409. Earthlings to the Core

January 19, 2015

In the most basic sense possible, our minds are features of the natural world, so our perceptions, judgments, and actions are natural as well. Any claim that our thoughts might be unnatural or immoral is nonsense. We are what we are, and that is an outgrowth of the planet that supports us.

We are Earthlings to the core, made of Earth’s materials, thinking Earth’s thoughts. As are ants and termites in building their nests and tending their eggs, as are amoebas, birds of paradise, slugs, snakes, and rhinoceroses, all in our respective stages of genetic development and evolution.

As outgrowths of the Earth, there is an inside and an outside to each of us. Outside is our environment, source of all that we need to live on the inside of our outermost layer, our skin, hide, or integumentary system.

Both historically and individually as fertilized eggs, we begin life as one-celled organisms separated from our surroundings in utero by a semi-permeable membrane that allows a selective exchange of materials and energy across the boundary layer between inside and outside.

Food and oxygen flow outside-in to sustain our metabolism and rapid development; waste and carbon dioxide flow in the opposite direction, inside-out.

From the beginning, we live in a state, not only of exchange, but of active engagement with our natural environments, trading what we no longer need for what we need to live and thrive. The story of life on Earth is the story of life’s natural engagements.

As natural creatures, we cannot live without the essential resources Earth provides us—food, air, water, shelter, warmth, and protection in their various forms to preserve what Thoreau called “the vital heat” of our bodies as generated by complex metabolic processes we each sustain for a lifetime.

We live by the grace of our biological mother’s metabolism (governed by her—not our father’s—maternal line of mitochondrial DNA), first in the womb, and after birth until we are weaned, and even ever after that while our families and cultures feed and provide for us, until the day we die.

In that sense, we never outgrow our natural mother’s care and bodily warmth; it is built into the structure of every cell in our bodies from conception on.

After birth, our respective cultures, communities, and families offer us a range of choices for diet, shelter, clothing, the purity of the water we drink and air we breathe, so the choices we adopt reflect their several influences in modifying how we choose to meet our biological needs.

In speaking a dialect of one language or another, adopting a particular style of dress, favoring particular foods, and living in certain types of housing, we show that our essential genetic makeup is covered by a veneer of cultural, community, and family conventions and habits suited to the local climate and terrain.

Without doubt, we grow into ourselves as creatures of not only nature, but also of culture, community, and family as well.

 

Our actions are driven by feelings and approved by judgments we make on the flow of sensory energy as felt in the moment. They come not so much from our muscles themselves as from the forces that spur our muscles to flex or relax. Our deliberate actions flow from the situation—the particular set of mental dimensions that make up the living space of the intelligence at the core of our minds.

When we speak, our actions take the form of words arranged in sentences because that is how the culture we are born to understands and expresses its felt situations. Our birth culture calibrates our minds in the words and numbers we will employ ever after.

That culture includes a vocabulary suited to the variety of situations its members are likely to face in leading the many aspects of their lives. The makeup (syntax) of that speech is meant to convey the structure or meaning of the inner situation as experienced by the speaker.

We speakers are both subjective agents who put energy into intentional acts, and objective recipients acted-upon by energies taken in by our sensory receptors. Which is why we as individuals reflect ourselves in speech as playing both complementary subjective and objective roles: we do things, and things are done unto us.

Our speech is always purposeful. We have reasons for saying what we do. The burden of checking on our motives falls to our listeners. Who have a list of questions they can ask in getting the clarification they need to figure out where we are coming from so they can make a suitable response. Questions reflect curiosity, uncertainty, doubt, interest, and suspicion, among other states of mind.

Conversations unfold according to the interests of those who take part. Casual conversations bounce from topic to topic, driven by connections that participants make with something that comes up. Such connections serve as some sort of reminder that stirs a particular memory or line of thought.

One mentions a trip to “Cincinnati,” say, and someone tells a story about her uncle in that city, and someone else tells of going to school there, then someone else again tells of traveling by train through the city at night in the winter, and so on. Not much gets said, but everyone present has their personal say on the topic of Cincinnati.

Inclusion in the circle is the name of that game, putting your oar in the water, being a player. Little gets accomplished, but everyone goes away feeling good because connected, even though she remained snug in her personal black box the whole time.

Other conversations draw people out of their black boxes, a riskier kind of engagement, requiring trust of those involved. Some find confessional gatherings unseemly, others thrive on the tidbits they glean. Still others are genuinely interested in getting to know their friends and neighbors, so systematically inquire about backgrounds, schooling, jobs held, hobbies, cities lived in, families, and aspirations, often modeling the behavior they seek by taking the lead in sharing such information about themselves.

Conversations among professionals tend to stick to business, some aspect of a topic of interest to all who are present. There are as many uses of speech as there are speakers, so I am only giving a smattering of the social possibilities. I will repeat that everyone has a purpose in saying what she does, and sooner or later, everything that can be said will be said by someone.

After all, words (among other gestures and activities) are the glue that binds us together as friends, families, communities, and cultures. There is no way to underestimate their importance when we link our respective situations together. Or their misuse in various forms of skulduggery by which we take advantage of one-another.

 

 

The more I experience the effects that artificial intelligence (AI) imposes on my life, the more I see it as a parody of our native situated intelligence. Once upon a time, corporations employed humans to communicate with the public by answering phones and letters in person. Now I get to speak to or hear from a digital algorithm on a computer. An algorithm meant to serve as the interface between humans and the coded persona of a corporation now risen to the status of a person. Ha! That claim may fool the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t fool me. I can tell if I am facing off with a person or a machine.

Think of all the real persons put out of work as sacrificial victims to the technology of the day. The people who benefit from AI now get the checks that formerly went out to people who performed skilled work for a living. Men and women who sewed clothing, made cars, wrote letters, spoke with human-powered voices on the telephone. People who with just pride took responsibility for their engagement with the public.

No longer. Last January, I learned that my younger brother had died from an unsigned form letter sent out by New York Life Insurance Company trying to establish contact with the beneficiary of a policy he had taken out. For eight months my brother’s Social Security number was listed on the SS Death Index (SSDI) by  unaccountable mistake, from May 8, 2013, to January 23, 2014. After eight months of inaction, on January 23, New York Life issued the anonymous inquiry printed by a machine. On or about January 12, my brother actually did die alone in his home, so when I requested a wellness check by the local police on January 27, they found him dead on the floor from a heart attack he’d suffered after unwittingly being listed as dead for those many months. Thank you, AI, for your kind attention. While bloodless corporations are now legally counted as persons, flesh-and-blood persons have been demoted to the status of mere data.

In self-defense, I hereby issue the following reminder of the many dimensions of human intelligence activated during the course of our daily engagements, as based on my 30 years of keeping track of my own mind in its engagements with family, community, culture, and nature.

In my several families over the years, intimate contact is maintained with grandparents, parents, brothers, relatives, friends, and a variety of pets, forming the durable core of my mental life. I won’t detail any of those engagements here, but ask you to substitute your own such engagements at the core of your own mental life. Clearly, none of us would be who we are without our family engagements. I learned about marriage, birth, death, divorce, and all the other significant milestones of leading a life in my family. I experienced the essential nature of shelter in a wide variety of houses, apartments, barracks, dormitories and campgrounds lived in over the years. I learned about indoor plumbing in relation to tubs, toilets, sinks, and leaking hoses and faucets. My engagements with beds taught me almost all I know about the making and moving of them, washing sheets, moving furniture, sleep, sickness, and sex. Family closets held all sorts of delicious secrets, which I gradually discovered over the years. My families have taught me about hobbies, possessions, collections, jokes, games, birthdays, holidays, vacations, cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. The obvious truth is that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for our families. And I will point out that artificial intelligence is never tempered by having anything in its background resembling a family.

On the community level of mental engagement, where perception, emotion, and action are simultaneously active at the same focus, that’s where we learn about jobs and working for a living, about shopping, getting things repaired, going to school, the medical center, catching the train or the bus. Think how different obtaining food at a supermarket today is from hunting and gathering it in the wild, or even using crude tools to dig up the soil to plant seeds. All the communities I have lived in have police and fire stations, town offices, neighborhoods, and shingles declaring the presence of doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychiatrists, and other stalwarts of the professional class. Recycling is a community effort, as is garbage disposal. My first community introduced me to a variety of religions identified by the various architectures of their meeting places, and to the burial grounds where their former members were thought to reside.

My engagements with my culture have given me speech, reading, writing, books, poetry, numbers, roadmaps, and animated films. Banks are cultural edifices where money (enabler of many of our engagements) is housed in great vaults (think of your impression of  just the steel door, latches, and locks in your first bank). Without culture, I would be deprived of music, art, literature, and professional sports. Real estate is a product of my culture, as is the idea of ownership, travel, time and space. My experience with tools is a gift from my culture, which sponsors hardware stores, camera stores, computer stores, fabric stores, and in Hulls Cove, Maine, The Tool Barn where I recycle old tools for my own use. I am at home in my culture, and an outlander in most others.

Which leaves engagements with nature on the most fundamental level of them all. My experience of terrain, salt and fresh water, streams, lakes, watersheds, habitats, soil, wildlife, birds, primates, mammals, stars and planets, day and night, the seasons, rocks, plants, lichen, mosses, conservation, and survival itself—all these are products of my engagements with nature. We are born to the planet that brought us forth from its own flesh as Earthlings. We are indeed children of the third planet out from the sun. Its ways are our ways. Its thoughts are our thoughts. Its fate is our fate.

That is a brief summary of the engagements with the outside world that stoke our native intelligence and make us who we are as conscious beings. We are not intelligent in and by ourselves. We depend absolutely on such interactions to stimulate, shape, and hone our human intelligence, each in keeping with the influence of nature, culture, community, and family.

By comparison, artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. It is simply another tool—actually a weapon—corporations have devised in preparation for coming wars, hoping to gain an edge over other warring nations by taking the initiative of starting the last battle. With the result that the autonomy we have won over the past ten-thousand years is being taken from us by stealth in the name of technological progress. AI, I think, makes no improvement in our life situations. Rather, it is rapidly diminishing our remaining days on this Earth. Human consciousness itself is being demeaned as second rate, as human values are being demeaned, along with human skills, human emotions, human strivings, human priorities.

This post is a reminder that this is happening in our brief span on our home planet. I offer it now that we realize what we are about to lose. We’ve come all this way, for this. This travesty of human ignorance in triumphal guise as artificial intelligence while it is just the opposite, the dehumanization of the planet that has borne us this far. When it comes to intelligence, ours is made possible by such goings-on as I have tried to suggest in these last two posts. AI isn’t even in the running. An aberration, it is the end of the road.