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Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.

From: https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/6-graphs-explain-world-s-top-10-emitters

I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.


Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.

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Subversive Intelligence

Another great picture done with the iPhone X Portrait mode.  This was a rescued bird at the Texas State Aquarium.  The majesty of these animals is unmatched.
Photographer: James Lee | Source: Unsplash

If you read or watch any mainstream media source that deals with facts instead of imaginary threats, you will notice the constant invocation of two civilizational threats: automation and climate change. This is mainstream media btw, not leftie radical sources; you know we are in a genuine crisis when hunks on TV look you in the eye and say we are all going to die.

AI and climate change: one economic, the other ecologic. One taking our jobs and the other destroying our home. I believe the two are actually the same, the worldly reflection of the platonic duality between information and energy. Unfortunately, while the mainstream is beginning to recognize the seriousness of our situation, they aren’t willing to take the necessary steps to adapt and flourish in the new world that’s being born.

The threat is recognized by the radicals knocking on the mainstream’s door: it’s increasingly common to say we need systems change. But who is going to do it and what skills are needed to do so? I find that even the most trenchant critic of the current system has conventional views on how it needs to be transformed: they say we need a radical transformation of our societies, but they assume that we already have the skills to do so; we only need powerful obstacles to get out of the way and let the innate intelligence of people, especially young people, to emerge out of the shadows.

That’s a romantic thought but a false one. We need to cultivate a form of subversive intelligence that is attuned to the changing conditions. That cultivation needs conscious, collective effort.

What form should that subversive intelligence take?

I have some thoughts on that matter and I have even written about it on other occasions though it’s only today that I am using the term “subversive intelligence” to describe the mindsets we need to cultivate. Here are a couple:

  1. The Design of Knowledge
  2. The Software Eaten World

Here are some more readings — that’s a continuously updated list.

Take those writings and readings with a grain of salt though; chances are much of what we read today will be flawed in its presentation of the world to come, just as the writers of the early industrial era couldn’t have predicted our capacity to order a computer from China with a click or two.

Take that uber-pinko Karl Marx. He started writing his famous book in the early days of capitalism. According to that canonical source of truth, i.e., Wikipedia, James Watt’s steam engine was invented between 1763 and 1775. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. In other words, somewhere between 85 and 73 years after the steam engine. Meanwhile, the first functioning electronic computer, i.e., ENIAC, was first completed in 1945, so we are 73 years past the deployment of that technology. Why am I saying this? When Marx and Engels wrote their pamphlet, industrial capitalism was just beginning to show its impact on England and Europe. 1848 was also the year of the social unrest across Europe but it was a long ways away from two worlds wars, several revolutions, decolonization and all the other consequences of the mechanical age. Nevertheless, they were right in pointing out that industrial capitalism was a really big deal and that it would change the world.

Similarly, we are at a relatively early stage in the development of intelligent capitalism, i.e., capitalism powered by information and machine learning. Not so coincidentally, we are also at an early stage of panic over climate change and ecological collapse more broadly. The two go together. We may or may not agree with Marx’s vision, but he was absolutely right (and he wasn’t alone in saying so) in pointing out that the real impact of industrial capitalism wasn’t in the new gadgets and gizmos that enter our lives but in the social relations transformed through this influx. Global capitalist society is nothing like the pre-industrial societies it has replaced.

Intelligent capital will cause an equally dramatic shift in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even as individual gadgets come and go. Some of the symptoms of this shift are already upon us: we know surveillance is going to be big, automation bigger and climate change is going to be huge.

What else?

For one, it’s not just social relations that will change in this time. Natural relations, i.e., the relationship between humans and other beings on earth and also the relations between the other beings themselves will also change. Actually, natural relations have already changed. What else do we mean by the anthropocene? What does it mean when the majority of the world’s land area is being used for agriculture?

I think it’s only a matter of time before we consider all earthly activities as part of the human system, which is to say that the earth system and the human system are increasingly going to merge. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Before we rush to judgment, let’s first try to understand the levers that control these systemic changes.

Really. I have resolutely left-wing sympathies, but the honest thing is to understand this new condition before passing judgment, especially if our long-term goal is to shine a crystal ball on the future and in doing so, unleash genuinely transformative forces. But that’s a ways away.

Some more snippets:

– Life in knowledge societies is mediated by flows of information and the networks that host those flows. It’s impossible to imagine making a simple widget without information mediation, let alone a complex product like a phone or an airplane. It’s equally impossible to imagine life without constant sharing of personal data and constant surveillance by corporations and nation states. Information technologies are technologies of living par excellence.

– In fact, no Stalinist state has ever had the level of intrusion in people’s lives that we see today being willingly shared and aggregated via social media. Informational life spawns many worries such as:

  1. The Future of Work: some are worried that robots will take our jobs. Others are worried that capitalists will use the threat of automation to reduce wages in the few jobs that remain.
  2. Full Spectrum Surveillance: that our lives are monitored and monetized second by second and further, surveillance fragments our working lives so that we can work for Uber in the morning and Walmart in the afternoon.
  3. Inequality Amplification: we are less likely to have data about the needs of underprivileged and marginal communities and people in those communities are even less likely to have the skills to make use of that data. Data poverty threatens to combine with larger concerns over automation to increase inequality.

Let’s not forget the utopian imaginations of abundance, of a life devoted to creation and enjoyment as machines perform all the drudgery. We can’t discount the power of this artificial city on the hill. If AI and Data spawn apocalyptic and utopian visions, we need a liberation theology to bring that vision to the people. That’s the driving ambition of subversive intelligence.

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The State of Algorithmic Politics

Emotional Truths

Why is it that at a time when the future of human existence is threatened by climate change, the future of work is threatened by automation and the future of every other living being is threatened by humans, why is it that we are increasingly electing regimes guaranteed to destroy life as we know it?

That question haunts me everyday.

There’s a frightening answer: that without careful design and collective struggle, our default state might be to increase authoritarianism, clamp down on dissent and erect new borders while strengthening existing ones. That technology, which was supposed to make our lives better, is making it worse.

I have no doubt that technology plays a big role in making the authoritarian camp stronger; the romantic in me thinks it will also play a big role in imagining a better future, but the current moment belongs to those fighting for their share of a shrinking pie. One way they’re able to take more than their fair share is by drawing our attention away from where it needs to be, shifting our gaze towards powerless victims instead of tackling the problems created by the powerful.

Nevertheless, the authoritarians get it right in one respect: they articulate a world in crisis better than anyone else; their atmosphere of fear is more believable than the liberal intelligentsia’s vague pronouncements of universal humanity. It’s only when that fear congeals in the form of immigrants and traitors rather than corporations and the 1% that a falsehood is perpetrated. Whatever its problems with facts and reason, the right wing understands emotion better than progressives.

Not all progressives though — the school kids who are on strike saying “You will die of old age, we will die of climate change” are getting the emotional register exactly right, which is why their movement is spreading without having any money or power or central leadership. Unfortunately, having money and power makes it easier to spread your emotional register; recent events in India being a good case in point.

When we visited Utö, the most outer island of this beautiful archipelago in the place we call Finland, I allowed myself to be guided by the incredible energy of  Inca, the daughter of the family we were visiting there. She took me to a series of abandoned bunkers from the times this island was a military strategic point and there I found this graffiti that represent very well  the feeling of all that has to do with military, war, conflict and drama. With love from Korpo.
Photographer: Aarón Blanco Tejedor | Source: Unsplash

Algorithmic Politics in Kashmir

If you’re from my part of the world, you know that the Modi regime has changed the equation between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the central government. I don’t have anything original to say about the politics of the event — read Srinath’s piece if you want a deeply informed overview — but instead, I want to direct your attention at how the event was managed.

The press has been talking about how the announcement was preceded by the cancelling of the Amarnath yatra, airlifting thousands of soldiers and the house arrest of the entire Kashmiri political class. All true, but they miss an important element whose consequences might be even longer term — the entire internet was shut down in Kashmir and remains so. You can’t Whatsapp your friends, you can’t send them videos on Tik-Tok or Snapchat, you can’t use messaging to organize protests or rallies.

In case you didn’t know it, India leads the world in temporary shut-downs of the internet. From local bureaucrats to the Home minister, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend what’s become the normal mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shut down of whatsapp, however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds.

Moreover, the shut down is temporary by design.

Attention being the scarcest resource today, the way to control our minds is done by controlling our attention, whether by making us focus where businesses and governments want us to (let’s call those white holes) or by creating black holes of information where they would rather we didn’t look. There’s absolutely no advantage in making that black hole permanent because attention is fickle and it keeps shifting from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of our attentions. Incidentally, the Chinese version of attention management during crises is subtler than the Indian version — instead of shutting down the internet, they have hundreds of thousands of people whose only job is to deflect attention away from the crisis by flooding social media and bulletin boards with innocuous posts.

The decision to shut down the internet in any district or state is an impromptu decision by some official who is handling many different pressures. Which is why I am skeptical of conspiracy based causal explanations: that there’s a hyper-intelligent cabal of scheming businessmen and politicians who are directing our minds as they see fit. Instead, I am more likely to believe that the rapid shifts of collective attention are systemic properties that can’t be ascribed to individual manipulators. The human visual system saccades every 300 milliseconds without any underlying motive or purpose. The winners at algorithmic politics are those who understand the inherently complex nature of the underlying system, just as the control systems in our brains that direct intentional visual search are built upon a layer of random saccadic movements.

In hindsight, it’s clear that print and broadcast media — newspapers, radio, TV etc — created new forms of democratic politics as well as new forms of authoritarianism. Why would it be any different with algorithmic media? Of course we are going to see new forms of politics — both the Arab spring and the Kashmir crisis are political responses to a new technological condition.

Question: Is resistance futile?

Answer: yes unless the treehuggers figure out how to capture and manage attention as well the treecutters, and in order to do so, they have to grasp how the attention economy differs from ideology and propaganda.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesseattle/32204594560/

Attention Management

Now I come to the central point of this essay: the algorithmic management of attention is substantially different from what we used to call propaganda, just as paying money to Google to rank highly on certain keywords is substantially different from launching a traditional print ad campaign. Yes, both are forms of advertising but there’s a world of difference in how the ads are placed in front of a customer and what the customer does with the ad when they are attracted to its message. Similarly, political advertising is also much more targeted today. Propaganda identifies a uniform, faceless threat. It’s the Jew, the communist, the Muslim. In contrast, the ideal algorithmic violence is personalized, localized and context dependent.

It’s about identifying a specific yet random individual who carries an unwanted identity. Specific in that it’s a particular black or Muslim or LGBT person who happens to be in your vicinity. Random in that the perpetrators of violence couldn’t care less about that person’s individuality as long as they belong to a certain target identity. Specific yet random is the logic of “personalized” attention in the age of machine learning. When someone says personalized medicine is coming, they don’t mean that doctors will learn who you are as an individual and prescribe medicines accordingly. Instead, they will use patterns of genetic data, dietary habits and life history to prescribe medicines. That personalization will work reasonably well for another person whose genetic patterns are close enough to yours.

Similarly when Google shows ads based on your browsing history, it uses your statistical footprint as the input to its predictive engine, without caring whether you are a real person or a robot. The statistical person is often a reasonable proxy to a living, breathing individual but important principles are lost in translation.

Specific randomness is the underlying model of the gig economy. When I order a cab on Ola or Uber, I am getting a specific driver, an actual human being who sits behind the wheel. At the same time, I don’t care much about him besides the fact that he’s a qualified and licensed driver and that the car is reasonably neat and functional. He can be replaced by another person without any loss of customer experience. To the extent that the gig economy is the future of employment, specific randomness tells us where jobs are going until they are all replaced by robots.

In any case, the widespread availability of the specific randomness is impacting politics as much as business. That’s one reason why we are seeing new forms of political violence emerge as a result of algorithmic media — in India, we see it in the eclipse of the riot and the emergence of lynching as the chief instrument of street violence. In the US you’re seeing increasing numbers of mass shootings. In both cases, it’s as if a machine learning algorithm infected the brain of a lynch mob or a gun toting avenger and turned his mind to violence. In propaganda there’s a strong connection between the official party line and the violence on the street. Intellectuals were murdered during the cultural revolution because Mao said so. In contrast, there’s a tenuous link — if any — between the pronouncements of Trump and the shooter in the street.

We don’t know how deep learning algorithms identify the features that make them good at identifying cats in videos. As Judea Pearl keeps saying, causality is a hard problem for the AI that drives machine learning. I believe that understanding the causes of spontaneous violence is an equally hard problem for algorithmic politics. For the same reasons. And it’s obviously more important to understand the emotional causes of algorithmic politics than the causal structure of cat videos.

Google doesn’t care whether they understand the causality behind their models as they are predictive. Every once in a while their algorithms will make obvious mistakes or contribute to racial profiling but that’s the price of doing business. In contrast, progressive politics of any kind will have to care about real people (or real animals if you’re an animal rights person like me) and therefore, questions of causality are crucial.

Let me end this essay with a provocative possibility: that the future of politics isn’t between left and right, but between predictors and explainers. Predictors use data to drive people’s emotions in the direction they want without care about who is hurt and how. Their target is the specific yet random person. Predictive politics is the political equivalent of Google’s ad words. In contrast, explainers care about the actual people behind their statistical signatures. Progressive politics should privilege explanations over predictions. It’s harder in every sense of that term.

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Alien Minds: Newsletter #24

This week, I am going to talk about something I have puzzled about ever since I was a child but never really taken seriously: the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. SETI, like AI, is one of those elusive, almost dream like goals whose goalposts keep changing. What would count as a truly alien intelligence? When can we say we have discovered (or more likely, stumbled upon) an alien civilization?

I remember Carl Sagan talking about the Golden Record in the Voyager spacecraft, which was his view of the top ten hits of human existence. It has the usual suspects, starting with Mozart and going on to other peaks of civilization as conceived by white male nerds in 1977. OK, that was probably a little unfair, but in retrospect, Sagan’s idea of intelligence and civilization looks rather parochial to me. We are still saddled with a view of aliens as green eyed monsters who play the world of warcraft at a cosmic scale.

The search for intelligence remains the most anthropomorphic of quests; which means that asking whether robots will ever be intelligent is a little bit like asking whether planes fly or not. There’s no principled answer to that question: most of us intuitively think that planes fly, but that’s about it as far as science goes.

Certainly, planes don’t fly in the way birds and insects do and their capacity to fly isn’t based on a genetic endowment of the kind birds and insects have. On the other hand, both mechanical and biological flight are grounded in the principles of fluid dynamics. We can’t build aircraft without understanding how air flows around wings, though it goes without saying that a bird doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics in anything like the way an aerospace engineer does. These are different regimes of knowledge. 

In other words, flight is a believable abstraction; we are able to separate out the ability to be in the air for extended periods of time from its biological or mechanical implementation. It doesn’t depend on having feathers or landing gear. Flying doesn’t mean flying like a bird anymore. 

SETI is quite different. We are still focused on finding traces of advanced civilizations, i.e., beings who are like us, but better. I think that’s a major problem in AI as well. Take the Turing test for example: the goal is to create a machine whose answers to questions can’t be distinguished from a human’s answers to the same questions. How much more anthropomorphic can you get? 

SETI and AI pose a metaphysical quandary: on the one hand, we want to understand alien or robotic intelligence on it’s own terms (where the term “alien” encompasses terrestrial intelligence that’s very different from ours — gut bacteria, redwood trees etc) but the only tools and intuitions we have are our own minds and our cultural presuppositions about intelligence. 

Strangely, I think we should explore SETI for the same reason we sit down on a cushion and meditate, i.e., to explore ourselves but also to set aside and ultimately reject self-indulgent and parochial impressions of ourselves. It’s really a religious quest as much as a scientific one. Seen this way, it doesn’t surprise me that the techno-religious cults that have sprung up in the last fifty years (such as the “singularity”) and their manifestation in art (“The Matrix”) are all to do with AI and SETI. As religions go, these alien dreams are shallow spiritual systems, but they have unerringly identified a new direction for contemplation. 

The exploration of Mind and minds — our minds, the minds of other species, the minds of aliens, the minds of robots — and ultimately, the search for the origins of order and organization, is exactly the kind of exploration that brings science together with religion. It’s a search that would be as familiar to the Zen masters of China as the astronomer in her observatory. It is for that reason, not the preserve of scientists alone. Or in some crazy inversion of priorities, to be located in an imagined past of Vedic astronautics.

The adventure of the mind is a new adventure, pointing toward the future, not the past. It’s like Siva’s marriage procession, with room for gods and humans, beasts and demons. Inner space and outer space are deeply intertwined after all.

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