Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Utilitarian Viewpoint

Puppet master

In Frank Herbert’s Dune books, one of the turning points in the 10,000-year history of that far-future society was the Butlerian Jihad. That struggle was a war against the computer, intelligent robots, automation, and the machine mind, because these things had supposedly enslaved humanity to the point that human beings almost disappeared. The underlying principle of the jihad was “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” In the wake of the Butlerian Jihad, the Great Schools developed human capabilities to an even higher level than before.

I am not necessarily a Butlerian. I believe that “machine minds” will do us a lot of good, freeing society from the vagaries and distractions of human intellect and emotions when ordinary people are put in charge of endlessly boring jobs. We are already seeing some of that good in improved, automated business systems like just-in-time logistics, barcoded inventory stockkeeping, predictive maintenance programming, and factory automation. Oh, and instant communications that enable you to contact friends without having to write down and remember a ten-digit telephone number. So far, the computer has freed up a lot of human capacity to become more relaxed, more creative, and better fed, among other things.1

But I am concerned with Herbert’s view of humanity in that far-future society. Too often, people trained to perform exquisite physical and mental exercises—like the Mentats, whose memory tricks and calculating ability enable them to become human computers—are treated as disposable and replaceable machines themselves. Consider the experience of Piter De Vries at the hands of the Baron Harkonnen.

Any social structure or organization that views human beings solely in terms of their usefulness for some purpose or function outside themselves is inherently anti-human. Whether it is the eugenics movement, which viewed persons with certain disabilities as not being worth the enjoyment of continued life because they are a burden on society, or any rationing scheme for medical services that invokes a cutoff point for persons of a certain age, again because they are no longer productive and are becoming a burden, this is a view that values resources above people, utility above basic humanity. In fact, any view that values a human being without reference to his or her own waking sense of self and value would offend a dedicated humanist.

This certainly applies to any system that buys and sells people as slaves, good only for their muscles or their mental synapses, without reference to the kind of life they might want—or might strive—to lead.

It would also apply to collectivist societies on any scale larger than the family, the isolated village, or a nation in a state of emergency such as during wartime. It would apply to any society where a governmental, social, or priestly authority determines how and where people should labor and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a human being to choose his or her own place in that society and points of contribution. That is, his or her own destiny.

Does this utilitarian view then apply to a market-based, capitalist society? Well, from one point of view, everyone in such a society who enjoys or claims adult status is encouraged or required to be productive. In the jaundiced view, they become “wage slaves” in order to survive.

But the difference, for me, is that in a market-based economy people are free to evaluate for themselves the needs of their society, to plan for their own contributions at the best scale of pay and other rewards they can seek, and to obtain the necessary education, entry level positions, and upward path to achieve their goals. There are obstacles to this achievement, of course: lack of talent, lack of opportunity, lack of understanding itself. But these obstacles are not put in place by a conscious, social decision from a government board or other bureaucracy that tries to establish—for its own benefit—the worth of the human being in question. As with so much else in life, the “dead hand” of the marketplace resembles the blindly distributed opportunities and adversities provided by fate or by chance.

And therein also lies the difference between a socialist society and a market society. An aspirant to a certain position in life is going to face obstacles and difficulties, no matter how that society is structured. Not everyone can make a living as a musician or a novelist. Not everyone has the brains or educational stamina to become a successful doctor or lawyer.2 Not every town can support the number of people who would like to work as a plumber or a car mechanic. There are going to be winners and losers in every society. At least in a market-based society—where there is adequate prevention of discrimination on the basis of race, creed, and all those other attributes packed into our laws—the winners and losers sort themselves out on the basis of desire, dedication, talent, gumption, vision, and opportunity. In a socialist society, the selection too often falls to a group of people who have already attained power through other means and then kept it for themselves, who promote the interests of those in their circle and the sons and daughters raised in it—think of a land-owning aristocracy, or the old Soviet nomenklatura—and then order society for their own benefit.

For any aristocratic society—or any mature, collectivist, command-and-control economy—the people at the top and those striving to reach the top will view the average human being solely in terms of his or her use to themselves and to that society. People then become numbers, placeholders, objects to be sorted and fitted into pre-assigned roles. And the tragedy is that those roles are limited to the traditional functions that already exist or those within the imaginations of the people who benefit from that society. In this situation, human desire, imagination, dedication, talent, and all the rest of human attributes are inconvenient. They tend to create static in the nice, clear signal of societal intent and function. They disrupt things. They need to be squelched and, if they persist, stamped on.

Societies that try to fix themselves for all time in a rigid, hierarchical stasis soon stagnate. They create no new and unapproved music or art, no inventions, no new ways to think, live, and be. And the tighter these societies try to hold on to their protective limitations, the sooner they will fall to the disruptions of barbarians who just don’t care about the old order.

Governing humanity is a difficult process. It needs to be done with a light hand and not a lot of preconceived notions. So stand back. Expect surprises. And reap the rewards.

1. And I don’t agree with the underlying philosophy of James Cameron’s Terminator movies—although I enjoy them immensely—that an artificially intelligent computer system will take over our military or some other function in society, see people as a threat, “decide our fate in a microsecond,” and try to exterminate all human life. I think an intelligent system, if it ever rises to human-scale adaptability and does more than take care of its own business and programmed functions—that is, it becomes some kind of artificial person—will be fascinated by human beings. It will ponder the issue of free will: how humans are able, on occasion, to override their previous education and experience and do something totally unexpected. For a machine driven by its embedded programming, such a feat will be endlessly enticing.

2. And yes, some professional association—the government-sponsored medical association, state bar, or engineering society—will impose tests of an entrant’s qualifications and rule on his or her ability to practice. The goal, in a well-run society, should be to make these tests neutral as to the applicant’s race, class, politics, or other extraneous characteristics; make sure the test results cannot be influenced by cronyism, money, or some other consideration; and ensure that the public is served by the best candidates available.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Higher Power

Ancient of Days

As I’ve noted many times before, I am an atheist. This is not an agnostic, someone who “doesn’t know”—a flag under which I’ve sailed in times past among people for whom my belief or nonbelief was an important question. But no, I’m really an atheist, someone “without a god.” That is, I know to my own satisfaction that the structure of belief in a living external presence, an omniscient and omnipotent spirit, the creator of all life and the universe, a father or mother figure to us humans, is a product of the human mind and imagination, driven by a deep desire for explanations and order in the world. The universe I inhabit doesn’t need a creator; I don’t need surrogate parents; and my life and the world I know operate under simple rules that didn’t need a divine intellect to invent, inscribe, or perpetuate.

G. K. Chesterton said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” But that’s a narrow view, implying that those who don’t participate in the foundational myths of their culture are empty-headed fools. That they will blithely replace one kind of belief with anything that comes down the pike—from Tarot reading to table tapping—and can be conned by any charlatan with a parlor trick and the gift of gab.

Alcoholics Anonymous—not a parlor trick or a con game—among its Twelve Steps asks the recovering alcoholic (or other substance abuser) to surrender their own will and put the decision to drink, their everyday worries, and the course of their life, in the hands of God or a “higher power,” however and whatever they conceive that power to be. For some, AA itself and its principles are the higher power. And that—minus the whole surrender part1—is more or less where I find myself. I believe there are principles, which like gravity have the character of forces, that we humans must obey. But they did not create us or anything else; they are just part of the universe.

Let me digress to explain some of my atheism: the intellectual foundations of the world we live in today are profoundly different from the world encapsulated in the biblical stories and indeed in any worldview much before the Renaissance. That difference is coded in our understanding of stasis versus change.

The biblical view, and that of Greco-Roman mythology and even fundamentalist Islam or Hinduism—but not necessarily Buddhism—is that of a world created once and then more or less left alone. It’s a world that stands still. God created all the animals in their original forms, fixed like Platonic ideals, and they still survive in the world He created and established for all time. The horse has rounded hooves for galloping across firm ground. The camel has splayed toes for stability on shifting sand. The cow has four stomachs for eating and digesting grass. It’s a world where humans could observe landslides, falling rocks, and erosion gullies, proof that natural forces wear away mountains, without ever questioning how those mountains arose in the first place. Of course, God put them there. And He did so not very long ago, because the Bible can trace the descent of humankind from Adam and Eve in a recitable number of begats. Archbishop James Ussher as late as 1650 calculated that the biblical creation actually took place on October 22, 4004 BC, sometime in the evening. Six thousand years doesn’t leave much time for things to change.

Moreover, the world these early believers inhabited was just that, the world, the Earth, the ground beneath their feet. Everything that happens here, among human beings and their God or gods, the angels, and devils, is all that’s important. Heaven and hell are places somewhere else—up in the sky or down below—and the Sun, Moon, five observed planets, and the twinkling stars themselves are just lights in the sky, decorations on the “celestial spheres,” which occur in concentric orbits around this Earth.

All of that changed in the last five or six hundred years, with the conception—and its gradual acceptance among the literate public as general knowledge—that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, and then that the Sun itself is just another star in an “island universe” called “the galaxy.” Much more has changed in just the last hundred years, with the discovery that our galaxy is one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Before that, these other galaxies were just smudges of light—nebulae, or “clouds”—in among the known stars. But better and better telescopes, some of them observing in radio waves and frequencies other than the narrow band of visible light, have revealed that most of these smudges are galaxies in their own right, and that they contain about 100 billion stars each. And more recently, we have detected other planets around many of the nearby stars, answering for all time the question of how unique the Earth and this solar system might be. All of these galaxies, stars, and planets are a lot of real estate for a single-minded god to create, watch over, and maintain.

In that local galaxy, our own solar system is not just six thousand years but more like four billion years old. Our planet has changed numerous times and then gone through at least four recent ice ages. It’s only in the last 150 years or so that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has suggested that all life developed over time from one-celled bacteria and algae, then changed and changed again, creating all the forms of plants and animals that we can see. And it’s only in the last seventy years or so that the study of genetics has offered proof of how these creatures are related through inheritable patterns in their DNA-RNA-protein coding system.

And yes, it’s only in the last hundred years that the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics have suggested how mountains arose on Earth, so that they could then be slowly worn down by landslides and erosion.

In life, on this planet, in this vast universe, the norm is not stasis but change. Expand your conception of time to a billion years—or to thirteen billion, give or take, if you believe that the expanding universe can be rewound in time, back to a point of hot dense matter that exploded in the Big Bang2—and you can see that the viewpoint of a single human lifetime or the seventy or so begats in the Bible are a poor measuring stick for what remains stable and what it means to change.

So, in terms of a higher power, where does that leave me?

I accept as provisional the “laws” we can write from our observations of the physical universe—things like gravity and thermodynamics. These laws include the “theories” based on our observations that cannot be proved in one or two steps but that have a lot of supporting evidence—things like evolution, general relativity, and plate tectonics. I say “provisional” because I am, again, not a purist or absolutist about anything. As Einstein refined and expanded the mechanistic universe of Newton, so someone else with better observations and a wider viewpoint will refine and expand on Einstein. In terms of this enterprise of science, it’s early days yet. Anyone who wants to keep up with the pace of intellectual change had better pack lightly and stay fast on their feet.

I also accept that human life and our interactions with people we consider our peers have taught us some valuable lessons. As the universe seems to be based on cause and effect, so the nature of living among our fellow H. sapiens seems to be based on reciprocity. Call this “karma” or some other mystical system, but the truth is that you get out of the world, your time in it, and your interactions with other human beings just about what you put into them. This is a “home truth,” passed down as folklore in most societies and learned at my mother’s knee. Also, I accept that Abraham Lincoln quote about fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but for most of the time people display an amazing amount of native intelligence. All of these are things that simply work.

Whether the universe was designed by a superior intellect with those laws and adherence to those theories, or whether it exhibits them and we simply find them good because we grew up in such a universe, are adapted to it, and can understand it—on that point I do remain agnostic. What mind might have come before the creation of the universe itself is an unknowable question. And perhaps the universe had no starting point, no instant of creation, but simply is and always was.

That works for me, too. Perhaps it is a shameful admission for an inquiring mind, to allow that some things cannot be known, or not yet anyway, and maybe not for a long time. But we also have to allow for our conceptions of the world, of the universe, of life itself to change.

1. When you give up being responsible for yourself, thinking for yourself, and using your best wits and intentions to take care of yourself, your family, and your community, then you become vulnerable to the next con man or woman with the gift of gab and a plausible salvation story. Some of them even wear priestly robes.

2. I myself am agnostic about the reality of the Big Bang. Yes, the universe is expanding, and we have recently discovered it’s expanding even faster than we thought. But again, our view is limited to the parts of the whole that we can see with the instruments we have. To infer from all this that the universe—the whole shebang—started from a single point is, in my mind, just another creation myth, although one with a better footing than the seven days in the Bible.
    The fact that expansion over thirteen billion years from a single point doesn’t even yield the current observable size of the universe, and so needs the supra-lightspeed, exponential acceleration of Alan Guth’s inflation period, tells me that the story is not yet fixed. We are in the realm where theory—the human imagination underwritten by pliable mathematics—has exceeded the bounds of observable truth.