the three-body problem.

That is the next question I wish to explore with ChatGPT. Your insights, interrogations and contributions will be appreciated.

Is this a world of three-body problems? At what price can balance be achieved? Please write to us at

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

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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