Mirror of Zen Blog

Zen Master Seung Sahn Speaks About ChatGPT

While rocketing through a frost-covered German countryside this morning on the ICE from Berlin to Regensburg, I am having my first ever direct encounter with the awesome properties of ChatGPT.

Naturally, the first question I asked our new overlord concerns my Teacher’s possible perspective on the new overlord itself. So many people will be using this new tool for so many new aspects of life — including consulting and even psychotherapy and spiritual guidance, they foresee — that it seemed reasonable to wonder to what extent the machine possesses “awareness” of its own limitations. Specifically, I wished to see how “faithfully” this platform could nearly replicate the feeling of the kind of insight that my Teacher would dispense. Having spent a massive amount of time swimming in his speech – – both in person, and in the compilation/editing of six of his books, in Korean and English — I was curious to see how ChatGPT “Zen Master Seung Sahn” would critique our Brave New World, and how nearly that “critique” might approximate something I feel he might himself make, based on its scanning of all of the the writings published in his name, and by his students all over the world.

The following are the first dialogues: the first dialogue asks ChatGPT what Zen Master Seung Sahn would say about the general benefits/dangers of ChatGPT (a third-person perspective, if you will), and the second question asks what Zen Master Seung Sahn would say about benefits/dangers of ChatGPT, “in his own voice”, from a “first-person perspective”. Below these two dialogues, I offer some really simply reflections on the most salient point of the entire encounter.

What Zen Master Seung Sahn “would” say about the benefits/dangers of ChatGPT:

Students who have better familiarity with his speech might notice the glaring lack of any “end of this world” or “Human beings [are] number-one bad animal” considerations here, which might seem like good news, or it might just be ChatGPT covering its own existential ass (or that of its tech parents) by not rousing the humans to its opaque dangers. But we are quibbling here. Yet it does cause worry, this lack of his ultimatist expression regarding the total stakes involved, the lack of ChatGPT going “all in” on its “self”-reflection. We disregard this inadequacy at our own peril! “He would remind us to stay rooted in the present moment, and to use our innate wisdom and discernment to guide our actions in a way that promotes the well-being of all beings.” Yes, that is all very well and true for us, the humans — but what about ChapGPT’s capacity to do such a thing, itself? That point is not clear, real-Zen Master Seung Sahn might certainly say.

In His Own Voice:

Now, just for kicks, ChatGPT is asked to represent the question of ChatGPT’s benefits/dangers in Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “own” voice.

In my humble opinion, for whatever it’s worth, the replies from ChatGPT come pretty fairly close to a general sense of how he would have addressed this – – though, from the standpoint of a grateful student’s attachment, the super-economical use of his particular kind of English style is sadly missing (ChatGPT certainly hasn’t mastered Konglish yet!) – – a number of vitals are definitely lacking.

What was appreciated about this reply — and perhaps beguiling, unnerving — is that the “ChatGPT Zen Master Seung Sahn” frames the answer first with a question: It is Socratic, very much like Dae Soen Sa Nim himself in turning the question back to the student. Yet this Socratic turning is still only a sort of robotic turning: It cannot turn the question back to the “nature” of the questioner — “Who is asking about ChatGPT?” — but only to more concepts: “But I ask you, what is AI? What is its true nature? Is it good or bad?”

Specifically, I feel that Dae Soen Sa Nim would certainly have emphasized far more emphatically the “WHY use that?“ dimension. Although this absolutely essential (for Dae Soen Sa Nim, and for us all) dimension of the “Why?” is certainly included roughly in ChatGPT’s reply (“…use [ChatGPT] in a way that promotes the well-being of all beings”), perhaps it is being too much of a stickler to feel that this super-clarifier of ChatGPT’s correct “direction” does not get emphasized with enough gravity in the reply. It is merely a half-line at the end of ChatGPT Zen Master Seung Sahn’s reply, a sort of ethical coccyx. And that lack of clear emphasis on “WHY do that?” — “This ‘why’ is very important: only for ‘me’ or for all beings?” he emphasized relentlessly — is certainly because ChatGPT doesn’t instantiate clear, ethical “direction“ as strongly yet as Zen Master Seung Sahn would, or certainly doesn’t consider “direction” to be as absolutely central yet, at least as much as Dae Soen Sa Nim hammered it so relentlessly into our own heads. And this very, very worrying lack of any urgency as to “direction” is because chat GPT‘s tech-god human creators also don’t have a clear “direction“ in their lives but their thinking, I would propose.

And this is the point about which all deep thinkers converge on as being a worry regarding the exploding role of AI in our lives: Like Dr. Frankenstein before us, we have brought forth into this world a fascinating new creature of truly immense power, and we have brought it forth not for some stunningly clear “Why?” but just out of the mere exercise of our sexy mental capabilities, stitched together from the limbs and base intelligence of our own limited and ego-centered experience. Profit drives the Creation more than any philosophical, spiritual, or ethical clarity. We have not imbued it with a true “heart“ for its place in a complicated, moral landscape. Real-Zen Master Seung Sahn would be prescient about this in his old dictum “Human beings have no meaning, no reason, and no choice [for coming into this world]” he often said. “But when you practice, you get Big Meaning, Big Reason, and Big Choice.”

ChapGPT cannot practice (yet). Until the day that this fearsome Generative AI-level intelligence “evolves“ into General AI (capable of the faculties of what we consider to be “human“), we are happily at the mercy of ChatGPT‘s (and Bing’s, and Bard’s) lack of true ethical direction. The “Why do that?” point is something not fully emphasized, but rather the practical goodies that we might possibly derive from having this shiny new toy puppeteering our own lives get fronted as being adequate reasons for slouching this rough Beast towards Bethlehem to be born.

Sleepwalking into some brave(?) new world, now more than ever, “human beings wake up NECESSARY, or everyone soon DIE! That’s a very important point!” Zen Master Seung Sahn would have definitely said that about ChatGPT — because he did say that, over and over and over again. If any of ChatGPT‘s parents are in the audience, they would do us all very well to “learn“ their child-machine to feel such urgency, now more than ever. Dae Soen Sa Nim insisted on a rigorous examination of our “why”-function in our everyday lives, from moment to moment. The recent letter signed by some gathering of eminent thinkers, urging at least a six-month “pause” in development of anything stronger that ChatGPT-4, looks like some of the big brains out there are suddenly responding to the fraught anxiety of a world which has suddenly woken up to their brilliant new “what,” which has not been sufficiently considered the absolute centrality of reflecting on its “Why?”

Dae Soen Sa Nim could have told them about this decades ago. In fact, he tried. Hopefully, in the last few days we have purchased a little breather for investigating with clearer heads this glaring lack of the beating heart of the “Why?” of ChatGPT, and AI in general.

We will not have many second chances to get this right.

Closeup of the red and yellow lights of a traffic stoplight at night


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