“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
― Mark Twain
The first part of this mini-series discussed the rational and irrational sides of human nature. It suggested that our irrationality is not an alternative to being rational, but the way we humans – lacking a time machine or an oracle – choose what to be rational about. Irrational hope for a better tomorrow is what it takes to strive for it.
The name we humans chose for ourselves is an expression of this hope. You and I belong to a species calling itself “Homo sapiens”, despite ample evidence to the contrary. According to the ethereal embodiment of our collective wisdom, Google, “Homo sapiens” means wise, or rational, or perceptive humans. The equivocation is significant. Modern Latin is an artificial construct, so no one knows what “sapiens” really means. It means different things to different people.
Come to think of it, most everything means different things to different people. Take the shortest word in English: “I.” It has 7.9 billion meanings, and new ones are born every day.
According to omniscient Google, “rational humans” would behave “based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” The trouble is that no one knows what the heck others base their actions on (often we don’t quite know that even about our own actions). Sure, sometimes we can imagine reason or logic behind human behavior, but there’s nothing rational about the belief that what we imagined was what someone else actually thought.
Rationality, by the way, is easy to celebrate. It has a lot of vocal admirers, attributing all impressive achievements of human culture exclusively to human rationality. Look at the pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Hagia Sophia, rockets and telescopes and microchip-making factories and World Wide Web, they summon, – could we have built any of these without rationally working out their precise mechanics?
Of course, we couldn’t. We also couldn’t build them without, first, deciding to build them. And when each of these decisions was made, there was no way to know, accurately and comprehensively, all its far-reaching consequences in this interconnected world. The information for choosing to build the Great Pyramid “based on or in accordance with reason or logic” was unavailable to pharaoh Khufu when he made this decision. The decision was, in large part, an irrational one. But once the goal was (somewhat irrationally) chosen, it took a lot of rationality to reach it.
I submit that it’s not the rational that makes us what we are. Anybody, or anything, can act in accordance with some reason or logic we the observers tend to ascribe to everything we see. And we’re very good at noticing patterns (that we then use as proxies for “reasons” and “causes”). In fact, we’re so good at finding patterns that we sometimes see them where there aren’t any (this bias is common enough to earn a scientific name, apophenia). The behavioral patterns of chimps, wolves, and ants are rich and complex and fun to watch. Slugs fight for food, defend themselves from predators, and have sex. Bacteria move toward food and away from poison. Viruses inject their genes into cells that make copies of viruses. Planets go about their business, sweeping around their stars, in accordance with some “reason” that they may be completely unaware of. So do slugs and wolves and even humans. There is, by definition, a reason for rational behavior, but you don’t have to know that reason to behave according to it, and neither do bacteria or planets. Everyone and his brother can do rational. Rational ones are a dime a dozen. AI, the embodiment of ultimate rationality, already outperforms ants and wolves and chimps on some tasks with its superior (for these, carefully chosen, tasks) hardware and software. It will eventually outperform us, too, – at every task that is limited to rational, algorithmic thinking. That’s what we, again rather irrationally, are building it for.
But have you ever met a chimp that dreamed of building the Great Sphinx of Giza? Have you ever seen a wolf paint the Mona Lisa? Have you ever heard of an ant that, while gainfully employed by the Swiss Patent Bureau, conducted ground-breaking research on time and space, matter and energy in its spare time? Can you imagine a group of city-dwelling, water-drinking bacteria being persuaded by a particularly charismatic microbe to go into a deadly scorched desert for forty years in pursuit of some abstract concept he calls “freedom”? Or a bunch of viruses praying to an Almighty that none of them has seen? Or planets trading their valuables for pieces of green paper? Or AI asking daddy for an ice cream – without a human prompt, that is?
It’s we the humans who do all these odd, irrational things. And most of the odd, irrational things that we do don’t work out anywhere nearly as well as inventing money or the theory of relativity. When we act irrationally, we screw up most of the time. Yet, irrationally again, we keep trying. All we have to guide us rationally is our past experience, which reliably fails us in any unfamiliar situation; yet it does teach us a very valuable lesson.
The lesson is, you can’t succeed unless you try. To, say, a very successful ape some millions of years back, whose life in the jungle was damn near perfect, it may have seemed at the first glance that the rational thing to do was to keep things the way they were. So he hung where he was and didn’t climb down that tree and didn’t try to walk upright on his hind legs or grow an oversized brain, and he sneered at the oddballs that did. They would feed their energy-hungry brains for many generations without getting much evolutionary advantage in return, and their bipedal females would have a hard time giving birth, and a lot of them would fall prey to the big cats of the savanna. But oddballs’ descendants—you and me—now visit the rational ape’s descendants at a zoo. Then we leave to do some more oddball things, most of which turn out to be a complete waste of time. But a few are spectacularly successful. And the apes whose great-grandparents chose to go nowhere keep going nowhere. They stay behind. At the zoo.
It appears that the ability to occasionally make irrational, sometimes counterintuitive choices—outside of our experience, tradition, dogma, and short-sighted self-interest—is part of a distinctly human heritage. Once we, quite irrationally, choose to believe in ourselves and set irrationally high goals – we’ll certainly need that other side of the inseparable human coin, rationality, to actually get us there. Our irrationality is not an alternative to being rational, but the way we humans – lacking a time machine to tell us how our choices are going to turn out – choose what to be rational about. It’s also, and maybe even more importantly, the way we humans choose when to quit vacillating and make a choice. How do we manage that?
A honeybee collecting nectar and pollen zigzags through fields and orchards, apparently at random, flying wherever the next foraging clue takes it. Once fully loaded, it takes off and follows the shortest straight line directly home. The dang insect has no GPS chip, and it doesn’t stop at a gas station every couple of blocks to ask locals for directions. It just goes straight in, deploying landing gear and aerobrakes right before the hive entrance. Most people can’t do that with a map and a compass, which keeps attendants at the Met and Louvre gainfully employed, telling the bewildered visitors which way the exit is. How come humans are so much better than bees at complex tasks when we are so hopeless at the easy ones?
A hint can be found in the way we approach the most demanding cognitive tasks. Say you have a pile of painstakingly collected evidence about a murder. The prosecutor is eloquent and argues that the defendant did it. The defense lawyer argues just as convincingly that he didn’t. How do we make sense of it? Should we ask a judge, an experienced professional with a law degree and a lot of experience in these kinds of cases, to actually judge? Why do we cling to the system of jury trials for the most serious crimes, believing, apparently, that twelve laypeople with no experience can untangle the most perplexing situations better than a pro who has seen it all?
Why do we pay outsiders to sit on a board of directors of a business where they have never as much as screwed in a light bulb, inviting them to make decisions vital for the firm? Why do we elect fishermen and engineers, nurses and farmers, stockbrokers and physicists, car dealers and ministers to our parliaments to make laws for us?
Because we make sense together a lot better than even the smartest ones of us do individually, that’s why. That’s the gist of the hypothesis from The Enigma of Reason , a wonderful book by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. The two cognitive scientists argue—quite convincingly if you ask me—that human reasoning is drastically improved when we do it together. A group’s decisions are usually much better than those of the smartest member of the group.
Each individual human’s perception of reality comes through his or her filters (a.k.a. biases). Anything I see is an interpretation, and it’s almost guaranteed to be different from yours, even if we’re watching the same sunset from the same beach. Sure, each of us has the whole filter set, but some biases are more pronounced in you than in me, and vice versa. And with hundreds of filters, you can get a lot of unique combinations. There are 7.9 billion unique sets of cognitive biases on planet Earth right now. Those filters are what make each of us a unique perceptive human.
But if each filter/bias is yet another way to get things wrong, then one has to wonder: How do we ever get anything “right” in some sense? And the answer apparently is that we do that together. We trade pieces of our worldviews as stories. We give the champion of a story feedback, and the story evolves in his/her mind and in ours. In the process, we integrate our unique perceptions, and from perceptive humans evolves a wise(r) humanity. We reason together, and we’re much better at it than even the smartest of us are at reasoning alone. Reasoning together is as close to being rational humans as we’re ever likely to get.
I personally perceive reality through a set of filters that, while being uniquely mine, nevertheless depends on you and billions of other fellow humans in the noosphere, the sphere of information we create and populate. We communicate our understanding of persons and things—intuitive or otherwise, deep or shallow, accurate or way off, sensitive or numb—to each other. We tell stories, and most of our stories gain no traction at all. Most of those that do gain traction eventually get clobbered. A lot of experts tell us in detail why this or that proposition is sheer lunacy, then we bicker and get personal and use words and arguments that make us blush when we stumble upon them decades later. Miraculously, this very untidy process somehow yields a worldview that makes sense, meaning that it has some predictive power, meaning that it both accurately describes patterns and correlations with what we have seen, and it makes some non-trivial predictions about what we haven’t seen yet. If these predictions are falsifiable by experiments or observations that we mere mortals can do in our finite lifetimes—and write home about it so other mere mortals can exercise their inalienable right to enumerate the ways that we screwed up—then that’s science. If not, it’s religion. Chimps, wolves, ants, slugs, bugs, or viruses have neither. Only civilization-building species have both.
Genetic mutations and natural selection is how evolution worked before we came and changed the rules of the game. What we got, stories, is a brand-new evolutionary tool that outperforms genetic mutations the way the Internet outperforms carrier pigeons.
Just like genes, stories store information. Just like genes, they change over time. But the change doesn’t have to take a whole generation to take effect, like it does for genetic information. Stories spread like wildfire, only faster. And humanity changes as fast as our stories do—a lot faster than mutations could change us. With us, the Earth’s biosphere has entered the era of new, suprabiological evolution. Evolution 2.0. Evolution powered by stories, worldviews, beliefs—for the large part, uncertain and unprovable ones, a.k.a. faith.
The uncertainty of our description of the Universe is, IMHO, a feature, not a bug. Certainty (a.k.a. dogma) is narcissistic, condescending, oblivious, and stagnant. While it admires its ostensibly comprehensive perfection, reality and our experience of it are busy (co)evolving elsewhere. Reality is open to interpretation; certainty is not. Moving the cornerstone assumptions of our worldview is how we expand it. And expanding our worldview is how we adapt to the Universe, which never tires of giving us surprises. It sends us life-giving sunlight and deadly rocks from the sky, nutritious mammoths and murderous pathogens, blissful ozone sunscreen over the planet and lethal magnetic pole reversals, volcanic eruptions and solar storms, supernovae erasing everything within light-years around them and wandering black holes that gobble things up. If you quit expanding your Island of Knowledge (a.k.a. evolving), then something’s eventually going to happen, rare enough for a civilization to get complacent and bad enough for the complacent civilization to be wiped out. Natural selection never sleeps.
The Island of Knowledge  is the title of an outstanding book by a Brazilian physicist named Marcelo Gleiser. You can thank me later. We humans build this island to live on. It’s an island of what we have made sense of in the endless ocean of unknown. Our farms and factories, hospitals and universities, courts and governments are all built on that island. Staples and Moon rockets, microchips and bridges, guns and bandages are all made here on that island. Our lookouts are on shore with grappling hooks, and they catch and rope in the new pieces. The Hubble telescope, the Fermilab Holometer, the Large Hadron Collider, and the XENON1T dark matter detector are sophisticated, enormously expensive harpoon guns that we use to hook big pieces of flotsam, which we haul in and add to our island. We examine each piece and decide if it’s a good enough fit with what the island is already made of. If it is, it becomes a part of our island, right there at the seaboard. “As far as we know” just became a little farther.
Any knowledge is an abbreviation of reality. Reality is interconnected, so any portable representation of it – map, mental picture, textual description – is necessarily incomplete. You have to draw a line somewhere, breaking connections as you do.
Different folks draw those lines differently, so a picture that lives in our collective mind is more complete than any individual one. Unless we are in a totalitarian society or its modern mini-version, an echo chamber on a social network, where you don’t get to draw your own lines – they are drawn for you.
And making sense together of things too complex to fit in any one mind is how we manage to build factories, power grids, rockets and Internet. That’s how myopic totalitarian societies always lose out in the end – they fail to use diversity as a resource, this limiting the complexity of the systems they can comprehend, create, and control.
The history of human progress is (among other things) the history of progressively bigger and more diverse groups of humans learning to pursue common, progressively more ambitious goals. Modern global humanity has been described in terms of six degrees of separation, or six handshakes – the idea that every human on the planet can be connected to every other human via no more than six handshakes: peer-to-peer contacts. Cave dwellers were at the single-handshake level of cooperation; five-handshake society reached the Moon and built the World Wide Web.
The evolution of all human information technologies follows the same general path: from an exclusive domain of wealthy and powerful early adopters to a very inclusive tool for everyone. Writing went from Palermo stone, made of basalt and immortalizing allegedly heroic deeds of Egyptian pharaohs, to a homework report from a 13-th century Novgorod kid written on something as perishable as birch bark. Printing evolved from priceless Gutenberg Bible to very disposable newspapers. The same trajectory was followed by computers, and then by computer networks.
The evolving self-organization of humanity is, to me, a story about learning to get more and more diverse folks involved in pursuit of more and more intertwined goals. Learning to call other, very different, humans “us” rather than “them.” Confluence, convergence, cross-pollination. Unity in diversity. Encountering concepts too bulky and fuzzy and nuanced to fit in any one human mind and making them work for us anyways. Constructing a stereoscopic view of this world (a.k.a. evolving human culture) by stitching together a mosaic from my little tile, and yours, and billions of others’.
I reckon this mosaic is our species’ identity. Contributing to this mosaic is what it means to be “us.” I think that reconciling the freedom of diverse individual minds with their collaborative convergence into collective consciousness—making sense of it all, together—is the secret weapons of our story-telling species. Our claim to fame. Our strong suit.
The question of us winning this round and moving to the next one, which is perhaps a lot more challenging than this one was, is the question of what “us” stands for. Who is the “us” we’re supposed to bet on? How far back can our germlines diverge for you to still mean me, too, when you say “us”? At the dawn of the species, it was our tribe versus the rest of the world, then our country, our empire. Is our planet next in line for what “us” means? Our solar system, our galaxy? Our universe? How big is the biggest community you’re a patriot of? How big is the biggest thing you feel ready to own? Is it six degrees of separation, or six degrees of convergence?
We’re at the top of the evolutionary pyramid—at least the terrestrial one. And we form distributed control systems, too. Our families and communities, companies and countries are all networks, and we’re nodes in each of these.
And each of these human networks is a meta-organism capable of somewhat deliberate action: setting goals and trying to achieve them. This may have a lot to do with us, the nodes. A human makes for a lot more sophisticated node than a neuron. There’s a lot more individuality in humans than in neurons or ants. Neurons and ants have no irrational worldviews and dreams and goals, as far as we know. But some humans do. We introduce the new element into distributed control systems: purpose. That makes it into a distributed decision-making system. The nodes can be deliberate, and they confer this ability to the network that they form. In my view, that’s what is different about Evolution 2.0.
In Evolution 2.0, we learn to be deliberate about bigger and bigger things. The scale of our decisions is measured in handshakes. A one-handshake humanity could get together to kill a mammoth; a two-handshake humanity could cooperate to dam a stream, level a terrace, or build a shrine; and a five-handshake H. sapiens walked on the Moon.
At each scale, folks made choices that coalesced into the reality of that time. At each scale, more folks than before stuck together for longer than before in pursuit of something. At each stage, our goals grew more ambitious. So did we, at least those of us who chose to.
A purposeful, directional, deliberate motion quickly overtakes aimless, random drift. We break out of our mundane environment where everything is familiar and where everything that’s unfamiliar is dismissed as heresy, and we go looking for something in the big world out there. And then we compare what we found with what we irrationally hoped to find, and we adjust course accordingly. Making course corrections (a.k.a. turns) eventually makes directional motion look random when you zoom out far enough. But our ’hood just got bigger.
And then the cycle repeats itself. We grow ambitious enough to set higher goals than we had before. We grow humble enough to recognize that instant gratification is even less likely with our new, more ambitious goals than it ever has been earlier. We learn to stick to it long enough to give ourselves a decent shot at success, as we just redefined it. Deliberately and irrationally.
Our species’ way of being deliberate is to deliberate. There’s no time machine to tell us the one right answer, so we go for the next best thing: we tell our different stories and see what makes sense. Family at a dinner table, jury in a jury room, demos in a Greek agora, and diplomats at the United Nations all argue their points. Their different points.
The Digital Revolution we’re in the middle of completes integration of information space for all terrestrial humans in the global agora of the World Wide Web. The Noosphere 2.0 is here, taking its first clumsy baby steps in this world. The choice of what to do with it is ours, and we’re making it now, ready or not.
I have no evidence from the future that we’ll somehow decide for our noosphere (a.k.a. our island of knowledge) to mature and spawn progeny throughout this Universe. I have no evidence from the future that we’ll succeed. I have no evidence from the future that if we succeed, our remote descendants will be happy with the result. I have no evidence from the future that we’ll be happy enough with the result to create daughter universes in the image of our home Universe (a.k.a. become God).
I just choose to believe, without evidence, that we should. And I choose to believe, without evidence, that we shall. I invite you to celebrate human nature: the irrationality that sets our goals, and the rationality that guides us in pursuit of them.
Humanism, as I understand it, is a monotheistic religion: its’ apprentice God is all of us, united in our diversity. Evolving together.
Humanism—well, at least my version of it—doesn’t claim to be the Last Stop, the Ultimate Truth, or some such rubbish. You can’t be serious about making evolution a cornerstone of your faith and, in the same breath, declare the faith itself to be exempt from evolving. Learning new skills, even skills that we today regard as God’s (like our ancestors would regard the skills we already have), is not where the story ends, it’s where the new chapter begins. So – what’s next?
Your guess is as good as mine, but here’s mine. I guess somewhere out there might be a Mt. Olympus, where wise elders come to meet, from different islands of knowledge in an archipelago of consciousness that we can’t even imagine yet. From different corners of our Universe and, possibly, even elsewhere. And, if you’re a stickler for relativistic accuracy, elseWHEN too.
But can civilizations really evolve into Gods? Can a civilization learn to create whole worlds on purpose? Should it?
Glad you asked. That will be discussed in the third part of the series. And also, in much more detail, in my recent book, “Homo Exploratoris”. This article is, for the most part, an excerpt from that manuscript.
Alex Shenderov, Ph.D.
|||Mercier H., Sperber D., Enigma of Reason, Harvard University Press, 2017.|
|||Gleiser M., Island of Knowledge, Public Affairs, 2015|
Editor’s note- This post is part of a series by Dr. Shenderov, who has both a strong technical background as well as a deep appreciation for our natural world. He will be looking at possible futures, depending on the choices we make now.
About the Author
Dr. Alexander Shenderov, Ph. D. is a seasoned technologist, with scientific publications and over two dozen commercialized patents to his name; a serial entrepreneur (that’s how his inventions got commercialized); an educator; and an aspiring futurist and author of a book, Homo Exploratoris. Some of the ideas from that book will be presented in this series.
Alex is an engineer by training, trade, worldview and, some friends say, even nationality. His Master’s degree in Engineering Physics is from a country that is no longer on the map: the USSR. His Ph.D. is in Cell Biology, and it’s from Duke University. So is his teaching experience. He had a rare experience of licensing an invention to a University (rather than licensing one from a University, as it is usually done).
So, Alex’s been around. He treasures the following skills he learned during his life journey:
- Not taking himself too seriously
- Finding people who know more than he does
- Listening to people who know more than he does
- Learning from people with views different from his
- Avoiding pompous thickheads
In his spare time, Alex is a world traveler, avid outdoorsman, community organizer and an aspiring wildlife photographer. These hobbies give him ample opportunities to get connected with Gaia and Cosmos through a very simple exercise. What Alex does is he just goes out on a clear night and looks up – at the world of challenges and experiences and resources and opportunities. As a source of awe and inspiration and pride to be a conscious part of this glorious Universe, this exercise is hard to beat.