What Emerges?

Venus emerging from the sea.

I’ve been thinking about emergence. That things emerge seems clear, but a question involves the precise nature of exactly what emerges. The more I think about it, the more I think it may amount to word slicing. Things do emerge. Whether or not we call them truly “new” seems definitional.

There is a common distinction made between weak and strong emergence (alternately epistemological and ontological emergence, respectively). Some reject the distinction, and I find myself leaning that way. I think — at least under physicalism — there really is only weak (epistemological) emergence.

But I also think it amounts to strong (ontological) emergence.

One example of emergence that I like is the idea of “high” and “low” — which emerge only in the context of gravity. (Credit due: This is from The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli.)

The concepts of “high” and “low” require a concept of “down” (or “up”), and these require gravity (or acceleration — same thing per Einstein). The concepts “above” and “below” also emerge from this background concept.

Here what has emerged is a relationship.

Presumably that relationship doesn’t exist without a local concept of down (or up), so, at least in some sense, it’s a new thing. It didn’t exist until there was a gravity field.

§

How we view this has to do with what we call “real.”

Horses are real. So are unicorns (because you know what one is — they have an existing definition — you may even have seen a picture of one).

But they obviously aren’t real in the same way horses are real. You can’t ride a unicorn (until we get really good at genetic manipulation).

Another classic example is the rules of baseball. They are real much like unicorns are real (that is, they were invented by people, they are written down).

Lots of baseball games are played according to these rules, and — unlike unicorns — the baseball rules are precisely defined. We might therefore say that baseball rules are more real than unicorns but less real than horses.

What makes it even more inscrutable is that, according to ontological anti-realism, there is no fact in the matter.

Some deny unicorns are real (you can’t ride one), and they’re correct in saying so. Others view them as real (they have a definition, a form), and they are also correct in saying so.

Is the past real? Yes — it accounts for the present. No — it’s not present now. Both views are valid, neither more than the other.

Essentially, the definition of the word “real” is dealer’s choice (constrained, of course, by the basic meaning of “to exist” — it’s not a free-for-all).

Ontology is complicated!

§

Here are some other examples of emergence:

¶ The color image on a video screen emerges from a matrix of dots (pixels) too small to see individually. The dots are what you’d get if you looked at a real (analog) image through an extremely fine-mesh — each one has a specific color value.

Further, each pixel is made of red, green, and blue sub-pixels. Varying the red, green, and blue, components allows a spectrum of colors. This all depends on the human eye’s response to red, green, and blue, along with the way it blends the dots into an image.

There’s a third type of emergence in old-style CRT screens. The pixels in those are “lit” by a scanning electron beam which hits only one pixel at a time. (Once hit the pixel glows for a very brief time.) The eye blends this into a fully-lit screen.

¶ The sense of motion in a movie or video emerges from a series of still frames presented in rapid succession.

This is related to how the scanning in CRT screens blends into seeing the entire screen as lit, but in this case a series of images blends into seeing motion.

Even the “chase” effect of lights on a big sign is really just individual lights going on and off. The sense of moving lights emerges.

¶ There are art or design works where space-separated image elements form an image when seen from the right perspective but otherwise seem random.

From the right perspective, though, those patches combine to form an image.

¶ Living things have many levels of emergence: Life from biology; biology from chemistry; chemistry from atoms; atoms from quantum particles.

¶ Beautiful patterns emerge from flocking and schooling behavior in large groups of birds or fish. I’ve learned recently those are more than beautiful patterns.

These groups extend the perceptive space of individual members, which allows them to react to incoming changes or threats sooner. It’s as if a larger animal emerges.

(Flocking and schooling behaviors also seem intended to present an apparently much larger animal to predators.)

§

Whether these things constitute genuinely new things seems definitional to me.

It appears inarguable that something emerges that wasn’t there before. The individual behavior is different from the emergent behavior.

I think the argument comes from the degree to which people think the emergent behavior is fully accounted for in the individual behavior.

Emergence in the opposite direction is reduction, so we can also ask if reductionism is strictly true. Can water, for example, be fully explained by the behavior of hydrogen and oxygen atoms? How about by electrons and quarks?

The general belief in science is that, yes, at least in theory, water is fully explained by the Standard Model (which describes electrons and quarks).

And yet,…

Is reductionism strictly true? If one can make a case it isn’t, then one can make a case for strong genuine ontological emergence.

§

Given what I argued recently, that reality is not strictly determined, it may also be possible to argue against strict reductionism.

To the extent determinism or reductionism depend on precise mathematics — depend on the real numbers — it seems possible they both fail.

Consider good old pi, our favorite transcendental number. Its digits go on forever, but after just 20 or 30, they might as well be random.

A proton has a (charge) radius of 0.00000000000008414 meters, which is just 15 digits. The Planck length is 35 digits, and size below that doesn’t mean anything.

So what possible meaning can 100 digits of pi have?

No possible meaning in our physical world.

Those digits are effectively random.

Yet chaos theory makes it clear those digits matter when we’re doing calculations, which determinism and reductionism require.

Therefore it appears they are false.

The Standard model does not describe the ocean waves.

§

Or so it maybe seems.

Which I’m 100% fine with — I even prefer it. Who wants to be a gear in the universal clock mechanism?

It’s much more fun being an emergent free agent surfing all the emergent complexity reality has to offer.

Much more fun!

Even if not, I think emergence can create effectively new systems. Whether they are truly new seems definitional, but I think there is at least a valid argument that (at least some) cases of emergence do present genuinely new objects.

But the distinction may be too subtle to really matter.

Stay emergent, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

104 responses to “What Emerges?

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (Post #897… only two more to go this year!)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    For me, emergence is about how the human mind works. We naturally model things at our level of evolutionary affordances. When we attempt to understand things smaller, larger, or otherwise way out of scope of our natural niche, we’re forced to do so in terms of metaphors of that daily niche. Emergence is when we have to switch models, use different metaphors.

    Which leads me to favor the weak version. Sometimes, such as in the emergence of thermodynamics from atomic motion, we know that we’re only dealing with the weak variety. But in cases where we don’t yet understand how the emergence happens, we can’t rule out the strong version, but assuming strong emergence seems like an investigatory dead end. In other words, assuming that strong emergence is simply weak emergence we don’t understand yet seems like a more productive stance.

    I sometimes wonder if it isn’t emergence all the way down. The fact that many things we once took to be fundamental eventually turned out to be emergent from something else, leads me to think we can never close the book on the possibility that spacetime and quantum fields might eventually themselves turn out to emerge from something else.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “For me, emergence is about how the human mind works.”

      In many cases (“pictures” from dots, “motion” from still images) that’s very true, but (as you say yourself in suggesting it’s emergence all the way down) there are many other cases where our minds aren’t involved.

      The flocking behavior of birds is a good example. As I mentioned in the post, it extends the perceptive space of individuals. The flock acts like a larger animal. It’s a new behavior that only occurs in the flock.

      “In other words, assuming that strong emergence is simply weak emergence we don’t understand yet seems like a more productive stance.”

      Absolutely. (Although even better is to make no assumptions at all. Let the evidence testify.)

      “I sometimes wonder if it isn’t emergence all the way down.”

      Certainly in a constructive sense, that seems true. Atoms are constructed of quarks and electrons. Compounds are constructed of atoms. Etc.

      At the same time, it does seem “new” objects arise — certainly emergent systems have their own set of laws — but as I said in the post, seeing that as truly “new” seems almost a dealer’s choice.

      Given what I perceive as a failure of strict reductionism, and therefore of strict determinism, I’m comfortable in seeing emergent systems as “new” but, as you mention, until we truly understand some of the more difficult cases, who knows.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “The flock acts like a larger animal. It’s a new behavior that only occurs in the flock.”

        True, but that description is itself a model of what’s happening. We could describe it as the behavior of each bird reacting to the other birds. It’s just extremely difficult to work with at that level. It’s much easier to just think of it as a flock, and the flock, at least while they’re together, is conducive to it.

        “Although even better is to make no assumptions at all. Let the evidence testify.”

        Definitely on letting the evidence testify, but my point was that if we assume we just don’t understand how it weakly emerges, we’ll keep investigating. If we assume strong emergence, what is there left for us to do? Or put another way, what evidence could we ever find for strong emergence? It seems like we can only fail to find evidence for how a feature is caused by the lower layers.

        I personally don’t perceive that reductionism has failed, although I guess it depends on how you define success or failure. There are cases where we can’t currently reduce something to what we think are its underlying layer(s). Maybe some of those cases will turn out to be forever irreducible. We might expect that we’ll eventually hit fundamental brute facts of reality. I wouldn’t regard that as a failure, but as success in identifying a candidate for something truly fundamental.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “True, but that description is itself a model of what’s happening.”

        In order for us to talk about it, sure, and I agree the behavior of individual birds accounts for what emerges. At the same time, that emergent system does change the dynamics of the individuals.

        Whether one calls that “new” or not… seems definitional to me. I do like the Chalmers notion of ontological anti-realism (which is weird when I’m a hard-core realist), so I’m pretty agnostic about how emergent systems are labeled.

        I think we can agree emergent systems present new (inevitably simpler) laws and are dealt with in terms of the whole rather than its components.

        How one views reduction may be a big factor. If everything being based on a putative GUT of physics (one that unifies QFT and GR plus accounts for dark stuff and other open questions) means that GUT can, on its own, fully explain waterfalls, then emergence has to seem strictly epistemological.

        If one focuses more on how new laws emerge from compound systems — even while still admitting to reductionism — emergence can seem more ontological. (The GUT might account for fluid dynamics, but the laws of fluid dynamics only apply to the emergent system, not to the particles that comprise it.)

        Of course, one can certainly take the view that the emergent new laws are strictly epistemological. 😉

        For me, emergent laws are as “real” as unicorns and the rules of baseball. They might even come close to being as real as horses.

        “If we assume strong emergence, what is there left for us to do?”

        Keep investigating, anyway! Either assumption might be wrong! 😀

        “I personally don’t perceive that reductionism has failed, although I guess it depends on how you define success or failure.”

        It’s a tricky question, isn’t it. Sabine Hossenfelder, most times she mentions reductionism, throws in a qualifier to the effect that, at least so far, no one has shown where reductionism fails.

        There has been some work lately that’s interesting. I meant to reference it in the post, but it got too long. I’m sure I’ll pick up the topic in the future and get to it then.

        I’ve mentioned it to you before, I think, that real world objects, after about a dozen decimal points, don’t have well-defined values beyond that. That seems to doom strict causal determinism, which implies reductionism might also be doomed.

        “I wouldn’t regard that as a failure, but as success in identifying a candidate for something truly fundamental.”

        🙂 “Failure” doesn’t have to be pejorative. To establish a genuine “failure” of reductionism would be a huge success, indeed!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I do like the Chalmers notion of ontological anti-realism (which is weird when I’m a hard-core realist)”

        As you know, I’m a scientific instrumentalist. I think all we ever have are predictive models. And yet, philosophically, I feel like there is a fact of the matter when it comes to ontology. There is something “out there” anchoring all these predictive models.

        But maybe all I’m really doing here is making an assumption that all of these models will someday be reducible to a GUT. That seems like a productive assumption to make in order to keep investigating, but I’ll admit there’s no guarantee it will ever happen.

        I’ll be interested to hear about that work on reductionism.

        “Failure” has a ring of finality about it, but I’m probably reacting to the way’s it’s often used by the anti-science crowd. Definitely sometimes failure is success. The “failure” of the Michelson-Morley experiment to find the lumeniferous aether signaled a looming paradigm shift.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And yet, philosophically, I feel like there is a fact of the matter when it comes to ontology.”

        Absolutely. As I said, I’m a hard-core realist. I believe in an external reality that is what it is. Ontological anti-realism, as I understand it, involves things like unicorns or the rules of baseball (or the past) and whether we consider them “real” or not. The anti-realist position is that there is no fact of the matter in how we label such concepts.

        (Obviously unicorns aren’t real in a concrete physical instance sense, but anything with a Wiki entry has some level of reality.)

        “But maybe all I’m really doing here is making an assumption that all of these models will someday be reducible to a GUT.”

        I agree we keep investigating. I’m open-minded about the possibility that, although a GUT may underlie reality, it might be beyond our ken to ever find it. It’s possible reality is too complex to ever be understood by the likes of us.

        It’s definitely an open question.

        “I’ll be interested to hear about that work on reductionism.”

        The articles I’ve been seeing have more to do with strict determinism being false than with reductionism, per se. But they are essentially mirror versions of each other, so if strict determinism can be falsified, this implies reductionism is false.

        It would suggest that some emergent behaviors are too complex to be completely specified by the behavior of the parts. That might be an effective limit, or a computational limit, rather than an in principle limit, or we might discover some information-discarding process that truly limits predicting the system based on its parts.

        “‘Failure’ has a ring of finality about it,”

        Yeah, language and social use complicates things. [sigh] So it goes.

        Something occurred to me: “Failure” is what science is based on. The Popper idea of theory falsification is a theory based on failure. As you know, science has a hard time proving anything. But lopping off branches of falsified ideas hopefully leaves a true tree.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Reductionism has a built-in problem: there is no bottom. When people claim that everything can be reduced to physics, they forget that Newtonian physics would similarly be reducible to quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics could in turn be reduced to whatever parts make up the quarks. And we could repeat this process infinitely, down to the theoretical “smallest part of the smallest part”.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, that’s not what reductionism means. It means everything can be explained by whatever is fundamental. It means emergence never creates anything truly new.

      • Marvin Edwards

        And what is this “fundamental” you refer to? And how is it constructed? 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Firstly, unless one takes the view it really is “turtles all the way down” then something is fundamental.

        Secondly, if something is fundamental, it’s not constructed, it’s axiomatic.

        Thirdly, as far as we know, electrons and quarks (along with the bosons) are fundamental constituents of reality. (Also along with spacetime, neutrinos, the other quarks and leptons, dark matter and energy, possible new physics [cf. “X17” particle or the G-2 experiments], and… something else I’m forgetting… oh, right, the laws of physics. All, science thinks, fundamental. 😀 )

      • Marvin Edwards

        Well, it used to be atoms “all the way down”. Now it isn’t. There is a limit to what we can see, but we’re always building new telescopes to see farther and new microscopes (and new colliders) to see deeper.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To repeat: Unless one believes it really is turtles all the way down, something is fundamental.

        I do not believe it’s turtles all the way down.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “That might be an effective limit, or a computational limit, rather than an in principle limit,”

        On the effective limit, I actually thought chaos theory already had us there. For many systems, there are so many variables, and so many perturbing influences, that prediction is effectively impossible, regardless of whether it would be in principle.

        “But lopping off branches of falsified ideas hopefully leaves a true tree.”

        Francis Bacon argued that everyone should work to disprove their own hypotheses. It’s a noble idea, but human psychology usually doesn’t work that way. It’s why science is so dependent on reproducibility, where others try to disprove our hypotheses.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I actually thought chaos theory already had us there.”

        Very much so in terms of prediction. (Chaotic systems, of course, are strictly determined, but cannot be calculated or predicted.) I’m reaching for systems that might not even be strictly determined.

        “It’s a noble idea, but human psychology usually doesn’t work that way.”

        Hence a favorite quote (due to a friend of mine, but it echos a sentiment I’ve seen expressed elsewhere): “Science proceeds despite scientists.”

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Science proceeds despite scientists.”

        That might be one of those emergent things. All the bickering and attempts to show each other up have the effect of killing weak ideas and battle hardening successful ones. The trouble seems to come when one scientists gains too much prestige and can inhibit ideas he disagrees with. But that seems less of an issue today than it used to be, particularly with the internet.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The internet is, indeed, a great flattener. (If only that didn’t also involve elevating inimical fringe groups.)

  • Marvin Edwards

    The concept of “waves” emerged from observing the sea. And we metaphorically apply it to light and sound. The same would apply to the “laws” of physics, as a metaphor derived from human laws that govern our behavior. The laws of traffic are real. The “laws” of physics are metaphorical.

    “Emergence” is a metaphorical description used to account for how higher level behaviors appear. But our words originated from human experience and the need to describe that experience to each other. So, the words are top-down attempts to explain how bottom-up causal mechanisms might account for the behavior of higher level objects, like us.

    Unfortunately, to say that something we do, like walking, is somehow explainable by physical causation doesn’t really work. Something is missing. When objectively observed, the atoms seem to have no “interest” in going for a walk, no “motive” or “reason” to do so. And yet, here we are, a collection of atoms, walking around and doing things that we “want” or “need” to do.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “The laws of traffic are real. The ‘laws’ of physics are metaphorical.”

      An interesting ontology. You say the things we make up are real, but consistent observed physical patterns are not? I’m afraid I can’t go along with that; your own example shows why.

      We observed wave behavior in water and recognized lawful physical patterns. We saw the same lawful patterns in sound and light. Our observations led to our metaphors, and those same observations also led to the laws we made up.

      “Unfortunately, to say that something we do, like walking, is somehow explainable by physical causation doesn’t really work.”

      Hence the infamous “hard problem” — how is a collection of whatever (particles, atoms, brain cells, etc) able to make statements like “I think, therefore I am!”

      • Marvin Edwards

        Oh, the consistent patterns of reliable behavior are certainly real. It’s just the concept of “physical law” that is metaphorical. Objects like the Sun and Earth and Moon don’t consult any law books to determine what they will do next. They just do what they naturally do.

        We use different language and concepts for the three types of causation: physical, biological, and rational.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Objects like the Sun and Earth and Moon don’t consult any law books to determine what they will do next.”

        Okay, I see what you’re getting at. As you go on to say, we use different language in different domains, and part of that is words that appear similar but mean different things. (I’ve always found philosophy tricky that way because it uses common words in specific, and sometimes unusual, ways.)

        I think we mean something quite different when we talk about physical “law” and human “law.” The latter has a sense of “rules” and, as they say, rules are made to be broken. Human law can be broken with no problem. (Possible consequences is another matter!)

        Physical “law” can’t be broken, it can only be superseded by new law.

        Keep in mind, also, that, in other languages, the words used for the concepts may not be so similar as they are in English. We should be careful about conflating the two just because they use the English word “law” in their description.

        “We use different language and concepts for the three types of causation: physical, biological, and rational.”

        Absolutely. If you want to talk causality, that might be better under this recent post of mine. (Here, the topic focuses on emergence.)

      • Marvin Edwards

        The objective observation is the reliable patterns of behavior. The only objects that are literally governed by the laws of physics are the physicists doing their calculations.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Why would the laws of physics apply to one object (physicists) but not others (planets)?

        I think we have very different views here. I see the laws of physics as real properties of the universe. We discover them; we don’t invent them. (We do invent the language — mathematics — that describes them.)

        You mentioned earlier that the planets don’t consult law books. True, but they do always act according to those fundamental physical laws. (In my view, physical law and causality are the same thing.)

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “Why would the laws of physics apply to one object (physicists) but not others (planets)?”

        Because the planets can’t read, but the physicist can. Thus, his behavior in calculating where the moon will be when the Apollo rocket arrives is literally governed by the laws of physics.

        The planets themselves don’t really care about the laws of physics. They just do what they do.

        WS: “I see the laws of physics as real properties of the universe.”

        Well, that would be a hallucination. The properties of physical objects, such as their mass, inertia, trajectory, etc. are what control everything that they do. The universe as a whole is just where all the stuff is located. It has no properties.

        WS: ” We discover them; we don’t invent them. (We do invent the language — mathematics — that describes them.)”

        We describe what we observe. The laws of physics are descriptive of what we observe. The laws themselves have no causative powers (except with the physicist).

        Actually, there’s a nice statement in the SEP article:

        “Indeed, talk of laws “governing” and so on is so commonplace that it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical.”
        (See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ section 2.4 Laws of Nature)

        I love the irony in that statement (“it takes an effort of will”).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Because the planets can’t read, but the physicist can.”

        We are really talking about different things here, because what I’m talking about as laws of physics has nothing to do with reading. The universe unfolded — lawfully — for over 13 billion years before anyone here got around to reading anything.

        “The properties of physical objects, such as their mass, inertia, trajectory, etc. are what control everything that they do.”

        If I drop a rock from a tower, if falls a certain way. What describes how it falls?

        It’s not the rock’s mass. A rock and a feather fall the same way in a vacuum.

        “The universe as a whole is just where all the stuff is located. It has no properties.”

        I can’t agree. I don’t see how spacetime can have meaning without the underlying laws it operates by. Look at it this way: How did the Big Bang happen if not by some lawful event?

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “How did the Big Bang happen if not by some lawful event?”

        “I shot the sheriff…but I did not shoot the deputy”. That’s what comes to mind when you call the Big Bang a “lawful event”. I think you’re pushing the metaphor over the top.

        Gravity caused the accumulation of matter into a super-condensed, massive “black hole”. Either the quantity of matter reached some tipping point, or perhaps two black holes collided, causing the Big Bang.

        Gravity is what we call the force. The laws of gravity describe what that force causes to happen.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I think you’re pushing the metaphor over the top.”

        Why? Do you think the BB did not happen according to physical law?

        “Either the quantity of matter reached some tipping point, or perhaps two black holes collided, causing the Big Bang.”

        But before the BB there was no matter to accumulate or black holes to collide.

        “Gravity is what we call the force. The laws of gravity describe what that force causes to happen.”

        And aren’t those laws part of the universe?

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “And aren’t those laws part of the universe?”

        Objects and forces make up the physical universe. The behavior of these objects and forces is reliable. The reliable behavior of inanimate objects is described by the “laws” of physics.

        WS: “But before the BB there was no matter to accumulate or black holes to collide.”

        I disagree. Something doesn’t just appear out of nothing. And since there appears to be stuff all around, we must conclude that stuff, in one form or another, has always been here. One of the things we’ve learned recently is that there are black holes near the centers of most galaxies. These accumulate matter from anything close enough to be drawn in by the black hole’s gravity. So, at some point, all matter will coalesce into black holes which will eventually gobble up each other as well. At some point there will be another Big Bang. And the cycle will repeat, in some form, eternally.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The behavior of these objects and forces is reliable.”

        Why?

        “And since there appears to be stuff all around, we must conclude that stuff, in one form or another, has always been here.”

        So one of your axioms is that a universe always existed and it directly spawned a new universe once everything collected in one BH?

        Doesn’t that cycle follow physical law?

        (Also: What about the current cosmological view that dark energy drives the expansion of space such that everything will separate and eventually all the black holes will evaporate into thermal radiation and nothing will be left?)

      • Marvin Edwards

        Determinism asserts that the behavior of all objects and forces within the physical universe is causally reliable. The little -ism at the end suggests that determinism is a belief. The evidence for this belief is all of the instances of reliable causation that we witness every day.

        Where are we located in time with regards to eternity? One thought is that we are precisely in the middle, with 1/2 of an eternity behind us and 1/2 of an eternity still ahead. Now, 1/2 of eternity is…well, it is still eternity. That’s how the concept works.

        So, if stuff has already been here for an eternity, it is likely to continue to exist for eternity. But it has always been in motion and transformation, for example between universes and super-dense black holes. Wikipedia has an article on “Ultimate fate of the universe” which outlines a number of theories. I’m fond of the Big Bounce, because its nice to think that life will continue to show up for eternity.

        The laws of physics may be used to predict the likelihood of each scenario, but nothing literally “follows physical laws”. There is reliable behavior that is described by the laws of physics. What the objects literally follow are the natural forces between them, like gravity.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In my view, the reason for the reliability is that things follow physical laws.

        You appear to think this is due to the properties of objects themselves; I’m saying it’s due to properties of reality — the laws of physics. It amounts to the same thing.

        However, again, I see a difference between strict determinism (which insists on a single future) and causality (which allows multiple futures). Strict determinism is a belief not really backed up by evidence. Proving it true requires predicting the future — including human behavior — with 100% accuracy. (My claim is that it is not possible, even in principle, and that strict determinism is false.)

        FWIW: I think trying to do math with eternity is an incoherent concept. I’ve never been much taken by the Doomsday argument or by the Anthropic argument.

      • Marvin Edwards

        The reason why I chip away at the notion that things are controlled by “the laws of physics” is that this notion suggests we have no meaningful role, no control over anything. The laws of physics are in control, and we have no say in any matter.

        That’s why I stress that it is the actual objects and forces that really do exist in physical reality, and that these objects and forces actually do all of the causing.

        We happen to be one of those objects. By recognizing this fact, the causing is returned to our hands, and removed from the abstraction “the laws of physics”.

        But another way of looking at this would be to say that we ARE “the laws of physics”, or, at least, a specific package of those laws, operating within the world to accomplish a purpose that is our own (to survive, thrive, and reproduce) according to methods and means that we control through our own reasoning.

        Reasoning is a separate causal mechanism. It runs, like our computers, upon a physical infrastructure (our neurology). It models reality. And it manipulates that model through imagination and creativity, to run scenarios that let us estimate and predict the likely outcome of our actions, and to choose between multiple possibilities.

        Within the domain of human influence, the single inevitable future is caused by imagining different possible futures, and choosing which future we wish to actualize. That choice becomes the single inevitable future.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The laws of physics are in control, and we have no say in any matter.”

        Under strict determinism, that is correct.

        If you claim there is something special about the collection of particles we call humans, you’ll have to account for what that is, because, as you say, we’re just physical objects following physical laws (regardless of where you think those laws lie).

        “Reasoning is a separate causal mechanism. It runs, like our computers, upon a physical infrastructure (our neurology).”

        Then our reasoning is just as fully determined as our computers. There is no freedom — not one shred — in a computer program.

      • Marvin Edwards

        To say “there is no freedom” would be too broad. There is certainly no “freedom from cause and effect”. There is certainly no “freedom from oneself”. And there is certainly no “freedom from reality”.

        But there is freedom from coercion. And there is freedom from other controlling undue influences. And that’s the only type of freedom required for free will.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In a general social sense, certainly. Regardless of the putative reality of strict determinism, it feels like we have free will, and we must act according to that perception.

        What you don’t seem to accept is that, under strict determinism, that feeling is an illusion, an epiphenomenon. For a long time neuroscientists thought they had proof the brain decides things before the conscious will does. Recent data casts that in doubt, but there was a general acceptance of the idea that our brain decides things outside our conscious will. (I was always dubious, and the new data provides grounds.)

        Acts of coercion are just as determined as anything else (under strict determinism). How you respond to coercion is also determined.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Ironically, the stricter the determinism, the more likely you are to find free will. For one thing, the presumption of perfectly reliable cause and effect immediately casts out the philosophical definition of free will as “a choice we make free of causal necessity”. If there is no such thing as “freedom from causal necessity” then that concept can no longer define anything.

        That forces us back to the operational definition of free will, as “a choice we make free of coercion and other undue influences”. I call it the operational definition because that’s the definition that is used when assessing moral and legal responsibility. It also happens to be the definition that everyone understands and correctly applies to practical scenarios.

        There have been studies that show how ordinary people understand the concept of free will. Here are a couple:

        Click to access nahmias.pdf


        and most recently:
        https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-009-0010-7

        In the latter study they asked college freshmen to define free will in a few sentences. In there conclusion they note “From Study 1 we can conclude that people have a solid concept of free will, but there was no evidence for a belief in violations of natural laws, causality, or the like.” In other words, they are not using the so-called “philosophical” definition of free will.

        Within a universe of strict determinism, every event is causally necessary from any prior point in time. It is not just my choice that is inevitable, but also the choosing operation.

        If my choosing is inevitable, then my considering of two or more possibilities is also inevitable. And it will be inevitable that it will be I, myself, that will be “deciding” the issue.

        The authors also conclude that “At least within extant studies, people do not have trouble accepting determinism and free choice side by side. In philosophers’ terms, people appear to be compatibilists.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You’re talking sociology. I’m talking physics.

      • Marvin Edwards

        It’s naive to suggest that the laws of physics can explain everything. If that were the case then one could derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics. It can’t be done.

        Physics is only capable of predicting the behavior of inanimate objects. If you want to know why a cup of water rolls downhill, then physics is fine.

        But if you need to explain why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping, then physics doesn’t have a clue.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s quaint that you think so, but if you could actually prove it, you’d be famous.

        As I have said repeatedly, the materialist view is precisely that the laws of physics account for everything. That is the current scientific view — everything ultimately reduces to the basic laws of physics.

        But if you can show where the magic sauce comes into play that transcends those laws, you should definitely let someone know!

      • Marvin Edwards

        Can do.

        (1) Matter behaves differently when organized differently. For example, H and O are gases which only become liquid at extremely low temperatures. But organize them into a molecule of H2O and you get a liquid at room temperature.

        (2) Physics observes the behavior of inanimate matter, and is quite competent to explain this. A ball placed on a slope will always roll downhill.

        (3) However, when matter is organized into a living organism, it displays purposeful or goal-directed behavior. The object matter is animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on that same slope and it will go up, down, or sideways depending upon where he expects to find the next acorn. His behavior is no longer controlled by gravity. It is controlled by biological drives.

        He is still subject to gravity, of course. And if you drop the squirrel and the ball from the leaning tower of Pisa, they will both hit the ground at the same time. But gravity no longer controls his behavior as it controlled the behavior of the ball.

        So, biological drives are a separate causal mechanism. The organism makes use of physical forces (as when the squirrel climbs a tree), but it is no longer “governed” by them.

        And we should note that, while biological organisms can use physics to accomplish its purposes, physics can never use biological organisms to accomplish its purposes, because inanimate objects have no purpose.

        Purpose emerged within the physical universe when the first biological organism appeared.

        (4) In biological organism that have evolved into intelligent species, we get another type of causation: rational. The brain organizes sensory input into a model of reality consisting of objects and events. And it can manipulate this model by imagination to create scenarios that help the organism to predict the likely outcomes of choosing to actualize one scenario versus another.

        This introduces a third category of behavior: deliberate action. This is an action derived through the mental operation of deliberation, which includes imagining possibilities, evaluating them according to its current purpose and reasoning, and choosing what it will do.

        Deliberate behavior emerged within the physical universe with the arrival of the first intelligent species.

        In the case of humans, this meant the ability to study the laws of physics and put them to our own use for our own purposes. This included escaping the control of gravity in a very big way, by landing someone on the Moon.

        In summary, it is impossible to explain the behavior of living organisms, much less intelligent species, by limiting ourselves to the laws of physics.

        The laws of physics are never broken. It’s just that they don’t cover everything. That’s why we have the Life sciences (to deal with biological causation) and the Social sciences (to deal with rational causation).

        And there is no magic involved anywhere. It’s all science!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The laws of physics are never broken. It’s just that they don’t cover everything.”

        The first sentence is true. The second is false, at least in principle (effectively is another matter).

        A key point of this post is to question reductionism, the current scientific view, which holds that all those things you mentioned reduce to the basic laws of physics. All those things you mentioned, life sciences and social sciences, are emergent from those laws.

        Those emergent laws offer very convenient ways for us to deal with complex systems. Only the universe itself has the computing power to deal with reality at the basic level. We’re still trying to pull off doing tiny bits of it. A major attraction of quantum computers is they allow simulating larger systems at the quantum level. (And by “larger” I mean, like, proteins, so still pretty small. Right now we can’t even do a proton.)

        So emergent laws are how we have to operate, but they are emergent from basic physics. They can, ultimately, be fully explained by physics.

        The reductionist chain is something like this: What accounts for my behavior? My mind. What accounts for that? My brain. What accounts for that? Some sophisticated neuro-biology programmed by my life experiences. What accounts for that? Whew, lots of things. On the brain side, more basic biology, accounted for by chemistry, accounted for by atomic physics, accounted for by, ta da, quantum physics. The life experience side is diverse and complicated, but ultimately boils down in similar fashion.

        Since there is no magic sauce, everything, ultimately, is constrained by the laws of physics. Everything else is emergent from that. A belief that anything gets added along the way is a belief in magic sauce.

      • Marvin Edwards

        I think there is a distinction that needs to be made between physical material and physical science. While everything is constructed from physical material, physical science only observes the behavior of inanimate objects. And that is why the behavior it observes, and the consistent patterns from which it derives its “laws”, are incomplete.

        Living organisms are made of physical material, but they behave differently than inanimate objects. Physical science does not observe living organisms, so it really has very little to say about what living objects do and why they do it.

        A science can only derive its laws by observation. Since physics does not bother to observe living organisms, it cannot explain or predict their behavior from its laws.

        From what I’ve heard, the laws physics could not explain the behavior of quantum objects either. And there were many surprises as they began to actually observe quantum events via the several large colliders. If the laws of physics were sufficient, then we wouldn’t need quantum mechanics.

        Michael Gazzaniga in “Who’s in Charge?” covers weak and strong emergence. He also addresses the problem of deriving physics from quantum mechanics and vice versa. His example is Newton’s laws (strong emergence) applying to large bodies versus quantum behavior of subatomic particles. He suggests that physicists are unable to derive one from the other, in either direction. So, even within the physical sciences it is recognized that the laws of behavior for objects on one level are simply different from the laws on the other level. (see page 124 of “Who’s in Charge?”)

        So, perhaps we need 4 levels of causation: quantum, physical, biological, and rational.

        The key point here is that the nature of the objects at different levels have different causal mechanisms, each with its own unique set of “laws”.

        Every object in the universe is still composed of physical material. But the behavior of the objects at different levels of organization have additional rules unique to that level.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        We’re just plowing plowed ground. Yes, emergent systems have rules at emergent levels. Yes, it’s computationally infeasible for us to use quantum physics to explain ocean waves. Nevertheless, quantum physics does fully account for ocean waves and you taking coffee shopping.

        Unless you can actually mathematically demonstrate where reductionism fails. As I said, doing so will make you famous.

      • Marvin Edwards

        “Accounting for things” is my point. Neither physics nor quantum mechanics can account for the behavior of living organism or intelligent species. Only the Life sciences and the Social sciences can do that.

        And if you want to demonstrate anything mathematically, you’ll need to take into account the actual behavior of the objects you’re interested in, like people. There was that movie “A Beautiful Mind” about John Nash, a schizophrenic, about whom Wikipedia says, “Nash’s work has provided insight into the factors that govern chance and decision-making inside complex systems found in everyday life.” In the movie, I recall a scene where he was observing the behavior of pigeons in the yard on campus.

        Again, the key point is that you cannot come up with the laws of behavior for objects that you fail to observe.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Obviously, but I’m not sure what that has to do with it. Our observations confirm what I keep telling you: all those things you mention are emergent.

        Whether you accept it or not, the modern scientific view is that reductionism appears correct. At least no one, so far, has shown where it fails.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        BTW: One problem with your thesis is that animate and inanimate objects are made from the same stuff. Humans are just complex machines made out of meat, bone, sinew, and lots of tubes. 🙂

      • Marvin Edwards

        And that’s the crux of our issue here, the presumption that since all objects are made of the same fundamental stuff, atoms and molecules, that they all must operate by the same rules. They don’t. Apparently not even between QM and Physics.

        The difference between humans and machines is that humans build machines to assist them carry out their purposes. Machines have no purpose of their own. Their purpose is derived from that of the living organism.

        Keep in mind too that “artificial intelligence” is created by attempting to simulate what the human mind already does. That’s why it’s called “artificial” because it is manufactured.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…since all objects are made of the same fundamental stuff, atoms and molecules, that they all must operate by the same rules. They don’t.”

        Are you seriously trying to say the atoms in your brain operate according to different laws than the atoms in the inanimate objects around you?

      • Marvin Edwards

        Nope. That’s not what I said. What I said was that the objects composed of atoms operate differently according to how the atoms are organized. The atoms in a squirrel are organized differently than the atoms in a billiard ball. You can confirm this for yourself by first poking the billiard ball with a cue stick, and then poking the squirrel.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So you’re claiming structure is the magic sauce? Why would one structure operate according to different rules than another? Why aren’t the physics the same for squirrels and billiard balls?

      • Marvin Edwards

        Why are things as they are? I don’t know. They just are.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Which takes us back to not being able to account for the claim. It’s an assertion with no logical support. There is no clear case of reductionism failing.

      • Marvin Edwards

        How would you know whether it failed or succeeded?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Same way science always does: experimental results.

      • Marvin Edwards

        So, did you poke the squirrel with the cue stick and observe the difference in its behavior from that of the billiard ball? That would constitute an experimental result. Right?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Not a particularly scientific one, but…

        Both poked. Both moved. Why? Physics.

        Presumably I don’t have to convince you the ball reacts due to physics, so what about the squirrel.

        The nature of atoms means the pool cue transmits force to the objects. In the squirrel, this generates nerve impulses, which work according to biology, which works according to chemistry, which works according to atoms, which work according to physics.

        The impulses provide input to the squirrel’s brain, an extremely complex neural network programmed by evolution and the squirrel’s memories. The squirrel’s neural network reacts as it’s been programmed by nature to do. All of this works according to biology, which works… etc.

        A squirrel is just a biological machine, and all machines work according to the laws of physics.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Try it this way: Imagine we build a robot squirrel that looks and behaves exactly like a real one. Internally, it’s just motors, ligaments, armatures, tubes, and a tiny computer.

        Is there a difference between the robot squirrel and a real one?

        Do you doubt the robot works only according to the laws of physics?

      • Marvin Edwards

        The robot squirrel serves our purpose (to simulate a squirrel). The real squirrel serves its own purpose (to survive, thrive, and reproduce).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, that’s a high-level value assessment on your part.

        What’s the difference between how they operate, the laws that control them?

      • Marvin Edwards

        I don’t think either have any knowledge of any laws. Each will act according to its own nature. If you watch enough squirrels over time, you can learn of their consistent patterns of behavior, and make up laws to describe that behavior.

        The squirrel will gather nuts, find a mate, raise a family, grow old, and die.

        The robot will do whatever you programmed it to do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Each will act according to its own nature.”

        Their natures? WTF are their natures?

      • Marvin Edwards

        The squirrel will act like a squirrel acts.
        The robot will act like a robot acts.

        The scientist will observe both, and write down her observations over time, and tell you what it is their nature to do.

        If it is a physical scientist, then he won’t be able to explain what either object does, because he never observes living organisms or simulations of living organisms in his study of inanimate objects.

        If it is a life scientist, then she’ll tell you exactly what I’ve been telling you, that the squirrel’s behavior which is for the purpose of surviving, thriving, and reproducing.

        The social scientist will explain the squirrel’s patterns of interactions with its families and tribes.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        What you describe for “life” and “social” scientists is an observational approach that is the only recourse available for complex emergent behavior. Anthropologists, archeologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc. All of those fields acknowledge the limits of what they can do because they are confined to observation.

        The harder sciences study why those things work, they study the parts of things. Only the hard sciences produce physical laws that actually explain anything. The softer sciences are all built on this foundation. Those other scientists all stand on the shoulders of these ones.

        We keep going around the same point, and it’s getting old. At this point, I don’t know if you’re trolling me, if you don’t understand, or if you’re just insisting on your own personal view of things. If you’re trolling me, I’ll ask you to leave; if you don’t understand, say what you don’t get; if you think differently from mainstream science, just acknowledge it.

        But, regardless, Marvin, I’m getting really tired of saying the same thing over and over. Either accept it or disagree and be done.

      • Marvin Edwards

        ALL science, including physics and chemistry, derive their “laws” from direct observation, forming hypotheses, and conducting experiments that confirm the hypotheses.

        I recently bought a copy of the Campbell Biology textbook by Urry, Cain, Wasserman, Minorsky, and Reece. They do cover emergence early, on page 6, in fact.

        They say what I’ve been saying: “These emergent properties are due to the arrangement and interaction of parts as complexity increases.”

        Matter behaves differently when organized differently.

        You may want to look at these topics from the view of science rather than from the view of philosophy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Marvin, I’ve been into science for almost six decades. I’ve been giving you the scientific view. But since you don’t seem to be demonstrating understanding, it’s down to that either you’re trolling me or you really don’t understand what I’m saying. Again: I’m giving you the scientific view.

        I agree about emergence. What you don’t seem to understand is that (for what I’d really like to be the last time): Reductionism means these high-level phenomena are all fully explained by the laws of physics.

        You seem to believe magic sauce comes from structure, but you can’t account for how or why. You either don’t believe, or don’t understand, that all structure operates according to the same basic physical laws.

        That’s the scientific view.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Then our disagreement is about what is included in the term “basic physical laws”. The specific sciences of physics and chemistry deal with inanimate matter. Those I refer to as the “laws of physics”. But if you mean to imply that the term “physical laws” include those “laws of nature” observed and recorded by the Life sciences and the Social sciences, then I would agree.

        My point is simply that it is impossible to explain the behavior of living organisms and intelligent species using only the “laws of physics”.

        Thinking is not covered by the “laws of physics”. Yet thinking controls certain behaviors of intelligent species. Imagination leads to progress and new inventions, and so on.

        The mechanism of thinking operates upon a physical infrastructure, of course. But no laws of physics cover logical thought. Logic has its own set of rules that operate at a different level.

        Yeah, I’ve probably said all that before, just like you’ve repeated your mantra that if its made of physical matter then the laws of physics must be able to explain its behavior.

        We disagree. I’m sorry you can’t see it as I do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Call me crazy, but I prefer the mainstream scientific view. I don’t see it your way because I think you’re factually wrong. All you’ve got is a lot of hand-waving about structure being somehow magical, and I don’t believe in magic.

      • Marvin Edwards

        I don’t believe in magic either. Everything is built from physical matter. But its behavior depends upon its organization. And that, as I’ve quoted to you from a college Biology textbook, is the scientific consensus.

        Thanks for the conversation. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) we’ve each learned between now and the next time we talk. Have a good 2020.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But its behavior depends upon its organization.”

        Your faith that structure results in non-reducible laws amounts to a belief in magic. Ask any scientist. As I have said repeatedly, no one has ever accounted for where reductionism fails. It very well might, but so far we haven’t seen it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And to be clear about the nature of the disagreement, it’s that you don’t believe in reductionism while science, at least for now, does. I’m just upholding the scientific consensus.

  • Astronomer Eric

    Hey Wyrd! Hope all is going well. It’s been awhile, but I’m back to try to learn more about this topic of emergence if you’re still willing to discuss it. In the spirit of slowing down the conversation like I mentioned last time, I’ll just start off with a few sets of ideas I have questions about focused mainly on emergence.

    Firstly, could civilization be considered emergent? If one observes a school of fish long enough, they could probably start to form predictive models/theories of how the school will behave as a whole. Are fields such as sociology attempting to formulate the models/theories of how civilizations behave as emergent entities? How does culture play a role in all this? Is culture also emergent? Of the two, would “civilization” or “culture” for humans be the better analog to “school” for fish?

    Secondly, couldn’t an emergent trait be evolutionarily selected for just like any genetic trait (is emergence an alternate way to get variation instead of straight up genetic mutations)? Maybe that question in parentheses is misguided in the following sense: isn’t every genetic trait itself emergent all the way back to each atom in every cell, DNA molecule, etc. (biology is emergent from chemistry, which is emergent from physics, etc)? In fact, if I understand what you wrote in this post correctly, a biological trait is “weakly emergent” if all of its characteristics can be traced back to and accounted for by the cooperation between multiple “lower-level” traits (i.e. all the various parts of the human brain, etc. account for the emergent trait of intellectualism). Once a trait emerges, say the intellectual ability for example, wouldn’t that trait then feel the same evolutionary pressure that all traits feel (using the concept of weak emergence, can’t you say that all the individual lower-level genetic traits that work together to produce the emergent trait are themselves selected for as a packaged unit)?

    Along these same lines (and thirdly), aren’t the reward/suffering feedback processes evidence that a trait has been selected for over time? For example, it seems to me that one of the first traits life had to evolve was the ability to take in energy. It seems that at first, life forms would have been too simple to have any pleasure/suffering mechanisms to go along with the energy consumption process. But over time, as organisms got more complex, they could take on that extra functionality to the point where many higher level organisms feel pleasure when eating and suffering when starving. My understanding is that these feedback mechanisms evolve because an organism with such mechanisms motivating them would likely survive better than an organism with no such mechanisms (or at least ones with less potency). So, if a trait like intellectualism emerges, I feel that it’s unlikely to somehow also emerge its own feedback mechanism at the same time. I think that such a feedback mechanism would come later on as the emergent trait is put through the evolutionary wringer. So if today’s humans feel pleasure from utilizing their intellectual abilities and suffering from not (boredom?), wouldn’t those feedback mechanisms have evolved after the trait had initially emerged?

    With that in mind, what does it look like for a trait such as human intellectualism to initially emerge? Does it happen gradually over many generations? Or is a person suddenly born one day with the last genetic mutation piece of the puzzle needed for the emergent ability to make itself apparent?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hello Eric. Your last paragraph of questions, about intelligence emerging in humans, is unknown territory. There are lots of theories, but no one knows. (Mike has posted a few articles that touch on this.)

      Speaking of intelligence emerging, most of the forms of emergence you mention are general forms of A emerging from B and not the very specific kind of emergence discussed in this post.

      One general form of emergence: A submarine emerges from the sea; a tiger emerges from the jungle; a train emerges from a tunnel. This form of emergence involves a dynamic transition from A to B. Further, there is the sense that A, whatever it is, is more “closed” than B. The sea, the jungle, the tunnel, all enclose the object that transitions. Lastly, the implied time span is short, usually on the order of minutes.

      Another general form of emergence: Civilization emerging; human intelligence emerging; evolved traits emerging. This form also involves a dynamic transition from A to B, but obviously a very long time span, possibly millions of years. This form of emergence suggests A is less complex than B.

      What’s common and key in these general forms of emergence is the sense of dynamic transition. Most uses of “emergence” are this kind.

      The examples you mentioned, civilization, culture, genetic traits, are emergent in the general sense. They involve a transition from a simple state to a more complex one. Another example: an adult human emerges from a young one over time.

      When we talk about emergent properties, such as schooling fish, or flocking birds, or a full-color image from red+green+blue dots, we’re actually applying that dynamic transition sense in a metaphorical way. Emergent properties, of themselves, are static (although the system they apply to can be dynamic).

      That r+g+b dots can form an image is a static property of how visual systems work. The patterns from fish and birds are also static properties of how schools of fish and flocks of birds interact with each other on a local scale. The large-scale pattern emerges as a consequence.

      Discussions of emergence here are about the laws and properties that lead to the result. On the other hand, discussions of, say, civilization or tigers, focuses on the objects in question.

      So,…

      “Firstly, could civilization be considered emergent?”

      Not in the sense meant in this post. Neither “civilization” nor “culture” apply to “school” for fish. There are some herd instincts in humans, stronger in some people than in others (“sheeple”), but the kind of behavior we see in flocks and schools usually requires training. (Doing “the wave” is a simple example. Imagine more complex behaviors resulting in more complex patterns.)

      “Secondly, couldn’t an emergent trait be evolutionarily selected for just like any genetic trait (is emergence an alternate way to get variation instead of straight up genetic mutations)?”

      It’s the same thing, not an alternate. Genetic traits emerge due to mutations (or something that modifies the genetic code).

      The term “weakly emergent” doesn’t apply to these general forms of emergence. That’s strictly for the emergent properties usage. The distinction between weak and strong (or epistemological and ontological) is whether the emergent thing is truly new (ontological) or just looks new (epistemological). If one believes in reductionism (i.e. that everything is explained by the lowest level physics) then all emergence is necessarily epistemological (weak).

      When we speak of genetic traits emerging, or civilization emerging, this general form looks at the actual thing that emerges (submarines, tigers, genetics, culture), which of course is real (ontological). So the weak/strong distinction doesn’t apply here.

      Your other questions involve genetics and evolution, so I’ll start another thread for that.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Along these same lines (and thirdly), aren’t the reward/suffering feedback processes evidence that a trait has been selected for over time?”

      Reward/suffering is a very general concept. Even plants can be said to have some sense of reward or suffering (thriving or struggling).

      “For example, it seems to me that one of the first traits life had to evolve was the ability to take in energy.”

      On some level, that’s pretty much included in the definition of life. Even the simplest single-cell life uses energy.

      “It seems that at first, life forms would have been too simple to have any pleasure/suffering mechanisms to go along with the energy consumption process.”

      It depends on what you mean. Many simple organisms eat what comes their way. An ocean sponge, for instance, or jelly fish, or a Venus fly-trap. More complex organisms, if they can move, can seek out food, but I doubt fish (for example) have much in the way of a reward system. Fish, to me, are almost certainly 100% “algorithm” — by which I mean entirely mechanistic; purely reaction-driven.

      (Fish might be debatable; some think there might be more going on. Bugs, though, I’m pretty confident are purely algorithmic. There’s no consciousness to speak of in bugs. As a fisherman whose seen a fair amount of fish behavior, I’m pretty confident about fish.)

      “But over time, as organisms got more complex, they could take on that extra functionality to the point where many higher level organisms feel pleasure when eating and suffering when starving.”

      For some very primitive versions of suffering and pleasure, yes. The latter, especially, is more a human concept. With animals, the better term might be “satisfaction” — keep in mind most animals will eat loathsome things.

      “So, if a trait like intellectualism emerges, I feel that it’s unlikely to somehow also emerge its own feedback mechanism at the same time.”

      I don’t think you mean “intellectualism” but “intelligence” — the ability to analyze the environment, create mental models about it, and make useful decisions. It’s something that came along very late in evolution, and so far has only happened with one species (us).

      Other primates, and a few non-primates, show low-level versions of it, but only humans have taken it to the such a high level.

      As I said at the beginning, we don’t really know what happened there. Lots of people have theories, but they’re all just guesses.

      That said, that intelligence did evolve gave us a huge benefit. We took over the planet and sent spaceships off to check out other planets. So the feedback mechanism is simply being hugely successful in whatever we attempted.

      “I think that such a feedback mechanism would come later on as the emergent trait is put through the evolutionary wringer.”

      This feedback mechanism depending on reward/suffering reminds me of a guy who went by Philosopher Eric and who had a theory that centered on that. I never saw the point. At a low level, it comes with the territory of life. All life has some sense of it. Plants seek the light and water. Bacteria can move towards food. It’s a basic and generic mechanism, a general part of the machinery.

      It isn’t really until we get to humans and our complex minds that “reward” takes on much meaning, and that all comes largely after our genetic development. So I see the reward/suffering thing as trivial on the one hand, and not relevant to evolution on the other.

      Consider how dogs are happy to eat the same food every day. They mainly care that they don’t starve. How happy would a human being be in that case? If it was truly down to the same food or starving, we’d be “happy” not to starve, but we’re a lot happier with a varied diet.

      Taking that one step further, we enjoy a wide variety of foods just because we enjoy the variety. We’ll even distinguish between quality of food, fine dining versus fast food, for instance. These have nothing to do with survival, but with the top of Maslow’s hierarchy — our fulfillment. Which, as I’ve said, is a strictly human thing.

      In fact, one issue I have with the reward/suffering dichotomy is that, for us, reward is a complex and advanced concept, but suffering is primitive. All animals can suffer, even plants can suffer. In Buddhism, life is suffering. So I don’t really see them as truly opposing pairs. Humans take pleasure to a very high level.

      “So if today’s humans feel pleasure from utilizing their intellectual abilities and suffering from not (boredom?), wouldn’t those feedback mechanisms have evolved after the trait had initially emerged?”

      No. Our ability to feel pleasure and suffering evolved a long time ago. Our intellectual abilities came much later. In the beginning our intelligence was devoted to helping us survive. It’s only after we learned to build civilizations that we had the time to be intellectual, let alone bored.

      Part of the danger of modern society is that it can tap into our primitive reward system in ways evolution didn’t equip us to handle.

      • Astronomer Eric

        Haha, I can see that it is going to require much effort to slow down our conversations! I have so much to reply to you now that it’s just going to get out of hand, so I’m only going to go one point at a time. Sorry if this way is annoying for you, but last time I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of different points that we very quickly got into discussing.

        So the first thing that pops out at me is:

        — “Emergent properties, of themselves, are static (although the system they apply to can be dynamic).”

        I know what the dictionary definitions of dynamic and static are, but I’m not getting your point here about emergent properties being ‘static’. Can you try to go into more detail about what you mean by ‘static’.

        Maybe I’ll risk a second point since it’s connected to this point you made:

        — “Discussions of emergence here are about the laws and properties that lead to the result.”

        What laws are you referring to? Can you elaborate on this statement, maybe give a specific example?

        Ok, headed to bed but I’ll check back in tomorrow!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Can you try to go into more detail about what you mean by ‘static’.”

        Sure.

        In contrast, the submarine, the tiger, and the train, are literally in motion when they emerge from one situation (water, jungle, tunnel) into another. Genetics and culture grow — another type of literal motion — from one form to another.

        With flocking birds and schooling fish, the pattern of an apparently large single creature emerges from fairly simple rules each unit (bird or fish) follows with regard to its immediate neighbors. There is a fixed set of rules each unit follows. Those rules in action result in the patterns we see.

        With RGB dots, there is a fixed (static) set of rules involving human color vision. These rules allow creating a pixel of any color with a combination of R+G+B dots. More complex rules about vision say how a collection of dots looks like a picture.

        Chemistry can be viewed as an emergent behavior based on the low-level behavior of electrons. The static rules of electron interaction lead to chemistry.

        These static low-level rules describe how an apparent high-level phenomenon emerges from those fixed rules. One key is that there is no obvious “A to B” transition in this kind of emergence. The behavior of A gives rise to an apparently different thing in B.

        “What laws are you referring to?”

        With birds and fish, the simple protocol each uses in reacting to its neighbors. With color halftone photos, the rules of color photography (e.g. red+green=yellow) and human visual behavior (mostly how our cones react to photons). With chemistry, the quantum laws applying to electron behavior (and some laws dealing with atomic behavior).

        These laws all describe how a completely new thing emerges.

        Contrast that with laws describing how a given object moves from one place to another or grows from one form to another. And note how the object is both the A and the B.

        Make sense?

      • Astronomer Eric

        — “Chemistry can be viewed as an emergent behavior based on the low-level behavior of electrons. The static rules of electron interaction lead to chemistry.”

        Ok, I think I get your point now about what “static” means. Let me test it out with an example to see if I really got it or not. Would some aspects of biology fall under this static emergence type? For example, let’s take multicellular organisms. Do multicellular organisms emerge from the low-level behavior of cells (which follow their own cellular static rules)?

        — “Contrast that with laws describing how a given object moves from one place to another or grows from one form to another. And note how the object is both the A and the B.”

        If I consider that the process of genetic evolution, or cultural evolution is a process where genes/memes grow in complexity over time, then could the words “evolution” and “general emergence” be used interchangeably?

        — “With birds and fish, the simple protocol each uses in reacting to its neighbors.”

        Maybe my use of the word “civilization” was not suitable for what I was asking when comparing it to a flock or a school. Maybe “tribe” or “society” would be more appropriate. But can we also say that humans follow protocols (albeit more complex protocols than birds or fish) when reacting with other humans and as such a “tribe” or a “society” emerges in the static sense?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Do multicellular organisms emerge from the low-level behavior of cells (which follow their own cellular static rules)?”

        I think you could say that, sure.

        Definitely biochemistry emerges from chemistry.

        “…could the words “evolution” and “general emergence” be used interchangeably?”

        Not interchangeably in that “general emergence” is a much broader term than “evolution” so there are places one could use general emergence that do not involve evolution.

        There is also that “emergence” describes more the effect of evolution, so I don’t see the terms as synonymous. More that (general) emergence describes the result of evolution — a new creature emerges as the result of a mutation.

        “But can we also say that humans follow protocols (albeit more complex protocols than birds or fish) when reacting with other humans and as such a “tribe” or a “society” emerges in the static sense?”

        Sure. The overall properties of a given civilization or society emerge as a consequence of the protocols and mores of that group.

      • Astronomer Eric

        Yay! Progress! Ok, on to the next item.

      • Astronomer Eric

        Me — “It seems that at first, life forms would have been too simple to have any pleasure/suffering mechanisms to go along with the energy consumption process.”

        You — “It depends on what you mean. Many simple organisms eat what comes their way. An ocean sponge, for instance, or jelly fish, or a Venus fly-trap. More complex organisms, if they can move, can seek out food,”

        I was thinking more along the lines of the first organisms that a majority of scientists would consider the very first living organisms to emerge from inorganic chemistry. I am not sure what the current consensus is on what form the first living organisms took, but with that said I was thinking more single-celled organisms than ocean sponges or jelly fish, etc. Would single cell organisms have the necessary biological components to be able to sense reward/suffering? For example, a single celled organism that just randomly swims around and absorbs food through its cell membrane if any food is in the area wouldn’t seem to need a reward/suffering system to get the job done. Since its motions are random, there is no need for it to be motivated to find food via a reward/suffer mechanism. If food is there, it continues to survive. If not, it dies.

        I think that was more just a clarification of what I meant, so I’ll mention another item here as well.

        Me — “But over time, as organisms got more complex, they could take on that extra functionality to the point where many higher level organisms feel pleasure when eating and suffering when starving.”

        You — “For some very primitive versions of suffering and pleasure, yes. The latter, especially, is more a human concept. With animals, the better term might be “satisfaction” — keep in mind most animals will eat loathsome things.”

        Do you mean “loathsome” in the anthropocentric sense, in that they eat things that humans find loathsome? Or do you mean in the sense that most animals will eat things that members of their own species find loathsome?

        But yes, I agree that the word “pleasure” has some anthropocentric attributes and that “satisfaction” is a better word in general to describe the reward aspect of this motivational mechanism.

        Ok, that’s good for now!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…the very first living organisms to emerge from inorganic chemistry.”

        I think you probably mean organic chemistry, the chemistry of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen (CHON). Specifically, here you’re talking about abiogenesis, the emergence of life itself.

        Abiogenesis is one of the great mysteries in science. We don’t know how life started. The key seems to be how RNA got started, and scientists who study abiogenesis seem to fall into two camps. One thinks RNA came after single-cell life; the other thinks RNA came first.

        In any event:

        “Would single cell organisms have the necessary biological components to be able to sense reward/suffering?”

        Only on a very primitive level. There would be no self-knowledge, which the concepts of “reward” and “suffering” — as we understand them — require. At this level, “reward” means surviving; “suffering” means dying.

        Essentially, all living things strive to survive. The higher the mind of the living thing, the more complex the ideas of reward and suffering become. At the human level, there’s that vast gap between us and all other living things, and our notions of reward and suffering are highly complex.

        “Do you mean ‘loathsome’ in the anthropocentric sense, in that they eat things that humans find loathsome?”

        Well certainly that, but dogs, for example, will eat shit, and it’s not like they don’t know what it is and normally avoid it. Something seems to drive them to it, but I’ve never heard a good theory about why.

        That said, I’m not sure the concept of ‘loathsome’ really applies to animals. That’s a human meta-concept. The overall point is that animals are in the moment and follow their drives. Humans think about things (which is why we’re so screwed up).

      • Astronomer Eric

        — “I think you probably mean organic chemistry,”

        Woops, yes that’s what I meant. 🙂

        — “At the human level, there’s that vast gap between us and all other living things, and our notions of reward and suffering are highly complex.”

        Which, I think, brings us back nicely to Maslow. His theory is based on human needs and the pressures they exert on us that motivate us to fulfill them, as well as the consequences of not fulfilling them. These pressures must come from somewhere. (I’ll get back to Maslow later though, I’m liking the pace of this conversation much better and so I’ll continue to resist the urge to respond to every point at once)

        — “Well certainly that, but dogs, for example, will eat shit, and it’s not like they don’t know what it is and normally avoid it. Something seems to drive them to it, but I’ve never heard a good theory about why.”

        I’ve always worked under the impression that just because I have never heard a good theory doesn’t mean that there isn’t one out there or won’t eventually be one in the future. In terms of what different organisms will/won’t, can/can’t eat, I’ve always chalked it up to what they evolved to be able to eat, or in the case of feces, if there isn’t any nutritional benefit from a second run through, there might be some other utilitarian benefit that evolved in consuming it. Or maybe it’s a pathology?

        — “The overall point is that animals are in the moment and follow their drives. Humans think about things”
        …and earlier you said:
        — “Other primates, and a few non-primates, show low-level versions of it [intelligence], but only humans have taken it to the such a high level.”

        I like it better when you acknowledge a spectrum of abilities (like in that second quote) vs when you make it polarized, either/or (like in that first quote). As you mentioned earlier,
        — “Your last paragraph of questions, about intelligence emerging in humans, is unknown territory. There are lots of theories, but no one knows.”
        We don’t know how intelligence emerges, and so I guess we can only speculate as to whether intelligence abilities follow a spectrum like pattern or if only we have it and no other life forms do. My hunch is that if intelligence emerges slowly over time, then we would see it as a spectrum-like phenomenon where other life forms exhibit gradations in intelligence. If we had more evidence to go on than just a few fossils, maybe we could make a clearer case about whether or not the extinct species such as homo erectus, neanderthals, denosovians, etc. fill in the large gap in intelligence abilities between us and the current other species on Earth. And if intelligence emerges overnight via a single genetic mutation that fills in the last piece of the puzzle required for intelligence to emerge, maybe that would hold more weight for the theory that we are the only species to have intelligence.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “[Maslow’s] theory is based on human needs…”

        I’m glad you see that (“human needs”) now. 😉

        “Or maybe it’s a pathology?”

        Since we can’t know the minds of dogs (let alone other creatures), we don’t know. There are theories it’s a pathology of some kind (mental or physical) and others that it does serve some nutritional need. Maybe it’s just a way to clean up. But no doubt there is a reason.

        The point here involves animals and pleasure versus suffering. I’m saying their sense of it is much more basic and primitive than ours, because our minds are both very complex and capable of meta-reasoning about pain and death.

        “I like it better when you acknowledge a spectrum of abilities…”

        When speaking about intelligence, there is obviously a spectrum. There is even a spectrum of intelligence among just humans (or among just dogs).

        What I find striking is the huge gap between all other forms of life and humans. A spectrum, yes, but humans are way beyond any other animal in what we do with that intelligence.

        “And if intelligence emerges overnight via a single genetic mutation that fills in the last piece of the puzzle required for intelligence to emerge, maybe that would hold more weight for the theory that we are the only species to have intelligence.”

        It’s not likely intelligence in humans arose suddenly but over some period of time. As there are now, I suspect there were more intelligent early humans and less intelligent ones. Because intelligence is so useful, the more intelligent ones were more successful.

        That we’re the only species with such high intelligence is self-evident. No other species has accomplished anything close to what we have.

      • Astronomer Eric

        — “I’m glad you see that (“human needs”) now.”

        Haha, I mean, I’ve always seen it as a human theory. I think it’s just that you and I got hung up on the emergence aspect of things and the intelligence gap that humans have over other species, and as we are slowly working that out between ourselves, I think Maslow’s theory will also start to eventually work itself out between us as well. 🙂

        — “…because our minds are both very complex and capable of meta-reasoning about pain and death.”

        Speaking of Maslow, I’m getting antsy to get back to discussing his theory with you, and I’m excited to pick your brain over the implications of our ability to meta-reason and how that plays a role in Maslow’s theory, etc. But we’ll get there eventually.

        — “What I find striking is the huge gap between all other forms of life and humans. A spectrum, yes, but humans are way beyond any other animal in what we do with that intelligence.”

        I find the fact that all of the closest genetic relatives to our species (ex. the Australopithecus genus and the other members of our Homo genus) have gone extinct more striking than the current gap we have over any species that exist today.

        — “That we’re the only species with such high intelligence is self-evident. No other species has accomplished anything close to what we have.”

        Is the observation that we have accomplished way more than any other species enough to prove that no other life form on this planet ever came remotely close to us in terms of intelligence?

        Can’t we say that our amazing accomplishments are heavily skewed towards the most recent times? Space exploration (physically being in space) and modern computing is less than a century old. The industrial revolution is less than 500 years old. The pyramids are only about 3000 years old, and the agricultural revolution only happened a bit over 10000 years ago. Our intelligence is no doubt high (at least compared to other Earth species) but given that we seem to have been around for a couple (or few) hundred thousand years, it really has taken quite awhile (as a percentage of our total existence) for all of our ideas to compound to the point where we start to have any accomplishments to brag about. For most of our existence we probably didn’t seem all that advanced in our small hunter/gatherer tribes.

        And our recent large population (and the ability to communicate with large numbers of people outside of our local populations) also must have something to do with our very recent burst of technological achievement. So, given the long amount of time we’ve had and the large population we’ve been able to recently produce, maybe it’s not our individual human intelligence that’s impressive as much as our ability to pass on the meager gains we make each generation (the shoulders of giants phrase you mentioned before) as well as our ability to form relatively well organized group sizes much larger than what’s typically considered a tribal limit of maybe 150 people (and our ability to leverage these large population sizes to accelerate the production of achievements).

        But getting back to what I find most striking…there are quite a few species that have gone extinct that cause me to wonder what they could have achieved given the longer amounts of time and the larger populations that we’ve been able to enjoy (assuming they could leverage a large population size similar to how we can). Back when we still shared the earth with these species, even though the evidence points to the notion that we had an intelligence advantage over them, we probably didn’t seem all that advanced given the primitive hunter/gatherer state we were likely in at the time. My hunch is that these extinct species fill in the intelligence gap that we currently see between us and any other species around today.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I find the fact that all of the closest genetic relatives to our species […] have gone extinct more striking”

        Because?

        “Is the observation that we have accomplished way more than any other species enough to prove that no other life form on this planet ever came remotely close to us in terms of intelligence?”

        In my book, absolutely. Why wouldn’t it be?

        “Can’t we say that our amazing accomplishments are heavily skewed towards the most recent times?”

        Of course. That’s part of what makes humans so awesome: all that they’ve accomplished in a very short period of time.

        “For most of our existence we probably didn’t seem all that advanced in our small hunter/gatherer tribes.”

        Even then we were far more advanced than any animals. We were already making tools and art.

        “And our recent large population […] also must have something to do with our very recent burst of technological achievement.”

        Many animal populations have much vaster numbers than we do (ants, for instance, out-weigh us in virtue of there being many many more of them). It’s not the population, it’s the brain.

        Absolutely the “standing on the shoulders” of others is part of it. That’s another uniquely human characteristic: we see something someone else has done and we improve upon it. There are animals that use tools, but they almost never improve those tools.

        The reason we can stand on each others shoulders is because of that big brain we have.

        “My hunch is that these extinct species fill in the intelligence gap that we currently see between us and any other species around today.”

        Do you mean humanoid species or non-humanoid? In the latter case there’s no evidence to support the idea. Some of our closest relatives might have been fairly close, but it’s still the humanoid line that rose so far above all other forms of life.

  • Astronomer Eric

    I think I forgot to subscribe.

  • Astronomer Eric

    — “Because?”

    Well, I’m just curious why none of them made it to the present. They were arguably somewhere between our level of intelligence and the level of intelligence of the currently existing primates. If the chimpanzees made it to this point, why couldn’t the Neanderthals, for example?

    Let me take this next one first, because it helps me answer the others as well:

    — “Do you mean humanoid species or non-humanoid?”

    Yeah, sorry that I was unclear about this. I’m referring to the Hominins, which I guess could also be called humanoid (or at least some of them anyway, maybe you wouldn’t consider chimpanzees to be humanoids). So according to Wikipedia, this includes the species from the chimpanzees, through the Australopithecus, and all the species in the Homo genus. These species to me would lay out a spectrum of increasing intelligence that would fill in the gap between us and all the other non-humanoid animals that you are talking about. It’s not like we appeared out of nowhere with this amazing level of intelligence. These closely related humanoid species seem to me to demonstrate the progression of increasing intelligence that brought us to our current level. A slow emergence of our intelligence through these humanoids to us.

    — “In my book, absolutely. Why wouldn’t it be?”

    I get your point now because you’ve been referring to non-humanoids all along. But since I was referring to hominins, then I was talking about other closely related species of humanoids that could possibly demonstrate abilities of intelligence closer and closer to ours the more closely they are related to us (I’ve read that it’s thought that we could sexually reproduce with Neanderthals, so they must be quite closely related to us). If they hadn’t gone extinct, maybe they could have also demonstrated a progression in the ability to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, not as advanced as our ability to do that, but at some intermediate level.

    — “That’s part of what makes humans so awesome: all that they’ve accomplished in a very short period of time.”

    I agree with you, I was just looking at it from a slightly different angle. If you got my point and I’m just repeating myself with the following, sorry. But the angle I was viewing it from was more referring to -when- (what’s the best way to signal that I want to italicize a word? Do these -xyz- work for you? or maybe /xyz/?), during our entire existence, we’ve made most of these accomplishments. It’s only been in the most recent few percentage points of our entire existence that these accomplishments have been made. I see it as sort of like exponential growth. But I wasn’t saying this to diminish our accomplishments. I was saying it to try to illustrate how other humanoid species could potentially have displayed their own exponential growth of accomplishments had they had the time to do it before going extinct. Maybe to put it another way, I guess I’m wondering if, say, Neanderthals ruled the earth instead of us, where would they be at this point? Would they ever stumbled upon agriculture by this point? Was that within their capabilities? Seeing how they are so closely related to us, I wonder what their limitations would be. Could they understand calculus, or maybe just basic arithmetic? Etc. Long story short, I wonder what the progression of abilities in intelligence looks like throughout the hominin lineage.

    — “It’s not the population, it’s the brain.”

    Can’t it be both? How much longer would it have taken us to invent the silicon ship had our population never risen above the level it was at during, say, the Middle Ages? More minds working on a problem can definitely speed up the solving of that problem (or another way of looking at it is there are many more giant shoulders to stand on). My thought is that if we had never invented agriculture, which allowed us to start dramatically increasing our population, the likelihood of us reaching the space age is barely above zero (if at all), no matter how big our brains are.

    I know what you are saying. Our brains had the capability to invent space travel all along. From that vantage point, it’s all the brain. But the full capabilities of our brain weren’t very apparent because as you said in an earlier reply, “It’s only after we learned to build civilizations that we had the time to be intellectual, let alone bored.” I just like to focus on multiple variables I guess. 🙂

    All in all though, I think we are pretty much seeing eye to eye on this matter at this point. I find it amusing that the way you word it when talking about our intelligence compared to animals initially slightly rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s maybe why this conversation has gone on so long. Having gotten to know you to the extent I do so far from our conversations and from reading some of your other posts though, I now know that your meaning and intent is totally not aligned with what was rubbing me the wrong way. But I know that there are people out there who could care less about non-human aspects of our planet. They would gladly consume us into extinction without a second thought, burn down entire rain forests just to plant crops for human needs alone, etc. But I know that you think very scientifically and can tell that you are just expressing awe at our intellectual abilities and that when you compare us to other animals, you are only making an objective observation and are not subjectively placing more importance upon us over other life forms.

    I’ll reply to one or two new points sometime tomorrow. Hope you’re having a great day! Oh, congrats on the 1000th post! I have a bunch of other posts of yours I eventually want to chime in on (I’ve read a bunch but it may take me awhile to get to them).

    • Astronomer Eric

      Aww man, sorry I posted that in the wrong spot again…. 😦

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No problem. It’s fine to start a new thread when it’s just us.

        “(what’s the best way to signal that I want to italicize a word? Do these -xyz- work for you? or maybe /xyz/?)”

        You can use basic HTML tags to <em>italicize words</em> or to <strong>make them bold</strong> (<em><strong>or both</strong></em> — just be sure to nest them properly).

        In the old days, and still in places HTML isn’t respected, asterisks meant *italic* (I tried to make /italic/ a thing back then, but it never caught on). Asterisks also sometimes mean *bold* — mostly it just highlights or emphasizes typographically. On YouTube I think asterisks are bold and underbars mean _italic_ (but YT gets confused by surrounding punctuation). Whatever typography you use, people usually figure it out in context.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “If the chimpanzees made it to this point, why couldn’t the Neanderthals, for example?”

      Supposedly there is Neanderthal DNA in ours, but one view is that we “moderns” wiped them out.

      It’s possible, had they won, or had the species co-existed, they might be our equals. But they are basically human, so of course they might. The dividing line here is between human and animal, not different kinds of human.

      “Hominims […] this includes the species from the chimpanzees, through the Australopithecus, and all the species in the Homo genus.”

      Pretty much what I mean by humanoid — having the appearance of humans. Head on top, two arms, hands, fingers, thumbs! (capable of using tools), legs, able to walk around upright (comfortably and by preference). Also language, music, and art.

      “These species to me would lay out a spectrum of increasing intelligence that would fill in the gap between us and all the other non-humanoid animals that you are talking about.”

      I think the gap between humans and animals is huge and significant. The smartest animals: primates (apes, chimps, gorillas), corvids (crows, etc), elephants, or cetaceans (dolphins, whales, etc), are vastly far below us. We’re a huge jump on the spectrum.

      There are other animal species that have been around much longer and have much greater numbers. But only humans have been so amazingly successful.

      We don’t know why, and we don’t know what caused our genetic line to achieve it. It might be a “critical mass” situation where lots of small changes finally combined into something that allowed true intelligence to emerge.

      Self-awareness and meta-thinking probably arose slowly in just a few individuals. But it granted a huge advantage to those individuals, which allowed it to proliferate. Once it did get started, it would have spread like wildfire.

      “It’s not like we appeared out of nowhere with this amazing level of intelligence.”

      Right. As you’ve said, at first we seemed pretty stupid. Pretty much the same as other humanoid species. Probably not far above other primates, even. But either we got lucky, or we had a slight edge, and over time, only we persisted.

      Keep also in mind that “standing on shoulders” applies all along. Our current level of intellectual prowess comes from three or four centuries of intellectual thought. Our brains have been able to rise to greater and greater heights all along.

      We’re genetically pretty much the same as people from 10,000 YA, but our brains grow up in a vastly richer information environment.

      (As a completely different discussion, I sometimes wonder if, in the modern information age, we’ve hit our limits. A lot of our social ills seem to come from people being unable or unwilling to apply the necessary thought. People allow themselves to be stupid because they find the requirements of engaging too formidable.)

      “I see it as sort of like exponential growth.”

      Absolutely, but it’s our brain that allowed it to happen.

      “Can’t it be both?”

      In my opinion, sorry, but no. For one thing, that successful brain led to a successful population, so there would always be the numbers. More importantly, most advances are due to a single mind: Newton, Einstein, etc.

      “More minds working on a problem can definitely speed up the solving of that problem”

      Heh. It just as easily works the other way around. Groups are notoriously bad at solving some problems. (Ever been in a group of people who spent 30 minutes trying to decide on a restaurant?)

      “My thought is that if we had never invented agriculture, which allowed us to start dramatically increasing our population,”

      Right, exactly. And how was it we “invented agriculture” if not because of our brains?

      “Our brains had the capability to invent space travel all along. From that vantage point, it’s all the brain.”

      Yep. Can’t argue with the man when he’s right! 😀

      “But I know that there are people out there who could care less about non-human aspects of our planet.”

      FWIW, in my view, it is our superiority that charges us with the responsibility of taking care of the whole planet. I’m an aging hippie, so I’ve long had that “we’re all on Spaceship Earth” sensibility. At the same time I’m not at all ashamed of (in fact fully embrace) that I’m the apex predator. It’s just a matter of being respectful and responsible.

      “Oh, congrats on the 1000th post!”

      Thank you!

      • Astronomer Eric

        As a completely different discussion, I sometimes wonder if, in the modern information age, we’ve hit our limits. A lot of our social ills seem to come from people being unable or unwilling to apply the necessary thought. People allow themselves to be stupid because they find the requirements of engaging too formidable.

        Thanks for the italics and bold tips!! We’ll see if I applied them correctly when I hit send.

        This may not be a different discussion depending on how it unfolds because I’ve already brought Maslow’s theory up before, but my thought is that Maslow’s theory very much pertains to this, and the optimistic side of me hopes that it can be of use in attempting to overcome much of the unwillingness/inability.

        More importantly, most advances are due to a single mind: Newton, Einstein

        More people, more chances of an Einstein though. 🙂

        FWIW, in my view, it is our superiority that charges us with the responsibility of taking care of the whole planet. I’m an aging hippie, so I’ve long had that “we’re all on Spaceship Earth” sensibility. At the same time I’m not at all ashamed of (in fact fully embrace) that I’m the apex predator. It’s just a matter of being respectful and responsible.

        Agreed! And my hope is that Maslow’s theory can help with the being respectful and responsible part as well.

        But first! Let’s finish discussing the original points you initially made here.

        Reward/suffering is a very general concept. Even plants can be said to have some sense of reward or suffering (thriving or struggling).

        I’m not sure I am following your underlying point of it being a general concept. Maybe I need some clarification on that. But don’t the systems that deal with reward and suffering also evolve over time? Plants don’t utilize endorphins, for example, but animals do. It seems to me that as new abilities emerge during the evolutionary process, those abilities may also require feedback mechanisms to function effectively. Unless a feedback mechanism emerges at the same time as a new ability, wouldn’t it have to emerge afterwards? So, using endorphins as an example, I’ll try a thought experiment that you can have fun picking apart.  According to Wikipedia, the main function of endorphins is to inhibit the communication of pain signals. Pain signals travel along nerves. My question is, did endorphins emerge at the same time that the very first inkling of what could have been considered nerves emerged? Or did it come later as the nervous system became more refined?

        That said, that intelligence did evolve gave us a huge benefit. We took over the planet and sent spaceships off to check out other planets. So the feedback mechanism is simply being hugely successful in whatever we attempted.

        I’m not sure I follow your meaning on the feedback mechanism being that we are hugely successful in whatever we attempted. I think we might be talking about different things? Maybe I can try to address it in the next point and then have that be the stopping point for this one.

        This feedback mechanism depending on reward/suffering reminds me of a guy who went by Philosopher Eric and who had a theory that centered on that. I never saw the point. At a low level, it comes with the territory of life. All life has some sense of it. Plants seek the light and water. Bacteria can move towards food. It’s a basic and generic mechanism, a general part of the machinery.

        Ah yes, I’ve seen many of Philosopher Eric’s comments around and about. I actually chose my name as Astronomer Eric when I first started commenting on a consciousness blog that he also commented on. I figured that since we’re both Erics, why not model my comment name after his? I never saw any of his reward/suffering comments though. Just many, many mentions of his three principles of something or other. Me thinking about a feedback mechanism of reward and suffering is most definitely not my theory, and in fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t claim to have any of my own theories at this point. I think one can strive too hard to have something associated with their name that they lose sight of the big picture in the process.

        Anyway, my line of thinking about reward/suffering feedback mechanisms stems directly from Maslow’s theory. If one defines something as a “biological need” then they also have to define the process that motivates the need. Maslow laid out what he considered to be the complete set of human needs. He also described the relative strengths of how strongly humans are compelled to satisfy those various needs. Even though he himself never arranged the needs in the famous pyramid scheme associated with his theory, the description of the relative strengths of compulsion to satisfy the needs lead others to create the pyramid structure. Adding evolution (also a theory I can’t claim as my own, haha) to the mix, if nothing compels an organism to seek out satisfaction of a need, then this greatly hinders that organism’s survival capabilities. But more on this next time!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “More people, more chances of an Einstein though.”

        The data doesn’t correlate. Aristotle and all those wise Ancient Greeks were born in BC when the population was around 100-million. Newton was born in 1642, when the pop was about 500-million. Einstein was born in 1879, when the pop was over 1.5 billion. With the population approaching 8-billion, shouldn’t we be seeing more great minds?

        “I’m not sure I am following your underlying point of it being a general concept.”

        There are many, many types and levels of suffering. It’s possible to argue that plants are capable of suffering. It’s possible to argue any form of biological life can suffer, for some definition of the word. So suffering is a very, very general concept.

        Reward also has many types and levels, so it’s fairly general, but “reward” applies more to those with enough intelligence to appreciate it. Dogs certainly understand it; it’s the key to training them. Most intelligent animals can respond to rewards, but the concept loses meaning with simple forms of life.

        “But don’t the systems that deal with reward and suffering also evolve over time?”

        Of course. In simple life they are simple (as just mentioned, “reward” may even be absent). As the life form gets more complex, so do the mechanisms behind suffering and reward.

        “It seems to me that as new abilities emerge during the evolutionary process, those abilities may also require feedback mechanisms to function effectively.”

        I think it’s a mistake to assume there’s a one-to-one mapping in those mechanisms. There are a variety of action and feedback mechanisms that interact. And “feedback” may simply be that the organism with the ability is more successful than peers without it.

        E.g. the genetic mod that resulted in trichromatic vision. The belief is that allowed better discrimination of ripe fruit, hence more success. That leads to offspring carrying that trait. That’s the feedback mechanism for most new traits — better success.

        “My question is, did endorphins emerge at the same time that the very first inkling of what could have been considered nerves emerged?”

        I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I’m sure not. The first nervous systems were simple. Refinements surely came later.

        “I’m not sure I follow your meaning on the feedback mechanism being that we are hugely successful in whatever we attempted.”

        Intelligence is a generally useful trait, so it leads to general success. It’s all-purpose. Compare that with trichromatic vision, which is only useful in discriminating red from green.

        “I think one can strive too hard to have something associated with their name…”

        Heh. For many of us old-timers, any random guy (and it’s always a guy) on the internet with a pet theory gets automatic crackpot points. That’s just based on experience; most guys with theories turn out to be crackpots. The escape clause is self-awareness that one is, in fact, a random guy on the internet with a probably crackpot theory. The meat, of course, is how good is the theory?

        (FWIW, a good litmus test is “stand and deliver” — can they answer hard questions about their theory or do they resort to hand-waving or running away? Anyone who is serious welcomes genuine hard questions. And isn’t afraid to say they don’t know.)

        “Even though he himself never arranged the needs in the famous pyramid scheme associated with his theory,”

        It’s called the hierarchy of needs for good reason (and “hierarchy” is the term Maslow used). The pyramid, I think, is just an attempt to illustrate how the higher levels depend on the lower levels (which is also according to Maslow).

        I think the pyramid probably respects Maslow’s ideas, but the key point is the sense of hierarchy. (The pyramid metaphor does make it a little easier to talk about levels of Maslows hierarchy.)

        “…if nothing compels an organism to seek out satisfaction of a need, then this greatly hinders that organism’s survival capabilities.”

        There seems a bit of a tautology there. By definition a “need” is something a creature is compelled to seek. The motivation at a low level is survival — those are the compelling needs. (Per Maslow, the very base of the pyramid.)

        As creatures become more complex, there are “needs” that are more like “wants” — I don’t truly need to eat different food every day, but I sure want to. And that want comes close to being a need.

        [Perhaps you are familiar with the development hierarchy: Got to have; Want to have; Like to have. The idea being the project fails without the first, isn’t very good without the second, and isn’t perfect without the last.]

      • Astronomer Eric

        The data doesn’t correlate. … shouldn’t we be seeing more great minds?

        I guess it depends on which data points one chooses to focus on. Our frontiers have advanced so far at this point in many fields that it’s really difficult for a single individual to make such a splash anymore. In Einstein’s day, he could become proficient enough in multiple topics to get a Nobel Prize in a different topic than the theory he’s famous for. Same with all those other big names. They made large contributions in multiple fields. But these days, to reach the level of proficiency to make a splash requires travelling so far down a specialty that it’s hard enough to make an individual impact in one field, let alone more than one. I think today’s Einsteins and Newtons are more likely part of larger research teams or companies, and that an Einstein level discovery may get obscured more easily in the flood of information that is constantly thrown at us. There is also the viewpoint that when the exceptional becomes the normal, we tend to disregard it. Look at the last few Apollo moon landings (SO TRAGIC!!). I think that there are TONS of great minds out there.

        There are many, many types and levels of suffering. It’s possible to argue that plants are capable of suffering. … Most intelligent animals can respond to rewards, but the concept loses meaning with simple forms of life.

        Ok, I got you, and I fully agree.

        I think it’s a mistake to assume there’s a one-to-one mapping in those mechanisms. There are a variety of … That’s the feedback mechanism for most new traits — better success.

        True, when considering the entire scope of available mechanisms. But not all mechanisms (like trichromatic vision) are considered intrinsic needs. These are more “aids” in consuming the things that will satisfy an intrinsic need. If something reaches the point where it can be called an intrinsic need because we have some form of compulsion towards it, that compulsion (in whatever form it may take) had to have emerged at some point as well. Since I’m trying to focus on Maslow’s theory, I’m only really referring to the specific mechanisms that pertain to that theory (although I’m open and interested in talking about any mechanism).

        Intelligence is a generally useful trait, so it leads to general success. It’s all-purpose. Compare that with trichromatic vision, which is only useful in discriminating red from green.

        Ok, gotcha. Now my question is, what role does intelligence play in Maslow’s theory? Do we have any sort of intrinsic need to exercise our intelligence muscles? Are we compelled to use our intelligence to solve problems, and do we suffer in any sense (regardless of how weak the suffering may feel compared to, say, starving) when we are not able to exercise our intelligence muscles? Or is intelligence an aid to fulfilling an intrinsic need(s) (like trichromatic vision is)? I think you would say that it is an aid and not an intrinsic need in and of itself, and if so I would agree with you. That’s why there is no feedback mechanism (i.e. satisfaction/suffering felt) directly attached to our use of intelligence (that I am aware of anyway). That feedback is attached to actual intrinsic needs that intelligence may help us to satisfy more effectively.

        Heh. For many of us old-timers, any random guy (and it’s always a guy) on the internet with a pet theory gets automatic crackpot points.

        Yeah, when I read these types of things, my first reaction (and probably the natural one without any intellectual thought put into it) is to think “crackpot” as well. But since I am so invested in Maslow’s theory (maybe that makes me a crackpot as well, haha!) I always try to put things through that lens. If crackpot can be considered slang for “pathology”, I start to wonder what life events lead one to reach the
        “crackpot” level (in this case, a desperate striving for recognition). As one who has pathologies of my own (don’t we all? ☹), I get very introspective about these things (not that this removes all pathologies, those nasty buggers can be very persistent).

        The escape clause is self-awareness that one is, in fact, a random guy on the internet with a probably crackpot theory. The meat, of course, is how good is the theory?
        (FWIW, a good litmus test is “stand and deliver” — can they answer hard questions about their theory or do they resort to hand-waving or running away? Anyone who is serious welcomes genuine hard questions. And isn’t afraid to say they don’t know.)

        As I just mentioned, maybe my intense focus on Maslow’s theory makes me a crackpot as well. I formally consider this my escape clause! 😊 And I think Maslow’s theory is a really good one, and yet I can always blame him if things don’t pan out. Haha!

        Hopefully I am effectively putting myself through the “stand and deliver” process as well. Thanks for being willing to give me the hard questions!

        It’s called the hierarchy of needs for good reason (and “hierarchy” is the term Maslow used). The pyramid, I think, is just an attempt to illustrate how the higher levels depend on the lower levels (which is also according to Maslow).

        Yes, but many people misconstrue the pyramid to mean that the higher needs can’t be fulfilled unless the lower needs are first met. Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy of strength of compulsion. The needs at the lower end of the spectrum have stronger compulsive forces. It doesn’t mean that one can’t self-actualize while being extremely hungry. It’s just extremely difficult because the compulsion to satisfy hunger is very strong. When both the compulsions of hunger and self-actualizing are placed side by side, most people will chose to satisfy hunger first because the suffering is greater. To quote directly from Maslow’s “Motivation and Personality”:
        ”The basic needs arrange themselves in a fairly definite hierarchy on the basis of the principle of relative potency. Thus the safety need is stronger than the love need, because it dominates the organism in various demonstrable ways when both needs are frustrated. In this sense, the physiological needs (which are themselves ordered in a subhicrarchy) are stronger than the safety needs, which are stronger than the love needs, which in turn are stronger than the esteem needs, which are stronger than those idiosyncratic needs we have called the need for self-actualization.”

        There seems a bit of a tautology there. By definition a “need” is something a creature is compelled to seek. The motivation at a low level is survival — those are the compelling needs. (Per Maslow, the very base of the pyramid.)

        Sorry, that was confusing. I was just trying to say that if there is truly something an organism needs in order to survive, it doesn’t make sense that there wouldn’t be a compulsion mechanism bound to it. Based on my understanding of the theory of evolution, a trait is selected for because it aids in an organism’s survival. If a compulsion to fulfill a need emerges in an organism, then I take that to mean that the compulsion mechanism emerged because the need it is pushing the organism to fulfill must have a survival benefit. If there is no compulsion bound to a mechanism (as in trichromatic vision), then the best we can say is that the mechanism is an aid towards fulfilling a need (like teeth are an aid towards eating). By the way, per Maslow, all the needs in his hierarchy have compelling mechanisms, it’s just that the needs he placed at the top have the weakest compelling forces of them all. And as such, per Maslow, all the needs in his hierarchy are tied to our survival. Here is a direct quote from “Motivation and Personality” discussing that:
        The higher the need the less imperative it is for sheer survival, the longer gratification can be postponed, and the easier it is for the need to disappear permanently. Higher needs have less ability to dominate, organize, and press into their service the autonomic reactions and other
        capacities of the organism, e.g., it is easier to be single-minded, monomaniac, and desperate about safety than about respect. Deprivation of higher needs does not produce so desperate a defense and emergency reaction as is produced by lower deprivations. Respect is a dispensable luxury when compared with food or safety.

        As creatures become more complex, there are “needs” that are more like “wants” — I don’t truly need to eat different food every day, but I sure want to. And that want comes close to being a need.

        I mean, sure, we can give different names to different levels of compulsion towards something. A weaker compulsion for something that isn’t obviously directly related to my current survival may sound better when it’s called a “want”. But it can’t be ignored that there is a compulsion in the first place. If we are compelled towards some need satisfaction, at some point in our history satisfying that need must have aided in our survival. And we also have to be careful about what we are considering to be intrinsic needs. Here is a direct quote from Maslow’s “Motivation and Personality”:
        ”If we examine carefully the average desires that we have in daily life, we find that they have at least one important characteristic, i.e., that they are usually means to an end rather than ends in themselves. We want money so that we may have an automobile. In turn we want an automobile because the neighbors have one and we do not wish to feel inferior to them, so that we can retain our own self-respect and so that we can be loved and respected by others….It is characteristic of this deeper analysis that it will always lead ultimately to certain goals or needs behind which we cannot go; that is, to certain need-satisfactions that seem to be ends in themselves and seem not to need any further justification or demonstration.”
        I interpret this as saying that not everything we feel compelled towards is necessarily an intrinsic need. Is the desire to eat different foods every day an intrinsic need, or just a means to indirectly meet a fundamentally intrinsic need? Hunger is an intrinsic need, but upon further analysis, we need certain nutrients in addition to the energy in the food. So we may possibly consider that eating a variety of foods is a means to getting more nutrients. If we eat little Debbie snack cakes for every meal, sure we’ll feel full each time and have enough energy to complete tasks. But we’ll also feel a different compulsion as our bodies communicate that some nutrients are missing.

        [Perhaps you are familiar with the development hierarchy: Got to have; Want to have; Like to have. The idea being the project fails without the first, isn’t very good without the second, and isn’t perfect without the last.]

        If you are saying that the higher needs of Maslow’s hierarchy are just likes, I have to disagree. If something can be considered to be an intrinsic need AND it has a compulsion mechanism attached to it (no matter how weak the compulsion is), then this is not something that just appears out of nowhere. It had to emerge through the evolutionary process, and as such by definition means that at one point in our history there was a survival benefit attached to it. But, we can definitely debate whether the items at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy should be there in the first place. 😊

        There is also the discussion to be had that what was needed for survival in the ancestral days may not hold any survival value in today’s “artificial” environment. In fact, some needs could be said to be less than desirable for the smooth functioning of our artificial environments. But the compulsions to fulfill those needs are still with us, as well as the psychological traumas we experience when they go unfulfilled. And if we are eventually hoping to discuss the ills of society and how they may possibly be rectified, degrading an entire section of needs to the level of “likes” and hoping for the best while lots of pathologies arise throughout society as a result of the ease with which we dismiss the importance of their fulfillment is not the best way forward in my opinion. But I’ve already done a horrible job at keeping the conversation slowed down to a reasonable pace. So I think I’m going to have to try to be more diligent at that next time.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I guess it depends on which data points one chooses to focus on.”

        The ones concerning whether our greatest advances are due to our powerful brains or our numbers. Your own argument demonstrates a likely inverse correlation; a larger population makes exceptional contributions less likely.

        “If something reaches the point where it can be called an intrinsic need because we have some form of compulsion towards it, that compulsion (in whatever form it may take) had to have emerged at some point as well.”

        To me, an “intrinsic need” implies a compulsion, but what do you consider “intrinsic”?

        “Do we have any sort of intrinsic need to exercise our intelligence muscles?”

        It depends on what you mean by instrinsic need.

        “That’s why there is no feedback mechanism (i.e. satisfaction/suffering felt) directly attached to our use of intelligence (that I am aware of anyway).”

        I derive considerable satisfaction from exercising my intellect. It often isn’t on anything specific, but merely a form of play. This is true of every intellectual I’ve met. Something as simple as playing a game of chess, for example, is very satisfying, but it serves no other goal than playing a game of chess.

        “Yes, but many people misconstrue the pyramid to mean that the higher needs can’t be fulfilled unless the lower needs are first met.”

        I think effectively that is usually the case. There are exceptions; the starving prisoner who occupies his mind, for example. But given a choice most people fulfill the lower needs before the higher ones.

        (FWIW, the other way I’ve seen the hierarchy represented is as an “onion” or “target” with the higher levels inside and the most basic ones outside.)

        “If a compulsion to fulfill a need emerges in an organism, then I take that to mean that the compulsion mechanism emerged because the need it is pushing the organism to fulfill must have a survival benefit.”

        This applies to an ancient time in evolution. In the context you’re considering, “compulsion” boiled down to not dying. New evolved traits that promoted not dying got passed down. It’s not that specific traits result in specific compulsions. There is a general compulsion to not die. That implies not starving. Hunger drives us to eat — it’s one aspect of the compulsion to not die.

        One of the very last things to evolve was our brains. In fact, an interesting consequence of those brains is that we’ve transcended evolution and are no longer bound by it. (Or, at the very least, what constitutes a survival trait has radically changed.)

        “And as such, per Maslow, all the needs in his hierarchy are tied to our survival.”

        That’s not what your Maslow quote says, though: “Respect is a dispensable luxury when compared with food or safety.” (Bolding mine.)

        “But it can’t be ignored that there is a compulsion in the first place.”

        But in the case of having a different lunch, that “compulsion” is a social artifact. A selectively varied diet is a luxury that only appeared recently, and still is only for the wealthy. Thus it doesn’t have an evolutionary basis, but a socially constructed one. It’s essentially a product of our intellectual capacity to be bored.

        It’s not a trait we see in the animal kingdom. It’s not evolutionary; it’s intellectual and social. For Maslow, it’s from the middle psychological needs sector, not the bottom basic needs one.

        “I interpret this as saying that not everything we feel compelled towards is necessarily an intrinsic need.”

        Well, yes, exactly. This discussion depends on what you consider intrinsic. On one level, the only truly intrinsic thing is passing on your DNA. Everything else, in some sense, is gravy.

        Maslow is suggesting that, as humans, that gravy is intrinsic to reaching our full potential as humans. I think the qualifier about reaching our full potential is crucial to Maslow. Humans can survive only satisfying the lowest levels of the pyramid. But that’s a miserable existence for a human. The best existence for a human lies at the top of the pyramid (which is why the pyramid shape and target shape are good metaphors).

        “If we eat little Debbie snack cakes for every meal,”

        No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about variety in a healthy way. I can have a perfectly balanced diet with no variety or one with variety. Humans prefer variety, and the point is that it’s a psychological need. Whether you consider it intrinsic is a matter of definition. (I think Maslow would suggest it’s intrinsic to being a happier human being.)

        “It had to emerge through the evolutionary process, and as such by definition means that at one point in our history there was a survival benefit attached to it.”

        Sure, but I’m saying that at this point the connection is buried in the distant past and so tenuous as to be essentially meaningless. As your last paragraph suggests, some of those connections are counter-productive. It might be interesting to know why we have them, but I haven’t seen that knowledge to be very effective in correcting them. (The idea solutions lie buried in our evolutionary past is not a new one by any stretch.)

      • Astronomer Eric

        The ones concerning whether our greatest advances are due to our powerful brains or our numbers. Your own argument demonstrates a likely inverse correlation; a larger population makes exceptional contributions less likely.

        Nah, I said less prominent, not less likely. I think it’s more likely, yet less prominent. I’m not even sure how you are determining what falls under our greatest advances. Is sending a human to the moon one of those advances? Who’s the individual equivalent of Einstein that gets all the credit for that? But why are we even debating this anymore, haha! I think we are just having a fun chess match with this and will probably get nowhere. The Maslow discussion is way more important in my opinion, so let’s focus our energies there instead. You can have the last word on this if you want.

        To me, an “intrinsic need” implies a compulsion, but what do you consider “intrinsic”?

        Yes, I agree that an intrinsic need implies a compulsion. Maslow did the difficult work of determining what can be considered intrinsic. His hierarchy of needs are the intrinsic needs. I’ll post the same quote of his I posted last time pertaining to this and then discuss it after. He said:

        ”If we examine carefully the average desires that we have in daily life, we find that they have at least one important characteristic, i.e., that they are usually means to an end rather than ends in themselves. We want money so that we may have an automobile. In turn we want an automobile because the neighbors have one and we do not wish to feel inferior to them, so that we can retain our own self-respect and so that we can be loved and respected by others….It is characteristic of this deeper analysis that it will always lead ultimately to certain goals or needs behind which we cannot go; that is, to certain need-satisfactions that seem to be ends in themselves and seem not to need any further justification or demonstration.”

        So the average desires he mentions in the first sentence are NOT the intrinsic needs. They are any of the multitude of things that can help us fulfill the intrinsic needs. For example, as he stated, money is not an intrinsic need, but we desire it because it can allow us to obtain goods that can then fulfill our intrinsic needs. If something is a means to an end, it is not an intrinsic need. If it is an end, then it is an intrinsic need. In other words, satisfying the hunger need doesn’t allow us to then satisfy a more fundamental need. It is an “end” in and of itself according to Maslow’s theory.

        I derive considerable satisfaction from exercising my intellect. It often isn’t on anything specific, but merely a form of play. This is true of every intellectual I’ve met. Something as simple as playing a game of chess, for example, is very satisfying, but it serves no other goal than playing a game of chess.

        But the question is, is exercising one’s intellect and end in and of itself, or a tool that allows us to fulfill an end? If chess served no goal, then no satisfaction would be felt from playing it. If we go through the list of intrinsic needs, we could probably determine which need or needs it satisfies. One such possibility is that winning a game satisfies our self-esteem needs. There are other possibilities as well.

        I think effectively that is usually the case. There are exceptions; the starving prisoner who occupies his mind, for example. But given a choice most people fulfill the lower needs before the higher ones.

        This is exactly what I said. Haha, did you just skim what I wrote? Or when agreeing with someone do you often repeat something as if you are disagreeing? 😊

        (FWIW, the other way I’ve seen the hierarchy represented is as an “onion” or “target” with the higher levels inside and the most basic ones outside.)

        The book I am reading that is essentially Maslow 2.0 has a very nice representation. It uses a sailboat where the boat represents the lower needs, and without the boat a passenger would drown. The sail represents the higher needs where without the sail a passenger wouldn’t likely drown but instead would be stuck in the same place on the water. Having both allows us to traverse the sea of life.

        Ok, I won’t reply to all of your most recent points this time because I want to keep the pace of these manageable. I think I got too excited last time. Maybe that’s why you skimmed, if my suspicions are correct. 😉 I’ll finish up your next point here and then get to the rest once we’ve completely hashed these out.

        It’s not that specific traits result in specific compulsions.

        So the mechanism for compelling us to have sex is the same mechanism as the one to compel us to eat? Or the mechanism that compels us to get the approval of others is the same mechanism as the one that compels us to hide when we see a grizzly bear running after us? Maybe you’ll accuse me of being too reductive (by the way, I’m not even sure I understand the significance what you mean when you say that something is too reductive, but we can discuss that later when it comes up if this isn’t an example of that), but I think upon closer inspection, the biological mechanisms for each are quite different with different chemicals and pathways in the body, etc.

        There is a general compulsion to not die. That implies not starving. Hunger drives us to eat — it’s one aspect of the compulsion to not die.

        I would word it differently. I would say that there is a compulsion to stay alive until we can pass our genes on. It’s not about our survival, it’s about our genes’ survival. For example, the sex compulsion is not about preventing death because we won’t die if we don’t have sex. But the survival of one’s genes is the foundation of evolution, and so the compulsion to have sex is proportionally strong to take this into account. And an orgasm is that extra bit of reward to make it even more likely to happen.

        One of the very last things to evolve was our brains. In fact, an interesting consequence of those brains is that we’ve transcended evolution and are no longer bound by it. (Or, at the very least, what constitutes a survival trait has radically changed.)

        Can you defend this for me because I can’t see how evolution can be transcended as long as we still reproduce sexually? We may have the ability to directly manipulate genes, but no cultures have embraced directly manipulating our own genes…yet anyway.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “You can have the last word on this if you want.”

        I’m not sure why it turned into a debate, either. It began with this:

        “So, given the long amount of time we’ve had and the large population we’ve been able to recently produce, maybe it’s not our individual human intelligence that’s impressive as much as our ability to pass on the meager gains we make each generation…”

        To which I objected that, no, it was indeed our human intelligence that’s impressive. Firstly, because part of the big deal is that it’s actually a very short time in which we’ve accomplished all we’ve accomplished. (Consider how far we’ve gone in just a few thousand years. It’s astonishing!) Secondly, if numbers were the key, many other species greatly outnumber us, but we went from very small numbers to the billions that exist now. (Thirdly, consider that, despite having the largest population ever, we seem to be sliding backwards socially.)

        “Maslow did the difficult work of determining what can be considered intrinsic.”

        Maslow’s 1943 paper doesn’t mention the word “intrinsic” even once. It’s obviously central to your view, though, so I ask what do you consider an intrinsic need? Give me your list of intrinsic needs.

        You said satisfying hunger was an end, so you consider eating an intrinsic need? But isn’t satisfying hunger a means to prevent starving? Isn’t not dying the end?

        Other than not dying and passing on your DNA, what else is an intrinsic need to you?

        “But the question is, is exercising one’s intellect and end in and of itself, or a tool that allows us to fulfill an end?”

        I have answered that question many times. The joy — the end — is in the act itself. Win or lose doesn’t matter; it’s the fun of playing. Runners like to run, pilots like to fly, musicians like to play. When one has mastered a skill, using that skill is fun.

        I’ve also pointed out many times that things like playing chess (or playing or flying) are the self-fulfillment things at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. They meet the need of being a fully actualized human.

        “This is exactly what I said. Haha, did you just skim what I wrote?”

        I don’t skim.

        I do agree higher needs can be meet without satisfying lower needs, but I think those are generally exceptional cases. The prisoner can’t satisfy hunger and is only free in their imagination. Those in the same situation without that intellectual escape just suffer.

        So while I agree there isn’t a literal requirement to satisfy underlying needs, I think it usually works out that way — it’s effectively the case. (I’m objecting to your dismissal of the pyramid model (which I think is fine) — that’s why it feels like I’m disagreeing.)

        “It uses a sailboat where the boat represents the lower needs, and without the boat a passenger would drown.”

        The passenger can’t swim? No life preserver? Why doesn’t the sailboat have a backup motor? 😀

        “So the mechanism for compelling us to have sex is the same mechanism as the one to compel us to eat?”

        No, of course not, but you have identified what I suspect are the only truly intrinsic needs: propagating our DNA; not dying. Pretty much everything else is a secondary to one of these.

        “I would say that there is a compulsion to stay alive until we can pass our genes on. It’s not about our survival, it’s about our genes’ survival.”

        You’ve read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene haven’t you. 🙂

        At a fundamental level, that’s basically true, but you don’t have to get far up the chain of life before mating and not dying become very distinct goals.

        There are various forms of life (insects, mostly) where the male dies after mating (the Preying Mantis famously eats her mate; Black Widows, too). But in most life forms, the desire to keep on living is very strong. (In many species, including humans, males are viable pretty much until they die.)

        One might consider hunger a third branch if hunger involves an intrinsic need. Other intrinsic needs might be new branches as life gets more sophisticated. But down at the root, yeah, it’s basically about perpetuating your DNA.

        “Can you defend this for me because I can’t see how evolution can be transcended as long as we still reproduce sexually?”

        Evolution depends on a notion of “survival of the most fit” which — until humans — meant surviving in nature, so it emphasized strength, speed, good senses, and so forth. For example, a defect that causes poor vision makes one more likely to lead to dying, possibly before mating. So the trait breeds out.

        But humans create tools that let them overcome weaknesses. Glasses correct bad vision. Medical science allows various ailments to persist, to not breed out. Socially we no longer even believe in the evolutionary credo, “Survival of the most fit.” In this sense we’ve transcended evolution.

        Or rather, we’ve changed what “most fit” means. To a large extent, “most fit” now refers to social status and geographical location. We’ve changed the equation of evolution.

  • Astronomer Eric

    Poor word choice, I’ll clarify. At the very end of my last reply, I stated:

    “And if we are eventually hoping to discuss the ills of society and how they may possibly be rectified, degrading an entire section of needs to the level of “likes” and hoping for the best while lots of pathologies arise throughout society as a result of the ease with which we dismiss the importance of their fulfillment is not the best way forward in my opinion.”

    It would probably be more clear as:

    “And if we are eventually hoping to discuss the ills of society and how they may possibly be rectified, degrading an entire section of needs to the level of “likes” and hoping for the best (while lots of pathologies arise throughout society as a result of the unfulfillment of these needs because of the ease with which we dismiss the importance of their fulfillment) is not the best way forward in my opinion.”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You’re making too much of the labels in my “Got to; Want to; Like to” metaphor. The only point was there are different levels of need. As I said, perfection includes all three.

      The analogy is the three basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: Basic (got to), Psychological (want to), and Self-Fulfillment (like to). The “perfect” (ideal) life includes all three.

  • Astronomer Eric

    — Evolution depends on a notion of “survival of the most fit” which — until humans — meant surviving in nature, so it emphasized strength, speed, good senses, and so forth. For example, a defect that causes poor vision makes one more likely to lead to dying, possibly before mating. So the trait breeds out.
    But humans create tools that let them overcome weaknesses. Glasses correct bad vision. Medical science allows various ailments to persist, to not breed out. Socially we no longer even believe in the evolutionary credo, “Survival of the most fit.” In this sense we’ve transcended evolution.
    Or rather, we’ve changed what “most fit” means. To a large extent, “most fit” now refers to social status and geographical location. We’ve changed the equation of evolution.

    Ok! I’m not running away from the other points, I will definitely get back to them (especially the one where you ask me to list the intrinsic needs – I want to spend a lot of time on that point with you). But this point here is, to me, central to how we move forward as a civilization. I’ll start a new thread in the hopes that this is a nice, long conversation! 😊

    Thank you for clarifying what you meant by “transcending evolution”. I follow you now and agree with your points. I think of it from a slightly different angle, but I think it’s essentially the same thing. You said: “…which – until humans – meant surviving in nature”. I think of “nature” as an environment. All the other species can’t really survive in multiple biomes (i.e. environments). An elephant can’t survive in an arctic environment (unlike mammoths), and a dolphin can’t survive in a savannah environment, etc. Human intelligence has allowed us to alter our local environments enough so that over time, we were able to live in more and more varied environments despite that our evolved traits were suited for our ancestral environment. Now we are essentially all over the entire planet. We still can’t really live underwater full time very easily (I’m speaking more about as an entire civilization…a few people in a submarine can survive for extended periods without too much trouble), but I have no doubt that it is an engineering problem that we could eventually solve if we wanted to. The same goes for a colony on Mars, etc.

    To me, our ability to alter our environments is equivalent to “transcending evolution”, even though I feel that we will continue to evolve in whatever environment we make for ourselves (as long as we reproduce sexually and don’t start altering our genes in a lab). What I’m curious about is, where will this “evolution in environments we’ve created for ourselves” take our species? What traits will emerge because of this? I don’t think long term predictions here will be any better than long term predictions we make about the weather, but it’s fun to speculate none-the-less.

    Anyway, my big question is: if we can create environments that allow us to live comfortably with our current traits, and yet people continue to suffer none-the-less, should we double down and alter the environments even more so that people suffer less? Or should we double down on the evolutionary credo of “survival of the most fit” and allow suffering to continue in the name of evolving to be more fit for a particular environment? If the latter, what environment do we allow this to happen in? Should we draw a line in the sand and try to just maintain the current environment we’ve created for ourselves? Should we go back to the ancestral environment (i.e. back in nature)?

    • Astronomer Eric

      Is there a better post of yours that you feel would suit this discussion more, or is it better just to have the entire conversation here on this post?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “To me, our ability to alter our environments is equivalent to ‘transcending evolution’,”

      It’s definitely one aspect of it. I’d argue that transcending evolution is a larger category — it includes things ‘altering our environment’ doesn’t.

      “I feel that we will continue to evolve in whatever environment we make for ourselves (as long as we reproduce sexually and don’t start altering our genes in a lab).”

      We already are using science to alter our genes.

      The thing about evolution is that it usually takes very long to produce effects. Early evolution took millions of years, although we’ve observed some changes in animals in a very short time. It’s not clear whether we’ve changed in many thousands of years, and it’s not clear whether evolutionary genetic change is meaningful anymore. It might not be!

      That said, I quite agree about the futility of trying to predict the future.

      “Anyway, my big question is: if we can create environments that allow us to live comfortably with our current traits, and yet people continue to suffer none-the-less, should we double down and alter the environments even more so that people suffer less?”

      No, because suffering is built into life. The central tenant of Buddhism is “Life is suffering.” It’s the Yin to the Yang of joy — both are necessary to make the other meaningful.

      It’s a general truism that with intelligent minds possessing free will there will always be conflict and suffering. Go read the story of the King’s son in my post The Subtle Art. That post applies to much of what we’re talking about here, and we could move this part of the conversation there.

      “Or should we double down on the evolutionary credo of ‘survival of the most fit’ and allow suffering to continue in the name of evolving to be more fit for a particular environment?”

      But how are you defining “most fit” and, as you go on to ask, what environment? Who gets to pick?

      “Should we draw a line in the sand and try to just maintain the current environment we’ve created for ourselves? Should we go back to the ancestral environment (i.e. back in nature)?”

      Certainly not the ancestral environment, that sucked. I’m not really even sure what you’re suggesting here by “environment” — how does that even work in a world as fragmented (and frequently stupid) as ours?

      • Astronomer Eric

        Ok! This part of the conversation is headed over to the post “The Subtle Art” that Wyrd linked to in his last reply (if anyone else is actually following this long conversation) 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Just as an aside: I’m not sure how you access WordPress blogs to participate in these discussions, but if you’re hitting the blog page itself, you can subscribe to the conversation and get emails when a new comment is submitted. (If you’re using the WP Reader, new comments appear at the top in the Reader.)

        I just mention this because I’m not sure if we have spectators, either, but I have noticed the page hit counter going up a lot, which suggests one of two things: There are others lurking (and too cowardly to join in), or you (Eric) are hitting the page a lot to see if I’ve responded.

        If it’s the latter, I mention the possibility of subscribing to the conversation — it should be a checkbox below the comment box: “Notify me of new comments via email.” Check that, and you’ll get an email when someone posts a new comment to the discussion.

  • Astronomer Eric

    Yeah, I subscribed to this post, but it looks like I forgot to subscribe to the Subtle Art post, so I’ll do that now. Thanks for the reminder!

    I’m sure a lot of the hits are mine because I’m putting a lot of thought into this conversation and so I’ve been rereading both of our replies numerous times.

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