06 January 2008

Six important ideas

These six ideas are central to how I see the world. I cannot claim that any of them are proven facts (with the possible exception of #3), but there are what I consider very good reasons for thinking that they are true, and I expect that they will be shown to be true with the passage of time.

1) Humans do not have "souls". The one great central error in human thinking, from which I believe most of our other errors ultimately flow, is the concept that there is some sort of "soul" or "spirit" or "animating force" within a human being, a "ghost in the machine", something supernatural, unfathomable by the normal laws which describe the behavior of matter and energy. No. The mind is the aggregation of the vast system of highly complex operations which the brain performs. Admittedly, exactly how this works is probably the most challenging problem facing modern science and philosophy. We do know that very complex systems can generate "emergent properties", that is, properties qualitatively different from those of their simpler components, but the mammalian brain must surely be by far the most stunning example -- how does the interaction of complex patterns of signals cascading through networks of brain cells generate a mind with free will, self-awareness, and all the other traits which seem to differentiate humans and higher animals from everything else in the universe? We don't know yet, but that is no reason to invoke the supernatural. Humans have always come up with supernatural explanations for phenomena they did not understand, but when they did become capable of understanding those phenomena, it turned out that there was nothing supernatural involved. The same will happen in this case.

2) We are alone in the universe. For over a century, it was the default position of most scientists and other thinkers that the universe held other species at least as intelligent as ourselves, probably a great many of them. People debated whether they would turn out to be benevolent teachers to enlighten us, super-monsters out to enslave us or destroy us, or merely our equal partners in the advancement of a future shared civilization. But as our understanding of the universe and evolution has progressed, and as the total absence of any of the evidence we would expect to see has sunk in, a more sober view has begun to make headway. I highly recommend this book, which first helped me see the light (and which also contains the best and most readable overview of the evolution of life on Earth that I've seen); on a related subject, here is my interpretation of Fermi's paradox.

3) We humans of today are vastly superior -- mentally, physically, and morally -- to our ancestors of just a few centuries ago. Once nutrition, medical knowledge, and so forth began to improve, humans began growing larger, healthier, and more intelligent (especially as education spread). These healthier people produced healthier children, who not only started off advantaged at birth but also grew up in an environment which was continuing to improve. Over generations these effects have been cumulative, and the trend is still accelerating today. More here.

4) Because of #3, there is no sublime wisdom to be found in ancient "holy" texts or traditions. The reason why texts such as the Bible and Koran read like disjointed, befuddled ramblings is that they actually are disjointed, befuddled ramblings -- the work of minds which were probably, by our modern standards, literally subnormal and mentally retarded. They could not think anything like as clearly as we can, and they were totally ignorant of the true origin, and almost totally ignorant of the true nature, of the world and of mankind. This is why, as people like Christopher Hitchens have pointed out, such texts are riddled with contradictions and pathetic logical lapses which are obvious even to children today.

5) We will soon free our species from the ancient scourge of aging and death. This is the most important challenge facing our rapidly-advancing medical technology. The aging process is already fairly well understood; we know how it kills us, and we know in principle what we need to do to stop it. Actually getting there will take a massive investment of resources and brainpower, but the goal is in sight, even if hazy in the distance. More here; see also this site and this one.

6) The Singularity is near. By around 2045 we will have all the necessary technology to achieve the unification of human and machine intelligence, adding all the capabilities of computers (themselves vastly more advanced than the computers of today) to the powers which the human brain already possesses. Human intelligence will be able to increase without limit, even to levels trillions of times what it is today. The technological and cultural achievements which will follow this are as far beyond our present comprehension as the internet, genetic engineering, literature, or philosophy would be beyond the comprehension of a flea. Read this book for the whole story.

7 Comments:

Blogger the chaplain said...

Interesting ideas. I'm not sure I agree with #6 and I think I'd like #5 to be true, but my jury is still out on that one.

I agree with #3. My kids are much smarter than I am. Obviously, since I'm older, more experienced and have had opportunities to learn more, I have a greater store of knowledge and skills than they have currently. But I have no doubt that they are much smarter than I was at their ages, and that they will surpass me when they reach middle age.

06 January, 2008 19:10  
Blogger handmaiden said...

Interesting ideas to explore.
I totally agree w/ #1. As a secular humanist who speaks often about higher consciousness, often I have to explain I mean it as stemming from a natural mind & not a supernatural one.
#2. I haven't given it much thought except when someone brings up alien probes or other nonsense like that. Like so many other unknown things we humans speculate about, we turn science fiction into belief.

#3. Hmmm, makes sense. I would think collective knowledge by experience is the biggest factor in superiority.

#4. no doubt!

#5. I've never pursued the idea of overcoming death & aging . I lean more toward the idea of accepting & coming to terms with mortality.

#6. I haven't heard this idea before.

07 January, 2008 09:50  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

My kids are much smarter than I am. Obviously, since I'm older, more experienced and have had opportunities to learn more, I have a greater store of knowledge and skills than they have currently. But I have no doubt that they are much smarter than I was at their ages, and that they will surpass me when they reach middle age.

I don't have any children, but I've made this observation about well-raised young people.

I've never pursued the idea of overcoming death & aging . I lean more toward the idea of accepting & coming to terms with mortality.

This is a reaction many people have. It's been the common position for most of human history because there was no alternative; everyone was doomed to die eventually. I'd argue that religion developed largely as a coping mechanism to help humans reconcile themselves to death by convincing themselves that an afterlife existed. This is probably why people tend to react so viciously when their religion is challenged.

I think that as it becomes widely understood that we can develop the ability to defeat aging technologically, people's view of the issue will start to change. As Dr. de Grey has pointed out, aging is rather like AIDS -- it eventually kills 100% of its victims, and it kills them by a slow, lingering, and horrible process of wasting and deterioration. We don't see it that way because we're used to it. But I think people in the future will look back in horror at a time when all humans were doomed to perish after just a few decades.

I know I would never want to die. There's too much I'd miss seeing.

#6. I haven't heard this idea before.

In a way, it's the logical culmination of #3.

Thanks for commenting, both of you.

07 January, 2008 11:26  
Blogger John Evo said...

I tend to accept (at least in principle) every point except #2, in which I think we are far too insignificant and unprepared to make an evaluation of - other than in strictly statistical ways.

And when it comes to those statistics, the chances that some type of life has evolved somewhere in a unimaginably large universe are rather compelling.

And certainly life on a lower level is almost a statistical certainty. Hell, we don't even have the means to yet falsify a hypothesis that there is life in our own solar system!

My point is not a refutation of "we are alone in the Universe" but more to say, we have no way of knowing yet - despite all of the efforts that have been made.

07 January, 2008 16:07  
Anonymous Blurber said...

Interesting ideas and I substantially agree. I would only say on #2:

Organic material has been found to be widespread in the universe, even outside our galaxy. Given the reality of evolution and the enormity of both the age and size of the universe, it wouldn’t seem unlikely to me that there is life elsewhere. I would guess this supercedes the numerical speculations inherent in Drake’s equation.

It could be the reason we haven’t discovered life elsewhere is that we’re trying to receive and send using the wrong technology. We mainly use electromagnetic radiation (light, radio waves, etc.) but there are little understood hints from quantum theory about mysterious connections that other civilizations could use to communicate or even travel. And the discovery of quantum mechanics is only 100 years old. What would a civilization a million, or a billion years old be doing?

Relativity also hints at clues. For example, dimensions shrink as velocity increases, becoming zero at the speed of light. Since a photon travels at the speed of light, from it’s point of view the universe has no width in the direction of its travel. So somehow all the universe is connected closely.

Perhaps other civilizations use these advanced techniques to travel and communicate, while they wait for us to catch up so we can join the club. They may not have contacted us because there are so many civilizations throughout the universe that it’s not worth bothering with us, just as we don’t discuss Shakespeare with ants.

07 January, 2008 16:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Evo & Blurber, thanks for commenting. Perhaps I should clarify further that when I say "We are alone in the universe", I mean I don't believe there is other intelligent life in the universe. The Rare Earth book itself suggests that bacteria-like life is probably more common than we think, and may well exist on almost every solid planet and moon in our solar system, and on most similar bodies elsewhere. What is extremely rare, and very likely unique to Earth, is "complex" life -- multicellular organisms like animals and plants.

I remember thinking, years ago, that our trying to detect a more advanced alien civilization by scanning for powerful radio transmissions was rather like an isolated Amazonian tribe trying to detect the United States by listening for very loud drum signals. But as my posting on Fermi's paradox (linked near the end of point #2) explains, I think that, if anything, we've been vastly underestimating the implications of the acceleration of technological progress as a civilization advances. According to my viewpoint, if there were even a single civilization 1,000,000 years older than our own, anywhere in the universe, then we would never have evolved at all, and would not be here now wondering about these things.

07 January, 2008 19:18  
Blogger BEAST said...

A interesting train of thought, although it is a little too soon to determine whether we are indeed alone in the Universe.

What we know, howver, is that humans are the masters of their own destinies, and the sooner they know it, the greater the threshold for improvement.

12 January, 2008 08:39  

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