From Bacteria to Bach

I feel mildly uncomfortable about emergence. I like to think there are reasons why things happen. Daniel Dennett does not come to the rescue when he explains that there are always reasons FOR somethings but that we should not confuse that with reasons BECAUSE. The distinction is one of agency and you have to be careful with the language and it is confusing. Say a pigeon craps on your car. You can figure out what happened. The reason for the crap on your car is the pigeon. But the pigeon crapping was not because of your car. Despite what it sometime seems, the pigeon did not crap because of your car, i.e. develop the plan to crap on your car. It just did.

We humans look for patterns, and we find them even when they do not exist. For a long time, most of human history, our philosophies and religions specifically told us that there were reasons. “Nothing happens by accident,” was an remains a common phrase. But most things do.

Dennett explains how Darwin and Alan Turing (the computer genius) produced the counterintuitive logic that brilliant design can come from ignorance. People or things or something can be competent w/o comprehending what they are doing. A good example is a termite mound. Termites have no idea what they are doing. There is no plan. Yet they produce well designed castles, complete with a type of air conditioning. They “learned” the behaviors that make this happen by variation and selection, evolution. Each step building on the last in terms of its appropriateness. The process is purposeless, blind, slow and very wasteful. Most of innovations fail and are thrown away. But there is a lot of time and the system is not random. If something has a one in a million chance of happening, it implies that there is a good probably it will happen if you have lots of millions of chances. If it is a useful adaptation, it has a better chance of survival. It just goes on like this.

BTW – the idea that a million monkeys typing for millions of years would produce the worlds of Shakespeare is not a part of this. That would be mere randomness.

Alan Turing’s insight was along these lines but related to computers. The computer did not need to comprehend math. All computers needed do was follow a set of rules and do that fast and accurately. It is worth pointing out that when he described computers, he was not talking about the thing you are reading. Computer in those days was a job title. There were people who did nothing all day expect do arithmetic. Bob Cratchit in the Dickens’ story was a computer. That is the job he did for Scrooge.

On a personal note, this is how I learned math. I could not do math until I needed it in grad school. I had always been told that you needed to be smart or have math skills. This is not true. I finally learned to do math simply by doing math – over and over. I did not try to make sense of it, just follow the recipes. Comprehensive came AFTER competence, not before.

Dennett says that the key to human success is that we essentially can install apps on our brains. By apps he means technologies of thinking – behaviors and cultures. An individual human brain is not very smart, but we tap into thinking of others around us, far away from us in space and even people who are long dead. He talks about how memes pass like viruses to change our thinking and change our culture.

Our cultures started by means of a natural selection process. Useful habits persisted and developed, while bad ones disappeared. But now that we have cultures and technologies of thought, we can and do design intelligently. Compare the termite mound to Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona. They resemble each other, but Gaudi had a plan and could vary and innovate. With our capacity to think, we can go beyond the simple emergence. It can be less wasteful and faster.

Natural selection does not much act on humans anymore. We do change genetically, but the natural environment is not selecting. We develop and adapt through cultures and technologies. Dennett makes some (lots of) comments about where that is going. He is suspicious of artificial intelligence. He warns that we need be sure that it enhances our human intelligence and does not replace it. Reminded me of a book a read a couple years ago called “The Inevitable” where I think the author Kevin Kelly does a better job on considering AI.

“Bacteria to Bach” is a good book and very thought provoking. I had the audio version and I listened to a lot of it while I was working on farms making the environment more favorable for longleaf pine and white oak. I thought about the choices I was making on the land and how much of it was emergent. My intelligent design will play a big role in what the land will be like decades hence, but most of what happens is emergent. If I am not using power tools, I just keep my phone in my pocket and play the audio book in such a way that I can hear both the book and the ambient sounds. As I was working and listening to the book, I could hear Bobwhite quail, their very distinctive call. One of “my” goals is to help create and maintain quail habitat. I think I have been helpful, but the quail showed up by themselves.

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Check out this great listen on Audible.com. What is human consciousness, and how is it possible? This question fascinates thinking people from poets and painters to physicists, psychologists, and philosophers. From Bacteria to Bach and Back is Daniel C. Dennett’s brilliant answer, extending perspe…..
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