The Western heritage matters more than we think


By prof. Kobus Kok

It is an excessively hot September in Leuven in Belgium this year. In my black car the other day it measured 38 degrees. Belgium’s heat is a stuffy heat with high humidity when it’s hot.

The houses are armored against the cold, but not against the bloody heat. Usually around this time of year I wear the dark blue scotch wool scarf I bought one day at St Andrews University when the cold weather caught me there unexpectedly by the old golf course by the sea. But this year the people are sitting outside in shorts, and everyone is walking around with sunglasses.

A guy in blue shorts and a white cotton shirt walks from shadow to shadow, like one would hug for rain. His neck burned red. An old aunt with a battery-powered city bike gets off drenched in sweat and shuffles past the large gothic city hall of Leuven in order to stay in the shade as long as possible.

It’s Sunday, so that’s probably why she had her stockings on. But father knows, the stockings hang like wrinkles on her old legs so wet they are. She stopped at the end of the building and looked down the street about halfway around the corner of the building, and seemed to be waiting for the sun to pass. She doesn’t seem very keen on the uphill path past the town hall heading west right into the sun. She looks left and right but all the tables with the umbrellas on Sint Petersplein are already taken. She then sat down on the steps of the city hall.

She takes strawberries from her bicycle basket. And a bottle of water. Not like the young people sitting next to us with their cell phones. And so I sit and marvel at the people, and wonder if the aunt knows about ChatGPT. I wonder to myself what she must have seen in her lifetime. But also realize that it is thanks to her, and those who came before her, that we were able to maintain and build.

The old town hall under which we sit was built in the Gothic style and dates from the 1400s. Long before van Riebeeck dropped anchor at the picturesque Cape. That’s the beauty of Europe, they build on what was and improve it. As one of the South African schools’ mottos that I once saw as a child was: “Keep and build”.

But these days there are many in South Africa who say we are not looking for the Western heritage. We have to get rid of it. But what do you actually say when you say that? Jordan Peterson said one day that one must be very careful with these types of statements. He uses the example of a car. We very easily sit in the latest cars and think that’s just the way it is. We see the car as a whole. Until something breaks. And then one realizes the incredible complexity of the particular machine in which you drive and the intrinsic complexity of the components in it.

There is a huge amount of knowledge in it that has been systematically built up over centuries and builds on each other to be able to reach it. Mathematics, philosophy, and so on. One doesn’t always think of it that way, but philosophy has, among other things, made a huge contribution in what we have recently come to know as artificial intelligence (AI) language models.

The other day, a professor-friend of mine told me something I hadn’t thought of before. There are at least two significant philosophical approaches that have had a noticeable impact on the development of this technology. Analytical philosophy and continental philosophy each made a unique contribution to the development of language models such as ChatGPT.

Analytical philosophy: Clarity and precision

Analytic philosophy emphasizes clarity, precision, and logical reasoning in language use. This approach has contributed to the development of rigorous algorithms and methodologies for training language models, to ensure that they can generate coherent and logically correct answers.

One of the most important contributions of analytic philosophy is the use of formal logic in the development of language models. This approach has helped create mathematical and logical frameworks that can understand and generate language with greater accuracy.

The philosophy of language, as practiced by analytic philosophers, has influenced our understanding of language structure and meaning. This understanding has been used to improve the semantics and context processing of language models.

Continental philosophy: Hermeneutics and interpretation

Continental philosophy, especially hermeneutics, emphasizes the importance of interpretation and context in language comprehension. This perspective influenced the development of language models by emphasizing that context and the wider meaning of text should be looked at more than just surface patterns.

Continental philosophy also contributed to the realization of the social impact of language models. This has encouraged critical reflection on the biases and ethical implications of AI-generated content, leading to efforts to make models like ChatGPT communicate more responsibly.

One does not always think that philosophical ideas of existentialism and phenomenology have contributed to the study of human consciousness and subjective experience. What this philosophy helps us do is to create the design of more human-like and empathic artificial intelligence in the near future.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari (AI and the Future of Humanity (see here)) recently even went so far as to say that one can no longer speak of “artificial” intelligence. It becomes a form of non-human intelligence, something that leaves one bewildered and which is developing even faster.

One thing is certain. AI is going to change the world and the transition is now going to be as big as the difference between the Middle Ages and modern times.

We live in one of the most revolutionary times in history. And Western thought has everything to do with it. It is not at all wise to think that one can walk away from it. One has to build on it. Otherwise, you miss the greatest opportunities in one of the greatest revolutionary times of history. One can be proud of the Western heritage. Jordan Peterson, despite many things he sometimes says incorrectly, is correct when he observes that it is not at all wise to want to declare a culture war with Western civilization, or to want to undermine its considerable wealth. Maintain and Build. That should be the motto.

If you haven’t already, ask ChatGPT some questions. About anything. Even in Afrikaans! Ask it to write you a poem about Pretoria’s Jacarandas in September. The more precise your question, the different the answer. And each answer will be different for each person. It is truly remarkable.

  • Kobus Kok is head of department of New Testament Studies at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit Leuven in Belgium, and Professor Extraordinarius at the University of Pretoria.