More and Better Future

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last posted Sept. 10, 2012, 12:41 a.m.
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One of my favourite books of all time is Daniel Dennett's "Kinds of Minds".

Reading it was actually a key step for me in the journey from faith to atheism, as it finally provided me with a plausible answer to the question "How could intelligence evolve from non-intelligence?"


The key insight that shapes the frame of the book is the concept of the mind as a tool for generating predictions about the future. It's a lot easier to learn by trial-and-error if you can learn from other people's errors ("Bob jumped off the cliff, fell down and isn't getting back up. Following Bob is probably a bad idea"), but also if you can extrapolate into different-but-similar situations (This tree is kind of like the cliff Bob jumped off. I should probably climb down instead of jumping)


Language then allows this ability to predict consequences to be passed on to others: "Your Uncle Bob jumped off this cliff and died. Don't jump off cliffs"


A culture is what happens when we get a lot of predictions about the future being shared within a group of people. Some of the predictions will be accurate, some will be coincidences and correlations that are now assumed to be true and never retested.


But, as a whole, the ability to receive predictions of doom from the surrounding culture helps people to avoid repeating past mistakes that would curtail their ability to replicate.

(Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" also deserves all the praise it has been given over the years)


Actually, I may as well include a couple of reading lists for recommendations on understanding both evolution in general and the evolution of intelligence in particular.



  • The Selfish Gene (Dawkins)
  • Climbing Mount Improbable (Dawkins)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (Dawkins)
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Dennett)

And a couple of harder/more technical ones:

  • The Extended Phenotype (Dawkins)
  • The Ancestor's Tale (Dawkins)

The Ancestor's Tale is challenging due to the sheer scope of the thing. I found it absolutely fascinating, but as a non-biologist, there was an awful lot for me to learn.

The Extended Phenotype feels like a more technical companion to The Selfish Gene (and it was written as a sequel to that book). It strikes me more as a book written for other biologists than as one written for the general public, at least by contrast to The Selfish Gene itself. Dawkins is an excellent writer, so it's still quite accessible, but definitely not on the same level of accessibility as much of his other work.


The nature (and limitations) of human intelligence:

  • Kinds of Minds (Dennett)
  • How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
  • How Risky is it Really?: Why our fears don't always match the facts (David Ropeik)
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
  • Liars and Outliers: Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive (Bruce Schneier)

The first three are more abstract, looking at intelligence and the workings of the mind in general. The latter three are more pragmatic, with Ropeik looking at the way we assess risks, Taleb looking at things primarily in the context of financial modelling that ignores basic facts about reality, and Schneier looking at things through the lens of a security mindset that aims to maintain social stability.


The interesting thing about this idea of "more and better future" is that the evolution of culture changed the game: we're no longer reliant on the slow rate of the genetic evolution, because cultural evolution, guided directly by human intelligence, can proceed at a much faster rate.

Humans progressed from being almost completely earthbound to landing on the moon in less than 200 years. That's taking hot air balloons (first flight 1783) as the first genuinely practical method of human flight, leading up to the US moon landing in 1969. Earthbound to space travellers in barely a dozen generations. That's an absolutely astonishing rate of progress when compared to the kinds of time frames involved in genetic evolution.


We're now to a point where we complain that it takes hours to get from one side of the globe, but contrast that with the initial wave of global settlement, which took thousands of years to reach almost every corner of the globe, or even the more recent European expansion, which took centuries to map out territory we now scan with satellites multiple times a day.

That reminds me of a book recommendation I left out of the list above:

  • Gun, Germs & Steel (Jared Diamond)

(His later book Collapse is good too, albeit not designed to encourage optimism about the long term viability of the human species)


Anyway, the way this ties in to the "More and Better Future" idea (which underpins Kinds of Minds) is that we're now to a point where we can design our societies (or least particular subcultures) such that the subculture as a whole can generate better predictions of the future than any one individual.

The primary mechanism behind this is the methodology and principles of the scientific community:

  • share knowledge, rather than hoarding it
  • put conjectures to the test, by comparing them with reality. Ideally throught controlled experiments, but through observational verification if necessary (e.g. astronomy)
  • doubt the reliability of the individual. We are always fallible, and we are sometimes malicious. As individuals we cannot be trusted, but with the appropriate social constructs, together we can be more trustworthy and more reliable than we are on our own

We've done the natural experiment to prove that this works. Our control over our environment has expanded astronomically since the rise of the scientific method, and the tools for widespread knowledge sharing. The printing press was the first big step forward, as it democratised literacy.

The internet is the next big step, as it has democratised publishing. This requires a shift from the gatekeeper model of the printing press (where those that controlled the presses needed to decide what to print) or the filtering and curation model that is needed for the internet (where everybody is free to publish what they want, but trusted filters are needed to sort out the accurate descriptions of reality from the alternatives that have been distorted by ignorance, self-interest and malice).

Interestingly, the bulk of the scientific community are still struggling to make that shift - as one of the communities most invested in the knowledge sharing enabled via the printing press, they have a large legacy investment in the gatekeeper model, and it isn't yet clear how the journal system will make the transition to the curation model (where public review takes place first, and then the journals publish only papers that have already survived that gauntlet).


So, the scientists really lead the way in harnessing the power of the printing press to collectively make more and better future.

For the internet, I believe that mantle has fallen to the open source community - groups of individuals and corporations collaborating on software because every participant either wants to use the product that they are creating, has customers that they can sell the end result to, or else is just having fun working on the problem and isn't too worried about which problem they spend their time working on.


However, the internet is more than a publishing medium, it's a communication medium. That makes it possible to collaborate on a lot more than just code.

So the disintermediation effect is flowing back into the scientific community, as well as into governance, education, service providers, everywhere.

The genie is out of the bottle, and even the most draconian proposals for containment (many of them coming from democratic governments in nominally free societies) won't stop that.


So, the open network lays the infrastructure for the formation of transnational communities, built around shared interests, rather than geographical location.

We're still monkeys, and our brains still haven't changed much from our savannah days, so we're always going to need a local support base. But those that lament the loss of "neighbourhood spirit" aren't wrong. Dunbar's number is a real limit, and if we're adding online communities that we have a deep connection with (as many of us do), then that's going to have an impact on the number of geographically local relationships we can realistically maintain.


The trick is whether we can harness this open network to move our social structures towards better supporting ideals like hope, truth, justice, freedom and compassion. The institutions and acheivements of science and technology show that we can build cultures that better seek out truth about the universe than we are capable of as individuals. The civil rights movement does the same for freedom, justice and compassion.

Unfortunately, most of our greatest constructs of hope are currently built on foundations of deceit (or delusion) and manipulation for the benefit of a powerful elite: organised religion. The other ideals (especially truth) get thrown out the window in service to the "opiate of the masses".

However, it isn't faith itself that's the problem, it's the abandonment of the other ideals in the service of faith.


Speaking of the civil rights movement, that embodies a concept I think of as "Expanding the Franchise". The European culture that spread around the world over the last few centuries was one heavily dominated by wealthy adult European males. Women were seen as second class citizens, poor folk weren't even seen as citizens at all, and non-Europeans often weren't even seen as human.

This is by no means a uniquely European problem - our brains are still wired for the savannah, and the tribalism that dominated there was founded on real practical problems:

  • other tribes were competitors for scarce resources, and hence to be treated warily
  • it's only with the rise of the scientific method that we've started to truly understand how human reproduction works, and to give women the opportunity to more completely control when (and if) they choose to have children

To anyone with even an ounce of scientific understanding, there's no good reason to perpetuate these beliefs now that we're aware that we're all a single species sharing a single fragile world. If we're going to do the best we possibly can of creating more and better future, then it behooves us to make the most of every resource we have available.

Most of the differences in outcomes in our lives come down to luck. Luck in where we are born, luck in who our parents are, luck in who we encounter, luck in the opportunities we are given. Even when we seize an opportunity through intelligence, or passion, or sheer stubbornness, then how much credit can we really take for being born with innate intelligence or passion or diligence?

We're naturally inclined to take credit for our successes, and blame others (or the situation) for our failures. It's an interesting, yet powerful, reframing to instead aim to give others (or luck) credit for our successes, and accept responsibility for our failures.


Back on the topic of hope and aspirations, I take much of my lead on this from Carl Sagan, especially in Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Billions and Billions.

If we choose to turn away from the wishful thinking that is our heritage (where we take everything we don't know about the universe, dress it up as a person or persons, and give it a name), then the alternative is the ongoing pursuit of expanding the boundaries of our knowledge.

I don't pursue that directly myself - I'm still playing catch-up on the many fascinating things we already know as a species. However, I do enjoy contributing in some small way to the toolset used by those who are exploring the boundaries of human knowledge.

In Babylon 5, there's a beautiful description of the Minbari religion seeing individuals as "pieces of the universe attempting to understand itself".

That's a lovely description of the way I see the world - once our basic needs for sustenance, shelter, companionship, relaxation and encouraging the growth of the next generation are dealt with, then I can think of no pastime more worthwhile than learning more about the way the universe really works.


Reading Suggestion from Lee Carlon: "The Social Animal" by David Brooks.

Also a gorgeous illustration of seemingly smart behaviour from the simplest of rules: Braitenburg vehicles. (The Brooks reference reminded me - a lot of my thoughts on this stuff stems from my days studying cognitive science at uni, and Braitenburg vehicles are very neat)

The core concept here is the idea of intelligence and free will as an emergent property of interactions between millions and trillions of individually dumb components.

Another work from Dennett on this front is "Freedom Evolves". Very meta (albeit not as meta as anything by Douglas Hofstadter)