For several decades now, I have known that the experience of understanding—of achieving insight, as highlighted by Lonergan—makes a big difference between creative and mechanical types of thinking. One kind of thinking is alert and attentive to fresh data, and the other simply processes concepts and stereotypes. Humans are capable of both.

But when faced with the pervading features of artificial intelligence, I have assumed that a similar divide applies. Robots and other AI devices will never “experience” an insight—right? Since they are programmed by algorithms (i.e. series of steps designed to solve problems), however impressive their performance, they do not really challenge the human mind, despite bold claims to the contrary.

Am I oversimplifying?

I want to follow Frederick Crowe’s advice:

Instead of puzzling over the refusal of contemporaries to attend to insight, perhaps we should examine more closely what it is to which we ourselves attend and as advocates of insight are urging others to attend. [1]

In other words, I should pay attention to the newest features of artificial intelligence—and that should actually prompt new discoveries about human insight.

Here are some recent developments:

  • AlphaGo, an AI player, recently defeated a world-class human opponent in the board game Go.
  • AI devices are said to make decisions and create. (I quote here from several websites.) Computers design commodities like race car chassis; they “manage” commodity trading, enterprise risk, compliance, procurement, supply chain, operations, logistics, bulk handling, processing, and decision support; a new AI program (Jape) generates jokes; EMI (experiments in musical intelligence) is a program that composes in the styles of Mozart, Stravinsky, Joplin, and others; the BACON suite is an attempt to provide a scientific explanation of data based on a set of variables.
  • AI machines are said to provide “augmented solutions” to issues like tracking the course, speed, and destination of nearly 2,000 airliners at a time, or managing the myriad of tasks of a whole public service.
  • And they are learning, too. These machines are capable of gathering knowledge by crunching vast quantities of data (deep learning).

Closer to our daily living, we experience the benefits of “intelligent” phones, watches, cars, houses, and cities.

However, despite its sensational contributions, artificial intelligence still can’t compare to what human intelligence is at its core.

Revisiting Lonergan’s account, I note that human intelligence thinks outside of the box because it is driven by a deeply subjective factor: questioning, searching for a configuration in data to quench the desire to understand.

An inquiring human mind does not operate according to a series of functions; rather, it’s driven by a desire to experience insight. This is simplest to see in creative acts. What is the difference between Joseph Haydn’s musical compositions and works composed by the EMI program in the manner of Haydn? Haydn stunned Austrian, Hungarian, and British audiences in leading a new era in music after the Baroque period. The EMI program can certainly create novel works based on Haydn, which in some sense extends Haydn’s creative production long after his time. But what we recognize as creativity is in the human—like the work of Haydn’s pupil, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose questioning and desire to understand revolutionized music and opened the Romantic era.

A human being is always a developing subject. He or she is becoming. His or her becoming is conscious and self-determined. And human knowing involves many activities, from sense experience to judgments. These are based not on computational inferences but on the dynamic drive of desire, which finds expression in ongoing questions on personal experience, greeted with perplexity or wonder.

Even if they “sense” the same data as humans, AI devices are not driven by perplexity or wonder, but by set parameters and variables.

A human mind is guided by its own search; “the form of the desired is in the desire,” as William Mathews puts it. [2] A human mind may question everything, and through that unrestricted questioning, “intends” the whole of reality.


[1] ‘How to Get an Insight, and How Not to’, in Lonergan and the Level of Our Time, University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 132.

[2] William Mathews, Lonergan’s Quest. A Study of Desire in the Authoring of Insight, University of Toronto Press, 2005, p. 515, n. 13.