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On Evil
Thinking deep and shallow

Copyright © 2011, Paul LutusMessage Page

Evil I | Evil II

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Evil I
[In a discussion of spam and other Internet scams] This cannot be fixed (who would take interest in fixing it, BTW?) as long as people are being "grown" as vegetables, deprived of any ability to reason and distinguish good from evil ... Okay, basic agreement, but I must object to use of the term "evil." "Evil" is one of those words that efficiently suspends critical thought and pushes our thinking away from reason toward emotion.

If there are two groups with wildly different, conflicting values and practices, and if for some reason they must get along, the biggest obstacle to adjustment and compromise is likely to be rigid thinking on the part of one or both groups — rigid thinking best exemplified by use of empty labels like "evil."

Let's say there are some intelligent, admirable creatures (call them 'W') who don't make war, aren't remotely ideological, and who simply want to be left alone. Unfortunately for W, they are a food source for another group ('H'), who not surprisingly have a perfectly reasonable explanation for their use of W as a food source.

Surely someone will object to this, saying that W have the right to live unmolested, unkilled and uneaten by H, in particular because of W's intelligence and peaceful lifestyle. But on hearing this objection, a member of H might rise up and explain that, absent W as a food source, her children will starve and die. That's "evil."

On the one hand, we choose to kill and eat the intelligent members of group W — some might call that "evil." On the other, we might allow innocent children to die for lack of the protein provided by W — some might call that "evil" as well.

This system only works because members of group W cannot argue for the welfare of their own children (or no one is listening). So we only hear about the fate of the H children, and how evil it is that they might starve and die, absent the protein offered by W.

So, in the final analysis, who are the evil ones — those who kill and eat whales, or those who object to the killing of whales? (I emphasize that I'm not taking sides on this issue — if cows and tuna can be accepted as a protein source, why not whales?)

My point is that the word "evil" is virtually always a smokescreen that frees us from an implied responsibility to think more deeply about our choices. We might make the same choices, but we would have let reason play a part.
... An idea just popped: if things keep evolving (or, more correctly, devolving) ... Second objection. There is no such thing as devolution, there is only evolution. If we see people not bothering to think about their actions, being intellectually lazy, we're witnessing nature's selection process at work. When people don't think and when that strategy works, that's nature speaking and being heard.

Intellectual activity requires energy, and, unless thinking is essential to survival, a creature that doesn't think will outcompete one that does. The limited value of thinking as a survival strategy can be dramatized by noting that the total earthly biomass of bacteria and other microbes easily outweighs the biomass of humans by more than 100 to 1. We even carry a bacterial colony around inside us, one that's essential to our survival (E. coli). And I have it on good authority that you can't teach Calculus to a microbe.

We live in an environmental niche that is identified, staked out, by thinking as a survival strategy. That niche, that strategy, might disappear at any time. The majority of species get along perfectly well without it. As for ourselves, we don't think very much or very deeply, and our intellectual laziness might be a sign of pragmatism and energy efficiency. One may argue that humans solve problems with ingenuity and creativity only after exhausting the alternatives.

Ample evidence that we think as little as possible can be found in how frequently we hear empty terms like "evil" as a substitute for deep thought.
... the way they do, I'm afraid human beings will become the tools used by artificial intelligence. Hopefully I won't live to see that happen. Too late — it's already true. To make my point I should define "artificial intelligence" as it's generally defined in the field of computer science: it's a system of canned, shallow, predefined responses to identifiable events in everyday reality. By contrast, "real" intelligence would be to evaluate each new situation from first principles, a more expensive strategy.

Here's an example — a gambler is flipping a coin and recording the outcomes. He has thrown heads four times in a row and, reasoning on that history that the next flip is very likely to be tails, places a large bet on that outcome. His choice is perfectly reasonable from one perspective — the probability of a series of five "heads" outcomes in a row is 2-5 = 1/32, not very likely.

The above analysis is correct, but it misses an essential point: even though the probability for an uninterrupted sequence of five "heads" coin tosses is 1/32, the probability for heads in each individual coin toss is 1/2. Someone willing to apply first principles would see this right away.

One may object and ask who would fall for that kind of shallow thinking, reasoning that would lead someone to place a bet on future coin tosses based on past coin tosses, but without thinking it through? Well, it happens every day (it's called the "gambler's fallacy"), and it's how gambling casinos stay in business. It's shallow thinking and misses some essential truths about reality that require deeper thought. It's "artificial intelligence."

Another example. An investor, on seeing the equities markets falling (as they've been doing recently), decides to sell out, in order to conserve what's left of his initial investment. As it happens, this strategy is the worst possible reaction to market fluctuations, but it's also very common.

In the short term, equities markets exhibit erratic fluctuations, more or less random increases and decreases. But in the long term, a time scale of decades, equities can be relied on to steadily increase in value, as a result of which they represent a better investment than any other, if only investors will stay the course. But to react to a short-term decrease by selling, or a short-term increase by buying, is shallow thinking — "artificial intelligence," a failure to apply first principles.

There are any number of similar examples in daily life. The point I'm making is that most human thinking represents "artificial intelligence" — shallow reasoning applied to deep problems.

In 1997, a computer chess program named "Deep Blue" defeated the reigning world champion (human) chess player, Garry Kasparov. It was the first time such a thing had happened, but because of more recent advances in computer hardware and software, it's now a foregone conclusion that the best computer chess player can defeat the best human chess player. So my question is this — why do we call it "artificial intelligence"? To me, the fact that the computer won speaks for itself. Maybe we should avoid labeling intelligence in ways that make us look stupid.
Evil II
Very smooth, Paul... One thing though: I'm not a native English speaker so my usage of the term "evil" should rather be taken as "the opposite of good" in the respective binary comparison. Well, first, your English is excellent. Second, the word "evil" is easily translated, more so than most words. And your describing it as the opposite of good means we're on the same page.

All I'm saying is evil, like morality, is relative. Ask any whale.
About evolution... time - as an artificial measuring unit ... Time is not an "artificial measuring unit." It's the fourth dimension of spacetime. It's quite real. It's as reliable as North, or up. To navigate space, I use a compass. To navigate time, I use a clock. ... is the only thing known to human kind that can only go one direction: forward; that unless someone actually experienced time traveling in the past. This is wrong. At the quantum scale, time is symmetrical. One example among many is that positrons can be looked on as electrons traveling backward in time. That's not a requirement or the only possible explanation, but it's a convenient way to look at them. By contrast, at a macroscopic scale, time flows in a particular direction because of entropy — the so-called "arrow of time."

With respect to spatial dimensions, we can turn around and retrace our steps. With respect to the time dimension and at a macroscopic scale, for all practical purposes, we cannot.

If I open a bottle of perfume in a closed room, there's a very high probability that the perfume vapor will fill the room and never reassemble. But the probability is not 100% — there's a very small probability that the perfume molecules will later spontaneously reassemble in the bottle. This trend toward increased disorder is a property of entropy, but it's not absolute — there can be local violations within a closed system.

The point of the above example is that our chance to travel backward in time is roughly the same as the probability that the perfume will spontaneously reassemble in the bottle. It's a very remote probability, but the direction of time is based on thermodynamics at the macroscopic scale, it's not a basic law of spacetime geometry.
Humans giving up all the culture and civilisation achieved in thousands of years, returning to the law of the jungle, shooting each-other in the street - no, scratch that: in schools, in hospitals - do you really call that "evolution"? Yes, of course. Evolution doesn't have to live up to our expectations, it only has to reward the random adaptations that by chance assure survival. Evolution doesn't have a direction or preferred outcome, and it's not a plan, it's an algorithm.

The existence of humans doesn't "prove" evolution, any more than the existence of E. coli bacteria "disproves" evolution. That's not how evolution works — evolution doesn't care what form the survivors take.

Do you really think that, because we can think about science and evolution, build hospitals and invent antibiotics, that this halts evolution or brings it under our control? These activities only change the forces at work in evolution, they don't contradict it.
What the hell... why do we still wear clothes in the summer, then? Why do we still write books and music? Why am I still typing here? No, my friend - what's going on nowadays is not evolution. On the contrary, what you see around you is definitely evolution. If that were not the case, the discovery of antibiotics might have cured tuberculosis and Staphylococcus Aureus (to name just two) — but this didn't happen, indeed those species (and many others) adapted to antibiotics and are now a bigger threat than they were before. That's evolution at work.

Evolutionary adaptation to the changing circumstances of everyday life is not a new idea — "Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy’s purpose." Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Ch. XI.
As for artificial intelligence, that's simple: artificial as in "not of living nature". No, that's not the current meaning of the term: "Artificial intelligence (AI) is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it."

There's nothing in the definition about nature or living things. We could in principle build computers using living cells (some researchers are trying), and they would exhibit "artificial intelligence."
No twisting of the initial meaning. I just gave you the untwisted original meaning. You may not have known it until just now. As in Sonny from "I, robot", if you please. I love that film — I personally think it's one of the better modern sci-fi films. But it doesn't support your idea about artificial intelligence — "Sonny" could just as well have been crafted out of biological materials.

With all respect, I think you're suffering from some misconceptions about evolution — and about artificial intelligence.

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