Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Intelligence of the Hive-Mind

A recent article in National Geographic highlights a foundational concept of my understanding of intelligence – “swarm theory”. Swarm theory is a cross-disciplinary field of behavioural studies that has proven that animals behave more intelligently as a collective than they can possibly do as individuals.

The exemplary species for swarm behaviour is the ant. Collectively ants perform extremely complex tasks and behave in an apparently highly intelligent manner – they grow and harvest food like farmers, they engage in complex wars with their neighbors, they attack and kill animals much larger and stronger than themselves, they tend other insects like cattle and use them for food, they take slaves from other ant species, and so on. Yet the ant has a brain not much larger than the head of a pin.

How does the ant do it? There are apparently only a limited number of rules an ant follows in its daily life – but in combination with other ants, the resulting behaviour is highly efficient and highly intelligent.

Similarly, the bee hive has been shown to make intelligent decisions about, for example, which new home to move to, on the basis of a collective appraisal by dozens or hundreds of scout bees. Each scout bee makes its own decision about which location would make the best home. A study cited in the above article from National Geographic has shown that when 15 scout bees reach a consensus on a new home, the entire hive accepts that decision and makes its move. At the same time, there may be five other homes available with only five or ten scout bees at each. They lose the vote, so to speak, and rejoin the hive at their new home.

The remarkable thing the study proved was that the chosen home was always the best choice for the hive, based on criteria identified beforehand by scientists who have studied bees. The implications of a study such as this are far-reaching, for they point at a biological basis for a theory of democracy.

If we take evidence such as this and combine it with work done with human beings, such as the various studies cited in the recent book by James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds, we gain insights into how human intelligence and human political democracy work. Each of us seeks our own path, and though few of us ever walk a straight line, we arrive collectively at a better solution than we might have working alone.

I’ve argued in an earlier post that the basis for morality is the best long-term interests of humanity. If you wish to act in what could be called a moral fashion, if you wish to act morally, you must act in a manner that you consider will advance the best long-term interests of humanity.

The counter-argument is typically, “who decides?” What you consider to be in the best long-terms interests of humanity might be the opposite of what someone else thinks. So who decides who is right?

The answer lies in the parable of the ant or the bee. By pursuing individually what each ant or bee considers the “right” thing to do, the individual may be wrong but makes an essential contribution to the collective intelligence – and the collective morality – of the whole.

This is also the central argument in favour of diversity. As individuals we are incapable of holding numerous conflicting points of view. It is only collectively, socially, that we can do so. As Surowiecki points out, groups with a diversity of opinions and viewpoints almost invariably make better decisions than homogenous groups or even individual experts.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Simple Theory of Morality

The average person operates on the assumption that the moral sphere is somehow quite separate from the ordinary concerns to which we apply the language of “right” and “wrong”.

We speak of the right way to cook rice and the wrong way to carve a roast, the right way to kick a football and the wrong way to throw a baseball, or of the right time of year to pick blackberries and the wrong time of year to plant sunflowers, and so on. We find these everyday uses of terms like “right” and “wrong” useful to refer to things that are correct or incorrect, reasonably efficient or not very efficient, best proven practices or not likely to produce desirable results.

We use the concepts of right and wrong hundreds or even thousands of times each day to guide our most pedestrian acts, including the literally pedestrian acts of where to place one’s feet when walking, or whether to jaywalk or cross the street at the intersection.

And yet when we apply concepts of right and wrong to questions like when to speak the truth and when to lie, when to steal and when to show generosity, when to offer peace and when to quell with violence, we seem unconsciously to enter another realm, the realm of morality, which is apparently immune to the logic of efficiency, effectiveness, and best practices.

This split, the dividing line, is reflected in moral philosophy unquestioningly. One apparently does not decide moral questions on the basis of what works best – works best for what? Instead we consult the oracles, we ask the Gods for guidance, we attempt to define oughts, and universals, and the greatest good for the greatest number – we search for a morality gene!

Why can’t moral decision-making be as simple as the other daily decisions we make in our waking lives? Is it a matter of weight?

A common argument from religious moralists is that there is no scientific basis for morality. Theologians typically contend that Darwin and evolutionists see no point in existence, see it as just an accident of evolution, and see therefore no underlying principle and no rock on which morality can be built.

Unfortunately there are some prominent evolutionists who agree with them – Dawkins being the prime example.

But of course humanity does have a point, and does operate according to very visible and very profound principles, as does every species on earth. The point of life, as I have argued in an earlier post, is to persist. What living creature is not motivated by the desire to persist and not to perish? What species is not motivated by desire to reproduce and therefore to create the conditions for its genetic materials, the very blueprint of its existence, to persist through the generations?

The over-riding principle of existence is persistence. This is the rock of ages upon which the strong foundations of morality can be built.

In real terms, this principle guides our every action – we seek to persist as individuals as well as to persist as a species. Tellingly, those acts which are interpreted as supporting and advancing the long-term persistence, survival, and flourishing of the human species are those that are regarded by our culture as moral.

A maxim for a scientific theory of morality would therefore be: to act everywhere and always in the best long-term interests of humanity.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Intelligent Design

In my last post I argued that there *is* intention and intelligence in the universe. If that is true, wouldn’t that make the case for “intelligent design”?

The theory of “intelligent design” is a recent form of an old argument for the existence of God. If there is evidence of intelligence in the universe, says this argument, this is proof enough that its source is an intelligent being.

The theory incorporates a related theory, the Teleological Argument, which argues that if there is design, there must be a designer. If there is evidence of a purpose to life, this is proof that its source is an intelligent being, since there is no purpose without intelligence, and no intelligence without purpose.

These arguments recognize the evidence of intelligence and intention in the universe, and ascribe these to a Supreme Being, supernatural by definition. But both these arguments presuppose that evolution by natural selection is an unintelligent, purposeless process, senseless and aimless, random and without logic. Unfortunately, many evolutionary theorists accept this argument, in what one suspects is a gut reaction against theories of supernatural intervention. Overeager to deny the existence of an intelligent designer, they deny the existence of intelligence and design.

But my argument is that intelligence and intention are quite compatible with the theories of evolution and natural selection. The mainspring of intention is the inbred motivation of all species to persist through time. The intelligence of the universe is embodied in each of them and displayed through the learning and ingenuity of their genetic material.

This understanding breaks down the division in traditional monotheism between the Creator and His creations, and places humanity, intelligence, and intention squarely in the natural world. As the ancient Hindu wisdom states, “Thou art that” (Tat Tvam Asi in the Sanskrit) – you are inseparable from the ultimate reality, you are part of it and it is part of you.

It is possible to make a leap from the assertion that intelligence and intention are built into the universe to saying that the Supreme Being may not have human form, but may be just an amorphous guiding force, composed of the universe and all that’s in it. But how does that differ from the naturalist interpretation, that all there is is there in nature to be witnessed and experienced, and there is nothing supra-natural, nothing that is above and beyond nature?

Is this the meeting point of science and religion?

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Mainspring of Intention

Where does intention come from? Why do we know that some things have intentions while others do not?

In an earlier post, I noted that the earliest forms of life were unintentional by-products of chemical interactions under certain environmental conditions. When some elements (such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, etc.) come into contact with other elements, they will bind and form complex molecules and chemical compounds. No matter the urgency with which these elements are drawn to one another, they bind as a strictly unintentional by-product of their inherent properties.

I also noted the obvious, that those things that do not persist through time cease to exist. Turn this around, and we can say that those things that exist have the capacity to persist through time.

A living creature is the result of a series of reactions and interactions between groups of chemical compounds and the environment in which they find themselves. Through processes that are under active investigation and research and about which scientific understanding is growing daily, certain types of chemical compounds – amino acids, proteins, RNA, DNA, and other genetic materials developed the capacity to record the sequence of organic chemical reactions that result in a given life form.

We can therefore think of DNA and other genetic materials as a kind of technology for recording a pattern of reactions between chemical elements that result in a life form. This is why DNA is often referred to as the “blueprint of life”.

DNA allows life forms to reproduce – in effect, to make copies of themselves. But because copies are not always perfect, the development of DNA unleashed the grand experiment we call evolution. Over millions of years, an inestimable number of imperfect copies, mutations, and variations of RNA and DNA were produced, and for the most part vanished just as quickly as they arose.

But some of these genetic variations gave the creatures that carried them a greater ability to persist through time. Some of this genetic material recorded patterns that even in simple life forms we can begin to describe as “behaviours”. Some behaviours helped the creatures that displayed them to survive and reproduce. Other behaviours led to extinction.

Over a myriad of generations, our genetic material and our DNA “learned” what organic composition and what behaviours will allow a species of living creature to survive and to persist through time.

Genetic learning results in intention. Understand that this intentionality is hard-wired into the instincts of every living creature. Behaviours that help an individual and its species to flourish become the instinctual intentions of that species. Every creature from the simplest virus on up unconsciously or consciously intends to behave in such a way as to enable its species to survive, to persist through time, and to flourish.

We consider a behaviour to be intelligent insofar as it accomplishes its intentions and enables the creature exhibiting this behaviour to flourish.

Which brings us to a consideration of the concept of “Intelligent Design”. According to this theory, the universe and the creatures within it show signs of having been designed by an intelligent force, which is usually interpreted as an omniscient God. Various authors, among them Wayne Dyer, author of “The Power of Intention”, argue that God’s intention is immanent in every living creature.

If we understand the origin of intentionality as the intention to survive, to persist through time, and to flourish as an individual and as a species, then yes, we can say that there is intelligence and intention immanent in every living creature. But from this there is no logical necessity to impute the existence of a superior being, still less a personal God. The intelligence and intention inherent in the universe is a logically necessary result of the march of time.

This is the “logos” of which Heraclitus wrote as the fundamental organizing principle, the logic of the universe. This is that same Logos we read of in the bible: “In the beginning was the logos [usually translated from the Greek λóγος as “the word”], and the logos was with God and the logos was God.”

One of my goals for this blog is to map basic religious concepts to natural phenomena, to show that religious symbology is more than just fanciful mythology, but that is a pointer to and a metaphor for characteristics of the real world.

In the language of religion, the logos is the Holy Spirit. It is the immanence of God in nature. And Christ is “the logos made flesh”.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Knowledge and Experience

I’ve argued in an earlier post that knowledge is information that has a use-value. The importance of truth to knowledge is whether that knowledge is reasonably reliable – in which case it can be described as true.

What is the source of knowledge?

Traditionally, there are several sources:

• Authority
• Revelation
• Intuition
• Personal experience
• Inductive reasoning
• Deductive reasoning
• Instinct
• Science

Knowledge by Authority

Authority is knowledge passed down from an individual or institution. This sort of knowledge is best used as a sort of rule of thumb for decision-making in areas in which the decision-maker has no direct experience or other heuristics to draw upon.

The problem with authority as a source of knowledge is that it may be unreliable. Authorities have their own agendas to promote, and may not always have based their own authority upon solid ground.

The most reliable authorities have based their knowledge on their own experience or the experience of the institutions they represent. There is nothing wrong with respecting authority if that authority is deserved, especially if that authority has provided valuable and reliable knowledge in the past.

We could not possibly be expected to know the law, medicine, physics, plumbing, or any other area of expertise without extensive training and personal experience. Therefore it is reasonable to respect an opinion in these areas from an accredited practitioner as a guide to correct action.

It goes without saying, however, that some forms of authority cloak vested interests, and may therefore be valid only insofar as they support those interests. Religious authority, corporate authority, or political authority are especially suspect, since they may offer only partial truths while ignoring most of what might undermine their agenda.

My point here is only that knowledge by authority is based on experience – not personal experience, but the experience of the authority themselves.

Knowledge by Revelation

One common meaning of revelation is truth “revealed” by the divine. Typically this truth is revealed to an individual.

There is no doubt that an individual can achieve a truth through a sudden epiphany or blinding insight. Whether this insight is valid remains to be proven in practice, and whether or not it is of divine origin may never be provable.

Revelation is an intensely subjective experience and almost by definition is neither repeatable nor verifiable. This makes it a rather unreliable guide to action and a weak base of knowledge.

Knowledge by Intuition

Intuition is often regarded as “gut sense”, an insight gained on a non-intellectual level for which there appears to be no rational justification. But as Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink made clear, intuition is in fact a very rapid calculation made on an unconscious level, but based on genuine observation and often very sound mental and emotional reasoning.

One may feel as if one knows something by intuition alone, based on nothing more than a vague “feeling”, but dig a little deeper and intuition proves itself to be a device for rapid pattern recognition at a pace faster than can the mind can follow.

All pattern recognition is based on past experience of that pattern. If we take Jeff Hawkins’ work On Intelligence, all intelligence is not more than the ability to predict based on pattern recognition. In other words, all intelligence is based on experience.

Knowledge by Personal Experience

Knowledge by personal experience is obviously valid if it works for you. But it goes without saying that just because something works for you doesn’t mean it will work for others, and just because it works for you doesn’t mean that it is the best way to do things. Knowledge by personal experience is most valuable if confirmed by the experience of others.

Knowledge by Inductive or Deductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is the process of generalizing based on specifics. For example, every duck I have ever seen can swim; I can therefore induce that all ducks can swim. Deductive reasoning moves from the general to the specific. For example, I know that all beetles are insects and therefore by definition they have six legs. Therefore I can assume that all beetles in Uruguay have six legs, even though I have never been to Uruguay.

Both types of knowledge are obviously based on experience.

Knowledge by Instinct

Instinct is not typically seen as a form of knowledge, but as I have argued in an earlier post, what we call instinct is the summary of the experience of the previous generations of our species, as recorded in our genetic materials.

Knowledge by Science

Science is knowledge obtained through the scientific method. The scientific method is nothing more than the systematic and thorough testing of a hypothesis through experience.

The word “experiment” shares the same root as the word “experience” – the Latin “ex”, meaning “out of”, and “peritus”, meaning “testing”. Experience is knowledge gained through repeated trial.

An experiment is an attempt to create or recreate a certain type of experience through systematic observation and analysis. The purpose of the scientific method is to discover or confirm a repeatable and verifiable outcome of a set of identifiable conditions.

The scientific method, therefore can be regarded as nothing more than the systematic confirmation of experience.