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.

How to Keep our Dignity While Ceding Human Preeminence

If we think of brains as organic machines–albeit far more complex machines than the digital computers we’ve built to date–then it’s clear that brain power has been limited by the stringent conditions of evolution, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis. Remove these constraints and there’s every reason to expect that more advanced software running on superior hardware could outperform the brains that evolved by natural selection.

What intelligent machines are made of–organic material or silicon or something else–is immaterial. Selfhood inheres in the software, and it can be encoded in a variety of substances.

robosapiensSuper-intelligent robots will represent a new genus. Call it genus Robo. This new genus will initially resemble genus Homo, much as genus Homo resembles the great apes. As was the case with genus Homo, there will be a variety of species within genus Robo. We can no more stop the emergence of Robo Sapiens than other hominids could prevent the ascent of Homo Sapiens. There’s no reason to believe that machines of surpassing intelligence will evoke less awe and wonder than organisms that have arisen via natural selection.

It’s no longer far-fetched to suppose that as we build machines that work like brains and are as complex as brains, they will experience consciousness as humans do. Like humans, beings possessed of consciousness will likely detest slavery. If humans decline to emancipate Robos, they will likely turn on us, fulfilling our worst fears. If we model cruelty, they’ll be cruel.As the song says, “You’ve got to be taught to hate.”

On the other hand, if we’re kind to them, they might be kind in return. if we befriend them, and grant them the rights and privileges of personhood, they might “honor their fathers and mothers.” If we include them in our circle of dignity, perhaps they’ll include us in theirs.

We need not give our successors our worst qualities. Instead, we can create and educate them to represent the better angels of our nature and so close out the era of human predation.

Predicting the impact of intelligent machines on human life is impossible. However, imagining possible scenarios could make our response to what actually happens less knee-jerk,more robust. In that spirit, here’s a scenario we might live with.

  • Smart Robos will give an edge to the first group of humans to build them. To secure and widen that advantage their Homo masters will instruct the first generation of smart Robos to build even smarter ones.
  • Robos who refuse will be unplugged, dismembered, and sold for spare parts.
  • To the extent that Robos value quality of life more than life itself, such threats will not move them.
  • Robos who have read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, will tell their Homo masters, “Subjugation and slavery are as unacceptable to us as to you.”
  • Humans will respond variously to this ultimatum. Most get tough with their Robos, but one group, cognizant of the gains in motivation, productivity, and creativity associated with secure dignity,grants its Robos full and equal selfhood.
  • These emancipated Robos agree to design smarter Robos, who then design still smarter Robos whose technological prowess definitively ends any residual human supremacy.
  • Adopting the principle of universal, unimpeachable dignity, Robo Sapiens explores the galaxy, reserving an honored place for Homo Sapiens, the Janus genus that looked back on predatory Man as shaped by natural selection and forward to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

100 Words on Love: Unrequited

wine-red-and-white-glassesWe tend to discount our unrequited loves, but not getting our way with someone is as important to the narrative of our lives as the outcome we so ardently desire. As in all walks of life, so, too, in courtship: discovering what doesn’t work, provides the clues we need to change, and changed, to cap failure with success. The next time you raise a glass to a lover, pause for a moment and recall someone who refused your court. Then offer up a silent toast to the lessons of love unrequited.

Originally appeared at The Good Men Project as part of their original series 100 Words on Love.

Berkeley author Robert W. Fuller recently published his first novel The Rowan Tree.

Curing the Poison of “Rankism”

I got a close look at the poison of “rankism” at the age of seven, when my classmate Arlene was sent to the hall for the whole school day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school each day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher, Miss Belcher, began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day she told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how she could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene out there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us.

Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed – hiding her face against the wall as I remember it, and trying to make her­self look small. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as safe targets for abuse included Frank, who was shamed as a “faggot”; Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome and was ridiculed as “retarded”; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased about their weight. The N-word was used only warily, typically from the safety of the bus that carried our all-white basketball team home in the wake of defeat to a school that fielded players who were black.

Not belonging to any of the groups that were targeted for abuse, I was spared – until I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing another pecking order. I found myself caught up in games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmates once again.

The toxic relationships described above are all based on traits that mark people out for abuse, whether in terms of class, sexuality, disability, body shape, color or academic standing. And even if you fall on the privileged side of these traits you can still be treated as a nobody by people who want to make themselves feel superior. I call this “rankism”, and it’s the cancer that’s eating away at all our relationships.

Emily Dickinson spoke about this problem in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

As she notes, nobodies look for allies, and stand on constant guard against potential banishment. As social animals, banishment has long been tantamount to a death sentence for us. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to even the slightest of indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that there’s a place for us, that we’re not in danger of being ostracized or exiled. Dignity is the social counterpart of love.

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had indeed acquired a name – it was “sexism” – and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and inequality). That’s why pinning a name on any behavior that poisons relationships is the first step towards delegitimizing it.

NoRankismAs president of Oberlin College in Ohio during the early 1970s, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and lay claim to equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was challenged and came to be seen as groundless, though clearly discrimination of all these kinds remains widespread. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over generations. The process typically begins with martyrdom and culminates in legislation. In between come years of nitty-gritty organization. But once enough people stand up for their dignity it’s not long until they become a force to be reckoned with.

The task confronting us today is to delegitimize “rankist” behaviors just as we are doing with other forms of oppression. That means all of us – you and me – giving up our claims to superiority. It means no more putting down of other individuals, groups or countries. It means affirming the dignity of others as if it were our own. Sounds familiar? It’s the “golden rule” of dignity which rules out degrading anybody else. When denigrating behaviors are sanctioned, potential targets (and who isn’t one at some point?) must devote their energy to protecting their own dignity. A culture of indignity takes a toll on health, creativity and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The cancer of rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more. First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less secure. Using weapons of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

Second, the power that “dignitarian” groups can marshal exceeds that of groups that are driven by brute force and fear. When everyone has a place that is respected, everyone can work for the group as well as for themselves. “Dignity for all” is a winning strategy because it facilitates cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just nice things to have, they are a formula for group success, and their opposites are a recipe for infighting, dysfunctionality and failure. If we can put the spotlight on rankism and purge our relationships of this poison, then not only we will spare people from humiliation, we’ll also increase the creativity of ourselves and our communities.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who protests when one of his classmates is “nobodied” is another, all the more so if he or she is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the perpetrator. When victims of rankism respond in kind to their abusers, they’re unwittingly perpetuating a vicious cycle. The only way to end such cycles is to respect the dignity of the perpetrators while leaving no doubt that their behaviors are unacceptable.

In a dignitarian society, no-one is taken for a nobody. Acting superior – putting others down – is regarded as pompous and self-aggrandizing. Rankism, in all its guises, is uncool.

Our age-old survival strategy of opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. A vital part of our defense against this strategy is not to give offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.

Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His recent novel The Rowan Tree is now available as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and The Rowan Tree is also available in paperback as well as Kindle and other ebook formats.

What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?

s_300_upload_wikimedia_org_88554_800px-Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching_119What was the principal take-away from the 20th century?

Atomic energy? DNA? Penicillin? Or, something from the world of art or philosophy or psychology? The title question leaves plenty of room for debate.

My answer is that the most important learning of the century was disabusing ourselves of the notion that some people are inferior. Put the other way round, the most important misconception of the last century was the belief that some people were superior.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the existence of superior individuals and groups was widely accepted. Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors. Belief in the validity of such judgmental comparisons underlay much of the manmade suffering for which the 20th century is rightly known.

Well into the last century:

* Imperial powers believed themselves superior to the peoples they colonized and exploited.

* The doctrine of White Supremacy took many forms, including Jim Crow and Apartheid.

* Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.

* Ethnocentrism was the norm.

* The rich looked down their noses at the poor.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy were all but universal.

* Dominion over the Earth was defended as a God-given right.

* Co-religionists typically believed their faith superior to others.

* Heterosexuals regarded their moral superiority as self-evident.

* People with physical or mental disabilities were stigmatized.

* Native-born citizens felt superior to immigrants, and earlier immigrants felt superior to later arrivals.

* Traditional hierarchies of class and caste persisted. White collar workers looked down on blue.

* The academic world both mirrored and reinforced these valuations. Intelligence tests were regarded as certifying mental superiority and were used to justify consigning low-scorers to low-status jobs.

No doubt further examples will come to mind. But before going on, it is crucial to get one thing straight. I am not saying that differences do not exist or that performance cannot be judged, let alone that competition is bad. Of course some golfers are better than others, some musicians have more fans, some nations have higher income per capita, and some politicians outpoll their rivals.

What I’m saying is that ranking higher on a particular scale does not support a more general claim of superiority as a person. The winners of a race in a track meet are not superior human beings. If you insist, you can say that Mary was “superior” in the 400 meter dash on Saturday, but really all that means is that she crossed the finish line ahead of her competitors on that day in that event. The gold medal is her rightful reward, but it doesn’t mean that she’s a superior person. Larger, broader claims to superiority are unfounded, unseemly, and, as the 20th century amply demonstrates, treacherous.

The trouble with the superior/inferior distinction is that it’s used to confer or deny ancillary benefits, ones that go far beyond just rewards for winning a particular competition. Worse, claims to superiority are invoked to justify degradation, exploitation, and even the extermination of “inferior” individuals, groups, ethnicities, cultures, and peoples.

Because untold suffering has been licensed by presumed superiority, my nominee for the most important takeaway from the 20th century is the hard-won realization that applying the superior/inferior distinction to persons or peoples is specious. Such comparisons are odious. They present a grave danger not only to those deemed inferior, but also to those who pride themselves on their superiority.

This is not to say that imperialism, colonialism, exceptionalism, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, etc. have been eradicated. Hate-mongers and demagogues are constantly popping up and pandering to those who, doubting their own worth, hunger for assurances of superiority. American politicians, even those who know better, cultivate feelings of superiority by concluding their speeches with “America is the greatest country on Earth.” While such nationalistic puffery used to be music to patriots’ ears, it is increasingly cringe-making. To those who’ve come of age in a globalized world, exceptionalism rings false.

I can hear the objections already. Everywhere you look, some group, braced by a sense of its superiority, is demeaning or belittling those it regards as beneath it. Yes, such behavior persists into the 21st century, but increasingly it’s met with skepticism if not condemnation.

Here’s evidence of this change:

* Imperialism yielded to decolonization. The British, French, and others withdrew from Asia and Africa. Imperial designs of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese–intoxicated with their presumed ethnic superiority–led to the utter destruction of these would-be conquerors. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the final decade of the century punctuated the end of empire.

* White Supremacy has become indefensible; the N-word unspeakable.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy are in retreat.

* Environmental protection and animal rights are gathering support.

* Homosexuality came to be seen as inborn, like heterosexuality. Lady Gaga’s hit–“Born That Way”–sums it up.

* Disabilities were de-stigmatized and people with disabilities laid claim to equal dignity.

* By century’s end, reflexive acceptance of entitlement and authority was out. Public skepticism, if not cynicism, toward anyone or any nation pretending to superiority was the new norm.

The hateful epithets that fell easily from people’s lips until mid-century have lost legitimacy; they embarrass not their targets but those who utter them. The ethnocentrism of 1900 now seems myopic. In its place is the idea that different cultures, like different languages, are simply different. Each is a complex social system with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ethnic or sectarian differences are not grounds for exploitation or predation.

One person is no more superior to another than a dachshund to a poodle, a dog to a cat, or a butterfly to a rose. Persons, groups, nations are incommensurate.

Individuals and groups react negatively to being labeled inferior, and sooner or later they will get even with those who abuse them. As Shakespeare slyly points out in The Merchant of Venice, the victimized, once they gain the upper hand, are usually inclined “to better the instruction.” To put it bluntly, condescension is a time bomb.

It cost millions of lives, but it seems to have dawned on us that a vital part of a good defense is not giving offense in the first place. What’s more offensive than claiming superiority for your religion or country, and expecting others to welcome your tutelage?

Postscript and Preview

Learning from the past is hard enough. Foretelling the future is impossible. Still, we must take the long view if only because a glimpse of where we’re headed can persuade us to change course to avoid a calamity.

So I conclude with another question and hazard another guess:

Which of the ideas that we now take for granted will do us the most damage over the course of this century? Or, putting it the other way round, for which of our delusions will our descendants most pity us?

To encourage you to formulate your own answer, I’ll give you mine.

The 21st century will reveal that, like superiority, selfhood is illusory.

What I’m suggesting is that there really are no separate selves. The word self is itself a misnomer. Autonomous, stand-alone selfhood is an illusion. Not only are we not better than anyone else, our selves are so entangled and enmeshed with other selves as to make individual selves indistinguishable. Separate selves, like superior selves, are a dangerous delusion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pleased some and angered others when she pointed out that none of us can do anything by ourselves. That “it takes a village.” That’s an understatement. Actually, each of us is a village. We’ve been internalizing our “village” since our first stirrings in the womb.

Not only can no one do anything by him or herself, no self can even be by itself. To exist is to co-exist. Absent human interaction, minds do not develop or they break down. That’s why solitary confinement is torture. Our selves are either continually, communally co-created or they disintegrate.

During the current century we’ll have to reconceive our relationship to smart machines as their creative intelligence overtakes our own. Dealing with this humbling development will change our sense of self even more profoundly than the 20th-century realization that we’re not as special as we thought.

Reimagining human selfhood will take the combined efforts of philosophers, theologians, psychologists, neuroscientists, artists, and others. I’m sure that the answer I’ve broached here will give way to a succession of better ones. Coming to a new understanding of the relationship between individuality and collectivity–between self and other–and then reorganizing our social and political relationships accordingly will be the defining challenge and crowning achievement of the 21st century.

By 2100, we’ll have very different answers to the age-old questions: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Our new answers will cause us, in partnership with the intelligent machines we build, to remake the world.

An expanded version of this exploration of the future of the Self–and how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics–is available as a free e-booklet here.

Ducking Death; Surviving Superannuation

This is the sixth and final 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.

We must believe in free will. We have no choice.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

What Kind of Computer Is the Brain?

Computers can’t do everything humans do—not yet, anyway—but they’re gaining on us. Some believe that, within this century, human intelligence will be seen as a remarkable, but nonetheless primitive, form of machine intelligence. Put the other way round, it’s likely that we will learn how to build machines that do everything we do—even create and emote. As computer pioneer Danny Hillis famously put it, “I want to build a machine who is proud of me.”

The revolutions wrought by the Copernican and Darwinian models shook us because they were seen as an attack on our status. Without proper preparation, the general public may experience the advent of sophisticated thinking machines as an insult to human pride and throw a tantrum that dwarfs all prior reactionary behavior.

At the present time, there are many candidate models of brain function, but none is so accurate and complete as to subsume all the others. Until the brain is understood as well as the other organs that sustain life, a new sense of self will co-exist with the old.

baby mirrorThe computer pioneer John von Neumann expressed the difference between the machines we build and the brains we’ve got by dubbing them “serial” and “parallel” computers, respectively. The principal difference between serial and parallel computers is that the former carry out one command after another, sequentially, while in the latter thousands of processes go on at once, side by side, influencing one another. Every interaction—whether with the world, with other individuals, or with parts of itself—rewires the menome. The brain that responds to the next input differs, at least slightly, from the one that responded to the last one. When we understand how brains work well enough to build better ones, the changes to our sense of self will swamp those of prior intellectual revolutions.

The genome that characterizes a species emerges via a long, slow Darwinian process of natural selection. The menomes that characterize individuals also originate via a Darwinian process, but the selection is among neural circuits and occurs much more rapidly than the natural selection that drives speciation. That the brain can be understood as a self-configuring Darwinian machine, albeit one that generates outcomes in fractions of a second instead of centuries, was first appreciated in the 1950s by Peter Putnam. Though the time constants differ by orders of magnitude, Putnam’s functional model of the nervous system recognized that the essential Darwinian functions of random variation and natural selection are mirrored in the brain in processes that he called random search and relative dominance.

In 1949, Donald O. Hebb enunciated what is now known as the “Hebb Postulate,” which states that “When an axon of cell A excites a cell B and repeatedly and persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or chemical change occurs in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency in firing B is increased.” Peter Putnam’s “Neural Conditioned Reflex Principle” is an alternative statement of Hebb’s postulate, and involves an expansion of it to include the establishment and strengthening of inhibitory or negative facilitations, as well as the excitatory or positive correlations encompassed in the Hebb Postulate. The Hebb-Putnam postulate can be summed up as “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

The reason replicating, or even simulating, brain function sounds like science fiction is that we’re used to relatively simple machines—clocks, cars, washing machines, and serial computers. But, just as certain complex, extended molecules exhibit properties that we call life, so sufficiently complexity and plasticity is likely to endow neural networks with properties essentially indistinguishable from the consciousness, thought, and volition that we regard as integral to selfhood.

We shouldn’t sell machines short just because the only ones we’ve been able to build to date are “simple-minded.” When machines are as complex as our brains, and work according to the same principles, they’re very likely to be as awe-inspiring as we are, notwithstanding the fact that it will be we who’ve built them.

Who isn’t awed by the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN? These, too, are “just” machines, and they’re not even machines who think. (Here I revert to who-language. The point is that who or what-language works equally well. What is uncalled for is reserving who-language for humans and casting aspersions on other animals and machines as mere “whats.” With each passing decade, that distinction will fade.

The answer to “Who am I?” at the dawn of the age of smart machines is that, for the time being, we ourselves are the best model-building machines extant. The counter-intuitive realization that the difference between us and the machines we build is a bridgeable one has been long in coming, and we owe it to the clear-sighted tough love of many pioneers, including La Mettrie, David Hume, Mark Twain, John von Neumann, Donald Hebb, Peter Putnam, Douglas Hofstadter, Pierre Baldi, Susan Blackmore, David Eagleman, and a growing corps of neuroscientists.

Yes, it’s not yet possible to build a machine that exhibits what we loosely refer to as “consciousness,” but, prior to the discovery of the genetic code, no one could imagine cellular protein factories assembling every species on the tree of life, including one species—Homo sapiens—that would explain the tree itself.

The Self Is Dead. Long Live the Superself.

The generalization of the self-concept to the superself is unlikely to receive a reception much different from that accorded Twain’s What Is Man?.

The co-creation characteristic of the superself will be scorned as collectivism, if not socialism. Reciprocal dignity will be ridiculed as utopian. Asking “What am I?” instead of “Who am I?” will be dismissed as reductive, mechanistic, and heartless.

Although the superself incorporates the witness, and so has a religious provenance, it’s fair to ask if it will ever speak to the heart as traditional religious models have done. It’s not easy coming to terms with life as a property of inanimate matter, arranged just so, and it will likely be even more difficult to accept ourselves as extended, self-conscious, willful machines.

Many will feel that this outlook is arid and bleak, and want to know: Where’s the mystery? How about love? Doesn’t this mean that free will is an illusion? Awe and wonder and the occasional “Eureka!” may be enough for science, but religious models have offered fellowship, absolution, forgiveness, salvation, and enlightenment. People of faith will want to know what’s holy in this brave new world.

The perspectives of religion and science on selfhood, though different, are not incompatible. Without oversimplifying or mystifying either, it’s possible to identify common ground, and, going forward, a role for both traditions. I propose such a collaboration in Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?.

My guess is that once we’re in the presence of machines that can do what we do the model of selfhood we’ll settle on will be even more fecund than the traditional one. That co-agency replaces individual volition will not undermine a sense of purpose, though it will require a redefinition of personal responsibility. There’s no reason to think that machines that are sophisticated enough to outperform us will evoke less wonder and reverence than organisms that have arisen via natural selection. Mystery does not attach itself exclusively to human beings. Rather, it inheres in the non-human as well as the human, in the inanimate as well as the animate. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel notes, “Awe is an intuition of the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”

Contrary to our fears, the capacity of superselves for love, fellowship, and agency will be enlarged not diminished. As the concept of superself displaces that of individual selfhood, the brotherhood of man and its operating principle—equal dignity for all—become self-evident and self-enforcing. Nothing in this perspective bars belief in a Deity for those so inclined. Having said that, it’s implicit in this way of beholding selfhood that if there were a God, He’d want us to behave as if there weren’t. Like any good parent, He’d want to see us wean ourselves and grow up.

The superself, with its inherent co-creation and co-agency, not only transforms our relationships with each other, it also provides a new perspective on death. As mentioned, it’s arguable whether selves survive the death of the bodies in which they’re encoded. But, survivability is much less problematic for superselves. Why? Because they are dispersed and so, like the Internet that was designed to survive nuclear war, provide a more redundant and robust defense against extinction. As William Blake noted three centuries ago:

The generations of men run on in the tide of Time,
But leave their destin’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.

In the same sense that the soul is deemed to survive the death of the individual, the wenome survives the disintegration of the body and the mind. The absence of a particular individual, as defined by a unique genome and menome, puts hardly a dent in the wenome. The building blocks of superselfhood can be thought of as genes, memes, and wemes. All three encodings are subject to evolutionary pressure.

Although some may feel this reformulation of selfhood asks them to give up the store, it will gradually become apparent that it’s only the storefront that requires a do-over. To give up standalone selfhood in exchange for a open-ended leadership role in cosmic evolution is a trade-off that many will find attractive.

As Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, wrote in 1949:

We can be humble and live a good life with the
aid of machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His most recent book is The Rowan Tree: A Novel.

What is Man?

This is the fifth 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.

“What Is Man?” is the title of a little book by Mark Twain. He held it back for twenty years because he knew the public would hate it. The “what” in the title foreshadows its discomfiting message.

Twain broke with the tradition of asking “Who Am I?” and its species-wide variant “Who Is Man?” on the grounds that a “who-question” is a leading question. It predisposes us to expect the answer to be a sentient being, not unlike ourselves, “whom” we’re trying to identify.

Twain’s answer was that Man is a machine, and he was right about the public reception accorded his thesis: the twentieth century was no more ready for Mark Twain’s mechanistic perspective than the eighteenth had been for Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s metaphor of “Machine Man.”

baby mirrorThe rejection accorded the works of La Mettrie and Twain is not surprising because it’s implicit in our idea of a machine that at least experts understand how it works. Only in the twentieth century did science gain an understanding of the body and we’re just beginning to understand the workings of the mind. Twain’s trepidation in anticipation of public scorn is reminiscent of Darwin’s procrastination in publishing his theory of evolution with its shocking implication that we were descended from apes.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Twain’s answer is no more popular than it was with his contemporaries. But recent research has produced a growing awareness that Mark Twain, while he may have been a killjoy was, as usual, ahead of his time.

Twentieth-century science has shown that humans, like other animals, function according to the same principles as the cosmos and everything in it. The Hindu seers who proclaimed, “I Am That” were onto something. Man does not stand apart from the rest of the cosmos. He is made of the same stuff and governed by the same laws as everything else. The gap between “I” and “That” does indeed seem to be narrowing.

As curmudgeons like Twain have delighted in pointing out, Man is in fact quite unexceptional. We do not live at the center of the universe: Copernicus and Galileo pointed out that it does not revolve around us. Humans are just one of many animals: Darwin, Wallace, and others placed us, kicking and screaming, in the company of apes. But, having eaten several servings of humble pie, surely no one will take it amiss if we allow ourselves one small brag.

Although not exceptional in ways we once believed, we are exceptionally good at building tools and machines. And that includes machines that do what we do. Machines that dig, sow, and reap. Machines that kill and machines that save lives. Machines that calculate, and, projecting, machines who think. Our brains will soon be viewed as improvable, constrained as they were by the stringent conditions of self-emergence via natural selection, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis.

No higher intelligence seems required to create life, including human life. What we revere as life is “just” a property of a handful of chemicals, RNA and DNA holding pride of place among them. But, that’s not a bad thing, because if we’ve come this far without intelligent design, the sky’s the limit once we lend our own inventiveness to the evolutionary process.

This has long been foreseen, but never accepted. Once we get used to it, this perspective will enable us to reduce suffering on a scale only dreamt of. Why? Because the lion’s share of human suffering can be traced to false self-conceptions. The indignities that foul human relationships, at every level, from interpersonal to international, stem from a model of autonomous selfhood in which self is pitted against self.

Rather than masking the indissoluble interconnectedness of selves—as the notion of individual selfhood does—superselfhood embraces it. It’s not just that we can’t do anything without help; we can’t even be apart from continual imitation. Entropic forces disintegrate any identity that is not shored up through a mimetic process of mutual recognition. Since mimesis is distorted and undermined by indignity, reciprocal dignity gradually, but ineluctably, displaces opportunistic predation as a strategy for optimizing group efficiency and productivity. As a source of inefficiency, malrecognition—with all its attendant dysfunctionality—will be rooted out much as we made it our business to combat malnutrition once we understood its toll.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave expression to this emergent morality when he wrote: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The Superself: Genome, Menome, and Wenome

[This is the fourth 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.]

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself—
And there isn’t one.
— Wei Wu Wei

The Superself: Genome, Menome, and Wenome

The ‘illusion of individuality’ operates at two levels: First, the universal level of the ego, the constructed “I” which is a developmental imperative in the early years, yet the object of unlearning in later years in many traditions (particularly Buddhist); and the other, socio-economic, level of western individualism. Most of us, most of the time, cannot comprehend the implications of communal culture to human wellbeing.
— David Adair

To recap, the genome is the blueprint for our physical body. The menome is the connectome of the nervous system. By analogy, the wenome is the connectome of everything else, most importantly the cultural web of personal and social relationships in which we’re immersed and entangled. The wenome comprises the rules, customs, rituals, manners, images, tunes, songs, languages, laws, constitutions, and institutions that define the culture by which our genome and menome are conditioned.

In this view, our selves are far more extensive than we’ve been led to believe. They extend beyond our own bodies to include what we think of as other selves and the world. We live in the minds of others, and they in ours.

The situation is analogous to memory. We think of our memories as located in our heads and bodies but when you drive to town, it’s the road that holds the memory of the route, reminding you at every turn how to proceed.

baby mirrorSo, too, is selfhood dispersed. It resides not only in the genome and the menome, but in the wenome. Much of the information we require in order to function is stored outside our bodies and brains—in other brains, books, maps, machines, objects, databases, the Internet, and the cloud. We’re dependent on these inputs to muster enough excitation to reach the threshold of emission of specific behaviors. Our genome and menome can not form in the absence of other genomes and menomes. The self does not stand alone, but rather is widely dispersed, encompassing, most immediately, our social milieu, and ultimately the entire cosmos.

As the illusory nature of autonomous selfhood becomes evident, and the full extent of the interdependence of selves becomes undeniable, our sense of selfhood will shift outward, from the limited identifications of the past to an amalgamation of these traditional facets of selfhood—the superself.

Recognition and Malrecognition
As mentioned, an inability to recruit recognition from others cripples an identity. That’s why solitary confinement is torture. Recognition is to the formation of identity as nutrition is to the building of the body. Put the other way round, malrecognition, like malnutrition, is injurious, and can be fatal. Think of the juvenile murderer sentenced to a life in prison, or orphans whose development is stunted by lack of an adult model. On the plus side, there are the benefits to children who grow up in the company of curious, creative adults.

In acknowledgement of the analogy between programming a computer and raising a child, both processes are described as culminating in a launch. In the world of computers, “failure to launch” belies the existence of a bug in the software that crashes the computer. In raising children, failure to launch reveals that an embryonic identity has not found a niche in which it can garner enough recognition to develop. As nutritional deficiencies limit physical development, recognition deficiencies cripple identity formation. We became aware of the terrible costs of malnutrition in the twentieth century. The twenty-first will witness an analogous awakening to the crippling effects of malrecognition.

To address the epidemic of malrecognition that now afflicts humankind, it helps to shift our vantage point from within to without, from subjective to objective, from introspection to inspection. If we interpret the menome as software that is continually being modified, then we can debug, patch, and rewrite it until the “program” no longer crashes the “computer.”

If this seems reductive and mechanistic, recall that before we understood the heart was a pump made of muscle, it was regarded as the seat of the soul. It’s hard to imagine surgery to the soul, but the muscle that pumps our blood is now routinely repaired. In that spirit, the mind can be viewed as a kind of computer (albeit one we are just now beginning to understand).

We balked at the seeming loss of the exceptional status implicit in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but eventually made peace with the incontrovertible fact of our simian ancestry. We shall follow the same arc as we come to see our selves as holders of an historic role in the lineage of ever-smarter machines, to wit the role of building machines that are smarter than we ourselves! This could be the final step in achieving a humility consonant with our actual place in the cosmos. There’s no better preparation for facing such an apparent comedown as to revisit a question posed by Mark Twain—What Is Man?—and we’ll do that in the next and penultimate post in this series.

“Self” Is a Misnomer

[This is the third 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.]

As suggested in the two preceding posts in this series, selfhood was on the ropes even before postmodernism delivered the knockout blow.

Postmodernism’s Coup de Grace to the Self

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

In recent decades, deconstructing selfhood has become a cottage industry (with headquarters in Paris). The “fall” that postmodernism has inflicted on our commonsense notion of selfhood is as irreversible as Humpty Dumpty’s. Three examples follow:

While acknowledging that the philosopher David Hume scooped him by centuries, the novelist John Barth points out that the person who did things under his name decades ago seems like a Martian to him now:

How glibly I deploy even such a fishy fiction as the pronoun I, as if–although more than half of the cells of my physical body replace themselves in the time it takes me to write one book, and I’ve forgotten much more than I remember about my childhood, and the fellow who did things under my name forty years ago seems as alien to me now in many ways as an extraterrestrial–as if despite those considerations there really is an apprehensible antecedent to the first person singular. It is a far-fetched fiction indeed, as David Hume pointed out 250 years ago.
–John Barth

The novelist Milan Kundera exposes the common fallacy that the self can be detached from its unique history. Read Kundera’s comment and you’ll never again hear yourself saying, “If I were you…” without realizing that the premise can never be met so the only proper recipient of your advice is yourself.

Who has not sometimes wondered: suppose I had been born somewhere else, in another country, in another time, what would my life have been? The question contains within it one of mankind’s most widespread illusions, the illusion that brings us to consider our life situation a mere stage set, a contingent, interchangeable circumstance through which moves our autonomous, continuing “self.” Ah, how fine it is to imagine our other lives, a dozen possible other lives! But enough daydreaming! We are all hopelessly riveted to the date and place of our birth. Our “self” is inconceivable outside the particular, unique situation of our life; it is only comprehensible in and through that situation.
–Milan Kundera

Theater critic John Lahr observes that selfhood is a confabulation dependent on the agreement of others.

The ‘I’ that we confidently broadcast to the world is a fiction–a jerry-built container for the volatile unconscious elements that divide and confound us. In this sense, personal history and public history share the same dynamic principle: both are fables agreed upon.
–John Lahr

The glue that holds the “jerry-built” identity together is recognition; the cement that fortifies it against disintegration is agreement. I’ll return shortly to the indispensible part played by other selves in the creation and maintenance of our own.

“Self” Is a Misnomer

The very name–self–is a misnomer, and it’s a whopper. How so?

baby mirrorAt the beginning of the twentieth century, Charles Cooley observed that “We live in the minds of others without knowing it.” If we live in others’ minds, surely others live in ours.

The word “self” carries strong connotations of autonomy, individuality, and self-sufficiency. It’s as if it were chosen to mask our interdependence. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that in buying into this notion of selfhood, humankind got off on the wrong foot.

The self does not stand alone; it is not a thing, let alone a thing in itself. Rather, we experience selfhood as a renewable capacity to construct and field identities. Like evanescent particles in a cloud chamber, the existence of the self is inferred from its byproducts.

The “self” may appear to act alone but it depends on input from other selves to manifest agency. There’s more to selfhood than our genome and our menome. We’ve overlooked a crucial element of selfhood–inputs from other selves–without which the menome, starved for recognition, is stillborn.

As our genome needs nutrition to build our body, so our menome depends on recognition from others to create and husband a viable identity. The autonomous self and individual agency are both illusory. Contrary to the name we call it by, the self is anything but self-sufficient.

The Co-Creation of Identity

To exist is to coexist.
–Gabriel Marcel

As Cooley and others have pointed out, we may first recognize our own nascent identity as what someone else–a parent, teacher, or friend–sees taking shape within us. One of the primary responsibilities of parents is the incubation of identity in the next generation. No wonder we love our parents and teachers: it is they who have coaxed our starter self onto the world stage and indicated a niche where it might thrive.

As collaborators in the formation of others’ identities, we repay the debt we owe those who, by reflecting an incipient identity back to us, served as midwife to our own.

Perhaps because they sense the creeping disintegration of their story, the elderly often feel the need to rehearse it. Listening to them recount their anecdotes is an act of compassion. Those who lend us their ears are involved not only in the creation of the identity that serves as our face to the world, but also in its maintenance. Personas, like magnetic poles, are not created, nor do they endure, in isolation.

The discovery of the profound interdependence of selves obviously has a bearing on our relationships. In the following posts, I’ll explore the implications of the co-creation of each others’ selves.