Jumping Off The Technological Hype-Cycle and the AI Coup

Robotic Railroad 1950s

What we know is that the very biggest tech companies have been pouring money into artificial intelligence in the last year. Back in January Google bought the UK artificial intelligence firm Deep Mind for 400 million dollars. Only a month earlier, Google had bought the innovative robotics firm Boston Dynamics. FaceBook is in the game as well having also in December 2013 created a massive lab devoted to artificial intelligence. And this new obsession with AI isn’t only something latte pumped-up Americans are into. The Chinese internet giant Baidu, with its own AI lab, recently snagged the artificial intelligence researcher Andrew Ng whose work for Google included the breakthrough of creating a program that could teach itself to recognize pictures of cats on the Internet, and the word “breakthrough” is not intended to be the punch line of a joke.

Obviously these firms see something that make these big bets and the competition for talent seem worthwhile with the most obvious thing they see being advances in an approach to AI known as Deep Learning, which moves programming away from a logical set of instructions and towards the kind bulking and pruning found in biological forms of intelligence. Will these investments prove worth it? We should know in just a few years, yet we simply don’t right now.

No matter how it turns out we need to beware of becoming caught in the technological hype-cycle. A tech investor, or tech company for that matter, needs to be able to ride the hype-cycle like a surfer rides a wave- when it goes up, she goes up, and when it comes down she comes down, with the key being to position oneself in just the right place, neither too far ahead or too far behind. The rest of us, however, and especially those charged with explaining science and technology to the general public, namely, science journalists, have a very different job- to parse the rhetoric and figure out what is really going on.

A good example of what science journalism should look like is a recent conversation over at Bloggingheads between Freddie deBoer and Alexis Madrigal. As Madrigal points out we need to be cognizant of what the recent spate of AI wonders we’ve seen actually are. Take the much over-hyped Google self-driving car. It seems much less impressive to know the areas where these cars are functional are only those areas that have been mapped before hand in painstaking detail. The car guides itself not through “reality” but a virtual world whose parameters can be upset by something out of order that the car is then pre-programmed to respond to in a limited set of ways. The car thus only functions in the context of a mindbogglingly precise map of the area in which it is driving. As if you were unable to make your way through a room unless you knew exactly where every piece of furniture was located. In other words Google’s self-driving car is undriveable in almost all situations that could be handled by a sixteen year old who just learned how to drive. “Intelligence” in a self-driving car is a question of gathering massive amounts of data up front. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Google self-driving car is more like tiny trolley car where information is the “track” than an automobile driven by a human being and able to go anywhere, without the need of any foreknowledge of the terrain, so long, that is, as there is a road to drive upon.

As Madrigal and deBoer also point out in another example, the excellent service of Google Translate isn’t really using machine intelligence to decode language at all. It’s merely aggregating the efforts of thousands of human translators to arrive at approximate results. Again, there is no real intelligence here, just an efficient way to sort through an incredibly huge amount of data.

Yet, what if this tactic of approaching intelligence by “throwing more data at it”  ultimately proves a dead end? There may come a point where such a strategy shows increasingly limited returns. The fact of the matter is that we know of only one fully sentient creature- ourselves- and the more data strategy is nothing like how our own brains work. If we really want to achieve machine intelligence, and it’s an open question whether this is a worthwhile goal, then we should be exploring at least some alternative paths to that end such as those long espoused by Douglas Hofstadter the author of the amazing Godel, Escher, Bach,  and The Mind’s I among others.

Predictions about the future of capacities of artificially intelligent agents are all predicated on the continued exponential rise in computer processing power. Yet, these predictions are based on what are some less than solid assumptions with the first being that we are nowhere near hard limits to the continuation of Moore’s Law. What this assumption ignores is increased rumblings that Moore’s Law might be in hospice and destined for the morgue.

But even if no such hard limits are encountered in terms of Moore’s Law, we still have the unproven assumption that greater processing power almost all by itself leads to intelligence, or even is guaranteed to bring incredible changes to society at large. The problem here is that sheer processing power doesn’t tell you all that much. Processing power hasn’t brought us machines that are intelligent so much as machines that are fast, nor are the increases in processing power themselves all that relevant to what the majority of us can actually do.  As we are often reminded all of us carry in our pockets or have sitting on our desktops computational capacity that exceeds all of NASA in the 1960’s, yet clearly this doesn’t mean that any of us are by this power capable of sending men to the moon.

AI may be in a technological hype-cycle, again we won’t really know for a few years, but the dangers of any hype-cycle for an immature technology is that it gets crushed as the wave comes down. In a hype-cycle initial progress in some field is followed by a private sector investment surge and then a transformation of the grant writing and academic publication landscape as universities and researchers desperate for dwindling research funding try to match their research focus to match a new and sexy field. Eventually progress comes to the attention of the general press and gives rise to fawning books and maybe even a dystopian Hollywood movie or two. Once the public is on to it, the game is almost up, for research runs into headwinds and progress fails to meet the expectations of a now profit-fix addicted market and funders. In the crash many worthwhile research projects end up in the dustbin and funding flows to the new sexy idea.

AI itself went through a similar hype-cycle in the 1980’s, back when Hofstander was writing his Godel, Escher, Bach  but we have had a spate of more recent candidates. Remember in the 1990’s when seemingly every disease and every human behavior was being linked to a specific gene promising targeted therapies? Well, as almost always, we found out that reality is more complicated than the current fashion. The danger here was that such a premature evaluation of our knowledge led to all kinds of crazy fantasies and nightmares. The fantasy that we could tailor design human beings through selecting specific genes led to what amount to some pretty egregious practices, namely, the sale of selection services for unborn children based on spurious science- a sophisticated form of quackery. It also led to childlike nightmares, such as found in the movie Gattaca or Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future where we were frightened with the prospect of a dystopian future where human beings were to be designed like products, a nightmare that was supposed to be just over the horizon.  

We now have the field of epigenetics to show us what we should have known- that both genes and environment count and we have to therefore address both, and that the world is too complex for us to ever assume complete sovereignty over it. In many ways it is the complexity of nature itself that is our salvation protecting us from both our fantasies and our fears.

Some other examples? How about MOOCS which we supposed to be as revolutionary as the invention of universal education or the university? Being involved in distance education for non-university attending adults I had always known that the most successful model for online learning was where it was “blended” some face-to-face, some online. That “soft” study skills were as important to student success as academic ability. The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY loosing its foothold.  Andrew Ng, the AI researcher scooped up by Baidu I mentioned earlier being just one of a number of high level MOOC refugees having helped found Coursera.

The so-called Internet of Things is probably another example of getting caught on the hype-cycle. The IoT is this idea that people are going to be clamoring to connect all of their things: their homes, refrigerators, cars, and even their own bodies to the Internet in order to be able to constantly monitor those things. The holes in all this are that not only are we already drowning in a deluge of data, or that it’s pretty easy to see how the automation of consumption is only of benefit to those providing the service if we’re either buying more stuff or the automators are capturing a “finder’s fee”, it’s above all, that anything connected to the Internet is by that fact hackable and who in the world wants their homes or their very bodies hacked? This isn’t a paranoid fantasy of the future, as a recent skeptical piece on the IoT in The Economist pointed out:

Last year, for instance, the United States Fair Trade Commission filed a complaint against TrendNet, a Californian marketer of home-security cameras that can be controlled over the internet, for failing to implement reasonable security measures. The company pitched its product under the trade-name “SecureView”, with the promise of helping to protect owners’ property from crime. Yet, hackers had no difficulty breaching TrendNet’s security, bypassing the login credentials of some 700 private users registered on the company’s website, and accessing their live video feeds. Some of the compromised feeds found their way onto the internet, displaying private areas of users’ homes and allowing unauthorised surveillance of infants sleeping, children playing, and adults going about their personal lives. That the exposure increased the chances of the victims being the targets of thieves, stalkers or paedophiles only fuelled public outrage.

Personalized medicine might be considered a cousin of the IoT, and while it makes perfect sense to me for persons with certain medical conditions or even just interest in their own health to monitor themselves or be monitored and connected to health care professionals, such systems will most likely be closed networks to avoid the risk of some maleficent nerd turning off your pacemaker.

Still, personalized medicine itself, might be yet another example of the magnetic power of hype. It is one thing to tailor a patient’s treatment based on how others with similar genomic profiles reacted to some pharmaceutical and the like. What would be most dangerous in terms of health care costs both to individuals and society would be something like the “personalized” care for persons with chronic illnesses profiled in the New York Times this April, where, for instance, the:

… captive audience of Type 1 diabetics has spawned lines of high-priced gadgets and disposable accouterments, borrowing business models from technology companies like Apple: Each pump and monitor requires the separate purchase of an array of items that are often brand and model specific.

A steady stream of new models and updates often offer dubious improvement: colored pumps; talking, bilingual meters; sensors reporting minute-by-minute sugar readouts. Ms. Hayley’s new pump will cost $7,350 (she will pay $2,500 under the terms of her insurance). But she will also need to pay her part for supplies, including $100 monitor probes that must be replaced every week, disposable tubing that she must change every three days and 10 or so test strips every day.

The technological hype-cycle gets its rhetoric from the one technological transformation that actually deserves the characterization of a revolution. I am talking, of course, about the industrial revolution which certainly transformed human life almost beyond recognition from what came before. Every new technology seemingly ends up making its claim to be “revolutionary” as in absolutely transformative. Just in my lifetime we have had the IT , or digital revolution, the Genomics Revolution, the Mobile Revolution, The Big Data Revolution to name only a few.  Yet, the fact of the matter is not merely have no single one of these revolutions proven as transformative as the industrial revolution, arguably, all of them combined haven’t matched the industrial revolution either.

This is the far too often misunderstood thesis of economists like Robert Gordon. Gordon’s argument, at least as far as I understand it, is not that current technological advancements aren’t a big deal, just that the sheer qualitative gains seen in the industrial revolution are incredibly difficult to sustain let alone surpass.

The enormity of the change from a world where it takes, as it took Magellan propelled by the winds, years, rather than days to circle the globe is hard to get our heads around, the gap between using a horse and using a car for daily travel incredible. The average lifespan since the 1800’s has doubled. One in five of the children born once died in childhood. There were no effective anesthetics before 1846.  Millions would die from an outbreak of the flu or other infectious disease. Hunger and famine were common human experiences however developed one’s society was up until the 20th century, and indoor toilets were not common until then either. Vaccinations did not emerge until the late 19th century.

Bill Gates has characterized views such as those of Gordon as “stupid”. Yet, he himself is a Gordonite as evidenced by this quote:

But asked whether giving the planet an internet connection is more important than finding a vaccination for malaria, the co-founder of Microsoft and world’s second-richest man does not hide his irritation: “As a priority? It’s a joke.”

Then, slipping back into the sarcasm that often breaks through when he is at his most engaged, he adds: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”

And this is all really what I think Gordon is saying, that the “revolutions” of the past 50 years pale in comparison to the effects on human living of the period between 1850 and 1950 and this is the case even if we accept the fact that the pace of technological change is accelerating. It is as if we are running faster and faster at the same time the hill in front of us gets steeper and steeper so that truly qualitative change of the human condition has become more difficult even as our technological capabilities have vastly increased.

For almost two decades we’ve thought that the combined effects of three technologies in particular- robotics, genetics, and nanotech were destined to bring qualitative change on the order of the industrial revolution. It’s been fourteen years since Bill Joy warned us that these technologies threatened us with a future without human beings in it, but it’s hard to see how even a positive manifestation of the transformations he predicted have come true. This is not to say that they will never bring such a scale of change, only that they haven’t yet, and fourteen years isn’t nothing after all.

So now, after that long and winding road, back to AI. Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Jeff Cummings the authors of the most popular recent book on the advances in artificial intelligence over the past decade, The Second Machine Age take aim directly at the technological pessimism of Gordon and others. They are firm believers in the AI revolution and its potential. For them innovation in the 21st century is no longer about brand new breakthrough ideas but, borrowing from biology, the recombination of ideas that already exist. In their view, we are being “held back by our inability to process all the new ideas fast enough” and therefore one of the things we need are even bigger computers to test out new ideas and combinations of ideas. (82)

But there are other conclusions one might draw from the metaphor of innovation as “recombination”.  For one, recombination can be downright harmful for organisms that are actually working. Perhaps you do indeed get growth from Schumpeter’s endless cycle of creation and destruction, but if all you’ve gotten as a consequence are minor efficiencies at the margins at the price of massive dislocations for those in industries deemed antiquated, not to mention society as a whole, then it’s hard to see the game being worth the candle.

We’ve seen this pattern in financial services, in music, and journalism, and it is now desired in education and healthcare. Here innovation is used not so much to make our lives appreciably better as to upend traditional stakeholders in an industry so that those with the biggest computer, what Jaron Lanier calls “Sirene Servers” can swoop in and take control. A new elite stealing an old elite’s thunder wouldn’t matter all that much to the rest of us peasants were it not for the fact that this new elite’s system of production has little room for us as workers and producers, but only as consumers of its goods. It is this desire to destabilize, reorder and control the institutions of pre-digital capitalism and to squeeze expensive human beings from the process of production that is the real source of the push for intelligent machines, the real force behind the current “AI revolution”, but given its nature, we’d do better to call it a coup.


The phrase above: “The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY loosing its foothold.”

Originally read: “The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY  closing up shop, as a result.”

The Kingdom of Machines

The Book of the Machines

For anyone thinking about the future relationship between nature-man-machines I’d like to make the case for the inclusion of an insightful piece of fiction to the cannon. All of us have heard of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. And many, though perhaps fewer, of us have likely heard of fiction authors from the other side of the nature/technology fence, writers like Mary Shelley, or Ursula Le Guin, or nowadays, Paolo Bacigalupi, but certainly almost none of us have heard of Samuel Butler, or better, read his most famous novel Erewhon (pronounced with 3 short syllables E-re-Whon.)

I should back up. Many of us who have heard of Butler and Erewhon have likely done so through George Dyson’s amazing little book Darwin Among the Machines, a book that itself deserves a top spot in the nature-man-machine cannon and got its title from an essay of Butler’s that found its way into the fictional world of his Erewhon. Dyson’s 1997 bookwritten just as the Internet age was ramping up tried to place the digital revolution within the longue duree of human and evolutionary history, but Butler had gotten there first. Indeed, Erewhon articulated challenges ahead of us which took almost 150 years to unfold, issues being discussed today by a set of scientists and scholars concerned over both the future of machines and the ultimate fate of our species.

A few weeks back Giulio Prisco at the IEET pointed me in the direction of an editorial placed in both the Huffington Post and the Independent by a group of scientists including, Stephen Hawking, Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark warning of the potential dangers emerging from technologies surrounding artificial intelligence that are now going through an explosive period of development. As the authors of the letter note:

Artificial-intelligence (AI) research is now progressing rapidly. Recent landmarks such as self-driving cars, a computer winning at Jeopardy! and the digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana are merely symptoms of an IT arms race fuelled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation.

Most seem to think we are at the beginning rather than at the end of this AI revolution and see it likely unfolding into an unprecedented development; namely, machines that are just as smart if not incredibly more so than their human creators. Should the development of AI as intelligent or more intelligent than ourselves be a concern? Giulio himself doesn’t think so  believing that advanced AIs are in a sense both our children and our evolutionary destiny. The scientists and scholars behind the letter to Huffpost and The Independent , however, are very concerned.  As they put it:

One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

And again:

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.

In a probing article about the existential risks posed by artificial intelligence, and more so the larger public’s indifference to it, James Hamblin writes of the theoretical physicists and Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek another of the figures trying to promote greater serious public awareness of the risks posed by artificial intelligence. Wilczek thinks we will face existential risks from intelligent machines not over the long haul of human history but in a very short amount of time.

It’s not clear how big the storm will be, or how long it’s going to take to get here. I don’t know. It might be 10 years before there’s a real problem. It might be 20, it might be 30. It might be five. But it’s certainly not too early to think about it, because the issues to address are only going to get more complex as the systems get more self-willed.

To be honest, it’s quite hard to take these scientists and thinkers seriously, perhaps because I’ve been so desensitized by Hollywood dystopias staring killer robots. But when your Noahs are some of the smartest guys on the planet it’s probably a good idea if not to actually start building your boat to at least be able to locate and beat a path if necessary to higher ground.

What is the scale of the risk we might be facing? Here’s physicist Max Tegmark from Hamblin’s piece:

Well, putting it in the day-to-day is easy. Imagine the planet 50 years from now with no people on it. I think most people wouldn’t be too psyched about that. And there’s nothing magic about the number 50. Some people think 10, some people think 200, but it’s a very concrete concern.

If there’s a potential monster somewhere on your path it’s always good to have some idea of its actual shape otherwise you find yourself jumping and lunging at harmless shadows.  How should we think about potentially humanity threatening AI’s? The first thing is that we need to be clear about what is happening. For all the hype, the AI sceptics are probably right- we are nowhere near replicating the full panoply of our biological intelligence in a machine. Yet, this fact should probably increase rather than decrease our concern regarding the potential threat from “super-intelligent” AIs. However far they remain from the full complexity of human intelligence, on account of their much greater speed and memory such machines largely already run something so essential and potentially destructive as our financial markets, the military is already discussing the deployment of autonomous weapons systems, with the domains over which the decisions of AIs hold sway only likely to increase over time. One just needs to imagine one or more such systems going rouge and doing what may amount to highly destructive things its creators or programmers did not imagine or intend to comprehend the risk. Such a rogue system would be more akin to a killer-storm than Lex Luthor, and thus, Nick Bostrom is probably on to something profound when he suggest that one of the worse things we could do would be to anthropomorphize the potential dangers. Telling Ross Anderson over at Aeon:

You can’t picture a super-smart version of yourself floating above the situation. Human cognition is only one species of intelligence, one with built-in impulses like empathy that colour the way we see the world, and limit what we are willing to do to accomplish our goals. But these biochemical impulses aren’t essential components of intelligence. They’re incidental software applications, installed by aeons of evolution and culture. Bostrom told me that it’s best to think of an AI as a primordial force of nature, like a star system or a hurricane — something strong, but indifferent.

The crazy thing is that Erewhon a novel published in 1872 clearly stated almost all of these dangers and perspectives. If these fears prove justified it will be Samuel Butler rather than Friedrich Nietzsche who will have been the great prophet to emerge from the the 19th century.

Erewhon was released right on the eve of what’s called the second industrial revolution that lasted from the 1870’s to World War I. Here you get mass rail and steam ships, gigantic factories producing iron and steel, and the birth of electrification. It is the age romanticized and reimagined today by cultural movement of steampunk.

The novel appeared 13 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and even more importantly one year after Darwin’s even more revolutionary The Descent of Man. As we learn in Dyson’s book, Butler and Darwin were engaged in a long lasting intellectual feud, though the issue wasn’t evolution itself, but Butler’s accusation that Charles Darwin had essentially ripped his theory from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin without giving him any of the credit. Be that as it may,

Erewhon was never intended as many thought at the time, as a satire of Darwinism, but was Darwinian to its core, and tried to apply the lessons of the worldview made apparent by the Theory of Evolution to the innovatively exploding world of machines Butler saw all around him.

The narrator in Erewhon, a man name Higgs, is out exploring the undiscovered valleys of a thinly disguised New Zealand or some equivalent looking for a large virgin territory to raise sheep. In the process he discovers an unknown community, the nation of Erewhon hidden in its deep unexplored valleys. The people there are not primitive, but exist at roughly the level of a European village before the industrial revolution.  Or as Higgs observers of them in a quip pregnant with meaning – “…savages do not make bridges.” What they find most interesting about the newcomer Higgs is, of all things, his pocket watch.

But by and by they came to my watch which I had hidden away in the pocket that I had and had forgotten when began their search. They seemed concerned and the moment that they got hold of it. They made me open it and show the works and as as I had done so they gave signs of very grave which disturbed me all the more because I not conceive wherein it could have offended them.  (58)

One needs to know a little of the history of the idea of evolution to realize how deliciously clever this narrative use of a watch by Butler is. He’s jumping off of William Paley’s argument for intelligent design found in Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deityabout which it has been said:

It is a book I greatly admire for in its own time the book succeeded in doing what I am struggling to do now. He had a point to make, he passionately believed in it, and he spared no effort to ram it home clearly. He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. (4)


The quote above is Richard Dawkins talking in his The Blind Watchmakerwhere he recovered and popularized Paley’s analogy of the stumbled upon watch as evidence that the stunningly complex world of life around us must have been designed.

Paley begins his Natural Theology with an imagined scenario where a complex machine, a watch, hitherto unknown by its discoverer leads to speculation about it origins.

In crossing a heath suppose I pitched my foot against a stone and were asked how the stone came to be there. I might possibly answer that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place. I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given that for any thing I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first?  (1)

After investigating the intricacies of the watch, how all of its pieces seem to fit together perfectly and have precise and definable functions Paley thinks that the:

….inference….is inevitable that the watch must have had a maker that there must have existed at some time and at some place or other an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer who comprehended its construction and designed its use. (3-4)

Paley thinks we should infer a designer even if we discover the watch is capable of making copies of itself:

Contrivance must have had a contriver design a designer whether the machine immediately proceeded from another machine or not. (12)

This is creationism, but as even Dawkins admits, it is an eloquent and sophisticated creationism.

Darwin, which ever one got there first, overthrew this need for an engineer as the ultimate source of complexity by replacing a conscious designer with a simple process through which the most intricate of complex entities could emerge over time- in the younger’s case – Natural Selection.


The brilliance of Samuel Butler in Erewhon was to apply this evolutionary emergence of complexity not just to living things, but to the machines we believe ourselves to have engineered. Perhaps the better assumption to have when we encounter anything of sufficient complexity is that to reach such complexity it must have been something that evolved over time. Higgs says of the magistrate of Erewhon obsessed with the narrator’s pocket watch that he had:

….a look of horror and dismay… a look which conveyed to me the impression that he regarded my watch not as having been designed but rather as the designer of himself and of the universe or as at any rate one of the great first causes of all things  (58)

What Higgs soon discovers, however, is that:

….I had misinterpreted the expression on the magistrate’s face and that it was one not of fear but hatred.  (58)

Erewhon is a civilization where something like the Luddites of the early 19th century have won. The machines have been smashed, dismantled, turned into museum pieces.

Civilization has been reset back to the pre-industrial era, and the knowledge of how to get out of this era and back to the age of machines has been erased, education restructured to strangle in the cradle scientific curiosity and advancement.

All this happened in Erewhon because of a book. It is a book that looks precisely like an essay the real world Butler had published not long before his novel, his essay Darwin among the Machines, where George Dyson got his title. In Erewhon it is called simply “The Book of the Machines”.

It is sheer hubris we read in “The Book of the Machines” to think that evolution, having played itself out over so many billions of years in the past and likely to play itself out for even longer in the future, that we are the creatures who have reached the pinnacle. And why should we believe there could not be such a thing as “post-biological” forms of life:

…surely when we reflect upon the manifold phases of life and consciousness which have been evolved already it would be a rash thing to say that no others can be developed and that animal life is the end of all things. There was a time when fire was the end of all things another when rocks and water were so. (189)

In the “Book of the Machines” we see the same anxiety about the rapid progress of technology that we find in those warning of the existential dangers we might face within only the next several decades.

The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday as of the last five minutes so to speak in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years, see what strides machines have made in the last thousand. May not the world last twenty million years longer. If so what will they not in the end become?  (189-190)

Butler, even in the 1870’s is well aware of the amazing unconscious intelligence of evolution. The cleverest of species use other species for their own reproductive ends. The stars of this show are the flowers a world on display in Louie Schwartzberg’s stunning documentary Wings of Life which shows how much of the beauty of our world is the product of this bridging between species as a means of reproduction. Yet flowers are just the most visually prominent example.

Our machines might be said to be like flowers unable to reproduce on their own, but with an extremely effective reproductive vehicle in use through human beings. This, at least is what Butler speculated in Erewhon, again in the section “The Book of Machines”:

No one expects that all the features of the now existing organisations will be absolutely repeated in an entirely new class of life. The reproductive system of animals differs widely from that of plants but both are reproductive systems. Has nature exhausted her phases of this power? Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically we may say that it has a reproductive system. What is a reproductive system if it be not a system for reproduction? And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines? But it is man that makes them do so. Yes, but is it not insects that make many of the plants reproductive and would not whole families of plants die out if their fertilisation were not effected by a class of agents utterly foreign to themselves? Does any one say that the red clover has no reproductive system because the humble bee and the humble bee only must aid and abet it before it can reproduce? (204)

Reproduction is only one way one species or kingdom can use another. There is also their use as a survival vehicle itself. Our increasing understanding of the human microbiome almost leads one to wonder whether our whole biology and everything that has grown up around it has all this time merely been serving as an efficient vehicle for the real show – the millions of microbes living in our guts. Or, as Butler says in what is the most quoted section of Erewhon:

Who shall say that a man does see or hear? He is such a hive and swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs than his and whether he is anything but another kind of ant heap after all. Might not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines. An affectionate machine tickling aphid. (196)

Yet, one might suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t separate ourselves from our machines. Perhaps we have always been transhuman in the sense that from our beginnings we have used our technology to extend our own reach. Butler well understood this argument that technology was an extension of the human self.

A machine is merely a supplementary limb this is the be all and end all of machinery We do not use our own limbs other than as machines and a leg is only a much better wooden leg than any one can manufacture. Observe a man digging with a spade his right forearm has become artificially lengthened and his hand has become a joint.

In fact machines are to be regarded as the mode of development by which human organism is now especially advancing every past invention being an addition to the resources of the human body. (219)

Even the Luddites of Erewhon understood that to lose all of our technology would be to lose our humanity, so intimately woven were our two fates. The solution to the dangers of a new and rival kingdom of animated beings arising from machines was to deliberately wind back the clock of technological development to before the time fossil fuels had freed machines from the constraints of animal, human, and cyclical power to before machines had become animate in the way life itself was animate.

Still, Butler knew it would be almost impossible to make the solution of Erewhon our solution. Given our numbers, to retreat from the world of machines would unleash death and anarchy such as the world has never seen:

The misery is that man has been blind so long already. In his reliance upon the use of steam he has been betrayed into increasing and multiplying. To withdraw steam power suddenly will not have the effect of reducing us to the state in which we were before its introduction there will be a general breakup and time of anarchy such as has never been known it will be as though our population were suddenly doubled with no additional means of feeding the increased number. The air we breathe is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine on the strength of which we have increased our numbers is to our civilisation it is the machines which act upon man and make him man as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines but we must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures till we rank no higher in comparison with them than the beasts of the field with ourselves. (215-216)

Therein lies the horns of our current dilemma. The one way we might save biological life from the risk of the new kingdom of machines would be to dismantle our creations and retreat from technological civilization. It is a choice we cannot make both because of its human toll and for the long term survival of the genealogy of earthly life. Butler understood the former, but did not grasp the latter. For, the only way the legacy of life on earth, a legacy that has lasted for 3 billion years, and which everything living on our world shares, will survive the inevitable life cycle of our sun which will boil away our planet’s life sustaining water in less than a billion years and consume the earth itself a few billion years after that, is for technological civilization to survive long enough to provide earthly life with a new home.

I am not usually one for giving humankind a large role to play in cosmic history, but there is at least a chance that something like Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis is correct, that given the thoughtless nature of evolution’s imperative to reproduce at all cost life ultimately destroys its own children like the murderous mother of Euripides play.

As Ward points out it is the bacteria that have almost destroyed life on earth, and more than once, by mindlessly transforming its atmosphere and poisoning it oceans. This is perhaps the risk behind us, that Bostrom thinks might explain our cosmic loneliness complex life never gets very far before bacteria kills it off. Still perhaps we might be in a sort of pincer of past and future our technological civilization, its capitalist economic system, and the AIs that might come to be at the apex of this world ultimately as absent of thought as bacteria and somehow the source of both biological life’s and its own destruction.     

Our luck has been to avoid a medea-ian fate in our past. If we can keeps our wits about us we might be able to avoid a  medea-ian fate in our future only this brought to us by the kingdom machines we have created. If most of life in the universe really has been trapped at the cellular level by something like the Medea Hypothesis, and we actually are able to survive over the long haul, then our cosmic task might be to purpose the kingdom of machines to be to spread and cultivate  higher order life as far as deeply as we can reach into space. Machines, intelligent or not, might be the interstellar pollinators of biological life. It is we the living who are the flowers.

The task we face over both the short and the long term is to somehow negotiate the rivalry not only of the two worlds that have dominated our existence so far- the natural world and the human world- but a third, an increasingly complex and distinct world of machines. Getting that task right is something that will require an enormous amount of wisdom on our part, but part of the trick might lie in treating machines in some way as we already, when approaching the question rightly, treat nature- containing its destructiveness, preserving its diversity and beauty, and harnessing its powers not just for the good of ourselves but for all of life and the future.

As I mentioned last time, the more sentient our machines become the more we will need to look to our own world, the world of human rights, and for animals similar to ourselves, animal rights, for guidance on how to treat our machines balancing these rights with the well being of our fellow human beings.

The nightmare scenario is that instead of carefully cultivating the emergence of the kingdom of machines to serve as a shelter for both biological life and those things we human beings most value they will instead continue to be tied to the dream of endless the endless accumulation of capital, or as Douglas Rushkoff recently stated it:

When you look at the marriage of Google and Kurzweil, what is that? It’s the marriage of digital technology’s infinite expansion with the idea that the market is somehow going to infinitely expand.

A point that was never better articulated or more nakedly expressed than by the imperialist business man Cecil Rhodes in the 19th century:

To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.

If that happens, a kingdom of machines freed from any dependence on biological life or any reflection of human values might eat the world of the living until the earth is nothing but a valley of our bones.


That a whole new order of animated beings might emerge from what was essentially human weakness vis a-vis  other animals is yet another one of the universes wonders, but it is a wonder that needs to go right in order to make it a miracle, or even to prevent it merely from becoming a nightmare. Butler invented almost all of our questions in this regard and in speculating in Erewhon how humans might unravel their dependence on machines raised another interesting question as well; namely, whether the very freewill that we use to distinguish the human world from the worlds of animals or machines actually exists? He also pointed to an alternative future where the key event would not be the emergence of the kingdom of machines but the full harnessing and control of the powers of biological life by human beings questions I’ll look at sometime soon.





Our Verbot Moment

Metropolis poster

When I was around nine years old I got a robot for Christmas. I still remember calling my best friend Eric to let him know I’d hit pay dirt. My “Verbot” was to be my own personal R2D2. As was clear from the picture on the box, which I again remember as clear as if it were yesterday, Verbot would bring me drinks and snacks from the kitchen on command- no more pestering my sisters who responded with their damned claims of autonomy! Verbot would learn to recognize my voice and might help me with the math homework I hated. Being the only kid in my nowhere town with his very own robot I’d be the talk for miles in every direction. As long, that is, as Mark Z didn’t find his own Verbot under the tree- the boy who had everything- cursed brat!

Within a week after Christmas Verbot was dead. I never did learn how to program it to bring me snacks while I lounged watching Our Star Blazers, though it wasn’t really programmable to start with.  It was really more of a remote controlled car in the shape of Robbie from Lost in Space than an actual honest to goodness robot. Then as now, my steering skills weren’t so hot and I managed to somehow get Verbot’s antenna stuck in the tangly curls of our skittish terrier, Pepper. To the sounds of my cursing, Pepper panicked and drug poor Verbot round and around the kitchen table eventually snapping it loose from her hair to careen into a wall and smash into pieces. I felt my whole future was there in front of me in shattered on the floor. There was no taking it back.

Not that my 9 year old nerd self realized this, but the makers of Verbot obviously weren’t German, the word in that language meaning “to ban or prohibit”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement on a product, and more like an inside joke by the makers whose punch line was the precautionary principle.

What I had fallen into in my Verbot moment was the gap between our aspirations for  robots and their actual reality. People had been talking about animated tools since ancient times. Homer has some in his Iliad, Aristotle discussed their possibility. Perhaps we started thinking about this because living creature tend to be unruly and unpredictable. They don’t get you things when you want them to and have a tendency to run wild and go rogue. Tools are different, they always do what you want them to as long as they’re not broken and you are using them properly. Combining the animation and intelligence of living things with the cold functionality of tools would be the mixing of chocolate and peanut butter for someone who wanted to get something done without doing it himself. The problems is we had no idea how to get from our dead tools to “living” ones.

It was only in the 19th century that an alternative path to the hocus-pocus of magic was found for answering the two fundamental questions surrounding the creation of animate tools. The questions being what would animate these machines in the same way uncreated living beings were animated? and what would be the source of these beings intelligence? Few before the 1800s could see through these questions without some reference to black arts, although a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci had as far back as the 15th century seen hints that at least one way forward was to discover the principles of living things and apply them to our tools and devices. (More on that another time).

The path forward we actually discovered was through machines animated by chemical and electrical processes much like living beings are, rather than the tapping of kinetic forces such as water and wind or the potential energy and multiplication of force through things like springs and levers which had run our machines up until that point. Intelligence was to be had in the form of devices following the logic of some detailed set of instructions. Our animated machines were to be energetic like animals but also logical and precise like the devices and languages we had created for for measuring and sequencing.

We got the animation part down pretty quickly, but the intelligence part proved much harder. Although much more precise that fault prone humans, mechanical methods of intelligence were just too slow when compared to the electro-chemical processes of living brains. Once such “calculators”, what we now call computers, were able to use electronic processes they got much faster and the idea that we were on the verge of creating a truly artificial intelligence began to take hold.

As everyone knows, we were way too premature in our aspirations. The most infamous quote of our hubris came in 1956 when the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence boldly predicted:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.[emphasis added]

Ooops. Over much of the next half century, the only real progress in these areas for artificial intelligence came in the worlds we’d dreamed up in our heads. As a young boy, the robots I saw using language or forming abstractions were only found in movies and TV shows such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and in books by science-fiction giants like Asimov. Some of these daydreams were so long in being unfulfilled I watched them in black and white. Given this, I am sure many other kids had their Verbot moments as well.

It is only in the last decade or so when the processing of instructions has proven fast enough and the programs sophisticated enough for machines to exhibit something like the intelligent behaviors of living organisms. We seem to be at the beginning of a robotic revolution where machines are doing at least some of the things science-fiction and Hollywood had promised. They beat us at chess and trivia games, can drive airplanes and automobiles, serve as pack animals, and even speak to us. How close we will come to the dreams of authors and filmmakers when it comes to our 21st century robots can not be known, though, an even more important question would be how what actually develops diverges from these fantasies?

I find the timing of this robotic revolution in the context of other historical currents quite strange. The bizarre thing being that almost at the exact moment many of us became unwilling to treat other living creatures, especially human beings, as mere tools, with slavery no longer tolerated, our children and spouses no longer treated as property and servants but gifts to be cultivated, (perhaps the sadder element of why population growth rates are declining), and even our animals offered some semblance of rights and autonomy, we were coming ever closer to our dream of creating truly animated and intelligent slaves.

This is not to say we are out of the woods yet when it comes to our treatment of living beings. The headlines of the tragic kidnapping of over 300 girls in Nigeria should bring to our attention the reality of slavery in our supposedly advanced and humane 21st century with there being more people enslaved today than at the height of 19th century chattel slavery. It’s just the proportions that are so much lower. Many of the world’s working poor, especially in the developing world, live in conditions not far removed from slavery or serfdom. The primary problem I see with our continued practice of eating animals is not meat eating itself, but that the production processes chains living creatures to the cruel and unrelenting sequence of machines rather than allowing such animals to live in the natural cycles for which they evolved and were bred.

Still, people in many parts of the world are rightly constrained in how they can treat living beings. What I am afraid of is dark and perpetual longings to be served and to dominate in humans will manifest themselves in our making machines more like persons for those purposes alone.  The danger here is that these animated tools will cross, or we will force them to cross, some threshold of sensibility that calls into question their very treatment and use as mere tools while we fail to mature beyond the level of my 9 year old self dreaming of his Verbot slave.

And yet, this is only one way to look at the rise of intelligent machines. Like a gestalt drawing we might change our focus and see a very different picture- that it is not we who are using and chaining machines for our purposes, but the machines who are doing this to us.  To that subject next time…




Why does the world exist, and other dangerous questions for insomniacs

William Blake Creation of the World


A few weeks back I wrote a post on how the recent discovery of gravitational lensing provided evidence for inflationary models of the Big Bang. These are cosmological models that imply some version of the multiverse, essentially the idea that ours is just one of a series of universes, a tiny bubble, or region, of a much, much larger universe where perhaps even the laws of physics or rationality of mathematics differed from one region to another.

My earlier piece had taken some umbrage with the physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new atheist take on the discovery of gravitational lensing, in the New Yorker. Krauss is a “nothing theorists”, one of a group of physicists who argue that the universe emerged from what in effect was nothing at all, although; unlike other nothing theorists such as Stephen Hawking, Krauss uses his science as a cudgel to beat up on contemporary religion. It was this attack on religion I was interested in, while the deeper issue the issue of a universe arising from nothing, left me shrugging my shoulders as if there was, excuse the pun, nothing of much importance in the assertion.

Perhaps I missed the heart of the issue because I am a nothingist myself, or at the very least, never found the issue of nothingness something worth grappling with.  It’s hard to write this without sounding like a zen koan or making my head hurt, but I didn’t look into the physics or the metaphysics of Krauss’ nothingingist take on gravitational lensing, inflation or anything else, in fact I don’t think I had ever really reflected on the nature of nothing at all.

The problems I had with Krauss’ overall view as seen in his book on the same subject A Universe from Nothing had to do with his understanding of the future and the present not the past.  I felt the book read the future far too pessimistically, missing the fact that just because the universe would end in nothing there was a lot of living to be done from now to the hundreds of billions of years before its heat death. As much as it was a work of popular science, Krauss’ book was mostly an atheist weapon in what I called “The Great God Debate” which, to my lights, was about attacking, or for creationists defending, a version of God as a cosmic engineer that was born no earlier and in conjunction with modern science itself. I felt it was about time we got beyond this conception of God and moved to a newer or even more ancient one.

Above all, A Universe from Nothing, as I saw it, was epistemologically hubristic, using science to make a non-scientific claim over the meaning of existence- that there wasn’t any- which cut off before they even got off the ground so many other interesting avenues of thought. What I hadn’t thought about was the issue of emergence from nothingness itself. Maybe the question of the past, the question of why our universe was here at all, was more important than I thought.

When thinking a question through, I always find a helpful first step to turn to the history of ideas to give me some context. Like much else, the idea that the universe began from nothing is a relatively recent one. The ancients had little notion of nothingness with their creation myths starring not with nothing but most often an eternally existing chaos that some divinity or divinities sculpted into the ordered world we see. You start to get ideas of creation out of nothing- ex nihilo- really only with Augustine in the 5th century, but full credit for the idea of a world that began with nothing would have to wait until Leibniz in the 1600s, who, when he wasn’t dreaming up new cosmologies was off independently inventing calculus at the same time as Newton and designing computers three centuries before any of us had lost a year playing Farmville.

Even when it came to nothingness Leibniz was ahead of his time. Again about three centuries after he had imagined a universe created from nothing the renegade Einstein was just reflecting universally held opinion when he made his biggest “mistake” tweaking his theory of general relativity with what he thought was a bogus cosmological constant so that he could get a universe that he and everyone else believed in- a universe that was eternal and unchanging- uncreated. Not long after Einstein had cooked the books Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was changing with time, moving apart, and not long after the that, evidence mounted that the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang.

With a creation event in the Big Bang cosmologists, philosophers and theologians were forced to confront the existence of a universe emerging from what was potentially nothing running into questions that had lain dormant since Leibniz- how did the universe emerge from nothing? why this particular universe? and ultimately why something rather than nothing at all? Krauss thinks we have solved the first and second questions and finds the third question, in his words, “stupid”.

Strange as it sounds coming out of my mouth, I actually find myself agreeing with Krauss: explanations that the universe emerged from fluctuations in a primordial “quantum foam” – closer to the ancient’s idea of chaos than our version of nothing- along with the idea that we are just one of many universes that follow varied natural laws- some like ours capable of fostering intelligent life- seem sufficient to me.  The third question, however, I find in no sense stupid, and if it’s childlike, it is childlike in the best wondrously curious kind of way. Indeed, the answers to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” might result is some of the most thrilling ideas human beings have come up with yet.

The question of why there is something rather than nothing is brilliantly explored in a book by Jim Holt Why the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. As Holt points out, the problem with nothingists theories like those of Krauss is that they fail to answer  the question as to why the quantum foam or multiple universes churning out their versions of existence are there in the first place. The simplest explanation we have is that “God made it”, and Holt does look at this answer as provided by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne who answers the obvious question “who made God?” with the traditional answer “God is eternal and not made” which makes one wonder why we can’t just stick with Krauss’ self-generating universe in the first place?

Yet, it’s not only religious persons who think the why question is addressing something fundamental or even that science reveals the question as important even if we are forever barred from completely answering it. As physicist David Deutsch says in Why does the world exist:

 … none of our laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there…. Laws don’t do that kind of work.

Wheeler used to say, take all the best laws of physics and put those bits on a piece of paper on the floor. Then stand back and look at them and say, “Fly!” They won’t fly they just sit there. Quantum theory may explain why the Big Bang happened, but it can’t answer the question you’re interested in, the question of existence. The very concept of existence is a complex one that needs to be unpacked. And the question Why is there something rather than nothing is a layered one, I expect. Even if you succeeded in answering it at some level, you’d still have the next level to worry about.  (128)

Holt quotes Deutsch from his book The Fabric of Reality “I do not believe that we are now, or shall ever be, close to understanding everything there is”. (129)

Others, philosophers and physicists are trying to answer the “why” question by composing solutions that combine ancient and modern elements. These are the Platonic multiverses of John Leslie and Max Tegmark both of whom, though in different ways, believe in eternally existing “forms”, goodness in the case of Leslie and mathematics in the case of Tegmark, which an infinity of universes express and realize. For the philosopher Leslie:

 … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing. (200)

Leslie borrows from Plato the idea that the world appeared out of the sheer ethical requirement for Goodness, that “the form of the Good bestows existence upon the world” (199).

If that leaves you scratching your scientifically skeptical head as much as it does mine, there are actual scientists, in this case the cosmologist Max Tegmark who hold similar Platonic ideas. According to Holt, Tegmark believes that:

 … every consistently desirable mathematical structure exists in a genuine physical sense. Each of these structures constitute a parallel world, and together these parallel worlds make up a mathematical multiverse. 182

Like Leslie, Tegmark looks to Plato’s Eternal Forms:

 The elements of this multiverse do not exist in the same space but exist outside space and time they are “static sculptures” that represent the mathematical structure of the physical laws that govern them.  183

If you like this line of reasoning, Tegmark has a whole book on the subject, Our Mathematical Universe. I am no Platonist and Tegmark is unlikely to convert me, but I am eager to read it. What I find most surprising about the ideas of both Leslie and Tegmark is that they combine two things I did not previously see as capable of being combined ,or even considered outright rival models of the world- an idea of an eternal Platonic world behind existence and the prolific features of multiverse theory in which there are many, perhaps infinite varieties of universes.

The idea that the universe is mind bogglingly prolific in its scale and diversity is the “fecundity” of the philosopher Robert Nozick who until Holt I had only associated with libertarian economics. Anyone who has a vision of a universe so prolific and diverse is okay in my book, though I do wish the late Nozick had been as open to the diversity of human socio-economic systems as he had been to the diversity of universes.

Like the physicist Paul Davies, or even better to my lights the novelists John Updike, both discussed by Holt, I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to avoid the need for either a creator God or eternally existing laws- although, unlike Davies and Updike and in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor I thought this a good thing. The one problem I had with multiverse theories was the idea of not just a very large or even infinite number of alternative universes but parallel universes where there are other versions of me running around, Holt managed to clear that up for me.

The idea that the universe was splitting every time I chose to eat or not eat a chocolate bar or some such always struck me as silly and also somehow suffocating. Hints that we may live in a parallel universe of this sort are just one of the weird phenomenon that emerge from quantum mechanics, you know, poor Schrodinger’s Cat . Holt points out that this is much different and not connected to the idea of multiple universes that emerge from the cosmological theory of inflation. We simply don’t know if these two ideas have any connection. Whew! I can now let others wrestle with the bizarre world of the quantum and rest comforted that the minutiae of my every decision doesn’t make me responsible for creating a whole other universe.

This returning to Plato seen in Leslie and Tegmark, a philosopher who died, after all,  2,5000 years ago, struck me as both weird and incredibly interesting. Stepping back, it seems to me that it’s not so much that we’re in the middle of some Hegelian dialectic relentlessly moving forward through thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but more involved in a very long conversation that is moving in no particular direction and every so often will loop back upon itself and bring up issues and perspectives we had long left behind.  It’s like a maze where you have to backtrack to the point you made a wrong turn in order to go in the right direction. We can seemingly escape the cosmological dead end created by Christian theology and Leibniz’s idea of creation ex nihilo only by going back to ideas found before we went down that path, to Plato. Though, for my money, I even better prefer another ancient philosopher- Lucretius.

Yet, maybe Plato isn’t back quite far enough. It was the pre-socratics who invented the natural philosophy that eventually became science. There is a kind of playfulness to their ideas all of which could exist side-by-side in dialogue and debate with one another with no clear way for any theory to win. Theories such as Heraclitus: world as flux and fire, or Pythagoras: world as number, or Democritus: world as atoms.

My hope is that we recognize our contemporary versions of these theories for what they are “just-so” stories that we tell about the darkness beyond the edge of scientific knowledge- and the darkness is vast. They are versions of a speculative theology- the possibilism of David Eagleman, which I have written about before and which are harmful only when they become as rigid and inflexible as the old school theology they are meant to replace or falsely claim the kinds of proof from evidence that only science and its experimental verification can afford. We should be playful with them, in the way Plato himself was playful with such stories in the knowledge that while we are in the “cave” we can only find the truth by looking through the darkness at varied angles.

Does Holt think there is a reason the world exists? What is really being asked here is what type of, in the philosopher Derek Parfit’s term “selector” brought existence into being. For Swinburne  the selector was God, for Leslie Goodness, Tegmark mathematics, Nozik fullness, but Holt thinks the selector might have been more simple, indeed, that the selector was simplicity. All the other selectors Holt finds to be circular, ultimately ending up being used to explain themselves. But what if our world is merely the simplest one possible that is also full? Moving from reason alone Holt adopts something like the mid-point between a universe that contained nothing and one that contained an infinite number of universes that are perfectly good adopting a mean he calls  “infinite mediocrity.”

I was not quite convinced by Holt’s conclusion, and was more intrigued by the open-ended and ambiguous quality of his exploration of the question of why there is something rather than nothing than I was his “proof” that our existence could be explained in such a way.

What has often strikes me as deplorable when it comes to theists and atheists alike is their lack of awe at the mysterious majesty of it all. That “God made it” or “it just is” strikes me flat. Whenever I have the peace in a busy world to reflect it is not nothingness that hits me but the awe -That the world is here, that I am here, that you are here, a fact that is a statistical miracle of sorts – a web weaving itself. Holt gave me a whole new way to think about this wonder.

How wonderfully strange that our small and isolated minds leverage cosmic history and reality to reflect the universe back upon itself, that our universe might come into existence and disappear much like we do. On that score, of all the sections in Holt’s beautiful little book it was the most personal section on the death of his mother that taught me the most about nothingness. Reflecting on the memory of being at his mother’s bedside in hospice he writes:

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then I was standing over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes open wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and told her I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse. “I think she just died.” (272-273)

The scene struck me as the exact opposite of the joyous experience I had at the birth of my own children and somehow reminded me of a scene from Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play.

 The moment a new-born opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

At the end of the day, for the whole of existence, the question of why there is something rather than nothing may remain forever outside our reach, but we, the dead who have become the living and the living who will become the dead, are certainly intimates with the reality of being and nothingness.

The Problem with the Trolley Problem, or why I avoid utilitarians near subways


Master Bertram of Miden The Fall

Human beings are weird. At least, that is, when comparing ourselves to our animal cousins. We’re weird in terms of our use of language, our creation and use of symbolic art and mathematics, our extensive use of tools. We’re also weird in terms of our morality, and engage in strange behaviors visa-via one another that are almost impossible to find throughout the rest of the animal world.

We will help one another in ways that no other animal would think of, sacrificing resources, and sometimes going so far as surrendering the one thing evolution commands us to do- to reproduce- in order to aid total strangers. But don’t get on our bad side. No species has ever murdered or abused fellow members of its own species with such viciousness or cruelty. Perhaps religious traditions have something fundamentally right, that our intelligence, our “knowledge of good and evil” really has put us on an entirely different moral plain, opened up a series of possibilities and consciousness new to the universe or at least our limited corner of it.

We’ve been looking for purely naturalistic explanations for our moral strangeness at least since Darwin. Over the past decade or so there has been a growing number of hybrid explorations of this topic combining elements in varying degrees of philosophy, evolutionary theory and cognitive psychology.

Joshua Greene’s recent Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them   is an excellent example of these. Yet, it is also a book that suffers from the flaw of almost all of these reflections on singularity of human moral distinction. What it gains in explanatory breadth comes at the cost of a diminished understanding of how life on this new moral plain is actually experienced the way knowing the volume of water in an ocean, lake or pool tells you nothing about what it means to swim.

Greene like any thinker looking for a “genealogy of morals” peers back into our evolutionary past. Human beings spent the vast majority of our history as members of small tribal groups of perhaps a few hundred members. Wired over eons of evolutionary time into our very nature is an unconscious ability to grapple with conflicting interests between us as individuals and the interest of the tribe to which we belong. What Greene calls the conflicts of Me vs Us.

When evolution comes up with a solution to a commonly experienced set of problems it tends to hard-wire that solution. We don’t think all at all about how to see, ditto how to breathe, and when we need to, it’s a sure sign that something has gone wrong. There is some degree of nurture in this equation, however. Raise a child up to a certain age in total darkness and they will go blind. The development of language skills, especially, show this nature-nurture codependency. We are primed by evolution for language acquisition at birth and just need an environment in which any language is regularly spoken. Greene thinks our normal everyday “common sense morality” is like this. It comes natural to us and becomes automatic given the right environment.

Why might evolution have wired human beings morally in this way, especially when it comes to our natural aversion to violence? Greene thinks Hobbes was right when he proposed that human beings possess a natural equality to kill the consequence of our evolved ability to plan and use tools. Even a small individual could kill a much larger human being if they planned it well and struck fast enough. Without some in built inhibition against acts of personal aggression humanity would have quickly killed each other off in a stone age version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

This automatic common sense morality has gotten us pretty far, but Greene thinks he has found a way where it has also become a bug, distorting our thinking rather than helping us make moral decisions. He thinks he sees distortion in the way we make wrong decisions when imagining how to save people being run over by runaway trolley cars.

Over the last decade the Trolley problem has become standard fair in any general work dealing with cognitive psychology. The problem varies but in its most standard depiction the scenario goes as follows: there is a trolley hurtling down a track that is about to run over and kill five people. The only way to stop this trolley is to push an innocent, very heavy man onto the tracks. A decision guaranteed to kill the man. Do you push him?

The answer people give is almost universally- no, and Greene intends to show why most of us answer in this way even though, as a matter of blunt moral reasoning, saving five lives should be worth more than sacrificing one.

The problem, as Greene sees it, is that we are using our automatic moral decision making faculties to make the “don’t push call.” The evidence for this can be found in the fact that those who have their ability to make automatic moral decisions compromised end up making the “right” moral decision to sacrifice one life in order to save five.

People who have compromised automatic decision making processes might be persons with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, persons such as Phineas Gauge whose case was made famous by the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error. Gauge was a 19th century miner who after suffering an accident that damaged part of his brain became emotionally unstable and unable to make good decisions. Damasio used his case and more modern ones to show just how important emotion was to our ability to reason.

It just so happens that persons suffering from Gauge style injuries also decide the Trolley problem in favor of saving five persons rather than refusing to push one to their death. Persons with brain damage aren’t the only ones who decide the Trolley problem in this way- autistic individuals and psychopaths do so as well.

Greene makes some leaps from this difference in how people respond to the Trolley problem, proposing that we have not one but two systems of moral decision making which he compares to the automatic and manual settings on a camera. The automatic mode is visceral, fast and instinctive whereas the manual mode is reasoned, deliberative and slow. Greene thinks that those who are able to decide in the Trolley problem to push the man onto the tracks to save five people are accessing their manual mode because their automatic settings have been shut off.

The leaps continue in that Greene thinks we need manual mode to solve the types of moral problems our evolution did not prepare us for, not Me vs. Us, but Us vs. Them, of our society in conflict other societies. Moral philosophy is manual mode in action, and Greene believes one version of our moral philosophy is head and shoulders above the rest, Utilitarianism, which he would prefer to be called Deep Pragmatism.

Needless to say there are problems with the Trolley Problem. How for instance does one interpret the change in responses to the problem when one substitutes a push with a switch? The number of respondents who chose to send the fat man to his death on the tracks to save five people significantly increases when one exchanges a push for a switch of a button that opens a trapdoor. Greene thinks it is because giving us bodily distance allows our more reasoned moral thinking to come into play. However, this is not the conclusion one gets when looking at real instances of personal versus instrumentalized killing i.e. in war.

We’ve known for quite a long time that individual soldiers have incredible difficulty killing even fellow enemy soldiers on the battlefield a subject brilliantly explored by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Strange thing is, whereas an individual soldier has problems killing even one human being who is shooting at him, and can sustain psychological scars because of such killing, airmen working in bombers who incinerate thousands of human beings including men women and children do not seem to be affected to such a degree by either inhibitions on killing or its mental scars. The US military’s response to this is to try to instrumentalize and automaticize killing by infantrymen in the same way killing by airmen and sailors is disassociated. Disconnection from their instinctual inhibitions against violence allows human being to achieve levels of violence impossible at an individual level.     

It may be the persons who chose to save five persons at the cost of one aren’t engaging in a form of moral reasoning at all they are merely comparing numbers. 5 > 1, so all else being equal choose the greater number. Indeed, the only way it might be said that higher moral reasoning was being used in choosing 5 over 1 was if the 1 that needed to be sacrificed to save 5 was the person being asked. With the question being would you throw yourself on the trolley tracks in order to save 5 other people?

Our automatic, emotional systems are actually very good at leading us to moral decisions, and the reasons we have trouble stretching them to Us vs Them problems might be different than the ones Greene identifies.

A reason the stretching might be difficult can be seen in a famous section in The Brother’s Karamazov by Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “The Grand Inquisitor” is a section where the character Ivan is conveying an imaginary future to his brother Alyosha where Jesus has returned to earth and is immediately arrested by authorities of the Roman church who claim that they have already solved the problem of man’s nature: the world is stable so long as mankind is given bread and prohibited from exercising his free will. Writing in the late 19th century, Dostoyevsky was an arch-conservative, with deep belief in the Orthodox Church and had a prescient anxiety regarding the moral dangers of nihilisms and revolutionary socialism in Russia.

In her On Revolution, Hannah Arendt pointed out that Dostoyevsky was conveying with his story of the Grand Inquisitor, not only an important theological observation, that only an omniscient God could experience the totality of suffering without losing sight of the suffering individual, but an important moral and political observation as well- the contrast between compassion and pity.

Compassion by its very nature can not be touched off by the sufferings of a whole group of people, or, least of all,  mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out further than what is suffered by one person and remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering. Its strength hinges on the strength of passion itself, which, in contrast to reason, can comprehend only the particular, but has no notion of the general and no capacity for generalization. (75)

In light of Greene’s argument what this means is that there is a very good reason why our automatic morality has trouble with abstract moral problems- without having sight of an individual to which moral decisions can be attached one must engage in a level of abstraction our older moral systems did not evolve to grapple with. As a consequence of our lack of God-like omniscience moral problems that deal with masses of individuals achieve consistency only by applying some general rule. Moral philosophers, not to mention the rest of us, are in effect imaginary kings issuing laws for the good of their kingdoms. The problem here is not only that the ultimate effect of such abstract level decisions are opaque due to our general uncertainty regarding the future, but there is no clear and absolute way of defining for whose good exactly are we imposing these rules?

Even the Utilitarianism that Greene thinks is our best bet for reaching common agreement regarding such rules has widely different and competing answers to how we should answer the question “good for who?” In their camp can be found Abolitionist such as David Pierce who advocate the re-engineering of all of nature to minimize suffering, and Peter Singer who establishes a hierarchy of rational beings. For the latter, the more of a rational being you are the more the world should conform to your needs, so much so, that Singer thinks infanticide is morally justifiable because newborns do not yet possess the rational goals and ideas regarding the future possessed by older children and adults. Greene, who thinks Utilitarianism could serve as mankind’s common “moral currency”, or language,  himself has little to say regarding where his concept of Utilitarianism falls on this spectrum, but we are very far indeed from anything like universal moral agreement on the Utilitarianism of Pierce or Singer.

21st century global society has indeed come to embrace some general norms. Past forms of domination and abuse, most notably slavery, have become incredibly rare relative to other periods of human history, though far from universal, women are better treated than in ages past. External relations between states have improved as well the world is far less violent than in any other historical era, the global instruments of cooperation, if far too seldom, coordination, are more robust.

Many factors might be credited here, but the one I would least credit is any adoption of a universal moral philosophy. Certainly one of the large contributors has been the increased range over which we exercise our automatic systems of morality. Global travel, migration, television, fiction and film all allow us to see members of the “Them” as fragile, suffering, and human all too human individuals like “Us”. This may not provide us with a negotiating tool to resolve global disputes over questions like global warming, but it does put us on the path to solving such problems. For, a stable global society will only appear when we realize that in more sense than not there is no tribe on the other side of us, that there is no “Them”, there is only “Us”.

War and Human Evolution



Has human evolution and progress been propelled by war? 

The question is not an easy one to ask, not least because war is not merely one of the worst but arguably the worst thing human beings inflict on one another comprising murder, collective theft, and, almost everywhere but in the professional militaries of Western powers, and only quite recently, mass, and sometimes systematic rape. Should it be the case that war was somehow the driving mechanism, the hidden motor behind what we deem most good regarding human life, trapped in some militaristic version of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, then we might truly feel ourselves in the grip and the plaything of something like the demon of Descartes’ imagination, though rather than taunt us by making the world irrational we would be cursed to a world of permanent moral incomprehensibility.

When it comes to human evolution we should probably begin to address the question by asking how long war has been part of the human condition? Almost all of our evolution took place while we lived as hunter gatherers, indeed, we’ve only even had agriculture (and anything that comes with it) for 5-10% of our history. From a wide angle view the agricultural, industrial, and electronic revolutions might all be considered a set piece, perhaps one of the reasons things like philosophy, religion, and literature from millennia ago still often resonate with us. Within the full scope of our history, Socrates and Jesus lived only yesterday.

The evidence here isn’t good for those who hoped our propensity for violence is a recent innovation. For over the past generation a whole slew of archeological scholars has challenged the notion of the “peaceful savage” born in the radiating brilliance of the mind of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Back in 1755 Rousseau had written his Discourse on Inequality perhaps the best timed book, ever. Right before the industrial revolution was to start, Rousseau made the argument that it was civilization, development and the inequalities it produced that was the source of the ills of mankind- including war. He had created an updated version of the myth of Eden, which became in his hands mere nature, without any God in the story. For those who would fear humanity’s increasingly rapid technological development, and the victory of our artificial world over the natural one we were born from and into, he gave them an avenue of escape, which would be to shed not only the new industrial world but the agricultural one that preceded it. Progress, in the mind of Rousseau and those inspired by him, was a Sisyphean trap, the road to paradise lie backwards in time, in the return to primitive conditions.

During the revived Romanticism of the 1960’s archeologists like Francis de Waal set out to prove Rousseau right. Primitive, hunter-gatherer societies, in his view, were not war like and had only become so with contact from advanced warlike societies such as our own. In recent decades, however, this idea of prehistoric and primitive pacifism has come under sustained assault. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined is the most popularly know of these challenges to the idea of primitive innocence that began with Rousseau’s Discourse, but in many ways, Pinker was merely building off of, and making more widely known, scholarship done elsewhere.

One of the best of examples of this scholarship is Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Keeley makes a pretty compelling argument that warfare was almost universal across pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer societies. Rather than being dominated by the non-lethal ritualized “battle”, as de Waal had argued, war for such societies war was a high casualty affair and total.

It is quite normal for conflict between tribes in close proximity to be endemic. Protracted periods of war result in casualty figures that exceed modern warfare even the total war between industrial states seen only in World War II.Little distinction is made in such pre-agricultural forms of conflict between women and children and men of fighting age. Both are killed indiscriminately in wars made up, not of the large set battles that characterize warfare in civilizations after the adoption of agriculture, but of constant ambushes and attacks that aim to kill those who are most vulnerable.

Pre-agricultural war is what we now call insurgency or guerilla war. Americans, who remember Vietnam or look with clear eyes at the Second Iraq War, know how effective this form of war can be against even the most technologically advanced powers. Although Keeley acknowledges the effectiveness and brutal efficiency of guerilla war,  he does not make the leap to suggest that in going up against insurgency advanced powers face in some sense a more evolutionarily advanced rival, honed by at least 100,000 years of human history.  

Keeley concludes that as long as there have been human beings there has been war, yet, he reaches much less dark conclusions from the antiquity of war than one might expect. Human aversion to violence and war, disgust with its consequences, and despair at its, more often than not, unjustifiable suffering are near universal whatever a society’s level of technological advancement. He writes:

“… warfare whether primitive or civilized involves losses, suffering, and terror even for the victors. Consequently, it was nowhere viewed as an unalloyed good, and the respect accorded to an accomplished warrior was often tinged with aversion. “

“For example, it was common the world over for the warrior who had just killed an enemy to be regarded by his own people as spiritually polluted or contaminated. He therefore had to undergo a magical cleansing to remove this pollution. Often he had to live for a time in seclusion, eat special food or fast, be excluded from participation in rituals and abstain from sexual intercourse. “ (144)

Far from the understanding of war found in pre-agricultural societies being ethically shallow, psychologically unsophisticated or unaware of the moral dimension of war their ideas of war are as sophisticated as our own. What the community asks the warrior to do when sending them into conflict and asking them to kill others is to become spiritually tainted and ritual is a way for them to become reintegrated into their community.  This whole idea that soldiers require moral repair much more than praise for their heroics and memorials is one we are only now rediscovering.

Contrary to what Freud wrote to Einstein when the former asked him why human beings seemed to show such a propensity for violence, we don’t have a “death instinct” either. Violence is not an instinct, or as Azar Gat wrote in his War in Human Civilization:

Aggression does not accumulate in the body by a hormone loop mechanism, with a rising level that demands release. People have to feed regularly if they are to stay alive, and in the relevant ages they can normally avoid sexual activity all together only by extraordinary restraint and at the cost of considerable distress. By contrast, people can live in peace for their entire lives, without suffering on that account, to put it mildly, from any particular distress. (37)

War and violence are not an instinct but a tactic, thank God, for if it was an instinct we’d all be dead. Still, if it is a tactic it has been a much used one and it seems that throughout our hundred thousand year human history it is one that we have used with less rather than greater frequency as we have technologically advanced, and one might wonder why this has been the case.    

Azar Gat’s theory of our increasing pacifism is very similar to Pinker’s, war is a very costly and dangerous tactic. If you can get what you are after without it, peace is normally the course human beings will follow. Since the industrial revolution, nature has come under our increasing command, war and expansion are no longer very good answers to the problems of scarcity, thus the frequency of wars was on the decline even before we had invented atomic weapons which turned full scale war into pure madness.

Yet, a good case can be made that war played a central role in putting down the conditions in which the industrial revolution, the spark of the material progress that has made war an unnecessary tactic, occurred and that war helped push technological advancement forward. The Empire won by the British through force of arms was the lever that propelled their industrialization. The Northern United States industrialized much more quickly as a consequence of the Civil War, Western pressure against pre-industrial Japan and China pushed those countries to industrialize. War research gave us both nuclear power and computers, the space race and satellite communications were the result of geopolitical competition. The Internet was created by the Pentagon, and the contemporary revolution in bionic prosthetics grew out of the horrendous injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thing is, just as is the case for pre-agricultural societies it is impossible to disaggregate war itself with the capacity for cooperation between human beings a capacity that has increased enormously since the widespread adoption of agriculture. Any increase in human cooperative capacity increases a society’s capacity for war, and, oddly enough many increases in human war fighting capacity lead to increases in cooperative capacity in the civilian sphere. We are caught in a tragic technological logic that those who think technology leads of itself to global prosperity and peace if we just use it for the right ends are largely unaware of. Increases in our technological capacity even if pursued for non-military ends will grant us further capacity for violence and it is not clear that abandoning military research wouldn’t derail or greatly slow technological progress altogether.

One perhaps doesn’t normally associate the quest for better warfighting technologies with transhumanism- the idea “that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology”-, butone should. It’s not only the case that, as mentioned above, the revolution in bionic prosthetics emerged from war, the military is at the forefront of almost every technology on transhumanists’ wish list for future humanity from direct brain-machine and brain- to-brain interfaces to neurological enhancements for cognition and human emotion. And this doesn’t even capture the military’s revolutionary effect on other aspects of the long held dreams of futurists such as robotics.

The subject of how the world militaries have and are moving us in the direction of “post-human” war is the subject Christopher Coker’s  Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War and it is with this erudite and thought provoking book that the majority of the rest of this post will be concerned.

Warrior Geeks is a book about much more than the “geekification”  of war, the fact that much of what now passes for war is computerized, many the soldiers themselves now video gamers stuck behind desks, even if the people they kill remain flesh and blood. It is also a book about the evolving human condition and how war through science is changing that condition, and what this change might mean for us. For Coker sees the capabilities many transhumanists dream of finding their application first on the battlefield.

There is the constantly monitored “quantified-self”:

And within twenty years much as engineers analyze data and tweak specifications in order to optimize a software program, military commanders will be able to bio-hack into their soldiers brains and bodies, collecting and correlating data the better to optimize their physical and mental performance. The will be able to reduce distractions and increase productivity and achieve “flow”- the optimum state of focus. (63-64)

And then there is “augmented reality” where the real world is overlaid with the digital such as in the ideal which the US army and others are reaching for-to tie together servicemen in a “cybernetic network” where soldiers:

…. don helmets with a minute screen which when flipped over the eyes enables them to see the entire battlefield, marking the location of both friendly and enemy forces. They can also access the latest weather reports. In future, soldiers will not even need helmets at all. They will be able to wear contact lenses directly onto their retinas. (93)

In addition the military is investigating neurological enhancements of all sorts:

The ‘Persistence in Combat Program’ is well advanced and includes research into painkillers which soldiers could take before going into action, in anticipation of blunting the pain of being wounded. Painkillers such as R1624, created by scientists at Rinat Neuroscience, use an antibody to keep in check a neuropeptide that helps transmit pain sensations from the tissues to the nerves. And some would go further in the hope that one day it might be possible to pop a pill and display conspicuous courage like an army of John Rambos. (230)

With 1 in 8 soldiers returning from combat suffering from PTSD Some in the military hope that the scars of war might be undone with neurological advances that would allow us to “erase” memories.

One might go on with examples of exoskeletons that give soldiers superhuman endurance and strength or tying together the most intimate military unit, the platoon, with neural implants that allow direct brain- to-brain communication a kind of “brain-net” that an optimistic neuroscientist like Miguel Nicolelis seems not to have anticipated.

Coker, for his part, sees these developments in a very dark light, a move away from what have been eternal features of both human nature and war such as courage and character and towards a technologically over-determined and ultimately less than human world. He is very good at showing how our reductive assumptions end up compressing the full complexity of human life into something that gives us at least the illusion of technological control. It’s not our machines who are becoming like us, but us like our machines, it is not necessarily our gain in understanding and sovereignty over our nature to understand underlying genetic and neural mechanisms, but a constriction of our sense of ourselves.

Do we gain from being able to erase the memory of an event in combat that leads to our moral injury or lose something in no longer being able to understand and heal it through reconciliation and self-knowledge? Is this not in some way a more reduced and blind answer to the experience of killing and death in war than that of the primitive tribes people mentioned earlier? Luckily, reductive theories of human nature based on our far less than complete understanding of neuroscience or genetics almost always end up showing their inadequacies after a period of friction with the sheer complexity of being alive.

There are dangers which I see as two-fold. First, there is always the danger that we will move under the assumptions that we have sufficient knowledge and that the solutions to some problem are therefore “easy” should we just double-down and apply some technological or medical solution. Given enough time, the complexity of reality is likely to rear its head, though not after we have caused a good deal of damage in the name of a chimera. Secondly, it is that we will use our knowledge to torque the complexity of the human world into something more simple and ultimately more shallow in the quest for a reality we deem manageable. There is something deeper and more truthful in the primitive response to the experience of killing than erasing the memory of such experiences.

One of the few problems I had with Coker’s otherwise incredible book is, sadly, a very fundamental one. In some sense, Warrior Geeks is not so much a critique of the contemporary ways and trend lines of war, but a bio-conservative argument against transhumanist technologies that uses the subject of war as a backdrop. Echoing Thucydides Coker defines war as “the human thing” and sees its transformation towards post-human forms as ultimately dehumanizing. Thucydides may have been the most brilliant historian to ever live, but his claim that in war our full humanity is made manifest is true only in a partial sense. Almost all higher animals engage in intraspecies killing, and we are not the worst culprit. It wasn’t human beings who invented war, and who have been fighting for the longests, but the ants. As Keeley puts it:

But before developing too militant a view of human existence, let us put war in its place. However frequent, dramatic, and eye-catching, war remains a lesser part of social life. Whether one takes a purely behavioral view of human life or imagines that one can divine mental events, there can be no dispute that peaceful activities, arts, and ideas are by far more crucial and more common even in bellicose societies. (178)

If war has anything in human meaning over and above areas that are truly distinguishing between us and animals such as our culture or for that matter experiences we share with other animals such as love, companionship, and care for our young, it is that at the intimate level, such as is found in platoons, it is one of the few areas where what we do truly has consequences and where we are not superfluous.

We have evolved for culture, love and care as much as we ever have for war, and during most of our evolutionary history the survival of those around us really was dependent on what we did. War, in some cases, is one of the few places today where this earlier importance of the self can be made manifest. Or, as the journalist, Sebastian Junger has stated it, many men eagerly return to combat not so much because they are addicted to its adrenaline high as because being part of a platoon in a combat zone is one of the few places where what a 20 something year old man does actually counts for something.

As for transhumanism or continuing technological advancement and war, the solution to the problem starts with realizing there is no ultimate solution to the problem. To embrace human enhancement advanced by the spear-tip of military innovation would be to turn the movement into something resembling fascism- that is militarism combined with the denial of our shared human worth and destiny. Yet, to completely deny the fact that research into military applications often leads to leaps in technological advancement would be to blind ourselves to the facts of history. Exoskeletons that are developed as armor for our soldiers will very likely lead to advances for paraplegics and the elderly not to mention persons in perfect health just as a host of military innovations have led to benefits for civilians in the past.

Perhaps, one could say that if we sought to drastically reduce military spending worldwide, as in any case I believe we should, we would have sufficient resources to devote to civilian technological improvements of and for themselves. The problem here is the one often missed by technological enthusiasts who fail to take into account the cruel logic of war- that advancements in the civilian sphere alone would lead to military innovations. Exoskeletons developed for paraplegics would very likely end up being worn by soldiers somewhere, or as Keeley puts it:

Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it. (158)

Our only good answer to this is really not technological at all, it is to continue to decrease the sphere of human life where war “makes sense” as a tactic. War is only chosen as an option when the peaceful roads to material improvement and respect are closed. We need to ensure both that everyone is able to prosper in our globalized economy and that countries and peoples are encouraged, have ways to resolve potentially explosive disputes and afforded the full respect that should come from belonging to what Keeley calls the “intellectual, psychological, and physiological equality of humankind ”, (179) to which one should add moral equality as well.  The prejudice that we who possess scientific knowledge and greater technological capacity than many of our rivals are in some sense fundamentally superior is one of our most pernicious dangers- we are all caught in the same trap.

For two centuries a decline in warfare has been possible because, even taking into account the savagery of the World Wars, the prosperity of mankind has been improving. A new stage of crisis truly earthshaking proportions would occur should this increasing prosperity be derailed, most likely from its collision with the earth’s inability to sustain our technological civilization becoming truly universal, or from the exponential growth upon which this spreading prosperity rests being tapped out and proving a short-lived phenomenon- it is, after all only two centuries old. Should rising powers such as China and India along with peoples elsewhere come to the conclusion that not only were they to be denied full development to the state of advanced societies, but that the system was rigged in favor of the long industrialized powers, we might wake up to discover that technology hadn’t been moving us towards an age of global unity and peace, after all, but that we had been lucky enough to live in a long interlude in which the human story, for once, was not also the story of war.


Wired for Good and Evil

Battle in Heaven

It seems almost as long as we could speak human beings have been arguing over what, if anything, makes us different from other living creatures. Mark Pagel’s recent book Wired for Culture: The Origins of the Human Social Mind is just the latest incantation of this millennia old debate, and as it has always been, the answers he comes up with have implications for our relationship with our fellow animals, and, above all, our relationship with one another, even if Pagel doesn’t draw many such implications.

As is the case with so many of the ideas regarding human nature, Aristotle got there first. A good bet to make when anyone comes up with a really interesting idea regarding what we are as a species is that either Plato or Aristotle had already come up with it, or discussed it. Which is either a sign of how little progress we have made understanding ourselves, or symptomatic of the fact that the fundamental questions for all our gee-whiz science and technology remain important even if ultimately never fully answerable.

Aristotle had classified human beings as being unique in the sense that we were a zóon politikón variously translated as a social animal or a political animal. His famous quote on this score of course being: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” (Politics Book I)

He did recognize that other animals were social in a similar way to human beings, animals such as storks (who knew), but especially social insects such as bees and ants. He even understood bees (the Greeks were prodigious beekeepers) and ants as living under different types of political regimes. Misogynists that he was he thought bees lived under a king instead of a queen and thought the ants more democratic and anarchical. (History of Animals).       

Yet Aristotle’s definition of mankind as zóon politikón is deeper than that. As he says in his Politics:

That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain, and man alone among the animals has speech….Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful and hence also the just and unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.  (Politics Book 1).

Human beings are shaped in a way animals are not by the culture of their community, the particular way their society has defined what is good and what is just. We live socially in order to live up to their potential for virtue- ideas that speech alone makes manifest and allows us to resolve. Aristotle didn’t just mean talk but discussion, debate, conversation all guided by reason. Because he doesn’t think women and slaves are really capable of such conversations he excludes them from full membership in human society.More on that at the end, but now back to Pagel’s Wired for Culture.

One of the things Pagel thinks makes human beings unique among all other animals is the fact that we alone are hyper-social or ultra-social. The only animals that even come close are the eusocial insects- Aristotle’s ants and bees. As E.O. Wilson pointed out in his The Social Conquest of Earth it is the eusocial species, including us, which, pound-for-pound absolutely dominate life on earth. In the spirit of a 1950’s B-movie all the ants in the world added together are actually heavier than us.

Eusociality makes a great deal of sense for insects colonies and hives given how closely related these groups are, indeed, in many ways they might be said to constitute one body and just as cells in our body sacrifice themselves for the survival of the whole, eusocial insects often do the same. Human beings, however, are different, after all, if you put your life at risk by saving the children of non-relatives from a fire, you’ve done absolutely nothing for your reproductive potential, and may even have lost your chance to reproduce. Yet, sacrifices and cooperation like this are done by human beings all the time, though the vast majority in a less heroic key. We are thus, hypersocial- willing to cooperate with and help non-relatives in ways no other animals do. What gives?

Pagel’s solution to this evolutionary conundrum is very similar to Wilson’s though he uses different lingo. Pagel sees us as naturally members of what he calls cultural survival vehicles, we evolved to be raised in them, and to be loyal to them because that was the best, perhaps the only way, of securing our own survival. These cultural survival vehicles themselves became the selective environment in which we evolved. Societies where individuals hoarded their cooperation or refused to makes sacrifices for the survival of the group overtime were driven out of existence by those where individuals had such qualities.

The fact that we have evolved to be cooperative and giving within our particular cultural survival vehicle Pagel sees as the origin of our angelic qualities our altruism and heroism and just general benevolence. No other animal helps its equivalent of little old ladies cross the street, or at least to nothing like the extent we do.   

Yet, if having evolved to live in cultural survival vehicles has made us capable of being angels, for Pagel, it has also given rise to our demonic capacities as well. No other species is a giving as we are, but, then again, no other species has invented torture devices and practices like the iron maiden or breaking on the wheel like we have either. Nor does any other species go to war with fellow members of its species so commonly or so savagely as human beings.

Pagel thinks that our natural benevolence can be easily turned off under two circumstance both of which represent a threat to our particular cultural survival vehicle.

We can be incredibly cruel when we think someone threatens the survival of our group by violating its norms. There is a sort of natural proclivity in human nature to burn “witches” which is why we need to be particularly on guard whenever some part of our society is labeled as vile and marked for punishment- The Scarlet Letter should be required reading in high school.

There is also a natural proclivity for members of one cultural survival vehicle to demonize and treat cruelly their rivals- a weakness we need to be particularly aware of in judging the heated rhetoric in the run up to war.

Pagel also breaks with Richard Dawkins over the later’s view of the evolutionary value of religion. Dawkins in his book The God Virus and subsequently has tended to view religion as a net negative- being a suicide bomber is not a successful reproductive strategy, nor is celibacy. Dawkins has tended to see ideas his “memes” as in a way distinct from the person they inhabit. Like genes, his memes don’t care all that much about the well being of the person who has them- they just want to make more of themselves- a goal that easily conflicts with the goal of genes to reproduce.

Pagel quite nicely closes the gap between memes and genes which had left human beings torn in two directions at once. Memes need living minds to exists, so any meme that had too large a negative effect on the reproductive success of genes should have lain its own grave quite quickly. But if genes are being selected for because they protect not the individual but the group one can see how memes that might adversely impact an individual’s chance of reproductive success can nonetheless aid in the survival of the group. For religions to have survived for so long and to be so universal they must be promoting group survival rather than being a detriment to it, and because human beings need these groups to live religion must on average, though not in every particular case, be promoting the survival of the individual at least to reproductive age.

One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore interesting claims Pagel makes is that what really separates human beings from other species is our imitativeness as opposed to our inventiveness. It the reverse of the trope found in the 60’s-70’s books and films that built around the 1963 novel La Planète des singes- The Planet of the Apes. If you remember, the apes there are able to imitate human technology, but aren’t able to invent it- “monkey see, monkey do”. Perhaps it should be “human see human do” for if Pagel is right our advantage as a species really lies in our ability to copy one another. If I see you doing something enough times I am pretty likely to be able to repeat it though I might not have a clue what it was I was actually doing.

Pagel thinks that all we need is innovation through minor tweaks combined with our ability to rapidly copy one another to have technological evolution take off. In his view geniuses are not really required for human advancement, though they might speed the process along. He doesn’t really apply his ideas to understand modern history, but such a view could explain what the scientific revolution which corresponded with the widespread adoption of the printing press was really all about. The printing press allowed ideas to be deciminated more rapidly whereas the scientific method proved a way to sift those that worked from those that didn’t.

This makes me wonder if something rather silly like Youtube hasn’t even further revved up cultural evolution in this imitative sense. What I’ve found is that instead of turning to “elders” or “experts” when I want to do something new, I just turn to Youtube and find some nice or ambitious soul who has filmed through the steps.

The idea that human beings are the great imitator has some very unanticipated consequences for the rationality of human being visa-vi other animals. Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. One more sign that human beings can be thankful for at least some of their irrationality.

This might have implications for machine intelligence that neither Pagel nor Santos draw. Machines might be said to be rational in the way animals are rational but this does not mean that they possess something like human thought. The key to making artificial intelligence more human like might be in making them, in some sense, less rational or as Jeff Steibel stated it for machine intelligence to be truly human like it will need to be “loopy”, “iterative”, and able to make mistakes.

To return to Pagel, he also sees implications for human consciousness and our sense of self in the idea that we are “wired for culture”. We still have no idea why it is human beings have a self, or think they have one, and we have never been able to locate the sense of self in the brain. Pagel thinks its pretty self-evident why a creature that is enmeshed in a society of like creatures with less than perfectly aligned needs would evolve a sense of self. We need one in order to negotiate our preferences, and our rights.

Language, for Pagel, is not so much a means for discovering and discussing the truth as it is an instrument wielded by the individual to gain in his own interest through persuasion and sometimes outright deception. Pagel’s views seem to be seconded by Steven Pinker who in a fascinating talk back in 2007 laid out how the use of language seems to be structured by the type of relationship it represents. In a polite dinner conversation you don’t say “give me the salt”, but “please pass me the salt” because the former is a command of the type most found in a dominance/submission relationship. The language of seduction is not “come up to my place so I can @#!% you”, but “would you like to come up and see my new prints.” Language is a type of constant negotiation and renegotiation between individuals one that is necessary because relationships between human beings are not ordinarily based on coercion where no speech is necessary besides the grunt of a command.

All of which brings me back to Aristotle and to the question of evil along with the sole glaring oversight of Pagel’s otherwise remarkable book. The problem moderns often have with the brilliant Aristotle is his justification of slavery and the subordination of women. That is, Aristotle clearly articulates what makes a society human- our interdependence, our capacity for speech, the way our “telos” is to be shaped and tuned by the culture in which we are raised like a precious instrument. At the same time he turns around and allows this society to compel by force the actions of those deliberately excluded from the opportunity for speech which he characterizes as a “natural” defect.

Pagel’s cultural survival vehicles miss this sort of internal oppression that is distinct both from the moral anger of the community against those who have violated its norms or its violence towards those outside of it. Aren’t there minature cultural survival vehicles in the form of one group or another that fosters its own genetic interest through oppression and exploitation? It got me thinking if any example of what a more religious age would have called “evil” as opposed to mere “badness” couldn’t be understood as a form of either oppression or exploitation, and I am unable to come up with any.

Such sad reflections dampen Pagel’s optimism towards the end of Wired for Culture that the world’s great global cities are a harbinger of us transcending the state of war between our various cultural survival vehicles and moving towards a global culture. We might need to delve more deeply into our evolutionary proclivities to fight within our own and against other cultural survival vehicles inside our societies as much as outside before we put our trust in such a positive outcome for the human story.

If Pagel is right and we are wired, if we have co-evolved, to compete in the name of our own particular cultural survival vehicle against other such communities then we may have in a very real sense co-evolved with and for war. A subject I will turn to next time by jumping off another very recent and excellent book.