Post scriptum (2022, week 36-37) — Rethinking intelligence, Jena and our sense of self, and philanthrocapitalism

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s Post scriptum: For a better understanding of the vibrant world around us, we need a new conception of nonhuman intelligence; the first Romantics and the invention of the self; why philanthrocapitalism enables the destruction of nature and the erosion of democracy; Gabor Maté on the myth of normal; Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s worldview; looted antiquities; and, finally, what we can learn from an 11th-century Andalusian Arabic writer.

Rethinking intelligence

If we humans are going to gain a better understanding of the vibrant world around us — and the damage we are doing to it — we’re going to need a new conception of nonhuman intelligence, Amanda Rees argues in Rethinking Intelligence In A More-Than-Human World.

“Part of the problem is that we think of both ‘intelligence’ and ‘agency’ as objective, identifiable, measurable human characteristics. But they’re not. At least in part, both concepts are instead the product of specific historical circumstances,” Rees writes.

“‘Agency,’ for example, emerges with the European Enlightenment, perhaps best encapsulated in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. Writing in the late 15th century, Mirandola revels in the fact that to humanity alone ‘it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills. … On man … the Father conferred the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit.’

In other words, what makes humans unique is their possession of the God-given capacity to exercise free will — to take rational, self-conscious action in order to achieve specific ends. Today, this remains the model of agency that underpins significant and influential areas of public discourse. It resonates strongly with neoliberalist reforms of economic policy, for example, as well as with debates on public health responsibility and welfare spending.

A few hundred years later, the modern version of ‘intelligence’ appears, again in Europe, where it came to be understood as a capacity for ordered, rational, problem-solving, pattern-recognizing cognition. Through the work of the eugenicist Francis Galton, among others, intelligence soon came to be regarded as an innate quality possessed by individuals to greater or lesser degree, which could be used to sort populations into hierarchies of social access and economic reward.

In the 21st century, the concept continues to do much the same work, with most nations making at least a token commitment to a meritocratic ideal, and. “[D]ebates about intelligence and the human future are based on the assumption that intelligence is fundamentally rational and goal-directed — that is, that the 19th-century understanding of the concept is still the most appropriate interpretation of what it is,” Rees writes.

“By the end of the 20th century, studies of learning and decision-making began to note the importance of play and the significance of emotion to the development of both intelligence and agency [see, for example, here and here]. It became clear that emotion is central to the process of learning. It influences attention, retention and reasoning.

[…]

Even more importantly, when it comes to considering both [artificial intelligence] and risk, researchesr have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to the significance of stories when it comes to understanding public behaviors and decision-making. For a long time, ‘telling stories’ was something that was categorized as just another form of play — something that you did for, or to, children or the child-minded. But the startling growth of both the range and size of digital and analog entertainment platforms has demonstrated the economic weight of the imagination.”

“When it comes to anticipating what [AI] intelligence might look like or do, we urgently need to get beyond our limited idea of what constitutes intelligence. We can do this first by building on our long history of multispecies entanglement, using our past and present collaborations with animals as models for the development of supporting intelligences in different fields.

It’s hard not to be anthropomorphic here, but we now have more than half a century’s worth of efforts by scientists to study animal cognition. Their work provides us with models of how to experience the world as a wasp or a robin or even a chimpanzee. This can help us perceive different kinds of problems, connections and possibilities within that world.

We could potentially go further […]. Charles Darwin studied the behavior of cucumber plants in the 1860s, watching as their mobile tendrils searched for support as they climbed, coiling like a spring in two directions to secure the growing plant against environmental disturbance. And Mimosa plants, the leaves of which curl up into themselves when touched or disturbed, may demonstrably have memory even though they lack neurons. Taking networked vegetative sapience seriously could provide important new perspectives on the broader concept of intelligence.

Within our own human experience of intelligence, we have to get beyond the rational. We have to explore the possibilities of involving emotion and embodiment in our models of artificial learning. Studies of emotion in AI currently focus on the computer’s capacity to produce emotion in the human user — not on the existence of emotion in the machine. But is that the limit of what can be imagined or achieved?

The prospect of an emotional, embodied artificial intelligence certainly currently lies wholly in the realm of science fiction — but science fiction itself is essentially a collection of experimental narratives that enable people to test the limits of possibility and consequences of action. It’s also important to remember the role of emotion in Frankenstein, the original AI horror story. This narrative, often used as shorthand for scientific hubris, is actually driven by parental failure. Frankenstein’s sin was that he didn’t provide his creation with the nurturing care it needed.

Nurture, of course, is the foundation for our most successful interspecies collaborations (dogs, horses, cats, dolphins), where learning is incentivized through emotional or physical rewards, and expectations, although often anthropomorphized, are nuanced to particular relationships. Sentient machines do not exist — but we could build on our experience of relationships with sentient non-human individuals to improve both our ethical and our pragmatic expectations of AI. Rather than anticipating human extinction, adopting a collaborative, cooperative — even caring — approach to our creations is a good first step towards surviving the climate catastrophe.”

Where our sense of self comes from

In her exhilarating book, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, Andrea Wulf explores how in the late 18th century a group of rebellious German playwrights, poets, and writers revolutionized the way we think of ourselves and the world.

“Western societies and institutions are founded on this spirit of individual freedom and self-determination. But it is becoming clear that this very core of Western democratic culture is being undermined,” Wulf writes in Where Our Sense of Self Comes From. This makes it important to understand the beginnings of the modern self, the origins of that hard-won freedom.

Wulf has spent the past several years looking for where this idea — taken for granted today, but once quite radical — first emerged and was surprised to discover that it was in Jena, a quiet university town 150 miles southwest of Berlin.

Here, in the 1790s, what she calls the ‘Jena set’ revolutionized the way we think of ourselves and the world. “Among them were some of Germany’s most brilliant minds: the poets Novalis and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; the playwright Friedrich Schiller; the philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; the young scientist Alexander von Humboldt; the combative Schlegel brothers [Karl Wilhelm Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel]; the formidable Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling. These thinkers began to seriously consider a number of existential questions: How do we have control over our own lives? Can we trust the knowledge produced by our minds? And perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to be free?”

What happened in jena in the 1790s that brought these questions to the fore? And why Jena? Why Germany?

“At the end of the 18th century, Germany wasn’t yet a unified nation; rather, it was a patchwork of more than 1,500 states — constituting the Holy Roman Empire — ranging from tiny principalities to powerful dynasties such as the Hohenzollern in Prussia and the Habsburgs in Austria. One unintended advantage of such fragmentation was that censorship was far more difficult to enforce than it was in large, centrally ruled nations such as France and England. Every German state, no matter how small, had its own set of regulations and laws. Germany was small, splintered, and inward-looking. And Germans seemed particularly enamored of the written word. The publishing trade was four to five times larger than that in England. Germans were voracious readers — and books, newspapers, pamphlets, and articles spread new ideas across the population.

Jena was only a small town of 4,500 inhabitants, but it was home to an important university. Because of complicated inheritance rules, the institution was nominally controlled by at least four Saxon dukes. In reality, no one was truly in charge. As a result, a broad scope of subjects could be taught. ‘The professors in Jena are almost entirely independent,’ Schiller wrote. There was no university like it in Europe. Drawn by this openness, thinkers who had been in trouble with the authorities in their home states came to Jena. The last decade of the 18th century seemed to find more famous poets, writers, and philosophers living in Jena’s small confines, in proportion to its population, than in any town before or since — the makings of an intellectual hothouse,” Wulf writes.

“Jena and its most famous residents — Fichte, Goethe, and Schiller — seemed to exert a magnetic pull. Soon, a new generation of young thinkers arrived in the small university town, including Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, two brothers who fought the literary establishment. Turning against the polished refinement and rigid metric patterns of earlier 18th-century poetry, they were the first to use the term romantic in its new literary meaning. ‘We have to believe in the power of words,’ Friedrich Schlegel declared. Within the next few years, they founded their own magazine and launched Romanticism onto the international stage. Their lives became the laboratories for Fichte’s Ich-philosophy: They defied social conventions, and the emphasis on individual experience became their guiding light.

[…]

The Jena Set felt invincible. They were embroiled in endless fights with the literary establishments and later with each other. They walked a fine line between free will and selfishness, self-determination and narcissism — a balancing act that seems all too familiar today. Maybe it’s not that surprising to find inflated egos, infighting, and self-absorption in a group of strong-willed men and women who believed in the supreme rule of the self. Freedom brings with it both responsibilities and dangers. The friends in Jena struggled with that, just as we do today. From the moment this seismic shift toward an empowered self rippled out of Jena, people have had to deal with the perils. But Fichte himself never intended his ideas to be a celebration of narcissism. On the contrary, he always insisted that our freedom is tightly bound to our moral obligations. ‘Only those are free,’ he told students during his first lecture series, in 1794, ‘who will try to make everyone around them free.’ Freedom always brings its twin: moral duty. How can we live a fulfilled life in which we follow our dreams while also being a morally good person? How do we reconcile personal liberty with the demands of society? Are we too selfish? Are we treading on someone else’s liberty?

The self, for better or worse, has remained center stage ever since Fichte put it there. The French revolutionaries changed the political landscape of Europe, but Fichte and the friends in Jena incited a revolution of the mind. We may have forgotten Fichte, and we might not talk about his self-determined Ichany more, but we have internalized it. We are this Ich. We’re still empowered by the Jena Set’s daring leap, by the absolute importance they placed on personal freedom. And at a time when we find our democracies hollowed out and threatened by liars, despots, and reactionary politicians, it is up to us to determine how much we want to fight for this legacy.”

The disaster of philanthropy and capitalism

“Sometime after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the logic of brute force infected Western economics, informing its underlying proposition that all men (mostly) have insatiable wants that justify tearing up the earth, polluting it, or frying it to death. By this logic, human survival is deemed uneconomical,” David W. Orr writes in an excerpt from his book Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy: A Global Citizens’ Report on the Corporate Control of Technology, Health, and Agriculture.

But “along comes Bill Gates and other ‘philanthrocapitalists’ who, as luck would have it, promise to solve hunger, disease, poverty, and a rapidly destabilizing climate, often by selling us more of the things that made them very rich. A godsend, indeed, until one reads the fine print that, among other things, requires believing that the leopard has shed its spots and now wishes to feed those it once fed upon. A more enlightened and beneficent capitalism is possible, I think, but it requires capitalists to transcend self-interest and greed, which is not wholly supported by the record. It isn’t just their hearts, however; it’s their mindset, conditioned by many years of accumulation to believe that money is necessary to solve problems. But for all of their puffery, philanthrocapitalists don’t talk much about the root causes of the problems they purport to solve; or the politics of who gets what, when, and how; or the fair distribution of wealth; or the destruction of vibrant rural cultures rooted in place. In Anand Giridharadas’ words: ‘To question their supremacy is very simply to doubt the proposition that what is best for the world just so happens to be what the rich and powerful think it is. […] It is to say that a world marked more and more by private greed and the private provision of public goods is a world that doesn’t trust the people, in their collective capacity, to imagine another kind of society into being.’ What [Giridharadas] calls the ‘Aspen Consensus’ entails challenging the winners to do more good but never to do less harm — the kind of the absolution theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called ‘cheap grace,’” Orr writes.

One can only wonder, what great problems have actually been solved by philanthrocapitalism. The record — at best — is mixed, says Orr.

“Most of what’s grown by brute-force agriculture goes to feed the wealthy, often at the expense of people on the land, tropical forests, and biological diversity. ‘What to make of the fact that growing philanthropy and growing inequality seem to go hand in hand?’ Linsey McGoey asks in No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Increasingly, philanthropy, she notes, deprives treasuries of tax revenues that could otherwise be better spent to help the poor. And who holds the Bill Gateses of the world accountable? Who weighs the difference between tax revenues not paid to the public treasury against the purported benefits of unsupervised philanthropy? The answer is no one. A more sensible approach to philanthropy is to recognize that ‘the state is better placed, for reasons of legal power and accountability, to do some things’ that require a systems perspective, transparency, and ultimate accountability (Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World).

The battle over land, common property resources, rural culture, and footloose wealth has entered a new and perhaps final phase, as the writers in this book explain. Bill Gates, through Gates Ag One, is spending billions each year to monopolize seeds and control global agriculture in ways previously impossible. Agriculture was the last major sector of society rendered vulnerable to capitalism, but the advent of gene splicing and CRISPR technology makes it possible and highly profitable to control the foundation of agriculture by controlling seeds and genetic material. The result is the brave new world of synthetic meat, genetically modified plants, and novel organisms of all kinds; a world of biopiracy, dependence, pesticides, and control beyond the wildest imaginings of any Grand Inquisitor [see the caption under the painting of Fyodor Dostoyevsky]. It also is a world losing vibrant rural communities, cultural diversity, biological diversity, and democracy — one shaped by ‘monocultures of the mind’ warped by the ideology of brute force applied to genes, plants, animals, recalcitrant rural communities, and independent thinkers, like Vandana Shiva. Under the flag of feeding the world and armed with technology that can manipulate down to the fine grain of life, Gates and others are enclosing the final commons. That is a fight we must not lose.

In sum, we are kin to all that ever was, is, and ever will be. Vandana Shiva captures this ancient truth with an invocation: ‘We are the land. We are the soil. We are biodiversity. We are one Earth family deriving our common humanity and identity from the land and Earth as earthlings, sharing our common sustenance for life, breath, food and water through community and mutuality.’ Amen. The crux of the problem, she writes elsewhere, is ‘the Eurocentric concept of property [that] views only capital investment as investment, and hence treats returns on capital investment as the only right that needs protection […] not labor, or care and nurturance.’

The battle, then, is ultimately one about politics, which is to say about power and greed — justice and fairness within and between generations and species. It began long ago in the enclosure of common lands, forests, and waters and morphed into the enclosure of everything that could be fenced off to exclude common use, common decency, common justice, and a common future. As Shoshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, it is ultimately a struggle to protect ‘a peoples’ inalienable right to rule themselves.’”

In the margins

“Capitalism is the system that we live under, so that’s the system I’m looking at. And for all its economic achievements and scientific breakthroughs — which are very unevenly distributed, with a lot of inequality, which itself is a source of illness — it’s a system that’s based on fundamental assumptions. One is that the profit of the few is for the benefit of the many. That’s not how it is showing up. Also, that people are individualistic and competitive. That’s not our nature as human beings. In fact, from an evolutionary point of view, had we been individualistic and competitive, we never would have evolved. We evolved as communal creatures in close contact with each other, with a lot of mutual support. Now, if you develop a system that’s based on the opposite perspective — because that’s the nature of this system — then you’re running roughshod over human needs. And so to understand what’s happening on an individual level, you really have to look at what’s happening on a macro level. And this trauma shows up, not only in the personalized, but of course in politics and other areas of our culture. So we really have to look at the larger picture, and not just think that illness is somehow an individual aberration. It’s really a manifestation of a system that is a toxic culture.”

From: For a Healthier Society, Ditch the Myth of Normal (an interview with Gabor Maté on how our toxic culture is making us ill), by Travis Lupick (YES! Magazine)

“Reflecting the humanism of his age, [Pieter Brueghel the Elder] underlined what is shared, what binds us together. At times, he used quasi-godly powers to heave unexpected geological features into view and grant the flattest corner of Europe its own impressive massif. But these are the very tricks that belie the provincial elements of his imagery. While Bruegel relished the homegrown and, at times, the insular, he applied his daily observations to wider ends. And the meticulous credibility of his paintings thereby becomes universal, showing both what was immovable in the cycle and what had already begun to shift, thanks to the vicissitudes of the Little Ice Age.”

“Preceding Kant and his successors by generations, to say nothing of our own climate emergency, Bruegel reconciled the local and the global. Rejoicing in the former, he embraced the latter to find common ground rather than raising barriers. However familiar his images may be, Bruegel remains defiantly counter-cultural. As W.H. Auden wrote in 1938, looking at one of the artist’s paintings, while preparing himself for seismic change, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.’

Perhaps our political leaders should go to a gallery once in a while.”

From: Bruegel had a Worldview, by Gavin Plumley (Engelsberg Ideas)

From: Investigators, Citing Looting, Have Seized 27 Antiquities From the Met, by Tom Mashberg and Graham Bowley (The New York Times)

“It strikes me too, […] that in our age of digital connectivity which gives us all the ability to learn virtually, to travel without leaving the house and to find out about other parts of the world for the love of knowledge, that perhaps we should all be more adventurous too — and follow al-Bakrī’s lead in indulging our curiosities about other parts of the world that we don’t spend enough time think about. So there: an Andalusian Arabic writer a thousand years ago who is a model for our times.” — Peter Frankopan in The Sahara by armchair

Post scriptum will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course.

If you want to know more about my work as an executive coach and leadership facilitator, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings, follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought