Identity is not the most important issue

I’m not always a big fan of Sam Harris, as I think his antipathy to religion in general and Islam in particular is toxic – he would do far better to acknowledge that religion is a facet of human existence which we need to take into account. However, the guy does think, and think deeply, as evidenced in a recent podcast largely focussing on identity politics.

At this point, I perhaps need to confess to being a cis white male in a Western developed country, which, according to identity politics, arguably gives me no place to stand in terms of criticism of the state of the world. Sam does make the point (and I think it needs underlining) that this does not preclude someone from having a valid opinion – most of us, if we have a habit of thinking rationally, are able to separate ourselves to at least some extent from our situation in life and consider other points of view. Granted, unless you are (for instance) black, you are handicapped in having an emotional understanding of how it is more difficult to make your way in society (and, from what I see, more so in the States than in the UK, which is where my experience comes from). Likewise I might find it more difficult to relate emotionally to the situation of women, who still face a significantly greater challenge in reaching high level positions here than do men (though that has lessened massively over the course of my lifetime).

Things are made rather more difficult by the concept of intersectionality. This quite accurately notes that there is an additive (or possibly a multiplicative) effect of being in more than one group which is underprivileged; the concept stems initially from the observation that, within feminism, being black disadvantaged you twice – feminism tended to benefit white women, and anti-racism tended to benefit black men. The trouble is that this leads to a tendency toward discounting anyone’s voice unless they are an unemployed black lesbian immigrant disabled muslim, for instance.

I will grant that, in the upside-down economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, this does put one person of my acquaintance at the very pinnacle of that economy. Should she, however, be the only person whose opinion is valid? To listen to some exponents of identity politics, one would think so. Sam and his guest make the extremely good point that this divides people (which is a bad thing) and makes it more difficult to create a broad platform which can actually hope to gain political power.

What I would like to see is a recognition that in a puralist society like ours, everyone is a member of some minority, at least if they apply enough labels to themselves – I have a number of potential labels which render me a member of an underprivileged minority (notably being partially disabled by reason of mental illness), and while I have to accept that I am not as underprivileged as some, I can still look to the fact that (for instance) in the open labour market I am pretty much unemployable. Happily, I have a couple of part time occupations which bring in some money, and am old enough to draw a pension and disabled enough to receive some benefits, so I don’t actually need to work for a living. There was, however, a period during which I was already ill enough not to be able to work, but hadn’t yet the part time occupations, the pension or the benefits, so I do understand on an emotional basis to some extent the situation of those who are less lucky than I have been in those respects.

I also have the liberty to think and write about this, which a lot of people who are less lucky don’t have – their whole concentration is going to be on where the next meal is coming from…

Harris and his guest also touch on the fact that there is actually a sizeable majority of people who are seriously and increasingly underprivileged in our society, as the gap between the very rich and the rest of us widens and the category of “very rich” shrinks, while the middle class who used to bridge the gap increasingly become little or no better off than the working class or the poor. That is a point which I would have liked stressed much more – there is a problem which the vast majority of us face, which is now systemic, and it prejudices most of us, and it is the imbalance in our financialised globalised “free market” capitalist societies.

Nick Hanauer has a splendid TED talk expressing this. Now, Nick is a self-confessed plutocrat, but he sees that the levels of inequality which we now face and which are growing will inevitably lead to a collapse in society – as he says, “the pitchforks are coming” – but that will not merely mean that he and those like him are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of pitchforks, but that there will be a huge disruption in society. I, for one, do not relish the thought of living through a revolution (though, actually, I probably wouldn’t live through it, only into the early stages of it…); revolutions are messy things and tend to kill a lot of people, and in addition have very unpredictable results – sometimes things become better for the majority, but often they don’t. Both the BREXIT vote here and the election of Trump, it seems to me, are expressions of a population which is saying “I don’t mind if things are in complete turmoil, I don’t mind if the world burns, I just want change… any change”

[There was, arguably, a long, slow revolution in the UK between 1800 and around 1970, which progressively made things better for working people and certainly reduced inequality massively, both in absolute terms and in terms of opportunity. That was among the very few revolutions which I can point to which had a generally beneficial effect and very few deaths – a few protestors, but nothing on a large scale. Sadly, the Thatcher government coupled with Blairite Labour managed to undo most if not all of the progress which took 150 years to achieve…]

Identity politics on the left, it seems to me, get in the way of addressing this problem; they divide us where we need to unify to face a more existential threat. There has been a cartoon going around showing a couple of people amid the smoking ruins of a city saying “But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders“.

My worry is that they might equally have been saying “for a beautiful moment in time we achieved marriage equality and eliminated racial and religious discrimination”.

Inequality is not the only existential threat, either. Climate change, unless we can by some miracle mitigate it sufficiently, is going to produce just as much misery as would worldwide revolution – but actually is likely to be accompanied by worldwide revolution.

I have huge sympathy with minorities, but do not want to concentrate on bettering their situation at the expense of civilisation.

Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…