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Critical Thought, Logic, Reason

How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

run the fuck away

Mad science gone horribly, horribly wrong(or right).

Critical Thought, Logic, Reason

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The greatest evolutionary advantage that humans have been gifted with is the power of thought. We are an incredibly powerful computing device capable of doing the incredible- identifying patterns and making sense of a senseless Universe. We can trace the development of this intelligence through the process of evolution, starting with the very instant of biogenesis.

Biogenesis, the creation of life, is nothing more than a clever chemical reaction. A chemical reaction that creates a molecule capable of copying itself. This requires a degree of "intelligence"- after all, this molecule must be smart enough to recognize other organic molecules and use them as building blocks of its offspring- DNA, RNA, and their associated enzymes and proteins developed out of this basic replicator. Far along the evolutionary tree, these simple chemical reactions became cells- cells had the ability to use membranes to selectively filter chemicals, absorbing nutrients and so on. This again, is simple chemistry. Certain molecules pass through certain gates. Some of these cells developed actual behaviors- the start of instinct/tropism. The Euglena has a light-sensitive organelle that allows it to "navigate". Amoeba can respond to chemicals in the water triggering movement and a "food seeking" behavior.

Skip a few billion iterations of the evolutionary process and move to plants. A major plant behavior is phototropism- a simple series of chemical triggers cause growth and shrinkage of cells- the end result is that the plant moves (slowly) to maximize the surface area exposed to light. This is a pretty complex series of biochemical reactions that produces a very sophisticated behavior.

Skip again to the animal kingdom. Brains begin to develop providing a behavior repository- a computer that can do far more complex processing and handle far more complex behaviors. Swimming, for example, is simple in a unicellular organism but involves incredible coordination among thousands of cells in an animal. This computational repository is still fairly deterministic- given certain stimuli, certain behaviors can be predicted. "Instincts" require no understanding of the world. Most animals have mastered the "see-food" diet- they respond to stimuli in predictable, deterministic ways to stimuli. When confronted with unfamiliar stimuli, their reality-processing bioware attempts to find the most applicable response and use that. This, for example, allows me to trigger the hunting instincts in my cats with a laser pointer.

Some animals, mostly mammals and birds, have cognitive capacities that exceed even that. They have the capacity to not simply respond in complex and deterministic ways to stimuli, but to begin to draw inferences and connect those stimuli into cognitive models- they understand the world not as a collection of experiences but as a system that can behave predictably. This is the seed of intelligence. For example, when I first caught my cat Rochester as a stray, he was still fully functional genital-wise and wanted to go outside. Alot. Not only did he connect the door with the path to outside, but by observing us using the door, he connected the knob to the act of opening the door. When he discovered that he couldn't get a good grip on the knob, he began to move a table towards the door so that he could have better leverage. This is systematic problem solving. Observations are made, conclusions are drawn and behavior is modified. Instead of following scripted responses to stimuli new behaviors are developed. These behaviors undergo a process of selection based on which ones are effective at reaching a goal. This then, is the core of intelligence, and examples of it among animals are legion.

So what makes humans different? Humans, in my mind, have reached the "singularity" of intelligence. Our capacity to observe and invent behavior has allowed us to reflexively observe our behaviors and draw conclusions about our methods of behaving. We can make inferences not just about how the world works, but about how our minds work. We can make far more complex inferences. This is not to say that we are free of the relics of our evolution- we have instincts and programmed behaviors and non-rational responses to stimuli. Evolutionary legacy is painfully clear in human behavior.

The important thing, the thing that defines humanity, is our capacity to analyze and infer. That capacity allows the tool-using nature that permits civilization to occur. What makes us human is the ability of critical thought.

The point I'm making with this long prologue is that critical thought, analysis, logic, reason, etc. are the core of what makes us human. All humans possess that capacity. But "capacity" and "achievement" are very different things. All fully-functional humans possess the capacity to run- but vanishingly few (out of the total number) run marathons. And those that attempt it just can't decide to start running one day and complete a marathon. It takes training. The body has to be conditioned. Just because we have the capacity doesn't mean that we can assume that it will develop all by itself.

Running is a valuable skill, but critical thought is crucial to our humanity. Without it, we are something less than human. We all possess the capacity, but it is something that must be nurtured and refinements to it must be taught. For example, we all instinctively will recognize patterns of behavior. We rapidly learn, for example, that politicians are untrustworthy, and modify our behavior accordingly. When presented with unfamiliar situations we will (often) make reasonable decisions in response to them and (generally) survive the encounter. We call this having "common sense".

But throughout history, we have repeatedly learned that "common sense" is often wrong. "Common sense" tells us that the Earth is stationary, therefore it must be the Sun that moves. Common sense tells us that if I'm on a train traveling at the speed of light and I walk forward, I must be going faster than the speed of light.

Because common sense has failed us, we have recognized that failure and altered our behavior accordingly (the earmarks of intelligence!). Because our senses also deceive us, we have recognized that failure and modified our behavior. The end result is the Scientific Method.

This is an amazing crowing achievement in human thought. By recognizing the fallibility of humans, we created a system that is "controllably fallible". Because science is not infallible, not by any stretch. But science starts out by assuming error. In logic, we can supply "givens", apply logical rules to those givens and draw conclusions. But, according to the GIGO principle- if our givens are flawed, so will our conclusions be (but the argument is still logical- just wrong). So science doesn't allow any givens- the only given is that the Universe is knowable and behaves according to discoverable principles (which isn't much of a given, because if it's false, it becomes impossible to know anything and everything simply turns into solipsism and nihilism).

The scientific method is an incredible advancement that allows us to make sense out of the world and to improve our understanding as our tools and experience improve. The fact that we can honestly say that Newton was wrong about gravitation isn't to disparage his achievement- because he wasn't wrong exactly- just inaccurate. In most cases, his formulae work perfectly well- but in special cases they break down and Relativity takes over. We improve our understanding. Scientific theories are nothing more than approximations that work. The famous e=mc2 is a representation of an observed phenomenon; it is not a statement about reality, it is a statement about how reality works. As Carl Sagan said, Science isn't a collection of dry facts to be learned by rote, it is a way of thinking about the world.

We teach science wrong. We teach it as facts, and occasionally, we give the kids a whiz-bang "experiment" which isn't an experiment at all- a baking-soda/vinegar volcano isn't an experiment, it's a toy. Making a diorama of the layers of the Earth or a model of the solar system out of styrofoam balls isn't science education- it's handicrafts.

Scientific thinking is a skill, and it is a skill that can be taught. Like any skill however, it's easiest to learn if you start young. We need to give children the tools to think critically and rationally at a young age, and let them develop with those tools at hand. This is why I advocate teaching children to program as soon as they're able to read and write- because it teaches them to take a structured approach to thinking about the world. Planning, problem solving, critical and scientific thinking all depend on that. Children should be given the opportunity to put the scientific method to work for them as soon as they're capable of speech. They're going to ask "why" as soon as they're able because that curiosity is a hard-wired survival trait built out of our rational thinking apparatus. Instead of putting them off or spoon-feeding them answers (or worse, lies (I'm lookin' at you stork))- let's start giving them the opportunity to experiment. Instead of just showing them or having them play with vinegar and baking soda, let's actually do an experiment- what happens when I mix vinegar and flour? What about lemon juice and banking soda? What about water and baking soda? Why does the reaction happen sometimes, and not others? Let's make a guess, and find out if that guess is right!

  • I second a whole bunch of your thoughts.

    I got put off TONS when I was a kid. I never had anyone around that was as curious as I was. I didn't understand how to properly research things I was interested in, and so my education was almost entirely dependent on what people thought I was old enough to learn.


    The most depressing thing is knowing that if I do get a chance to teach someday, I'll probably get chewed out by the parents.
    • I think a lot of people who went through public education feel the same way. I was reading at a middle school level in second grade, but was constantly told I couldn't read complex books because I was a terrible speller. I had a friend who got into trouble for asking math questions that were collegic level because it wasn't what we were memorizing that day. Eventually he said screw it and went to a local college to finish his high school education.

      Much of public education is cramming facts into kids to pass standardized tests.

      Hell, I wasn't allowed to critically think in a class until I went to college.
    • I was very fortunate. My parents recognized my curiosity and channeled it- they pressured my elementary school to start a talented & gifted program (something that my school, the poorest and blackest in the district wasn't going to get otherwise). In third grade, my dad took me to a class in Bearsville about Astronomy taught at a very high level with real observations and stargazing (and it was the first place I saw the famous "Powers of 10". In eighth grade, my teacher Mrs. Franklin was the first true science teacher I had- she placed a heavy emphasis on experimentation and observation and forced us to derive conclusions from the data- she didn't tell us the size of the Earth, she had us figure out how to calculate it and had us test it. She was a fantastic teacher (although most people who had her seem to disagree).

      I recognize that I was extremely fortunate to have the education I did have- I quite literally beat the odds in that regard. In response, I'm feel I have a need to attempt to help other people get the same advantages- which is why I am slowly-but-surely working towards a "Computer Programming for Children" curriculum/charity school.
      • It wasn't until I got into high school that I was able to be in any advanced placement classes, and I was still barred from any honors english classes because I was told that even though my essays were typically grammatically correct and showed great insight into the reading material, my spelling indicated I had serious issues with english. My other AP classes made it tolerable to be in english classes where students literally could not read.

        I was very fortunate that my mother was my Atticus Finch. She encouraged me to read whatever I wanted to, and often took me to educational events and places like the FDR museum. My father would bring home nifty texts on diseases and the like.

        My public education was pretty terrible and I suppose I was too stubborn to apply myself to making nice with teachers so part of its my fault.
    • Much of public education is cramming facts into kids to pass standardized tests.

      Oh dear god those pissed me off. Most of 'em I wasn't too upset at. Just standard crap. But the ones they use at my elementary school to 'prove' you were advanced enough to move to the next level of math SUCKED, since far too many of my teachers just tossed the mathbooks at us and weren't any good at explaining.

      I never had any problems at math, as long as I had someone competent to explain it. I still remember my 6th grade confusion regarding negative numbers. It took approximately two minutes in prealgebra in middle school for me to understand it, since that teacher KNEW how to teach math. But though I was good at it, I was never asked to join the math team. Popularity thing. In HS I was good at first, then missed a week sick during Trig, and was lost for most of the semester because the explanations were too rushed for me to figure out how things worked. I burnt out, and decided math wasn't for me. My biology teacher was so disappointed, because I loved science a LOT. And I love computers, but fear taking a programming class. :/

      Hell, I wasn't allowed to critically think in a class until I went to college.

      Same here. :(
      • But though I was good at it, I was never asked to join the math team. Popularity thing.

        Sorry to laugh at that, but I was completely unpopular for being in Calcu-Solve Bowl and Math League in high school! ;) I'm sorry that happened to you, though; I'm loath to think that we geeks would ever act like That Which We Hate. We would've loved to have you with us. We had to beg for members as it was.

        And I love computers, but fear taking a programming class. :/

        I'm not as left-brained as I would sometimes prefer, so my first semester of programming might as well have been taught in Chinese. I was so lost- but then, miraculously, it all started clicking during my second semester. From what I understand, every programmer hits that "eureka" moment at a different time. Sadly, some people quit before they do- often due to crappy teaching.

        If you ever do decide to program, though, both t3k and I know it/teach it/support it/you name it and would be happy to help! =)
  • Preach on, sistah!
  • Posthumanism and the singularity fail as a model/philosophy/whathaveyou due to fundamentally flawed axioms -- the assumption that humanity's capability to assimilate new information is either static or increasing at a rate less than the production of new, significant knowledge.

    I think encouraging the scientific method is less important than encouraging experiential learning. If we are at a state of singularity, it's due to the fact that educational methods are sub-optimal.
    • I'm using singularity more in the sense of catastrophic equilibrium (ie. when positive feedback takes over and a single trait in the system becomes dominant). This is unrelated to posthumanism and "The Singularity" which is a popular science fiction trope, but is generally woefully misinterpreted (basically, all it really says is that at some point, things change so suddenly that we can't predict past that point until we are past that point).

      All the scientific method is is experiential learning according to a well defined system.
    • This is the sort of thing I'm talking about, not this- sorry, last night I replied as I was on my way to sleep, and couldn't be arsed to grab links.

      Essentially, if you graph "intelligence" as a value against a series of evolutionary development, at a certain point that function changes behavior completely- this is how we explain the massive gap between human intelligence and tool using potential and that of other specie. There are several other evolutionary traits that could be viewed as "singularity"- the development of DNA for example versus the behaviors of other self-replicating proteins.

      The theory of technological singularity simply implies that there will be a similar behavior in the function of technological development- the function describing the rate of progress will change its behavior at a certain level of progress (and stated in that context, it doesn't seem nearly that implausible).
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