March of the machines

Jul 1, 2016

By The Economist

EXPERTS warn that “the substitution of machinery for human labour” may “render the population redundant”. They worry that “the discovery of this mighty power” has come “before we knew how to employ it rightly”. Such fears are expressed today by those who worry that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could destroy millions of jobs and pose a “Terminator”-style threat to humanity. But these are in fact the words of commentators discussing mechanisation and steam power two centuries ago. Back then the controversy over the dangers posed by machines was known as the “machinery question”. Now a very similar debate is under way.

After many false dawns, AI has made extraordinary progress in the past few years, thanks to a versatile technique called “deep learning”. Given enough data, large (or “deep”) neural networks, modelled on the brain’s architecture, can be trained to do all kinds of things. They power Google’s search engine, Facebook’s automatic photo tagging, Apple’s voice assistant, Amazon’s shopping recommendations and Tesla’s self-driving cars. But this rapid progress has also led to concerns about safety and job losses. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others wonder whether AI could get out of control, precipitating a sci-fi conflict between people and machines. Others worry that AI will cause widespread unemployment, by automating cognitive tasks that could previously be done only by people. After 200 years, the machinery question is back. It needs to be answered.

Machinery questions and answers

The most alarming scenario is of rogue AI turning evil, as seen in countless sci-fi films. It is the modern expression of an old fear, going back to “Frankenstein” (1818) and beyond. But although AI systems are impressive, they can perform only very specific tasks: a general AI capable of outwitting its human creators remains a distant and uncertain prospect. Worrying about it is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars before colonists have even set foot there, says Andrew Ng, an AI researcher. The more pressing aspect of the machinery question is what impact AI might have on people’s jobs and way of life.


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39 comments on “March of the machines

  • There is one thing you need to know — how FAST are machines getting smarter. As long as they keep improving, it is only a matter of time until they surpass humans. I taught a computer to design high voltage transmission lines back in the 1970s. Engineers would come by to hoot at its designs. To their eyes, there was no progress, just mildly less absurd. One day it was as smart as a human. A week later it was 10% smarter.

    I predict the intelligence of AI will appear to happen almost overnight.



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  • Yes, oddly, I think the Economist doesn’t really seem to understand what we are dealing with. They treat it as if it’s just more of the same, without really grasping that once machines achieve intelligence in the same way we use the word to apply to humans, then the game has fundamentally changed. When we invented machines that could do physical tasks better than any human could, the nature of human work changed – we started doing a whole range of new things that required mental skills. But when we make machines that can do mental tasks better than any human can, what exactly will humans do?

    One answer is that humans will be at leisure to do as they please. However, it will require a revolution in how society is structured – there will still be limited resources and unlimited wants, with no balancing requirement for individuals to create the wealth they wish to consume. One wonders what form our competitive instincts might take if we live in a materially egalitarian world? Or – more scary – what if ownership of the machines is vested in the hands of a few, and the vast majority of humans subsist, unable to compete with the machines on any level, and unable to break into the elite layer of machine ownership? Other questions include, how will we relate to each other if machines are better companions? And, if machines develop into more sentient, more morally aware beings then humans, how will we rank their value compared to our own (leaving aside how they might view those relative values)?

    About the only significant aspect of the article I agree with, is that the AI won’t necessarily work in its own interests. Such an instinct is a result of evolution, and the reproductive success ( i.e. the ubiquity) of any given type of machine will be a function of how useful that type is to humans. Sentience doesn’t necessarily lead to self interest. (Or does it?)



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  • Philosophy entertainment counseling teaching personal services. These all become what people do. The economy becomes less about capital and more about service and perhaps popularity.



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  • Philosophy entertainment counseling teaching personal services. These all become what people do. The economy becomes less about capital and more about service art and perhaps popularity.



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  • @DanDare

    Why would humans be able to do any of these things better than a machine with superior mental capabilities? Sure, at first the mental superiority of AI will be specialised (as it already is), but over time, there is no reason (other than if the brain has a supernatural element to it) that their capabilities shouldn’t catch up and then overtake ours in every sphere of processing.

    As Roedy said above, it will seem like it happens very slowly, but because of the vicious- (or virtuous-) circle nature of AI development, it will suddenly be a fait accompli. Now is the time for us to decide the gound rules of how that future society operates.



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  • Michael G

    Sentience doesn’t necessarily lead to self interest.

    The elephant in the AI lab is one of motivation and intention.

    It may be that self interest is the only way to develop what might be termed original sentience.

    It is entirely the second order effects of evolutionary developments of the proto-purpose of homeostasis (act to return to the middle state of the medium to recent past). Damasio teases this out to become all purposes that push us off centre, all sensory needs from sacharrides to lipids to that curvy shape a woman has or that red dot on mum’s beak and require us to act to scratch the itch.

    Until personal motivations as rich and varied and emotional as these underwrite our android judgments of what is salient and what not, sentience will always remain elusive. Androids needs to evolve aesthetics, a taste for lactose and lipids, joules and 3D print ink, or a smoothly machined compound curve, the thrilling and enabling quality of the green light….

    Clever machines will be made cleverer but achieving personally directed intentions is never accounted for and nothing to do with terraflops.



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  • Rewrite of part of #7

    Damasio teases this out to become all purposes that push us off centre, all sensory needs from sacharrides to lipids to that curvy shape a woman has or that red dot on mum’s beak and require us to act to scratch the itch.

    Damasio teases this out such that all off centre states become purposes, all sensory needs from sacharrides to lipids to that curvy shape a woman has or that red dot on mum’s beak and require us to act to scratch the itch, heaping up in a Maslow style hierarchy of needs, art atop the curvy shape detector, the symmetry detector, the green and open vista detector.



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  • @ phil rimmer,

    That’s certainly a possibility, and I can see other ways for machines to become self-interested. But I am still not convinced that it would be necessary or inevitable that machines become self-interested as a result of sentience or consciousness (or the other way around). No-one really knows the nature of consciousness, so both definitions and assumptions about that state are hugely speculative. If Demasio defines sentience as requiring specific aesthetics, or desires, or temptations, we may never have sentient androids, as those specific features might not be useful to us.



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  • Michael #9

    If Demasio defines sentience as requiring specific aesthetics, or desires, or temptations, we may never have sentient androids, as those specific features might not be useful to us.

    Indeed. Damasio always argued that intelligence, cold reasoning power in humans, gave terrible value judgments if not supported by emotional engagement. The classic example was Nicholas Gage, who after an accident in laying rail tracks lost the part of his brain that created affective behaviours. Though still fully intellectually intact he could no longer make personally valuable decisions….he didn’t care about the outcomes.

    Caring about the outcomes is the trick to motivation and developing intentions. What is more, given something to “care about” externally will not sustain motivation after the need is fulfilled. Our plethora of spurious second order aesthetic itches that have come about as artifacts from “just good enough” bodging evolution, gifts us a huge range of emotors for carrying on. Culture takes these and crafts a more collective focus.



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  • Phil,

    Just a few thoughts: no problem with AI per se; but all these questions that are being posed on this thread seem out of place. Motives, intentions, etc.—No one really seems to agree with what those are in humans, let alone in future machines! Self interest? I have asked what the self is, where our being lies, have suggested on numerous occasions that it is not at all clear, and have received ridicule. (See the March 17 Free Will thread and the July 1 Referendum thread.) Interest? That complicates it even further. Soon we will be calling machines living beings. Why not? We know what separates animal life from vegetable life: brains. But life is common to both. So brains are not essential to life. So what is the connection between life and the self (or the “I” – if there is one)? And what is the connection (if any) between the self (or the “I) and the brain? If you can build a mechanical brain would it have a self? Again, we are getting ahead of ourselves, pulled forward by anxiety and undue self-confidence, away from reflection, pulled by a Faustian urge based on our essential uncertainty as to what we are, what makes us human (and humane) – if anything.

    AI will put people out of work for sure. And it will provide the opportunity for people to pursue more meaningful occupations. Oscar Wilde, in his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, expresses great hope and enthusiasm about all this, but he forgets one thing: not everyone is interested in art, beauty, and idea. They will grow bored. And wherever there is boredom, mischief is to found. The social division of labor is based, purpose, on the natural and ineradicable differences amongst humans.

    ” All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure – which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves.” —Oscar Wilde

    “AI developed from the mind of humanity is the evolution of humanity. Accept it.”

    Paul, I take issue with this fantastic, fatalistic, amoral, faith-based, empty pronouncement. A multitude of horrors have arisen from the mind of man. I need not list them. Humanity, unlike the species homo sapiens, does not necessarily evolve, is not heading in the right direction by necessity or by design. No unfolding and ultimate fruition a la Hegel awaits us. Where are we heading, to the Light, back to the Mind of our Creator?

    (Phil, I have a comment for you on the BS thread.)



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  • Dan,

    I can’t begin to agree with the spirit of your first paragraphs. An awful lot is known and written about the self and where it lies. Many views trail a substantial amount of evidence. For me a lot of this falls together rather nicely. I won’t follow you back into a shrug and throwing the notebooks up in the air and observing its all a mystery. It frankly is not.

    Whilst I don’t think Oscar has it quite right, nor do I think have you.

    There is so much more to life than art and the pursuit of ideas, there is helping the old and visiting the ill, there is gardening and being a school governor.



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  • I am less concerned with Skynet scenarios etc., than in the prosaic economic implications.

    Machines long ago transformed the labour market when it comes to manual labour. Soon it seems they will be able to do many white collar jobs, even programming.

    At the very least, that will lead to economic disruptions on a scale never seen before.

    The use of robots to perform manual labour and AIs to perform intellectual labour ought to lead to a utopia (as per some golden age science fiction) where everyone has everything they need for free and each can devote their lives to arts or sports or study or hedonism as they choose.

    But of course it won’t, because the 1% will own all the robots and AIs, and everyone else will be living in tent cities living off their garbage.



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  • Phil (13), Olgun, others

    An awful lot is known and written about the self and where it lies.

    Another hard problem: the “Self” or What are we?

    I myself am not at all sure what the human Self is and never have been, and not sure whether it even exists. I refuse to relinquish the idea that it does; but I am not sure that we can gain direct access to this element of our existence. I suspect that it is one and the same homogeneous element that animates and unites organic nature as a whole.

    (Human Identity is a completely different subject altogether.)

    My question concerns itself primarily with the nature of the so-called Self (and its relation to thought). What is the Self? Is it “in” us? Is it in the brain, or is it the brain itself? Are we our brains and are our brains us, or is there something else, something separate and distinct from the brain that makes us what or who we are? It seems to me that the brain, while essential and indispensable in any number of ways, serves a variety of functions related to knowing and doing.

    So my question would be: how can something, whose chief purpose or function is knowing and doing be the very same thing as that knows and does? Think about that. Is there no mystery there that you can see?

    I admit that I know next to nothing of 20th and 21st Century works on human consciousness (and look forward to reading Dennett and others). But again, to be conscious raises the question: what is it that is conscious, does it not?

    What is the human self and where is it, Phil?

    My concern is that as we advance and as robots begin to populate and infiltrate future societies, the distinction between us and them will become increasingly blurred; and we are already , at the present time, suffering from mystification and alienation in relation to the roots of our own being –where our humanity, presumably, resides, are becoming less and less human in inverse proportion to an ever-increasing obsession and fixation with, and knowledge of, mechanics, how-things-work.

    P.S. I meant to write Perhaps, not Purpose (#11): “The social division of labor is based, perhaps, on the natural and ineradicable differences amongst humans.



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  • Addendum

    Yet another corrected sentence:

    So my question would be: how can something, whose chief purpose or function is knowing and doing, be the very same thing as that which knows and does?

    And again… We lift our arm to perform a task, we see the world around us. That requires a brain. But moving and being conscious are what we do and what we are (conscious). We act and we are conscious. So what are we, consciousness and actions themselves!? What is it that is being caused to be aware, to think, to act?



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  • Dan

    how can something, whose chief purpose or function is knowing and doing,

    Ask a loaded question and it goes off in your face.

    Our chief function is reproduction by virtue of being evolved reproducers that have survived until now.

    What does know mean here?

    It means to cognise and predict outcomes related to the known in serving reproduction and by implication a survival of genomic us. (Not us entirely but that part which survives us). Doing is to serve the same end.

    We (I) consist of a genomic me honed by evolution to survive and the survival machine it builds to achieve this with its burgeoning skills and abilities.

    The religious accounts of what we are (designed, intended creatures…androids given free will and culpability) poisoned far too many philosophers premises, a hundred years ago and more…..

    So the question becomes: how can something, whose chief purpose or function is reproductive survival, be the very same thing as that which reproduces and survives?

    It isn’t.

    It builds a reproducing survival machine.



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  • @dan

    we are already , at the present time, suffering from mystification and alienation in relation to the roots of our own being

    We’ve been misled for so long by lies and deception, aka religious authority, misled perhaps ever since we developed enough language to be lied to, and only slowly advanced from that via (as you put it)

    an ever-increasing obsession and fixation with, and knowledge of, mechanics, how-things-work.

    You are coming across like the UK politician Gove who said people were fed up with Experts, denouncing this “obsession/fixation/knowledge” like it’s a bad thing.

    Yes, it’s such a bad thing to put facts and evidence ahead of gut feeling and faith and ill thought out conclusions based on wishful thinking. You appear to be on the side of Gove and Blair — whose supreme arrogant over-confidence in his own convictions let him charge ahead doing what he wanted to do with blatant disregard for the facts, at such terrible cost to millions of innocents, basically everyone but himself and his cronies in the 1%. You have similar disregarders west of the Atlantic.

    A bit more attention to “how things (really) work” would be a good thing, and should help dispel that mystification and alienation brought about by the industrial scale lies and BS we’re fed from those tussling among themselves for power over the rest of us.

    Sorry, Dan, you usually seem like a Decent Chap, turtles and all, it’s just you seem to be hanging out with the wrong crowd on this one.



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  • Phil, Ohooligan

    Our chief function is reproduction by virtue of being evolved reproducers that have survived until now.

    My question was this: how can something, whose chief purpose or function is cognition and enabling us to live and survive, be the very same thing as that which knows and lives and survives.

    I was referring to the brain. You say “Our chief function” is reproduction.

    I was asking what we are. If we are our brains then are we also our blood and our other vital organs?

    Genomic me.

    What does that mean? You don’t believe in a priori knowledge and yet we have a me built in? There is no evidence to support that, is there? There can’t be.

    Politically, I am progressive (sane, humane and human), although I am not an ideologue. I hate the Republicans like I hate death.

    I myself am fixated and obsessed and have a thirst for knowledge (and do not think that my question as to what we are or what anything that lives is in itself, has been answered or adequately understood by anyone on this site. And I suspect that science, which I have the profoundest respect for, cannot answer, or has not yet answered, this question).

    Over-confident? With moderate ability modesty is mere honesty; with great talent it is hypocrisy.

    —Diogenes aka Dan



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  • Phil (#17) , Olgun, OHooligan, others

    My questions and comments seem to irritate people at times. Baffles me. I am not anti-science. Only a madman would be. My questions and comments are, for the most part, sound. I would argue that they can be deep (although I am perhaps partial).

    Allow me to repeat myself. My question here concerns itself primarily with the nature of the so-called Self (and its relation to thought in particular, and to the brain in general). What is the Self? Is it “in” us? Is it in the brain, or is it the brain itself? Are we our brains and are our brains us, or is there something else, something separate and distinct from the brain, that makes us what or who we are?

    Human “Being.” What is that “Being”? What is the difference between us and a computer? What is the essential difference? If it is the ability to think then it is possible to imagine a human computer. A thinking computer is not, from what I gather, inconceivable. Far from it. Moreover, if thought does not define us as humans then an unthinking computer that simply does things is even less unlike us.

    The distinction between us and computers (and we know what they are) is becoming increasingly blurred, and that is disturbing. The difference between humans and other animals has already been discussed at length on this site, and it is quite clear that the difference is quantitative merely – although quantity does change quality (Engels).

    It builds a reproducing survival machine.

    It?

    To pose the question another way, what is the difference between animals and machines in general? The evolutionary biologist Dr. Randolph Nesse, in a conversation with Richard Dawkins, said that the idea of Man as a machine is “a metaphor that is completely wrong. The body is not a machine. A machine has a blueprint, one master design and a manufacturing process that moves from the blueprint to the finished product, and the finished product is always the same. Man does have a genome that has information, but there is no normal genome, only genes – and those genes that make bodies that end up reproducing more than others go on becoming more frequent in the future. Other genes end up reproducing less frequently and are gone. […] There is no blueprint”

    But that still begs the question: what are we? what are we really?

    Can anyone really give a substantive, non-circular answer to this?



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  • Dan

    Phils comments finally gave rise to the cog I needed to understand more your question. What makes living things different to robots. What would we need to give robots that would make them value their existence so that they they look after every nut and expensive bolt. We have robots now that resist being pushed over (videos available on YT). In order to resist and rebalance, they must be aware of their mass and limbs and what they are doing but they do not get upset or angry at the person that kicks them to test the technology. They have no ‘purpose’ of self preservation.

    So I thought, what would we have to give them to achieve this? Well, we could give them organic parts as an essential part. This would mean the replicators and the ‘selfish gene’ would survive as they replicated themselves on the workbench. We would of course have to give them an extensive program that tells them they are special and how the group might be more special in some circumstances and all the other survival techniques evolution has honed into over millions of years.

    Alternatively, we program them so they believe they have been made in their gods image (us) and that they are special and that every nut and bolt is precious and daily maintenance is essential and to remind them of this they must give thanks a number of times a week/day etc…. We can delude them into thinking they are special with no real need to protect the ‘selfish gene’. All other living things do the first but humans have gone to the latter stage of needing delusion to make us believe we are more special than the gene. Perhaps the reason for religion and how it started.



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  • Phil #17

    The religious accounts of what we are (designed, intended creatures…androids given free will and culpability) poisoned far too many philosophers premises, a hundred years ago and more…..

    Good paragraph.

    It’s all about the Genotype controlling the Phenotype…..I always wonder at the crass ignorance people have of Darwin’s simple idea. It’s not Hilbert Space, Adiabatic variables, uncertainty principles and the general strangeness of quantum mechanics. I’d concede that the details can be just as hard to understand but the basic premise of competing genes and their differential reproductive success is breathtakingly simple to grasp!



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  • Dan

    A machine has a blueprint, one master design and a manufacturing process that moves from the blueprint to the finished product,

    The idea of a blueprint is indeed specious though in looking for the public to understand the science the professor may have created a forgivable metaphor. My argument about the manufacturing tolerance of humans (its big!) hinges on this inability to check against a final model. The genome is not the drawing of the man but the manufacturing instructions contingent upon surrounding circumstances, which become increasingly what was built because of the genome. The huge number of spontaneous and early (unnoticed) abortions attest to how often the most crucial early bits get metaphorically crumpled up and thrown away.

    This makes no difference to my argument. Lets call it a survival homunculus. So I am genomic me (my genome) AND the genome’s survival homunculus that carries the genome, protects it and plots for its reproduction.

    I wrote a story about ten years ago, Quisnunc, about two magicians, in competition for the Prince’s preferment, given the task of making an homunculus mistakable for a man. Cagliostro’s attempt is a sorry thing compared to the slick, well tailored, homunculus-about-town, of his equally slick rival. This rival homunculus is, though, ultimately, dull as ditch water, perhaps able to make it as a gentleman’s gentleman. Beaten up for trying to be the singer he isn’t, brought back to Cagliostro’s cliff top eyrie, Muncky, Cagliostro’s own, whimpers that he is a failure at everything he has been told to be. Cagliostro thinks to wipe his mind, then conceives the spell he has been looking for for poor little Muncky. He makes memories fade so they have to be remade if they are to survive then he adds in the Quisnunc spell. “Who now?” asked a thousand times a day until you don’t notice you are doing it. Who am I now?

    Muncky awakes, new minted, and looks up to Cagliostro.

    Cagliostro smiles and says, “How do you do? I’m Cagliostro”

    Muncky smiles, “How do you do?” he says returning the gift.

    Dan, I can present the ideas in a less threatening context. But you need to learn to read through seemingly heartless facts to reach the open handed magic that delivers humanity. Rainbows remain, unwoven, and just near seen.



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  • Dan

    I myself am fixated and obsessed and have a thirst for knowledge… I suspect that science, which I have the profoundest respect for, cannot answer, or has not yet answered,

    You do not have a thirst for knowledge. You have a thirst for answers and an impatience with the enormity, the extent, of knowledge.

    My personal opinion, and merely that, is that you need to find better questions.

    Observations accumulate, as Schopenhauer at 228 years of age might observe for himself.



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  • Phil

    Well I do have thirst for questions (the right questions) and knowledge.
    Just read Pinker’s long article My genome, My Self. Nothing there for me.
    You should read the older, 228 year olds. That guy doesn’t know anything about Marx, btw; his one reference was simplistic to the point of obscenity. He is a couple of notches above Chopra, is all over the place, goes from Alzheimers to cholesterol to morality and ethics and then back to diseases. —Full circle. He’s a salesman and his groundless optimism is a sales pitch! Like Hegel, he promises something that has never, and will never, come to fruition – as there is nothing behind the theory of a Becoming, of an inherent or latent anything – in us or outside of us – when it comes to moral progress. (Doesn’t his invocation of the word “angels” worry you?) An infinity of time has already elapsed, and nothing has happened yet.— No fruition in Hegel’s case; and no evidence to support Pinker’s Moral Progress argument. On the contrary, everything in the world tends to get worse over time, as Leopardi (a poet of great depth and intellect) said.
    I don’t care who teaches at Harvard. Pinker says he is drawn (by his DNA) to libertarianism. Maybe so. That means he endorses a wicked political philosophy, corporate tyranny, and is clueless when it comes to politics.
    I assume he is clueless when it comes to other philosophies as well.

    “The religious accounts of what we are (designed, intended creatures…androids given free will and culpability) poisoned far too many philosophers premises, a hundred years ago and more…..”

    So? We all know that. I never said anything to the contrary. No one’s talking about or alluding to or suggesting anything that opposes Darwinism on this thread. And besides, the philosophers who preceded him had to contradict him to some extent; they didn’t know enough not to. (It is well known that S. was way ahead of his time and wrote salient things about heredity and the life of the species before Darwin did.) Why the straw-man?

    The Genome is You. That says nothing more than You are the Genome or The Genome is the Genome or I am I.

    The point of many of my impertinent questions is that they may no longer be receiving the attention I feel they deserve and that they may not be capable of being answered.



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  • Dan

    The Genome is You.

    No. But I never said that. Why is it so difficult to get even simple ideas into you and so that you don’t chop off half of it like its just as good this way? I think you have never once succeeded in reflecting an idea back to me in toto.

    Who raised Pinker in this thread, anyway? Pinker is entirely right to counter the Blank Slate Myth and accuse all economists of this error in their thinking. Marx’s predictions were indeed in error having no necessary process. Pinker’s taste for libertarianism, is misbegotten through partiality and, anyway, not relevant. Again there are no unassailable champions, but a few of their ideas may look that way. I, myself, wouldn’t go to Pinker on the Genome.

    The religious accounts of what we are (designed, intended creatures…androids given free will and culpability) poisoned far too many philosophers premises, a hundred years ago and more…..

    So? We all know that. I never said anything to the contrary.

    You failed to notice right at the outset that I corrected your initial question from one afflicted with my very complaint?



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  • Dan

    On the contrary, everything in the world tends to get worse over time, as Leopardi (a poet of great depth and intellect) said.

    Two opinions for the price of one doesn’t make this a better bargain. Evidence, my friend…..

    I think this is why I find most of your views energy sapping…seemingly disinterested in political improvement, but positioning for maximum schadenfreude.

    Thanks for Leopardi, though. Just got a copy of Townsend translations. (This may be a pants translation but its a start.)



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  • Phil,

    I raised Pinker because you said this: “We (I) consist of a genomic me honed by evolution.”

    So I read some Pinker, the Genome Man.

    Blank slate. You believe in inheritance, as all rational people do, but refuse to consider the possibility that there are forms of a priori knowledge, namely: causality, space, and time.

    Sorry if my general lack of optimism (and occasional dogmatism and pig-headedness) weighs you down. But where is your evidence for optimism? The onus is on optimists to provide evidence in support of optimism. Short of that, I will remain skeptical.

    I want things to improve. Maybe they can. But nothing is permanent. We may have world peace at some point. It won’t last, will be disrupted.

    I’ll try to respond better to your comments and read more science. I hope I haven’t alienated you in any way, my most esteemed and valued e-friend. Glad you’re reading Leopardi. I wish my father was still around. He wrote a book about Leopardi and could have recommended a good translation.



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  • Dan

    You believe in inheritance, as all rational people do, but refuse to consider the possibility that there are forms of a priori knowledge, namely: causality, space, and time.

    Of course I consider the possibility of it. It is central to Chomsky. Its just that the evidence is all the other way for your specifics (the work with neonates I reported for example) and Ockham wisely urges less is more. I take the parsimonious view because the onus is on the proposer of complexity. Folk causality is coincidence mostly. Coincidence detection is the very heart of all our neurological processing.

    Just as your red and my red may somehow neurologically lack any common features, mediated through our experience and our language we understand the other sufficiently well despite this. So might this apply to extension. As for causality, culture endows causality with its formal rigidity. All babies need for their early Pavlovian safety training is what the jelly can innately supply…. coincidence…

    The onus is on optimists to provide evidence in support of optimism.

    Glad to oblige. I would cite to start, Pinker (in his researched element here) The Better Angels of our Nature. Peter Turchin, Ultrasociety.

    Truly don’t worry about grunts of frustration. The cultural exchanges are value enough and anything else is a bonus.



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  • Dan,

    Angels? Worrying? I have pointed this out before.

    Lincoln’s conclusion to his first inaugural address, poignant and going to the very core of Pinker’s book…

    I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature

    This before one of the most tragic wars of all time, the one that surely is the strongest of arguments for our innate evil. Pinker scoops this up and all such modern horrors and seeks to put them in a larger context.



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  • I will read it. I almost bought it, but it’s so damned long.
    Lincoln, a cold, brilliant man, was delivering a speech – and I am not sure, if pressed, that he would have privately defended an optimistic conception of the future of human morality. I have no idea what Lincoln meant by that and no idea how Pinker has used the concept (of better angels) – as I haven’t yet read his book.
    I have concluded, on the basis of my extensive reading and my own thinking that there is no argument in support of optimism (and I don’t mean optimism in the popular sense). Optimism in this regard is as indefensible from both a scientific, and philosophical (i.e. rational) standpoint as religion itself or permanent happiness (a Utopia) itself.
    I rather like robots, by the way.



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  • @ Phil

    Re: Our better angels

    I just heard Obama deliver a fantastic, great speech, one of the most important speeches of his career, at the service for the slain officers in Dallas.

    I was so inspired and moved, that I am now prepared to say that Lincoln may have truly been onto something.

    Try to see it, in its entirety, if you can. It was Lincolnesque, historic.



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  • Dan

    When I reached the final page, number 696, of Pinker’s book Better Angels, I sat there fuming that he had cut out on me so soon like that. Is that it? As if you have better things to do Pinker! Would it have killed you to give me two or three hundred pages more?!! What’s the world coming to these days?!! Well Dan, he actually does answer that question in the book.

    Sometimes I pick up that book and open it to a random page and I swear I can’t remember reading all of the fascinating info that is crammed into every single page of that book. Oh, and I never miss an opportunity to whip that book out and hold it up an inch from someone’s nose if I think there’s a chance that they have enough functioning neurons to get through the thing. I imposed it on my science book discussion group the first chance I got. That book is brain candy.



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  • Laurie,

    I’ve been reading a little about Pinker and I watched a couple of videos. I have the feeling that he’s pushing something – can’t put my finger on it. He doesn’t strike me as an honest thinker – more like a manipulator. I don’t like being told what to think. Chomsky was asked about him and said that in he had read Better Angels and said that Pinker got all his facts wrong – especially about violence and peace. Pinker said that Chomsky was an anarchist, which he isn’t – and I can prove that.
    Plus, what is “scientism?” I don’t want to know.
    I am sure he knows a lot and put a lot of facts together, but he strikes me as a trendy type of “theorist” (along with Haidt) whose works will not last more than a few years, at best.
    In an interview he said that someone who had criticized him was an “utter ignoramus” and then he proceeded to lavish praise upon his successful ivory-tower wife.
    He sounds like an arrogant twit.
    You really should read great philosophers. These contemporary figures are overrated, for the most part.



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  • P.S. I should read a little first. It is not entirely reasonable to reject someone as an author without reading a bit first. If I were the writer, I’d be livid.
    (I had some coffee, feel better now. ) 🙂



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