Saturday


Ribera painted several imaginary portraits of ancient philosophers.

Protagoras of Abdera, by Jusepe de Ribera

In the spirit of my Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being, in which I took a short passage from Plato and extrapolated it beyond its originally intended scope, I would like to take a famous line from Protagoras and also extrapolate this beyond its originally intended scope. The passage from Protagoras I have in mind is his most famous bon mot:

“Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”

…and in the original Greek…

“πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἔστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν δὲ μὲν οντῶν ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὠς οὐκ ἔστιν”

Presocratic scholarship has focused on the relativism of Protagoras’ μέτρον, especially in comparison to the strong realism of Plato, but I don’t take the two to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I think we can better understand Plato through Protagoras and Protagoras through Plato.

Firstly, the Protagorean dictum reveals at once both the inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which is the spirit that continues to motivate the western philosophical tradition (which Bertrand Russell once commented is all, essentially, Greek philosophy), and the ontologizing nature of Greek thought, which is another persistent theme of western philosophy, though less often noticed than the naturalistic theme. Plato, despite his otherworldly realism, is part of this inherent naturalism of Greek philosophy, which in our own day has become explicitly naturalistic. Indeed, Greek philosophy since ancient Greece might be characterized as the convergence upon a fully naturalistic conception of the world, though this has been a long and bumpy road.

The naturalism of Greek thought, in turn, points to the proto-scientific character of Greek philosophy. The closest approximation to modern scientific thought prior to the scientific revolution is to be found in works such as Archimedes’ Statics and Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s estimate of the diameter of the earth. If these examples are not already fully scientific inquiries, they are at least proto-science, from which a fully scientific method might have emerged under different historical conditions.

Plato and Protagoras were both guilty of a certain degree of mysticism, but strong traces of the scientific naturalism of Greek thought is expressed in their work. Protagoras’ μέτρον in particular can be understood as an early step in the direction of quantificational concepts. Quantification is central to scientific thought (in my podcast The Cosmic Archipelago, Part II, I offered a variation on the familiar Cartesian theme of cogito, ergo sum, suggesting that, from the perspective of science, we could say I measure, therefore I am), and when we think of quantification we think of measurement in the sense of gradations on a standard scale. However, the most fundamental form of quantification is revealed by counting, and counting is essentially the determination whether something exists or not. Thus the Protagorean μέτρον — specifically, the things that are, that they are, and the things that are not, that they are not — is a quantificational schema for determining existence relative to a human observer. Protagoras’ μέτρον is a postulate of counting, and without counting there would be no mathematicized natural science.

All scientific knowledge as we know it is human scientific knowledge, and all of it is therefore anthropocentric in a way that is not necessarily a distortion. For human beings to have knowledge of the world in which they find themselves, they must have knowledge that the human mind can assimilate. Our epistemic concepts are the framework we have erected in order to make sense of the world, and these concepts are human creations. That does not mean that they are wrong, even if they have been frequently misleading. The pyrrhonian skeptic exploits this human, all-too-human weakness in our knowledge, claiming that because our concepts are imperfect, no knowledge whatsoever is possible. This is a strawman argument. Knowledge is possible, but it is human knowledge. Protagoras made this explicit. (This is one of the themes of my Cosmic Archipelago series.)

Taking Plato and Protagoras together — that is, taking Plato’s definition of being and Protagoras’ doctrine of measure — we probably come closer to the originally intended meaning of both Plato and Protagoras than if we treat them in isolation, a fortiori if we treat them as antagonists. Plato’s definition of being — the power to affect or be affected — and Protagoras’ dictum — that man is the measure of all things, which we can take to mean that quantification begins with a human observer — naturally coincide when the power to affect or be affected is understood relative to the human power to affect or be affected.

Since human knowledge begins with a human observer and human experience, knowledge necessarily also follows from that which affects a human being or that which a human being can effect. The role of experimentation in science since the scientific revolution takes this ontological interaction of affecting and being affected, makes it systematic, and derives all natural knowledge from this principle. Human beings formulate scientific experiments, and in so doing affect the world in building an experimental apparatus and running the experiment. The experiment, in turn, affects human beings as the scientist observes the experiment running and records how it affects him, i.e., what he observers in the world as a result of his intervention in the course of events.

Plato and Protagoras taken together as establishing an initial ontological basis for quantification lay the metaphysical groundwork for scientific naturalism, even if neither philosopher was a scientific naturalist in the strict sense.

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I have previously discussed Protagoras’ μέτρον in Ontological Ruminations: Six Protagorean Propositions on the Nature of Man and the World and A Non-Constructive World.

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Biological Bias

3 March 2018

Saturday


What does it mean to be a biological being? It means, among other things, that one sees the world from a biological perspective, thinks in terms of concepts amenable to a biological brain, understands oneself and one’s species in its biological context, which is the biosphere of our homeworld, and that one persists in a mode of being distinctive to biological beings (which mode of being we call life). To be a biological being is to be related to the world through one’s biology; one has biological desires, biological aversions, biological imperatives, biological expectations, and biological intentions. Human beings are biological beings, and so are subject to all of these conditions of biological being.

When we think in terms of human bias — and we are subject to many biases as human beings — we usually focus on exclusively human biases, our anthropocentrism, our anthropic bias, but we are also subject to biases that follow from the other ontological classes of beings of which we are members. We are human beings, but we are also cognitive beings (i.e., intelligent agents), linguistic beings, mammalian beings, biological beings, physical beings, Stelliferous Era beings, and so on. This litany may be endless; whether or not we are aware of it, we may belong to an infinitude of ontological classes in virtue of the kind of beings that we are.

Another example of a bias to which human beings are subject but which is not exclusively anthropic, is what I have called terrestrial bias. Some time ago in Terrestrial Bias: Thought Experiments I asked, “…is there, among human beings, any sense of identification with the life of Earth? Is there a terrestrial bias, or will there be a terrestrial bias when we are able to compare our response to terrestrial life to our response to extraterrestrial life?” As I write this it occurs to me that a distinction can be made between planetary bias, to which any being of planetary endemism would be subject, and terrestrial bias understood as a bias specific to Earth, to which only life on Earth would be subject. In making this distinction, we understand that terrestrial bias is a special case of planetary bias, which latter is the more comprehensive concept.

Similarly, anthropic bias is a special case of the more comprehensive concept of intelligent agent bias. Again, we can distinguish between intelligent agent bias and anthropic bias, with intelligent agent bias being the more comprehensive concept under which anthropic bias falls. However, intelligent agents could also include artificial agents, who would be peers of human intelligent agents in respect of intelligence, but which would not share our biological bias. The many biases, then, which attend and inform human cognition, are nested within more comprehensive biases, as well as overlapping with the biases of other agents that might potentially exist and which would share some of our biases but which would not fall under exactly the same more comprehensive concepts. In Wittgensteinian terms, there is a complicated network of biases that overlap and intersect (cf. Philosophical Investigations, sec. 66); these biases correspond to a complicated network of ontological classes that overlap and intersect.

Our biological biases overlap and intersect with our other biases, such as our biases as the result of being human (anthropic bias) or our biases in virtue of being composed of matter (material or physical bias). Biological bias occupies a point midway between these two ontological classes. Our anthropic bias is exclusive to human beings, but we share our biological bias with every living thing on Earth, and perhaps with living things elsewhere in the cosmos, while we share our material bias much more widely with dust and gas and stars, except that these latter beings, not being intelligent agents, cannot exercise judgment or act as agents, so that their bias can only be manifested passively. One might well characterize the Platonic definition of beingthe capacity to affect or be affected — as the passive exercise of bias, with each class of beings affecting and being affected by other beings of the same class as peers.

I have sought to exhibit and disentangle and overlapping and intersecting of biological baises in a number of posts related to biophilia and biophobia, including:

Biocentrism and Biophilia

The Biocentric Thesis

The Scope of Biophilia

Not all biases are catastrophic distortions of reasoning. In Less than Cognitive Bias I made a distinction between anthropic biases that characterize the human condition without necessarily adversely affecting rational judgment, and anthropic biases that do undermine our ability to reason rationally. And in The Human Overview I sketched out the complexity of ordinary human communication, which is dense in subtle biases, some of which compromise our rationality, but many of which are crucial to our ability to rapidly reason about our circumstances — a skill with high survival value, and a skill at which human beings excel and which will not soon by modeled by artificial intelligence on account of its subtlety. A tripartite distinction can be made, then, among biases that compromise our reason, biases that are neutral in regard to out ability to reason, and biases that augment our ability to reason.

Our biological biases coincide to a large extent with our evolutionary psychology, and, in so far as our evolutionary psychology enabled us to survive in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, our biological biases augment our ability to reason cogently and to act effectively in biological contexts — though only in what might be called peer biological contexts, as far as our particular scale of biological individuality allows us to identify with other biological individuals as peers. Our peer biological biases do not allow us to interact effectively at the level of the microbiome or at the level of the biosphere, with the result that considerable scientific effort has been required for us to understand and to interact effectively at these biological scales.

A similar applicability of bias may be true more widely of our other biases, which help us in some circumstances while hurting us in other circumstances. Certainly our anthropic biases have helped us to survive, and that is why we possess them in such robust forms, though they have helped us to survive as a species of planetary endemism. In the event of humanity breaking out of our homeworld as a spacefaring civilization, our anthropic, homeworld, and planetary endemism biases may not serve us as well in cosmological contexts. however, we know what to do about this. The cultivation of science and rigorous reasoning has allowed us to transcend many of our biases without actually losing our biases. Instead of viewing this as a human, all-too-human failure, we should think of this as a human strength: we can, when we apply ourselves, selectively transcend our biases, but when we need them, they are there for us, and they will be there for us until we actually alter ourselves biologically. Thus there is a biological “way out” from biological biases, but we might want to think twice before pursuing this way out, as our biological biases may well prove to be an asset (and perhaps an asset in unexpected, instinctive ways) when we eventually explore other biospheres and encounter another form of biology.

What Carl Sagan called the “deprovincialization” of biology may also take place at the level of human evolutionary psychology. If so, we shouldn’t desire to transcend or eliminate our biological biases as we should desire to augment and expand them in order to overcome what will be eventually learn about our terrestrial and homeworld biases from the biology of other worlds.

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Planet of Zombies

21 August 2016

Sunday


planet of zombies 2

The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing

We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.

In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.

Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.

Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.

While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.

Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.

Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.

Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.

There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.

Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:

“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16

…and…

“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”

Loc. cit.

The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:

“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”

Loc. cit.

…and…

“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”

Loc. cit.

…but…

“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”

Op. cit., p. 17

One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”

Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:

1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.

2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.

3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.

4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.

5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.

6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.

John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53

Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:

“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1

The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)

The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.

As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.

Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.

Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.

Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.

All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.

To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.

To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.

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Third Time’s a Charm

8 February 2014

Saturday


geological eras of life

The Three Eras of Life on Earth

The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.

The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.

The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.

Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.

cosmos 06

Million Year Old Civilizations

We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).

The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.

Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.

This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.

Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.

Octopus evolution

Counterfactual Civilizations

I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.

Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?

Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.

Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.

If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.

vitruvian_man

Inside the Charmed Circle

Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.

For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?

While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.

That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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