• Phil Tanny
    191
    In recent months I’ve been learning about CRISPR, which as you probably know is a new methodology which makes gene editing substantially easier. Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize for her work on this. CRISPR imitates something bacteria have been doing for a very long time. It goes like this…


    Bacteria vs. Virus

    When a bacteria identifies an invading virus it grabs a bit of the virus’s DNA, and stores it within the bacteria’s own DNA. This allows the bacteria to more easily identify the virus the next time it attacks, and thus present a more effective defense.

    bacteria-and-virus.jpg


    Data Management

    That is, the bacteria is engaged in what we might call a data management operation. The bacteria grabs some information from the environment, stores that information, and then retrieves that information as needed for a specific purpose.

    This could be compared to me downloading an ebook from the Net, storing the ebook on my computer, and then reading the ebook later in order to complete some particular task.


    Tiny, Brainless.... And Intelligent?

    Bacteria don’t have brains or nervous systems. Bacteria are about 1/10,000th of a centimeter in size. And yet they are engaged in behavior which we would label as intelligent if we were doing it.

    We might say that this behavior of bacteria isn’t intelligence but purely mechanical action which arose from evolution, natural selection. Ok, fair enough, but this just kicks the can down the road to another bigger mystery. If a human being had invented evolution we would have given them 99 Nobel Prizes, because evolution is a highly “intelligent” method of managing the relationship between living things and their environment.

    Such CRISPR inspired reflection has led me to the question of the next post…


  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Is “Intelligence” A Property Of Reality?

    As example, consider the laws of physics. These laws are obviously real, but they don’t exist in the sense of having location, weight, mass, shape, form etc. We can't get in our spaceship and travel to the laws of physics. The laws of physics are real, but invisible, unseen, non-existent.


    Physics: A Property Of Reality

    The laws of physics are not a property of any particular thing within reality, but rather a property of reality itself. They are, if you will, an invisible hand behind everything everywhere, so far as we know.


    Variety Of Expression

    There is only one laws of physics, but these laws are expressed in an infinite variety of ways, depending on the nature of the particular things and circumstances which they affect. A bouncing ball and rotating galaxy appear very different, but they are governed by the same laws.

    Is “intelligence” like the laws of physics, a unseen universal property of reality which expresses itself in matter in a variety of ways?
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    What Is Intelligence?

    I’m putting “intelligence” in quotes in recognition that what we call intelligence is an extremely local phenomena. Our understanding of intelligence is based on observation of life forms on one little planet in one of billions of galaxies. It’s a useful concept at human scale when comparing, say, humans and donkeys. But human scale is infinitely small in comparison to reality itself.

    Thus we arrive at the question of whether a concept such as intelligence which is derived from such an incredibly small sample as planet Earth can be meaningfully mapped on to all of reality. An example may illustrate the problem.


    The Bacteria Civilization

    An article on Nature.com suggests that the body of an average man contains something like 39 trillion bacteria. To the civilizations of bacteria living within my body I am the universe.

    These trillions of bacteria go about their daily bacteria business completely unaware that "the universe of Phil" which they inhabit has intelligence, intention. And even if they were so aware, and had brains and language, what word could they possibly use to describe a "universe of Phil" intelligence which is so profoundly different than their own?


    The Limits Of Language

    Another problem is that we've always defined intelligence as being the property of some particular creature. We say, Einstein was intelligent, or my dog is pretty smart.

    The kind of universal global "intelligence" being proposed here is something very different. Like the laws of physics, this proposed global intelligence is considered not the property of any particular existing thing, but rather a non-existent but real property of everything.

    Point being, I don’t know what word would describe a universal phenomena, a property of reality itself, which would result in something as small as bacteria acting in a seemingly intelligent manner. So I’m calling such a proposed universal property “intelligence” until we find a better word for it.

    If such a fundamental phenomena exists, it seems unlikely any word I would use to describe it would be adequate, as I would be to such a fundamental universal phenomena as bacteria are to me.


  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Is This Religion?

    It could be for some people. I don't doubt that some theologians have thought along similar lines, which they have expressed in their own cultural language. As example, to my understanding Catholicism defines God as being ever present in all times and places, a definition which suggests an unseen universal phenomena. However, again to the best of my limited knowledge, Catholicism also seems to consider God to be a unique and separate entity with distinct properties of it's own.

    Not being religious myself, and certainly not a theologian, I prefer to set the word God aside, as it tends to polarize the conversation and introduce distractions. And I'll steer clear of the supernatural, as my inclination is to think of a "Global Intelligence" more like the laws of physics, a fundamental part of the natural world which is both real and non-existent. And like those laws, I conceive of a Global Intelligence as not being a property of any particular thing, but rather a property of reality as a whole.

    I've long suspected that a supposed huge divide between religion and science may be somewhat illusory. It wouldn't surprise me if at least some of the ancient sages who founded the major religions of the world were pointing to some aspect of reality which is real, but they did so using a now out of date cultural language which many people of our time can no longer relate to. I say potato, you say potawto, and then we argue about which is right.

    god-and-adam.jpg

    But some readers may complain, the ancient sages knew little to nothing about science, so their claims about reality are just wild speculation based on nothing. Ok, that could be.

    However, we might also recall this. The people of ancient times were intimately immersed in the natural world to a degree that few of us are today. Their factual knowledge about nature was clearly inferior to our own, but their experience of nature is reasonably considered superior.

    Science is built upon observation of the natural world. If one lives in nature 24 hours a day one's entire life one is in a good position to observe it. We moderns are more likely to be observing our thoughts about reality while sitting at a desk inside our offices, which is really something quite different.

    In any case, personally I'm not going to label this thread as religion. And it seems too speculative to call science. So, I guess we'll toss these ideas in the philosophy bin.
  • Nick
    13
    Just want to pop in and point out that CRISPR isn't an imitation of what bacteria do, it is literally the exact machinery that bacteria use taken out of their genomes and put into other species. Great as a human technology, but also completely novel in the sense that this is an adaptive immune system. We knew before that bacteria had a sort of innate immune system (restriction enzymes) to non-specifically degrade foreign DNA/RNA, but this more complex system that can learn was a shock. Interestingly, restriction enzymes also won a Nobel prize (1978) and also were used as a molecular genetics tool that revolutionized modern biology. Moral of the story: keep funding basic science that seeks to understand the weird obscure parts of biology even if there isn't a clear practical application. You never know where the next world-changing discovery will be, and they are often in those cute little bacteria!
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Just want to pop in and point out that CRISPR isn't an imitation of what bacteria do, it is literally the exact machinery that bacteria use taken out of their genomes and put into other species.Nick

    Thanks for the clarification Nick. It's clear that I don't understand this yet. It's going to be a writing challenge for you to translate such understandings in to a general public level.

    Moral of the story: keep funding basic science that seeks to understand the weird obscure parts of biology even if there isn't a clear practical application.Nick

    But first, let us be one of the many intelligent species, and ask this question. Can human beings successfully manage whatever may arise from basic science research, no matter what that turns out to be?
  • Nick
    13
    It seems like the language you are using first assumes a reality and then layers the laws of physics onto that reality. It makes more sense to me to think of the laws of physics (here I'm including those we understand and those we don't) are reality itself. Not behind a curtain, but the whole auditorium itself. I think that tweak in perspective actually fits nicely with many of the other ideas you raise. Our "venue" (reality) can only accommodate certain phenomena to play out on the stage based on its intrinsic nature. Like the bouncing ball, things we describe as intelligence are permitted by the laws of physics and complex behaviors arise in many systems living or otherwise.
  • Nick
    13
    "Can human beings successfully manage whatever may arise from basic science research, no matter what that turns out to be?"

    Of course, there is no way to know this without knowing everything we could discover. Surely there are technologies that could destroy us, but we already have some of those and ultimately, it comes down to humans to wield our intelligence in a way that allows us to play with fire without getting burned.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    It makes more sense to me to think of the laws of physics (here I'm including those we understand and those we don't) are reality itself.Nick

    Yes, well put. That's what I'm shooting for as well, though I may be struggling to express it. I often put it this way....

    We are observing a single unified reality, broken in to conceptual parts by the inherently divisive nature of thought. More on this to come...

    The question "is reality intelligent?" demands we define what intelligence is, which I'm finding increasingly difficult to do. Until recently I just blindly assumed to know what intelligence is, and it's now becoming clear such an assumption isn't that intelligent. Perhaps this will help....

    I'm typing this post. This can be explained in purely mechanical terms such as blood flowing, neurons firing, muscles moving etc. But is a purely mechanical explanation really adequate to the experience of thinking, writing, communicating, rethinking, creating, crafting ideas etc? Isn't there something more going on?

    Whatever such a something else may be, whether we call it intelligence or apply some other label, maybe it too is reality itself.


  • Nick
    13
    I've long suspected that a supposed huge divide between religion and science may be somewhat illusory. It wouldn't surprise me if at least some of the ancient sages who founded the major religions of the world were pointing to some aspect of reality which is real, but they did so using a now out of date cultural language which many people of our time can no longer relate to.Phil Tanny

    I think this is a mischaracterization of the difference between science and religion, and one that is pretty prevalent, so worth clarifying here. The distinction is not the explanation we have for the universe (intelligent design/evolution for example), but how we arrive there. "Science" is not the facts that are in a text book, but the process of refining a model based on an ever-increasing set of data. Science is an invention that allows for self-correction and revision which is fundamentally different than religion.
  • Nick
    13
    But is a purely mechanical explanation really adequate to the experience of thinking, writing, communicating, rethinking, creating, crafting ideas etc?Phil Tanny

    I would say yes. I'm open to being wrong, but I have never seen any evidence to suggest there is something more required. If you dig into the cutting edge neurobiology, it's getting pretty hard to find a gap in which to claim that "something more" exists. Ironically, I think your search for a secular notion of universal intelligence has led you to the same place as those who invented gods as a way to set aside human consciousness from the physical world.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Of course, there is no way to know this without knowing everything we could discover.Nick

    My theory is that we don't actually need to know what every emerging power will be, which of course is impossible. What we need to know is the nature of we who will possess these powers. This seems knowable to me.

    Here's a possible example. 3,000 years ago someone wrote the first book of the Bible which discusses eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, resulting in expulsion from the Garden of Eden. One way to read this story is as a pretty accurate description of what is underway right now. climate change etc.

    Assuming no gods are involved in authorship, how would a human being living 3,000 years make such a prediction? By understanding the human condition.

    As example, as you get to know me you'll be ever able to predict that my next thread is likely to be some grand big picture theory built of wild speculation. You won't be able to predict the details, but you'll be able to see generally where my posts are headed, by knowing my nature.

    This Genesis story is just a theory which interests me. I'm not religious, and no, we won't be singing weepy hymns to Baby Jesus on the forum. :-) At least I won't be.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    but I have never seen any evidence to suggest there is something more required.Nick

    Fair enough. That's surely a reasonable position. I'm not really debating it, just exploring beyond it. I don't have evidence either, and surely not proof.

    Do you consider your own very intelligent behavior to be purely mechanical?
  • Nick
    13
    You won't be able to predict the details, but you'll be able to see generally where my posts are headed, by knowing my nature.Phil Tanny

    I think this is true to some extent, but it's also engaging in some hedging logic used by psychics, negativity bias, and confirmation bias. You're leaving out humanity's tendency so far to use new technology to make life better for most people on the planet an to so far mitigate the negative consequences of our most powerful technologies (fossil fuels are a possible exception here, jury's still out). That story is part of the human condition, but certainly not the whole. The human condition isn't one story.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Science is an invention that allows for self-correction and revision which is fundamentally different than religion.Nick

    Do you have faith that human beings will be able to successfully manage ANY power which may arise from the knowledge explosion? Isn't modern science built upon such a faith? If you share that faith, have you examined and challenged that faith? Do you have any proof that human beings can manage any power you might unleash as a scientist?

    I'm making this too personal, sorry, my bad.

    What I really mean to do is challenge science culture as a whole. To me, the whole thing is basically built on faith. As example, medical science spends trillions on trying to keep people alive as long as possible. Where is the proof that life is better than death? There is none. Faith, belief without proof.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    You're leaving out humanity's tendency so far to use new technology to make life better for most peopleNick

    Not leaving it out, just asking....

    Is more always better? Without limit?
  • Nick
    13
    Do you consider your own very intelligent behavior to be purely mechanical?Phil Tanny

    Yes. I won't claim to understand the mechanics fully, but we can remote control mice with electrodes in their brains and it's clear that things like the amount of beer or sleep I have affects my behavior in pretty predictable ways. We understand how individual neurons work. We understand how basic and some not so basic neural circuits work. We understand how storing, retrieving, and computing information can give rise to behaviors we would consider intelligent. There are many, many, details to fill in, but all the necessary components are there, it's only a matter of time before we understand how they fit together

    Do you have faith that human beings will be able to successfully manage ANY power which may arise from the knowledge explosion? Isn't modern science built upon such a faithPhil Tanny

    No I don't and no it isn't. You are conflating the practice of science as a knowledge-generating process and the decision of when and how much to use that process. It is a fact that more, better data leads you to a more complete understanding of the system you are studying scientifically. No faith required, just the way science works. You seem to be making a value assessment on how much we should engage in science which is a social/political question, not a scientific one. Maybe that's what you mean by "science culture", but that's a very important distinction to make. Science is not a faith-based belief system and comparing it to religion on that basis is not a valid comparison.

    I don't have faith that we will be able to manage anything we could possibly discover, I think it's possible we could destroy ourselves. I think you could ask almost any scientist and they would say the same. I think you're painting scientists with a broad brush that makes it seem like we haven't considered our stances. You will not find people who are more comfortable engaging with the uncertainty of their stances than scientists. That's basically what the entire field of statistics is and all we do is make each other consider whether our experiments actually back up what we claim we know. The entire scientific publication and funding apparatus is built around placing value on certain lines of scientific inquiry based on its value to society. There are many, many research projects that don't get funded (something like 5% of NIH grants are funded), so the decision of whether more is better when it comes to every science project the answer is no.

    Science moves slowly, experiments and funding decisions are planned carefully, and there are institutions in place to govern the implementation of technology that have done a pretty good job so far. Those are all pieces of evidence that go into my assessment that we should keep doing science. Not every single possible experiment, but we should keep thinking about what we're doing before we do it. That's not blind faith, its a decision made based on incomplete information, which is to say, a decision. There are no true proofs in real life.

    Where is the proof that life is better than death? There is none. Faith, belief without proof.Phil Tanny

    No one is claiming that there is evidence that life is better than death. It's a value assessment made by our society that we want to make extending healthy lifespan a priority. I think it's a mistake to equate blind faith with having preferences or priorities. Also, I'm not sure I understand your concern over science inadvertently ending civilization if you're not willing to accept improving human life is a positive outcome.

    In general, I would challenge you to hold your own viewpoint that the unending pursuit of knowledge will lead to the end of civilization to the same standard of proof you are demanding of what you call science culture. It is not possible for you to prove that it will end us and to claim that we currently know everything we will need to prevent the destruction of society from any number of other non-human threats is also unsupported. The pursuit of further knowledge can tell you whether something is actually dangerous or how to control it, but I think what you're suggesting is that we stop learning based on the faith that we will discover something that will be our ruin.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Yes. I won't claim to understand the mechanics fully, but we can remote control mice with electrodes in their brains and it's clear that things like the amount of beer or sleep I have affects my behavior in pretty predictable ways. We understand how individual neurons work.Nick

    Ok, but understanding how a mechanism works doesn't really tell us whether there is some source of intelligence beyond the creature in question. I could take a car completely apart and come to understand how all the parts work, but doing so wouldn't rule out there being some unseen source of intelligence that created the car and guides it's operation.

    I'm not really arguing that such a "Global Intelligence" exists, for of course I don't know. I'm just stating that I don't see a compelling reason to rule the possibility out.

    You are conflating the practice of science as a knowledge-generating process and the decision of when and how much to use that process.Nick

    It's true, science is just a tool which does what we ask of it. I agree that science is a neutral, neither good nor bad in itself. So I'm really referring to science culture, which includes pretty much all of modern civilization. Or if you prefer, I'm referring to our relationship with science. It's true that I could express such things more precisely than I sometimes do.

    You seem to be making a value assessment on how much we should engage in science which is a social/political question, not a scientific one.Nick

    Why isn't it a scientific question? That is, why can't our relationship with science, the degree to which it is safe to seek new knowledge etc, be studied in a scientific manner? And perhaps it already is, and I just don't know about it. That would be good.

    No faith required, just the way science works.Nick

    The faith I'm referring to is not in regards to scientific theories, which I agree are reason based, and not faith based. I'm referring to what seems to be a largely blind and unexamined faith in the ability of humans to successfully manage ANY amount of power which may emerge from an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

    I don't have faith that we will be able to manage anything we could possibly discover, I think it's possible we could destroy ourselves. I think you could ask almost any scientist and they would say the same.Nick

    Can you point us to any scientist who is arguing at conferences that we should do less science? Or that we should slow the pace etc? What I see are physicists who learned how to split the atom earnestly digging ever deeper in to the fundamental nature of matter.

    There are many, many research projects that don't get funded (something like 5% of NIH grants are funded), so the decision of whether more is better when it comes to every science project the answer is no.Nick

    Right, funding is limited, and only the most promising projects make the cut. But if funding was unlimited, then those involved with all these projects would push them forward, yes?

    Science moves slowly, experiments and funding decisions are planned carefully, and there are institutions in place to govern the implementation of technology that have done a pretty good job so far.Nick

    Seriously? We have thousands of massive hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats. Isn't that evidence that governance of technology is largely an illusion? You know, we could decide to out law nuclear weapons, but if the North Koreans see a competitive advantage in having nukes, the technology pushes forward.

    There are some cases where global bans of a technology may have been effective, but such rules survive only until it's in somebody's interest to break them.

    but I think what you're suggesting is that we stop learning based on the faith that we will discover something that will be our ruin.Nick

    I'm not suggesting that we stop learning, but that we are now required to develop a more sophisticated relationship with knowledge than "more is better". I'll put up an article tomorrow which makes this more clear.

    Please keep in mind that obviously I'm not a scientist. I am instead a, um, wannabe philosopher typoholic. I see my job as testing any group consensus which may not have been subjected to sufficient scrutiny. Given the central importance of our relationship with knowledge, that seems an appropriate target.

    Finally I'm SO GLAD I created this forum, and that you've been willing to participate. I've spent twenty five years searching for conversations of this quality, and they are not so easy to find.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    In general, I would challenge you to hold your own viewpoint that the unending pursuit of knowledge will lead to the end of civilization to the same standard of proof you are demanding of what you call science culture.Nick

    Fair challenge of course. I can't provide proof, but I can provide evidence.

    - A single human being can now bring modern civilization to an end in just minutes by pushing a button.

    - We are typically too bored by this ever present existential threat to bother discussing it, even
    in presidential campaigns.

    To me, these well established real world facts are not evidence of a species which is ready for ever more knowledge and power at an ever accelerating rate without limit.

    Not proof for sure. But pretty strong evidence.

    PS: I'm hijacking my own thread. I may not be ready for editing even two members. :-)
  • Nick
    13
    Ok, but understanding how a mechanism works doesn't really tell us whether there is some source of intelligence beyond the creature in question. I could take a car completely apart and come to understand how all the parts work, but doing so wouldn't rule out there being some unseen source of intelligence that created the car and guides it's operation.

    I'm not really arguing that such a "Global Intelligence" exists, for of course I don't know. I'm just stating that I don't see a compelling reason to rule the possibility out.
    Phil Tanny

    I'm not claiming it can be ruled out, it's rarely possible to prove a negative. That's not really how scientists think about things. If I understand how each piece of the car works and those functions are sufficient to explain the observed behavior of the car, I wouldn't say "well yes the drivetrain could certainly provide the torque that turns the wheels, but how do you know that there isn't also an invisible gremlin in there turning the wheels?" Our understanding of human intelligence is surely incomplete, but moves consistently in the direction of molecular processes being sufficient to explain cellular scale behaviors, and circuits of cells performing the computational processes required to generate complex organism scale behaviors. There are, of course, an infinite number of more complex explanations that invoke things which we cannot observe and therefore cannot be falsified. Many religious cosmologies fall into that category and I think the idea of the inverse being intelligent as you have written it does as well. I don't think that is a reason not to talk about those cosmologies per se, but I don't think it's compatible with the tone you have adopted here in asking for proof and evidence.

    I'm all for "woa dude" discussions about how the universe is interconnected and what our place in it is, but it is difficult to engage critically with arguments that call for negative proofs (of which I've spotted quite a few here).
  • Nick
    13
    You seem to be making a value assessment on how much we should engage in science which is a social/political question, not a scientific one.
    — Nick

    Why isn't it a scientific question? That is, why can't our relationship with science, the degree to which it is safe to seek new knowledge etc, be studied in a scientific manner? And perhaps it already is, and I just don't know about it. That would be good.
    Phil Tanny

    I suspect that there are many philosophers of science who have examined these questions, but I am not familiar with that literature, so I can't speak to it. I will say that to study anything scientifically, you must continue to get more data and do experiments. Therein lies a paradox. You call for a scientific examination of our relationship with science that would itself be performing experiments that risk the negative outcomes of science, the fear of which were the motivation for the "metascientific" endeavor itself.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    Hi again Nick,

    In your view, should we discard the concept of "intelligence" altogether? If all behavior is fundamentally mechanical, does intelligence exist?

    Do you see all behavior, that of bacteria and of humans for example, to be of the same type, fundamentally mechanical?

    You call for a scientific examination of our relationship with science that would itself be performing experiments that risk the negative outcomes of science, the fear of which were the motivation for the "metascientific" endeavor itself.Nick

    Apologies, I don't understand your point here. Try again? Still listening.

    Perhaps I should rephrase too. What I was suggesting was a scientific examination of human behavior with the goal of trying to assess what degree of power human beings can successfully manage. This might explore questions like, what role does the rate of knowledge accumulation have?

    Perhaps we might explore such questions in Our Relationship With Knowledge?
  • Nick
    13
    In your view, should we discard the concept of "intelligence" altogether? If all behavior is fundamentally mechanical, does intelligence exist?

    Do you see all behavior, that of bacteria and of humans for example, to be of the same type, fundamentally mechanical?
    Phil Tanny

    I don't know about discarding the idea of intelligence, it's certainly useful as a term to describe certain behaviors but as an objective category of behaviors that are somehow special and separate from mechanics I think it fails. I think that intelligence exists in the same way that life exists. The idea of living vs nonliving helps us communicate and think about things we find in nature. However, it's not a hard and fast distinction because life isn't a substance, it's a phenomenon that arises from purely mechanical (here I'm using this as a catch-all that includes mechanics, chemistry, electromagnetism etc) processes.

    Properties of life or intelligence can arise in systems that most people would agree are non-living or non-intelligent but I think this is because of the limitations of language and the human habit to want to fit things in boxes. I don't think it makes sense to say that intelligence is a global property of reality in a concrete sense just because we can draw ever larger boxes and point to things inside them and pass them off as "intelligent".
  • Nick
    13
    What I was suggesting was a scientific examination of human behavior with the goal of trying to assess what degree of power human beings can successfully manage.Phil Tanny

    I'm just pointing out that there's something of an infinite regress in calling for scientific study of science before we do science because science might reveal dangerous information. The work you are calling for is itself prone to the same "we might find something dangerous" that you are trying to avoid in the first place
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    However, it's not a hard and fast distinction because life isn't a substance, it's a phenomenon that arises from purely mechanical (here I'm using this as a catch-all that includes mechanics, chemistry, electromagnetism etc) processes.Nick

    I see this as a theory. A reasonable theory for sure. But of course I want to ask, what do the purely mechanical processes arise from? Ok, the laws of physics. What do those laws arise from? I obviously don't have the answers here, I just find the questions interesting.
  • Phil Tanny
    191
    I'm just pointing out that there's something of an infinite regress in calling for scientific study of science before we do science because science might reveal dangerous information.Nick

    I mean something simpler, and may not be expressing it well.

    Could you agree that human beings are not gods, and that there must be some limit to the degree of power we can successfully manage? It seems sensible, and in the spirit of science, to apply a reasoned analysis to the question of where that limit is.

    To me, to blindly assume there is no limit to human ability as a matter of faith, because that is what we would like to believe, smells more like religion than science.
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