Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

This era more or less will be defined in the annals of history as the era of Dawn of Artificial Intelligence:

This improvement is not a lucky coincidence; it is cause and effect. Things have gotten better because there are more people, who in total have more good ideas that improve our overall lot. The economist Julian Simon was one of the first to make this optimistic argument, and he advanced it repeatedly and forcefully throughout his career. He wrote, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.”

We do have one quibble with Simon, however. He wrote that, “The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination.” We agree about the fuel but disagree about the brake. The main impediment to progress has been that, until quite recently, a sizable portion of the world’s people had no effective way to access the world’s stock of knowledge or to add to it.

Now, its only common sense to heed to intelligent critics like John Gray who warns us against mindless progress and utopianism (note: we are not taking about alarmists but a very valid and rational caution):

If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas. Whatever they are called, torture and slavery are universal evils; but these evils cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. They return under different names: torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, slavery as human trafficking. Any reduction in universal evils is an advance in civilization. But, unlike scientific knowledge, the restraints of civilized life cannot be stored on a computer disc. They are habits of behaviour, which once broken are hard to mend. Civilization is natural for humans, but so is barbarism.

The distance between human and animal silence is a consequence of the use of language. It is not that other creatures lack language. The discourse of the birds is more than a human metaphor. Cats and dogs stir in their sleep, and talk to themselves as they go about their business. Only humans use words to construct a self-image and a story of their lives. But if other animals lack this interior monologue, it is not clear why this should put humans on a higher plane. Why should breaking silence and then loudly struggling to renew it be such an achievement?

Today the good life means making full use of science and technology - without succumbing to the illusion that they can make us free, reasonable, or even sane. It means seeking peace - without hoping for a world without war. It means cherishing freedom - in the knowledge that it is an interval between anarchy and tyranny.

F.A. Hayek warned us decades ago quoting Friedrich Höderlin his famous book The Road to Serfdom:

What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.

I think, the most disparity is caused during progress because the optimist's mostly use more of numeracy and less of literacy filter and the other side uses more of literacy and less of numeracy filter. But both sides almost never use Garrett Hardin's Ecolacy filter:

WE CAN NEVER DO MERELY ONE THING which is now known as Hardin's Law. The language that we have used to describe the effects of our actions demonstrates the reality that Hardin's Law draws our attention to. We talk about effects and side effects, products and wastes.

Hardin contends that since we cannot do just one thing we must always ask and answer the question and  THEN WHAT? when we try to ascertain the benefits and costs of proposed courses of action on both the individual as well as social levels. The ecological systems way of thinking employs modern scientific theories and knowledge to study a world of interlocking processes characterized by many reciprocal cause effect pathways. The ecological systems way of thinking has to become an integral part of the thinking of the well educated person if we are to adequately control technology rather than fall victim to the forces we generate and are unable or unwilling to control. Ecological systems thinking provides well educated persons with the opportunity to act more rationally, because they have learned a more comprehensive and more accurate way of estimating the probable costs and benefits of their actions.

During this era of AI, I think its prudent to remind ourselves of those wise words from Hardin and start using those three filters together so we all can benefit from progress in the long run.

And finally, a wise man named Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned us few decades ago about the political delusional innocence of this young country but it also applies to social, cultural and technical progress:

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

Niebuhr brilliantly applied the tragic insights of Augustine and Calvin to moral and political issues. He poured out his thoughts in a stream of powerful books, articles and sermons. His major theological work was his two-volume "Nature and Destiny of Man" (1941, 1943). The evolution of his political thought can be traced in three influential books: "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics)" (1932); "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense" (1944); "The Irony of American History" (1952).

In these and other works, Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (Niebuhr, in the fashion of the day, used "man" not to exculpate women but as shorthand for "human being.")

The last lines of "The Irony of American History," written in 1952, resound more than a half-century later. "If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory."

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