Humanism

What then are the values that I am basing all of this on? Where do those come from?

In his book Sapiens, historian Yuval Harari claims that all value systems are simply narratives that are equally valid. He specifically denies the existence of an objective basis for humanism that would support a privileged position for humanity as a species [22]. I will try to convince you that this is not so. If the power of knowledge is the source of optimism, then its existence alone provides the basis for humanism.

Knowledge, as I use the term in this book, is the externalized — recorded in a medium — information that allows humans to share insights and art with each other.

We are the only species on Earth that generates this kind of knowledge and it can be shared over space and time. For instance, I can read a book today that was written by someone else, a long time ago and in a completely different part of the world. This does give humanity a privileged position among the species because knowledge turns out to be extraordinarily powerful. And to quote from a great tract of philosophy, “Spiderman,” with great power comes great responsibility (which gets its own section later in the book). Because we have knowledge, humans are responsible for dolphins, not the other way round.

Since the work of Alan Turing we know that there is a mathematically precise way in which knowledge gives humans this privileged position. Human brains are more complex than animal brains but they are still only finite state machines, admittedly with a huge number of states. The computational capabilities of finite state machines are quite narrow. For instance, one cannot build a finite state machine that recognizes palindromes of arbitrary length [23]. To get a feel for the limitations of the brain by itself, think about the times you simply cannot remember something and wind up looking it up online.

In addition to our brains though, humans also have universal alphabets and the technology for recording and disseminating information encoded in those alphabets (universal in the sense that once you have an alphabet with at least two letters you can in principle write down anything). This gives humans the same computational capability as the so-called Turing machine which I introduced earlier in the Universality section of the Digital Technology chapter. As Turing showed, that means humanity can compute anything that can be computed in the universe. The computational capability of other species is dramatically limited by comparison. Because they do not have knowledge they are constrained to the equivalent of finite state machines.

Now even if you do not buy into this argument based on a mathematical proof, consider the ability to make progress as a species. Without knowledge (as defined above) other species are reduced to only two methods of sharing something they have learned: communication and evolution. Communication is limited because it is both local and ephemeral and evolution is extremely slow. In contrast, humans can share knowledge across space and time and can rapidly refine knowledge through the process of critical inquiry. What evolution is to DNA, critical inquiry is to knowledge: a process of mutation and selection that over time separates good ideas and good art from bad ones.

Progress and knowledge are inherently tied together through critical inquiry. We make progress only if we are capable of (over time) identifying some ideas as better than others. Some art as more important. Critical inquiry is by no means linear, as new ideas and new art are not always better. Sometimes we go off in wrong directions in science or fads in art. But given enough time, a sorting takes place. For instance, we no longer believe in the geocentric view of our solar system. And only a small fraction of the art that has ever been created is still considered important today. While this process may take decades (and sometimes hundreds of years), critical inquiry is blindingly fast compared to evolution.

My use of words such as “better” implies the existence of values. But where do those come from? They all flow from one central value of a humanism based on knowledge and that is critical inquiry itself. We must at all times guard the freedom to point out flaws in existing knowledge and to propose alternatives. Imagine how limited our available music would be today if we had banned new compositions after Beethoven.

We should therefore seek regulation and self-regulation that supports critical inquiry. In business for instance, critical inquiry often takes the form of competition in the market, which is why regulations that support the functioning of competitive markets are so important. Both the sections on Economic Freedom and on Informational Freedom will introduce examples of regulation that are aimed at increasing competition in the age of digital technology. Individually, critical inquiry requires our ability to be open to feedback in the face of our deeply rooted confirmation bias. This will be addressed in the section on Psychological Freedom. In politics and government critical inquiry is enabled by democracy which gets its own chapter.

Freedom of speech in this view is not a value in and of itself. It is a crucial enabler of critical inquiry. But we can also see how some limits on free speech — which are part of such regulation — flow from the same value. If you can use speech to call for violence against individuals or minority groups then you can use speech to suppress critical inquiry.

Digital technologies, which include a global information network and general purpose computing which is bringing us machine intelligence, are dramatically accelerating the rate at which humanity can accumulate and share knowledge. But these same technologies allow for individually targeted manipulation and for propaganda at global scale as well as constant distraction.

Put differently, digital technology massively raises the importance of critical inquiry, the central value of knowledge based humanism.

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