Plato and the Physicist: A Multicosmic Love Story

Life as a Braid of Space Time

 

So I finally got around to reading Max Tegmark’s book Our Mathematical Universe, and while the book answered the question that had led me to read it, namely, how one might reconcile Plato’s idea of eternal mathematical forms with the concept of multiple universes, it also threw up a whole host of new questions. This beautifully written and thought provoking book made me wonder about the future of science and the scientific method, the limits to human knowledge, and the scientific, philosophical and moral meaning of various ideas of the multiverse.

I should start though with my initial question of how Tegmark manages to fit something very much like Plato’s Theory of the Forms into the seemingly chaotic landscape of multiverse theories. If you remember back to your college philosophy classes, you might recall something of Plato’s idea of forms, which in its very basics boils down to this: Plato thought there was a world of perfect, eternally existing ideas of which our own supposedly real world was little more than a shadow. The idea sounds out there until you realize that Plato was thinking like a mathematician. We should remember that over the walls of Plato’s Academy was written “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here”, and for the Greeks geometry was the essence of mathematics. Plato aimed to create a school of philosophical mathematicians much more than he hoped to turn philosophers into a sect of moral geometers.

Probably almost all mathematicians and physicists hold to some version of platonism, which means that they think mathematical structures are something discovered rather than a form of language invented by human beings. Non- mathematicians, myself very much included, often have trouble understanding this, but a simple example from Plato himself might help clarify.

When the Greeks played around with shapes for long enough they discovered things. And here we really should say discover because they had no idea shapes had these properties until they stumbled upon them through play.Plato’s dialogue Meno gave us the most famous demonstration of the discovery rather than invention of mathematical structures. Socrates asks a “slave boy” (we should take this to be the modern day equivalent of the man off the street) to figure out the area of a square which is double that of a square with a length of 2. The key, as Socrates leads the boy to see, is that one should turn the square with the side of 2 into a right triangle the length of whose hypotenuse is then seen as equal to one of the lengths of the doubled square allowing you easily calculate its area. The slave boy explains his measurement epiphany as the “recovery of knowledge from a past life.”

The big gap between Plato and modern platonists is that the ancient philosopher thought the natural world was a flawed copy of the crystalline purity of the mathematics of  thought. Contrast that with Newton who saw the hand of God himself in nature’s calculable regularities. The deeper the scientists of the modern age probed with their new mathematical tools the more nature appeared as Galileo said “ a book written in the language of mathematics”. For the moderns mathematical structures and natural structures became almost one and the same. The Spanish filmmaker and graphic designer Cristóbal Vila has a beautiful short over at AEON reflecting precisely this view.

It’s that “almost” that Tegmark has lept over with his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH). The essence of the MUH is not only that mathematical structures have an independent identity, or that nature is a book written in mathematics, but that the nature is a mathematical structure and just as all mathematical structures exist independent of whether we have discovered them or not, all logically coherent universes exists whether or not we have discovered their structures. This is platonism with a capital P, the latter half explaining how the MUH intersects with the idea of the multiverse.

One of the beneficial things Tegmark does with his book is to provide a simple to understand set of levels for different ideas that there is more than one universe.

Level I: Beyond our cosmological horizon

A Level I multiverse is the easiest for me to understand. It is within the lifetime of people still alive that our universe was held to be no bigger than our galaxy. Before that people thought the entirety of what was consisted of nothing but our solar system, so it is no wonder that people thought humanity was the center of creation’s story. As of right now the observable universe is around 46 billion light years across, actually older than the age of the universe due to its expansion. Yet, why should we think this observable horizon constitutes everything when such assumption has never proved true in the past? The Level I multiverse holds that there are entire other universes outside the limit of what we can observe.

Level II: Universes with different physical constants

The Level II multiverse again makes intuitive sense to me. If one assumes that the Big Bang was not the first or the last of its kind, and  if one assumes there are whole other, potentially an infinite number of universes, why assume that our is the only way a universe should be organized? Indeed, having a variety of physical constants to choose from would make the fine tuning of our own universe make more sense.

Level III: Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics

This is where I start to get lost, or at least this particular doppelganger of me starts to get lost. Here we find Hugh Everett’s interpretation of quantum unpredictability. Rather than Schrodinger’s Cat being pushed from a superposition of states between alive and dead when you open the box, exposing the feline causes the universe to split- in one universe you have an alive cat, and in another a dead one. It gets me dizzy just thinking about it, just imagine the poor cat- wait, I am the cat!

Level IV: Ultimate ensemble

Here we have Tegmark’s model itself where every universe that can represented as a logically consistent mathematical structure is said to actually exist. In such a multiverse when you roll a six-sided die, there end up being six universes corresponding to each of the universes, but there is no universe where you have rolled a “1 not 1” , and so on. If a universe’s mathematical structure can be described, then that universe can be said to exist there being, in Tegmark’s view, no difference between such a mathematical structure and a universe.

I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to give scale to the shadow of our ignorance and expand our horizon in space and time. As mentioned, we had once thought all that is was only as big as our solar system and merely thousands of years old. By the 19th century the universe had expanded to the size of our galaxy and the past had grown to as much as 400 million years. By the end of the 20th century we knew there were at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe and that its age was 13.7 billion. There is no reason to believe that we have grasped the full totality of existence, that the universe, beyond our observable horizon isn’t even bigger, and the past deeper. There is “no sign on the Big Bang saying ‘this happened only once’” as someone once said cleverly whose attribution I cannot find.

Ideas of the multiverse seemed to explain the odd fact that the universe seems fine-tuned to provide the conditions for life, Martin Rees “six numbers” such as Epsilon (ε)- the strength of the force binding nucleons to nuclei. If you have a large enough sample of universes then the fact that some universes are friendly for life starts to make more sense. The problem, I think, comes in when you realize just how large this sample size has to be to get you to fine tuning- somewhere on the order of 10 ^200. What this means is that you’ve proposed the existence of a very very large or even infinite number of values, as far as we know which are unobservable to explain essentially six. If this is science, it is radically different from the science we’ve known since Galileo dropped cannon balls off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

For whatever reason, rather than solidify my belief in the possibility of the multiverse, or convert me to platonism, Tegmark’s book left me with a whole host of new questions, which is what good books do. The problem is my damned doppelgangers who can be found not only at the crazy quantum Level III, but at the levels I thought were a preserve of Copernican Mediocrity – Levels I and II, or as Tegmark says.

The only difference between Level I and Level III is where your doppelgängers reside.

Yet, to my non-physicist eyes, the different levels of multiverse sure seems distinct. Level III seems to violate Copernican Mediocrity with observers and actors being able to call into being whole new timelines with even the most minutea laden of their choices, whereas Levels I and II simply posit that a universe sufficiently large enough and sufficiently extended enough in time would allow for repeat performances down to the smallest detail- perhaps the universe is just smaller than that, or less extended in time, or there is some sort of kink whereby when what the late Stephen J Gould called the “life tape” is replayed you can never get the same results twice.

Still, our intuitions about reality have often been proven wrong, so no theory can be discounted on the basis of intuitive doubts. There are other reasons, however, why we might use caution when it comes to multiverse theories, namely, their potential risk to the scientific endeavor itself.  The fact that we can never directly observe parts of the multiverse that are not our own means that we would have to step away from falsifiability as the criteria for scientific truth. The physicist Sean Carroll  argues that falsifiability is a weak criteria, what makes a theory scientific is that it is “direct” (says something definite about how reality works) and “empirical”, by which he no longer means the Popperian notion of falsifiability, but its ability to explain the world. He writes:

Consider the multiverse.

If the universe we see around us is the only one there is, the vacuum energy is a unique constant of nature, and we are faced with the problem of explaining it. If, on the other hand, we live in a multiverse, the vacuum energy could be completely different in different regions, and an explanation suggests itself immediately: in regions where the vacuum energy is much larger, conditions are inhospitable to the existence of life. There is therefore a selection effect, and we should predict a small value of the vacuum energy. Indeed, using this precise reasoning, Steven Weinberg did predict the value of the vacuum energy, long before the acceleration of the universe was discovered.

We can’t (as far as we know) observe other parts of the multiverse directly. But their existence has a dramatic effect on how we account for the data in the part of the multiverse we do observe.

One could look at Tegmark’s MUH and Carroll’s comments as a broadening of our scientific and imaginative horizons and the continuation of our powers to explain into realms beyond what human beings will ever observe. The idea of a 22nd version of Plato’s Academy using amazingly powerful computers to explore all the potential universes ala Tegmark’s MUH is an attractive future to me. Yet, given how reliant we are on science and the technology that grows from it, and given the role of science in our society in establishing the consensus view of what our shared physical reality actually is, we need to be cognizant and careful of what such a changed understanding of science actually might mean.

The physicist, George Ellis, for one, thinks the multiverse hypothesis, and not just Tegmark’s version of it, opens the door to all sorts of pseudoscience such as Intelligent Design. After all, the explanation that the laws and structure of our universe can be understood only by reference to something “outside” is the essence of explanations from design as well, and just like the multiverse, cannot be falsified.

One might think that the multiverse was a victory of theorizing over real world science, but I think Sean Carroll is essentially right when he defends the multiverse theory by saying:

 Science is not merely armchair theorizing; it’s about explaining the world we see, developing models that fit the data.

It’s the use of the word “model” here rather than “theory” that is telling. For a model is a type of representation of something whereas a theory constitutes an attempt at a coherent self-contained explanation. If the move from theories to models was only happening in physics then we might say that this had something to do merely with physics as a science rather than science in general. But we see this move all over the place.

Among, neuroscientists, for example, there is no widely agreed upon theory of how SSRIs work, even though they’ve been around for a generation, and there’s more. In a widely debated speech Noam Chomsky argued that current statistical models in AI were bringing us no closer to the goal of AGI or the understanding of human intelligence because they lacked any coherent theory of how intelligence works. As Yaden Katz wrote for The Atlantic:

Chomsky critiqued the field of AI for adopting an approach reminiscent of behaviorism, except in more modern, computationally sophisticated form. Chomsky argued that the field’s heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. For Chomsky, the “new AI” — focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data — is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.

Likewise, the field of systems biology and especially genomic science is built not on theory but on our ability to scan enormous databases of genetic information looking for meaningful correlations. The new field of social physics is based on the idea that correlations of human behavior can be used as governance and management tools, and business already believes that statistical correlation is worth enough to spend billions on and build an economy around.

Will this work as well as the science we’ve had for the last five centuries? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly constitutes a big change for science and the rest of us who depend upon it. This shouldn’t be taken as an unqualified defense of theory- for if theory was working then we wouldn’t be pursuing this new route of data correlation whatever the powers of our computers. Yet, those who are pushing this new model of science should be aware of its uncertain success, and its dangers.

The primary danger I can see from these new sorts of science, and this includes the MUH, is that it challenges the role of science in establishing the consensus reality which we all must agree upon. Anyone who remembers their Thomas Kuhn can recall that what makes science distinct from almost any system of knowledge we’ve had before, is that it both enforces a consensus view of physical reality beyond which an individual’s view of the world can be considered “unreal”, and provides a mechanism by which this consensus reality can be challenged and where the challenge is successful overturned.

With multiverse theories we are in approaching what David Engelman calls Possibilism the exploration of every range of ways existence can be structured that is compatible with the findings of science and is rationally coherent. I find this interesting as a philosophical and even spiritual project, but it isn’t science, at least as we’ve understood science since the beginning of the modern world. Declaring the project to be scientific blurs the lines between science and speculation and might allow people to claim the kind of understanding over uncertainty that makes politics and consensus decisions regarding acute needs of the present, such a global warming, or projected needs of the future impossible.

Let me try to clarify this. I found it very important that in Our Mathematical Universe Tegmark tried to tackle the problem of existential risks facing the human future. He touches upon everything from climate change, to asteroid impacts, to pandemics to rogue AI. Yet, the very idea that there are multiple versions of us out there, and that our own future is determined seems to rob these issues of their urgency. In an “infinity” of predetermined worlds we destroy ourselves, just as in an “infinity” of predetermined worlds we do what needs to be done. There is no need to urge us forward because, puppet-like, we are destined to do one thing or the other on this particular timeline.

Morally and emotionally, how is what happens in this version of the universe in the future all that different from what happens in other universe? Persons in those parallel universes are even closer to us, our children, parents, spouses, and even ourselves than the people of the future on our own timeline. According to the deterministic models of the multiverse, the world of these others are outside of our influence and both the expansion or contraction of our ethical horizon leave us in the same state of moral paralysis. Given this, I will hold off on believing in the multiverse, at least on the doppelganger scale of Level I and II, and especially Levels III and IV until it actually becomes established as a scientific fact,which it is not at the moment, and given our limitations, perhaps never will be, even if it is ultimately true.

All that said, I greatly enjoyed Tegmark’s book, it was nothing if not thought provoking. Nor would I say it left me with little but despair, for in one section he imagined a Spinoza-like version of eternity that will last me a lifetime, or perhaps I should say beyond.  I am aware that I will contradict myself here: his image that gripped me was of an individual life seen as a braid of space-time. For Tegmark, human beings have the most complex space-time braids we know of. The idea vastly oversimplified by the image above.

About which Tegmark explains:

At both ends of your spacetime braid, corresponding to your birth and death, all the threads gradually separate, corresponding to all your particles joining, interacting and finally going their own separate ways. This makes the spacetime structure of your entire life resemble a tree: At the bottom, corresponding to early times, is an elaborate system of roots corresponding to the spacetime trajectories of many particles, which gradually merge into thicker strands and culminate in a single tube-like trunk corresponding to your current body (with a remarkable braid-like pattern inside as we described above). At the top, corresponding to late times, the trunk splits into ever finer branches, corresponding to your particles going their own separate ways once your life is over. In other words, the pattern of life has only a finite extent along the time dimension, with the braid coming apart into frizz at both ends.

Because mathematical structures always exist whether or not anyone has discovered them, our life braid can be said to have always existed and will always exist. I have never been able to wrap my head around the religious idea of eternity, but this eternity I understand. Someday I may even do a post on how the notion of time found in the MUH resembles the medieval idea of eternity as nunc stans, the standing-now, but for now I’ll use it to address more down to earth concerns.

My youngest daughter, philosopher that she is, has often asked me “where was I before I was born?”. To which my lame response has been “you were an egg” which for a while made big breakfasts difficult. Now I can just tell her to get out her crayons to scribble, and we’ll color our way to something profound.

 

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

FQXi

Over the spring the Fundamental Questions Institute (FQXi) sponsored an essay contest the topic of which should be dear to this audience’s heart- How Should Humanity Steer the Future? I thought I’d share some of the essays I found most interesting, but there are lots, lots, more to check out if you’re into thinking about the future or physics, which I am guessing you might be.

If there was any theme I found across the 140 or so essays entered in the contest – it was that the 21st century was make- it- or-break-it for humanity, so we need to get our act together, and fast. If you want a metaphor for this sentiment, you couldn’t do much better than Nietzsche’s idea that humanity is like an individual walking on a “rope over an abyss”.

A Rope over an Abyss by Laurence Hitterdale

Hitterdale’s idea is that for most of human history the qualitative aspects of human experience have pretty much been the same, but that is about to change. What are facing, according to Hitterdale, is the the extinction of our species or the realization of our wildest perennial human dreams- biological superlongevity, machine intelligence that seem to imply the end of drudgery and scarcity. As he points out, some very heavy hitting thinkers seem to think we live in make or break times:

 John Leslie, judged the probability of human extinction during the next five centuries as perhaps around thirty per cent at least. Martin Rees in 2003 stated, “I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.”Less than ten years later Rees added a comment: “I have been surprised by how many of my colleagues thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and so considered me an optimist.”

In a nutshell, Hiterdale’s solution is for us to concentrate more on preventing negative outcomes that achieving positive ones in this century. This is because even positive outcomes like human superlongevity and greater than human AI could lead to negative outcomes if we don’t sort out our problems or establish controls first.

How to avoid steering blindly: The case for a robust repository of human knowledge by Jens C. Niemeyer

This was probably my favorite essay overall because it touched on issues dear to my heart- how will we preserve the past in light of the huge uncertainties of the future.  Niemeyer makes the case that we need to establish a repository of human knowledge in the event we suffer some general disaster, and how we might do this.

By one of those strange incidences of serendipity, while thinking about Niemeyer’s ideas and browsing the science section of my local bookstore I came across a new book by Lewis Dartnell The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch which covers the essential technologies human beings will need if they want to revive civilization after a collapse. Or maybe I shouldn’t consider it so strange. Right next to The Knowledge was another new book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David Hand, but I digress.

The digitization of knowledge and its dependence on the whole technological apparatus of society actually makes us more vulnerable to the complete loss of information both social and personal and therefore demands that we backup our knowledge. Only things like a flood or a fire could have destroyed our lifetime visual records the way we used to store them- in photo albums- but now all many of us would have to do is lose or break our phone. As Niemeyer  says:

 Currently, no widespread efforts are being made to protect digital resources against global disasters and to establish the means and procedures for extracting safeguarded digital information without an existing technological infrastructure. Facilities like, for instance, the Barbarastollen underground archive for the preservation of Germany’s cultural heritage (or other national and international high-security archives) operate on the basis of microfilm stored at constant temperature and low humidity. New, digital information will most likely never exist in printed form and thus cannot be archived with these techniques even in principle. The repository must therefore not only be robust against man-made or natural disasters, it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity.

Niemeyer imagines the creation of such a knowledge repository as a unifying project for humankind:

Ultimately, the protection and support of the repository may become one of humanity’s most unifying goals. After all, our collective memory of all things discovered or created by mankind, of our stories, songs and ideas, have a great part in defining what it means to be human. We must begin to protect this heritage and guarantee that future generations have access to the information they need to steer the future with open eyes.

Love it!

One Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever by Robert de Neufville

If Niemeyer is trying to goad us into preparing should the worst occur, like Hitterdale, Robert de Neufville is working towards making sure these nightmare, especially self-inflicted ones, don’t come true in the first place. He does this as a journalist and writer and as an associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

As de Neufville points out, and as I myself have argued before, the silence of the universe gives us reason to be pessimistic about the long term survivability of technological civilization. Yet, the difficulties that stand in the way of our minimizing global catastrophic risks, thing like developing an environmentally sustainable modern economy, protecting ourselves against global pandemics or meteor strikes of a scale that might set civilization on its knees, or the elimination of the threat of nuclear war, are more challenges of politics than technology. He writes:

But the greatest challenges may be political. Overcoming the technical challenges may be easy in comparison to using our collective power as a species wisely. If humanity were a single person with all the knowledge and abilities of the entire human race, avoiding nuclear war, and environmental catastrophe would be relatively easy. But in fact we are billions of people with different experiences, different interests, and different visions for the future.

In a sense, the future is a collective action problem. Our species’ prospects are effectively what economists call a “common good”. Every person has a stake in our future. But no one person or country has the primary responsibility for the well-being of the human race. Most do not get much personal benefit from sacrificing to lower the risk of extinction. And all else being equal each would prefer that others bear the cost of action. Many powerful people and institutions in particular have a strong interest in keeping their investments from being stranded by social change. As Jason Matheny has said, “extinction risks are market failures”.

His essay makes an excellent case that it is time we mature as a species and live up to our global responsibilities. The most important of which is ensuring our continued existence.

The “I” and the Robot by Cristinel Stoica

Here Cristinel Stoica makes a great case for tolerance, intellectual humility and pluralism, a sentiment perhaps often expressed but rarely with such grace and passion.

As he writes:

The future is unpredictable and open, and we can make it better, for future us and for our children. We want them to live in peace and happiness. They can’t, if we want them to continue our fights and wars against others that are different, or to pay them back bills we inherited from our ancestors. The legacy we leave them should be a healthy planet, good relations with others, access to education, freedom, a healthy and critical way of thinking. We have to learn to be free, and to allow others to be free, because this is the only way our children will be happy and free. Then, they will be able to focus on any problems the future may reserve them.

Ends of History and Future Histories in the Longue Duree by Benjamin Pope

In his essay Benjamin Pope is trying to peer into the human future over the long term, by looking at the types of institutions that survive across centuries and even millennia: Universities, “churches”, economic systems- such as capitalism- and potentially multi-millennial, species – wide projects, namely space colonization.

I liked Pope’s essay a lot, but there are parts of it I disagreed with. For one, I wish he would have included cities. These are the oldest lived of human institutions, and unlike Pope’s other choices are political, and yet manage to far out live other political forms- namely states or empires. Rome far outlived the Roman Empire and my guess is that many American cities, as long as they are not underwater, will outlive the United States.

Pope’s read on religion might be music to the ears of some at the IEET:

Even the very far future will have a history, and this future history may have strong, path-dependent consequences. Once we are at the threshold of a post-human society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse, and there is a danger that any locked-in system not able to adapt appropriately will prevent a full spectrum of human flourishing that might otherwise occur.

Pope seems to lean toward the negative take on the role of religion to promote “a full spectrum of human flourishing” and , “as a worst-case scenario, may lock out humanity from futures in which peace and freedom will be more achievable.”

To the surprise of many in the secular West, and that includes an increasingly secular United States, the story of religion will very much be the story of humanity over the next couple of centuries, and that includes especially the religion that is dying in the West today, Christianity. I doubt, however, that religion has either the will or the capacity to stop or even significantly slow technological development, though it might change our understanding of it. It also the case that, at the end of the day, religion only thrives to the extent it promotes human flourishing and survival, though religious fanatics might lead us to think otherwise. I am also not the only one to doubt Pope’s belief that “Once we are at the threshold of a posthuman society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse”.

Still, I greatly enjoyed Pope’s essay, and it was certainly thought provoking.  

Smooth seas do not make good sailors by Georgina Parry

If you’re looking to break out of your dystopian gloom for a while, and I myself keep finding reasons for which to be gloomy, then you couldn’t do much better to take a peak and Georgina Parry’s fictionalized peak at a possible utopian future. Like a good parent, Parry encourages our confidence, but not our hubris:

 The image mankind call ‘the present’ has been written in the light but the material future has not been built. Now it is the mission of people like Grace, and the human species, to build a future. Success will be measured by the contentment, health, altruism, high culture, and creativity of its people. As a species, Homo sapiens sapiens are hackers of nature’s solutions presented by the tree of life, that has evolved over millions of years.

The future is the past by Roger Schlafly

Schlafly’s essay literally made my draw drop, it was so morally absurd and even obscene.

Consider a mundane decision to walk along the top of a cliff. Conventional advice would be to be safe by staying away from the edge. But as Tegmark explains, that safety is only an illusion. What you perceive as a decision to stay safe is really the creation of a clone who jumps off the cliff. You may think that you are safe, but you are really jumping to your death in an alternate universe.

Armed with this knowledge, there is no reason to be safe. If you decide to jump off thecliff, then you really create a clone of yourself who stays on top of the cliff. Both scenarios are equally real, no matter what you decide. Your clone is indistinguishable from yourself, and will have the same feelings, except that one lives and the other dies. The surviving one can make more clones of himself just by making more decisions.

Schlafly rams the point home that under current views of the multiverse in physics nothing you do really amount to a choice, we are stuck on an utterly deterministic wave-function on whose branching where we play hero and villain, and there is no space for either praise or guilt. You can always act as a coward or naive sure that somewhere “out there” another version of “you” does the right thing. Saving humanity from itself in the ways proposed by Hitterdale and de Neufville, preparing for the worst as in Niemeyer and Pope or trying to build a better future as Parry and Stoica makes no sense here. Like poor Schrodinger’s cat, on some branches we end up surviving, on some we destroy ourselves and it is not us who is in charge of which branch we are on.

The thought made me cringe, but then I realized Schlafly must be playing a Swiftian game. Applying quantum theory to the moral and political worlds we inhabit leads to absurdity. This might or might not call into question the fundamental  reality of the multiverse or the universal wave function, but it should not lead us to doubt or jettison our ideas regarding our own responsibility for the lives we live, which boil down to the decisions we have made.

Chinese Dream is Xuan Yuan’s Da Tong by KoGuan Leo

Those of us in the West probably can’t help seeing the future of technology as nearly synonymous with the future of our own civilization, and a civilization, when boiled down to its essence, amounts to a set of questions a particular group of human beings keeps asking, and their answer to these questions. The questions in the West are things like what is the right balance between social order and individual freedom? What is the relationship between the external and internal (mental/spiritual) worlds, including the question of the meaning of Truth? How might the most fragile thing in existence, and for us the most precious- the individual- survive across time? What is the relationship between the man-made world- and culture- visa-vi nature, and which is most important to the identity and authenticity of the individual?

The progress of science and technology intersect with all of these questions, but what we often forget is that we have sown the seeds of science and technology elsewhere and the environment in which they will grow can be very different and hence their application and understanding different based as they will be on a whole different set of questions and answers encountered by a distinct civilization.

Leo KoGuan’s essay approaches the future of science and technology from the perspective of Chinese civilization. Frankly, I did not really understand his essay which seemed to me a combination of singularitarianism and Chinese philosophy that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.  What am I to make of this from the Founder and Chairman of a 5.1 billion dollar computer company:

 Using the KQID time-engine, earthlings will literally become Tianming Ren with God-like power to create and distribute objects of desire at will. Unchained, we are free at last!

Other than the fact that anyone interested in the future of transhumanism absolutely needs to be paying attention to what is happening and what and how people are thinking in China.

Lastly, I myself had an essay in the contest. It was about how we are facing incredible hurdles in the near future and that one of the ways we might succeed in facing these hurdles is by recovering the ability to imagine what an ideal society, Utopia, might look like. Go figure.

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”.

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.