Notes philosophy politics

Chapter 3: The Human Spark (Homo Deus)

Why do humans think they are superior to animals?

Is There a Human Spark?

Scientists have not found that humans or animals have souls, but scientists doubt the existence of souls not because of lack of evidence but because the idea of “soul” contradicts fundamental principles of evolution. This is why the theory of evolution is attacked so vehemently by Christians.

Almost half of Americans believe the Biblical creation story literally, as reported in a Gallup poll in 2012.

The theory of relativity or quantum mechanics, even though they do not appeal to our common sense, rarely makes anyone angry. But evolution challenges our notion of what it means to be an individual – and this even makes some secularists uncomfortable.

“Individual” literally translates to “what cannot be divided.” That is, our true self is a holistic entity, that cannot be divided. The belief further implies that while everything else changes – our brains and body – we will essentially remain the same person from birth until death and beyond.

But the only part of us that is unchanging is not a soul, but DNA, and the latter is a vehicle of mutation.

Why the Stock Exchange has no Consciousness

Another reason we think humans should be treated with more dignity than say, robots, is that we have consciousness. We know what it is like to feel certain things. But what about animals?

In the days of Descartes, people thought that animals did not experience anything.

Before discussing whether animals are conscious, let us examine what science knows about minds and consciousness in general.

In truth, science knows very little about mind and consciousness. One accepted idea is that electrochemical reactions in the brain create consciousness and that our mental experiences is a form of data processing. But no one can explain how the subjective experiences of anger or love emerge, as a result.

Perhaps consciousness is something that emerges after a system becomes large enough. The brain is very complex, there are over 80 billion neurons connected through intricate webs. The interaction of these neurons may create consciousness.

When one car moves, nothing happens, but when millions move at the same time, we get traffic jams. When traders buy and sell a few stocks, nothing out of the ordinary emerges, but when enough traders do so, it may lead to an economic crisis that no one can explain.

But this explanation does not explain anything, since a traffic jam can be understood by examining all of its component parts. If you follow each car, you will be able to understand why a traffic jam occurred. “Traffic Jam” is just a word we use as a shorthand for a complicated situation, but we cannot do the same with consciousness. “Anger” is not just a shorthand; it is a real subjective feeling that exists outside the realm of electrochemical reactions.

The more we try to map our brain, the more redundant the mind becomes. If nothing happens in the mind, that does not take place in the brain, then why do we need a mind? And if something does happen in the mind, that does not take place in the brain, where does it happen?  

Our ethical systems and legal systems are built on the presumption that minds exist – not so much that brains exist, we need agency.

The alternative is to view all the conscious experiences of living things as a form of mental pollution – and this is the best theory of consciousness that modern science can give us.

The Wrong Angle

Maybe the problem is that the life sciences see life is about data processing. In the same way that scientists used to think about brains and minds as steam engines, today’s scientists see them resembling computers.

Large Scale Cooperation

History has been kind to groups that cooperate well – this may be our greatest advantage over animals and robots. The story behind any successful revolution is effective cooperation. Rome conquered Greece not because they were better toolmakers or thinkers, but because they cooperated better.

The communists were successful at consolidating power at first through small numbers of highly organized people. They kept their grip on power until the late 1980’s.

In 1989, the communist dictator of Romania, Ceausescu, organised a mass demonstration of support in Bucharest. In the previous months, the Berlin Wall had fallen and support to Eastern European countries dissipated. The demonstration was an attempt to prove to the world, that he was still popular and feared, despite these developments.

This is what happened during his last speech.

But cooperation, no matter how successful, cannot determine individual worth. A beehive is more powerful than a butterfly, but is a bee superior to butterfly? Our worth as a species is a result of our cooperation, but why should this be enough reason to think of ourselves as superior to other species?

An inter-subjective reality is when people share a common belief. Most people derive meaning from their lives by reinforcing the beliefs of their tribes, but history shows us that these beliefs are always in flux – what is the most important thing for one generation will not matter to the next.

Read Homo Deus

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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