Monday, October 10, 2016

Chipmunks

One of the statements in my last post was unclear to a reader and requires further explanation. I have got into the habit of comparing people to chipmunks, and now "chipmunk" is a code word that refers to the conspicuous absence of scientific evidence, particularly biological evidence, when making prescriptive statements about people, society and organizations. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as "unalienable Rights," he was referring to humans in the abstract, primarily as legal entities, and ignoring the biological context of his ideas. This has become a private joke for me, and I imagine an eloquent chipmunk similarly composing a grand document which brings order and harmony to chipmunk society. My thinking is that the existence of both humans and chipmunks is guided by natural laws which have no relationship to most of the concepts that we invent. In a sense we resemble chipmunks in that we unselfconsciously go about our lives and do whatever we are inclined to do without relying on abstract concepts at all. Furthermore, the evidence is now overwhelming that humans are fundamentally irrational in many respects, and I believe that the humanistic models of government that came to dominate in the West were mistakenly based on the same incorrect "rational agent" hypothesis that has been implicitly employed by Jefferson and other political theoreticians since. The term "rational agent" comes from modern economics, but has an earlier history in the Enlightenment.

I like to use Jefferson and the American Revolution as examples of the limits of human cognition, and how we, as a culture, may, for example, rewrite history to suit our heroic conceptions of national identity. As I've said, if you look at the bare facts of the origin of the U.S., it was a case of white male landowners breaking with England in order to pursue their private business interests without being encumbered by the British government. At the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, its beneficiaries were still white male landowners, and everyone else was subhuman in a strict legal sense. The saving grace of the Constitution was the allowance for its alteration, because the modern world bears little resemblance to the world of 1787. However, the U.S. government currently responds too inefficiently to collective needs, and it seems possible that political dysfunction could eventually lead to its collapse.

My theory, which I have attempted to articulate with varying degrees of success on this blog, is that something resembling a "zoo" or "wildlife management" model of governance is beginning to look more appropriate than the "rights of man" model now generally assumed by modern governments. There was a time – in the eighteenth century – when the "rights of man" model may have been plausible for use on a large scale if contemporary abuses such as slavery had been addressed, but since then overpopulation, increased cultural clashes, global warming, mass extinctions and more powerful weaponry may have made global problems too challenging for solution within the context of existing governments and international organizations. This is where I think AI enters the picture. I know that some of my readers may think I'm engaging in futuristic, antidemocratic nonsense, but to me AI is the obvious next step when you consider the documented limits of human capability. It takes no imagination to envision a large computer outperforming the human brain in a variety of processes, and such a computer could operate without the biases that are known to produce poor decisions in humans. Just as individuals often overrate their intelligence, so do governments and other institutions. Up to this point, human arrogance has been easy to defend, because we have been the smartest species on the planet, but I think that AI may soon change our outlook.

My reasons for taking this position on mankind are not based on any inherent pessimism or a deep dislike for the current state of affairs, but rather on my preference for order rather than disorder. I have had ample time to reflect on my own life, and it has been obvious to me that I made decisions at various points which were not optimal. The same is true for practically everyone, and I don't believe that one must accept life as inherently full of inadequate information, bad advice, stupidity, poor decisions, etc. If you reflect on your own life, the lives of your siblings, the lives of you parents, the lives of your grandparents, and so on, you will clearly see many haphazard choices that significantly affected the courses of your life and theirs. From a decision-making standpoint, much more information and information processing is available now than used to be the case, and I don't think it should be wasted. It is becoming technologically possible to live a better-informed life, thanks to information technology and the sciences. Until recently in human history outcomes were often ascribed to fate, luck or God, and there are now better ways to produce desired outcomes that shouldn't be ignored. This entails seeing our place in the universe rather than making up stories that merely conceal our ignorance.

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