Humans face a choice in how they govern their societies. Is development opportunistic and at the greatest possible rate in all circumstances? Can development occur at too great a rate? Has our capacity to innovate outpaced our ability to assimilate? What effect does this have on the content of societies? Yes, we innovate more quickly than we assimilate. The result is less coherence, less cultural depth, more fracture. What are the core issues of such a dynamic? One is how we view ourselves as individuals and as a society. Humans are seemingly the only species in the unique position to deliberately and proactively interact with their environment (or abstain from interaction) even when its not in their short-term interests, as opposed to being wired to only react to the exigencies of the moment in an instinctual and robot-like manner. Humans are in a position to decide to act or not act, based on principle, no matter what the pressures of the moment. Along with this gift comes a choice. How do we view and treat ourselves and what do we value about ourselves and our society? Are we within our societies as cells are within our bodies? That is, when considered in comparison to societies, are we insignificant expendable units, like so many drill tips in the jackhammer of civilization? What is the value of a human life and of human work? What is the value of our gift of choice? On the other hand, are we within our societies as a deities (spiritual beings)? Do we act based on principle, come what may? Do we hold the value of a human life above all? Do we value as sacred a person’s thoughts, convictions, sacrifices?
I have always had a strong inclination toward the second view of humanity. As such, unchecked, unmeasured innovation which does not afford adequate assimilation and which fractures culture – which values societal development over individual develop – is a problem. It leads to the devaluation of human life, making all expendable commodity.
Initially I explored these ideas by reaching out to writings in philosophy and critical theory. Because architecture, broadly speaking, is unique among the arts in that it offers experience-able space as its medium, I consider it to be one of the most powerful of human artifacts. This complication made me unsatisfied with basing a response to these questions solely on speculative theory. Just as the art of architecture must find some functional and enduring physical embodiment and relies on engineering to ground and secure it’s corporeality, so too must the responses I generate to these theoretical and ethical questions have some grounding in empiricism. An obligation to this principle led me to writings and studies within the field of cognitive science. It seems to offer a balance of speculative theory and empirical verification and to get to the core of designing the environment to cultivate the best in individuals.
As long as I’ve had these questions I’ve also had the feeling that the momentum of our societies is most definitely moving in the direction which I do not favor – placing the needs of the civilization above those of the individual….prioritizing cultivation of the civilization over cultivation of the individual. Also, I always assume that whatever I’m pondering, many other people have thought of it before and are farther along in resolving the questions and choosing courses of action. As a result of this default notion, I asked myself, what am I missing that makes me see as wrong the path we are taking? Why can i not see it as good? I do believe in the fundamental goodness of the vast majority of people and I trust that more often than not, people do act with others’ best interests in mind, at least to some extent. So why aren’t the governmental and economic powers-that-be applying the breaks?
Much to my chagrin, I think that within cognitive science I am finding an answer. Researchers have found, as pointed out by Kevin Kelly, Marvin Minsky, Andy Clark, etc. that a centralized, thoroughly programmed system is not the most efficient or the most successful way to construct an artificial intelligence which successfully adapts to and acts upon its environment. The exact opposite is true. Decentralized agents, each with a simple and repetitive task to perform, forced to act in conjunction and competition with other agents at the same level within a hierarchy, is a much more efficient system. Agents above don’t necessarily have to understand what agents below are doing, and likewise for agents below. Agents don’t have to see the big picture. They don’t have to know of or understand what the agents below, above, and adjacent to them are doing. They only have to know their task and how to interact with those agents who are in immediate contact with them. Sadly (from my perspective), after over two thousand years of celebrating the escape from the cave as described by Plato, it seems that we are deciding the cave is where we actually belong.
Obviously, the philosophical implications of this functional truth are immense, and all counter to celebrating the value of the individual. If people don’t have to understand their surroundings, the varied aspects of existence, if they just need to know how to do a piece of something and do it well, if they are expendable, if their value (and fulfillment) is in how they contribute to the system, if they only need to know how to react, what will become of their humanity? Is it okay if intelligence, advancement, and refinement is prioritized for the system as a whole and is not prioritized at the level of individual agents? Or if, in a Huxley-ian sense, is it okay if people are medicated to feel euphoria while they are in fact enslaved?
Why choose to privilege society over the individual? Even if this way works for society in practice, it devalues the individual. So why choose it? How is it humane? Why not privilege humanity? The answer I speculate, has to do with overpopulation. There are too many of us to approach our organization and survival prioritizing cultivation of the individual. There is not enough space, for 8-15 billion people to focus on cultivating their humanity. Also, civilization on this scale cannot be comprehended, let alone governed by people without developing our technologies as fast as possible. Agents at any level can never gain a thorough and true understanding of the complexities of a system on this scale. There is no other choice.
The idyllic path is now very complicated. Indulging the high-minded concept, because of its impracticality, can be just as unethical as accepting the functional concept. In fact, for a number of reasons, the functional concept may be the more ethical concept. It does not privilege humanity, assuming worth greater than that of any other population or entity, thus it is humble. Also, it productively and flexibly addresses issues facing humanity and ensures our continued survival, thus it is resilient and useful.
Still, I have to wonder if my preferred system can productively and humbly address these issues. Or is it really an unproductive way to view the situation?
And then there is the avenue of compromise. What would be the middle road between these two conceptions? One possible avenue, could be developed from David Chalmers’ writing in, THE CONSCIOUS MIND. I’ve only just started the book. But at the beginning, he draws a distinction between the phenomenal state of mind and the psychological state of mind. The critical point he makes which I think may provide a clue to the syncretization of my two opposing options for societal development is that in understanding the mind, one cannot say that it is a question of determining which view of mind, phenomenal or psychological, is the correct view, but rather of understanding that a healthy mind embodies both characteristics simultaneously, and has to in order to survive. I have to see how he develops his argument. Perhaps there is room for the generation of a conception of a symbiosis of individuals in service to society as well as a society in service to individuals. Still the question would remain, how do the scale and complexity of society alter the interrelationship? Also, what are the limits, uses, and dangers?