Saturday, June 12, 2010

the politics of intelligence

The point of view I suggested here is that the universe is intelligent. The universe has always had intelligence, since it has always had some form, and as this form has evolved, so too has the intelligence of the universe. This is another way of saying that the basic building blocks of the universe are not inchoate particulars (what Aristotle and the Greeks referred to as "hypokeimenon" or "hyle") but rather patterns, shapes, or intelligible appearances ("morphe" in the Greek philosophical lexicon).

Further, human individuality (subjectivity, consciousness, and moral awareness) is not a mere statistical outlier with respect to the rest of the universe. It is not evanescent mist hovering above the churning sea of brute material existence. It is an integral part of this process—maybe the most complex and ordered stage of it—which started with the Big Bang. Human individuality expresses something essential in the universe itself, since it is part of the continuum of ever-increasing complexity and order of forms of the physical world.

This is not to say humans are somehow more evolved than other things. Bacteria are no more or less evolved than human beings. Nor is it to say an asteroid couldn't come along tomorrow and wipe us out (though the odds of this happening decrease constantly). There is in all probability no "higher power" looking out for us. None of this is part of any preordained plan. But individuality does not have to be part of a plan in order to be at the center of a philosophical understanding of the cosmos. It only need to contain within itself everything it needs in order to survive, and by means of its own resources, create the scaffolding for its transition to a higher level of order and complexity.

Asteroid impacts, frozen earths, and other calamities have befallen the world already, and they will happen again. And yet all the evidence points toward life having formed once on earth, not many times. So even the simplest forms of life have within them the power to weather cosmological contingencies—even those crises created by life itself. All the great extinctions we know about happened to creatures far more complex than the prokaryotes. The received wisdom is that as we become more complex, we're also more fragile. The higher we build the edifice of intelligence and (eventually) technological civilization, the more vulnerable is our deck of cards to the slightest breeze.

And yet the speed and consistency with which consciousness has developed since the Cambrian explosion, straight through those extinctions, is astonishing. Having complex bodies, central nervous systems, spinal columns, brains, opposable thumbs, abstract thought, and emotions haven't made us more susceptible to the caprice of nature. On the contrary, they seem to have allowed us to master nature. Nature has rapidly evolved many sorts of creatures, all of which have unprecedented abilities to solve problems using finite resources. There have been catastrophic interruptions along the way, but overall the great experiment of life has gone unimpeded for almost four billion years now. The proof is in our genetic code, which has recorded the results of this experiment going all the way back to the last common ancestor.

Most would agree that, if we include things like bacteria, life in general is probably immune to extinction caused by any natural event, save the swelling of the sun into a red supergiant which engulfs the earth. And it's probably a safe bet that there are few natural events which could completely exterminate human life. The question remains whether it could be done by technological means.

The 20th century saw the development of means to bring this about. The 21st century will see the creation of further means to do it. It would be ironic if the very means by which intelligence had learned to weather the contingencies of a hostile universe became the cause of its extinction. I see no reason in principle why we shouldn't destroy ourselves with our technology. But at the same time, I also see no reason why we have to destroy ourselves. We clearly have the capability of using technology in ways that are non-destructive if not totally responsible. We survived the threat of global thermonuclear war, after all. Our most pressing existential threat at the moment comes from the impact of technology on the ecosystem. There's still no telling what effects will come of the massive oil spill which is still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Replacements for hydrocarbon energy sources are being created rapidly and should help the global economy move toward zero emissions over the course of the next few decades. But will that be fast enough? Are we too late? It would be tragic to fail at one of our greatest moments, and yet there's nothing to rule such endings out.

It comes down to the role that individual subjectivity—arguably nature's weirdest invention—is to play in all of this. On the one hand there's runaway technological advancement which no one seems to have the power to stop. Assuming technology is the seventh kingdom of life, it is a form of life whose characteristic behavior is to grow, multiply, and evolve without any regard for other living things in the ecosystem. And yet it is a form of life which has a symbiotic relationship with us. As yet it cannot evolve in the absence of human action and human institutions.

But—and here's the important part—those institutions embody more than a drive toward technological mastery. They also embody, in part, our moral awareness, our desire for fairness, our respect for other sentient creatures—in short, they embody human subjectivity.

It's a highly complex relationship because there's very good reason to believe that, without technological advance, we could never have arrived at the moral, political, personal, and ecological awarenesses we currently have. The evolution of technology—and human society and culture more generally—has brought about a penetrating critical awareness of itself. Technology—which just seems to inherently destroy the earth and make us kind of stupid and insane while it also makes life easier in certain respects—brings about not only an awareness of the dangers of technology but also the ability to shape and control the development of technology (while not being able to stop it or reverse it). This is necessarily part of the nature of technology itself, owing to its symbiotic relationship with us. It has to reflect our values, for better or for worse.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger correctly pointed out that "the essence of technology is by no means anything technological." What he meant is that the essence of technology can't be resolved from a technical perspective, as though it were just another engineering difficulty. I think Heidegger is correct when he says the essence of technology goes beyond the gizmos and gadgets we associate with it, and that its destiny was established long before the scientific revolution of the 17th century. What I'm saying—which is different from what Heidegger is saying—is that we're at a dangerous moment of decision right now. Technological advance is not going to stop. In all likelihood we will not "blow ourselves up", at least not to the extent necessary to make a significant dent in a trend which has gone on, so far as we can see, for millennia, through the collapses of civilizations, through plagues, economic collapses, and world wars. And even if we do stop it, it's just going to start up again either here or somewhere else in the universe. In fact, since the large-scale structure of the universe is by all appearances perfectly uniform, what we're going through here and now is probably happening everywhere else it can at the same time.

What I'm saying is that this development is, at least in its broad features, probably inevitable. So if it's going to happen anyway, why not try to make it reflect, as much as possible, the things that are really valuable? Because what we're really being offered here—maybe for the first time in the universe—is the ability to self-consciously guide evolution, maybe even to turn it into a completely rational process.

You might think to yourself, "We're completely screwed then. Just look at how irrational and unjust the world is!" But that's plainly not true. If you want to see irrational and unjust, go back 400 or even 200 years. In 1800, the average life expectancy world-wide was shorter than it is in most of the worst places today. If you think quality of life is bad now, try to imagine what it was like before there was a nation-state. Most—I would argue all—of the awareness we have acquired of the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust, has come from an ugly, brutal, calamitous history. But we have learned from it, and more importantly we have learned to apply the lessons from it. That learning process hasn't ceased. It just feels that way because you're alive now. Everyone always thinks their time is the worst, but I guarantee you almost anyone from the 18th century—even an upper class person—would trade places with you in a heartbeat if you described to them what our world is like. Chattel slavery is no longer recognized as legally legitimate. The ideas in the Declaration of Independence have been marshaled in defense of struggles for independence and self-determination which have spread across the entire globe. Those ideas have been extended, far beyond what their framers initially thought possible, to encompass more than abstract political rights but also to include things like economic, racial, and gender justice. We can speak and do of so much more than anyone would ever have thought possible even a century and a half ago. It's because we have so much more to think about and it's because we receive so much more information about the world on a daily basis that we feel like things aren't getting better but worse. But if you pull back and look at it, there's a lot more going on.

The point of this is not to say that we've arrived at our destination or that everything is going smooth so just let other people worry about it. The forces of injustice, irrationality, and evil are strong in this world. The appearance that things are crazy and that there are dangers everywhere is not an illusion. It's reality. There's more at stake now than there may ever have been since life first appeared on earth. I do think it's that drastic. What I'm trying to convince you of is that it's not an uneven match. For those of us who care about ethics and who care about fairness and justice—the race is in fact too close to call. You need to understand the stakes, and you need to be involved.

So what is to be done?

The first step is to understand the broad story that I've outlined above. The whole question of intelligence and its role in the world has to be understood from a cosmological perspective. Because only when you understand it from a cosmological perspective will you be motivated to act, even when there are setbacks and things seem bleak. I would say this is the most important part. If you have trouble with philosophy, then embrace an appropriate religion, one that emphasizes compassion toward all sentient beings and in which there is a higher power who sides with the oppressed against the oppressors.

Then you have to help support or build anything that furthers these values. This isn't "activism" in the ordinary sense of going to protests or getting pieces of paper signed. You can build the right kind of civilization in a lot of different ways. You should always support transparency and fairness in political processes, no matter what. For instance, support giving broad powers to IAEA inspectors in Iran, but more importantly, support giving those same powers to inspectors in the United States—not to punish the United States, but because if we do it, then that means everyone else will have to do it too.

Create and share knowledge in all its forms: literary, musical, scientific, philosophical, technological, visual, etc. Don't hoard knowledge; share it. Our ability to share knowledge is growing exponentially. It's a tremendous opportunity. Don't just share information. Think about it and relate it back to the broader picture: the story of our civilization and the essential conflicts in it. Oppose totalitarianism in all its forms. Always support individual rights.

Things not to do. Don't just go to protests. Protests are for old liberals stuck in the 60s and for anarchists hate technology and who juggle and do puppet shows. It's occasionally useful as a tactic, but mostly it's mouthwash for leftists, something to make them feel fresh.

Another thing not to do: don't spend the majority of your time "critiquing" things. Of course one should be critical, i.e., use critical reasoning, in all things which are really worthwhile. But do it in the service of something constructive. Create knowledge and avenues of action with it. Don't use it to create despair or to make yourself feel powerless. Powerlessness is an illusion. Never in all of human history have individuals had more power to change the world.

Never martyr yourself or sacrifice yourself to a degree which is unreasonable. There is nothing noble in being oppressed or deprived. Remain aware of unfairness and privilege. Side with those who are treated unfairly against those who treat them that way. Always look for creative ways to use knowledge to subvert unfairness. But just because you're part of a privileged strata of society does not mean that all there is for you to do is to renounce your privilege and take up the cause of someone less privileged. People who come from a reasonably comfortable background and go to liberal arts colleges come away thinking (a) the world and everyone in it is screwed, (b) they're bad unless they're screwed too, and (c) the only thing you can do to redeem yourself is renounce privilege. This is the liberal arts school view of the world. It's pure preachy moralizing with no connection to reality. Ignore it.

There's actually a lot you can do as a "privileged" person, and it doesn't require you taking the equivalent of friar's vows. (I really don't like the word "privileged"—try using that word with a lower-middle-class or working class family just because they happen to be white and see what kind of reaction you get. It's a bad strategy. It's a bad tactic.) Going to college gives you the ability to do knowledge-work. You can study part of the system as a whole—or even the system itself—and look for more avenues for action and intervention. There are a lot of things you can do once you move beyond self-flagellation.

There are so many avenues for positive action that there is no excuse for doing nothing. But I think the key to everything else is starting with the right perspective, the perspective of intelligence. If you believe we're living in a meaningless universe or that, as an individual with a modicum of awareness, you're like the last living survivor of a zombie apocalypse, you're going to have a really hard time doing anything besides laying in bed, drinking, or whining.

No, the world is not great, but you have to see it for what it is. Sometimes that requires less information, not more. For example, if you read the news thoroughly every day, you're liable to form a skewed picture of what the world is like. The news of the day is always negative. You need to step back from that and take in, not necessarily more information, but a broader perspective. Creating knowledge sometimes requires us to destroy information or at least ignore it. That's how your mind recognizes things like faces or furniture—it destroys the background data and focuses on the pattern. That's what you need to allow your mind to do with our civilization and with some of human history.

If we're moving toward something like an Omega Point, then the lesson to take away from it is the one I outlined here. The universe is intelligent, not dumb, i.e., it is part of its nature to give rise to more intelligent processes. Conscious moral awareness is therefore at home in the world. Making the world reflect our values is not a hopeless cause. It's the being of history itself. We're here for a reason—not one preordained by a higher power, whatever that means, but one given to us by ourselves for our own care and use.

That any of us exists at all is a mystery. That we exist now is very strange. We live in a time of unprecedented promise and peril. There probably has never existed a more important or interesting time to be alive. That's knowledge worth using.

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