How Perspective Distorts What We See

Like many of us, I was horrified to see day after day another young black man being shot by police in what can only described for what it was: murder. What for me, an older white male, would be a routine traffic stop during which I would be treated with courtesy and respect, could be a fatal event if my color was different. Indeed, it seems systemic racism is a part of police culture that must be changed.

But what about all the times a black man is stopped by police and treated well? What about the times when police act skilfully to defuse a dangerous situation? We don’t see those. Never. Instead the terrible images are played on our tv screens over and over and over and over.

The point of this post goes far beyond the problem of racism. The media, using the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, causes us to have a very distorted impression of the world we live in. Take the various terrorist shootings that occur. Those incidents are also replayed and replayed and given a large portion of airtime. We see the effect of this in polls that show that many folks vastly overestimate the danger of terrorism to themselves. But the fact remains that at present the risk of dying by terrorist attack is miniscule compared to most other causes of death.

I am going to build on this post and expand it in the coming days, but where I’m going with this is that we are mislead into exaggerating the relatively unimportant while ignoring, indeed being unaware of, much more serious threats to our existence and that of our descendants.

…to be continued…

The “good guys” vs. “bad guys” Fallacy

An argument often used in defense of promoting gun proliferation is that the “good guys” will be armed and will reduce the mayhem done by the “bad guys.” This kind of thinking is so simplistic that I find it remarkable that it requires refuting. Would that the world be so simple that we could just divide humans into good and bad. Maybe we could issue a driver’s license style card to all the “good guys” and then arm them all – problem solved!

Of course I understand that many people believe that there are good and bad people, but I also understand that people can behave well or poorly given different circumstances. Someone who suffers from, let’s say, road rage might use a gun on “that jerk” in a fit of rage with a gun handy. Minutes later, that person would probably be horrified at what he/she had just done. The availability of a gun can, under the “right” circumstances lead to injury or death while otherwise there would just have been cursing and shaking of fists.

Another problem with the concept of good and bad people is that those who commit the greatest atrocities often are completely convinced of their goodness. Witness all the destruction done in the name of religion by people who are convinced that their interpretation of God and faith is the only right one and those who disagree deserve what they get.

There is also the issue of perspective. The same action will appear good to some people and bad to others. I have found that I behave better and have a more integrated ethical stance if I throw out absolutist good vs bad thinking.

On the superiority of humans

To most people, it is an unquestioned assumption that humans are superior to other Earth species and it is also unquestioned that this gives us the  right to “own” the planet and do with it what we please.

As I view the human condition, I see that humans are high in technological ability and very low on wisdom. In many areas of great import, we do not even use the knowledge we have, and continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Real dumb, to use the vernacular. In particular I’m thinking of education, the “justice” system and war.

We know under what conditions people learn best, yet we construct schools that often do the opposite (more in a future post).

Much is known about how to rehabilitate some criminal behavior; most of it is rarely used in our courts and prisons.

War is probably the stupidest behavior that humans routinely indulge in. Lots is known about non-violent conflict resolution, but governments rarely use any of this knowledge and millions suffer as a result. How we can think we’re the greatest when we constantly use war to solve problems is a mystery to me. Perhaps we don’t even notice how stupidly we are behaving.

I feel true sorrow for all the animals that suffer and die as a result of human ignorance and arrogance. (Those two often go together.)

 

Myopia

As I grow towards my last decade or two on this earth, I am increasingly drawn to contributing to the survival of the planet in whatever ways I can. This has led me to a lot of related reading, and one theme sticks out like a sore thumb: Most writing talks about the future of humanity resulting from a variety of positive and negative actions we might take.

To me, that says we still don’t get it. We still think that we can focus mostly on ourselves, bringing in other species only if their fate directly affects us. For instance, we are worried about the declining population of bees because we realize that they not only make honey but are largely responsible for pollination of plants that affect our food supply.

When I say “we still don’t get it,” I’m referring to the intricate and pervasiveness of the interconnectedness of all life. The biosphere we inhabit is incredibly interwoven and complex – probably more so that we can even imagine let alone understand at present. Our continued insistence that we can ensure our survival by focussing mostly on ourselves is an attitude that, if we persist, will hasten our demise. I believe we need to shift our thinking and see ourselves as a part of something much bigger than we are: the whole biosphere. The overall health of the biosphere, which we still largely ignore, is the key to our survival.

We are currently living through a mass extinction (like the event that killed off the dinosaurs) largely of our own making – probably the only mass extinction in the history of life on Earth caused by one species! Until we radically change our mindset to thinking of ourselves as a part of nature, we will continue to threaten our own survival and that of a large portion of life on this planet. I truly hope this paradigm shift will occur soon.

Technological Superiority≠Overall Superiority

I continue to ponder what I consider the irrational sense of superiority that most humans seem to feel about their species. From games to concerns about climate change to international problem solving to fiction to religion, most people seem to assume the human species is the only one that matters.

We can do things that other animals on Earth cannot do such as write books, travel to the moon, develop advanced math and physics, and build weapons capable of destroying all multicellular life on Earth. But does that give us overall superiority? I think not. In many ways we are one of the least important life forms on the planet. In fact, if we were to suddenly disappear, life on Earth with the exception of animals we have bred for our convenience like dairy cows would do just fine – better, in fact, than they are doing now. Bacteria and other micro-organisms are far more important to Earth than we are because without them, all animal life would cease to exist.

Many people are finally realizing that other animals have complex emotional and social lives, and many are better at it than we are. Elephants are a good example of highly intelligent animals who make great parents and have strong social bonds. Yet we slaughter them for their tusks or for “fun.” So who is the superior animal in that realm? Not us, I suggest.

If we continue to see ourselves as the only life form that matters, ironically we will continue to destroy the ecosystem that sustains our lives. We may be the first species to engineer its own mass extinction, which to me is a sad prospect.

The Fundamental Problem Humans Refuse to Face

This is based on a post I made on a Nova discussion following the program on robotics:
I think the key problem with us humans is that we don’t stop to investigate our meta-problems. We don’t realize that the “problem” isn’t Russia, or Iran, or Korea or ISIS. The problem is how we humans organize into groups and then engage in war/violence. That behavior is pretty universal and I believe it could be solved if we as humans would recognize it as the problem and work on solving it.

Already much is known about methods of constructive conflict resolution. But when someone suggests applying these methods there are always voices that say  “they” won’t cooperate in this, whoever the current “they” are, so we have to engage in war. But that’s the problem – there’s always a we and a they. In our own country we have Republicans hating Democrats, another we-they situation. We-they thinking can exist at the family level to the neighborhood level all the way up to the national level. It’s the way we currently think and survival requires that we change that way of thinking, but I see no sign of widespread recognition of this. Thus my pessimism.

The Wolf

Wolf wanting to be free

This poster says it all. I love dogs too, and it’s a mystery to me how one can love a wolf-like dog and hate a wolfI. I wonder if our hostility to wolves is because they dare to live free and not bow to our command. We are an arrogant and vengeful race.

Thoughts on Human Self-Aggrandisement

I was following some discussion threads on Amazon regarding books dealing with the potential of human intelligence to understand the nature of things and on the prospects for developing artificial intelligence that may or may not come back to bite us as in the Terminator series of movies. The following is one of the posts I made there:
“Bostrum (the author of a book warning of the dangers of AI)  seems enamored with human intelligence, assuming it to be superior to any other intelligence we know of. I believe that human self-aggrandizement is one of our key weaknesses as a species. We often assume we are the only species that matters; most proposed solutions to problems we face address only their effect on humans, as if that was all that counts.

Our “superior” intelligence has resulted in gross overpopulation of the planet, a mass extinction of magnitude that is projected to be as bad as the one that killed the dinosaurs, endless wars fought with increasingly deadly weapons obtainable by almost every group that wants them, 20 or so percent of the human population living in abject poverty, an extraordinary lack of skill in using peaceful conflict resolution skills that have already been developed, and so on.

Various other species behave more intelligently than we do in certain areas. We are the best at technological development and the arts and sciences, but that’s about it. Many other species are better at handling conflict, at raising their young, fitting into their environment, etc. In short, we are extraordinarily stupid in many areas that affect our survival and the survival of other life on the planet, and one of the most stupid ideas is that of human superiority in all things.

Ok, that being over with, I would be interested in a book that convincingly describes how superintelligence could be created and gives well documented evidence of that. I have been in computers and math for fifty years (well, computers for only forty years) and I well remember the AI craze that consumed the industry in the ’80s. People then thought that the solution to AI was just around the corner. Then reality hit, and the difficulties of producing true AI became apparent. Now we have developed a computer system that can beat a human at chess and apparently can fix a satellite without human intervention in some cases. There is still a huge gap between these feats and producing AI that can function like that shown in The Terminator movies.

Of the problems facing us now (the likelihood of our self-destruction from war, contamination and pollution, disease, including bio-warfare, and other such insane behavior) means I don’t lose much sleep over the dangers of AI, though if we could develop it, I’m sure we would, because we like to act first and think later, like the birds in Bostrum’s allegory.” Here is a link if you want to Look Inside for the Bostrum’s allegory, which I liked, and the preface I refer to.

Why Government Should be the Single Payer Provider of Healthcare

I understand that many people are horrified by the idea of “socialized medicine” where the government pays for our coverage instead of private health insurance companies. But here’s why I think healthcare is one area that should be provided by government and where the private sector solution is inappropriate.

The key reason is the nature of healthcare as an essential service. Let’s compare healthcare to the auto industry as an example. General Motors makes Cadillacs. Let’s say I want one but cannot afford to buy one. GM doesn’t care – they’ll sell the car to someone who can afford it and, while I may be disappointed, I can live with my old used car just fine. In the case of private run healthcare, one element of the car scenario is the same: the health insurance company is not in the least interested in my well being other than how it affects their profits. If I cannot afford their healthcare premiums or have a “pre-existing condition,” too bad for me. The difference, of course, is that while I don’t need a Cadillac, I might very well need healthcare coverage and not having it might bankrupt me, and that is an outcome that is good for nobody.

Essential services such as water, roads, land management, oversight and regulation, defense and so on are provided by government and paid for by taxes. I contend that healthcare is every bit as essential and that treating it as an essential utility makes sense. The government is one way to assure that everyone has access in an affordable way. Taxes would be higher but it would be essentially insurance – shared risk spread over everyone and thus probably much less expensive in total than the current proliferation of private insurance providers.

Our society tolerates vast discrepancies in wealth from the very poor (2007 poverty rate was about 12.5 percent that translates to somewhat over 37 million people) to the very rich. Were that not the case, private health insurance might be tolerable, but the wealth discrepancy means too many people cannot afford health insurance, medical services or medicine. This is something the other Western democracies have figured out and I hope we get the message soon and are not swayed by the barrage of self-serving propaganda that is bound to start coming from the health insurance industry and others who hate the idea of anyone being helped by the government.