Quora – Why are humans the only species to have created a civilization that is based on concepts like morality, ethics, religion, philosophy, government, society, culture, art, architecture, music, sports, business, commerce, science, technology etc?

Why are humans the only species to have created a civilization that is based on concepts like morality, ethics, religion, philosophy, government, society, culture, art, architecture, music, sports, business, commerce, science, technology etc?

[ 2/8/20 ]

The answer to that is not simple.

There is no way to create in a few words a map of the complexity of the systems that seem to be necessary to make it possible, except by a sort of analogy.

Our complexity seems to be a very complex set of systems, far more types of systems than most people have ever counted to in their lives, and many more instances of specific systems than any human could have counted in the age of the universe (some 14 billion years). The evidence from biology, from biochemistry, from neuro-anatomy and neuro-physiology seems beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that we are in fact that complex.

The systems, theories and models of what we are has been an open series of questions that I have been fascinated by for over 50 years. In that time I have learned enough about complex mathematics, about multi dimensional topologies and attractor spaces, about algorithm spaces and computational systems, about evolution and the necessity of cooperative systems for the emergence of new levels of complexity, to begin to understand that should I live for the rest of eternity, with ever increasing computational capacity, I would likely still be finding interesting and subtle things about how human beings actually work in reality, and what is possible for a human being.

There are many senses of why.

There is a sense of why that involves only mechanism, that is equivalent to how.

For most of the history of humanity it seems very probable that the only sense of “why” that existed was that “how” sense.

When one looks deeply into the fundamental uncertainties of quantum mechanics, to the probabilities of molecular interactions, one starts to appreciate the necessary boundaries between order and chaos, between the lawful and the fundamentally unknowable, that are necessary for the emergence of the sort of life that we seem to be.

The sort of system that is complex enough for the “why” to be in any sense different from “how” to emerge, seems to be a system of sufficient complexity that it can make a model of itself and the environment within which it exists at some level of fidelity (vastly simplified but contextually useful), and can project possible alternatives (similarly simplified) into potential future states with some degree of fidelity, and has some set of preferred value structures that allow it to select some subset of the alternate possible futures as preferred, and to modify its behaviour in ways that have some non-zero probability of influencing the state of reality toward producing that desired outcome.

{One tricky thing to get, is that as computational entities, we can only ever experience the simplified models that our brains create, we have no other possible access to the complexity beyond. So while we do in fact often experience reality as being simple at some levels, that does not mean that reality is that simple. We can only experience the model, and the model is necessarily a simplification of reality. That can be really hard to appreciate, as it is necessarily present at every level.}

That level of complexity requires very complex brains, with very complex sets of simplifying mechanisms (to reduce the complexity present in reality down to something that is computationally tractable, yet sufficiently reliable in context to be useful and survivable), and then training the entire structure to actually be useful in the specifics of the ever changing contexts within which that entity exists.

Every level of the complexity that is required for the emergence of such a set of systems is necessarily built on cooperative systems, and raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by cheating strategies, and thus requires an evolving ecosystem of cheat detection and cheat mitigation strategies and systems.

Even the simplest human being capable of independent creative language and action is an instance of at least 15 levels of such complex cooperative systems.

At any level, and at all times, the systems are vulnerable to invasion by cheating strategies.

Covid 19 is an example of a “cheating strategy” at the sub cellular level, at the level of the molecular machinery that makes cells possible.

Here in New Zealand we recognised that, recognised that isolation was the only rapidly available mechanism to isolate and defeat that particular strategy, and we supported all member of our society with a series of economic measures and open communication to make such isolation possible for every member of the community.

It worked.

We eliminated the virus.

We put in place border restrictions that require two weeks quarantine for all arrivals.

It is working.

The last case of community transmission was almost 3 months ago.

That level of society wide cooperation was required to defeat this particular level of cheating strategy.

Life here is very much as it was pre covid except that there are far fewer foreign tourists.

We moved early enough and hard enough that we made it happen.

Most other societies seem to be so infected with levels of cheating strategies throughout their political, economic, and information systems that such levels of cooperation are essentially impossible to create as there is not enough trust, as there is too much cheating – continuously. Such levels of cheating threaten the entire system – always.

Morality and ethics are a high level approximation to the sorts of boundary conditions required for the survival of complex systems at that level. And all such sets of boundary conditions will always be far more complex and context sensitive than any set of rules can define. There is eternally a demand to actually probe reality at the boundaries and see how it responds, and modify actions accordingly. Doing that, at all levels, is essentially what allows humanity to survive.

The currently dominant myths that evolution is all about competition, and that markets are a reasonable proxy for human value generally are wrong.

Competition in evolution always reduces complexity, and reduces freedom – the logic of that is inescapable.

Real freedom and real security, demand cooperative contexts. The security of any is ultimately to be found in security for all, and in this sense security is always a probability function, with eternal uncertainties present.

So why are we the only species that we know of to have the levels of technology and modeling (belief) structures that we do?

Because creating such things is extremely costly (in terms of time and food), and they can only emerge in a set of contexts where there are always more external threats that can be combated by cooperative activity than there are internal threats from competition.

Having hands free to make tools was a big help.

Living on land, with the ability to make fire, also makes technology possible in a way that is not possible for species that live in water.

So while there do seem to be very intelligent and cooperative species (perhaps even with complex language) living in the water, they do not have complex technologies because they have neither hands nor fire; and things like technology and science require fire for chemistry if they are to advance very far, and develop the sorts of high bandwidth network communication and storage that is required for large scale cooperation to stabilise.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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