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082 - On Studies Of Substance - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Rather than wishing you luck and fine things I will wish that you experience hardship, or at least a certain burden.
A powerboat docked in a marina alongside a row of apartments
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I am not worried about your progress, Deuteros, nor your fate. You may suffer bad fortune, illness, or injury, because none of us is free from such risks while we are living, but I am confident you will not suffer harm from yourself. Continue on as you have begun, with an eye towards living modestly and mindfully, and you will live well. Rather than wishing you luck and fine things I will wish that you experience hardship, or at least a certain burden. This is through no ill will on my part. We become weak and soft in our pampered luxury, whereas privation teaches us to appreciate both what we already have and what is essential.

Your certain burden can come in many forms: it may take the shape of paid work, it may find expression in volunteering; your efforts may be spent on public works, or you may invest in private pursuits. The end that many seek is an end to their toil, to put their burden down, and this can indeed be a worthy pursuit provided it opens the door to other pursuits. For though you may fight your way free of all external entanglements and purchase your freedom, do not think that idleness is any kind of lasting reward in itself. Indeed, the longer you seek to enjoy idleness, the less you stand to gain from it.

The freer your hands are from manual labor, the more your mind is at risk from laboring under apprehensions and worries. You can be far removed from the dank salt mines where others toil but still feel as sharply the lash of your own expectations and fears. Thus I tell you do not put down all burdens when your time is more completely yours to direct. Turn once more to your studies to ensure that you do not lose your way and continue to progress.

Is it the study of philosophy that is required? Helpful, always helpful, but I would not say required, at least in the case of one as yourself whose lessons have been well learned and are never far from memory. By all means refresh your recollection, take pleasure in strolling even the best known and well-loved by-ways of your favorite teachers. But if you find your tastes turning to other things, let your mind roam freely and wander.

In your wandering you will likely find that you do not know every path as well as you remembered. Though you stray in your contemplations, you will thus remain on the path to wisdom. For this to happen you cannot be a passive tourist, watching new landscapes unfold from a safe distance and behind glass. Rather take your current learnings and see how they may be actively applied in new settings: psychology, politics, physics, and more. Will you make a connection between two fields that no one has managed to bridge before? Will you develop a wholly new line of thinking? Even if you provide merely a fresh perspective in an area previously believed to be fully understood, you will have acted nobly and invested the energy of your thoughts well.

And I ask you, at this moment is there any field as falsely believed to have been mapped as that of human motivation? We think we are entitled to talk about what drives others, when we have but the slightest idea what drives ourselves. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be set out in a neat pyramid, with basic needs anchoring the bottom, psychological needs forming the middle, and self-fulfillment needs at the tip. Until the basic needs of food and water, safety, and shelter are satisfied, the theory goes, a person cannot work their way upwards to achieve a higher purpose.

In fairness, this is little different than what the Stoics and many other philosophical schools busied themselves with: what is the relative value of various human pursuits, and which should we pursue and why. There have been as many interpretations of human motivation as there have been people who have pondered their own existence. Hundreds of serious schools of thought, some easily dismissed in hindsight, but others with enduring elements of the truth. I do not doubt that there will be additional valuable insights offered up by generations to come. No, we need not fear that the study of human motivation will be wasted time, for no matter whether you establish a new branch of wisdom, you will surely help yourself.

Or take the study of human intelligence and how inconsistently and even apprehensively modern theorists approach it. Before they realized how their measurements would be misinterpreted and misused, psychologists developed quite reliable methods of measuring general human intelligence, or IQ (intelligence quotient). We are able to measure it more accurately than any other psychometric measure.

Not only can we measure it well, psychologists have found that intelligence is the single most important determinant of life success. At least it is predictive in terms of educational and economic success, which we know is not everything but it is also not nothing. Psychologists also believe that intelligence is largely genetic, and that although it can be influenced by environmental factors, the influence comes mainly in ways that either allow genes to express themselves or which hinder the full development of potential intelligence.

Despite the weight of significant evidence, it is considered a cardinal sin in today’s world to state that intelligence drives important life outcomes while also pointing out that people’s individual intelligence differs. Why is this so? We accept that people have physical differences that are apparent to the eye: the muscular athlete, the handsome actor, the model with symmetric features. Perhaps these differences are easier for us to swallow because we can tell ourselves that it is the steroids and supplements or the plastic surgeon’s knife has contributed to their enhanced natures?

Physical differences it seems are much easier to accept than the idea that our fates have been determined by a genetics lottery at birth, and that these gifts of fate are distributed unevenly. For though we can no longer say it aloud, we can nonetheless silently observe that people also differ in their intelligence and temperament. To see something so important and yet restrict discussion because of the possibility of offending! Truly people can be willfully ignorant no matter what their intelligence.

I had despaired of advances in this field, Deuteros, but I think there is a parallel path down which we might once again see progress. It concerns what is called artificial general intelligence, or AGI. If the study of human differences is taboo let us heat up our brains in trying to make cold circuits and wires think. In trying to create intelligence in computer form, we may yet learn something about how humans think, though this is not the aim of the endeavor.

So become an indirect scientist, Deuteros, divining insights about human capabilities and motivation from our successes and, more likely, the failures of artificial intelligence research. The most attractive aspect of working in this field is that we are perpetually on the cusp of breakthroughs. It is a magical feat that no matter how many decades we labor we are never further than a decade away from achieving AGI. The last seventy years have at least humbled us to the point where we appreciate the magnitude of the problem. The human brain is no simple box of cells that we can replicate at will. By narrowing our ambition and our scope, we have unblocked a half century’s stall and seen rapid progress in artificial neural networks, pattern recognition, and machine learning.

And even if you want to leave the hard science to others, there is still a role to play for the philosopher with time on their hands. We have spent centuries experimenting to discover which models of societal governance best balance human weaknesses with human potential to let the most citizens thrive. In AGI research the large majority of scientists are interested foremost in the question of how, as in how can we do it? A few have considered the question why, and fewer still the question whether we should do this. We need but recall the mad dash to split the atom, with everything that was subsequently unleashed, to know that the smartest among us can also be the most reckless.

The long-term survival of humanity needs much more attention invested in the question of control of AGI. Religions all assume an omnipotent creator, who is all-knowing and all-seeing, and has the power to direct all affairs. Consider though that if humankind had a creator, could it not be that our author was both unimaginably more powerful than us but similarly reckless? That in unleashing humankind on the world, they lost control and no longer have any say in determining our fate?

I do not mean to make humans think themselves gods if and when we bring AGI into being. My aim is more that we consider what sort of creators we would be if we had no means of directing the course of our new creation. Chances are good that we will not have the luxury of centuries to experiment with how to control AGI. This genie being unloosed will not go willingly back into any bottle. Thus, this would be a study worthy of serious pursuit by serious minds. Perhaps it will be you?

Be well.

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