On the nature of freedom and responsibility and being human

Why is uncontrolled human activity the biggest threat to the environment?

[ 5/Mar/21 ]

David Simpson makes some reasonable points in his answer, but I will approach it from a different set of perspectives.

Those perspectives are mostly around exploring what is meant by “control”, and what it is to be human.

When you look at human beings in detail, we are the most complex thing we yet know of in the universe. I trained as a biochemist 50 years ago, and have been programming computers for over 40 years, and I have looked deeply at what would be required to accurately model a human being in real time; and there is not enough mass in the known universe to build a computer capable of doing that. So all understandings we have of ourselves and each other are necessarily simplistic and essentially wrong in many aspects, however accurate and useful they many be in some limited subsets of contexts.

As a general sort of rule, humans tend to respond to the contexts they find themselves in.

What defines us as being human, is our ability to make tools and to use them to enhance our abilities and modify our environment. That is how we track the progress of our ancestors through the fossil record, by looking for the evidence of the tools and changes they left behind.

So to be human is to modify environments, by definition.

And here is where it gets both tricky and interesting.

All levels of structure and complexity have sets of limits (boundaries) that make them possible. Without boundaries there can be no form, only amorphous sameness and simplicity. We are so complex, our biological and cultural systems so complex, that it takes decades to start to make useful levels of abstraction and models about just how complex we are; and most people are too busy doing other things to spend the time doing that. So most people, of necessity, have very simple models of just how complex we really are.

Arthur C Clarke once famously quipped that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The levels of “technology” present in our biology, our cultures, our technologies, are thus necessarily like magic to most people, most of the time; and yet they all have sets of boundary conditions that are necessary for their continued existence.

There is a sense in which cultures that have survived the test of time can be thought of as containing sufficiently close approximations to the sets of necessary limits required for the survival of that culture in that context. The likelihood that anyone actually understands all of the specifics of the systems involved in such a thing is very small. The real complexity of such things is greater than any single mind is capable of dealing with in detail.

So in that train of investigation there are two key thoughts:

1/ reality and the environment is more complex than we can possibly deal with in detail;

2/ the cultures of our past have managed to survive at least thus far, and must have contained some approximation to the necessary boundaries on action required for such survival.

Now look at it from the other side, that of control vs freedom.

Total freedom, a complete absence of any limits, necessarily leads to destruction – it necessarily destroys the conditions that allowed it to emerge.

All complexity, all form, needs boundaries.

The real trick in life is finding out what are the actual boundaries required (or at least some useful approximation).

What we can be certain of is that ancient cultures must have been a close enough approximation to have allowed them to survive in the contexts of their time.

Our time has new sets of technologies that have massively changed our abilities to make changes; and therein lies the dangers both to ourselves and to the ecosystems that we share this planet with.

So what sort of freedom is survivable?

One that is eternally asking the question, does this action pose an unreasonable threat to the life or liberty of anyone or anything else?

Is there any set of rules or laws that one can follow and avoid having to eternally ask such a question?

No. And if we are lucky, such rules and laws as do exist will be sufficiently useful approximations to the limits actually required, that we will be able to survive by following them most of the time. And if we are unlucky the rule and law making systems will have been invading by cheating strategies that advantage some subset of individuals over others. Thus, when you look really closely, something much deeper is actually required.

It seems beyond all reasonable doubt that reality is sufficiently complex and contains sufficient sets of fundamental unknowns and uncertainties, that an optimal outcome will always require entities like ourselves who value the notions of life and liberty to actually practice responsibility, and to actually make judgements (to the best of our limited and fallible abilities) as to what is most appropriate in any particular context.

One of the hard things to understand about infinites, is that even when one accepts that there are multiple levels of boundaries that must be respected, there still remains infinite room for choice within the domains that are actually survivable; and such room for choice inevitably leads to diversity, and such diversity must be respected.

And sometimes the boundaries of what is survivable are sufficiently uncertain that there are hard conversations to be had as individuals or groups approach them.

Thus one key take home message from this line of enquiry is, that the control required has to come from within each an every one of us, and we are all sufficiently limited and fallible that we are all going to make mistakes from time to time.

The other key message is, that contrary to popular economic dogma and social myth, it is cooperation (not competition) that is at the root of our ability to survive in our complex reality. It is not our rules and laws, but rather the ability of individual agents to cooperate together for mutual benefit, that is at the heart of our ability to survive as complex technological entities. And all forms of cooperation need effective mechanisms to detect and remove cheating strategies at all levels, and that gets to be a deeply complex subject when multiple levels of agency are present simultaneously. Thus, we need to accept that some external limits are necessary to prevent destruction of the cooperation necessary for the survival of complexity by “cheating” sets of strategies (at any and all levels).

Freedom is an essential part of being human, but freedom without responsibility is necessarily destructive.

An overly simplistic focus on freedom without responsibility cannot survive for long.

We each need to accept that we are complex beyond our ability to understand in detail, as is everyone else, as is the environment around us, and at the same time, we must also accept that we have to make our best efforts, limited and fallible as they are, to be responsible with all actions we take.

The control that is required has to come largely from within, as a sense of responsibility, from each and every one of us; and such control as comes from the state should only impact those who are not displaying reasonable levels of internal control. And with rapidly expanding levels of abstraction and depth in the understandings of systems; there are bound to be areas of discussion about what is reasonable where. Such things are likely to be an eternal part of existence.

[followed by]

The refinement I would add to that, is that people tend to act in their perceived or expected or modelled self interest.

Often there is a difference in reality between such perceptions or models and what is actually real. In some complex contexts the difference (the Delta) between perceived and actual can be significant. As an analogy for that, the difference between the perception of the the sun going around the earth, and the more accurate model of reality that has the earth spinning on its axis as it revolves around the sun, can have significant impacts on wider models of reality and how we impact it.

Many people are operating from relatively simple models that there are “Truths” that may be known with absolute certainty, rather than accepting what science seems to be telling us, that we live in a reality that contains multiple levels of fundamental uncertainty and unknowability. And to counter that, we all need to act in reality, so some sort of simplification and confidence is required. Part of the art of life is making such judgements about confidence in context.

Most people tend to rely on “authorities” in the hope that the model in use by the authority is better than the one they have themselves. So long as the cooperatives that deliver authority have sufficient mechanisms to avoid domination by cheating strategies, that is a useful approach. Right now I suspect that far too many sets of “authorities” have been invaded by far too many sets of cheating strategies at too many levels.

How we improve our models and understandings, and reduce that Delta between perceived and actual self interest is the huge question of our age. There are so many orders of magnitude difference between the various models actually in use by people generally.

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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