Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Being a Force of Nature...

Reading the book

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society
by Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers

led me inevitably to thoughts about the useful (but sometimes counterproductive) illusions of self and free will.

The authors argue that one path to achieving great things and great happiness is to let go of the illusion of autonomy and individual will, and in the words of George Bernard Shaw "be a force of nature," allowing oneself to serve as a tool of the universe, of larger forces that exist all around and within oneself, and ultimately are a critical part of one's own self-definition (whether one always realizes this or not).

The Shaw quote says:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose you consider a mighty one, the being a force of nature, rather than a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

A related quote from Martin Buber says of the "truly free" man, that he:

... intervenes no more, but at the same time, he does not let things merely happen. He listens to what is emerging from himself, to the course of being in the world; not in order to be supported by it, but in order to bring it to reality as it desires.

There is an interesting dilemma at the heart of this kind of wisdom, which is what I want to write about today.

A part of me rebels strongly against all this rhetoric about avoiding individual will and being a force of nature. After all, nature sucks in many ways -- nature "wants" me and my wife and kids and all the rest of you humans to die. What the natural and cultural world around me desires is in large measure repellent to me. I don't want to "get a haircut and get a real job" just because that's what the near-consensus of the world around me is ... and nor do I want to submit to death and disease. Nor do I want to listen to everything that nature has put inside me: anger, irrationality and the whole lot of it.... Nature has given me some great gifts and some nasty stuff as well.

Many of the things that are important to me are -- at least at first glance -- all about me exercising my individual will against what nature and society want me to do. Working to end the plague of involuntary death. Working to create superhuman minds. Composing music in scales few enjoy listening to; writing stories with narrative structures so peculiar only the really open-minded can appreciate them. Not devoting my life entirely or even primarily to the pursuits of money, TV-viewing, and propagating my genome.

On the other hand, it's worth reflecting on the extent to which the isolation and independence of the individual self is an illusion. We humans are not nearly so independent as modern Western -- and especially American -- culture (explicitly and implicitly) tells us. In fact the whole notion of a mind localized in a single body is not quite correct. As my dear friend Meg Heath incessantly points out, each human mind is an emergent system that involves an individual body, yes, but also a collection of tools beyond the body, and a collection of patterns of interaction and understanding within a whole bunch of minds. In practice, I am not just who I am inside my brain, I am also what I am inside the brains of those who habitually interact with me. I am not just what I do with my hands but also what I do with my computer. I wouldn't be me without my kids, nor without the corpus of mathematical and scientific knowledge and philosophical ideation that I have spent a large bulk of my life absorbing and contributing to.

So, bold and independent individual willfulness is, to an extent, an illusion. Even when we feel that we're acting independently, from the isolation of our own heart and mind, we are actually enacting distributed cultural and natural processes. A nice illustration of this is the frequency with which scientific discoveries -- even revolutionary ones -- are made simultaneously by multiple individuals. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were being willful, independent, deviant thinkers -- yet each of them was also serving as a nodal point for a constellation of forces existing outside himself ... a constellation of forces that was almost inevitably moving toward a certain conclusion, which had to be manifested through someone and happened to be manifested through those two men.

An analogy appears to exist with the representation of knowledge in the human brain. There is a peculiar harmony of localization and distribution in the way the brain represents knowledge. There are, in many cases, individual and highly localized brain regions corresponding to particular bits of knowledge. If you remove that little piece of the brain, the knowledge may go away (though in many but not all cases, it may later be regenerated somewhere else). But yet, that doesn't mean the knowledge is immanent only in that small region. Rather, when the knowledge is accessed or utilized or modified, a wide variety of brain regions may be activated. The localized region serves as a sort of "trigger" mechanism for unlocking a large-scale activation pattern across many parts of the brain. So, the knowledge is both localized and distributed: there are globally distributed patterns that are built so as to often be activated by specific local triggers.

We can look at humans as analogous to neurons, in the above picture. None of us contains that much in and of ourselves, but any one of us may be more or less critical in triggering large-scale activation patterns ... which in turn affect a variety of other individuals in a variety of ways....

So then, the trick in being a "force of nature" is to view yourself NOT as an individual entity with an individual mind contained in an individual body, making individual decisions ... but rather, as a potential trigger for global activity patterns; or, to put it slightly differently, as a node or nexus of a whole bunch of complex global activity patterns, with the capability to influence as well as be influenced.

When we act -- when we feel like "we" are "acting" -- it is just as fair to say that the larger (social, cultural, natural, etc.) matrix of patterns that defines us is acting thru the medium of us.

I feel analytically that what I said in the previous paragraph is true... but what is interesting is how rarely I actually feel that way, in practice, in the course of going about my daily business. Even in cases where it is very obviously the truth -- such as my work on artificial general intelligence. Yes, I have willfully chosen to do this, instead of something else easier or more profitable or more agreeable to others. On the other hand, clearly I am just serving as the tool of a larger constellation of forces -- the movement of science and technology toward AGI has been going on a long time, which is why I have at my disposal the tools to work on AGI; and a general cultural/scientific trend toward legitimization of AGI is beginning, which is why I have been able to recruit others to work on AGI with me, which has been an important ingredient for maintaining my own passion for AGI at such a high level.

How different would it be, I wonder, if in my individual daily (hourly, minutely, secondly) psychology, I much more frequently viewed myself as a node and a trigger rather than an individual. A highly specialized and directed node and trigger, of course -- not one that averages the inputs around me, but one that is highly selective and responds in a very particular way intended to cause particular classes of effects which (among other things) will come back and affect me in specific ways.

In short: Letting go of the illusion of individuality, while retaining the delights of nonconformity.

Easy enough to say and think about; and rather tricky to put into practice on a real-time basis.

Cultures seem to push you either to over-individualism or over-conformity, and finding the middle path as usual is difficult -- and as often, is not really a middle path, in the end, but some sort of "dialectical synthesis" leading beyond the opposition altogether and into a different way of being and becoming....