Syria War Crimes

The intentional bombing of hospitals and aid workers in Syria by Russia and Assad calls for concerted and swift response from the International community. I don’t see it happening. I Googled both Trump and Clinton to find out if either had commented on this outrage, but neither had, as far as I could find. Secretary of State Kerry made a statement of outrage but without any plans to back that up with action, the situation reminds me of the pre WWII reaction to Hitler as he annexed Czechoslovakia. Russia is making similar noises with their ruthless bombing campaign in Syria, annexation of Crimea and obvious attempts to do the same with the Ukraine. War by its very nature is a crime and evidence of human stupidity, but the lack of concerted effort to confront Russia is particularly disturbing. If you agree, please write your representatives and urge strong action on this matter.

 

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.)

 

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.

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.

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.