On Philosophy

July 22, 2008

5: The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

1. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because it is not something that can be owned. Everyone can partake of the beauty of the moon without diminishing anyone else’s enjoyment of the moon. Thus the experience of the moon is not a finite resource that can only be had by so many people. And so it is not the kind of thing that can be owned. Of course someone might try to own the moon. They might forbid looking at the moon without permission. But doing so is foolish. At the very least it is nearly impossible to enforce. And secondly it would be an extremely selfish act, since it deprives everyone else of something they otherwise would have had for free without giving them anything in return.

Evaluation: Recently trying to own the moon, and accusing others of stealing the moon, has become popular. Some try to prevent information and ideas from being freely shared. Like the moon, if it wasn’t for their efforts to restrict information and ideas everyone could have access to them freely without diminishing anyone else’s ability to enjoy them. Of course, unlike the moon, in these cases someone was the source of that information or that idea, and so they reason that, because they are its source, they have special rights to it, including the right to restrict the access of other people. Suppose that someone had made the moon. The fact that they had made the moon would not change the fact that the moon cannot be owned and cannot be stolen. If they had made the moon in the expectation that they would be able to restrict access to it and make money off it that would just make them foolish. If they didn’t want people to freely partake of the moon they shouldn’t have made it in the first place, since it is the nature of the moon to be freely appreciated. What they would deserve is recognition and gratitude, since making something that cannot be owned is an inherently charitable act.

2. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because anyone who would steal the moon already has it. This is to illustrate that there are a number of wonderful things that we possess without realizing it. All that is required of us is to simply sit back and recognize them. However, all too often we are too busy working to get things we don’t have that we have no time to appreciate the things we already have.

Evaluation: Of course it is true that the moon is beautiful and that all that is required to enjoy it is merely to look up. And it is also true that we tend to undervalue the things that we already have, especially things such as the moon that were simply given to us without any effort on our part. However, it is also possible to overvalue those things. It would probably be equally a mistake to spend all your time appreciating the moon as it would be to never appreciate the moon. At least it would be if you had objectives that involved more than simple contentment. Again, at this point I cannot say which objectives you should or shouldn’t have, but there doesn’t seem anything inherently wrong with having those that can’t be satisfied by staring at the moon. Of course there is nothing wrong with appreciating the things you already have in addition to pursuing additional goals; indeed that is probably optimum.

3. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen – some things are simply impossible. Maybe stealing the moon isn’t logically or physically impossible; I suppose in some sci-fi scenario you might be able to move the moon. The point is that stealing the moon is impossible for a given person in a given scenario. In that sense many things are impossible. It is impossible for a poor person to become president and it is impossible to jump five feet vertically in the air from a standing start.

Evaluation: Naturally I can’t deny that some things are impossible. It would be nice if everything was possible, but that’s simply not the way the world works. However, focusing on the impossibility of things may be a bad idea. First of all, even though many things are impossible, some things are thought to be impossible which are in fact possible. For example, a smoker may believe that it is impossible for them to quit smoking when it really is within their reach. And until the last century many thought that traveling to the moon or going faster than sound was impossible, and they were proven wrong too. So in some cases it may seem like people can do the impossible when they reveal that our estimation of what was possible were wrong. If we focus too much on the idea that some things are impossible then we are unlikely to ever make the attempt. And if we never attempt things which some deem to be impossible we will never discover that they are wrong about what is impossible. In that way you may be prevented from doing things, not because they are impossible, but merely because you believe them to be impossible. So it might be better to believe that all things are possible, since that will at least lead to people to test the limits of what is possible rather than simply accepting them.

4. Interpretation: The moon is one of those natural constants that will not change; it will not disappear suddenly because someone stole it. Of course in principle it is possible for the moon to disappear, just as it is in principle possible for the sun not to rise tomorrow. But from a human perspective the moon and the sun are as constant as gravity. The point of the saying would thus be to contrast the immutable with everything else. In realizing how permanent the moon is we also realize how temporary everything else is in comparison. This may lead to a new perspective about things which are less permanent than the moon, one in which we realize that they are also less important.

Evaluation: Yet again this interpretation expresses a kind of stoicism, in this case not motivated by the desire to avoid unhappiness but the observation that in the grand scheme of things almost everything is temporary, and hence not worth worrying about. It is true that most things we concern ourselves with are less permanent than the moon, but should we really place less value on them because they are less permanent? One key concept in this interpretation is that from a human perspective the moon is permanent. But from a human perspective so is a statue, a large tree, and a system of government. Should we therefore care about those things as well? (Which isn’t very stoic.) Of course in the long run everything changes and nothing is permanent, so should we therefore care about nothing or treat everything as unimportant? Perhaps the real point to press is the connection between impermanence and being less important. The reasoning behind this connection may be that, since it eventually is going to change or disappear, it isn’t worth spending effort on something impermanent, since in the long run that effort will be “wasted”. But, on the other hand, each moment is impermanent, and yet it would seem that the effort we spend on making each moment the best we can is well worth it. In other words, even though something is impermanent we may still receive a benefit from that thing’s existence, while it exists, that is worth the effort we put into it, even if in the long run it is going to disappear. It takes a great deal of work to cultivate a beautiful garden, and if you stop working at it the garden will go away. And yet some people find the work worth it because they enjoy the garden while it lasts.

5. Interpretation: The moon cannot be stolen because the moon is free, and you cannot steal what is freely given to you. Perhaps then this saying is indicating that the best things in life are free. Obviously this interpretation overlaps a bit with interpretation 2, which emphasizes that we already have a number of precious gifts. The difference between them is that if we accept that the best things in life are free, the moon among them, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we already have them; we might still need to reach out for them. The moon, for example, is not constantly being appreciated, we need to act to appreciate it. Thus this interpretation encourages us to take advantage of the number of opportunities for a pleasant life that are free, and not to overlook them simply because we aren’t asked to pay.

Evaluation: The truth of this interpretation depends on what you mean by free. It is true that many of the best things in life don’t cost money, but often they take a great deal of work. For example, for an artist the best thing in life may be to paint a masterpiece. Learning how to paint a masterpiece does not necessarily take money, but it does take a great deal of hard work and dedication. It is not something that the artist can simply reach out and take for themselves. Now I would agree that it often seems as if the best things in life tend to be those that we work for rather than pay for. But that may be because, as noted in 4:8, generally we only really appreciate the value of something if we work for it. And so it could be that when we look back upon the things we had or have that we only fully appreciate those that we worked for instead of paid for, even though by some objective standard some of the things we paid for were equally valuable.

6. Interpretation: In several interpretations so far (1, 2, 5) the moon has been understood as the experience of seeing the moon or an appreciation of the moon. In that light to say that the moon cannot be stolen is to say that part of someone’s mind cannot be stolen from them. You can blind someone, but you can never take away from them the experiences they had of the moon or their appreciation of it, short of destroying their mind completely. Thus a sharp distinction between the mental and the physical is uncovered.

Evaluation: A very straightforward approach to this interpretation would be to take it as an argument for dualism (i.e. the mind is one kind of thing and the body / physical world is another). However, it would be a very poor argument for dualism, since we can envision sci-fi scenarios where someone’s memories could be altered, illustrating that, in principle, there is no fundamental distinction between the mind and the physical world. But there is no reason to take the interpretation in such a straightforward manner. For all practical intents and purposes (versus metaphysical ones) our memory of the moon and appreciation of it are unlike physical things. Unlike physical things we can’t be deprived of them. And so, again, a kind of stoic perspective emerges, which would encourage us to place greater value on things in the mind, such as our memory of the moon, than on physical things, since we can never be deprived of them by outside forces while physical things can be destroyed. Again this perspective is best met with the challenge raised in 3:6 – why should we only care about our own happiness? What’s so bad about the possibility that caring about the external world might make us unhappy, especially if we find plenty of happiness in addition to the unhappiness?

7. Interpretation: As with the previous interpretation, let us understand “the moon” as a proper appreciation of the moon. Can we take a proper appreciation of the moon from someone else? No. And yet it is quite possible for someone else to give us a proper appreciation of the moon though their guidance and instruction. This illustrates that the mental “virtues” (wisdom, knowledge, and experience) can be freely shared but never taken by force or cunning.

Evaluation: Again, the stoic perspective rears its head, and may lead us to conclude that the mental virtues are thus the best kind of virtues. But let us put that aside, since it has already been discussed in the previous interpretation. Another interesting idea that this interpretation suggests is that the mental virtues (or, more generally, things that can only be obtained through work) may be the things that are best to work for, from a pragmatic perspective. Everything else we could theoretically get without effort. A lucky lottery ticket, for example, could give us enough money to simply buy everything else. In contrast we will never obtain the mental virtues without hard work. Thus working for the mental virtues and leaving everything else up to good fortune has a shot at working, but it is never the case that after working hard for everything else that fortune will deliver to us the mental virtues. Of course that strategy only makes sense if you place a very high value on the mental virtues, and there is no argument here for doing that.

July 21, 2008

4: To Obtain Something Is To Give Something Up

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:20 am

1. Interpretation: Literally this saying seems to be implying that everything has a cost. For many things that cost is money, but, even for things that are supposedly free, some effort is usually required to obtain them. For example, if you find money lying by the side of the road you must still expend some effort to pick it up, and so the money wasn’t really free.

Evaluation: Certainly this is true in most cases. But it is not universally true. For example, you could be sitting in your home when someone comes in unannounced and literally drops something free in your lap. Or a computer error may add money you in no way earned to your account. In both cases not even a nominal effort is required. A second problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t seem to teach us anything. What would it matter if a nominal effort was required every time we gained something? Since that effort may be slight, such as the effort required to pick money up from the ground, acknowledging that effort will in no way change how we act.

2. Interpretation: Not every cost comes in the form of spending money or effort. Every time we do something we pay an opportunity cost, which is the price of foregoing all the other things we could have been doing instead. Suppose, for example, that we choose to watch a TV show. The opportunity cost of watching that show is everything else we could have done in that time but didn’t. To watch the show we forego the opportunity to read another chapter of a book or to take a nap. And if you read the book instead of watch the TV show that action still has an opportunity cost, namely the TV show that wasn’t watched and the nap that wasn’t taken.

Evaluation: As with the previous interpretation there are rare cases where we may gain something without paying any opportunity cost. A bank error in our favor, for example. However, even if this interpretation isn’t universally true, opportunity costs are something that it is good to be aware of. Too often we jump on an enticing opportunity without really considering all the things we could have done instead. For example, people will wait in long lines for the chance to see a movie for free. But really it isn’t free, because by waiting in line they are giving up on everything else they could have done in that time. Now this doesn’t mean that waiting in line is necessarily a bad choice, just that we should be aware of its hidden costs.

3. Interpretation: When we obtain something we give up not having that thing, which is something in its own right. And, conversely, when we give something up we obtain not having it. Now this might seem like a kind of absurdity. After all, not having a thing is not, in a literal sense, something. But yet not having a thing may still be valuable in its own way. For example, I currently don’t have a TV. Not having a TV has its advantages. For example, I don’t have to worry about my TV getting stolen or breaking down. I am also not tempted to distract myself with it instead of getting something else done. Of course owning a TV has its benefits too. You can’t watch your favorite shows or play video games on a nonexistent TV. But not owning something should be treated as having some value too.

Evaluation: Too often ownership alone is seen as having value. This leads people to buy more and more things, because they can’t see any value in not having that thing. But I would consider such reasoning a mistake. There is certainly such a thing as having too much stuff. Of course having nothing would be problematic too; I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the value of not owning things. Between the two extremes of owning nothing and owning as much as possible there is probably some optimal middle ground where we own just enough. Where exactly that middle ground is will vary from person to person. What are their goals in life and what do they need to meet those goals? How much do they need to be entertained and what do they need to be entertained with? After those minimums are met not owning one more thing is probably more valuable than owning it. Owning one more thing means one more thing to find a place to put, one more thing to look after, and one more thing to divide your attention.

4. Interpretation: To obtain something we must give up on not wanting that thing. To obtain something first requires adopting an attitude where we believe that having that thing will make us happier and, thus where we will be frustrated by not having it. In general, however, not having such desires is superior to having them. For example, suppose that you see some money lying by the side of the road. Before you even pick that money up you have to desire it. And then suppose that the money is blown away at the last second. Now you are frustrated at your lost opportunity, even though you are no worse off than you were before. Clearly it would have been better to resist desiring the money, and not to attempt to pick it up. Of course even better would have been to attempt to pick up the money while at the same time not desiring it.

Evaluation: This interpretation promotes a kind of stoicism that encourages accepting the world as it is, which has been discussed previously (3:6). Motivating this stoicism is the desire to avoid unhappiness, which this interpretation illustrates by encouraging us to give up on desires because of the possibility that they may give rise to frustration. But not having desires may also result in inaction, which could be a problem in its own way. Now this interpretation suggests a kind of solution to the inaction problem, inasmuch as it suggests that it might be possible to reach for the money while not desiring the money. Of course this contradicts the saying under this interpretation, since that would be a case where we might obtain something without giving up on not wanting it. Even so, is this a solution to stoicism’s inaction problem? In a sense it is, so long as taking action without a desire really is possible (through training). However, if we get the money without desiring the money are we really benefited by it? Without the desire for the money getting the money won’t bring us any happiness, and so it seems that, in a way, we might as well have left the money on the ground.

5. Interpretation: When we obtain something we give up the way things currently are. Consider the following parable. There once was a man on a balcony, and outside that balcony was a fruit tree. In reaching for the fruit the man fell off the balcony. As that case illustrates sometimes giving up on the way things are can be a bad thing. Certainly it isn’t always a bad thing; not every person in that situation will fall. However, it is something we should consider before we reach out.

Evaluation: This interpretation too has a touch of stoicism in it, since it suggests that we may be better off accepting things as they are, instead of trying to change them since change can be dangerous. Of course not changing can be dangerous too. Not updating your operating system with the latest patches can leave you vulnerable to malicious hackers. Perhaps this interpretation is simply encouraging us to be aware of the risks inherent in all our actions. Being aware of the risks of an action is usually a good thing. But, on the other hand, being too aware of the risks can lead to paralysis. Every time we cross the street we run the risk that some drunk driver will kill us. But just because there are risks involved doesn’t mean that we should never cross the street. We have to keep in mind that being killed while crossing the street is extremely unlikely, as is falling to your death while reaching for some fruit. So, while the interpretation has some truth in it, it may be best kept out of mind if you are one of those people who tends to obsess about the terrible things that could happen.

6. Interpretation: If we don’t take the saying to imply that the same person who obtains something must give something else up, as the interpretations so far have, it could be understood as claiming that life is a zero sum game. In other words, anything you gain is someone else’s lose. To buy a TV from a store is to deprive the owner of that TV (which is why he takes something of yours in exchange). In economics this principle is called TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), which expresses the idea that for every gain, for both individuals and society, there is some cost, although it may be hidden or distributed among a number of different people. For example, suppose that a bank error gives you more money. That means that there is more money in circulation, which means that every dollar is devalued slightly. So your gain is effectively paid for by everyone else, since their money is now worth slightly less.

Evaluation: Of course the TANSTAAFL isn’t, strictly speaking, true. There are a number of exceptions where we can gain without someone else bearing an equivalent cost. The three most common exceptions are the discovery of new resources, technological improvements, and increased economic efficiency (such as through free trade). In all these cases it is possible for people to end up better off than they were before without someone else losing out (or at least their losses may be less than the gains). Still, because it is nearly universal, it is important to keep the principle in mind, especially if you subscribe to an ethical system which forbids benefiting at the expense of others. Suppose you find some money on the ground. If you keep that money it is a loss for the person who dropped it, since they can no longer get it back. If you really don’t want to benefit at the expense of other people the thing to do would be to give it back or, as a second best option, to donate it to charity. It is also an important principle to keep in mind in political contexts, since there are so few ways to make some people better off in society without making others worse off. To feed and shelter the homeless, for example, is to place a larger burden on taxpayers (although we might decide that doing so is worth it for reasons of social justice). If we really wanted to make the poor better off without harming anyone we would have to give them newly discovered natural resources, which they could sell in order to improve their lot in life.

7. Interpretation: Rather than taking the saying to express a truth about the price of obtaining things it can instead be understood as a subtle kind of advice. To obtain something significant you need to be willing to lose something, because usually obtaining something significant requires taking a risk. This isn’t true, obviously, for things you can buy in a store. But if you are asking a woman out you run the risk of rejection. The people who are best at obtaining things are those who properly acknowledge the risk involved. Those who ignore or underestimate the risk often take risks that are too big, and those who pay too much attention to the risk are too afraid to try and obtain anything. If you accept that there is always a downside involved in obtaining things, as this interpretation encourages, then you will look for the risk and avoid underestimating it. And if you believe that there is always a cost to obtain things then you won’t become overly risk adverse, as according to the interpretation risk is unavoidable.

Evaluation: Advice that helps people walk the thin line between being foolhardy and cowards when it comes to taking risks is good advice. However, there are probably better ways to give that advice than this saying. For example, we could have said “any substantial gain is accompanied by a risk”. Of course this is a consequence of allowing interpretations that diverge from the literal meaning; often we encounter good ideas that the saying doesn’t really express. But, since the point it to uncover good ideas, in the end it doesn’t really matter.

8. Interpretation: While it is possible to obtain things without giving up anything perhaps to truly possess something we must sacrifice for it. What does it mean to truly possess something? To truly possess something is not only to have it but to appreciate its value as well, and it is hard to appreciate the value of something if you haven’t paid the full price. Many people are nominally free, but only those who appreciate the value of freedom, and thus are willing to make sacrifices for it, are truly free.

Evaluation: It is true that there is a difference between merely having something and appreciating it fully. And it is also true that when we come to own something by chance we rarely understand how much it is actually worth. But, as with previous interpretations, true ownership might not necessarily require paying a price. For example, no one had to pay anything to be born, and thus to have life. But I think that there are a number of people who appreciate the value of their own lives, even though they got them for free. Still, it is a good general rule of thumb that if you want someone to value a thing that you should make them work for it.

December 1, 2007

November’s Top 5

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

I Think Therefore I Am?
The Origin of Ethical Behavior
The Good Life
The Meaning Of Life
Hoarding Knowledge

November 28, 2007

No Singularity

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

The idea that there is coming “technological singularity” is a somewhat popular one these days. Specifically it is claimed that technology will continue to advance at an ever-increasing rate until we reach a point in the not-to-distant future (usually within 100 years of the time that the prediction is being made) where technology will be advancing so fast that it is able to give us everything we could possibly desire and more. Among the promised rewards of this singularity are immortality and the ability of intelligence to spread throughout the universe at a speed close to that of light. To me these predictions remind me of those made in days past of flying cars and regular trips to the moon, just with different fantasies. There are often rapid bursts of progress within some specific domain, and extrapolating from those bursts of progress will seem to imply that soon technology will be doing all sorts of miraculous things. But so far that is not how things have worked, the burst has tapered off and rapid development shifts to a different domain. The cars we drive now, for example, aren’t that much better than those that were around twenty or thirty years ago; they may be more comfortable but they don’t go too much faster, nor are they that much more efficient (some are even less efficient). Currently the burst of innovation is in computing technology, so naturally the cool future things are expected to be AIs and such rather than flying cars. However, I already see indications that the rapid advancements made in computers are already beginning to taper off; for example, the word processors we have now aren’t much more powerful than those of five or ten years ago, they are just more comfortable to use. Just because more powerful computers will continue to be developed doesn’t meant that the power will necessarily be put towards productive uses. And if I was to mock the position further I would point out that it plays on people’s desires; they want to live forever and to have all their desires satisfied. Thus people are likely to believe in the singularity simply because they want it to be true, which interferes with their ability to rationally evaluate its likelihood. And, finally, I will note that some of the things that are claimed are highly unlikely to happen no matter what technological capabilities we develop. For example, it is highly unlikely that we will ever expand into the universe turning it into “smart matter” as we go, as one prediction I read claimed. Any highly advanced civilization is going to be using as much power as it has available to it, which means reducing “leaks” into the external universe as much as possible, both through stray transmissions and through purposeful egress. From the point of view of the people remaining behind any energy spent on spreading out to the rest of universe would be wasted. This means that either everyone will stay home, or everyone will leave, creating a society that acts like locusts, exhausting the resources of one region of space and then moving on to the next, or they will set things up so that the energy spend expanding outwards is returned many times over by energy sucked out of the rest of the universe. For the sake of the rest of the universe we had better hope that the first is the preferred option.

But of course all of that is a digression, because whether there really will be a technological singularity in the future isn’t affected by when it will occur, the similarity of the prediction to flawed predictions made in the past, or whether many of the absurd claims associated with it may turn out to be false. To see whether we are destined for a technological singularity or not we have to examine why this singularity is expected to occur, not simply extrapolate from current trends. And to do that we have to do more than those who actually make the predictions. So is progress really accelerating? And if so, why? To begin with we can start at the level of individuals, because it is individuals who make the discoveries that count as progress. Thus there are two reasons that the rate of progress might accelerate, either individuals are becoming faster at making discoveries, on average, or the number of individuals is increasing. And certainly the population of the world is increasing, and during the periods in the past where technology has been increasing rapidly indeed there were often rapid increases in population as well. And so we might expect, from that observation, that the rate of technological advancement will level off as the number of people levels off. Still, while that can account for some of the rapid advancements we have made in recent times I am reluctant to pin down all of our progress to simple increases in population. First of all the people responsible for new discoveries are only those living outside of the third world, and the third world is where population has been increasing most rapidly. And so the pace of progress doesn’t seem to quite match up with population increases. For example, the population of the United States has doubled within the last 60 years, but the rate of progress may legitimately seem more than double what it was in the 50s. Thus any increase in the progress beyond that must be attributable to an increase in the rate at which individuals can make discoveries.

But what would make someone able to make discoveries faster? Well a better education might, but I highly doubt that we can attribute such progress to better schools. It must then have something to do with the progress of discovery itself, which comes in three parts. The first part of discovery is the idea, the idea is then refined into a precise form, and then the precise form is tested. And all of this is a relatively linear process, there are no shortcuts, and, while someone might try to work on more than one idea at a time, that doesn’t make them any faster at making discoveries, since the time taken to work on one idea detracts from the time devoted to another. We might legitimately claim that technology has made the second and third steps much faster than they were before, that computer models and mathematical assistance make turning ideas into precise forms and testing them easier than ever before. But, while this could be responsible for the observed increasing rate of progress, it clearly can’t give rise to a singularity, because even if the time for the second and third steps was reduced to zero by some miracle of technology there would still be a relatively fixed amount of time required to develop new ideas. Which means that we would end up with perhaps a very fast rate of progress, but there will be some maximum the rate will increase to at which point it will go no faster.

Naturally this is complicated by the fact that discoveries are not made independently of each other, for progress to exist the people making the discoveries must have been exposed to previous advancements and must be building on them. This might seem like another area in which technological advancements might speed up progress, but communication never seems to have been a major issue in this regard. What is a problem is that it takes time for individuals to absorb and understand new discoveries so that they are able to build on top of them, which is not something that can be sped up by technological advancements. And this time can become a serious limitation when discoveries are made rapidly, because then individuals are forced to decide whether they will spend all their time trying to master the work of other people, or whether they will ignore some of it in order to do original work. No matter what balance is struck there are disadvantages: the more time they spend learning about other discoveries the slower they make their own discoveries, but the more they don’t read the more likely it is that their discoveries will essentially repeat work already done, which also effectively reduces the rate of new discoveries. Of course clever technology can mitigate some of these problems by helping people make better decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But it is one more hidden limitation that serves to limit how fast progress can be made.

Some may point out that these supposed limitations are all human limitations, and indeed if we were smarter maybe we could come up with new ideas more often, or ones that were more likely to pan out, and maybe we could assimilate new knowledge quicker. And so some believe that the singularity will occur because of artificial intelligences who will be able to exceed us when it comes to those things. And I agree that artificial intelligences will eventually be developed and that eventually they will be intellectually superior to us, simply because they will be able to think faster, if nothing else. The problem is, however, that artificial intelligences don’t seem like they will be developed anytime soon; even though people have been claiming that they are right around the corner ever since the idea was thought up. Despite all the work that has gone into the field we have yet to develop a machine that can learn as well as a pigeon. But when artificial intelligences are developed I doubt that they will produce a technological singularity. Although they may be superior thinkers to us there are still upper bounds on the speed of computation, which means that there will still be fixed limits on how fast they can make discoveries. Furthermore there is the problem that discovery works by trying our new approaches to problems, new ways of thinking about things. As more and more discoveries are made it will probably become harder and harder to find productive “new” ways of looking at things to make further advancements, as all the obvious approaches will have already been tried, forcing investigators to consider more and more bizarre possibilities, which are much less likely to prove fruitful. Which is an argument that sometime in the distant future after the maximum speed of computation and maximum populations have been reached that the rate of progress will actually slow down.

So, as nice as a technological singularity would be, I highly doubt that one will ever be encountered. Although the rate of progress may increase further, and indeed it would be nice if it did, it will eventually run into some upper bound. And we will certainly never achieve the kind of power where everything is possible. Of course some may think that I am simply ignoring the possibility of discoveries that turn everything we know on its head and remove those limits. First of all I would point out that neither can we rationally count on such discoveries since we don’t even know what they are. And, secondly, claims that something is impossible made nowadays are much more credible than those made in the past and subsequently overturned, for the simple reason that in the past the claim that something couldn’t be done was based simply on an inability to envision how it could be done. But now when we say something can’t be done it is because we have uncovered what look to be physical laws including such constraints. And although we have been mistaken about physical law before we have never been as drastically mistaken as we would have to be if these limitations were to disappear.

November 27, 2007

Evolution Is Myopic

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Occasionally I encounter people who display a strange kind of faith in evolution, who think that evolution has provided everything that we need, or will provide it if it is given enough time. Perhaps they share a chapel with those who believe that the almighty market and his invisible hand will right all wrongs. Naturally I am slightly exaggerating, because I doubt that there is anyone who has blind faith in evolution, but it does seem that evolution selects for what is good, at least in a sense. And so it might be possible to argue that if evolution isn’t selecting for something than it must not really be as good as it appears, that it is either superfluous or has some hidden defect. For example, evolution shows no indication of providing us with perfect rationality, nor does it seem likely that it will provide everyone with the capability to live the good life. Are these things really good, despite the fact that evolution isn’t selecting for them, or are we mistaken in thinking so?

Since I have already defended at length, on separate occasions, the idea that perfect rationality is superior to pragmatic shortcuts, and that living the good life is superior to not living it, perhaps it is better to look at the problem from the other side, and examine whether evolution really selects for what is good and for everything that we need. The first thing we need to take into consideration is that evolution doesn’t care about individuals, at least not directly. All evolution “cares” about is species (gene pools). And thus evolution selects for what the species needs to survive and thrive. But note that this is all that evolution selects for, if a species already has all it needs to optimally catch its prey, for example, then evolution won’t lead to the species being any better at that, because there is simply no need for it. Of course this reinforces the idea that evolution gives the species everything it needs and no more or less.

But why must we gauge the efficacy of evolution based on how well the species is doing? We might also take the perspective of social groups within the species or of individuals. At first glance it might appear that whatever is good for the species must be good for such groups or individuals as well. After all, if the species as a whole is made fitter by evolution doesn’t that mean members are as well? But here we can easily demonstrate that this is simply not the case. Consider the case of bees, which are evolved to sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive. Although the death of individual bees is often good for the hive it is certainly not good for the bees that die (assuming that things can legitimately be said to go well or poorly for an individual bee). Aging is a similar phenomena. Certainly it would be good for us not to get old and die of natural causes. However, it is bad for the species to have individuals with outdated genes floating around; keeping the gene pool more dynamic helps the species adapt to changing circumstances. And thus we age, which is certainly bad for those who get old (although not getting old, given that it means we died early, may be worse).

Thus it may be in our best interests to defy evolution, even if it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the species. Although, on the other hand, it may not be bad for the species either given our other capability. This is because humanity is in an odd position, where we are so far ahead of the competition that we, as a species, are indifferent to most changes. If we were to become 5% smarter or 5% dumber it wouldn’t affect our ability to beat up on the other species around, and basically that is all that evolution cares about. And so if we could manage to beat aging I wouldn’t claim that it is necessarily bad for the species, since we no longer really need to evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, we can deal with them using technology.

Thus the reason that evolution hasn’t selected for perfect rationality isn’t because perfect rationality is inferior to the way we actually reason, but because perfect rationality simply isn’t needed. It is true that perfect rationality would benefit the people and groups possessing it in some ways, for example, perfectly rational people wouldn’t have wasted so much energy on religion, building pyramids and such. However, since that energy wasn’t needed to survive evolution was blind to the possible advantages of perfect rationality, and if some people had been born with perfect rationality they wouldn’t have done substantially better than their less rational neighbors. (In fact they might even have done worse; our imperfect rationality seems tied up with our social and emotional capabilities, such that a person possessing it might do worse because they wouldn’t be able to get along as well with everyone else. Indeed, the mental “disorders” that I am aware of that seem to bring with them some superior rational capacity seem to diminish that ability to integrate.)

For related reasons evolution doesn’t provide us with everything we need to lead the good life. This is because living a good life isn’t necessarily any different from living an inferior life when it comes to survival. And it is quite easy to demonstrate that, because what may be a good life for one person may not be for another, depending solely on what they desire; and obviously there is no difference in the ability to survive between two people living exactly the same life. In fact we might argue that, if everyone lived the good life, the species as a whole might be in some trouble. Because there is no guarantee that people want to lead lives that are productive; there isn’t even any guarantee that they will want to have children. This means that evolution might have selected for characteristics that inhibit our ability to live the good life, such as a certain susceptibility to short-term rewards or peer pressure. Such weaknesses might be good for the group and good for the species, but remember that what is good for the hive might not be good for the bee, and so just because evolution selects for such weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean we should embrace them.

Strangely it might be that a harsher world would have been better for us. If humanity had fiercer competition (perhaps from another intelligent species) we might have improved cognitively, becoming closer to perfectly rational beings. But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine any circumstances that would select for beings who were more likely to lead the good life. Obviously things such as self-reliance and the ability to prioritize long-term goals could have been selected for if we weren’t herd animals and if conditions were harsher. But such conditions give rise to other problems, because if humans weren’t social creatures things such as language, and thus science and culture, may have never been developed. And that would hinder our ability to live the good life by presenting us with only a few ways to live if we wished to survive. Perhaps then we have been dealt the best hand we could expect with respect to the good life, and that it is simply up to us to defy evolution.

This then is why I call evolution myopic, because it looks only at one specific way for things to be good. Because evolution doesn’t select for what is good from the point of view of the individual it is perfectly capable of producing a species full of individuals that fall short of their full potential, even if realizing that potential would be good for them. All evolution cares about is producing individuals that can meet a certain minimum standard, one that allows the species to keep on surviving. But what do we care about the survival of the species? Although we should care about ourselves and the people that compose the groups to which we belong we owe no loyalty so some abstract conception of humanity, nor ought we.

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