Reflections on Emerson and AI

Author: Frank Hall

Through close readings of Emerson’s poems “Song of Nature” and “Brahma” and Emerson’s essays “Plato” and “Self-Reliance,” one comes to realize that, for Emerson, human consciousness is capable of Self-motivated thinking formed into unified verbal patterns.

Moreover, for Emerson, human consciousness may experience receptive inspiration from cosmic Mind or Over-Soul. Most importantly, human consciousness is essentially an Original Self in Self-motivated, purposeful evolution, or a Self-identity in the process of its own becoming. As Goethe concurs: “Neither time nor any power can shatter the evolving life-form of imprinted matter (Goethe, lines 7–8).

Emerson’s “Song of Nature” is a first-person narrative poem describing cosmic evolution from the perspective of cosmic Mind:

I wrote the past in characters

Of rock and fire the scroll,

The building of the coral sea,

The planting of the coal. (Collected Poems 186)

So the cosmic Mind writes the universe into existence. “Time and Thought were my surveyors,” the narrator goes on to say, as if a supreme Architect patterns evolution (187). Then we hear that there is an advance in the great scheme yet to come, the “man-child glorious,” the “summit of the whole” (187). Eventually, “The sunburnt world a man shall breed / Of all the zones and countless days” (188). Obviously, this narrative poem exemplifies Emerson’s unique thinking which has formed unified verbal patterns through lines, through four-line stanzas, and through the 21-stanza whole poem. Emerson’s thinking process through all 21 stanzas synthesizes poetic and scientific diction with the rhyme and meter. This cannot be done by AI, which is no unique thinker. It is no thinker at all.

Emerson’s poem “Brahma” clearly refers to the human entity reincarnating as it Self-becomes, returning to earth, turning its back on heaven to do so. Cosmic Mind drives this process. Obviously, AI cannot experience such a recurring life-and-death cycle of Self since it has no Self. As a whole poem, “Brahma” is directly based upon Hindu philosophy, specifically, a Vedanta vision of reality. AI has no subjective or objective vision of reality. It is without subjective or objective intellect.

Emerson’s profoundly philosophical essays on “Plato” and “Self-Reliance” focus on his unique thinking that unifies verbal patterns into sentence-centered prose. One celebrates Plato’s individual thinking which finds a middle ground between East and West.  The other celebrates the independent Self-seeker. AI cannot be a Plato originating the myth of the cave, cannot be an individual choosing to be attentive (or not) to roses blooming now, or to inner inspiration now. AI cannot beget an Emersonian essay.   

Plato thinks of four levels of knowing in his “divided line” analogy, alluded to by Emerson. This includes explaining the distinct difference between super-sensible cognition’s two levels and sensory-based opinion’s two levels, which AI cannot experience and cannot distinguish, since it merely compounds vast contents of representations through external programming by humans. AI does not originate thoughts or choose words; it has no self-aware creative consciousness by which to do so. It cannot consider four levels of reality and explore them.

For Emerson, there must be an essential distinction between the Self-directing being of man and, implicitly, any technologically advanced machine programmed for human problem solving and for human mathematical and verbal communication. In other words, AI only represents or mimics what humans creatively originate by their Self-identity. AI only replicates what has been externally entered into it, whether meditation, logic, image, syntax, diction, or word. I reiterate that AI merely operates by human-provided and human-manipulated content. It cannot retrieve personal memory, cannot consider past personal experiences, cannot choose an idea or an Ideal, as Emerson or you or I can do. It is not Self-aware, possessed of individualized Self-Identity, creating content that outpours through Emerson’s poems and essays. This is why no four-part philosophical sonnet has been or will be generated by AI, despite supportive speculation and contrived verification. A non-thinker cannot be a thinker.

Moving on to conclusion, let me consider an “AI sonnet.” Recently, I read an online article entitled “This AI Poet Mastered Rhythm, Rhyme, and Natural Language to Write Like Shakespeare.”Herein we learn that the AI program Deep-speare has generated a Shakespearean sonnet, although we are only provided the following quatrain (second or third?) from it:

Yet in a circle pallid as it flow,

by this bright sun, that with his light display,

roll’d from the sands, and half the buds of snow,

and calmly on him shall inflow away

The commentator in the article sings praises for the AI poem (actually, a fragment of the whole) that “certainly scans well.” He adds: “rhythm, rhyme scheme, … basic grammar of … individual lines all seem fine at first glance.” Yet he does admit: “Deep-speare’s creation is nonsensical when you read it closely.” Strikingly illogical: there are two subject/verb agreement errors!

And where is the incorporated thought that unifies? There is none. (I would like to assess, for unity and coherence, the other two quatrains, and the culminating couplet, but I haven’t found them anywhere on the internet. This requires additional research.) Does the given AI quatrain above show unified qualities like this quatrain below?

If this dull substance of my flesh were thought,

Injurious distance should not stop my way;

For then, despite of space, I would be brought

From limits far remote, where Thou dost stay. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 44)

Consider Emerson’s laudation of Shakespeare’s genius in the “Over-Soul” essay: “There is, in all great poets, a wisdom of humanity which is superior to any talents they exercise. … Humanity shines in Homer, in Chaucer, in Spenser, in Shakespeare, in Milton. They are content with truth. … The inspiration which uttered itself in Hamlet and Lear could utter things as good … forever” (Essays 396). Does this characterization of Shakespeare’s genius apply to AI’s surface mimicry of rhyme, meter, diction? Does AI originate “a wisdom of humanity”? Does humanity shine in it? Clearly, no and no and no.

In short, human consciousness in its full range of subjective and objective experience cannot be duplicated by the most data-satiated, speedily retrieving AI computer; no advanced AI can Self-direct and Self-reflect and Self-evolve. No advanced AI can choose to read and think through the biographies and philosophies of Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe, and choose to write (and lecture) about the collected content, combining it all into the book Representative Men. Only a unique human individuality such as Emerson could do that. This, the most seemingly thoughtful, mimicry-capable AI computer, devoid of biography, cannot do.

Why is this possibly obvious distinction between non-conscious AI and the conscious human being important? Cloudy identifications and forceful simplifications abound on social media and in scientific circles, which might be put into a formula: human biochemical brain = Self-aware human mind = AI computer functioning. This is not a rational triple identification. It misrepresents and misleads. Consider the contrasting truth of Emerson’s characterization of the full range of human consciousness:

I am owner of the sphere,

Of the seven stars and the solar year,

Of Caesar’s hand, and Plato’s brain,

Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain. (Collective Poems 243)

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Poems and Translations. Edited by Harold Bloom and Paul Kane. Library of America, 1994.

—. Essays and Lectures. Edited by Joel Porte. The Library of America, 1983.

—. Representative Men. In Emerson: The Complete Works, vol. 4. Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. William H. Wise, 1923.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Selected Poetry. Edited by David Luke. Penguin, 2005.

Lau, Hey Han et al. “The AI Poet,” IEEE Spectrum. 30 April 2020. Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by W. G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath. University of London Press, 1964.