Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Human Singularity - Part I

It seems ironic to me that the  idea that humanity originated with a  single decisive change now gets short shrift by most scientists and philosophers.   Instead the idea of a singularity is pinned on the popular science fiction fantasy of intelligent machines taking over the world at an unspecified future moment in time.

Nowadays scientists and philosophers are so specialized that they can’t possibly see the whole of human nature by looking through the lense of their separate disciplines.  Everyone is looking at little bits and pieces like the story of the blind men trying to figure out the shape of an elephant. As of yet, the experts don’t agree on what human nature is and how it originated.  Perhaps the subject of human nature is not really a scientific subject at all because it’s just too general for most scientists, as the concept of “life” is for biology.  

All life is purposive, in the sense that each life form tries to keep surviving and reproducing.  A flame may seem to act like a living thing because we can see it feeding off combustibles, we can  see it move and change shape and feel its heat if we get too close.  But a flame doesn’t have any  purpose.  It doesn’t anticipate running out of fuel, and it doesn’t look for more fuel elsewhere in order to keep itself alive.  

Similarly no machine generates its own purpose.  Machines do things, because they are designed and operated by humans.  At no future time will a machine cross over this boundary to become purposive and self-maintaining and self-replicating because there is nothing about machines that equates to the urge to live.

All critters are motivated to keep living, avoid predators, and dangers, approach and utilize food and shelter, enjoy the fruits of a good life and make babies. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds of millions of years.  All living organisms today share a common descent from an original organism that maintained and replicated itself more than three billion years ago.  For all that time,this chain of life has never been broken.

  Machines have no background like this.  They don’t need to survive, because their “surviving” is totally dependent on specific  human purposes. We need machines.  They don’t need themselves or us.  They only do what they are programmed to do.
Judging by  the widespread popularity of science fiction stories and movies like the Terminator, 2001,  Star Wars, and Avatar,  it is still  very easy to imagine and believe that human-type purposes can  independently  exist and animate machines.  But, this is really just an updated version of an old way of looking at our world called “animism” - the belief that spirits and gods animate natural phenomena like rivers, the weather, and volcanoes.  

Most of us are aware that storms are a natural phenomenon caused by  weather patterns, and they are not the result of storm gods punishing people or exacting revenge.  It might feel intuitively like that when we are caught in a  bad storm, but we know that that kind of thinking is projecting human qualities onto brute physical processes.

Now that we have Darwin’s theory of Evolution we have an explanation of how things came about that doesn’t involve projecting human intentions onto either nature or supernatural beings.  Natural selection, which means roughly, that populations are winnowed by natural causes and it is the survivors who preserve and pass on successful hereditary traits.  But it also implies that our origins were not from design, and that is a revolutionary suggestion to our ears.

Humans are not natural, in the sense of being self-organizing like primate societies, or other types of animal groupings.  Humans create social reality by design, by  conscious deliberation and collective agreement. On the other hand, nature is not human, it doesn’t have human consciousness, intentions and purpose.   The problem that this entails is simple but very far-reaching: the way that we came into existence must have been natural but through that  process we somehow created our own separate human nature.

Nowadays, to talk about a decisive difference between humans and animals is a bit unpopular.  It would seem that, by the principles of Darwinian natural selection there cannot have been a singularity because the transition from animal to man had to be a gradual one.  One could almost call it a consensus view that there could be no single factor in human evolution that led to homo sapiens, it had to be multiple factors, and over a vast span of time.

In other words, today it is easier to imagine our end with the Terminator than it is to imagine how we first actually  became different from animals.

The book of Genesis tells us that God made humans in God’s image.  A wonderful metaphor that could mean just about anything because we don’t have any direct evidence of God’s existence.  Presumably it is hinting at our comprehensive and expanding knowledge of the world and our use and possession of reason rather than just animal instincts and passions.

In Genesis God walks in his garden just as we do, he takes a well-earned rest after creating the world in six days,  and he gets into bad moods and wrecks things just like we do and this is all consistent with the theme that we were created in God’s image.   

I believe the collective use of moral judgement is what distinguishes us from animals and  this is what gave us the ability to bootstrap our way out of the natural world by making it  possible to construct our own reality and impose it on almost everything else.

The problem here is the same problem to do with the image of God.  Where is the evidence?  It turns out that there is some evidence, and it exists all around us but this evidence is so much a part of the background that it remains unseen, and taken for granted.  Humans have language and morality. What do these two have in common?  They are both rule-bound activities, that involve and include all humans, or at least, would do  so in a paleolithic group of thirty to a hundred humans.  

Why this size of group?   Like other primates we live in groups in order to survive.  and, there are some good reasons why the first humans lived in groups of from thirty to a hundred people. First off the first groups of humans couldn’t have been smaller than thirty for a number of reasons. They had to be nomadic, so they had to have few possessions and they would have depended on each other to survive.   They had to deal with other groups of people and be able to defend themselves.  

 But larger groups, while they might be more effective in warfare, might not be supportable in many less-than-plentiful environments.  And dissension and violence seems to accompany groups when they get too large.  No doubt that humans are the co-operators par-excellence, but the rate of failure undoubtedly  goes up when a group gets too large.

Language, and morality are basic human social activities.  Knowing what they have in common might give us a good idea about what distinguishes us from animals.

The first quality is “commons”.  Both of these human activities would be shared in  common with everyone in the group.  Everyone in a group would speak the same language.  For any given language, all its speakers share the same words and the same rules of grammar.  

We also include everyone in our moral system, unless we believe that for some reason they cannot comprehend or follow its moral precepts. If we judge anyone to violate moral rules, they are punished, shunned, banished, or even executed.  ( Note that I am not here claiming that one particular moral system is shared by all groups but that every group of humans has a moral system.)

We have now touched on the second important distinction between humans and other animals.  Adherence to rules.  Both language and morality  are made up of rules.  If you don’t follow these rules then you cannot speak intelligibly and you can’t distinguish right from wrong.

The rule-governed world is organized by rules, but where explicit rules and choice as to whether or not to adhere to them do not exist, there you find “self-organizing systems”   What exactly are they?  Self organizing systems are systems in nature that are sustained by the mere natural interaction of their elements without any deliberation or planning.   These systems, like the solar system and earth’s ecosystems, just run themselves.  In the case of the solar system, it works by the force of gravity between the planets and the sun.  In the case of earth’s ecosystems, it is so complex that we don’t really understand how it works.    The fact is that we are incapable of creating and sustaining an ecosystem by deliberation or design.  Nonetheless, ecosystems work fine here on earth without our help.  

Our closest animal relatives are the great apes.  Apes live in self-organizing dominance hierarchies.  In a dominance hierarchy the dominant animal, usually called the alpha male, controls sexual reproduction and the distribution of food.  The system works so that the alpha and other apes on the upper rungs get all the goodies, and the rest of the group gets the dregs.  

In hearing this, you might think that that is exactly what we have in place now.  But you would be wrong.  In a chimpanzee society if the alpha male is killed he is quickly replaced by the new alpha.  Human societies are not like this.  First, leadership is not automatically connected to sexual dominance.  Look at the Pope.  He is the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, but he doesn’t get to marry or have children.    Second, we don’t usually need to kill our leaders and CEOs in order to replace them.  Leadership generally follows rules and leaders, unless they are maniacal tyrants, cannot do whatever they want.

Hunter-gatherer groups make important decisions by consensus.  Many modern groups make decisions by majority vote.  All of these involve collective deliberation as opposed to the automatic functioning of dominance hierarchies.  

What with the continued existence of male sexual misconduct, bullying, and gang-related behaviour one might be tempted to think that nothing has changed since the time our ancestors were apes but all this shows is that we still  bring some of our strongest instinctual urges to the table.

It’s true that we will never really know what human society looked like two million years ago.  There is very little physical evidence left from that long ago.  But we can surmise, by working backward from what we see of human society, especially nomadic hunter-gatherer groups,  and working forward from what we observe about great ape societies.

Somehow we went from small-brained walking apes with dominance hierarchies to large-brained humans with consciously created social systems.  Something had to spark that change and it couldn’t have been just more of the same chimpanzee politics.  

We don’t have alpha males running harems of females (except maybe in Utah.)  Apes don’t follow rules, speak languages, or have moral systems.   It therefore seems unavoidable that the point of origin of human beings had to do with the collective institution of a system of rules that everyone was expected to abide by.

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