Saturday, March 6, 2010

Arguing on the Internet: Is there intelligent life on Earth? No, really - is there?

The following is an elaboration on a conversation I've been having with paradoctor over on Daylight Atheism. This whole mess started with a rather scholarly discussion of the conceptual failings of IDiocy, segued smoothly into talk of abandoned dinosaur cities on the Moon, and so far has come to paradoctor asking me if I think there's intelligent life on Earth (whether seriously or facetiously, I cannot tell). Then I thought of the following.
There are days when I would be inclined to say, "No, intelligent life does not exist on Earth." But of course this is absurd, and I am not typically interested in advocating for absurd positions. Although I do freely admit that reality is absurd, I think the only positions worth taking are non-absurd ones - I agree with absurdists on a lot of things, in other words, I'm just not one.

In all seriousness, in my experience, what many people mean by "intelligent" is something along the lines of "has first-person experiences". However, we can't test for this directly, by the same line of reasoning that I can never "really know" what it's like to be a bat because I am not a bat. So we instead come up with things like the Turing test, which of course works for determining whether our candidate is able to do the things an intelligent agent is also able to do, but leaves the rather glaring problem that a Turing-complete philosophical zombie is absolutely indistinguishable from its genuinely "first-person experience-having" counterpart. Then comes Daniel Dennett to the rescue, "We are the zimboes," and blah blah blah.

As Dennett himself explains the idea, "Zimboes thinkZ they are conscious, thinkZ they have qualia, thinkZ they suffer pains – they are just 'wrong' (according to this lamentable tradition), in ways that neither they nor we could ever discover!" His point is that there is no meaningful difference between thinking and thinkingZ, therefore zimboes are no different from persons as we ordinarily think of them - le sigh... or thinkZ of them - and if there's no difference between two things then they're the same. Of course, this leaves the problem of whether things we might not even consider to have first-person experiences are zimboes just like ourselves. We have no reason to think so, of course, but the whole point is what if we're wrong? Pascal's Wager of animism, in other words, with a weird line-drawing problem that seems to center around nervous systems or perhaps circuits (we'll get to this line-drawing later).

The other main camp I've encountered means by "intelligent", "can demonstrate learning", conveniently bypassing the p-zombie problem. Of course, on this analysis, dogs and mice are intelligent for being able to learn non-instinctive behaviors and solve problems - which is generally unproblematic, as they are cute and fuzzy to most people, most of the time. But even pigeons have been shown to form superstitious behaviors, which to me would indicate both an ability to learn and a high probability of first-person experience. The problem here is one of principled interpretation: we say that a mouse has "solved" a maze by reaching its end, having been motivated to do so by the conditions of the experiment; could we not then say that the elements in the Miller-Urey experiment "solved" their situation by forming amino acids, having been motivated to do so by the conditions of their experiment? Both cases involve watching the behavior of particular configurations of mass-energy in an artificial environment. While it might be unproblematic to attribute (admittedly limited) intelligence to insects, for they still have brains, even amoebas engage in what looks like hunting, and they're just single cells! In both experiments, the things being experimented upon merely behaved in whatever ways they could, and I see no principled reason to attribute one with intellect and not the other (given the smooth gradations that can be made at every step of the way in between). Could not we humans, for all our scientific endeavors, be seen as a mere means in reality's effort to understand itself? A sort of cosmic navel-gazing, if you will, in which introspection on things like "purpose" is itself our very "purpose"!

While such wildly irresponsible speculation may make philosophers feel good about themselves, the slippery slope cuts both ways here: we can show that many organisms which "demonstrate intelligence" are completely uncommunicative in ways that we are able to recognize, so who's to say that other things don't simply possess lesser and lesser degrees of intelligence, whether or not they have first-person experiences? I mean, sure, we can draw a line somewhere between fish and rocks, but precisely where we draw it will make a difference (I promise, we're getting there!). Cutting back, when we say that a thing "acts as if" it has a higher level of intelligence than can be reasonably attributed to it, what's to say that purportedly intelligent things almost certainly possessed of first-person experiences aren't merely "acting as if" they have intelligence? The mystical "I" at the helm of consciousness is, after all, a story that the brain tells itself, ret-conning and confabulating memories will-ye, nil-ye.

Dennett argues (very persuasively, I think) that consciousness is more like fame than like being on television, insofar as it happens distributively and by degrees rather than in a strict "on or off" sense. The degree to which we are aware of the calculations performed by our brains is, to my mind, rendered irrelevant - the parts of our brains that execute whatever steps they have learned to execute are no more intelligent than the components of a computer running an installed program (and no less!). Or as Edsger Dijkstra put it, "The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim." But at the same time, any matter could be said to be "running" whatever "program" would perfectly describe whatever it is that it does. In fact, a biophysicist named Gregory Engels has discovered that plants accomplish photosynthesis at their level of efficiency by exploiting principles of quantum mechanics. The Scientific American version actually credits them with performing the computations, but my point is, what's the meaningful difference? (I suppose the "daffyrance" would be that the SciAm folks have never heard of pareidolia.)

So in one sense, "intelligent" is a word and words are made-up, so of course there's no intelligent life on Earth. In a more pragmatic sense, of course there's intelligent life on Earth, but the interesting question is how much of it can we call intelligent? Between these two extremes - nihilism and treating the matter as a necessarily open question - lies just a mess that relies on presuppositions and other motivations to get a clear answer. In short, the only clear answer is a semantically bizarre yet unequivocal No; Yes answers are by their very nature unclear and open to debate (which is awesome!). Of course, this won't stop a bunch of really sexy heroes sporting labcoats and degrees from pointing out which arbitrarily-arranged distinctions have this or that pragmatic value, and this is perfectly fine. But I have neither a labcoat nor a degree, I am instead interested in understanding the whole problem, and what this understanding tells me is that on the one hand there's nothing, on the other hand there's everything, and in between is just a mess. Viva la mess!

OK, finally. This all matters because a computer-based Synthetic Intelligence (there's nothing artificial about the Turing-complete sort of intelligence we're talking about here) would seem to warrant all the rights and responsibilities of any other person. And why not? If you were to upload your complete brain state to a sufficiently advanced computer to "run" you past the expiration of your organic body, would you not then be one such Turing-complete computer-based SI? Would you not want the termination or erasure of your process to be regarded as a murder? Anyone would! Including an SI "born" on a hard drive with no biological precursor. But how can you murder something that's not alive to begin with? And what about copies that modify themselves or blend with each other to the point of no longer being the same "person"? Do we need to count any form of intelligence as "alive"? Or can we simply regard the extinguishing of an intellect as "murder"? This would seem to handily resolve difficulties with people in persistent vegetative states, as well as the abortion of fetuses lacking brain tissues (at the very least). But eating meat would now well and truly be murder, unless we either genetically engineer brainless animals (which doesn't sound all that bad to me), or only eat animals that die of natural causes (which has problems of its own). We can push the problem back a bit by talking about legalistic "citizenship" rather than philosophical "personhood", but the issue remains that we want to make our in-group as wide as possible while still leaving the "stupid mass-energy" open to the sort of resource exploitation that we won't perform upon our persons/citizens/what-have-you. Double trouble if we assign intelligence to rocks, for "running" their "rock programs". (Then PETA changes their name to People for the Ethical Treatment of Mass-Energy, PETME, and comes up with new slogans: "Mining is murder!" "Minerals are people, too!" "Rocks are not ours to skip across the ocean waves or keep as pets in our homes!")

So to answer paradoctor's question, at long-winded last: there is intelligence on Earth in every way that counts; there is also life on Earth in every way that counts; but these do not always "go together". You can have unintelligent life, and intelligent non-life, depending on your definitions. In order to meaningfully answer the question, we need a more robust understanding of the problem with respect to which the question is being asked - it matters what else will be at stake. Or we could keep our answers provisional and revise them as new issues come up. I mean, it's not like we're codifying a religion here or anything.


Steve Bowen said...

"But I have neither a labcoat nor a degree"

You could have fooled me!

Nathaniel said...

I asked if there is intelligent life on Earth. You ask if I am joking or not. Half and half.

My reply to my own question: we are not qualified to judge ourselves objectively; therefore the only _intelligent_ answer to the question "is there intelligent life on Earth?" is:

"I don't know!"

D said...

Nathaniel: Man, I could have saved so much time by typing, "I don't know!" Damn. But then again, I wouldn't have gone off down that rabbit hole!

Steve: Careful, I'm tricksy like that. A former professor of my father's once said, "If you want an education, go to a library," and I kind of stopped listening after that. This may have been a mistake...

Thanks for the comments, you two!