A Future Of Uncertainty

Given what we think we know about the age of the universe, it would appear we have only just arrived at our current level of sentiency, and a species capable of reflective thought and reason. With it – I suggest – came the obligation to make something of ourselves beyond being just another animal with the need to survive and procreate, although being perhaps much better at it than any species that came before. Well, at least with the initial ability to create an environment  that is most advantageous to accommodate these very basic needs, if for these reasons only.

However, looking at the state of the planet today,  for many this “being better at it” appears to have been limited to some stupefying exercise in exploitation, consumption and procreation, and that at great cost to themselves, their fellow human beings, and the planet that spawned them.  As a result, we might be the last species on earth that will go extinct, but by Jove, we’ll make sure every other species will be extinct before us.

Alternatively – and yes, there is always an alternative, in particular to just being  stupid – we could use our collective brain-trust to decide what kinds of unique human activities might truly benefit us as a species, and act accordingly. Imagine a world-wide society  built on mutual trust and respect, featuring such things as a sustainable waste-free economy, free education, healthcare, equal opportunity, the pursuit of arts and sciences, and free from famine, disease and crime. In other words, not much we are familiar with today, but something worth pursuing, wouldn’t you think?

As such the kind of future we want for ourselves is ours to decide, and ours alone – to do with as we should – and ideally reflective of the tremendous potential that must necessarily lie within us.  I say necessarily because we are the descendants of an incredible cosmic spectacle that is represented within every particle of our being. Clearly, this is the larger context we should be living our lives in – as little as we are able to grasp of it at the moment-  and I have referred to a number of times in previous posts, already ad nauseam no doubt.

And while it seems near impossible to quantify the mostly mundane activities of our daily lives in such terms – and especially  the not so mundane, and that would include most if not all of human kind’s murderous past and all of our present self-destructive activities – it is nevertheless the implicit promise of our cosmic origins that will continue to urge us along this uncertain path towards a future we might perhaps begin to imagine what that would look like, or at least not fully until we develop the courage and intellectual and moral wherewithal to allow us to conceive the realization of it.

However – and as much as I hate to admit this – my greatest fear is that this kind of future is in fact not available to us.  That is to say, very much like the man from the country in Kafka’s parable Before the Law –  we will just have the promise of being able to access it, and so will spend our entire lives with the assumption that  this this future, this promise,  will eventually be realized.   This because we may not have moved up far enough on the evolutionary ladder to be able to live up to it:  we don’t have the gray matter and intellectual machinery or moral courage to even begin conceptualizing the initial steps towards it.  Or so it seems …  As such, life would continue to be the absolute tragedy it is for so many of our species today.

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A Play Without A Script

Shakespeare once wrote:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;

And yes, sometimes I think that we humans are like actors in a  very long play that  appear to have lost track of the script script and that we are making it up as we go along, simply because we don’t know any better.

To make things worse, the play’s director is missing!  It has been claimed that once upon a time we did have a director, or at least a large number of people seemed to have believed that – and his name was God – but he has actually never been seen,  suggesting he was no more than an unsubstantiated rumor.

So now we’re in a play without a script and a director, and it explains a lot regarding the current status of the world – rather chaotic, to say the least – and the fact that no one seems to know what it is about or where we are going with it.

And so the question remains: does the world, life, have to be about something beyond just  living it?  And do we need to have a script or require direction in order to live out the substance of our lives as we are experiencing it?  Or can it simply exist for its  own sake – and that the very matter of experiencing life, living,  is all that it is capable of delivering – and to search for a meaning beyond it would be an exercise in futility.

Once more I am expressing the existentialist viewpoint, in particular as expressed by Camus and Sartre, but I can’t help continuing to challenge it.



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In The Gray Morning Light

In a few days it will be International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death-camp on January 27, 1945, by the Soviet army.    There are many things that continue to disturb me when I think about this period in time again, in addition to the unimaginable evil of it: a state run people extermination program …

arbeit macht frei

There continue to be folks today – morons is a good name for them – who deny that anything like the Holocaust actually happened. Typically, they will have their own demented ideological agendas that will prevent them from acknowledging the sickening truth of this event, but the well-documented fact remains that on January 20, 1942,  in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials  got together under the leadership of Reinhardt Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office (including the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Gestapo, and Kripo) to discuss and coordinate of what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question“.

While the official minutes of this this meeting did not reflect the actual ways and means of the implementation of this state sanctioned policy – we know from actual testimony provided by Adolf Eichmann who was present at the meeting that an agreement was reached to pursue the annihilation of all Jewish people, and that this strategy was subsequently implemented with deadly efficiency, resulting in the murder of as many as 6 million Jewish people.

And so it happened that – while Nazi Germany was at war –  at the outset life went on more or less as normal for the majority of the German population,  but some of their neighbours were forced from their warm beds in the very early morning hours, given 15 minutes to get ready, fathers, mothers, their little children, grandparents, entire families, generations, standing there in front of their homes, in the gray morning light, shivering, frightened, crying, a small bag of belongings clutched under their arms, to be trucked away to local railway stations, then transported in unheated goods trains in the middle of winter – packed so tightly together – there was no room to sit down during a journey lasting often several days. Pitch dark inside, with a bucket or hole in the floor for a toilet, men, women, young and elderly, children, babies, women expecting, giving birth, and all this indescribably suffering had to be endured by thousands of people just so they could be gassed to death at a distant location.

From a 1943 secret report by a German army officer that was smuggled to the Dutch Resistance, for further distribution:

The trains with the victims arrive from all the occupied territories of Europe. They are made up of cattle wagons whose windows are barred with barbed wire, in each of the wagons there are 120 people. Depending on the weather, about 90 % arrive alive, although more than once last summer, 50 % were already dead from lack of water. After the wagons arrive at the camp, the people are whipped out and into the surrounding barracks, and locked in. The next day or several days later, depending on arrivals, 700 to 800 people are pushed together in to a courtyard. They are told to undress completely, the clothes must be put carefully in piles and the shoes lined up. Completely naked, men, women, children are pushed along a passage between two dividers of barbed wire. Then Ukrainian criminals begin to cut and shave the women’s and men’s hair. The hair is collected carefully because it is used to seal the joints [Dichtungen] of the submarines [U-Boot]. For long hours, the poor people must stand in the biting cold or the burning heat. As soon as some fall, worn out by the harsh cold or the burning heat, the henchmen lash the naked bodies of these poor people with the whips. The pain and the suffering that takes place in these corridors defy description. Mothers try to warm their infants against their own naked bodies. There is hardly any talking, only the eyes of the poor people express a nameless suffering and dulled resignation. This corridor leads to an iron door of a stone building. The door is opened and the 700-800 people destined for death are whipped inside until they are squeezed like herring in a barrel and unable to move. A three years old boy who tries to run away is caught and whipped back inside. Then the doors are hermetically closed. Outside the building, a large tractor is turned on, its exhaust fumes are pumped inside the building by a small window, I could see the effects on the victims inside. Packed in, the poor people were standing and waiting for their last moment, there was no panic, no cries, only a low murmur that could be heard from outside, as though a collective prayer rose towards the sky. One hour later, all were dead. Sliding windows were opened from the outside for the carbon monoxide to be evacuated. A half hour later, some Jews came – they owe their life to this dismal work which follows – to open a door in the back wall and drag out the bodies of the gassed people outside, before carrying them to the pits full of lime prepared for this task. They must remove rings from the fingers and open mouths to pull out gold teeth if there are any. Each installation keeps statistics of the number of killings [Tötungen]. Every day, in other words, every 24 hours, three or four killings[Tötungen] take place. This means that for the four installations [Anstalten], 8 000 to 9 000 deaths per day. In all, 6 million and a half people have already been killed in this way, including 4 million Jews and 2 and 1/2 “institutionalized individuals” or so-called “Deutschfeindlichen”. The program includes 16 million and a half people, in other words, all the Jews in the occupied territories and all the Polish and Czech intellectuals. In high places, there is currently an emphasis on rapidity and it is planned to use a more efficient method of killing. Cyanide gas has been suggested but apparently it has not been used yet, so the killing continues to take place in the cynical manner described above.
(March 25, 1943)

The ultimate indignity to human life – but there really are no words in any  language  that could capture in any  way the degree of terror, horror and pain that was inflicted on so many innocent men, women and children by the relatively handful of truly murderous individuals that made up the Nazi upper hierarchy.

Disturbing to me  is the fact that this unbelievable sick and demented  initiative was perpetrated by the leadership of a nation steeped in cultural significance as far as western civilization is concerned.  And here we have Reinhard Heydrich – the Chair of the 1942 Wannsee conference – himself  a talented classical violinist and son of a composer and professional opera singer, born into a family of social standing and substantial financial means, and often described as the main author of the Holocaust and the darkest figure within the Nazi elite. Hitler christened him “The Man with the Iron Heart”(1)

Oh – and before I forget – the Holocaust  happened to certain people only because they were Jewish – but that seems hardly relevant, does it? I mean, how could such a factor be relevant? Unless, perhaps, you were in a country ruled by  a mentally deranged homicidal megalomaniac who used its powerful army to act out his sick and deadly fantasies. No, it is the fact that this could have happened at all – where it happened, when it happened and how it happened – these the only things that matter here. How this could have happened – I don’t think I will ever be able to figure this out at all.

(1) It is perhaps worth mentioning that Mr. Heydrich’s iron heart stopped beating at the occasion of his death a few months after the Wannsee conference as the result of an attempt on his life on 27 May 1942 by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers who had been sent on behalf of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to assassinate him in an operation named Operation Anthropoid.

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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.

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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  when it 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.

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)

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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 naive 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.

No need to give up all hope, however! Apparently, the great barren expanse of Mars is waiting for us, as all-round wunderkind Elon Musk  will be able to shoot us there in a tin can perhaps as soon a seven years from now. It seems space is  where our future lies as the acolytes of modern  consumerism!  Mars will be the first interplanetary step after we’re done with the earth, and from there we will spread it among the stars, to infinity and beyond. Our greatest gift to the cosmos, indeed!

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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 is 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, as the rise of AI will have no doubt a bearing on them, regardless what aspect of life we might be talking about.

It remains an open question, however, if will we be willing  to trust AI when 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 reasons for an AI derived conclusion. From an article in Bloomberg Businessweek titled Artificial Intelligence Has Some Explaining to Do by Jeremy Kahn:

This is what gives AI much of its power: It can discover connections in the data that would be more complicated or nuanced than a human would find. But this complexity also means that the reason the software reaches any particular conclusion is often largely opaque, even to its own creators.

Nevertheless, I believe AI will continue to gain our trust gradually and take an ever greater role in our daily lives. The technology will seduce us with the ability to seemingly give us everything we ask for, leading to our ever greater dependency on it, and leading us to believe that we can take its credibility for granted, and that would be a dangerous thing. At bottom, AI is a machine, and a calculator working with an algorithm (a set of rules governing a deductive process) and any data derived from it is subject to the age old dictum “garbage in – garbage out”.  To safeguard the integrity of a process is one thing, safeguarding the integrity of the data it is working on is a whole different matter.

In addition, we need to worry about that has been referred to as “machine learning”, the ability of an AI machine to “improve” on its own programming in order to overcome its deductive 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 arrive at a reasoned conclusion.

The fact remains that a mechanical analysis cannot find its way out of conflicting data by means of a “gut” feeling, i.e., the appeal to instinct or intuition, or the application of other unique human qualities such as empathy and compassion since they cannot be translated into machine language. At most, a machine might be able to simulate them to an extent based on what it has “learned” about these qualities from the observation of human behavior in a variety of scenarios. And if AI can only simulate human reasoning, that is not the same as replacing it. While this may be good enough for some  behaviorists – followers of the late great behaviorist psychologist B.F Skinner – who hypothesize that human behavior is strictly a function of environmental 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.

The upshot is that the essence of what it means to be human cannot be quantified and reduced to a set of rules governing machine language, and that AI can never be more than an augmentation to human intelligence.  This so we will continue to strive for efficacy over efficiency, to ensure we will choose quality over quantity, and that our continuing development as a species will always be a reflection of that,  uncertain as our future seems at the moment.

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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 assisting its host in all aspects of human endeavor and  maximizing its existential advantage to the benefit of all of humanity. Instead, we seem to have 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 progenitors. On the assumption that our sensory organs have not changed all that 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. And necessary since we will not be able progress along the path and in the direction  that evolution is pushing us unless we keep increasing our knowledge and understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that we find ourselves a part of.  Evolution isn’t some process over and above ourselves – we are the very embodiment of it,  each of us being an instantiation 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 a harmonious, symbiotic or constructive 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. More about that later.

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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 would be the fact that – outside of explanations invoking religious mythology – the evolution of matter was able to bring something as intricate and organizationally complex as the human brain about through a teleological process that appears to be internal to it.

And when I say “internal” I mean this in the sense that the drive to evolve is a property of the material universe that will manifest itself in the presence of conditions that would allow for it.

As such evolution utilizes the seemingly randomness of cosmic events to arrive at ever higher levels of organizational complexity through a process of trial and error to find the required material stability  and biological survivability that would allow it to achieve its desired objective, whatever that might be.

In that context I see the arrival of the human species as a stop along the way and the introduction of a critical transitional period in anticipation of the next phase of cosmic evolution, by pushing organic life beyond the mere acts of  survival and propagation, and  venturing further into the realm of consciousness and  its content such knowledge and ideas.

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.

But there is one type of human activity where we have clearly gone beyond our animal traits and can claim some considerable accomplishments since our arrival as a brand new species:  the areas of science and technology.  Our successes on this front may well be proof that our relatively recent arrival on the cosmic scene constitutes the transition of matter’s evolutionary prowess from a strictly internal process to an external one as we apply our sciences and technologies to just about all aspects of our material existence.

We can point to the ingenuity of our species to manipulate and restructure matter into ever increasing levels of organizational complexity, such that – through us – the cosmos, nature, has achieved a quantum leap in the creative productivity department, and is now able to push its evolutionary objectives – whatever they may be – 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 …

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An Unnatural Disaster

donald-trumpThe unnatural disaster that is called President Trump is continuing to threaten the stability of the world, if only because it directly involves such a large and powerful country as the United States of America, formerly known as the leader of the free world.

Following a recent mea culpa admission by co-author Tony Schwartz of Donald Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, for realizing that this superficially positive and flattering portrayal of Trump’s approach to business glossed over the incredible shallowness of the main character, and so ended up promoting what appears to be a charlatan entrepreneur into the status of (for some) credible presidential candidate.

In addition, in the case of the current  President of the United States we appear to have the actual instantiation of what has been described in the field of psychology as the the Dunning–Kruger effect:

This effect manifests itself as a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

We were subsequently treated to Michael Wolfe’s 2017 book Fire and Fury, a presumed  reasonably accurate sketch of Trump’s first year in office, showing a largely  dysfunctional administration around a clueless president who is so out of his depth that you can’t help but to feel sorry for the folks assigned to assist him through the daily turmoil of trying to keep him in some semblance of presidential demeanor. One particular astute observation from it, as provided by White House staff that Wolfe has interviewed, was that to interact with Trump can be akin to “… trying to figure out what a child wants”.

Now, former G. W. Bush speechwriter and Republican columnist David Frum has published his new book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, described by the SF Chronicle as “a persuasive and detailed account of how Trump is undermining American institutions, including the presidency itself”.

Frum is no light-weight Republican; he is as astute as they come, as evidenced by the following analysis of Trump’s first year in office, and his warning that despotism doesn’t necessarily begin with violent disruption.  “It can come on little cat feet”

The thing to fear from the Trump presidency … is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters.

Frum is not holding back either when it comes to his opinion of the quality of the man now in charge of the White House, and has summarized him as follows:

… an amateur, a charlatan, a con artist, a manipulator, a poseur, a serial fibber if not outright liar, a vulgarian, a swindler, a skimmer and a trimmer, a man-child lacking character, intelligence, integrity, judgment, clarity of thought, a coherent philosophy or a worldview and management and organizational skills.

Now that is a lot of ugly name calling, but the scary thing  is that none of this surprises me in any way. Just watching Trump during a TV appearance, now or in the past during his presidential campaign, leaves me with an instant feeling of unease – well, distaste, really – and reach for the mute button on the remote to avoid the insipid bombastic language, or just the sound of a bragging, brawling, or denigrating tone of voice. Combine this with the pouting face, the silly hairdo, and you are presented with an image of a larger than life windbag, someone with an obnoxious personality so  devoid of any real substance that it would suck all the air out of the room the moment he entered it.

Lastly, as stated by David Remnick in a January 15th article in the New Yorker titled “The Lost Emperor” ….

…. there is little doubt about who Donald Trump is and the harm he has done already, and the greater harm he threatens. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land. This is not merely an orthodoxy of the opposition; his panicked courtiers have been leaking word of it from his first weeks in office. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States.

While much of this commentary makes the Trump presidency sound like something akin to a toxic spill – and equally difficult to contain – it  can be claimed that  much of this negative appraisal of  is based on anecdotal accounts,  and then primarily by biased individuals who simply don’t like him to begin with.  But for those not convinced by now that Trump is in fact the blowhard that millions of Americans have  already made him out to be, you may want to read a Newsweek article from  October 18, 2016,  written by Kurt Eichenwald and titled  A People’s History of Donald Trump’s Business Busts and Countless Victims, .  Trump’s specialty, it seems, was  to snatch huge fistfuls of cash from a companies that were about to go broke, wiping out the savings of millions of people who had invested in them after he had convinced them to do so.

God  – or somebody – help  America, and in the process the rest of the world.

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