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…

Are We Alone?

This was the title of Stephen Hawking’s latest Genius episode I watched on Wednesday evening. Very entertaining, and his imagination and humor comes through as he leads three volunteers through a journey of discovery using quite elaborate “visual aids.”

In the hour-long show he leads his subjects to understand that there are hundreds of billions of stars in just our galaxy and that many of these have planets and some of those would contain water and would be the right distance from their start to allow life to evolve.

Then, in his speculations near the end, he makes fundamental error of thought – one shared by many others including Carl Sagan. That error is that our experience can be generalized to all experience. In this case he assumes that “intelligent” life would evolve on these planets in the same way it has here.

Actually there are several errors of thought here. The first is a common example of human egocentricity: intelligent life means us and equates with language and technology. In this way he discounts the other animals here as not qualifying as intelligent life, a most questionable assumption.

The second is that life evolving on other planets would evolve as it has here into technologically advanced “civilizations.” This is the crucial error; there is absolutely no reason to assume life on any planet would evolve the same way it evolved on any other planet. Even on Earth where all life that we have discovered is genetically closely related, life is amazingly persistent and adaptive, growing under conditions we could not survive. There is no reason to assume that life elsewhere would be restricted to the same genetic structure that we see here. We really have no idea what the possibilities are. Life elsewhere might be nothing remotely similar to what it is here.

The nail in the coffin assumption he makes, though, is that we would be able to communicate with these alleged civilizations elsewhere if we could overcome the speed limit of light. So hundreds of years after Galileo proclaimed we are not the center of the cosmos, even brilliant people like Hawking still unconsciously cling to the “humans are the crown of creation” myth. This myth leads to assuming other civilizations, while possibly more technologically advanced than we are, could or would even bother to communicate with us. I think rather that they would be so different from us that they might think of us as interesting specimens to study and run experiments on. If we were really unlucky, they might be like us, in which case if they could come here they would collect us as specimens for experimentation, hunt us for sport or just wipe us out and colonize Earth. I doubt we would sit down to tea and have a pleasant conversation about our respective planets.

In short, it seems all of us, including bright scientists, can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as basically the best nature can come up with and that our experince can be extrapolated to other worlds.

Human and Animal Communication

This is based on a post I made in a Linguistics class I’m taking online:

I find the course material fascinating. However, I was put off by the first topic, which was the comparison between human and animal communication. I found that topic to be gratuitous, unnecessary and a display of ignorance. It is gratuitous and unnecessary because we are studying human language and it is unnecessary to attempt to cover animal communication (a very complex topic in itself) in order to study human language. I have read many books about us humans, and many start that way, seemingly finding it necessary to assure us that humans are superior to other animals, an attitude I find unwarranted. This attitude is well exemplified by a quote from the Britannica in our required reading: “[…] all existing human speech is one in the essential characteristics which we have thus far noted or shall hereafter have to consider, even as humanity is one in its distinction from the lower animals; the differences are in nonessentials.” 

Note the use of “lower animals.” Humans are nothing if not self-aggrandizing. Remember that not too long ago Galileo was persecuted for suggesting that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Much more recently it was even assumed that animals had no feelings, emotions, or social structure. All that is changing as researchers and observers are discovering a much richer picture of animal life than expected because previously we had just assumed we were infinitely superior to “lower” animals.

Getting back to communication, our instructor is inconsistent in his use of “communication” and “language” in this discussion, sometimes using communication in the broad sense and sometimes using it as a synonym for language. Clearly communication consists of a lot more than language. It is fully accepted that non-verbal communication is terribly important to communication. If not, we could just text each other all the time and never miss the element of face-to-face communication, touch, etc. As mentioned, animal communication is worthy of a life-time of study, but our instructor blows it off by essentially saying his cat has very limited communication abilities because he/she can just say “meow.” Anyone who has carefully observed his/her pet or, as another poster has pointed out, social animals such as wolves, should see that they have a rich repertoire of ways to communicate. With his ears alone, my dog can communicate over a dozen distinct messages.

Why is all this important? Because our species with its unquestioned assumption that humans are the only species that matters (I still find this attitude prevalent in most writing) is leading us to create the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs went extinct and possibly destroying the Earth’s ecosystem through pollution, genetic fiddling around, climate change, etc. Hardly the work of a species that claims to be the “latest and greatest.” I believe that a dramatic change of attitude is absolutely crucial to our and the planet’s survival.

This brings us back to language. Our attitude of superiority and the OK-ness treating non-human animals in any way we please is expressed in language. One weakness of human language is that it can be used to describe things that don’t exist and give them semantic meaning. The notion of human superiority arises from several semantically rich ideas that probably have no existence in the real world. For instance, it rests on the assumption that species can be ranked linearly from highest to lowest. That this is an assumption and not a reality is rarely noted. Likewise, many religious thinkers assume humans have souls and animals do not. This is a notion that is difficult to maintain, given our emerging knowledge about evolution, but another unfortunate ability we have is to believe two inconsistent thoughts at the same time, so we can rationalize away any idea that threatens our sense of greatness and entitlement.

The above is one reason the study of linguistics and semantics is so important. If you got this far, thanks for listening.

The Rapidity of Change

I’m watching WPT and ‘Doc Martin,’ or at least the actor that plays him, is searching for wolves as he explores the ancestry of dogs. It’s thought that wolves became dogs starting around fifteen thousand years ago – a blink of an eye in geological time.

That got me to thinking that the biosphere that we know and love took over two billion years to come about. Yes, that’s more than 2,000,000,000 years. Then I sadly noted that it’s taken a mere few thousand years to do a truly amazing amount of damage to that biosphere. And, apart from that, we are one of the most unimportant species on the planet. If we were to disappear suddenly, life on Earth would do just fine, except for domesticated animals.

Let’s develop these ideas in later posts.

Myopia

world-549425

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.