Brave New Corona World – A heated Debate between Steven Pinker and Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley: Did I not make sufficiently clear what I think about principled optimists and ideological perfectionism when I wrote a masterpiece of world literature on the subject? Don’t believe that a man of the mind ever takes leave of thinking and simply retires. Instead I’m anxiously following what you’re doing down there – and certainly that gives me no rest. Coronavirus is only one among many threatening forebodings. Homo sapiens insapientissimus seems to do everything in his power in order to put himself on the red list of species without a future. And you don’t even know what you are doing! *0*

Steven Pinker: Here you go, I don’t talk to the dead; you’ve had your time, now the living are calling the shots. What you delivered in your great masterpiece was after all nothing but poetry, that is to say nothing but fantasy. But I can prove – figures at hand – that almost everything is much better today than it has ever been in the past. People live longer, they kill themselves less, they eat better, they have fewer illnesses than ever before – even though their numbers have increased sevenfold during the last two hundred years. *1* What better proof is there to reduce all your objections to absurdity – together with those of all other naysayers and prophets of doom, both living and dead?

Huxley: Oh certainly, I can provide the proof. It is being delivered to us right now. While you make man believe that he is in paradise, pestilences are spreading at ever shorter intervals and with ever greater devastation. First among the animals. “Hundreds of thousands of closely packed animals waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse: ideal conditions for the mutation of microbes into deadly pathogens.”*2* The only way to combat the danger is to stuff those animals with antibiotics (which we then use to poison ourselves). Nevertheless, entire populations of pigs, cattle, chickens, geese etc. have to be culled, mauled, gassed and buried.

Pinker: So what? This is but a minor technical problem, which we successfully overcome. The sick is wiped out, the healthy remains, where is the problem?

Huxley: We will never eliminate the problem as long as the habitat for animals and humans is getting more and more cramped. Man himself will have increased his number tenfold within only three hundred years. The emergence of epidemic diseases such as cholera, plague, influenza, typhoid fever and smallpox requires a certain population density to allow effective transmission of germs. Hunter-gatherers were still spared this evil which for us has turned into a murderous danger. Up to the present day, Europe was regularly hit by epidemics. None was as deadly as the so-called Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. This epidemic, spread by soldiers in America and Europe through the H1N1 influenza virus, killed almost as many people in a single year as the Black Death killed in a whole century: between 50 and 100 million people, far more than the 40 million soldiers who fell victim to the First World War.

But compared to former times, the problem could become much worse. Today, not only Western affluent citizens are demanding more and more meat, but also China and soon Africa and the rest of humanity. And in order to satisfy this hunger for meat, we need an area for all farm animals together that is already as large as the entire African continent.*3*

In other words, industrialized husbandry created those very conditions which produce pestilences not only among animals but also in agriculture at large. Our monocultures among farm animals correspond to the monocultures among edible plants. These too are devastated by epidemics. Meanwhile, we are burdening the agriculturally used landscape with vast amounts of poison – each year with new and stronger ones to save the harvests from hosts of constantly mutating plagues. Where once poets and thinkers sang the praises of nature in romantic verses, we are now confronted with disgusting stench. Who will still be happy let alone be poetically inspired when walking through vineyards or orchards freshly sprayed with pesticides? Ours are landscapes where the devil lets pop his bestial farts.

Pinker: Oh yes, I can see, Aldous, you are a grumpy spoilsport. Instead of shuddering in awe at the great achievements of man’s overpowering mind that led us down to the atom and the genome of living species and up to the galaxies, you criticize what is nothing more than children’s diseases, which of course always existed and will certainly still exist in the future. But I assure you, at some point our phytosanitary experts will invent odorless poisons and then your sensitive romantics and poets will go back to the vineyards to adorn the grapes with their verses. As to the wine, you continue drinking it anyway; I don’t know any sober poets. I tell you, we scientists have so far overcome all difficulties.

Huxley: No, that is definitely not true. So drunk you are with your own mind and Faustian endeavors that you are simply blind to all forebodings, though they be close enough. We are no longer speaking about animals only, it is about us, it is about people that we must worry. Our exploding numbers ensure that mass animal husbandry now goes along with mass human husbandry. In the large concrete heaps, we call metropolises, our species lives similarly confined as the animals we feed upon. What we do to other species, we end up doing to ourselves. To be sure, the Corona crisis has not led to mass slaughter among humans, but we lock ourselves up in multistoried sardine tins for weeks or even months, just to avoid contaminating each other through mutual contact.

Pinker: What’s the point of whining? In the end, we will invent a vaccine – and that’s the end of our problems..

Huxley: We will certainly invent a vaccine, perhaps even odorless poisons. But that only means that we will be forced to search for antidotes at an ever faster pace just to repair all those damages we have caused in the first place. From the era of progressive society, meant to improve people’s lives, we stumbled into the era of risk society during the last century, careful not to let a nuclear power station become an atomic bomb (Chernobyl or Fukushima). In the 21st century, however, we entered the era of repair society, where we are mainly concerned with containing damage. I mean the damage we have caused to the air (CO2), to the soil (destruction of humus) and to the water (plastic waste) over during hundred years of industrialization.

But that’s a race against time, which is becoming more and more complex and expensive. As world population has grown larger and larger, wanting to be fed better and better, we need more and more energy just to satisfy our basic physical needs. Today we realize that the so-called industrial revolution is above all an energy revolution. We can no longer close our eyes to the evidence that we ruthlessly plundered the planet’s energy reserves stored in the ground over millions of years – and that we still do so today. This plundering of scarce resources explains why both have grown exponentially within just two hundred years: energy consumption as well as the material standard of living measured in terms of GNP.

Energy consumption: In 1800, it amounted to about 400 million tons of oil equivalents. A hundred years later it was already 1.9 billion tons, almost five times as much. In the next ninety years, until 1990, consumption increased by a factor of sixteen to 30 billion tons (McNeill).

GNP: While global GNP – converted into US dollars in 1990 – was still around 650 billion around 1800, it had tripled to 1.98 trillion by 1900. With 28 trillion around 1990, this amount had grown fourteenfold in less than a century (Maddison).

The connection between the two exponential curves is obvious. Of course, coal and oil would never have had an effect without the invention of the steam engine, diesel and electric motor. But conversely, these machines were able to begin their triumphal march solely because mankind had by now ignited the fossil fire. The industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels form an indissoluble unity. It’s only because we plundered the planet without any restraint that we are doing so well today.

Pinker: Right. Today we are doing better than ever before in all human history. I have proven this point in my groundbreaking book “Enlightenment Now” with reference to quite a number of indicators.

Huxley: Certainly, the book is one single hymn to the spirit of invention, but the dark flipside of the coin is unfortunately left out altogether. Any objective observer will understand that our experiment with the energy reserves hidden underneath the earth’s mantle will prove to be a flash in the pan. After just three hundred years, the reserves are already running out – and worse still, the residues from combustion (CO2) are heating up the globe in such a way that the rising tides of the oceans threaten us with submerging most coastal cities thus transforming millions of people into refugees. We already passed the peak of the Gaussian normal distribution of early rise and later fall. Even if our reserves were unlimited, we can no longer use them because the fossil fire leads to climate change. Our wealth is so closely linked to fossil combustion that one can only marvel at how optimists still have the upper hand in most governments and even among economists – optimists who cling with strange naivety to the myth of eternal growth.

Whether we want to admit it or not, growth will be over as soon as our supply of fossil gold is exhausted. Perhaps we will then even be pushed back into the poverty of earlier eras. This is a view openly expressed by the collective of scientists led by Ugo Bardi.*4* In any case, we are facing a way of life in which we will have to make do with the amount of energy that the sun provides for our territory. It is obvious that the discovery of fossil fuels – that is, the solar energy stored in coal and oil over millions of years – allows us to consume far more than the current solar radiation. “It is possible to calculate that at the peak of national coal production in the 1920s, coal was produced in England in such large quantities that it generated almost the same amount of heat as would have been produced by burning down the entire global forest” (Bardi, my italics).*5*

Pinker: How similar you Cassandra’s are! Your true and only trademark is lack of imagination. Maybe oil and gas will one day come to an end – of course they will -, and maybe we will not be able to use the methane abundantly found on the ocean’s seabed because we want to shield the globe from further CO2 emissions. But then fusion energy will come to our aid and provide us with a cornucopia of energy. Don’t you see, dear colleague, that we are the only species on earth, and perhaps in the whole cosmos, that has so far been able to give unlimited scope to the mind finding the right technical answer to every problem? For me, this superior trait represents no less than the very definition of what makes us human: we are the problem-solving species par excellence.

Huxley: And I regret to have to contradict you once more. We are the problem-blind species, because we are very close to the abyss yet hardly anybody seems to notice or – perhaps more correctly – hardly anybody wants to notice. “Listen to the news, to elected politicians, to economic and political pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wild-fires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, human expansion into wild-lands, etc., etc., and there is no hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic.” *6*

Your vision of unlimited fusion power, dear Steven, would probably signal the final end of the human experiment. After all, energy is mainly used to convert substances. However, all the materials we need are now rapidly diminishing: copper, rare earths, phosphorus, even the sand needed for concrete. An unlimited supply of energy would only cause us to use up all the resources still left in one wild, orgiastic feast, so to speak – whereupon mankind then wakes up crowding naked on a barren planet. Although we need more and more energy to produce the food for those ten billion people expected during this century, we are quickly running out of the energy needed to do so – by the way, of green energy too. A research group around Jessica Lovering has calculated that we would have to cover with wind turbines and solar modules an area the size of the United States (including Alaska) together with the inhabited area of Canada and furthermore Central America if we want to produce the amount of energy projected for 2050.*7*

Pinker: Stop it! Such pessimism, Aldous, is a crime not only against the people living now but against future generations as well. It darkens the mind and paralyses the power of invention. The best proof that man’s story is one of unending success can be read from our numbers. We are born survivors. Whereas in the days of hunter-gatherers only hordes of at most a hundred people roamed the savannahs, cities with millions of inhabitants are now shooting out of the ground on all continents. Charles Darwin, undoubtedly the greatest scientist after Newton, gave us the right theory explaining this success already a century and a half ago. Whoever is better equipped in the life struggle will prevail, he will have the largest offspring and rule the globe.

Huxley: Sorry that I have to contradict you again. How can Darwin’s theory be correct, when counterevidence is so obvious? When putting all mammals on the scale, humans account for only 36% of total biomass. With a total of just 4%, elephants, tigers, seals, whales, etc. are practically extinct. An overwhelming mass of 60% is made up of cattle, pigs, chickens and the like. Obviously, these represent by far the most successful species – I can’t see how this fact can be reconciled with Darwin’s theory other than by auxiliary constructions. Man and the animals he devours have multiplied like locusts and lemmings within only two hundred years. But we should know what fate regularly befalls such a population explosion – population collapse. Darwin or not, I do not see how this can be seen as a success.

Pinker: Oh, that’s what you’re getting at.  Nature will help itself – with wars, epidemics, famines, etc., so that in the end there will be a small group of people left who will then again go hunting and gathering, as they did ten thousand years ago. That’s the same old tune I do no longer want to hear. To tell you the truth right to your face. I was always advocating freedom and condemning censorship, but such spoilsports and defeatists like you should simply be forbidden to open their mouth.

Sorry for that, but a small thought experiment would suffice to show you how harmless our current situation really is. If we were to accommodate all seven billion people in your dwarf state of Austria, then there would still be 12m2 for every single inhabitant, that is six by two meters – more space than granted by most prisons where quite a few of our contemporaries have to spend their entire life. So, there can be no question of overpopulation. What bothers me about your pessimism is that it is so mentally barren. If you consider it your task to critically question every achievement of our great technical-scientific civilization, then please tell me how you would devise a better world. Mere criticism is a disease that does no good to anyone unless it is administered at the same time as a prescription for healing.

Huxley: I accept this objection. I am even in complete agreement with you, but I also demand that you understand the immense difficulty we are facing. The sudden proliferation of our species beyond the ecosystem’s biological carrying capacity is a misfortune for which there are endless examples in nature – all of them quite unfortunate. I already mentioned lemmings and locusts, but among bacteria and viruses, exponential-explosive reproduction is the norm. And it is a norm too that nature solves the problem in quite a brutal way: it lets the surplus perish. We humans never rebelled against this cruelty as long as it merely affected other species. Then it seemed even quite “natural”. But now, it is we ourselves with almost ten billion individuals that face an ecosystem that can no longer cope with this burden. “Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth.  We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards.”*8*

Yes, we are much better off materially than all of humanity before our time – you are absolutely right insisting on this point. But as soon as we realize that our success is due to the fact that we stripped the planet like locusts, the picture looks completely different. Only we, the ones you revile as naysayers and Cassandras, point out the danger. We say as loudly as we can that in the beginning 21st century humanity must do everything in its capacity to prevent nature from taking revenge on us by treating us in the same way as locusts and lemmings. Or to prevent nature from making ourselves its executors as we destroy each other with wars for the sake of the last remaining resources. “There are no exceptions to the 1st law of plague dynamics:  the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse. “*9* 

Pinker: All right, let’s get to the main topic. Tell me now what you think the world should look like. I assume you either want to lead us back to stone age frugality or to radically reduce our number, as nature does with locusts. That’s what your prescription boils down to.

Huxley: I am surprised by the ease with which you compare humans with locusts, although you see reason, gained through enlightenment, as a characteristic that distinguishes us from other living beings. I guess you know that lots of scientific studies unequivocally prove that the present Western standard of living can only be maintained quite a short time for a population of almost ten billion people. Our energetic flash of the pan will probably be extinguished before the end of this century. If we want to avoid this collapse and create a sustainable world, we will only achieve this goal in two ways: either we reduce our consumption of nature to about one fifth of its actual amount, or only two billion people will be allowed to enjoy the current Western standard of living.

Pinker: Bravo, I already knew that’s what it boils down to. Either radical renunciation, where we all lead an existence of beggars, or five of the existing seven billion people are simply declared superfluous. Maybe you’ll dispose of them on Mars?

Huxley: Please, put mockery aside for a moment. It’s nothing but the usual flight reflex when we are confronted with an existential threat. I guess you’re thinking of the disastrous book by Ilija Trojanow “Der Überflüssige Mensch” (Superfluous Man). But no one who advocates a sensible population policy – Bertrand Russell himself had already done so more than half a century ago – has even for a moment thought of misunderstanding it in the sense of declaring any part of people already living to be superfluous. Such an absurd (and criminal) idea can only arise in the heads of demagogues. The point is to work towards the goal of sustainable population size by limiting the birth rate, as already practiced with considerable success in China. With its falling birth rate, Europe too provides a praiseworthy example.

Pinker: Oh really? And why do companies, politicians and pensioners continue to complain about a lack of workers and even of money to pay their pensions? And why do European nations let foreigners from all over the world stream across their borders in Order to compensate for shrinking population numbers? In Europe, no one seems to be happy about what you call a praiseworthy example. Instead everyone seems to see demographic decline as a national disaster.

Huxley: True, unfortunately, I have to agree with you. Leading scientists leave no doubt that a radical restriction of births is the only sensible policy if we want to escape ecological catastrophe. Everything: the overfishing of oceans and their rapid pollution with plastic, the poisoning of the atmosphere with CO2, the imminent depletion of energy reserves, the increasing threat of all kinds of epidemics in a totally overcrowded world – all this can only be overcome if a consistent population policy succeeds in reducing the birth rate to a fraction within this century. However, instead of presenting the Chinese and European examples as the best solution to what is currently the biggest problem facing humanity, we complain about dwindling pensions. Instead of recommending a radically different policy to the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the birth surplus is thwarting all sustainability, and supporting all efforts to this effect, we are opening up our borders, thus encouraging these countries to stick to their existing population policies.

Pinker: Do I understand you correctly that we should close our borders? Beware, dear colleague, of mutating into an inhuman, brutal national egoist who lets others die on the other side of the border rather than allowing foreigners into his country.

Huxley: I admit that you are touching a sore point – and one that is extremely problematic and controversial. Let’s leave migration aside for a moment and look at the same problem from a different point of view. Then we may perhaps find more easily common ground.

Let’s take waste production, for example. It seems obvious to me that, in future, every state will have to dispose of it exclusively by itself. More and more foreign countries (once treated superciliously as the “Third World”) are now refusing to poison their own territory with Western garbage. This trend should be welcome. Only by being forced to deal with the problem ourselves do we find strategies for waste avoidance. The responsibility for one’s own actions must again lie with the actor himself, whether individual, company or state. But what is true for waste should apply to industrial production as well. The Corona crisis has shown that, in an emergency, we should produce everything that is essential for life, if not in our own country then at least within the existing federations of states such as the European Union. We must not bring ourselves into existential dependence by relying on a workbench on the other side of the world.*10* In an ideal world, as described by orthodox economics, completely free trade would bring the greatest benefit to all people, that is true, but so far we never lived in a similar world, and we will only achieve it under a future world government.

Yes, and this brings me to point three. Every country (or federation or Union) should only accommodate as many people as can live sustainably on its territory. This conclusion too seems to be inescapable.

Pinker: Quite interesting – and quite strange. Do you really know what you are saying? This is a program to reverse 150 years of globalization. You want to go back to the world as it was a thousand years ago, when China, India, Europe, Australia and America either knew nothing about each other or at least needed almost nothing from each other to satisfy their immediate material needs.

Huxley: If it were as simple as that! Didn’t I just remark that the world is facing what is perhaps the greatest challenge of all times? It belongs to the power of each of the three great powers that it may at any moment contaminate any point on earth with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in such a disastrous way that the entire human race will be affected. This globalization through the “progress” of weapons technology is irreversible. Even if, in the future, each state or confederation of states were to bear sole responsibility for its own territory and the people living within it, common survival would still depend on no one harming the other. But this can only be achieved through peace, cooperation and mutually binding treaties. In other words, current humanity will have to achieve two major feats at the same time: regionalization on the one hand, i.e. full responsibility within its own borders, and globalization on the other, because we are all passengers on the same boat that may easily capsize.

Pinker: That is again your usual exaggeration and panic mongering! In the times of the Thirty Years’ War, people believed that salvation could only be found in the right faith. In his great book “The God Delusion”, my dear friend Richard Dawkins has denounced the hopeless nonsense of all past and present religious fighters.  A century after thirty years of religious murder, the Enlightenment has for the first time exposed this madness. But then Karl Marx came and created a new delusion. Supposedly, the workers only had to own the machines used by them for production in order to make them happy. Soviet Russia has shown us that they did not become happier at all but were simply turned into beggars, when  compared with their rich counterparts in the US. Now the latest craze is that we ruin all previous progress for the sake of ecology.

Huxley: No, we don’t ruin progress, we only turn to the evidence. In the “Lucky Latitudes” located in the Old World in a strip of about 20 to 35 degrees north and in the New World between 15 degrees south to 20 degrees north, collecting yielded the best results. For a single calorie invested on the work of collecting, our distant ancestors ten thousand years ago gained fifty calories from the food thus collected.  Today, this balance has turned into the opposite: 22,000 calories are needed to produce 100g of beef with a calorie content of 270 calories. Instead of being rewarded for a single calorie of bodily exertion with fifty calories of food, we now put 81 calories into work to gain just one calorie of food. Most of the calories needed are obtained from fossil fuels that are used in tractors, fertilizers, etc. – a devastating energy balance. Every thinking person must understand that things cannot go on like this. The Green Revolution quadrupled the harvest yield between 1950 and 2000; only in this way was it at all possible to largely feed the number of people, which jumped from about 1.5 to six billion during this period. If instead the old methods would have remained in place, so that the agricultural yield had not been increased, then an area equivalent to the entire surface of the United States plus Canada and China would have had to be cleared and ploughed up to feed today’s world population.*11*

However, the willingness to draw the right conclusions from these facts has so far been demonstrated by only a handful of scientists. For it is at this point that something quite different comes into play. The elementary problem of ecology turns into a social question – one could also say a question of consciousness. As long as a minority wallows in power and wealth, the majority will not want to accept any loss. Seen in this light, Marx was indeed perfectly right.

Pinker: No, even this argument is far too simple. As long as the superpowers remain suspicious of each other, neither of them will want to give up the slightest advantage if it benefits the competitor. It’s a great naivety to think that while the superpowers invest billions in weapons just to keep up with their rivals, they will voluntarily cut back on their use of resources just because they listen to the siren sounds of ecologists. It’s here, my dear colleague, where all your hopeless idealism is suddenly revealed.

Let me suggest a little more realism. Mankind has developed something much more effective and thoroughly democratic than the voluntary cutting back of resources and waste production. And you should know that as well as everybody else. We have got the market, which does not show any consideration even for governments. The market controls all economic transactions through prices. That’s why we have nothing to fear for the environment. If oil becomes too expensive or the disposal of waste no longer affordable, the industry will switch to other forms of energy. Market and prices – that is global reason embodied in a global institution, which tames and regulates itself. As long as the market is intact, we have nothing to fear!

Huxley: Steven, now you are making me laugh! You call me an idealist when you yourself are nothing but a conservative dreamer. Do the melting glaciers have a price? Will wild animals dying out all over the world ever be included in market calculations? Does industry measure CO2 content in the atmosphere in order to add the cost of climate change to its prices? Has inequality that made some people multi-billionaires and others starving ever unsettled the market?

No, it is not the market that saves the world, but strong governments that consider the interests of both present and future generations. Our current misfortune could, however, prove to be helpful. As long as the world market, i.e. international competition, sets the tone, regionalization is out of the question. But now the major economic blocs have to think about themselves. This could turn out to be a huge opportunity. Before the onslaught of corona, many people were complaining about the fact that the environment cannot cope with the ever growing air traffic. Now the air industry has collapsed. Corona does almost everything that the saviors of the environment have been preaching and demanding for years. The virus has significantly reduced energy consumption, exhaust gases were reduced to a minimum because traffic came to a standstill, the sky over the cities has turned blue again, in sheer amazement some animals venture out of their hiding places. Corona forces the world to change.

Pinker: That sounds as if you ecologists had been longing for such a crisis.

Huxley: If without a smaller crisis it is not possible to save the world from the great catastrophe, then this question should be answered in the affirmative, because it is a fact that humans learn best from their mistakes. Incidentally, international cooperation in the fight against Corona is the obvious proof of the salutary aspect of globalization. The common misfortune could become a common opportunity.

Pinker: This won’t do. Man needs hope and a positive narrative. With my groundbreaking book on the Enlightenment, I succeeded in conveying precisely that kind of hope. We should be proud of everything we have achieved in science and technology. But you are taking hope away from the people.

Huxley: Is there a greater hope than a world whose beauty we preserve for ourselves and future generations? Has it never occurred to you that a peacock, a hippopotamus or a lion are greater and far more complex inventions than even our fastest supercomputers? It is this world of incredible beauty and complexity that we want to preserve. I know of no greater positive narrative than this common task.

.

*0* Arguably an even more convincing partner in this dispute with Steven Pinker would have been the former German psychiatrist and neurologist Hoimar v. Ditfurth, who is, however, little known outside Germany. The title of his book (published already in 1985!) “So lasst uns denn ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen – Es ist soweit” (let’s plant an apple tree – it’s time) alludes to what Luther would have done if the world were to perish. The book provides not only a detailed description of mankind’s likely self-extermination through nuclear, biological and chemical weapons but also identifies the main reason for the predicament of our species: exponential growth of world population. For one thing only would I blame this extraordinarily well-informed, intelligent and sympathetic man. He saw no way out of mankind’s predicament and equated his own demise – which took place four years after the publication of the book – with the end of the world.

*1* Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now.

*2*  Des centaines de milliers de bêtes entassées les unes sur les autres en attendant d’être conduites à l’abattoir : voilà des conditions idéales pour que les microbes se muent en agents pathogènes mortels. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*3*  Pour assouvir son appétit carnivore, l’homme a rasé une surface équivalant à celle du continent africain (8) afin de nourrir et d’élever des bêtes destinées à l’abattage. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*4* Bardi (2014): “Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet”, Chelsea Green Publishing 2014,

*5* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

*6* William E. Rees (2020): The Earth Is Telling Us We Must Rethink Our Growth Society (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/04/06/The-Earth-Is-Telling-Us-We-Must-Rethink-Our-Growth-Society/).

*7* Quoted from Jenner (2019), Reflections.

*8* William E. Rees, op. cit.

*9* Rees, op cit.: Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just two hundred years, (less than 1/1000thas much time) we blossomed to over seven billion at the beginning of this century.  This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.) 

The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, a human Petri dish on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in gross world product (consumption), is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence.

*10* This imperative I had already advocated in my first book on economics: “Die arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (S. Fischer 1997; now newly published by Amazon “Nach der Coronakrise – keine Arbeitslosigkeit durch Auslagerung und Automation”).

*11* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

Socrates versus Minsky – can Artificial Intelligence replace the Human Brain?

Socrates

Let’s get away from the disturbing problems of the present, in order to turn back to those much more basic and lasting ones which concern the nature of man. Mr. Marvin Minsky, you were the leading authority on Artificial Intelligence, glad to meet you in paradise!

Minsky

Oh, it’s you the philosopher? But let me tell you, we no longer need to philosophize about man in order to explore his true nature. For the first time in history, the exact sciences provide us with the means to use numbers and irrefutable proofs to make our statements irrefutable. What the natural sciences have achieved within the short lapse of merely three hundred years, namely making outward reality calculable so that we can master it, has now become possible with regard to man himself. Let me stress my point: for the first time in history.

Socrates

In other words, you don’t need philosophers anymore. We are mere dreamers, who created all sorts of fables and myths about man. But now you come with your measuring instruments, and in the end you will set up a handful of equations that will allow you to predict human thoughts and actions for the next fourteen days – just as you can now predict the weather for a fortnight and the orbit of Jupiter even for the coming millennia.

Minsky

Right, but I have no qualms in praising your past achievements. The conversations that someone like you used to have with clever young men in ancient Athens, oh, I quite loved to read that as a student. So much poetry and enthusiasm, really impressive! But let us be honest, your division of the state according to teaching, military and nutritional status had no practical consequences. Your most brilliant student Plato remained without political influence all his life; Syracuse’s infamous dictator did not even think of taking over his system but almost turned him into a slave for the rest of his life. You philosophers have provided the world with narratives, but your practical effect has been nil because it was not based on science. That is why the likes of you are now disappearing even from universities, while the natural sciences are booming.

Socrates

This makes you probably think that you will soon be able to describe human thinking and behavior so well that you can plan a community on the drawing board. Everything will then be as reliable and predictable as in a termite state? I am reminded of Watson and Skinner, the founders of Behaviorism, who proclaimed this sad utopia a century ago.

Minsky

That is your private quite malicious wording, because you want to suggest that freedom would be absent from such a state. But freedom is an illusion, as you should know. As long as man acts according to laws, there can be no freedom, but if instead he is not ruled by laws, then he is subject to blind and meaningless chance. Do you want to call that by the name of freedom? Your reference to a termite state is therefore nothing but misleading nonsense. Man has never been free, even if it is that what he imagines himself to be. Human scientists are merely demonstrating this lack of freedom by showing that it is quite obvious in artificial intelligence and in robots.

Socrates

I admit, you’ve done a lot of great things.

I Artificial man proves that we are on the right path to completely decipher his natural counterpart

Minsky

Indeed, that really deserves admiration. Our practical successes provide no less than conclusive proof that we are on the verge of completely decoding the human being. Our largest calculating machines carry out tasks within seconds that normal human beings have not been able to solve even in thousands of years. Our chess robots, equipped with artificial intelligence, now beat every human player, our robot doctors provide better diagnoses than professors with university degrees, our AI-equipped artificial lawyers have more knowledge and therefore more competence than any natural expert, our control systems in airplanes make pilots of flesh and blood superfluous  – and reduce the frequency of accidents to that minimum that will always be caused by defective technology (as in humans as well, for instance, by heart failure). Cars controlled by Artificial Intelligence soon will allow fluent traffic, which in addition will be nearby accident-free.

Socrates

If I understand you correctly, your goal is to replace the fallible, comparatively dull human being so limited in his knowledge with his perfect counterpart, namely an artificial brain in an artificial robot – both considered far superior in every respect.

Minsky

That’s right, and we have already progressed so far along this path that most of the professions that still exist today will no longer be needed in a few years’ time. Already now, pilots have become an expendable luxury, the drivers of trucks, busses and taxis will soon be dismissed as well. In diagnostics, doctors are already largely superfluous, only in therapy they still play a certain role, but robots will prove to be much better surgeons. Interpreters are hardly needed any more, as translation machines are now doing an excellent job. I confess that despite all the progress we can be very proud of, I am afraid that this might cause problems as so many people will lose their jobs.

Socrates

I agree that this could indeed turn out to be a tremendous problem. But it seems much more interesting to me to pursue a more fundamental question. Is your optimism at all justified that you will soon be able to completely decipher human beings and replace them with artificial superhumans?

I want to choose this topic because I don’t just think your thesis is exaggerated, as if you simply needed a little more time for further research. No, I think it is basically and demonstrably wrong. More than that, I consider it to be a great and dangerous illusion – despite all the undeniable practical successes that you already achieved and will undoubtedly still achieve in the future.

Minsky

Really? There speaks the philosopher opposing empirical knowledge with lofty speculation. But I will certainly not follow you on that path. The fact is that we are already very close to our goal of replacing natural man with his artificial substitute. We just don’t yet know which of two ways will allow us to reach it within the shortest possible time. Some want to make the elementary rules of logic the basis of artificial intelligence, i.e. to start from a few basic relationships and refine them more and more until we will not only imitate and perfect all natural operations of the human brain, but also carry them out much faster and more comprehensively (logic-based symbolic processing).

Others want to take a more pragmatic approach, combining all sorts of tried and tested problem-solving methods (deep learning). But in the end, our goal always remains the same. In the end, we will have created superhumans, who will not only perform all possible mental operations like any arbitrarily chosen person out of a world population of 10 billion, but who possesses much greater abilities, since his knowledge and his ability to react are capable of almost limitless extension.

Socrates

You want to say that you will be able to correctly predict what this artificial being thinks and how he acts?

Minsky

Of course. That is the final point and purpose of our research. Since it is us scientists who created this superhuman, we are of course able to predict his possible thought processes and actions. You will admit that this is a breakthrough of historic dimensions. So far science successfully managed to dominate inanimate nature, only man seemed to elude our efforts. Man remained unpredictable. The superhuman, whom we are equipping with artificial intelligence will change all this. He will be completely predictable, since he is ruled by the program we made for him. Given that his artificial brain largely surpasses the faculties of any natural human being, we will, of course, have no difficulty at all in decoding the latter even more easily. To be sure: Behaviorists like Watson and Skinner had already suggested the right direction. But now we are equipped with the required technical means to actually create fully computable and programmable human beings.

Socrates

You think that in the future you will succeed in predicting human thoughts and actions? I understand what you mean. If artificial superhumans are predictable, then this should apply even more to the two of us, who in comparison have only quite modest brain structures.

Minsky

Exactly! We must finally get rid of the absurd assumption that science may well calculate and dominate external nature, but remains helpless with regard to man as if the latter were not part of nature as well. That is nothing but a stupid, unscientific prejudice. After all, we humans belong to nature and are therefore at the mercy of all its laws. If we can predict and dominate the processes of outward nature, then it must be possible as well to predict and dominate the processes of our brain. Let me tell you: it can only be a matter of time before science deciphers my and your brain and knows what we will think tomorrow or in a week’s time.

Socrates

And I insist that any critical scientist must reject the thesis of the complete calculability of man and nature if he wants to remain a scientist, or in other words, that he can no longer be called a serious scientist if he accepts such a thesis.

II Robots cannot perform experiments

Minsky

I am aware that philosophers tend to surprise normal human beings. You will have to explain  this statement to a layman like myself.

Socrates

It’s not as hard as you might think. It is well known that the empirical sciences conduct experiments in order to test their theoretical statements. I ask you: don’t they take for granted that experiments can be conducted at any time, in any place, and in any size and complexity? In other words, don’t scientists assume that they can arbitrarily bring about real processes at any time by their own volition?

Minsky

That’s right, that’s the way how experiments proceed.

Socrates

But if it is due to the will of human beings that an experiment should take place, then you will agree that its occurrence at that moment and in that particular place (e.g. in a laboratory) cannot be determined by the history of the universe or its overall state? We must even claim that, with regard to the latter, it is entirely coincidental, since it owes its occurrence solely to the will of some definite scientist?

Minsky

I guess that’s right.

Socrates

I am happy that we both are agreed on the matter, because from Laplace to Bertrand Russell, a completely different view has been taken for granted throughout the history of modern thought. French mathematician Laplace expressed this view in classical form to Napoleon: “An intellect, which, at a certain moment, would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.“

You see that according to this view, there can be no events that cannot be derived from any preceding stage of the universe. A perfect intelligence should even be able to deduce the whole future from its current state. If you really think that further research on robots with artificial intelligence will soon allow us to predict human thoughts and actions, then you adhere to this thesis – consciously or not.

Minsky

Wait a minute, you have to be a little bit more specific.

III An irresolvable logical contradiction!

Socrates

Yes, of course, I am ready to describe your Brave New World somewhat more in detail. As of now we are already sitting in planes that are steered automatically and tomorrow we will be sitting in cars that reach their destination without human help, but at least we still have the choice of directing the car to self-determined destinations, for example to Bonn or Rome. But your artificial superhuman will no longer have this choice, because you predict his behavior just like a lunar eclipse. According to Laplace and your own conviction he has as little freedom as that vanishing moon and the whole of inanimate nature. You are convinced that the scientists of tomorrow will not merely know the laws governing planes and cars, but those laws as well that govern the brains of the people using them. In this way you will be able to predict the future behavior of both.

Yes, and here you suddenly fall into a logical trap – I mean into perfect self-contradiction.

Minsky

Oh, fine. Where do you think you find it?

Socrates

It is found within the scientist himself, who at the same time turns into the subject and the object of prediction. For he should be able to foresee what he himself will think in the future. With your chess players, with your robot doctors, with your lawyers equipped with artificial intelligence this has become true already now, because you have programmed their thoughts and behavior. So, you know exactly how they must react. But since you claim that these artificial beings embody the essence of man in a perfect way, your reasoning applies doubly to ourselves, those imperfect natural human beings. Which means, that the researcher claims that at some point he will muster the intelligence of Laplace to predict not only his own later behavior but even all the future results of his research.

Minsky

That is true, but it will of course take years, perhaps decades, before research actually gets to this stage. That’s why it makes little sense to talk about it now.

Socrates

No, on the contrary, we should assume that your goal has already been achieved, only then can we talk about its inevitable logical consequences – I mean its self-contradiction.

Minsky

I know what you’re going to say. If I could predict exactly what I will do tomorrow, I will certainly not do it anymore, because all the attraction of novelty is lost since I would, of course, also know my future feelings and sensations. Life would become completely superfluous, for I would be nothing more than a machine without any drive of its own. 

But you are making a serious mistake. We can’t reject Laplace’s deterministic view just because we don’t like it.

Socrates

No, we must reject it because it is manifestly wrong. The freedom of man and nature is proven by scientific experiments. These conform to the laws of nature but cannot be derived from them as they owe their existence exclusively to human volition. Without the latter these events would not exist – not in this particular place at this particular time with these particular characteristics. A rocket flies to the moon according to laws that we have learned from nature, but the fact that it does so on Monday, June 23, does not obey any law of nature, but was decreed by the director of NASA or any other human agent.

Minsky

I admit that experiments presuppose an open reality where human will can intervene. But the evolution of nature takes place completely independently of our will. So, I see little use in choosing man-made experiments to explain reality.

Socrates

Objection! In fact, they are very useful for the purpose of demonstrating that we will never fully explain reality if we only consider laws and their deterministic effect.

Please look here: experiments are underivable from past stages of outward reality, but this applies to the evolution of nature as well. Our 83 primordial elements cannot be derived from the knowledge we gained of the primordial plasma at the initial state of the universe; they must only conform to those initial conditions. In their turn, molecules cannot be derived from primordial elements, they are merely subject to the laws that applied up to that point. And further: from the molecules of inorganic nature we cannot derive the later developed organic ones, although these remain subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Finally, from biology we cannot derive the mental sphere, although the latter too cannot disregard the laws of biological life.

Let me put the matter in a metaphorical garb: a cosmic experimenter could have thought up all this, just as earthly scientists think up experiments. Both are limited in the creation of new realities by the laws already existing, and yet they create something new at a certain time in a certain place.

This is why we must unequivocally reject the idea of Laplace and his many successors up to Bertrand Russell. We are the inhabitants of an open world where new realities constantly emerge, realities which cannot be deduced from existing laws even though they cannot transgress them. Every experimental scientist creates reality by the sheer force of his will.

IV Your artificial superhuman cannot act, he can only re-act

Minsky

Interesting, surprising and for me at first sight even worth considering, although you are contradicting a three hundred year old tradition, which, as you certainly know, has meanwhile been relativized by quantum physics. The latter accepts chance and the underivable new. But let me mention this fact in passing. To me it seems more important that you come back to our topic. What do experiments and the new in nature have to do with artificial intelligence and robots?

Socrates

That’s what you ask? But the connection is obvious! Didn’t you previously insist that man is part of nature? Of course, I fully agree with you. But this means that what applies to the latter must also apply to man. If new reality can be produced at any time within existing reality by way of experiment or any other kind of human action, then there must be such islands of newness in human thought as well. In other words, we have to assume that thoughts constantly pop up in our brains (and lead to actions) that we cannot derive from the past of our thinking or from its overall state. For this reason, we will never be able to derive future thinking from its present shape.

Minsky

All right, but supposing you were right with this statement, I still don’t see what significance this statement has for artificial humans. To put it bluntly, I don’t see how you can criticize our great project, the project of finally creating the perfect human being, the artificial superhuman, who has all the advantages of the natural man but without suffering from his shortcomings. What is wrong with this superb project?

Socrates

I’m not questioning this, your goal. I’m just saying you’ll never achieve it because you can’t. The artificial robot equipped with digital intelligence differs from its natural counterpart in that it can do no more than re-act to reality.

Certainly, in many areas it does infinitely better than its natural counterpart. That’s a lot, but that’s all. The chess robot reacts according to a programmed algorithm to every move by its opponent, the diagnostic robot evaluates the radiologist’s photos according to a built-in program. The flight pilot reacts with the greatest reliability to the totality of situations with which he was previously fed. But no artificial human being creates new realities – and this for a simple, logically compelling reason: programmers are incapable of deducing the new from the old, i.e. the unknown from the familiar. But man does exactly that: he creates the new. Just think of how, over the past two hundred years, he has succeeded in radically reshaping both his natural and social environments.

Minsky

No, I definitely contest your thesis that artificial intelligence can’t create things new. We have law and we have chance. Laws dictate the rules, but a random generator can very well imitate chance and be built into our artificial humans. The robot then not only reacts to external stimuli and conditions, but also acts like a natural human being by taking new, unpredictable actions. I maintain that we can imitate and probably even surpass human beings in this respect as well.

V Chance coexistent with laws

Socrates

Fine, this brings us to a key concept of our joint investigation: chance.

Minsky

Right, and this concept helps us to get rid of freedom, which objectively doesn’t exist as it represents no more than a somewhat gratifying illusion. Remember what I said before: as long as man acts according to laws, he cannot be free, but if he does not act according to laws, then he is ruled by chance – so, he can’t be free either. We, the scientists studying man, are now demonstrating by means of artificial intelligence and robots that we do not need freedom in order to explain human behavior. Using the random generator, we create chance artificially – that’s all we need.

Socrates

I know that’s what you think, but in reality you are wrong again. You are quite incapable of explaining let alone imitate human behavior.

Minsky

Why not? Are you going to deny that there are random generators?

Socrates

No, I’m not denying that at all, I just maintain that they don’t produce chance. First of all, the kind of chance they produce is radically limited from the outset. It would be genuine chance if, for instance, a billion dollars were suddenly to appear on my account or if a strong gust of wind carried me to the hammock in my garden. But, of course, that’s not what a random generator achieves. It can only produce sequences of numbers.

Minsky

But it certainly suffices that these are completely irregular.

Socrates

To be sure, this would be enough for the purpose of demonstration, but they cannot be random if scientists want to produce them systematically.

Minsky

That’s a claim I am hearing for the first time.

Socrates

Let me ask you. Can we use a rule to create something bereft of rules?

Minsky

Of course not.

Socrates

But that’s what happens when we program a generator to produce chance – all planning is inevitably based on rules.

Minsky

All right, I can see your point. No algorithm is capable of producing a sequence that does not obey any algorithm. That’s elementary logic. But you missed an important issue. We may, for example, plan the randomizing device in such a way that it looks through the window where there’s normal pedestrian traffic. Let a sensor measure the size of each passing pedestrian and multiply it by the number of seconds that elapsed since the last pedestrian appeared. Then we get real chance. Because nobody can imagine a law that determines the frequency, the different sizes and the time distance between pedestrians.

Or take another case. We know the half-life after which the amount of radiating radium will be reduced by fifty percent, but we do not know the point in time when a single alpha particle will be sent out. This moment is ruled by chance. Which means that we could likewise feed our random generator with these irregular occurrences in order to get a sequence of numbers that cannot be calculated by any algorithm.

Socrates

Quite true, but do you know what that means? You are asserting – and quite rightly so – that man is incapable of producing chance, he can only produce events obeying some rule. If he wants to produce or to imitate chance, he has to take it ready-made from nature.

VI Chance remains a pure, unintelligible secret. This applies to chance in non-human nature as well as in man.

Minsky

And what is it you’re trying to say that is so terrific? Isn’t this but a bunch of philosophical subtleties that won’t get us anywhere?

Socrates

On the contrary, this is a basic insight. It says that chance is a mystery to us. We understand only rules, we recognize only laws, but everything irregular, everything lawless remains terra incognita for human understanding.

Minsky

Right, and that is precisely why it is of no concern to science, and why science speaks of “blind and meaningless” chance removing it completely  from its mental horizon.

Socrates

But how can we call something blind and meaningless, if we fail to know what it is? And how do you want to build something into artificial intelligence and robots that is beyond our understanding? And last not least, how do you want to achieve the self-imposed goal of predicting human behavior when chance eludes predictability?

Minsky

I see your point. That’s not possible, of course.

Socrates

So, we are back to our starting point. Artificial human beings, i.e. AI-equipped robots, can never be congruent with natural ones, because, unlike the latter, they always follows definite rules or algorithms. As mentioned before, we cannot program them with algorithms that do not obey any algorithm. Therefore, they will always remain second hand imitations, which may greatly exceed the performance of natural humans in terms of special performance, but do not possess that characteristic endowment of true human beings and of nature as well, which consists in getting beyond rules (or laws). For both are dominated by chance and by laws to the same extent – and chance is by no means blind and meaningless. We simply don’t know what it is.

Minsky

This reasoning is hopelessly abstract and philosophical. An example, please!

Socrates

I already used an example. The laws of nature known to us determine the path a rocket will take from Earth to Mars. But the exact time of its launch depends on the will of a certain Mr. Meyer, on financial means available at the moment, the state of the art and last but not least even on weather conditions at the launch pad – and of course on a thousand other conditions, all of which cannot be calculated in advance. Chance and law are therefore equally involved in this specific event as in any other. Laws are only valid under certain conditions.

Minsky

But that does not exclude the possibility that science may in due time explain all reality, including the human being acting within it, according to laws!

Socrates

You are wrong. It is precisely this goal that science will never reach – not because of inadequate human knowledge, but in principle. We already stated that experiments as such constitute unpredictable interventions of human volition. We are thus forced to conclude that chance does not just exist alongside natural laws, but must be seen as a second dimension of reality, and a necessary one at that. For science presupposes experiments, that is, arbitrary interventions in nature. For this reason, nature cannot follow a deterministic course for in this case it would not permit such intervention. We cannot conceive natural laws without freedom (chance) and freedom (chance) without natural laws.

Minsky

Quod erat demonstrandum! Bravo! But now I would like to see that extraordinary experiment that will prove your thesis. Because otherwise all this will remain just theory – not to use the word speculation. And what’s more, I don’t like the fact that now you speak of freedom and chance as if they were interchangeable concepts.

Socrates

Sorry, I have to disappoint you as to such an experiment. Experiments can only confirm rules or prove that we were wrong when we tried to confirm them. But there is no conceivable experiment with which we could prove the existence of irregularity with regard to any specific event. Let’s turn back to the sequence of passing pedestrians in front of our window. There is no experiment to prove that we could not in the distant future arrive at an infinitely complex algorithm that faithfully describes such a sequence. Nor can there be any experiment that conclusively demonstrates that the decay of radium does not obey a rule still hidden from us today.

On the other hand, there is no conceivable experiment either with which we could prove the opposite, namely that all reality is deterministically dominated by laws, as Bertrand Russell still believed. It was precisely because such an experiment is impossible, that Karl Popper spoke of the principle of causation as a metaphysical assumption.

Minsky

Well, in this case you are only confirming what I stated before, namely that your thesis is based on mere speculation, because it cannot be corroborated by experimental science.

Socrates

No, you’re wrong this time again! For at this stage it is the philosopher who comes into his own, or any scientist who asks about the preconditions of human thinking. Earlier, we have seen that scientists get entangled in irresolvable contradictions when they negate freedom. Even if we speak of chance instead of freedom, we cannot conceive reality without it. But we will never know what freedom or chance “really” or “objectively” are, because then we would have transformed them into something regular that can be grasped by means of analysis. But we cannot reduce what is new and as yet unknown to something familiar.

Minsky

So, we must finally accept the verdict that freedom is nothing but chance, and therefore blind and meaningless?

Socrates

No, not at all, it’s just that in many cases we can’t give freedom a meaning that we understand – and in this case it becomes mere chance to human understanding. From the perspective of a distant observer of cosmic events, the arbitrary explosion of an atomic bomb is mere chance, as would be the bursting of a supernova. But from the perspective of scientists conducting such an experiment, it constitutes a meaningful event.

The evolution of the cosmos from primordial plasma to the human spirit appears to today’s science as being the result of an endless sequence of blind and meaningless chance. That is why the whole of nature including all living beings is often apostrophized as totally meaningless. But against this point of view the zoologist Rupert Riedl rightly asserts: “Would it not be utterly presumptuous if the tick wanted to imagine the blood vessels of a mammal, a dog the international drug scene or if we imagined the laws beyond the cosmos?

When speaking about chance we only describe the limits of our understanding, because we can attribute meaning only to purposeful actions. But human meaning manifests itself in ever new forms as “Creative Reason” is constantly creating new manifestations. Ultimately that is what history consists of: newly evolving meaning.

Obviously, meaning is not the same today as it was in the times of hunter-gatherers, nomads or early peasants. We cannot imitate these differences by equipping robots with a random generator – in this case they will either act according to the rules of yesterday or they simply act in a completely meaningless way. Artificial superhumans are condemned to be mere caricatures of natural ones.

*In this essay, I resume some of the conclusions arrived at in my book “Creative Reason – A Synthetic Philosophy of Freedom in Nature and Man (Homage to William James”. What is completely missing in this essay is, due to lack of space, the historical perspective, which occupies a large part of my book.

Huxley’s Brave New World revisited

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