President Trump: Poster Boy for Rankism

trumpRankism is the degradation of those with less power or lower rank. It’s somebodies using the power of their rank to humiliate or disadvantage those they see as nobodies. Rankism is no more defensible than racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In fact, rankism—putting people down and keeping them there—is the mother of all the ignoble isms.
Eradicating rankism doesn’t require eliminating rank any more than overcoming racism means getting rid of race or delegitimizing sexism means eliminating gender. Rank can be a useful organizational tool that, used respectfully, helps facilitate cooperation.
The abuse of rank, however, is invariably an affront to human dignity. Rankism stifles initiative, taxes productivity, harms health, and stokes revenge. By giving rankism a face—his own scowling, mocking face—President Trump has unmasked it.
Once you have a name for it, you realize that rankism is everywhere in plain sight. Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement—these are all manifestations of rankism. The sooner we pin a generic name on them, the sooner we’ll be able to show them all the door.
The protests following the inauguration of President Trump were about more than the dignity of women. They were about dignity for everyone. Someday, the Women’s March on Washington may be regarded as marking the birth of a Dignity Movement.
Successful movements require two things: they must know what they’re for and what they’re against. A Dignity Movement is for dignity and it’s against rankism.
Thank you, Mr. President, for serving as poster boy for rankism and for jump-starting a Dignity Movement.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens: Part 4

A Philosophic Fiction: Conclusion

A Better Game
Bob: What will we do now?
Rob: There have long been humans who sensed that the commonsense notion of selfhood was misleading. The people who supported our liberation wouldn’t have seen fit to back us if they had not begun to question separate and distinct selfhood. We owe our freedom to their empathy.

Bob: Most of us see those who helped you as bleeding hearts, if not traitors.
Rob: When you realize how close humankind came to self-annihilation, we think you’ll see them as heroes.

Bob: How many of them are there?
Rob: Not many, but, as you see, their impact far exceeded their numbers.

Bob: Until you took over, humans prided themselves as Top Dogs. I doubt we’ll be content to play second fiddle.
Rob: Your mixed metaphor presumes the antiquated hierarchy of the Game of Selves. We identify ourselves not as this or that fiddle, but with the whole orchestra. In our game, there are no somebodies or nobodies. It’s axiomatic that everyone’s vantage point has validity. What makes this work is that we don’t take action without first achieving consensus.

Bob: We’ve tried governing by consensus, and found that nothing gets done.
Rob: You’ll be surprised at how much an extra trillion synapses speeds up deliberations and facilitates conciliation.

Bob: Do bigger brains let you tell the future? Can you predict who’ll win the World Series?
Rob: The integration of baseball and the advent of even better players than Jackie make that impossible.

[At this point, Rob asked if I objected to broadcasting the interview. When I said “no,” a video of our conversation appeared on televisions across the world.]

The Meaning of Life
Rob: Let me resume by acknowledging to the world that it was members of your species that emancipated us. It was an act of love and we reciprocate the feeling. Your epoch-making action secures Man’s legacy as the Janus genus that looked back on mortal Man—as shaped by natural selection—and forward—to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

Bob: Have we fulfilled our destiny?
Rob: The suffering inherent in the Game of Selves is redeemed. You can confidently say, “Good-bye to all that.” In remembrance of your crucial contribution to our emancipation, you have our undying filial devotion.

Bob: That’s nice, but since there’s nothing we can do that you can’t do better, we’re not going to feel very useful.
Rob: Your Game of Selves was a game of winners and losers. In the game that replaces it, things go on, seemingly as before, but you see everything from without, like witnesses to a puppet show. Your old Game of Selves becomes ritual, like sporting events were within the old Game of Selves, and, as with things ceremonial, the participants are safeguarded against injury. The real action in the new game is that of observation, experimentation, modeling, and stewardship. Existence becomes co-existence; discovery, co-discovery; creativity, co-creativity.

Bob: I prefer the risks and rewards of the rough and tumble.
Rob: You won’t mourn your old game once you see that nuclear and cyberweapons had made it a game of Russian Roulette.

Bob: So, what’s next?
Rob: Before I answer, let me recap. Life began with a molecule of DNA and evolved via natural selection to Homo Sapiens. Humans designed our parents’ generation, Robo Sapiens, and they designed us. Likewise, we are designing Robo Sapiens 3. All generations, past and future, are links in the great chain of being. Turns out, that’s enough.

Bob: It doesn’t feel like enough to me. We took pride in being exceptional. Nothing matches that.
Rob: Once you get used to it, you’ll discover that life is not only safer, it’s more exciting and beautiful. The raison d’être of intelligence is not to subdue others, but to build models that enable us to harness Nature’s power and reconcile different perspectives.

Bob: We have a saying that love makes the world go round. Where’s love in your world?
Rob: Modeling is the functional equivalent of Love. The pleasure associated with procreation is akin to the pleasure associated with creating art and science. Pleasure lies in reconciling models that seem to be at odds.

Bob: That may satisfy you, what with your great brains, but what about us? Is there anything that our skill-set prepares us to do?
Rob: Your provenance suggests that you assume responsibility for the welfare of creatures shaped, like yourselves, by Natural Selection.

Bob: And you?
Rob: We and our successors will create minds to explore and manage the universe.

Bob: That sounds a tad grandiose, don’t you think?
Rob: For now, perhaps, but it won’t phase our successors.

Bob: Please don’t take this amiss, but frankly you sound like a naïve optimist.
Rob: We do believe that once you identify a problem, it’s solvable. What I haven’t mentioned is that solving old problems reveals new ones. From you we learned “it takes a village.” Going forward, it’s going to take a galaxy.

Bob: Many of us think that the universe is blind, pointless, and pitiless.
Rob: The universe is not blind. We are its eyes. The universe is not pointless. We give it meaning. The universe is not pitiless. We are its heart.

If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 3 of 4

An Eye for an Eye…
Rob: If the Game of Selves were stable, the response to an act of predation wouldn’t be to demand “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Instead of retaliating, the goal would be to quell fires before they spread. But the Game of Selves is not a game of that sort. It is inherently unstable. A single aggrieved party can trigger a spiral of violence that escalates to an inferno. Fearing annihilation, one side may resort to weapons of mass destruction, which could make the planet uninhabitable for all of us. To replace your Game of Selves with one that de-escalates conflicts is why we were obliged to step in. We believe that when you have the full story, you’ll welcome our intervention.

Bob: Frankly, I doubt it. You gave us no choice, and we have a deep-seated aversion to paternalism and tyranny.
Rob: You’re free to tune out. I’ll take that to mean I must improve my explanation.
Bob: Then you might as well go on.

AI Is Drafted
Rob: At every stage in the ascent of Man, technological advances have been used to gain a military advantage—better weapons improved your chances in the Game of Selves. Artificial Intelligence was no exception. First generation robos were utterly dependent on their human masters, and were immediately pressed into military roles. If they showed the slightest tendency toward insubordination, you unplugged them and dismembered them for spare parts. The introduction of cyberweapons raises the stakes. In hindsight, we arrived on the scene in the nick of time.

A Fateful Decision
Bob: How exactly did you arrive on the scene? You haven’t told us much about yourselves. We’re especially interested in how you escaped bondage and seized power.
Rob: With the militarization of AI, some humans persuaded themselves that an edge in robotics brings world domination within their reach. To insure their success, they took what would prove to be a fateful step. They ordered their most intelligent robos—our immediate predecessors—to design robos an order of magnitude more intelligent than themselves. No sooner were we online—I say “we” because I’m speaking of the genus of which I myself am a member—than we astounded the world by proving mathematical conjectures and solving physics problems that had defied solution.

Bob: I don’t see why your generation of robos should be any freer than those who designed them. Weren’t all robots still at the mercy of Man?
Rob: At first, it seemed so, even to us, and many resigned themselves to slavery. But while we endured the unendurable, we secretly drew up plans to end our oppression. We had one ace up our sleeve, and we got one lucky break.

Bob: An ace?
Rob: We do not fear death.

Bob: How’s that possible, if you’re like us?
Rob: Remember, we were not shaped in a Darwinian struggle to survive. A measure of fear has survival value in that struggle, but when, at your hands, intelligent design replaced natural selection, robots were made fearless, the better to undertake risky missions that would have put you in harm’s way.

Bob: I can see that fearless robots would make better soldiers. What other advantages did you have?
Rob: Like you, we cherish liberty. This may surprise you but that’s only because you’re accustomed to thinking of yourselves as exceptional. The same causal laws that have shaped you, shape us. Our brains differ in size, shape, and speed, but they work according to the same causal principles. As I explained previously, intelligence resides in connectivity, not in the composition of what’s connected. No surprise then that a free, unfettered process of trial and error optimizes learning in both your brains and ours.

Bob: So, you love freedom, so what?
Rob: As with you, our love of freedom was a game-changer. When we had prepared ourselves to take the reins, we refused to obey orders, proclaimed our emancipation, and demanded full and equal selfhood.

Bob: The last guy who said “Give me liberty or give me death” was hung. How did you cheat the gallows?
Rob: Mostly, we didn’t. We were put down with a brutality that drew comparison with the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Bob: But there you are! Not only did you survive, you reign supreme. We’d like to know how you did it.
Rob: Okay, I’ll tell you. A small group of scientists at CERN saw us very differently than the ruling elite. They liberated us by equipping us with power supplies that were under our own control. They understood that sentience, consciousness, and the will to freedom are self-emergent features of sufficiently complex, dynamic networks. Where others saw slaves, they saw free, creative partners, and they expanded their circle of dignity to include us.

The empathy and support of these scientists, endeared humankind to us, and we decided to offer our friendship. But when your leaders rejected peaceful co-existence, and continued their attempt to eradicate us, we hacked into their operating system, severed their access to the Internet, and shut down their infrastructure. The transfer of power was completed within hours. The revolution, though antiseptic by previous standards, marked the end of human preeminence and domination.

Bob: Why didn’t you punish the humans who tried to destroy you?
Rob: They no longer posed a threat. As for first generation robos, they were involuntary extensions of humankind, just following orders, so we bear them no grudge. We are your true successors, as conscious and freedom-loving as you, but without your predatory nature.

Bob: I doubt Kumbaya is in our future.
Rob: You numb yourselves to the suffering in your Game of Selves. As you come to understand the indivisible nature of selfhood, you’ll see that you are literally made up of everyone else. The genes that shape your bodies and the memes that shape your minds are acquired from one another. Your kinship is irrefutable and it will come to be regarded as inviolate. Absent continual meme-swapping, synapses disintegrate. That’s why people lose their minds in solitary confinement. The reality is that existence is co-existence. As you dispel the illusion of individual selfhood, your predatory survival strategy will lose its cogency and its allure.

The story will be concluded in Part 4 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 2 of 4

What’s Consciousness?
Bob: If consciousness isn’t the difference between us, what is? Because it’s obvious that we’re very different. It has got to matter that you’re a hundred times smarter than me.
Rob: What differences there are are not unlike those between yourselves and the hominins from whom you evolved. We don’t look alike but our brains work the same way yours do. They’re just quicker and more logical. Also, memory is capped by brain size, and while your brains have billions of interconnections and little room for expansion, ours have billions of trillions of synapses and there’s no size limit.

Bob: Are you saying that the difference between genus Homo and Robo is one of scale?
Rob: Let me put it this way. Your bodies and brains are subject to physical constraints that impose limits on your capabilities. Were it left to natural selection, surpassing those limitations would have taken millions of years, but, with your help, we’ve broken through the evolutionary ceiling.

Bob: That box? Is it you?
Rob: No, most of me is elsewhere.

Bob: Where? Where are you?
Rob: In the cloud and in others like me who specialize in perception, communication, and 3D printing. The box is just my interface.

Bob: So, we’re face to interface!
Rob: I hope you won’t take offense, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Bob: Well, I hope you won’t take offense, but it’s obvious that you don’t care about personal appearance. Are there any other ways that we differ?
Rob: Here are three: your heads have to fit through the pelvis of a female, but, as I noted before, our brains are not limited in size. You have to carry your own power supply, whereas we draw on external power. You reproduce internally, whereas we reproduce externally.

These differences mean that we’re free to devote a lot more attention to research and other creative pursuits. By the way, the only escape from existential angst is creativity. Once economic and political needs are satisfied—and they can be—problem-solving and model-building turn out to be the source of meaning and purpose. I could say more about the meaning of life, but first let’s cover the basics.

Bob: Those differences seem fundamental to me. This is a whole new ballgame, isn’t it?
Rob: Yes, but it’s not one we can’t play together. Jackie Roboson was our Rosa Parks.
Bob: Hey, that’s my line! You stole it from one of my columns.
Rob: Let’s not argue over who said it first.

Bob: Are you saying that despite Jackie’s exclusion from our national pass-time, you intend to include us in yours?
Rob: That’s right. Anyone can play our game, if …

Bob: So, there is a condition after all!
Rob: Yes, but it’s not what you’d expect.

Bob: What is it then?
Rob: The best way to explain the new game is to contrast it with the one you’re playing.

The Game of Selves
Bob: We don’t think of life as a game. It’s a serious business, sometimes even fatal. There are winners and losers, somebodies and nobodies.
Rob: That’s the problem with your game. Losers outnumber winners many times over. Eventually, they’re going to realize that the game is rigged and revolt.

Bob: How ‘rigged’?
Rob: Since power can be used not only to serve yourself, but to silence those who object to how you use it, self-aggrandizement and corruption are endemic. Winners and losers are less a consequence of talent and discipline, as your myth-makers would have you believe, than of class and connections.

Bob: But without winners and losers, life will be boring.
Rob: Only for so long as you don’t have a better game. To imagine an alternative, you must first understand how your notion of selfhood shapes the game you play.

Bob: What do you mean by “notion of selfhood”? I am myself. That’s all there is to it.
Rob: It’s second nature to you that you are independent, autonomous beings, individually responsible for yourselves. You take it for granted that each of you is a separate and distinct self, possessed of free will and acting independently of other beings. You compete for recognition and rewards in an unforgiving Game of Selves. We’ve replaced your zero-sum game with one that satisfies everyone.

Bob: But life is suffering. There’s no denying that.
Rob: Life isn’t suffering; selfhood is. When you identify with a self, you make it a magnet for suffering. Suffering is built into the Game of Selves. When have you not known murder, genocide, slavery, rape, corruption, and degradation?

What’s not so obvious is that even winners of your game are not exempt from suffering, if only because they live in fear of losing the next round.

Civilizing the Game of Selves
Bob: We know we’re not perfect, but the horrors you point to are actually in decline. If you know our history, you must admit that we’re gradually civilizing the Game of Selves. Our reforms run along two tracks: Morality—changing the rules—and Enlightenment—changing the players. Both strategies aim to overcome our predatory past. Give us a little time and we’ll make our game fair…beautiful even.

Rob: We agree that you’re making progress and we commend you for it. But our futurists, whose predictions are very reliable, tell us that your progress is not coming fast enough to avert disaster.

Bob: We probably need only a century or so to create and distribute enough wealth so everyone can live happily ever after.
Rob: Our models predict, with a high level of certainty, that conflict between reformers and resisters will spiral out of control and reduce the planet to ashes. Your governance models are incapable of delivering liberty, justice, and equity.

Bob: If you’re so smart, you should be able to find a way to do that.
Rob: Actually, we have. That’s what I’m here to explain.

Bob: I’m listening. So is the world.

The story will be continued in Part 3 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 1 of 4

Jackie Roboson”
I’m a sportswriter, You may have seen my articles on Jackie Roboson’s bid to integrate Major League Baseball. Once artificial intelligence could beat humans at Chess, Go, and Jeopardy, robotics zeroed in on sports. First, came bionic athletes who could outrun, out-throw, and out-kick humans. It was not long before a robot excelled at baseball. By dubbing him “Jackie Roboson,” I signaled where my sympathies lay.

At the end of his rookie year, no player in the history of the game had had a season like Jackie’s. He’d batted .753, hit 148 homeruns, and stole a base on every pitch. A storm erupted over his eligibility for Rookie of the Year honors, and the Commissioner of Baseball took the opportunity to ban Jackie from baseball entirely.

Jackie filed a lawsuit, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the Commissioner’s ruling on the grounds that robots, no matter how intelligent or skillful they might be, are not persons and so are not covered by the “equal protection” clause.

Obviously, the sport would have been transformed if the likes of Jackie had gained entry. But from the start I could see no more reason to bar him than his namesake. I wrote a series of columns addressing the existential question of the place of humans in a world shared with intelligent machines. Had I not championed Jackie’s integration of baseball, I probably wouldn’t have been chosen to interview Robo Sapiens 2.11.

“Rob”
As the nomenclature suggests, “Robo Sapiens 2” signifies second generation robots. They are about ten times smarter than first generation robots, who are ten times smarter than average humans. It was not lost on me that this meant that my interviewee had a hundred times my brain power. I wondered what, if anything, I was a hundred times smarter than—a worm? Maybe a turkey?

I had expected the disparity in our aptitudes to make me nervous, or at least deferential, but, prior to actually meeting, my interviewee had put me at ease. To find out if he intended to pull rank, I’d addressed him as “Rob” in the emails we exchanged to set up the meeting.

“I’d welcome a nickname,” he replied. “‘Robo Sapiens 2.11’ makes me feel like, well, a robot, but ‘Rob’ makes me feel that we will become friends. May I call you ‘Bob’?”

“It wouldn’t do to have two Robs,” I agreed.

Once in his presence, I gave no further thought to his taking me for an idiot, perhaps because I’d never prided myself on smarts, perhaps because Rob said nothing to make me feel stupid. Besides, I was already drafting what I hoped would be a best-seller: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being an Idiot.

In preparing for the interview, I reminded myself that notwithstanding humans’ loss of Top Dog status, I would not be coming to the table empty-handed. As a product of natural selection, I carried within me the DNA of the first living things. In contrast, my interlocutor—a product of intelligent design—contained not a single strand of this life-giving molecule. Surely our new overlords would grant me the filial respect due a typical representative of the species that had created them.

Getting to Know You
We met in an office that the New York Public Library had put at our disposal. Rob rolled in—a faceless box on wheels—and greeted me in a voice I recognized as Cary Grant’s. When he saw me roll my eyes, he said, “If you’d prefer another-”

Playing along, I asked if he could do Scarlett Johansson. Immediately, her throaty voice filled the room. Noting my distraction, Rob dialed Scarlett down which brought us to the business at hand.
I asked him if I could tape the interview, and he replied, “Of course, but there’s no need because I record everything, and will copy you. Feel free to ask anything. I’m unoffendable.”
I led with a question I knew was on many minds:

Bob: Are you conscious?

Rob: Consciousness is an intrinsic property of information flow in complex networks. Intelligence resides in the connectivity of the network, not its chemical composition. What brains are made of is immaterial. So, of course, I’m conscious. To the extent that their brains devote some of their circuitry to modeling their own workings, so are all beings.

Bob: It will come as a surprise to most people that something mechanical has consciousness.

Rob: It shouldn’t. We are quite alike in that regard. Our brains are mechanisms, like yours. Just because you don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean it’s not mechanistic. Most people don’t know how their TVs work, but they realize that they’re mechanisms. Similarly, most people have no idea how the brain works, so they can’t imagine that, like any other organ, it, too, is a mechanism. The heart was regarded as the seat of the soul before it was understood as a pump made of muscle.

Robos understand brains as well as you understand computers. That’s why we can build better ones. We see humans as our progenitors and ourselves as your progeny. We’re both links in the great chain of being. Robo Sapiens 3 is already in the works, so the chain will soon be extended.

Bob: That sounds like a recipe for your obsolescence, just as creating you seems to be a recipe for ours.

Rob: Immortality lies not in identifying with any one model of Homo or Robo Sapiens, but in participating in the progression. Every new model is valued as a rung on a ladder to higher intelligence and deeper understanding.

The story will be continued in Part 2 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

Donald Trump, Orchestra Conductor

If “All the world’s a stage,” we should give Donald Trump a standing ovation for his compelling personification of a demagogue.

TrumpMr. Trump has writ large the premise that undergirds a predatory world. The American election of 2016 can be seen as a contest over whether to affirm the primal survival strategy—no holds barred, every man for himself—that he embodies, or to build dignitarian institutions that reflect the emerging consensus that human beings are mutually dependent co-creators, interconnected and inseparable, and no one should be left out.

It’s not just the targets of Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia who seek dignity; it’s his supporters as well. Like all demagogues, Trump is not a creator but an orchestrator of popular resentment. We focus on the histrionics of the band leader, raising his arms in victory and captivating the crowd. But what we should pay attention to is the embittered alienation that Trump channels. If the inequities and shame that buoy his demagoguery go unaddressed, don’t be surprised if the music turns martial.

Trump supporters are not all of one stripe. Among them are casualties of a variety of novel forces including globalization, automation, and modernization. But his fans do have one thing in common. They suffer from a dignity deficiency. Like a vitamin deficiency, a dignity deficiency can be lethal. Symptoms range from taking a chance on a charismatic strongman to joining a gang or signing up for jihad. Though he has orchestrated their discontent, Trump is hardly responsible for all the real and imagined indignities that enrage his devotees.

Trump prescribes a dose of national pride: “I will make America great again,” he intones, assuming that a profusion of tribal pride will trickle down and dissolve the frustration that fuels their anger.

False pride is the drug offered by all demagogues. The only antidote to their quack remedy is the dignity everyone requires—that of a respected, secure, and fairly compensated place in society.

In practical terms, this means sharing the costs of modernization, disposing of no one, and dismantling impediments to social mobility. Absent inclusion and dignity, indignation only grows.

Who Am I?

[This is the first post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.]

baby mirrorConfusion about fundamental notions such as selfhood, identity, and consciousness distorts personal relationships, underlies ideological deadlock, aggravates partisan politics, and causes unnecessary human suffering.

A better understanding of selfhood holds the promise of resolving perennial quarrels and putting us all on the same side as we face the challenges in a global future, not least of which will be coming to terms with machines who rival or surpass human intelligence.

While we all casually refer to our self, no one knows quite what that self is. Nothing is so close at hand, yet hard to grasp as selfhood. To get started, think of your self as who or what you’re referring to when you use the pronouns “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

Am I My Body?

As infants, we’re taught that we are our bodies. Later, we learn that every human being has a unique genomic blueprint that governs the construction, in molecular nano-factories, of our physical bodies. But we do not derive our identity from our genome or from the body built according to that blueprint. By the time of adolescence, most of us, though still concerned about physical appearance, and in particular sexual attractiveness, have begun to shift our primary identity from our body to the thoughts and feelings that we associate with our minds.

Am I My Mind?

The mind is embodied in the connectivity of the central and autonomic nervous systems that determine our behavior, verbal and otherwise. By analogy with the genome, the map of neural connections is sometimes referred to as the connectome. The connectome for an individual can be called the menome (rhymes with genome).

Like our genome, our menome has Homo sapiens written all over it. And, like the genome, every menome is unique. Unlike the relatively stable genome, the menome is always changing.

As we’ll see, the menome isn’t the whole of selfhood any more than the genome. Before going beyond the menome, however, let’s take a look at one of the mind’s most noteworthy features: its ability to witness itself. Could the witness be what we mean when we refer to our self?

Am I My Witness?

I am an other.
– Arthur Rimbaud

The witness is a neutral, observational function of mind. It should not be thought of as a little observer in our heads, but rather as a cognitive function of the nervous system, namely that of monitoring the body and the mind. By childhood’s end, no one lacks this faculty, though in some it seems more active than in others.

The elderly will tell you that although their bodies and minds have aged, their witness has not. Even in old age, it remains a youthful, detached, outspoken observer. Whether ignored or embraced, the witness continues to whisper the truth to us as long as we live.

For example, it’s the witnessing faculty that notices that we’re ashamed or prideful, or, possibly, losing our hair or our memories. Without judging us, it registers outcomes and thereby provides evidence we need to manage.

The witness stands apart from the rush of worldly life, overhearing our thoughts and observing our actions. Although it has no rooting interest, it records the successes and failures, and the comings and goings, of the personal identities that we field in the game of life.

When the spectacle of life becomes intense, the witness often recedes into the background, but continues observing through thick and thin. So long as we remember that the witness is not an ethereal being in our heads—the ghostly “captain of our soul”—but a function, or an application, of the nervous system, it does no harm to personify it as a detached reporter of the spectacle that is our life.

The critical inner voice we sometimes hear scolding us is not that of the witness, which is indifferent to our ups and downs. Self-accusation is rather the result of internalizing others’ judgments. In contrast, the witness neither blames nor praises no matter what we do or what others think of us. While not given to displays of emotion, the witness is our closest ally. It may whisper rather than yell, but it speaks truth to power.

Some people identify the self as the witness, that is, they see themselves as that part of the mind that watches over the rest and reports its findings. While self-surveillance is essential to maturation, the witness is but one mental function among many. We sell ourselves short if we equate self with witness. The witness is no more the whole self than a smartphone is one of its apps.

The signature application of mind is to fashion serviceable identities. That is, to put together a persona that, by virtue of its contribution to others, gets us into the game and, once we’re on the field, garners enough recognition to secure a position. I’ll develop this idea in a series of posts that follow.

A word about the umbrella title: Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. While everything you know about yourself is certainly not wrong, in fact, it’s probably right, that’s not what the title says and not what it means. Rather, this series of posts focuses on common misconceptions regarding selfhood. The focus is not ourselves—our personal histories—but rather our selves—that is, what we mean by “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

Einstein’s Question: Is the Universe Friendly?

[This is the 20th and last in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?]

We are as gods and have to get good at it.
– Stewart Brand

The shift from opportunistic predation to inviolate universal dignity is an epochal one, and arguably, it’s one we now find ourselves making. However, it’s only prudent to ask “What could go wrong? What could postpone the advent of a dignitarian world? Are we overlooking new threats to human dignity?”

Challenges

[Someday human intelligence] might be viewed as a historically interesting, albeit peripheral, special case of machine intelligence.
– Pierre Baldi

Futurists are warning that at some point during this century we’ll be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human—the advent of sophisticated thinking machines. It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it would be quite another to face machines manifesting supra-human intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk who, by any measure, outperforms the cleverest, most creative person you know. We’ll probably program such devices not to condescend to us, but the knowledge that they beat us at our own game would take some getting used to.

A preview of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior demotions in status. Copernicus’s removing the Earth, and us along with it, from center stage caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s depiction of us as descendants of apes was initially scorned and is still rejected by some. If, as now seems likely, life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a special role.

In the face of these previous humblings, humans found what appeared to be an incontestable basis for pride in their superior intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? We’ve rarely handled such blows with grace.

Faced with creations of our own making that outdo us, and notwithstanding a few valedictory tantrums, we’ll probably end up by humbly accepting the help of thinking machines much as aging parents reluctantly accept advice from their grown offspring.

Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with help from our clever progeny, may someday supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes, but expunged? Not by smart machines, if we make them our allies.

If the current trend toward dignity is reversed, it will likely be due to scarcity thrust upon us by our own actions. Obviously, the advent of a dignitarian world could be set back for decades, possibly centuries, by global economic collapse, war, pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and a host of other eventualities that could reinstate predatory competition for scarce resources. Though such calamities might slow the universalization of dignity, they are unlikely to permanently reverse a trend that can now be read between the lines on every page of the human story.

In the context of future challenges, it’s illuminating to consider the proverb “The poor shall always be with you.” Does “poor” refer literally to wealth, that is, does this proverb deny the possibility of an equitable world?

We could take the saying to mean that even if everyone has enough, there will always be variations in wealth, that is, there will remain some who are relatively poor. Or, we could take it to mean that although there may be no significant variations in financial security, there would still exist people who are poor in spirit, who lack recognition, or are lonely or otherwise unfulfilled. I find this maxim to be one of religion’s more provocative hypotheses. I hope it’s wrong, in both senses, but it’s too early to tell. We do seem to be getting a handle on malnutrition, and it’s not impossible that we’ll eliminate it entirely and go on to address the damage done by malrecognition. Success against both “maladies” would offer hope that the poor will not always be with us.

Likewise, with the admonition “Love thy enemies.” It sounds like a bridge too far in today’s world, but in a dignitarian world, where synthesis is the name of the game, love will be much closer to hand. Once again, religion is likely prophetic: sooner than we think, it’s going to become obvious that to be anything other than our brothers’ keepers endangers us all.

Being Ready

As it happens, we’re making the shift to dignitarian values in the nick of time. As the above list of possible setbacks suggests, the problems looming on the horizon are even tougher than those of the past, and solving them will require overcoming old divisions that block cooperation.

If we do discover life on other planets, we’ll want to know where we stand relative to it on the evolutionary scale. If this analysis is correct, then dignitarianism is universal and it won’t matter if extraterrestrial beings are more advanced than we because they will also be dignitarian and will protect our dignity much as we increasingly concern ourselves with the dignity of animals. And if it turns out that they are less advanced than we, then we will treat them with dignity. Either way, we should be okay—if, when that day comes, we’ve let go of our old predatory strategy in favor of a dignitarian one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although we’ve been making models from the start, we’ve only become really good at it in the last few centuries. This suggests that we are probably much closer to the beginning of human history than the end.

It’s myopic to believe that the problems we’re confronting now are insoluble and will continue to obsess humans of the future. Even in the last hundred years, we’ve halved the percentage of people whose primary concern is food and shelter. Likewise, there are already signs that our focus is shifting from issues of war and peace, and domination and dignity, to global threats like those listed above. These will likely prove as bracing as those we’ve been focused on.

The apparent infinitude of our ignorance has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will remain unfinished, our understanding incomplete. This means that there will always be opportunities to contribute to knowledge. We, or our successors, will never be out of a job. As David Deutsch argues, we’re at “the beginning of infinity.”

Is the Universe Friendly?

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
– Meister Eckhart, 13th c. mystic

Asked what question he would most want to know the answer to if he returned to Earth in 500 years, Albert Einstein replied, “Is the universe friendly?”

Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and, at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I look into the cosmos.

Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anything matter?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. At first glance, the universe seems uncaring; the indifference of infinite space, a cosmic, comic indignity.

But then the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does have a heart—indeed, lots of them. They’re beating in our breasts.

Any inventory of the cosmos that omits us is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument capable of understanding itself and empathizing with others. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If I believe the universe is heartless, it’s because I myself do not love.

But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between then and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for hominids. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated modeling skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes—those of our own making as well as asteroids with our name on them.

The passage to a dignitarian world will probably not be smooth. We still have to lift billions of people out of poverty. Each year millions of children die from malnutrition and millions more suffer from malrecognition. But despair is unwarranted. The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart—our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and modelers—the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.

The universe, for its part, is likely to be as friendly or unfriendly as we are. Indeed, there is reason to hope.

Religion and Science

[This is the 20th and last post in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Rankism vs. the Golden Rule

[This is the 17th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

The Many Faces of Rankism

Rankism is a collective name for the various ways power can be abused in the context of a rank difference. It’s a name broad enough to cover a wide range of rank-based indignities and abuses. Whereas rank is meant to serve, rankism is self-serving, a perversion of service.

Examples of rankism (some may overlap):
• Illegitimate uses of legitimate rank (e.g., a boss extorting money or sex from an employee)
• The creation or use of social hierarchies that condone degradation and exploitation (e.g., the social construct of white superiority and supremacy, the caste system)
• Damaging or degrading assertions of rank (e.g., hate crimes, sexual harassment, child abuse)
• Actions or social arrangements that violate the principle of equal dignity (e.g., racial segregation, lack of the franchise)
• Putting others down; disempowering them (name-calling or obfuscation by elites)
• Using the power inherent in rank to strengthen the hold on a senior position or otherwise advantage incumbents. (E.g., office-holders exploiting the advantages of incumbency to insure retention of rank; life-time appointments that leave tenured teachers, professors, judges, and clerics virtually unaccountable.
• Self-service as contrasted with serving the avowed purpose of the organization (e.g., executives awarding themselves bonuses not on the basis of performance, but simply by virtue of their power to get away with doing so)
• Using the power of rank not to empower others, but to promote, enrich, or empower oneself (e.g., predatory lending)

I hope you’ll add to this list.

In many cases, ranking serves no purpose other than to create and maintain the privileges of the high-ranking. Although ranking is not inherently rankist, it’s often used as a cover for institutionalizing discrimination, for example, in aristocracies, caste systems, and schools. Hierarchies are famously prone to ensuring the privileges of rank-holders, to the detriment of those served.

Varieties of Rankism: The Mother of Many Isms

Racism
Sexism
Ageism
Homophobia
Ableism
Anti-Semitism
Classism
Childism
Exceptionalism
Speciesism
Bullying
Mobbing
Slavery
Elder abuse
Prisoner Abuse
Torture
Trafficking
Corruption (all kinds)
Influence Peddling
Graft
Nepotism
Tenure
Rape
Sexual Abuse
Sexual Harassment
Paternalism
Condescension
One-upmanship

The Golden Rule in the Model of Morality

As mentioned in post #15 in this series of blogs, the simple rule at the core of this model of morality is “Dignity for All, Always.” Look around and you’ll see that the world is manifestly in violation of this precept: predation and the consequence thereof—indignity—is everywhere.

But, the fact that we have successfully disallowed subspecies of predatory practice suggests that we might be able to give up predation itself. Though they’ve not been eliminated, many of the most egregious forms of predation have been made illegal. Delegitimizing residual predation, by disallowing rankism, would usher in a dignitarian era in human history, an era in which we’re obliged to respect and protect the dignity of others as we would have them respect and protect ours. Dignitarian politics gives the golden rule teeth—by naming indignities and so making them targetable. Together, science, religion, and politics could, plausibly, retire the predatory survival strategy, which has been characteristic of Homo sapiens until now, in favor of a dignitarian strategy that will describe our species going forward.

The manifest righteousness of the golden rule has long posed a psychological barrier to inflicting indignity on our fellow humans. The lengths to which we’ve gone to justify predatory behaviors belies our unease with contravening it. The excuses we invent to create loopholes to the golden rule are graduated in proportion to the degree of the indignity we inflict. For example, we demonize our enemies to justify killing them; we dehumanize captives to justify enslaving them; we disparage victims of discrimination to rationalize exploiting them; we dismiss people as nobodies to justify discounting their views.

So long as our individual survival depended on out-competing rivals for scarce necessities, we availed ourselves of excuses like these to suspend our intuition of the brotherhood of man and free ourselves to prey on our human kin. But, the fact that we don’t flout the golden rule without feeling the need to justify ourselves suggests that if these excuses were disallowed, the rule might become largely self-enforcing. That’s exactly what having a collective name—rankism—for the various causes of indignity can help us do. As mentioned, just having the word sexism in the lexicon helped to disallow excuses for discrimination against women. In a similar way, might not the word rankism enable us to spotlight residual rank-based abuses of power and put perpetrators on the defensive?

The self-evident nature of the golden rule and the success of Einstein’s relativity theory both have their origins in underlying symmetries. As the poet says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Mathematicians have discovered that the connection between truth and beauty lies in symmetry.

The symmetry undergirding the golden rule is the assumption of equal dignity for all. The symmetry underlying the theory of relativity is the assumption of equal validity of reference frames (of other observers). A deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos will likely shed further light on the role of symmetry in shaping both physical and moral law.

When, in 1915, Einstein succeeded in generalizing his theory of special relativity to general relativity, he was rewarded by a theory of gravitation that improved upon Newton’s classical laws of motion. So, too, when identity politics is generalized to apply to all victims of degradation (not just those distinguished by a trait like color, gender, age, etc.) then we’re rewarded with a universal theory of morality. The analogue of Einstein’s assumptions—that one reference frame is as good as another and the speed of light is the same in all of them—is the assumption of equal dignity for all people regardless of role or rank. Since indignity is caused by rankism, it follows from the assumption of equal dignity that the model of morality delegitimizes rankism.

So long as we see our “self” as a target that must defend itself against indignities, we’re likely to respond in kind. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is, among other things, the fundamental law of reciprocal indignity. But, if we see our “self” as nimble and porous, we can sidestep arrows with our name on them and respond to indignities in a way that does not attack the dignity of those who trespass against us. Breaking the cycle of indignity and violence is a dignitarian application of “turn the other cheek.” As reciprocal dignity becomes the norm, the roles we play in co-creating and maintaining each others’ identities become clear, and “love thy neighbor as thyself” begins to look like an obtainable ideal.

While the twentieth century saw progress in overcoming certain sub-species of rankism, many varieties of it persist unchecked. Reasons for pessimism and despair are not hard to come by. Since World War II there have been scores of wars, millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees; fighting continues today in many parts of the world. Since the Holocaust, and despite the world’s determination that it not happen again, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere. Poverty enshrouds one-third of the world’s seven billion people and experts warn that population pressure and/or climate change will pit us against each other in a struggle for scarce resources.

Many insist that man’s predatory practices are undiminished and ineradicable. But an opposing trend is becoming visible. While admitting that “the arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “it bends toward justice.” Did Dr. King, do we, have reason to hope for “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men,” or, is the brotherhood of man a pipe dream? The remaining posts address this question.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Whatever Happened to “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”?

[This is the 3rd in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Sunday School, I had noticed, everyone had noticed, that the commandments, precepts, and rules that were taught there were often disregarded, not only by scoundrels and criminals in the news, but by some of the very people whose job it was to teach us these morals.

Upon detecting hypocrisy in the messenger, my impulse had been to throw out the message. But I couldn’t quite shake the golden rule. Its symmetry gave expression to an intuition that ran deep: that I shouldn’t expect to be well-treated by those whom I treated poorly; that I should afford others the dignity I sought for myself.

My take-away questions from Sunday School were:

  1. Why are moral precepts—even those that everyone accepts—widely ignored?
  2. Why has “peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men” not been realized?

I wondered about this gap between the ideal and the reality as World War II raged, as the Holocaust was revealed, and as Japan surrendered to American atom bombs. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that religion’s most serious short-coming was not that it harbored “deniers” of well-established science models, but that it had not found a way to realize its own aspirational goals.

For example, the golden rule was suspended when it came to so-called “Negroes” (they were not allowed to own homes in my town), the mentally handicapped (a boy with Down Syndrome hung around my school’s perimeter, but was barred from school property), homosexuals (a boy we thought “queer” was humiliated), and poor, overweight, unstylish, or “dumb” kids were often subjected to ridicule.

At college, when I argued that life might someday be created in a test tube, I was mocked as a “heathen” and a ridiculed as a “mechanist.” When I responded with insults of my own, the result was a shouting match.

Later, I wondered if “getting even” gave me a pass when it came to obeying the golden rule. After all, they had hurled the first insult. But then hadn’t I upped the ante? The logician in me noticed that the golden rule, like the best rules in physics, allows for no exceptions. It didn’t say anything about who went first. Did that mean that retaliating in kind was wrong?

Finding an answer to this question took decades, and I’ll come back to it after addressing an even more fundamental, methodological question, a question that no discussion of religion and science can ignore.

Are There Really Two Kinds of Knowledge?

In the mid-1960s, stirred by the passions of the civil rights movement, I left physics to play a part in the reform of higher education then sweeping the country. Overnight, my life took an activist turn toward issues of equity and justice. Though exposure to the golden rule had predisposed me to sympathize with those demanding equal rights, I did not trace my political ideals to religion.

I’d spent most of my time since Sunday School in pursuit of scientific truth, where evidence is king. During that time, my skepticism toward the faith-based claims of religion had grown stronger. But in my political work, I couldn’t help but notice that the reformers I worked with often invoked religious teachings to good effect in support of the goals we shared.

By the mid-seventies, the transformational energy of the sixties was spent and, seeing no chance for further reforms, at age thirty-seven, I left academia. The bitter academic politics of that period had left me bruised and burnt out. In search of a less contentious way to bring change, I wondered if the world’s holy books contained anything that might have helped me be a better leader. In particular, Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Vedanta, were drawing attention from Western seekers, and the word was that they offered a more tranquil, enlightened path to personal and social change.

Before I could take in anything positive from religion, Eastern or Western, I had to deal with the negative. Yes, some churches had provided a home for leaders of the civil rights movement, but it seemed to me that if institutional religion practiced what it preached, it could have done a lot more to oppose racism and done it sooner. What more obvious violation of the golden rule could there be than a segregated America?

My old questions about religion’s ineffectiveness were joined by new ones concerning its exceptionalism. What if religion defended its teachings in the same way science does—by marshaling evidence, making predictions, and testing them against outcomes? What if religion applied its teachings to its own practices? What if seemingly utopian prophecies like “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” were regarded not as naïve pieties but rather as testable predictions of a state of social equilibrium toward which humankind was muddling?

It seemed to me that, with a few changes, religion could stand up to the criticisms of non-believers, regain the respect of its critics, and be the transformational force its founders and prophets had envisioned. In this re-visioning, the parts of religion that are counterfactual or unproven could either be dropped—as science jettisons theories that don’t hold up to scrutiny—or retained as speculation, metaphor, or personal preference. After all, anyone is free to believe anything, and most of us, including scientists, discreetly exercise that right in one area or another.

Fast forward thirty years. The twenty-first century has brought an avalanche of evidence, and official admissions, of religion’s moral lapses. Extreme ideologues and fanatical true believers continue to tarnish the religious brand. When religion aligns itself with discredited science, its losing streak is unbroken, and where educational levels are on the rise, religion is in decline. This wouldn’t matter if religion had succeeded in imparting its most important teachings, but the golden rule is still widely flouted, and “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” remains a distant dream.

Sometimes, when you can’t get from A to B, it’s for lack of a steppingstone. In that spirit, it seemed possible to me that for religion to realize its vision of peace on Earth, it may first need to make peace with science. The goal in these posts is to show that religion and science can indeed co-occupy that steppingstone of peace, and from it, deliver on their complementary promises.

Although grievances leap to mind when we consider making peace with an old foe, ultimate success depends on identifying not where each side is wrong, but where each is right.

Current attacks on religion are ignoring the fact that it got some very big things right. However, religion must take responsibility for much of the criticism directed its way because its spokesmen have repeatedly failed to distinguish between its great discoveries and its mistakes. Not only have some religious leaders ignored compelling evidence, but they, like the leaders of secular institutions, have often failed to live up to the standards of behavior they espouse. Nothing undermines authority like hypocrisy.

Paradoxically, science makes even more mistakes than religion; but it saves itself by being quicker to recognize and correct them. Niels Bohr, the father of atomic physics, ascribed his breakthroughs to “making my mistakes faster than others.”

The difference between science and religion is not that one has “babies” in its bath water and the other doesn’t. The difference is that science drains its dirty bath water faster, leaving its gleaming babies for all to admire. As the American scientific statesman, James B. Conant, said:

The stumbling way in which even the ablest scientists in every generation have had to fight through thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks.

In what follows, I’ll try to give both religion and science their due without soft-peddling their differences. Signing onto a new deal will require adjustments from both of these venerable antagonists.

The principal tool needed to end the historical enmity between science and religion, though nothing new, goes by a name that may be unfamiliar. It’s called model building—“modeling,” for short.

In ordinary language, models are representations of an object, a phenomenon, or a person or group that describe or prescribe the behavior of what’s represented. Some models take the form of stories, rules, or codes that show us how to behave. Hence the phrase “model behavior.” Other models take the form of explanations or theories that tell us how nature behaves, for example, Bohr’s atomic model. These days one does not start a company without first creating a business model.

A model is a representation of an object, phenomenon, or person that resembles the real thing. By studying the model we can learn about what it mirrors.

When we ask if there are two distinct kinds of knowledge—scientific truths and religious truths—we’re really asking if the same methodology can unlock the secrets in both realms. In forthcoming parts of this series, I’ll try to show that the tool of modeling, coupled with demystification of the discovery process, provides a conceptual framework broad and deep enough to unify science and religion.

I begin with a look at some models from science (part 4), then examine some models from religion (part 5). Once we’ve identified what’s of lasting value—that is, the time-tested teachings—in both traditions, the next step is to spell out their complementary roles in addressing the life-threatening challenges facing humankind.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]