The Night of Broken Glass

Kristallnacht -Jewish owned shop windows smashed- Nazi Germany, Nov  9, 1938

This November it will be exactly 80 years ago that a wave of anti-Jewish savagery and destruction broke out across Nazi occupied Europe on November 9 and 10 in 1938.  Known as  the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, after the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom – broken glass from the windows of synagogues, Jewish-owned homes and businesses were ransacked, plundered or destroyed during the violence,  often by neighbors and acquaintances of the victims. These November pogroms marked the start of the Holocaust.

Hateful, riotous and violent events such as these raise the chilling question how people can be made to turn on their fellow citizens en masse, to the point of destroying their properties and livelihoods, or even by killing them.

Such events do not occur in isolation, of course, and are often years in the making, and typically the outcome of a climate of division, misinformation, mistrust, intimidation, hate-mongering and fear.  At bottom lies the vulnerability of the human race to being manipulated by folks who claim that they have the answers to all their problems, and who are able to convince others of their creed by appealing to the most basic instincts of our species, amongst which greed and fear are the more susceptible  ones.

In addition, their appeal feeds on another intrinsic feature of the human race, namely the need to belong to the herd.  Described by Nietzsche as the obedience of the individual to the mass, blindly and without reflection, and perhaps best characterized by his near-contemporary existentialist writer Kierkegaard, when he said that … we men are constantly in need of “the others,” the herd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the herd, of the same opinion as the herd.  And,  as Simone Weil once remarked,  people find comfort in the absence of the necessity to think.

Clearly, such basic human tendencies work directly against the willingness and ability to think about the morality of our actions for ourselves – as individuals – as well as the courage to act accordingly, regardless of diverging mass opinions. This as opposed to being purely driven by instinct,  something that would have urged our animal ancestors to prefer the safety of numbers by remaining within the herd,  for no other reason than being a member of the same species with the need to conform.

That the latter can be a contributing factor in the occurrence of mass violence – including  state sponsored genocide, as in the case of Nazi Germany – can be seen in the context of the herd instinct being alive and well and continuing to thrive amongst the more vulnerable-minded of our species, particularly in the religious and political spheres.  And if our history has shown us anything it is the fact that such outbreaks of mass violence can be initiated by those who have a purpose for it, or,  if they are afflicted with a pathological need to dominate others and the obsession with the exercise of power.

Not easily understood if you are not affected by it – and essentially a delusion about one’s own power or importance – Adolf Hitler rise to power resulting in WWII is perhaps history’s most deadly example of how millions of people can be murdered for no reason other than that someone believing in their own divine purpose and invincibility is able to motivate others to blindly act out their deadly manic or paranoid disorder for them.

This couldn’t happen in our day and age you say? But you only have to watch the large adoring crowds at various Trump rallies and their absolute delight in chanting “Lock Her Up” to understand how the masses can be manipulated and potentially motivated to commit a heinous act.

With the oratory skills of a pulpit bully and employing a 5th-grade  vocabulary largely limited to hollow phraseology such as “it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fantastic!”, a large and primarily anti-intellectual crowd for whom truth is a function of what they want to believe as opposed to what is actually the case  – after being told what they want to hear, e.g., how deserving they are, or how wonderful they are  – can be made to focus on an illusionary enemy who is made out to be standing in the way of their entitlements, a promised utopia, and conceivably set afoot from there, and never mind the consequences.

Why The World Is At War

A recent March 2018 Guardian article by Jason Burke titled “Why Is the World at War” makes the point that “The harsh reality may be that we should not be wondering why wars seem so intractable today, but why our time on this planet creates such intractable wars”.

Burke outlines a number of seemingly never ending regional conflicts, causing no end of misery and death among local populations: Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name the more frequently profiled ones. Often these conflicts follow boundaries that divide clans or castes, not necessarily countries. They lie along frontiers between ethnic or sectarian communities:

In fact, if we look around the world at all its many conflicts, and if we define these wars more broadly, then we see front lines everywhere, each with its own no man’s land strewn with casualties. In Mexico, Brazil, South Africa or the Philippines, there is huge violence associated with criminality and the efforts (by states) to stamp it out .

And so the article goes on to analyze a number of these protracted conflicts in order to get a sense of what lies at the heart of them, in particular as to their history and the seeming inability to get them resolved.

The reasons are clearly many and varied – and to say that they are complex is perhaps an understatement. But as to any kind of overall “why”, the only common element appears to be the persistent inability of our species to get out from underneath the quagmire of basic instincts and desires that appear to feed  the negative human characteristic  we are all too familiar with, such as greed, selfishness,  bullying  and the exploitation and oppression of others,  to name just a few, and all them typically leading to conflict. This as opposed to being guided by more enlightened qualities of human endeavor such as being able to compromise, mediate, cooperate  and share with the realization that all human interests are best served by them.

In the meantime there remains the question of how to address the current states of affairs as outlined in the Guardian article. Essentially, though, they appear unsolvable, except by more of the same, as they all revolve primarily around the principle of Might is Right. Perhaps an oversimplification, but the fact remains that unless the conflicting parties agree to sit down to discuss a solution beyond trying to kill each other, there is not much left on the table but to continue the mutual bloodshed.

If these conflicts are evidence of something, it is that evolutionary pressures are operation at all levels of existence, and that includes the competition between ideas about what kind of societies we should structure for ourselves, and the principles that underpin them, i.e., social-economically, politically, morally. At the bottom of this struggle we find the Might is Right conundrum, and essentially the Law of the Jungle, bequeathed to us courtesy of our animal past in our participation in the Survival of the Fittest contest and obviously still very much a part of our way of dealing with the world.

When reason – that feature of the human cortex most recently required as a result of an evolutionary upgrade – is subjugated to instinct, the Law of the Jungle continues to prevail and becomes even more destructive, if not to the point of self-destruction, as in the case of trying to annihilate ourselves by throwing nuclear bombs at each other.

The issue here of course is why we would allow reason to be overruled by instinct and  in particular when there are clear reason to believe that in a particular case this would not be in our interest. But the first response here would be to say that these are not matters of black and white, and that we might well confuse the one for the other.  As well, the ability to reason is a skill that must be learned – just because you are capable of it in the cerebral  hardware department, all that means is that you have the prerequisites  for being able to act rationally – but it should be clear that even after minimal observation of human behavior that the application of reason  requires training.  To act instinctively, however, is something we are born with, and built into the biology of our species,  from the very first phases of existence as a distinct organism that needed to be able to look after itself  to ensure its survival.

And so not much is likely to change in the world with respect to these kinds of conflicts until such time that we change our ways and wake up to the fact that we are not the creature that we think we are, i.e., that we must be the creature as defined by our past, and our bloodstained, war-torn history.

Instead we need to respond to the call of what it means to be a rational human being, or at least have the imagination and courage to try to find out what that might be all about without the need to kill each other. And this would mean redefining ourselves in terms of our future, and what we may be able to accomplish as a species motivated by the more enlightened principles of empathy and compassion, as well as the spirit of mutual cooperation  between nations with the realization that the shared stewardship of the earth resources is the only way to guarantee our peaceful coexistence  on this planet.

How we will get to that point is anyone’s guess – and if your species  is actually capable of that much common sense  I don’t know.  And given the state of the world today – and the quality of the leadership that appears to be in charge of the world’s most powerful nations – I am not hopeful that any of this will happen anytime soon.

“Until it begins, war is a matter of choice. After that, it’s shaped by forces and realities which dwarf the individuals who participate.”  Joshua Rothman writes in the New Yorker in December of 2017 , reviewing Victor Davis Hanson’s “The Second World Wars”

The Dirty Little Secret at the End of WWII

German Expellees
German Expellees

This is old news now,  but as many European countries are commemorating  the Allied victory over Nazi  Germany around this time of the year we might also want to remember another significant event in relatively recent European history that was directly related to it and  that affected countless millions of people in what is perhaps the largest documented case of ethnic cleansing on record.

But I bet  you didn’t hear much at school about the dirty little secret at the end of WW2: the Potsdam agreement on policy for the occupation and reconstruction of Germany, at the Potsdam Conference between July 17 and August 2, 1945. The participants were the top leaders of the Soviet Union, the U.S.A and the UK, Josef Stalin, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and the ministers of foreign affairs of those states.

Potsdam Conference 1945
Potsdam Conference in 1945 -Truman next to Stalin,  and associated Foreign Ministers

The agreement wasn’t really a secret but given the amount of coverage it received and its subsequent nearly silent treatment in western history books would suggest that it may as well have been a covert agreement between these world leaders. In short, the US and England gave in to the evil Stalin’s demands to control eastern Europe, to redraw the borders of Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union further west to give the Soviets more territory and to expel the entire German population east of the Oder-Neisse line. In real numbers, this meant that approximately two million Poles were forced to abandon their homes and lands and resettle behind the redrawn Polish/Soviet Union border (the Curzon Line) to the west, and that a staggering number of approximately 13 million Germans were to be repatriated to the remaining German territory west of the Neisse river.

prussian expellees
Prussian Expellees

The plan was to allow for the orderly and humane repatriation of Germans from their former homelands where their families had lived and worked as far back as the 13th century. This didn’t quite work out this way! Around 5 million people were forced to flee almost immediately when the Soviet red army advanced into East Prussia in the manner of a viscous barbaric horde bent on raping, killing and in general ransacking everything in their path. It was time to revenge the millions that died at Stalingrad, and a particularly good time if you were a  soldier-slave of a brutal communist regime. Rape, in particular, was the highlight on the pillager’s menu. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then a young captain in the Red Army, described the entry of his regiment into East Prussia in January 1945 as follows: “For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany, and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction”. The remaining 8 million Germans were forced to repatriate in an “orderly and humane” fashion, roughly 1,2 million did not survive the forced but unassisted trek west across their now former homelands and through Polish territory to the relative safety of Allied-occupied German territory on the other side of the Neisse river. The survivors – typically not the very old or the very young – and mostly ordinary farm folk who had done nothing more than toil ceaselessly for a living from dusk to dawn their entire lives – told of months and weeks of incredible suffering along the way during which time they were habitually beaten, robbed of the few possessions they had, the women raped repeatedly. Thousands of expellees committed suicide, not able to take any more of it.

Prussian Expellees

The Humanitarian  Albert Schweitzer, in his speech accepting the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo in 1954, said:

The most grievous violation of the right based on historical evolution and of any human right in general is to deprive populations of the right to occupy the country where they live by compelling them to settle elsewhere. The fact that the victorious powers decided at the end of 2nd World War to impose this fate on hundreds of thousands of human beings and, what is more, in a most cruel manner, show how little they were aware of the challenge facing them, namely, to re-establish prosperity and, as far as possible, the rule of law.

WWII – Liberation Day

Liberation Day - The Netherlands
Liberation Day – The Netherlands

Today, May 5th, is National Liberation Day in the Netherlands  to commemorate the capitulation of the Nazi forces in that country on May 5, 1945. It is a national holiday, although not a statutory day off and employers are allowed to work this out between themselves and their employees. Why mention this day at all? Well, I was born in the Netherlands during WWII, and remain deeply grateful for the fact that Americans and Canadians came over to slay the evil Nazi beast and set us free. Many of them gave their lives for this. This surely was a case of a just war – the grim and sadistic Nazi machine had to be stopped and sent back down the gates of hell from whence it came, goose-stepping and all. So many innocent people died as a result of this war. On both sides.


Arthur "Bomber" Harris
RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris

It wasn’t until much later that I heard about the over-enthusiastic bombing of primarily civilian targets under the direction of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the RAF, such as the cities of Hamburg, Konigsberg and Dresden. Dresden was fire bombed towards the very end of the war by Harris and Co. when it harboured more than half-a-million civilian refugees from Silesia on the run from Stalin and the Red Army. Estimates remain inexact, but as many as 130,000 civilians may have been killed (incinerated, primarily) during a series of raids on that city. Civilians were targeted to “demoralize” the German fighting forces, but the fact that this happened so close to the end of the war – in February 1945 – with the German army already on the run, makes that a very weak argument. Going to war – even for a noble cause – is a filthy business that cannot be administered without contaminating yourself. Or so it seems.

The Dead of Dresden
The Dead of Dresden

The dead of Dresden lie in the streets in 1945. Waves of British bombers created a firestorm in which tens of thousands died. The temperature of the masonry in the city’s cathedral reached an estimated 1,000 Celsius.  Reports speak of many victims melting in the intense heat, their bodies becoming welded to pavements.

It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, October, 1943

Mind Over Matter

In a recent  Scientific American article  dated April 19  titled  “Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality?”  Bernardo Kastrup  muses over the fact that inexplicable lab results may be telling us we’re on the cusp of a new scientific paradigm.

He is writing about the nature of reality, and how it is currently perceived in terms our conceptual understanding, and how the latter predetermines our ongoing observation of the natural  world, to the point that the notion of being able to look at the world objectively – something that should be at the core of all scientific inquiry – may no longer make sense. When I read this,  the first thing that came to mind was something that Nietzsche once said: There is no immaculate perception.

In this context Kastrup invokes Tomas Kuhn’s  idea of the paradigm shift – first introduced in 1962 – when it becomes necessary to start questioning the accepted model of a scientific theory or concept on the basis of an increasing number of observations that are deemed anomalous when they don’t  fit within the prevailing model. You need to read Kastrup’s complete article to see the specific anomalies he is referring to for his argument.

The Kastrup article boils down to the the distinction between mind  and matter – the experiential or mental world and  the material or physical world  – and the  need to question the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind.”  The anomalies he cites in the article question this independence, and while the issue arises the Quantum level of observation, the inference is that there are implications for the larger view of the nature of reality.

I am interested in the nature of the distinction between mind and matter, or, if you will, the mental realm and the physical realm. The traditional view of mind and matter is that, while our physical bodies are  part of the material  world, our conscious minds  are something over and above the material world, in the sense that consciousness as a phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of its underlying material complexity.  Philosophers have struggled mightily to give some account of consciousness in terms of the nature of its existence and as a result a duality has been introduced which has been less than helpful in trying to understand how the mental realm and the physical realm are related.

The distinction as taken mutually exclusive led Immanuel Kant to postulate the “ding an sich” – or “thing-in-itself” – as something fundamentally unknowable as a cause behind the experiential world, and something that Schopenhauer faulted him for because it would take the concept of cause and effect beyond what it could deliver, logically. However, instead of postulating an unknown really behind the world, Schopenhauer himself proposed a different kind of duality, by giving the world an inside and an outside, with the outside being the objective experiential world of our knowledge, and on the inside the true nature or essence of the world. The latter is not directly knowable as object of knowledge, yet we are conscious of its presence within our bodies as something that is over and above our actions and motivations that guide our interaction with the world.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Schopenhauer position, as well, I can reconcile it to a large extent within the Spinoza one substance view – something I wrote about earlier – even though the latter rejected the duality of matter, claiming both the mental and physical were part of the same substance, and no distinction between the inside and outside of matter – although it could be said that humans could only apprehend two attributes of this matter, namely thought and extension.

The bottom line is that there are two ways for us to be in the world, and if there is any duality to it, it is not within the world, but within ourselves and a function of how we are able to interact with it.  This is the duality that follows from the distinction between subject and object, the observer and the observed, between the conscious mind and its experiential content. In the end, however, it is a false distinction, as it is the world looking at the world, creating the illusion of separate substantive realms – the mental realm and the physical realm – while in fact both of them are one and the same reality, and the one that is internal to our mind. There is no other reality.  That doesn’t mean that what we typically refer to as the physical realm is any less real than we think, but regardless of what we think, it all comes down to a bunch of neurons firing in our cranium.

And so the fact remains that we cannot access the world without going through the conceptual apparatus of our minds. Any idea we have of it is entirely dependent on having processed our experiential perception of it, consequently, it cannot exist logically (or ontologically, for that matter) independently from us. So getting back to the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind” it should be clear that since we can’t get to the natural world directly, i.e., independently from human observation,  there is no direct or objective observation of the world, and that all knowledge derived from it is entirely subject to being interpreted and shaped and conditioned as necessary by the very creature that we are.  Had we been a different creature, we would likely be experiencing a different world, i.e., we would have a different concept and understanding of it. That is to say also that reality needs to be a certain way in order to accommodate whatever it is we are, as such we shape it as much as it shapes us, and to some extent this is a function of the cultural-linguistic environment we inhabit, e.g., there are the legendary 50 different words for snow in Eskimo languages, denoting unique properties within their reality as these have been discerned on the basis of having interacted with it.

And taking this view a little further – it would seem to follow that the boundaries of the world are the boundaries of our mind, in the sense that our understanding of the world will be  limited to what our mind will be able to process given the neuro-physiological infrastructure that supports it. I believe it is somewhat presumptuous to assume that there are no limits to the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge or the ability to conceptualize the various features of the cosmos as were are coming across them.  That is to say, we will be running out of processing power in the gray-matter department, as much as it is a bio mechanical process subject to the laws of nature, and not being able to get our heads around the notion of infinity (in whatever direction) when to comes to concepts of time and space is an example of this.  So, too, Mr. Kastrup’s Quantum Anomalies  are likely to show themselves as features of the mind-matter / subject-object distinction, as an example of the mind looking back at itself and no longer being able to hold on to the distinction, as much as this distinction would be pushed at the QM level of scientific research.  As I said earlier – in the end, all our observations of the  world are instances of the world looking at itself. If we have a role to play here it might just be the instantiation of this process as a means to enable the cosmos to continue on its evolutionary path towards what this is all about.

The truth about man is that he is not a pure knowing subject, not a winged cherub without a material body, contemplating the world from without. For he is himself rooted in that world.  (Schopenhauer – The World as Idea)

Enlightenment – How?

In response to Steven Pinker’s  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – to repeat something  I stated in an earlier post – who can begin to enumerate the number and variety of social economic, health and environmental issues ranging from poverty to homelessness to starvation across the globe? Just recently the NY Times in an article titled The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem showed a tally of those living on $4 a day or less in selected developed countries, and it included 5.3 million people living in the US.  I don’t necessarily want to pick on the US, but with the highest GDP in the world you wonder how this can even be the case when a country is deemed the wealthiest country in the world.

Beyond that there is the disturbing statistic that half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, while the top 10% of adults hold 85%, and the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth.  If you believe that these discrepancies are simply a function of some folks working harder and smarter than others, and reaping the benefit of it, then bless you! But you may have to learn something about the celebrated tenets of predatory capitalism and how some people, organizations and certain governments operate in order to accumulate the incredible wealth that they have acquired, if only to ensure the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.

And how depressing is it when you read about the general well-being of people outside the developed countries and find out that approximately 9 million people die of starvation each year according to world hunger statistics; more than the death toll for malaria, AIDs and tuberculosis combined in 2012. And currently an estimated 130 children or more die every day in war-torn Yemen from extreme hunger and disease according to international aid groups working there.

Add to this the pollution of our life-sustaining  atmosphere air with toxic gasses and poisonous particulates, the contamination of our precious living oceans with eight million metric tons of plastics  each year, the relentless depletion of non-renewable natural resources and the creation of mountains of garbage and putrid waste that we really don’t know what to do with courtesy of our mindless obsessive-compulsive consumerism and you have a picture of a planet that appears to be  in deep trouble no matter how rosy the glasses you are wearing you look at it.

Of course, there is far more going on in the world  that should be of concern if you care about the future of this earth – which is our future, lest we forget – such as people continuing to slaughter each other no matter what. We are reminded daily of the ongoing tribal wars in the Middle East, featuring the long standing tradition of killing each other in the name of some deity or another, e.g., the murderous Taliban sect and today’s equally deadly version of the black plaque known as ISIS. And last but not least we have a nuclear threat mounted by that obdurate dictator living like royalty of the meager avails of his starving nation in South East Asia, all the while advancing the world’s Doomsday Clock to two minutes before apocalyptic midnight, and a situation sadly lacking in amelioration from that chap in the White House.

And speaking of that chap in the White House, who can forget H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) depressing prophesy come true last year,  that  “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Now I don’t know about you, but as much as I hate to see the current status of the world reduced to these tragic events, I can’t help but think that no amount of positive thinking is able to gloss over these sordid states of affairs with Pinker’s astonishingly naïve claim that things are getting better by the day. If global poverty has been reduced and longevity expanded, it is nevertheless within the larger herd of human lemmings hurtling down the cliff toward extinction. One consolation might be that we have made damned sure every other species of creatures critical to our survival has been made extinct before us.

No need to give up all hope, however, since, apparently, the great barren expanse of Mars is waiting for us, just as soon as all-round wunderkind Elon Musk will have taken a sufficient number of deposits to shoot us there in a tin can, as this is apparently where our future lies as the acolytes of modern  consumerism; from there we will spread it among the stars, to infinity and beyond. Our greatest gift to the cosmos, indeed!

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence has been in the news a lot lately, mainly because more and more people at all levels of society are starting to recognize its potential, in whatever area of human activity. From a briefing paper published by the European Parliament October of 2016:

The ability of AI systems to transform vast amounts of complex, ambiguous information into insight has the potential to reveal long-held secrets and help solve some of the world’s most enduring problems. AI systems can potentially be used to help discover insights to treat disease, predict the weather, and manage the global economy. It is an undeniably powerful tool. And like all powerful tools, great care must be taken in its development and deployment. However, to reap the societal benefits of AI systems, we will first need to trust it.

What kind of trust are we referring to here? This a very complex question. The more we let AI into our lives, the more likely we are to develop a dependency on it, and the amount we are willing to trust it will be in direct relationship to the willingness to have our lives altered by its outcomes, since the rise of AI will have without question a bearing on them, regardless what aspect of life we might be talking about.

But since we don’t really know what kind of future we want for ourselves – how will we be able to trust AI if it pushes us into a direction that at first glance appears to be not in our best interest, if only because we might not fully understand the consequences of an AI suggested action.

And so the critical question remains: with or without AI, what course of action is ultimately in humanity’s best interest? I have written enough on that subject in the past to suggest that, at minimum – owing to the fact that we really don’t know what we are or what we are about – our survival as a successful species ought to be of primary interest to us.

Beyond that it is anyone’s guess how to proceed from there, and this on the assumption that we will in fact be successful in not wiping each other out in some stupefying display of nuclear grandstanding.  Then, hopefully, a day will arrive in the not too distant future when we might have an inkling of what is going on with us, and start living our lives in that context. In the meantime, it will likely be AI to help us figure out what course of action we need to chart in order to be able to reach that future.

I believe AI will be able to gain our trust gradually and take an ever greater role in our daily lives. The technology will continue to seduce us with the ability to seemingly give us everything we ask for, leading to our ever greater dependency on it, but the caveat is that throughout the application of AI we cannot take its credibility for granted, as much as it may continually seem to prove itself. At bottom, AI is a calculator working with an algorithm (a set of rules governing a deductive process) and any data derived from it is subject to the ago old dictum “garbage in – garbage out”.  To safeguard the integrity of process is one thing, safeguarding the integrity of the information it is working on is a whole different matter.

My biggest worry, however, would be to allow AI to modify its own algorithms in order to overcome its limitations, e.g., allow it to simulate an inductive or inferential process, to make the process seem more “human”, or as smart, if not smarter.   I’m thinking about situations where AI is faced with  incompatible observations – or when there is just not enough data – in which case it might be allowed to arrive at some kind of “best guess” scenario by either modifying one of its procedural rules or by introducing some other random factor to settle the issue in order to simulate a reasoned conclusion.  In case of finding your way out of conflicting data a machine cannot benefit from a “gut” feeling, or by an appeal to instinct or intuition, since the essential quality of being human cannot be translated  into machine language, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm it has been derived from.

But this is precisely the crux of the matter, and in order to safeguard a future that is in fact in our best interest, AI should never be more than an augmentation to human intelligence.  This so we will continue to strive  for a future that will always put the interest of humans first, efficacy over efficiency, by seeking to maximize our social-economic well-being and the ethical-legal framework that supports it.

AI will not be able to apply critical and uniquely human qualities such as empathy and compassion to its output, although it might be able to simulate them to a certain degree, based on what it has “learned” from the observation of human behavior.   This may be good enough for some  behaviorists out there – followers of the late great behaviorist psychologist B.F Skinner – who hypothesize that human behavior is strictly a function of external factors, and not driven by thoughts or emotions, but I think they are definitely out to lunch on that front.  There is a logical gap between what is seen on the outside in human behavior and that which motivates it from within, and what it means to be human is the only thing that fits in that space and is able to connect the two.

(For those who think that the essence of a human being can be reduced to a bunch of neurons firing in some particular fashion – so what is so special about that, right?  Well, a couple of things. Clearly, you need to get out more – and a lot more, I would think;  watch a sunset or two, take in a play, maybe listen to a little Mozart, or do something more adventurous such as a hike up to Machu Picchu, whatever. And then also ask the questions as to why these neurons are firing, and the earlier question: why are these neurons here  in the first place, i.e., why is there anything here at all.  No aspect of the given world should ever be taken for granted; doing so  is the ultimate arrogance of man, and not only does this diminish the value of the world, but especially the value of the one making the assertion.)

As a result, AI must remain in a secondary position to the human mind in its determination what might be best for us, although there is no guarantee that we will always decide to do the right thing there. Such is our predicament at the moment, as well as in the foreseeable future.

A Tale of Two Selves

…  man is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts – with all that, to be sure, the most interesting! (Nietzsche)

Why is the human race, with its superior intellectual capacity when compared to its most recent primate ancestry on the phylogenetic tree, at the same time so unstable, so unpredictable, and so neurotic, and so often acting against its own interest? One would have thought the advanced brainpower would have had the opposite effect, by benefiting its host in all aspects of human endeavor and  maximizing its existential advantage. Instead, we ended up being a deeply troubled, schizoid species.

I think we can safely conclude that all the human induced problems in the world are related to the very latest features of our neuroanatomy, as no other species had its brain hijacked by what has been classified as “the human cortex”. While being an integral of our brains, the expansion of the cerebral cortex, the neocortex, and in particular that of its prefrontal region, is a major evolutionary landmark in the emergence of humans, the crowning achievement of evolution and the biological substrate of human mental prowess.

Yes, and so the trouble started, as much of the misery experienced by human beings is likely the result of the conflict within our minds between the inherited lower and newly acquired higher brain functions, i.e., between the animal, or instinctive self and the moral, or rational self, and the latter presumably courtesy of the evolutionary upgrade

The moral self is that part of our self-awareness (as opposed to mere awareness)  that is able to take responsibility for its actions in light of its consequences, whether they are intended or not. In doing so, it must be able to think and act rationally, and see itself as a causal agent with respect to its actions and its consequences.

It presupposes that all rational actions are preceded by a decision making process – essentially making all actions initially optional, as opposed to an automatic or learned response to a stimulus, which would be the case for any action initiated by instinct only.

After receiving a major upgrade in the gray matter department, quantitatively as well as a qualitatively it seems, the new human species saw the world and themselves in a different light from their genetic predecessors. On the assumption that our sensory organs have not changed all the much qualitatively from our immediate ancestors,  we can suppose that sensory data would show the world in many ways unchanged, yet different from the moment they started interacting with it. Instead, it became an environment capable of being changed based on how they interacted with it. No longer were they merely at the receiving end of the world; they were now in a position to alter, if not recreate certain aspects of it.

More importantly,  major substantive changes were introduced in how the new species is able to communicate among its members. Beyond the hitherto primitive primate cultures depending primarily on grunts and gestures for communication – but already including a degree of social structure – Homo sapiens developed something entire new under the sun. They were able to establish cultures capable of abstraction and conceptualization, in language, in the arts and above all, in the sciences

The result has been that, in spite of all the turmoil, upheaval and chaos our species has endured since the beginning of time, self-induced or not – and a subject not easily dismissed or glossed over if our recorded history of past and current civilizations has anything to say about it – our knowledge and understanding of the physical world has steadily increased, to the point that – after a long and initial period of linear growth – it is now growing exponentially, doubling on average every twelve months according to what has been referred to as the  Knowledge Doubling Curve.

This later fact should not surprise us, as we have this innate need to know; it is an essential if not “necessary” feature of our species to keep looking for more answers, about the world, the greater universe, and by extension about ourselves. Necessary because we will not be able progress along the path that evolution is pushing us unless we keep increasing our knowledge and understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that we find ourselves a part of and must be able to build our future in.  Evolution isn’t some process over and above ourselves – we are the very embodiment of it, and each of us is an instance of that process!

An essential step in that process will be the need to reconcile the instinctive self with the rational self, to establish some sense of harmonious, symbiotic relationship between the two, such that we  will only undertake actions that are to the greater long-term benefit of our species. Will we ever be capable of this?  I don’t know, but time will tell, and as AI continues to edge forward in our lives, it may well decide the matter for us, one way or the other.

Evolution in Transition

the -human-brain

Neuroscientists have described the human brain as the most complex biological structure in the known universe, containing hundreds of billions of cells, and trillions of connections controlling every thought, feeling, movement and function of our bodies.

If this proves anything, it is the fact that – outside of explanations invoking religious mythology – the human brain has evolved through a teleological process that was directed from the inside out, to be what it is today, and instantiated within each of us at some point along the way towards its desired objective, whatever that might be.

In that context the arrival of the human species can be seen as constituting a transitional and critical period in anticipation of the next phase of cosmic evolution,  as organic life has likely been pushed to the limit of what it is able to accomplish beyond the mere act of survival and propagation.

What I am referring to here is our species’ precarious status as a creature that has one leg still firmly in the animal kingdom, our past,  while the other is in a future we know little or anything about. And so we are acting accordingly, with no clear idea of what is expected of us, making us inherently unpredictable if not an unstable life form at best, as evidenced by its self-destructive tendencies, including suicide, homicide,  genocide, and undermining  its own life-sustaining environment.

However, there is one area of human endeavour  where we have clearly gone beyond our animal traits and can claim some considerable accomplishments since arriving as a brand new species relatively recently. This might suggest that our arrival on the cosmic scene brought about the transition of matter’s evolutionary pressures from a strictly internal process  to an external one.

We can point to the ingenuity of our species to manipulate and restructure matter into ever increasing organizational complexity as reflected by the various aspects of technology that we are familiar with today. Through us, nature has achieved a quantum leap in the creativity department, now being able to push its evolutionary objectives over significantly shorter time frames. In this sense, human beings function as nature’s evolutionary agents, pushing these objectives along an ever increasing pace for no other reason than that it seems to be the natural thing to do …

And so the question remains as to how and why this process exists within matter, such that it is able to sort itself out within the apparent randomness of  cosmic events into the direction of ever more complex material structures and organizational capacity.

Mea Culpa

Someone contacted me to tell me they didn’t like much of what  I had to say on this site. Too negative, most of the time – depressing, regardless of the subject matter,  and obsessively repetitive in particular on the subject of religion, and disrespectful of people of faith regardless of whether they represented a completely harmless strain of beliefs or not. Then, most perplexing, my references to “the larger context” … what in the world does that mean, if not someone seriously confused about what their own life means to them? Thank you …

Well, the best I can do to address this critique is to say, first of all,  mea culpa, in particular when it comes to being negative, depressing and repetitive regarding the subject matter I like to write about.

As I stated up front – in so many words – I’m writing this primarily for myself in the attempt to figure out what the world is all about beyond the twists and turns that life can throw your way, and beyond the  typical humdrum of daily tasks that – while not necessarily meaningless in themselves –  tend to obscure the larger existential questions, and so, by extension, what life might conceivably mean to everyone else.

I know that sounds rather presumptuous, but given that each of us is just one of many – and, when it comes down to it, not all that different from each other when it comes to what we bring to the table to take on the challenges of everyday life. That is to say, how different can we be in our overall approach to life, when as members of one species we are primarily driven by our shared biology, and the differences between us are no more than varieties on a theme, i.e., they are differences of degree, and not of kind. Beyond that, they are the circumstances of our birth such as the place and social-economic environment that we grow up in that help shape us into the individuals that we are today.  That this will leave each of us as distinct and unique individuals with needs and desires and expectations from life possibly as different between two people as day and night is undoubtedly true, yet at the same time the differences again are a matter of degree, and not of kind.

And if I can shed some light on the meaning and purpose of life for myself by sharing my thoughts about it, perhaps this might help someone else to start thinking about what life means to them, and add some definition or context or value to their outlook on life in a world that, in my humble opinion,  is going down the wrong path in terms of pursuing the best possible future for our species.  This is not say that I think the human race is irrevocably going to hell in a handcart, although there are many among us who appear to be doing their best to make this happen.

About being overly negative :  Apart from the massive environmental damage we are inflicting  on our precious planet on a daily basis, who can begin to enumerate the number and variety of social  economic and health issues ranging from poverty to homelessness to starvation across the globe? Just this week the NY Times in an article titled The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem showed a tally of those living on $4 a day or less in selected developed countries, and it included 5.3 million people living in the US.  I don’t necessarily want to pick on the US, but with the highest GDP in the world you wonder how this can even be the case when a country is deemed the wealthiest country in the world.

Beyond that there is the disturbing statistic that half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, while the top 10% of adults hold 85%, and the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth.  If you believe that these discrepancies  are simply a function of some folks working harder and smarter than others, and reaping the benefit of it, then bless you, but you may have to learn something about how some people, organizations and certain governments operate in order to produce the incredible wealth that they have accumulated.

So against these things  – and with the brazen assumption that there is a lot more going on in the world than meets the eye –  I am introducing “the larger context”,  which, I postulate, naively as it may be,  is the true meaning  or intent behind the world. It is the reason for it being there in the first place,  including our very own presence in it, and something I hope we will  be able to get a glimpse of once we look  beyond the nonsensical content of religious dogma  (of whatever flavor) and the unsupported and hence unintelligible notion that someone or something else is in charge of our world.

Why do I think there is ” a larger context” or  “true intent” to life that we are currently not aware of?  Only because we are the offspring of the greater cosmos, and as such contain its “DNA” within every particle of our being.  We are in fact one entity! As a result, what motivates it likely motivates us, either directly or indirectly,  and then at  a level where we would be capable of initiating some course of inspired action commensurate with the evolutionary achievement that we currently represent. However, at the moment one might be hard pressed to think much of that,  given the aforementioned sorrowful status of the world today, and that would include the questionable quality of  leadership of some of the most powerful nations in the world at the moment..

But it is without question that our evolutionary path shows that the cosmos is on a mission, and to date we  appear to be that mission; it is just that we don’t yet know what that mission is about. But it would be unreasonable to think that this is a multi-billion year mission of self-annihilation, given the kludge that we are currently making of it, although I hate to think that we are  doomed to end up that way because we haven’t evolved enough in the gray matter department to be able to take care of it.

And so my hope is that by  gaining even an inkling of  understanding of the world’s greater purpose, on the assumption there is one  – oh, and what an assumption – we might eventually be able to abandon the current seemingly runaway path of self-destruction by rising to the occasion and take ownership of our destiny by determining as best we can what our role should be in this fantastic cosmic adventure that we have only  just woken up in.  Evolution is providing us with some pointers here, but we need to be able to understand a lot more of what has moved us along its path to the present moment  before we can start making more  sense of it.

In the end, much of this is about not being able to see the forest for the trees, or, for that matter,  the universe for the stars, when, usually, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts; we’re just not seeing it at the moment, and my greatest fear is that we might never be able to.