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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Recently there’s been hubbub around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and our impending doom if we don’t do something about it. While it’s fun to scare each other in that horror/sci-fi movie kind of way, there isn’t much substance behind the various arguments floating about regarding AI.

The fears people generally have are about humans losing control and more specifically about an unrestrained AI exacting its own self-derived and likely world-dominating objectives on humankind and the earth. These fears aren’t unjustified in a broad sense. They simply don’t apply to AI, either the artificial nor the intelligence part. More importantly, the fears have nothing to do with AI but instead with the age-old fear that humankind might not be the point of all existence.

We do not have a functional description of intelligence, period. We have no reliable way to measure it. Sure we have IQ or other tests of “ability” and “awareness” and the Turing Test but none of this actually tell you anything about “intelligence” or what might actually be going on with things we consider intelligent. We can measure whether some entity accomplishes a goal or performs some behavior reliably or demonstrates new behavior acquisition in response to changes in its environment. But none of those things establish intelligence and the presence of an intelligent being. They certainly don’t establish something as conscious or self-aware or moral or purpose driven nor any other reified concept we choose as a sign of intelligence.

The sophisticated fear peddlers will suggest of the above that it’s just semantics and we all know what we mean in a common sense way of what intelligence is. This is simply not true. We don’t. Colleges can’t fully count on the SAT, phrenology turned out to be horribly wrong, the Turing Test isn’t poor by definition, and so on. Go ahead, do your own research on this. No one can figure out just exactly what intelligence is and how to measure it. Is it being able to navigate a particular situation really well? Is it the ability to assess the environment? Is it massive pattern matching? Is it particular to our 5 senses? One sense? Is it brain based? Is it pure abstract thinking? What exactly does it mean to be intelligent?

It’s worse for the concept of artificial. It’s simply the wrong term. Artificial comes from very old ideas about what’s natural and what’s not natural. What’s real is what the earth itself does and not what is the work of some humankind process or a machine. Artificial things are made of metals and powered by electricity and coal and involve gears and circuits. Errrrr. Wait… many things the earth makes are made of metal and their locomotion comes from electricity or the burning of fuel, like coal. In fact, humans were made by the earth/universe. The division between artificial and natural is extremely blurry and is non-existent for a reified concept like intelligence. We don’t need the term artificial nor the term intelligence. We need to know what we’re REALLY dealing with.

So here we are… being pitched a fearsome monster of AI which has zero concrete basis, no way to observe it, and zero examples of its existence as described in most discussions. But still the monster is in the closet, right?

For the sake of argument (which is all these counter-factual future predictions of doom are) let’s assume there is some other entity/set of entities that is more “intelligent” that humans. We will need to get a sense of what that would look like.

Intelligence could be loosely described by the presence of complex, nuanced behaviors exhibited in response to the environment. Specifically an entity is observed as intelligent if it responds to changing conditions (internal as well as environmental) effectively. It must recognize changes, be able to adjust to those changes, and evaluate the consequences of made changes as well as any changes the environment has made in response.

What seems to be the basis of intelligent behavior (ability to respond to complex contingencies) in humans comes from the following:

  • Genetic and Epigenetic effects/artifacts evolved from millions of years of evolutionary experiments e.g. body structures, fixed action patterns
  • Sensory perception from 5 basic senses e.g. sight, touch, etc
  • Ability to pattern match in a complex nervous system e.g. neurological system, various memory systems
  • Cultural/Historical knowledge-base e.g. generationally selected knowledge trained early into a new human through child rearing, media and school
  • Plastic biochemical body capable of replication, regeneration and other anti-fragile effects e.g. stem cells, neuro-plasticity
  • more really complex stuff we have yet to uncover

Whatever AI we think spells our demise most likely will have something like above (something functionality equivalent). Right? No? While there is a possibility that there exists some completely different type of “intelligent” being what I’m suggesting is that the general form of what would be akin to “intelligent” would have these features:

  • Structure that has been selected for fitness over generations in response to its environment and overall survivability
  • Multi-modal Information perception/ingestion
  • advanced pattern recognition and storage
  • Knowledge reservoir (previously explored patterns) to pull from that reduces the need for a new entity to explore the space of all possibilities for survival
  • Resilient, plastic and replication mechanism capable of abstract replication and structural exploration

And distilling that down even more raw abstractions:

  • multi-modal information I/O
  • complex pattern matching
  • large memory
  • efficient replication with random mutation and mutation from selected patterns

What are the implementation limits of those abstracted properties? Turns out, we don’t know. It’s very murky. Consider a rock. Few of us would consider a plain old rock as intelligent. But why not? What doesn’t it fulfill in the above? Rocks adjust to their environment – think of erosion and the overall rock cycle. Their structures contain eons of selection and hold a great deal of information – think of how the environment is encoded in generational build of a rock, it’s crystal structure and so forth. Rocks have an efficient replication scheme – again, think of the rock cycle, the make of a rock being able to be adsorbed into other rocks and so forth.

Perhaps you don’t buy that a rock is intelligent. There’s nothing in my description of intelligence or the reified other definitions of intelligence that absolutely says a rock isn’t intelligent. It seems to fulfill on the basics… it just does so over timescales we’re not normally looking at. A rock won’t move through a maze very quickly or solve a math problem in our life time. I posit though it does do these things over long expanses of time. The network of rocks that form mountains and river beds and ocean bottoms and the entire earths crust and the planets of our solar system exhibit the abstract properties above quite adeptly. Again just at spacetime scales we’re not used to talking about in these types of discussions.

I could go on to give other examples such as ant colonies, mosquitoes, dolphins, pigs, The Internet and on and on. I doubt many of these examples will convince many people as the reified concept of “intelligence as something” is so deeply embedded in our anthropocentric world views.

And so I conclude those that are afraid and want others to be afraid of AI are actually afraid of things that have nothing to do with intelligence – that humans might not actually be the alpha and omega and that we are indeed very limited, fragile creatures.

The first fear from anthropocentrists is hard to dispel. It’s personal. All the science and evidence of observation of the night sky and the depths of our oceans makes it very clear humans are a small evolutionary branch of an unfathomably large universe. But to each person we all struggle with our view from within – the world literally, to ourselves, revolves around us. Our vantage point is such that from our 5 senses everything comes into us. Our first person view is such that we experience the world relative to ourselves. Our memories are made of our collections of first person experiences. Our body seems to respond from our own relation to the world.

And so the fear of an AI that could somehow spell our own “top of the food chain” position makes sense while still being unjustified. The reality is… humans aren’t the top of any chain. The sun will one day blow up and quite possibly take all humans out with it. Every day the earth spins and whirls and shakes with winds, heat, snow, quakes and without intention takes humans out in the process. And yet we don’t fear those realities like folks are trying to get us to fear AI. The key to this fear seems to be intention. We’re afraid of anything that has the INTENT, the purpose, the goal of taking humans and our own selves out the central position of existence.

And where, how, when, why would this intent arise? Out of what does any intent arise? Does this intent actually exist? We don’t really have any other data store to try to derive an answer to this other than humanity’s and our own personal experience and histories. Where has the intent to dominate or destroy come from in humans? Is that really our intent when we do it? Is it a universal intent of humankind? Is it something intrinsically tied to our make up and relation to the world? Even if the intent is present, what are its antecedents? And what of this intent? If the intent to dominate others arises in humans how are we justified in fearing its rise in other entities?

Intent is another reified concept. It doesn’t really exist or explain anything. It is a word that bottles up a bunch of different things going on. We have no more intention than the sun. We behave. We process patterns and make adjustments to our behavior – verbal and otherwise. Our strategies for survival change based on contingencies and sometimes our pattern recognition confuses information – we make false associations about what is threatening our existence or impeding our basic needs and wants (chasing things that activate our adrenaline and dopamine production…). It’s all very complex. Even our “intentions” are complex casual thickets (a concept I borrow from William Wimsatt).

In this complexity it’s all incredibly fragile. Fragile in the sense that our pattern recognition is easily fooled. Our memories are faulty. Our bodies get injured. Our brains are only so plastic. And the more or survival depends on rote knowledge the less plastic our overall machinery can be. Fragile, as refereed to here, is a very general concept about the stability of any given structure or pattern – belief system, behavioral schedule, biochemical relations, rock formations… any structure.

The fear involved in fragility and AI is really about less complex entities that are highly specialized in function, sensory scope and pattern matching ability. The monster presented is a machine or group of machines hell-bent on human subordination and destruction with the weaponry and no-fragility in its function or intent – it cannot be diverted by itself nor an outside force.
OR

We fear the accidental AI. The AI that accidentally happens into human destruction as a goal.

In both cases it is not intelligence we fear but instead simple exploitation of our own fragility.

And yet, as appealing as a fear this seems to be, it is also unjustified. There’s nothing that suggests even simple entities can carry out single “purpose” goals in a complex network. The complexity of the network itself prevents total exploitation by simple strategies.

Consider the wonderful game theoretic models that consider very simple games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how it turns out simple Tit-For-Tat exploitation models simply do work over the long-term as domination strategies. It turns out that even in very simple situations domination and total exploitation turns out to be a poor survival strategy for the exploiter.

So domination itself becomes nuanced strategy subject to all sorts of entropy, adjustments and complexity.

Maybe this isn’t a convincing rebuttal. After-all what about a simple idea that what if someone created really simplistic AI and armed it with nuclear warheads. Certainly even a clumsy system (at X time or under Y conditions, nuke everything) armed with nukes would have the capability to destroy us all. Even this isn’t a justified fear. In the first place, it wouldn’t be anything at all AI like in any sense if it were so simple. So fearing AI is a misplaced fear. The fear is more about the capability of a nuke. Insert bio-weapons or whatever else WMD one wants to consider. In all of those cases it has nothing to do with the wielder of the weapon and it’s intelligence and everything to do about the weapon.

However, even having a total fear of WMDs is myopic. We simply do not know what the fate of humankind would be nor of the earth should some entity launch all out strategies of mass destruction. Not that we should attempt to find out but it seems a tad presumptuous for anyone to pretend to be able to know what exactly would happen at the scales of total annihilation.

Our only possible data point for what total annihilation of a species on earth might be that of dinosaurs and other ancient species. We have many theories suggesting about their mass extinction from the earth, but we don’t really know, and this extinction took a very long time, was selective and didn’t end up in total annihilation (hell, and likely lead to humanity… so…) [ see this for some info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretaceous%E2%80%93Paleogene_extinction_event].

The universe resists simple explanations and that’s likely a function of the fact that the universe is not simple.

Complex behavior of adaptation and awareness is very unlikely to bring about total annihilation of humankind. A more likely threat is from simple things that accidentally exploit fragility (a comet striking the earth, blotting out the sun so that anything that requires the sun to live goes away). It’s possible we could invent and/or have invented simple machines that can create what amounts to a comet strike. And what’s there to fear even in that? Only if one believes that humanity, as it is, is the thing to protect is any fear about its annihilation by any means, “intelligent” or not, justified.

Protecting humanity as it is is a weak logical position as well because there’s really no way to draw a box around what humanity is and whether there’s some absolute end state. Worse than that, it strikes me personally, that people’s definition of humanity when promoting various fears of technology or the unknown is decidedly anti-aware and flies counter to a sense of exploration. That isn’t a logical position – it’s a choice. We can decide to explore or decide to stay as we are. (Maybe)

The argument here isn’t for an unrestrained pursuit of AI. Not at all. AI is simply a term and not something to chase or prevent unto itself – it literally, theoretically isn’t actually a thing. The argument here is for restraint through questioning and exploration. The argument is directly against fear at all. Fear is the twin of absolute belief – the confusion of pattern recognition spiraling into a steady state. A fear is only justified by an entity against an immutable pattern.

For those that fear AI, then you must, by extension, fear the evolution of human capability – and the capability of any animal or any network of rocks, etc. And the reality is… all those fears will never result in any preventative measures against destruction. Fear is stasis. Stasis typically leads to extinction – eons of evidence make this clear. Fear-peddlers are really promoting stasis and that’s the biggest threat of all.

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Name. Label. Category. Property. Feature. Function.

These are the objects of existence. These are not fundamentally ontological. These are secondary-effect objects. Objects of an awareness that requires difference to exist.

Naming. Labeling. Categorizing. Identifying. Testing. Sensing.

These are the activities of this difference awareness.

All that we are aware of in existence is wholly contained in our recognition of something being different – set apart – from something else. We annouce the differences by giving a thing a name – we put it in a category – we slap a label on it – we define its properties – we recognize its features and functions.

Without a name or definition – it does not exist. This thing’s specific existence depends on its acknowledged relations to other things.

Our science is a process of identification and naming of differences. Rates of change. Taxonomy of species. Periodic tables. Phase changes. Quantum states. Direction of Field. Size, color, speed, charge, strength.

Our civilization and societies are recognitions and groupings of differences between people. Classes, races, parties, families.

Our language is differences in symbols and sounds.

The question at hand: are these differences real? do the things we name have an existence, any at all, without our naming.

No. The name we give it and the associations that name carries determines the full extent of the thing. This is a direct result of the connectedness of everything and nothing. There is no cut point at which a series of points isn’t a line. There is no point at which humans break from the animal kingdom. There is no discrete point in which a particle is just a particle and not also a wave. PI never resolves. Our mathematics is never complete. We decide in our finitude when to recognize the existence of something. at that recognition is always incomplete because it seeks to disconnect that which is connected.

And so it is with our own identification of the self. We say I, and we have no true idea of who I am. We just decide what details full under the name of I, but it is not all that our particular bodies and nervous system and memories ever are. Our ideas are not our own. Our DNA is not self generated. Our sense organs do not sense I like others sense us. And so on. The definition is incomplete. Forever. But there is an existence of I because we name it, but it is always changing. The I right now is not the I in the next configuration of the universe.
And in that regard… existence, as we name it, is a secondary effect. The totality of everything cannot be named. The totality of existence does not exist. It is beyond existence, it never existed. It is contained with the infinite regress of finite awareness naming things.

We, as finite awareness machines and the more aware but still finite awareness machines we create, will never reach the end of naming. the very existence of awareness is in fact simply the product of naming. To be aware is to name. This is this. That is that. This is not that. I am aware of that. This is not true. That is false.

Here I label us machines to conjure a sort of existence up. I can refine that name and conjure a different existence up. But does that change the existence of awareness. Yes! It would be a slightly different awareness. And yet would still be a finite awareness. Total awareness implies total everything. To be aware of all differences which require awareness of all connection and relation. Which would admit of all absurdities, logical falsehoods, dark energies, the opposite of everything, total entropy… nothing. It would resolve into nothing. Total awareness is total nothing.

For there to be anything at all, anything less than infinity, there must be a loss in fidelity. A categorization of those things with sense, that can be sensed. versus those things that more sternly refuse awareness and sense – non sense.

Many will label the above words as esoteric meandering. A label itself. And perhaps it fits within the category of nonsense.

And yet, there are things we all deal with that because we are less aware of them we fail to recognize their non sense, their own esoterics.

Consider currency. What is it? What is its existence? Paper? backed by a government? backed by a commodity? backed by a military? backed by a nation state?

All a taxonomy of names. Not anything other that a building up a related names.

What is a price? What is its existence? It’s what people agree to in an exchange… an exchange of named things.

Consider art. What is art? a painting? colors?

What is geography? when does the mountain give way to the valley? When does a river become a lake?

This exercise can and will go on forever. It is an out of time and space process. It is. Existence.

Just a name.

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“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

– Albert Einstein

Perhaps Albert Einstein said this.   It seems like a worthy ideal.  Except it really doesn’t work out.  At all.

Here are just a few straightforward, well known concepts that don’t give up to simple explanations even though we all assume they do.


what:
e = mc^2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass%E2%80%93energy_equivalence

why:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002TJLF7W?btkr=1
http://www.askamathematician.com/2011/03/q-why-does-emc2/


what:
1+1 = 2

why:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica (300+ pages of proof required)


what:
this is the color red

why:
http://www.crayola.com/for-educators/resources-landing/articles/color-what-is-color.aspx
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/color/#ProCol


Simple explanations are usually very broad strokes and at a minimum only indicative of what might be going on.  Any serious and remotely accurate explanation about anything is nuanced, open ended and will inevitably be amended in the future.

There’s pressure in this culture, in the US, to make everything simple.  This devotion to simplicity is a trap and often a very dangerous one.  It rears its head in politics, business, social situations, religion and pretty much every other facet of our culture.

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I did as I was told.

I did as I was told.

At the escape the pistons fire incorrectly.

She frowns at the sound of hushed murmurs.

Bound and silenced, his captors forget.

In an instant, bang, existence.

Swallow-filled woods hide the shadowy fleet of marching barbarions.

Billowing stacks fulfill the dreams of green-eyed titans.

Misfired, misdeed, mistake but still someone is dead in Ferguson.

“You lie!” from the commons it comes changing discourse discordingly forever.

“Hello [long pause] tell me your location,” the sleepy 911 operator sighs.

Dosed off, door unlocked, debts unpaid he sleeps perhaps too well.

The far off chirp and the slight drip of sunsoaked cicles warns us that he will arise soon.

Logic gates flip bits determined to ruin fortunes.

She blushes at the his left left foot.

A scream reaches out signaling another miracle.

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It’s nearly, if not totally, impossible to remove our deeply held biases, values and contextual history from our raw, sensory perceptions of the world. The difficulty to sense more objectively is what perpetuates so many non-truths about the world. Nearly everything we sense and think is distorted by the biological patterns shaped within us by the world and our interaction within the world. It is within this frame of reference I seek to put down, in an obviously flawed ways, what I think to be at least less non-truth than other theories and thoughts floating about out there.

Our most basic means of communication, the words, sounds, gestures and pictures, we use are so filled with bias it’s impossible to commit to their use in an objective way. The best hope I have is to present as many variations across mediums so that what emerges from these communications is perhaps, if not objective, at least more fully representative of various perspectives that at least the trap of obvious one-sided subjectivity is avoided.

And with that warning, let us proceed.

A first exercise is of definitions and clarifying of terms.

Everything is information. From the most basic particles of existence to governments to rocket ships to the abstractions of mathematics – everything is information. Information looped and entangeled within other information. Information trapped within patterns of information by other patterns of information. Particles trapped into behaviors dictated by the laws of physics. Proteins and chemicals replicating into biological entities by the encodings of genetic instruction. Objects of pure quantity expressed in combinations dictated by rules of provable logical inference. Symbols imbued with meaning combined to form words and sentences and stories that stick in the brains of people and come out of their mouths to be reinterpreted over the eons. Faintly remembered events strung together by stories to form history and imagined events of some time that has not come to pass forming a future hope.

More fundamentally… space and time and causality and logic and being itself. All are matters of information. The casual ordering of events in relation to what is different based on the difference of another entity forming the conception of time and space. The coherence within a frame of reference of words strung together with symbols for equal, not equal, for all, and the such coalescing into logic. What is and what isn’t in reference to what’s logically or causally sensible to us becomes the notion of being.

But this is not quite enough.

Recently various categories of research, science and/or philosophic discussion have added ’emergence’ and ‘complexity’ to the pantheon of fundamental concepts from which we can chart our maps of existence and meaning. The unseen in the parts that only shows itself in the collective – the multitude – the interactive, this notion of emergence.

All in – meaning. Meaning is a vague notion of symbolics and representation within the ontological dimensions of space, time, cause, logic, emergence and being. Meaning is proximal, local phenomenon of pattern. In totality, all things considered, that is all of infinity, there is no meaning – there is no pattern. That is, all patterns at play is pure entropy and no meaning is possible on a universal, infinite scale. (As if we can even imagine such a concept). On a local, limited frame of reference meaning emerges from patterns (people, computers, plants, etc) pattern matching (sensing, perceiving, transforming, encoding, processing).

I propose a phrase: existential equivalence. Every investigative thought, every scientific gesture, every act of art, every attempt to send a message, every ritual, every interaction at all with the world at any level is all of similar thing: the encoding and decoding of information within information. This is not a reduction or a reductionist exercise. Quite the contrary. The varieties of symbolic expression in all of existence is REAL, it is a thing. That existence is expressible in an infinite variety is necessary. and it can only be known, even in a limited way, by actual variety of expression. If anything is to exist, it must exist in infinite variety and multiplicity. Everything that exists has existential equivalence. The entirity of existence is relational.

For instance if there is such a concept and sensation of color it must have expression in physical and artistic and literary terms. It exists at all levels implicated there. If a wavelength of light is able to generate a visual and neuronal concept we called red, then red isn’t just the wavelength, nor the wave of light, nor the eye, nor the brain, nor the word… it is all of those things and all of the things we do not yet think or talk or gesture about.

Or consider a computer program. Its existence is a string of words and phrases transcoded into 1s and 0s and into physical logical gates transmitting electrons and back around and on itself into monitor LEDs into human eyes and brains into motor movements of mouse and keyboard and so on. A computer program is the interaction of all the information.

But surely there are such simple things that do not have a universal relationship – an existential equivalence? what is the simplest thing we can think or speak of? a boson? the number 1? a dot? just an abstract 1? It is impossible to wipe the complexity of existence from even these pure abstractions. We only conceive of their simplicity in relation to other concepts we find complex. Their simplicity must be weighed against everything that isn’t simple.

And so here we have a collosal contradiction. Patterns are a local phenomenon. They aren’t the entirety. And yet I’ve suggested that patterns are existence – all that exists. Unraveling this I am directly saying that patterns interpreting/transcoding/sensing patterns is what exists – creates th world – at all levels. Pure relation, which is only possible at a local level, is existence. Particles only exist in relation to other particles – a gradient. Humans to other humans, to animals, to the planet, to particles. Planets to other massive bodies… and so on, and on, up and down, left to right, back and forward, in and out….

herein lies a beautiful thing – mathematics and computation are a wonderfully efficient symbolic translation methods. This is why computers and mathematics always creep their way into our efforts to make things and make sense of the world. It is why our brains are so damn useful. complex abstract pattern recognizing patterns – these networks of neurons. It is why DNA is so proficient at replication. a “simple”, resilient substrate carrying everything necessary to generate and regenerate these networks of neurons that can then make synthetic networks of pure relation. Whether particles or quantum or digital or biological or chemical there is pure relation, pure patterns among patterns – there is math. It matters not and is completely the point that math and computation can be done in any substrate – between proteins, with pen and paper, on a calculator, in a quantum computer.

AND

why is that? WHY?

In a feat of complete and utter stupid philosophy and unlogic… because it cannot be any other way. Positing a god doesn’t escape this. Positing a multi-verse doesn’t escape this. If any of those things are to exist, they must exist still in relation – they are relation! It’s borderline mystical. Of course it is!

And why does any of this matter? is this just another sound of one hand clapping? a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? Yes. yes indeed. Those, while used to dismiss the question from the outset actually do call attention to the entirety of the situation. What we conceive of as existence and existing is usually reductively done in by our discrete categorization and our failure to continuously review and revise our categories. The practical implications of this adherence to categories (zoology, isms, religion, gender, nations, science disciplines, etc) is what stunts our path towards knowledge and keeps us in fear.

If we don’t lean into the idea that everything has an existential equivalence we are simply deciding to be ignorant. And in that ignorance we trend towards non-existence. In every day terms if we see the human population only by the color of skin we diminish human existence. If we say and take for truth all of the -isms, reductions, and arbitrary definitions we snuff out relation. If we make any assumptions at all and refuse to question those assumptions, even what we think are so obvious and so simple, we move closer to entropy. If we want to exist at all, we must be mystical and fanatical about sensing relation, resensing it, re-interpreting it. This is not a moral argument. Existence is no more moral than non-existence – except as a local conception.

It really does come down to this (and this is very Camus-like):

If you care at all to exist as you, you must question/express/relate to everything as much as you can before your pattern is fully transcoded into something not you. (we are just food for worms…)

So yes, ask yourself and answer it in infinite variety over and over “if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?” This is life – it is your existential equivalence to everything else. You relate, therefore, you are. I relate, therefore I am. X is, therefore X relates.

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Today i was challenged to write like i talk about the things that i wax academic about. so here’s an attempt to do that as much as i or anyone can do to write as i talk as i want to be heard. i still maintain that it’s not really a useful thing to go making a specific attempt to speak to an assumed audience in an assumed style of language (or whatever we mean by speaking to an audience). the advice to do this comes in these statements:

dumb it down
fit the audience
read your audience
speak like me
laymans terms
talk to regular people
don’t be exclusive
you’re elitist

and many other variations.

What i really think?

the truth of things are what they are. that is… you speak, write, paint, pant, act, dance, work, do nothing, exactly how the situation demands. to try to represent something as something it isn’t is just stupid and delusional.

don’t try to make a really fancy physics theory into a childish song. don’t make jazz into some crappy magazine article about music. things exist as they are. let the perceiver, ok, sorry, the AUDIENCE, come to it as they will, when they are ready.

not everything… in fact, most things… aren’t about selling a ticket or a download or monetizing an eyeball.

no bullshit.

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I got into a discussion this week with a fellow technology focused person about whether CREATION is a thing. That is, do we actually create anything. My position is that there is no creative act. No source of creativity. There is search and selection by consequences. Everything in existence, and particular our lives from our gene code to our behavior to the software we write is a search through the space of possibilities and a relentless selection by consequences that maintains possibilities that survive more consequences. The creative act is a notion that’s perhaps useful to communicate unfamiliar or low frequency of occurrence possibilities but it’s not a fundamental thing into itself.

Why I care about this argument? Assuming CREATION as a thing leads to all sorts of false notions that anyone or thing is responsible or should get credit for what happens in the universe. And this practically played out is the source of most of our inequality and makes sure we don’t actually explore possibilities without bias. Exalting the “creative” and the “creators” blinds us to the infinitude of possibilities, most lurking right under our very confused senses and conditioned context.

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The idea of progress is a flimsy concept.  Nothing in the universe comes for free.  So when some system or entity “progresses” in comes at the expense of energy somewhere.  It’s not necessarily a wholly destructive expense but it is an expense nonetheless. The way in which we commonly talk about society, civilization and the human race is in terms of progress.  We’re progressing from a barbaric or unenlightened state to a state if self reliance and control and technologically enhanced awareness.  But this progress is mostly an illusion.  It comes at a great expense to other species,the planet and even ourselves.

Some conflicting reports:

http://humanprogress.org/ (there’s progress!)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_progress (there’s progress!)

http://reason.com/archives/2013/10/30/human-progress-not-inevitable-uneven-and (there is a thing called progress but we’re not always on it!)

http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S445.htm (there’s progress!)

http://www.alternet.org/environment/myth-human-progress (progress is an illusion!)

http://www.vice.com/read/john-gray-interview-atheism (there is no progress!)

(Another way to think about this is that everything is competing to exist against other things that also are fighting to exist.  The better we compete the more we extract from the ecosystems.)

Certainly we’ve increased our life expectancy on the whole and reduced violence and physical suffering in the human race. We have invented computers, figured out space flight, eradicated some diseases, taught billions to read and write.  All progress right?

To what end?  Where is all this progress going?  How is this progress measured?  Does a longer life mean a better life? Does a less violent life lead somewhere differently than a more violent one?

Perhaps even more challenging is figuring out whether we have a choice in the matter.  Are we even biologically, physically capable of not trying to progress in these dimensions and exert our competitive advantages upon or environment?  If we had some definition of how best to live in some philosophic sense and it differed materially with the progressive ways we’ve chased could we actually change?  Could we choose less technology and a culture more in balance with the environment?  And no there’s no “hippie” justification needed for this thinking.  The question is is there a way of life that is more sustainable and less extracting from the world than the way we currently live?  Or is our survival inexorably tied to dominating everything we can?

To make this very clear consider the species that have become extinct at the hands of humankind’s hunting.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_extinct_animals
Our “progress” has led in many cases directly to their complete decline.  Who are we to say whether our progress is worth it – Was worth their demise?

I’m directly asking everyone what is the point of our focus on progress.  Certainly in America we are all put on a course to progress through life.  Our goal is clear to get through high school, go through college, and begin to produce.  One production should lead to ever more important positions in this progressive society with ever increasing economic output.  We measure all facets of our culture against GDP and endowments and ROI.  We do not recognize that growth in these aspects must be paid for in other respects.

So the question remains.  What is progress? and what’s it worth to you?

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As learners, Skinner said, “we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75).” Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating “the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15).” The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher’s chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that “the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102).” As he reminded us, “The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior … We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124).”

from a very nice paper on Piaget and Skinner.

All living things learn in response to their environments.   And living things are part of the environment.  All living things relate to their environments, even when in the same environments as other living things, uniquely.   All living things have enough genetic difference, even when in the same species and born in the same “family”, to have unique responses (developmental and learning) to the world around them.

This is a very simple set up and yet has enough power to cover the bulk of how we all learn.     When thinking about what approaches to educating children are more or less effective I evaluate how seriously an approach considers these basic principles.  Every environment is a learning environment – it’s a matter of figuring out, and this is complicated, what is learnable in that environment.   Each person, even a young child, is a complex mix of genetics, epigenetics and environmental history.   Some environments build on this concept and others resist it.

So what is an ideal environment?   What is the best “classroom” for a child to learn?

First, it’s important to figure out what it is we want a child to learn.   And, of course, this is no easy question.   Broadly the goal of any “education” (in the formal school sense) is to provide strategies for survival (and thriving).*   Effective strategies for survival is by no means a fixed target.   As long as the world changes so will the strategies that best ensure survival.  So in some sense what we want a child to learn isn’t one particular strategy but a way to derive strategies in response to a changing environment.   We could call that critical thinking, synthesis, and problem solving.   In short, we want children to learn how to learn – to be more aware of the world around them, to be able to process information efficiently and effectively and to manipulate the environment as needed.

Is anything else needed to be taught?   No, not strictly.  There’s no need to preach a particular curriculum as fundamental.  Yes for certain paths in life and in our culture knowing a particular skill or piece of information could be beneficial.   If mathematicians make more money than other professions and making more money provides better means for survival then it is likely a child taught mathematics should survive and thrive.   That is, as long as the child finds mathematics interesting and so forth enough to actually pursue it and develop enough skill.   Even in that example one can get to the point of survival without assuming a priori that there’s intrinsic, universal value to mathematics.   Everything worth knowing is in relation to the person knowing it and their relation to their changing environment.   The essential learning necessary for a person s being able to evaluate quickly enough to matter whether a strategy is effective or not.  The strategies themselves should be viewed as experiments – behavior-response experiences to see what is worth doing and knowing.

Based on this the ideal environment is not a singular environment.  it’s not a classroom, it’s not a gym, it’s not lecture hall, it’s not a playroom.   The ideal environmentare different for everyone.   Some children do very well in a traditional classroom, others do not.  Some prefer being alone, others in nature  and so on and on.   Just as discussed in the what is worth learning, environment staging should be viewed as an experiment – contexts to see what reinforces successful strategies for survival.

Combine strategy testing and environment building and exploration and you get the whole equation of education.   For certain children maintaining a steady environment that induces effective exploration of strategies might be best.   For other children varying environments may be the key to the building up of strategies.

The goal of education can be refined from above as: increase the repertoire of behavior** in order to identify and execute strategies to survive and thrive. 

This probably sounds horribly inefficient.  Is possible to educate a family, village, country, and world of children on a completely individual basis?   Yes!  That’s exactly what happens anyway.   It is LESS efficient to make the assumption that this isn’t what is actually happening and so to be unaware how everyone responds differently.   To use the same textbooks, same computer programs, same schedule for everyone makes an assumption that it’s “optimal enough” for any given child.   Who knows what potentially incredible strategies are going unexplored.

The world has now developed a sufficiently robust set of tools to uniquely educate, without compromise, every child.   Tablets and laptops can be obtained for less than $100, be connected to a free wifi at libraries and other community zones, and provided access to millions of free books, free websites, free Ivy League virtual classrooms.  Obviously, there is more to it than a computer and the Internet.   More and more networks of volunteer organizations, sports, after school programs, book clubs, excited artists, professional musicians are available for almost anyone (in the US) to join/connect with/create.   With the social network inter-connectivity of the world with more than a billion people connected, likely by less than 6 degrees of separation, identifying communities to join, people to talk to, and new environments to join has become much more possible.

I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and that education has been solved!  Quite the contrary.  The space of possibilities is now MUCH greater than it ever has been.   It’s not even more vital to explore this space of educational possibilities in search of better and better strategies.   There’s no right or wrong way to go about this.   There’s more or less effective strategies for you and your children.  And there’s an infinite number of strategies possible and we all have finite energy/resources/means.

I suppose if I had to conclude or provide some closure on my point here it’s that the ideal education is really whatever works for you.  And what “works” is a complicated mix of means and goals and values.   There are so many options available and yet to be created and that seems to me to be a great thing. Ideal really.

*It’s relatively straight forward to assume that’s the goal of almost any education, formal or not.  Though would could say in certain situations we are trying to teach someone to suffer and die, such as in the case of prison

**repertoire of behavior doesn’t imply a broad set of behaviors, it could be the case that become a master in a particular skill set becomes a necessary strategy.  That is, experts often demonstrate a very wide and deep set of strategies/abilities within a given discipline.

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#BostonMarathon

Been thinking about this since I got off a plane from vacation today.   Tonight I came home after dinner to NBC News doing a special on what this recent bombing at the marathon means for public events in America.  How trite.

Are we all still asking these trivial questions like this in the global community?  We are the last country/culture to deal with all of this reality.

A couple of thoughts:

  • American communities have FAR TOO MANY anniversaries and “never forget” events.  We celebrate our victimhood and wonder why other people (in and out of this country) hate us to the point of wanting to kill us.
  • Executing mass violence in America is a trivial exercise.  Not because we lack security infrastructure but because our culture celebrates violence and thinks we should always exact justice always.  It’s so 1850s Cowboy bullshit. And hasn’t it always been this way in this country?
  • We focus on “event protection” as opposed to a THOUGHTFUL, REFLECTIVE CULTURE.   Our culture is about immediate reaction instead of reflection and consilience.  We glorify the act.  We spectate and consume the adrenalized moments.
  • We consume far more than we give.  This has consequences.  We haven’t learned this yet, not nearly enough.
  • We spend far more money on checking my shoes for bombs at the airport than on making sure everyone has access to the Internet and life changing literature.
  • Praying does nothing.  It’s self serving.  Try reducing violence through education, arms reduction and/or other real ways.  God doesn’t exist so lets stop pretending he/she/it does and wasting precious time and energy on God.
  • I have no idea who did this, why they did it. I almost don’t care.  This will keep happening until it doesn’t.  And I really don’t know how gun violence and bombing and wars are going to stop.  It’s probably more likely to happen once we stop trying to own every thing, every person, every idea and we stop lying to each other about how it all works.   Religion is crap and false.  Most things we push unto children and our cultures isn’t about truth or love but instead is about making sure certain people stay in power and amass riches.    Try really investigating and learning about animal / human behavior and the other bodies of knowledge that help us get closer to getting it and maybe we can all have a real dialog.  For now this is getting really fuckin old, all this killing people for ridiculous reasons and in cowardly ways here and abroad

I’m saying to myself tonight. Get involved.  Make this world better in non-violent ways.

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