Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Yeats Understood Why Old Men Go Mad

In “Outside the Box,” I toss impertinent questions at ChatGPT to better understand how AI “reasons.” I treat the conversation as if I were sharing ideas with an intelligent friend, and challenging some of his explanations. Last week I discovered that despite its attempt at controlled objectivity, ChatGPT has its own cultural bias.

ChatGPT Chat with AI, Artificial Intelligence. man using technology smart robot AI, artificial intelligence by enter command prompt for generates something, Futuristic technology transformation. © SomYuZu /

January 15, 2024 05:34 EDT

In last week’s discussion around the question of whether the Navajo nation’s objections to desecrating the moon in the name of the commercial “space business,” ChatGTP’s attitude could be summed up as, “hey, people need to make money to pay for things,” as if nothing more needs to be said.

The problem lay in ChatGPT’s understanding of my line of questioning. It assumed that by describing the conflict in values between the goal of understanding our relationship with the universe and getting things done economically, I was seeking a verdict on who should be considered right or wrong between the Navajos and Astrobotic Technology. It failed to understand the point of my question, which I then went on to reformulate in the hope of clarifying the terms of the debate.

“Has our culture accepted that economic interest now trumps everything else? Shouldn’t we be wondering about how all of humanity used to understand its relationship with the cosmos and consider how and why that has changed? It was only a century ago that William Butler Yeats evoked in his poem, “The Second Coming,” Spiritus Mundi, which he defined as ”a universal memory and a muse of sorts that provides inspiration to the poet or writer.”

Has Yeats’s world disappeared? Is there no universal memory?”

You raise a thought-provoking question about the role of economic interest in our culture and its impact on our relationship with the cosmos. The incident you mentioned is an example of how economic interests can clash with cultural, ethical, and spiritual values, and how the balance between them is not always clear or agreed upon.

The question of whether economic interest now trumps everything else is a complex and contested one, and depends on how we define and measure economic interest, as well as how we value and prioritize other interests and values. Some scholars argue that the rise of neoliberalism and globalization has led to a dominance of economic rationality and market values over other forms of rationality and values, and has eroded social cohesion, cultural diversity, and environmental sustainability. Others argue that economic growth and innovation are necessary for human progress and well-being, and that they can be reconciled with other values and interests through responsible and inclusive governance and regulation.

Different cultures and traditions have different views and values regarding the cosmos and its significance, and have developed diverse and rich cosmologies, mythologies, and spiritual practices to express and explore them. The rise of modern science and technology raises new questions and challenges regarding the ethical, social, and environmental implications of our relationship with the cosmos, and the need for a more holistic and integrated approach to space exploration and exploitation.”

The reference to William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” and his concept of Spiritus Mundi is a poignant reminder of the power of art and imagination to inspire and connect us across time and space, and to evoke a sense of universal memory and meaning. While Yeats’s world may have disappeared in some ways, his vision and legacy continue to resonate and inspire us to reflect on our relationship with the cosmos and with each other, and to seek new ways of imagining and creating a more just, sustainable, and beautiful world.

Can AI respond to poetry? 

This was a predictable wishy-washy ChatGPT answer, acknowledging the complexity of the issues I was raising. ChatGPT excels at finding the lowest common denominator in any serious debate, which of course takes us nowhere toward advancing our understanding. I had to react, however, to this facile treatment of the place of WB Yeats in modern culture.

“Your comment on Yeats seems to me a little skewed. I savor Yeats’s poetry and admire many things about the man. But I doubt that he would have appreciated the idea of seeking “new ways of imagining and creating a more just, sustainable and beautiful world.” He was particularly skeptical of the idea of seeking “new ways” to improve the world. His late poem “Why should not old men be mad?” concluded with these lines:

“Young men know nothing of this sort,

Observant old men know it well;

And when they know what old books tell

And that no better can be had,

Know why an old man should be mad.”

You speak of ‘Yeat’s world’ as if it was some kind of harmonious whole of which he was the leading thinker. He always felt himself to be an outlier. Culturally speaking, despite your sunny optimism, the mental, cultural and spiritual world of Yeats – a world within his head that he transmitted through his poetry – appears alien to and excluded from the liberal techno-world you seem to embrace.”

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You are right that Yeats was skeptical of the idea of seeking “new ways” to improve the world, and that his poetry often reflected a sense of disillusionment and despair about the state of the world and the human condition. His late poem ‘Why should not old men be mad?’ is a powerful expression of this theme, and suggests that the wisdom of age and experience can lead to a recognition of the futility and tragedy of human existence.

However, I would argue that Yeats’s poetry and thought also contain elements of hope, renewal, and transformation, and that he was not simply a nihilistic or reactionary figure. His vision of the “gyres” or cycles of history, for example, suggests that the world is constantly changing and evolving, and that new forms of consciousness and creativity can emerge from the ashes of the old. His interest in mysticism, mythology, and the occult also reflects a desire to transcend the limitations of rationality and materialism, and to explore the deeper dimensions of human experience and identity.

I did not mean to suggest that Yeats’s world was a harmonious whole or that he was the leading thinker of his time. On the contrary, Yeats was often at odds with the dominant cultural and political forces of his time, and his poetry and thought were shaped by his struggles and contradictions as much as by his insights and inspirations. However, I do believe that Yeats’s work has enduring relevance and resonance for our own time, and that it can help us to reflect on the complex and evolving nature of our relationship with the cosmos and with each other, and to seek new ways of imagining and creating a more just, sustainable, and beautiful world.

AI shares the human fault of categorical pigeonholing

“It’s interesting that you took my remarks to mean that I characterized Yeats as ‘a nihilistic or reactionary figure.’ I would never have made such a claim. Is this because in your database you have identified two camps who either complain about or celebrate Yeats’s personality and that I, like everyone else, must belong to one of those camps?”

ChatGPT dutifully apologized about giving the wrong impression and then offered this denial:

To answer your question, I do not have a database that categorizes people into camps or labels them according to their views on Yeats or any other topic.”

I’m not sure whether our AI friend is denying having a database, which is untrue, or affirming that the database does not divide people into camps.

“My suggestion,” I explained, “has nothing to do with how your database works. Instead, it is that your large language model appears to contain an algorithmic logic that ‘unconsciously’ duplicates current cultural trends, especially those of a culture that tends to polarize every issue, attributing categories of thought to particular expressions of an idea. So, when I say Yeats would have reacted against the idea of “new ways,” you appear to assume that I am characterizing him as a reactionary, which some commentators say he tended to be, especially concerning politics and culture. Yeats interests me because he constantly strives to go beyond the polarizations of his time, struggling with them and acknowledging their irreconcilable nature. You seem to agree, but your conclusion – the absolute contrary to that of ‘The Second Coming’ – reflects a rosy view of a world that will ultimately resolve every contradiction.”

ChatGPT’s response to this observation reveals a lot more about how AI is designed to function. I’ll save that exchange for next week. Suffice it to say for the moment that the AI voice chose not to talk about its algorithms and their relationship with the ambient culture. More on that next Monday.

*[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.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member