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Musing On Minds, Limits, and Transhumanism - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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May 9th, 2011


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03:33 am - Musing On Minds, Limits, and Transhumanism
Here's a link to a fascinating article in the New Scientist. The entire article is somewhat interesting, but most of it is about the current frontiers of human knowledge and what we can learn and the few things that relativity and similar external limitations may prevent us from learning. However, the truly fascinating part of the article is this bit from the beginning:
YOU might not expect the UK's Astronomer Royal to make too many pronouncements about what chimpanzees think, but that is one of Martin Rees's favourite topics. He reckons we can learn a lesson from what they understand about the world - or, rather, what they don't. "A chimpanzee can't understand quantum mechanics," Rees points out.

That might sound like a statement of the obvious. After all, as Richard Feynman famously said, nobody understands quantum mechanics. The point, though, is that chimps don't even know what they don't understand. "It's not that a chimpanzee is struggling to understand quantum mechanics," Rees says. "It's not even aware of it." The question that intrigues Rees is whether there are facets of the universe to which we humans are similarly oblivious. "There is no reason to believe that our brains are matched to understanding every level of reality," he says.

We live in an age in which science enjoys remarkable success. We have mapped out a grand scheme of how the physical universe works on scales from quarks to galactic clusters, and of the living world from the molecular machinery of cells to the biosphere. There are gaps, of course, but many of them are narrowing. The scientific endeavour has proved remarkably fruitful, especially when you consider that our brains evolved for survival on the African savannah, not to ponder life, the universe and everything. So, having come this far, is there any stopping us?

The answer has to be yes: there are limits to science. There are some things we can never know for sure because of the fundamental constraints of the physical world. Then there are the problems that we will probably never solve because of the way our brains work. And there may be equivalents to Rees's observation about chimps and quantum mechanics - concepts that will forever lie beyond our ken.
This statement lies at the heart of some of my beliefs about humanity and the universe. As I mentioned before, in some ways (which are to me not remotely nihilistic or even pessimistic), I often describe my worldview as somewhat Lovecraftian. I do not see humanity as the microcosm of the universe or in any way special or wondrous except in the ways that all life and all intelligent life is inherently special and wondrous.

To me, we are limited beings, as are all beings, and so like chimps, dogs, brine shrimp, and blue whales, there are things we are capable of understanding and then there is so much of the complex universe that we cannot, and may never know that we cannot understand it, because we can't even conceive of it. Of course, one of the wonders of this age is that we are on the edges of technologies that may be able to change these limits and allow us to understand more than we could otherwise could. I believe that doing this would make someone something other than human, but I also embrace the idea of this change and very much look forward to seeing it happen and preferably experiencing it myself.

Alternately, we may never achieve this, but may creature beings who can. I suspect that improving ourselves will prove easier than creating new and greater digital intelligence. However, the answer is at this point impossible to know, as are what the result of either might be like – it's not like chimps can understand how we think either.

When I think about such topics, two quotes come to mind for me – the first by David Zindell from his novel The Broken God:
"What is a human being, then?'
A seed'
A... seed?'
An acorn that is unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree."

The second is my own – "I have no interest in worshiping gods, what I want to is for more people to play god." To me the idea that "playing god" is thought by some as something bad or wrong baffles and saddens me.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:alobar
Date:May 9th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
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To me, "playing god" has lots of negative connotations.

"Playing" implies one is faking it. Monsanto, for instance, does genetic engineering, but does not do all the follow up research to determine long term consequences to those eating the GM food, or to the plat species which have not been genetically altered.

Some people play god when they decide what other people should be doing differently than they choose to do. You know -- people who decide gay people, pagans, atheists, etc, need to reform their ways, or demand we all follow their particuar religious path, etc.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:May 9th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)
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What do you mean by "playing God"?

The common definition of playing God is hubris - attempting that which is beyond one, with tragic consequences.

I suspect your definition of playing God is different.
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From:erelin
Date:May 9th, 2011 11:51 pm (UTC)
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I'm not certain I agree. Certainly, in practice there are limits to what science knows at any given time, and there may be limitations on what is verifiable and thus, what can be subjected to the experimental methodology found in science. But 'science' is an older term than the 'Scientific Revolution.' "Science," as such, is merely something along the lines of "A system of statements that describe the world or that represent our knowledge of the world." Methods of verification and falsification are the best tools we've found to accomplish this end, but that's merely a matter of what is the 'best practice' available to us at the time.

Likewise, us having limits to our ability to process information and come to conclusions quickly does not indicate that there is a limit per se on what is knowable by an agent, or even a human agent. It might take longer (indeed, the history of human civilization suggests it can take quite a while) to come to certain truths, but there is nothing prima facie about a topic that puts it beyond the bounds of science.

Chimps can't understand quantum mechanics not because of some inherent inability to process the information explicitly: rather, it is a side-effect of memory, attention span, language, and lifespan. Given enough time and the proper pedagogy, there is no reason to believe that it is illogical for a chimp to learn quantum physics, or even to retain that information. It's not even unreasonable to have a chimp or group of chimps come up with quantum physics, given enough time. (It would probably take an EXCEPTIONALLY long time, but that's beside the point) And while our methods and access to information are most certainly limited, it isn't clear that this means anything other than it will take us a lot longer to come to correct conclusions than if we'd started out with better methods and access to information.

But there seems to be no reason to suspect that there are statements that are beyond science prima facie, and some logical reasons to believe that the world can be described by a science (perhaps not with completeness, see Godel and Turing) and that any thinking thing can, given time, come to have a science that accurately describes the world.
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From:heron61
Date:May 10th, 2011 08:44 am (UTC)
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It's not a question of whether or not we can test a hypothesis (unless it's a purely metaphysical hypothesis, the answer is almost always yes), but whether or not we are capable of coming up with various potentially useful hypotheses to test.

Quantum mechanics is quite difficult for anyone to learn and understand. What if the next layer of reality down is even more complex and difficult to understand - to the extent that it seems sufficiently random that we can not create a useful hypothesis to test about it. It doesn't seem at all impossible, or even improbable that there are aspects of reality we simply cannot wrap our minds around sufficiently to describe in math or formulate experiments about. At that point, we're left with what amounts to sticking a "Here Be Dragons" label on that entire field of study.

Alternately, perhaps there are simply aspects of how the world works that we are incapable of noticing. Perhaps we could build devices to discover these aspects of reality, if we thought to look for them, but we haven't.

I have no idea if either of these possibilities is actually real, but I very strongly suspect the first is, and would not be surprised to find that the second is also true.
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From:erelin
Date:May 11th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
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We can test randomness. Quantum mechanics can seem random, and it is one of the reasons it took us so long to understand it. (It's actually not too horrible to understand, once you learn that wave-particle duality is more of a historical concept that is still sometimes used and that while quantum-level objects are sometimes thought of as waves or particles for the purposes of certain tests, that they are in fact something else entirely: multi-dimensional configurations that can be described by a waveform.)

That things become harder to understand the further they get from what we evolved to observe in our environment seems probable. It seems less likely that complexity actually increases as the entities get more basic, as 3 basic entities, each capable of combining in only one way, will get you either 6 or 9 greater entities, depending on if they interact with entities of their own type. That's why chemistry has more entities than quantum mechanics, biology more than chemistry, etc. I suppose it is possible that there are a bunch of entities necessary to create a super-string or quark (should string theory prove inaccurate) and that these only combine in certain ways- 6x's, 3 y's, and a z form a top quark and they never combine in any other way to form any other entity, for instance- but it would be the first time that's happened and there would be ways to test for it.

As to your second point, we already have shown that we can postulate, test for, and find entities that we do not have the natural ability to observe. I don't have any natural capacity to sense radio waves, top quarks, or neutrinos. Yet I am aware they are all parts of the world that I can sense.

So we have built devices to discover parts of reality that we are incapable of noticing. All of those parts? Certainly not. But it shows that there is nothing 'privileged' about those parts of reality we can notice naturally, save for that it is easier to notice those parts.
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From:amberite
Date:May 10th, 2011 07:27 am (UTC)
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I think "become god" would be more accurate than "play god" in that sentence.

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From:pendelook
Date:May 10th, 2011 07:35 am (UTC)
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I think you're right.
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From:heron61
Date:May 11th, 2011 07:21 am (UTC)
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From my PoV, playing at something is the first step in learning it/becoming it.
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From:arxacies
Date:May 10th, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
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I actually find that idea much more terrifying. If humanity has proven anything since we have evolved it is that we cannot handle power well and that greater intelligence does not necessarily allow one to handle power.
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From:amberite
Date:May 10th, 2011 05:55 pm (UTC)

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I think becoming implies gaining the wisdom as well as the power.
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From:arxacies
Date:May 10th, 2011 06:09 pm (UTC)
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That is assuming the two go together. The Sumerians, Greeks, and Norse would beg to differ. :)
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From:amberite
Date:May 10th, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC)

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I dunno: I think most mythologies tell us the ruling gods are imperfect, but have a sufficient amount of horse sense to do their jobs most of the time, despite their personal foibles.
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From:pendelook
Date:May 11th, 2011 05:20 am (UTC)
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I personally think the traditional pantheons are a bit unimaginative as to the wisdom of higher powers.
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From:heron61
Date:May 11th, 2011 07:24 am (UTC)
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From my PoV, it's better than the alternative. I see the universe as a whole as a fundamentally neutral place - there may be some vague positive influences perhaps encouraging general trends like intelligence, but there's also no shortage of random chance events of the "rocks fall, everybody dies" sort. I'd far rather have humanity in charge than random chance. Yes, we have some learning & growing to do, but I strongly suspect that being able to increase intelligence well beyond current human limits will greatly help this.
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From:arxacies
Date:May 11th, 2011 01:43 pm (UTC)
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Then you have a much more optimistic view of humanity. One of the things that many despots, serial killers, and gods have in common is that they are wondrously intelligent. I'd have to look it up to make sure but I seem to recall that one of the diagnosing characteristics of sociopaths is very high intelligence. Nathan Leopold, for example, was estimated to have an IQ of 210 and he ended up killing a boy with a chisel because Nietzschean supermen like him and his friend were "not liable for anything he may do").

If what you are saying is true then I would think that as a person became more intelligent then they would become less harmful to the world in which they live or if they were already very, very intelligent then they would already be much less harmful than your average person.

Of course(and this is speculation and feel free to correct me) you might be referring to a plateau of intelligence that humanity has never reached or can even really conceive of. This would get you around the problem of intelligent people in the past behaving badly but then the new problem crops up that if it hasn't happened yet we have to wonder if achieving those levels of intelligence are possible in theory(much less practical).

Very interesting topic.

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