The First Arena is that of inanimate matter, which began when the universe did, fourteen billion years ago. About four billion years ago life emerged, the Second Arena. Of course we’re talking about our local region of the universe. For all we know life may have emerged in other regions as well, perhaps even earlier, perhaps more recently. We don’t know. The Third Arena is that of human culture. We have changed the face of the earth, have touched the moon and the planets, and are reaching for the stars. That happened between two and three million years ago, the exact number hardly matters. But most of the cultural activity is little more than 10,000 years old.
The question I am asking: Is there something beyond culture, something just beginning to emerge? If so, what might it be?
Let us review.
Complexity and Abundance in an Evolving Universe
My basic thinking about the nature of the universe, about ontology and cosmology, is grounded in two ideas: 1) complexity, which I take from Ilya Prigogine, though he is by no means its only exponent, and 2) abundance, from the philosopher, Paul Feyerabend. Complexity of this kind is more than complication. It is, paradoxically, the capacity for simple systems to undergo self-organization and thereby to become more complex, and still more ever complex. And complexity accounts for the universe’s abundance.
Abundance? Here is a remark that Feyerabend made to John Horgan, the science journalist:
… he told me about a book he was working on, The Conquest of Abundance, about the human passion for reductionism. It would address the fact that “all human enterprises” seek to reduce the natural diversity, or “abundance,” inherent in reality.
“First of all the perceptual system cuts down this abundance or you couldn’t survive.” Religion, science, politics and philosophy represent our attempts to compress reality still further. Of course, these attempts to conquer abundance simply create new complexities.
The universe is complex, it is abundant, it is overflowing. It is, above all, the capacity of one arena to give rise to another: inorganic matter gives to life, life to mind and eventually to culture.
We can see the three arenas on this chart from Wikipedia’s entry on Universe. Roughly speaking, the universe exploded into matter 14 billion years ago in an instant outside of and before time. Four billion years ago Life emerged. While animals do have culture – the higher primates, certainly, do beaver dams count as culture? I don’t know – it is human culture that ushered in a new arena, that of Culture. Wikipedia dates Oldowan tools to about 2.6 million years ago. That’s when we can locate the origins of human culture. Whether it is a million years later or earlier hardly matters on this time scale.
Notice what happens to the time scale as we move from one arena to the next, it gets shorter. That trend continues within the arena of culture.
Cultural Evolution and Cultural Beings
Just as the other areas exhibit internal differentiation, so does Culture. Over the years the late David Hays and I developed an account of cultural evolution based on fundamental cognitive architecture which we cultural ranks. We’ve identified four cultural ranks. Rank 1 is based on speech and emerged we don’t really know how long ago. Let’s put it between 100,000 and a million years ago; I doubt that it is younger and it may well be older. Rank 2 is based on writing and is 5000 to 7000 years old or so. Rank 3 began to emerge after Asian methods of calculation reached Europe by way of the Arabs. It is thus based on calculation and showed its face, say, 700 or so years ago. It gave us the scientific and industrial revolutions, but also the novel, coherent geometric perspective in drawing and painting, and harmony in music. We traced Rank 4 back to statistical mechanics and Darwinian evolution in the 19th century. It began flourished in the wake of Alan Turing’s conceptualization of computing and with the subsequent development and deployment of digital computers starting in the second half of the 20th century. At this point a large percentage of people on earth own one or more digital computers, whether in their phone or a laptop device, or some other device or devices.
Look at the time scales involved. Speech emerged millions of years ago. Writing only 1000s of years ago, 10,000 at the outside. Calculation is 100s of years, 1000 at the outside. And computation? Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859; Clausius formulated the idea of entropy in 1865. But the digital computer is a mere 70 years old or so. Cultural evolution is accelerating.
And what if we measure those intervals in generations, where a generation is 30 years? Let’s simplify things:
Speech = 1M years ago = 33,333 generations ago
Writing = 10K years ago = 333 generations ago
Computation = 1kya = 33 generations ago
Computing = 100 years ago = 3 generations ago
A mere three generations to remake the cognitive matrix from top to bottom; that’s compressing things quite a bit. Remember, culture is passed on through imitation and education between generations. But you can see where that evolution seems to be heading. It takes an individual 15 to 20 years to internalize the basic ideas and norms of their culture. Barring unforeseen advances in genetic engineering and pedagogy, that process cannot be compressed any more.
What’s happening now? Perhaps it is only the consolidation of Rank 4. Maybe it is that, but also the emergence of a new rank. Hays and I talked about a fifth rank in private, but never published about it. Conceptualizing Rank 4 was difficult enough.
Regardless of that, however, we face an even more radical question: Is the universe gifting us with a new form of abundance, the Fourth Arena? Are we seeing or are about to see something beyond matter, life, and culture?
New Beings in Time
Let us recapitulate, but in a different mode: As we move from one arena to the next, new kinds of being emerge. Inanimate matter is a slave to time in a way that life is not. Living beings, the second arena, use free energy – ultimately from the sun – to swim against the tide of time. Life has been getting ever more complex over the long run – something David Hays and I argued in A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity. Inanimate matter disperses and disintegrates over time. Living creatures, single celled organisms, and multi-celled plants and animals alike, maintain order and structure in the face of entropy.
At least for a while.
And that is new to the universe, perhaps only our local region, but perhaps many other regions as well. A succession of creatures, each alive for only awhile, proliferating and dispersing, their abundance has remade the planet time and again. The earliest life breathed oxygen into the atmosphere, then came photosynthesis, multicellular plant and animal life and then…
When clever apes ushered in the third arena by becoming sapient, that is, they became us, we created cultural beings – there is no one good word for these things that we know by many names. Things like songs, stories, works of visual art, buildings, machines, and so forth. All of these are cultural beings. Physically, they are constituted of matter in various ways, but they live in and through us. Animals begat humans, and humans begat culture.
These cultural beings have the potential to live as long as humans walk the earth. We know little of those protohumans who crafted stone tools in Africa some two or three million years ago. They probably spoke some kind of proto-language, which is lost. Their clothing, lost, their songs and dances, lost, their food, what did they eat? But those stone tools persist, and contemporary specialists have spent hours upon hours trying to figure out how they made them.
What about the ancient Greeks? Many of their stories live on in the two poems by someone known as Homer, Iliad and Odyssey. We also have tools and implements, remnants of building, and so forth. We could ramble through all of human history like this, but you get the idea, no? Ancient texts, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Confucian Analects, and many others are still read today and used as guides to life. Cultural beings can, in the right circumstances, persist beyond the lives of the people who originally made them.
Sometimes an artifact – the material husk of a cultural being – is brought to life after it has been dead. The manuscript for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was lost in the 14th century, but brought back from the dead in the 19th. J.R.R. Tolkien produced an edition in the 20th century, it has become a staple of YouTube videos, and was recently made into a movie, for the third time (albeit with a story somewhat revised from the original).
These cultural beings have a different relationship with time and matter than life forms do. Lifeforms inevitably die and their matter disintegrates into dust. Cultural beings can migrate from one material matrix to another. As long as humans exist to animate them, cultural beings can persist.
What kind of beings will arise in the Fourth Arena? Do we see them now, if only in primitive form? It so, what and where are they? How do they differ from the cultural beings of the third arena?
Coming to Terms with Technology
I suppose the obvious proposal is actual real artificial intelligence, or perhaps superintelligence. I don’t think so. That fact that no one really knows what those things might be does not, I suppose, disqualify them as denizens of the Fourth Arena, for I am proposing a future with radically new beings. How could be possibly understand what they might be?
The trouble is, though, that we do know well enough what an actual real artificial intelligence would be. It would be like us, but in metal and silicon rather than flesh and bone. And if it is super, that just means bigger and faster, not different in kind, and potentially evil as well. Those conceptions are desperate attempts to confine the potentially new to familiar categories. What is more familiar, after all, than a super-powerful being bent on destroying humanity?
Whatever these new beings are, they will be grounded in computing technology, but we need to rethink what this new technology is.
You no doubt have heard about Blake Lemoine, the Google engineer who sensed that the LaMDA chatbot was sentient and, in consequence, was put on leave. He sensed that something new and different was going on in LaMDA. I think he was right about that. Something new and different IS happening.
In my own thinking I have experienced a similar problem. I had the opportunity to play with GPT-3 a bit, through an intermediary, and, like many, I have seen remarkable chunks of prose produced by it. What ‘writes’ is far more sophisticated than the remarks flashed on a screen by the infamous ELIZA from the 1960s. It is clear to me that GPT-3 is NOT thinking in any common sense of the term.
But it is not clear that calculation is a particularly good term either, though, in a sense, that IS what is going on, for it runs on computer hardware constructed for the purpose of calculation, where ‘calculation’ is understood in the most general sense. But that general sense does not align well with the our commonsense experience of calculation, which is based on arithmetic – hours and weeks of boring drill in elementary school. As commonly understood, arithmetic is very different from string processing, such as alphabetizing a list or sorting of any kind, not to mention image processing or sound synthesis. The fact that the same electronic device can all those things and more, and do them with ease, that is not easily encompassed within common-sense terms, which mostly just elide the difficulties.
And now they’re talking and writing!
In the parlance of common sense, computers only do what humans program them to do. That’s true of your word processor, the software you process your photos with, watch movies, or cruise the internet with. ELIZA was like that.
But GPT-3 is not like that, nor are any of the other engines created through so-called deep learning (DL). Humans program an engine to troll through mounds and mountains of data, text, images, sound recordings, video tapes, whatever, and that engine “learns” – for lack of a better term – from all that data, but is it even data? – and distills that learning into an engine that writes coherent text or draws pictures (DALL-E). We haven’t programmed that engine, nor is it quite acting on its own. We don’t know what it is doing.
I believe that bulk of our common sense vocabulary was ‘shrink-wrapped’ to fit the world that existed in, say, the late 19th century. That world included mechanical calculators and tabulating machines. As long as digital computers mostly did those two things they weren’t particularly problematic. Sure, there was 1950s and 1960s talk of thinking machines, but that died out. Then Stanley Kubrick gave us HAL, but that was clearly science fiction. Science fiction has given us many such creatures.
But now it is clear that things have changed and will be changing more. Computers are doing things that cannot be readily accommodated to that late-19th century conceptual system. There is no longer a place for them in our extant repertoire, our ontology (to use the term as it is now used in computer science and AI). We can’t just add new categories off to the side somewhere or near the top. Why not? Because computers are, in some obvious sense, clearly inanimate things, like rocks and water and so forth. Those are at the bottom of the ontology. Yet they are now writing fluently, which is something only humans did, and we are at the top of the ontology. We have to revise the whole ontology, the whole conceptual system,.
We need a new conceptual repertoire if we are to understand this new technology. That’s the problem Blake Lemoine went crashing into. LaMDA was not acting like a computer is supposed to act. It didn’t seem right to think of it as a mere inanimate object, albeit a very complex one. So he took the only alternative open to him. He conceptualized LaMDA as a sentient being.
It was easy for Google to put Lemoine on leave. But even if he goes away, the problem he was struggling with won’t go away. It is only going to get worse. There is no quick fix. The fabric of common sense must be reworked, top to bottom, inside and out. Our many specialized repertoires must also be refitted.
This is a project for generations. The world IS changing. Only when we are further along in the transformation will be be able to open ourselves to a world anew.
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I leave you with Peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble performing “The World is Gifted,” Scheherazade Stone, vocals.