Humility, not Hubris

You make it clear that we all use metaphors and paradigms to explain the world to ourselves and to others--indeed we lack other options. In that vein, you contrast a systems-feedback approach, (with multiple evolutionary systems, etc.) with a singularity, linear or expansive approach.  But it’s important to recognize that the reality is what it is—and while it’s fortunate that we can model it and try to understand it, there is no ultimate ‘correct’ final paradigm, no fully adequate metaphor(s).  Thomas Kuhn was correct in that sense. (And while I much admire E. O. Wilson, he is wrong—the paradigms that may work for physics have no deep relation to the paradigms that work for music or sculpture or geology or psychology--nor is there any reason to think that there is a seamless web that connects them all--yet another 'world hypothesis' (Pepper) or themata (Holton).

You speak about a universal belief in progress. But that is a Western idea, from the last few centuries--in the past cyclical beliefs were at least as prevalent.  I learned this first hand when I ran a project on ‘human potential’ some decades ago and looked into the literature on progress, for example  Robert Nisbet’s history of the idea of progress..

By the same token, we may indeed live in a Silicon alley-Wall Street accented civilization in which the primary currencies are money and power. But again, that hardly suffices across history or, indeed, across cultures.  Moreover, how power is construed is very different—Gandhi had neither money nor power (in the usual sense, never held elective or even appointed office) and yet was a dominant figure while alive and remains very influential wherever nonviolent protest (satyagraha) takes place. So, too, Martin Luther King, Jr. And human beings existed for a long time without currency (let alone blockchains!), from all we can tell.

I do like  your featuring of ‘religion’—also an analogy and metaphor.  Ironic that those who believe in the new religion are the very ones who tend to be dubious (if not downright hostile) about traditional religions. Perhaps each era and each population needs its own custom-made or invented religion…and these ad hoc religions need to be labeled as such!

Knowing our geographical planet is daunting enough—and there is a much larger universe out there as well—and of course, we have no way of knowing whether our ways of knowing (or those of the machines or programs or hybrid organisms that we create) are adequate to the universe (with its black holes) or even to our tiny solar system. Or, for that matter, if the universe cares! Or what happened before the universe appeared, or after it disappears….

I call for more humility, less hubris.

Moving to education, drill and practice goes back thousands of years. This regimen did not need Skinner, and Skinner did not have much impact on educational practice.  Those of us ‘in the know’ hope that Papert, Resnick, and their associates  at the Media Lab will have more power—but until now, drill and practice carry the day.  Ellen Lagemann, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education a decade ago once quipped, that in the struggle  between (Edward) Thorndike and (John) Dewey, Thorndike won.

As someone who has spent decades thinking about and studying intelligence, of course, I am interested in the search for intelligence or for supra-intelligent devices.  I note that intelligence here seems to be restricted to problem solving, whereas human intelligence (or intelligences, my term) are properly applied as well to problem finding—in which all of us are engaged as scholars. The fans of “AI” take human intelligence, as they understand it, as a model—but again, we have no idea whether the ‘ultimate designers of the universe’ employed intelligence(s) anything like ours.  In your discussion of ‘extended intelligence’  you may be making the same kind of point. I like the invocation of music—especially improvisation—so long as you underscore that it, too, is just a helpful analogy.

When I saw the word ‘amortality,’ I immediately thought of ‘amorality.’ Because of course, the desire for raw intelligence and for raw computational power, completely bypasses issues of morality and ethics—ones which I am glad to know that you are tackling---for example in your current seminar and in the large cooperative project with the Berkman Center. For me, this is the biggest question- –and one which, as long as I am around, I want to entrust to living, breathing mortal human beings, and not to the devices that we create,and that those devices might want to create in turn.  Two cheers for diversity, two and one half cheers for happiness, but three cheers for diversity and happiness that honor morality and ethics, in a Rawlsian and Kantian sense.


You make a good point about there not being a “correct” outcome, I think. Part of evolution (which I believe is the same as the process of entropy) is experimentation and refinement. Random mutations need to happen, and then the combinations that have the highest fitness (literally they fit into the ecosystem well) end up being the things that stick around and get reproduced. This process of experimentation and refinement happens with matter (as in genes) and energy (as in art/technology/culture).

The final outcome can be many different things, because there are probably many different combinations of combinations that can make an effective, thriving ecosystem. Any one of them would do well for us. So not having a specific future imagined is probably helpful. Being flexible and trusting nature’s learning process of evolution to guide us as we experiment and refine is probably our best tactic here.