Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Human Supremacy Bias

Every once in a while, I'm reminded of the implicit (or sometimes explicit) human bias that humans are at (or near) the proverbial center of the universe.

For instance, Thomas Nagel's recently published book Mind & Cosmos argues that the theory of evolution is false (and will soon be replaced by a more comprehensive theory). More notably, the book argues that the main failing of current evolutionary science is that:
It fails to account for how consciousness fits into the natural order. Instead, it regards it as an afterthought, an accidental quirk, a trinket on the tree of life, less important to life’s story than the random physical mutations of genes.
The thing that I find notable about this argument is its elevation of [human] consciousness to the forefront of the argument.

This whole thing reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago. While discussing what rights a hypothetical general AI agent should have, someone (let's call this person Person A) told me that even if one could construct an artificial intelligence whose cognitive capacity was indistinguishable from humans, that Person A could not accept that being as an "equal".

I then rephrased the query supposing this general AI agent were to be (at least superficially) indistinguishable from real humans (think Bicentennial Man). In that setting, Person A felt it would be OK to grant such a being equal rights as humans. Person A noted that, in retrospect, some kind of low-level emotional response played a significant role in his/her thought process.

I suspect that a similar type of emotional response (e.g., regarding the supremacy of human consciousness) is driving Thomas Nagel's viewpoint. The above linked article further describes Nagel's other views which lends credence to this suspicion -- e.g., talking about how human consciousness is "part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself."

I'll not waste time talking about my personal views on this issue (I am a materialist). But I think it's important to realize when one's (subconscious) biases and emotional responses may be driving an entire intellectual agenda -- i.e., "the theory of evolution must be wrong because it currently explains human consciousness as the result of unguided mutations and natural selection."

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