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Saturday, August 20, 2022

Dr. Justin Gregg: Some new unsparing thinking on human "intelligence."

“Human, all too human”: It’s a thought that occurred to me a few times while reading Justin Gregg’s “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal,” and not just because the phrase also happens to be the title of a work by Nietzsche himself. Gregg’s clever and provocative book is full of irreverent notions and funny anecdotes — the creative upside to being a human animal. But our ability to abstract from our immediate experience means we can take that creativity too far.

“If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal,” Gregg writes, “the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or the Holocaust.” Say what? This seems to be a sterling example of what Gregg calls our species-specific penchant for “unexpected ludicrousness.”

Such rhetorical contortions are probably the consequence of what he derides as our obsession with causal inference. Nonhuman animals get by just fine on “learned associations.” They link actions with results, without having to understand why something is happening. Humans, though, are “why specialists.” We need to look for causal connections — leading to some incredible achievements but also to some bizarre practices...

From a NY Times review. I bought the book forthwith, and the world subsequently went on "pause" 'til I finished it. I found it riveting. Do yourselves a favor and read it ASAP.

OK, then: "fixed, canonical, and binding." Uh, "paradigms," anyone?

Humans are unlike other animals when it comes to our capacity for deception. Because we are why specialists, we have minds overflowing with ideas—dead facts—about how the world works, which gives us an infinite number of subjects about which we could lie. We are also in possession of a communication medium—language—that allows us to transform these dead facts into words that slither into the minds of other people with ease. What’s more, we have the capacity to understand that other people have minds in the first place; minds that hold beliefs about how the world is (i.e., what’s true), and thus minds that can be fooled into believing false information. As Levine points out, we’re also particularly bad at spotting false information. This sets up a scenario where, as we will see in this section, being a lying bullshit artist in a world filled with gullible victims can be a path to success...

Gregg, Justin. If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal (pp. 69-70). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
"A path to success?" Well, yeah, in the short run. "He who dies with the most toys wins."

And dies nonetheless.

Recall my Exigencies rant? 
The world is experiencing multiple crises all at once. Russia's war in Ukraine is the first such large-scale conventional conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. China's power and reach are increasing, not just in the Pacific but around the world. The United States is reorienting its military, diplomatic and economic resources in response to China's rising superpower status. Some type of clash seems inevitable.

The COVID pandemic has receded somewhat in the U.S., although hundreds of people continue to die every day. The pandemic continues to cause death and misery around the world, with an estimated death toll of 6.5 million and an incalculable amount of personal, societal and economic suffering.

Extreme wealth and income inequality grows largely unabated. Many of the world's richest people have exploited this period of crisis and challenge to expand their power rather than to improve the human condition. Global democracy is in retreat around the world as fascist, authoritarian and other illiberal forces, operating under the banner of "populism," continue to expand their power and influence.

Here in the U.S., Donald Trump's political cult and a Republican Party dominated by fascists are attempting to end multiracial democracy. This is a revolutionary struggle whose goal is to create a new American society, that in practical terms will be an apartheid Christian fascist plutocracy ruled without challenge or accountability by a small number of rich white men. As seen on Jan. 6, 2021, and throughout the Age of Trump, right-wing political violence, including acts of terrorism, is now integral to the neofascist campaign against democracy.

The existential danger of global climate disaster looms over all the world's crises and challenges. Humanity has faced many great challenges before. But the world is now hyperconnected through digital media and other technologies with such speed and immediacy that our ability to properly process and understand these challenges has been greatly impaired…
Chauncey Devega
Are we gonna be able to "reason" our ways outa these looming existential catastrophes? e.g., via "Delberation Science?" My dubiety iteratively waxes and wanes.
"Human intelligence is not the miracle of evolution we like to think it it."
Lots more to unpack here. Justin Gregg, thank you, sir. Helluva a fine read.
The future of human intelligence

The human mind is exceptional. We have a capacity that all other species lack: the ability to intentionally produce more pleasure for other minds. As why specialists with episodic foresight and theory of mind, we understand that our actions can generate pleasure and misery in the minds of other creatures, be it human or animal. We understand that child soldiers and battery cage hens are miserable. We know these things, and we have the ability to change them. We have the cognitive and technological capacity to create a world that maximizes pleasure for all humans, as well as nonhuman animals. We could flood the world in pleasure qualia, if we wanted to. And this would elevate the value of human intelligence to something beyond that of other species, who cannot conceive of a pleasure-maxed world. If there is one way in which human minds are superior to those of animals in terms of worth, it is our capacity for understanding that pleasure is important and wanting to spread it as far and wide as possible. Paradoxically though, we don’t.

One of the reasons I love Star Trek is because it envisions a kind of techno-dork utopia like this, where humans live somewhat harmoniously with one another and have eliminated much of the day-to-day suffering that we currently experience. Is Star Trek’s pleasure-maximization world a fantasy?

There are two schools of thought on the future of the human species when it comes to creating a pleasure-maxed utopia. In one corner, you have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and linguist who has written extensively about why there is hope for our species when it comes to bettering ourselves. Pinker points out that humans have been doing a bang-up job of improving our lot in life thanks to the kind of Enlightenment thinking (i.e., “reason applied to human betterment”) that has doubled our average life span in just two hundred years, and reduced global poverty to its current levels (an all-time low). When asked to speculate on the future of our species, Pinker is somewhat optimistic, arguing that “problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and solutions create new problems that can be solved in their turn. It’s not a promise of an inevitable utopia, but it’s got a Star Trek ring to it that smacks more of optimism than extinction.

In the other corner you have the philosopher John Gray, who has written many books on humanity’s place in the natural world. Gray acknowledges the lovely boost that comes with Enlightenment style–thinking that has given us modern technology and medicine and everything else, but does not seem to have much hope that these advantages will be enough to free humans of the endless cycle of self-destructive prognostic myopia. In his book Straw Dogs he writes:
The growth of knowledge is real and—barring a world-wide catastrophe—it is now irreversible. Improvements in government and society are no less real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be. History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss. The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows that we are not.
Yes, it’s possible we will break this cycle of inevitable loss and live in a technologically beautiful future like in Star Trek, with adamantine cities floating in the sky above lush, untouched rain forests blanketing a rejuvenated Earth. Where biodiversity has been restored, and humans get their food from sustainably grown farming that doesn’t require as much land or water usage, and where we have eliminated the animal misery created by current farming practices… [Justin Gregg, pp. 204-206].

apropos of the overall topic (human "vs" lower animal cognition), I've been studying Ed Yong's new book for a while. Also excellent. Not sure there's gonna be much overlap with Justin's principal thrust, though. Worthy in it's own right nonetheless.
to wit,
Through centuries of effort, people have learned much about the sensory worlds of other species. But in a fraction of the time, we have upended those worlds. We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological epoch defined and dominated by the deeds of our species. We have changed the climate and acidified the oceans by releasing titanic amounts of greenhouse gases. We have shuffled wildlife across continents, replacing indigenous species with invasive ones. We have instigated what some scientists have called an era of “biological annihilation,” comparable to the five great mass extinction events of prehistory. And amid this already dispiriting ledger of ecological sins, there is one that should be especially easy to appreciate and yet is often ignored—sensory pollution. Instead of stepping into the Umwelten of other animals, we have forced them to live in ours by barraging them with stimuli of our own making. We have filled the night with light, the silence with noise, and the soil and water with unfamiliar molecules. We have distracted animals from what they actually need to sense, drowned out the cues they depend upon, and lured them, like moths to a flame, into sensory traps.

Many flying insects are fatally attracted to streetlights, mistaking them for celestial lights and hovering below them until they succumb to exhaustion. Some bats exploit their confusion, feasting on the disoriented swarms. Other, slow-moving species, like the little brown bats that Barber tagged, stay clear of the light, perhaps because it makes them easier prey for owls. Lights reshape the animal communities around them, drawing some in and pushing others away, with consequences that are hard to predict. Could the light-averse bats do badly because their habitable zones have shrunk and their insect prey have been pulled away? Might the light-attracted bats temporarily benefit but eventually suffer as the local insect populations crash?

Yong, Ed. An Immense World (pp. 336-337). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So far I may have given the impression that the ability to organize our knowledge of the world into causes and effects was monolithic and acquired all at once. In fact, my research on machine learning has taught me that a causal learner must master at least three distinct levels of cognitive ability: seeing, doing, and imagining.

The first, seeing or observing, entails detection of regularities in our environment and is shared by many animals as well as early humans before the Cognitive Revolution. The second, doing, entails predicting the effect(s) of deliberate alterations of the environment and choosing among these alterations to produce a desired outcome. Only a small handful of species have demonstrated elements of this skill. Use of tools, provided it is intentional and not just accidental or copied from ancestors, could be taken as a sign of reaching this second level. Yet even tool users do not necessarily possess a “theory” of their tool that tells them why it works and what to do when it doesn’t. For that, you need to have achieved a level of understanding that permits imagining. It was primarily this third level that prepared us for further revolutions in agriculture and science and led to a sudden and drastic change in our species’ impact on the planet.

I cannot prove this, but I can prove mathematically that the three levels differ fundamentally, each unleashing capabilities that the ones below it do not. The framework I use to show this goes back to Alan Turing, the pioneer of research in artificial intelligence (AI), who proposed to classify a cognitive system in terms of the queries it can answer. This approach is exceptionally fruitful when we are talking about causality because it bypasses long and unproductive discussions of what exactly causality is and focuses instead on the concrete and answerable question “What can a causal reasoner do?” Or more precisely, what can an organism possessing a causal model compute that one lacking such a model cannot?

Pearl, Judea; Mackenzie, Dana. The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (p. 27). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
More to come...

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