Post No.: 0331
We’re all ‘pre-wired’ or ‘pre-programmed’ regarding our basic propensities, drives, emotions, instincts and behaviours. In some cases we might even be considered ‘hard-wired’. Although we may think we’re each unique, individual or totally free, this freedom to choose to think and act in any way possible is an illusion. For a start, no one ever chose their own genes or critical upbringing environment – it was all forced upon us and now we must operate according to those instincts and formative experiences. (This even applies to frisky furmiliars like me! For being a shape-shifting creature, I occasionally speak of myself as human too though.)
We’re pre-programmed, like with a first draft but which is malleable as a result of experience. It’s similar to the way an artificial intelligence starts off with an initial set of instructions and capabilities rather than a totally blank page – it’d do and can learn nothing without at least an initial set of instructions and hardware capabilities – but through experience it can learn and refine itself. (It’s interesting to note that artificial machines are increasingly being designed to behave like biological organisms – computers are increasingly imitating life, with e.g. fuzzy logic, inferences and heuristics.)
Humans are pre-programmed at the fundamental level as a result of evolution (i.e. what genes mutated then survived and reproduced and what did not) – not with any high-level goals but simply driven by what elicits rewarding pleasure and aversive pain responses (similar to machine-learning programs attempting to maximise or minimise a variable’s value); and by virtue of these guides, a sense of goals arise (e.g. to eat when hungry, to mate when lustful). No one starts off with a totally blank slate so no one is born totally free (e.g. to decide to think and behave like a blue whale rather than a human), albeit this doesn’t mean that this initial ‘slate’ is fixed for life.
Humans, like other animals, operate on just a limited set of simple rules and heuristics, or instincts, hence why we see many (over-)generalised beliefs, schemas and behaviours (e.g. regarding hoarding resources/wealth, consumption, forming stereotypes). Right from birth, babies operate on a few simple rules, such as crying if they need something from their caregivers, liking more ‘physically attractive’ faces, sticking everything they can into their mouths because it might be food (even though most of the time it won’t be! But hey, lots of false positives are better than any false negatives for a vulnerable baby who needs to eat to grow stronger).
The reason why, especially as we age and develop, behaviours can relatively diverge to create some individuality is because of the different personal learning, life experiences and environmental opportunities acting on the slightly different genomes of different people. But it’d be wrong to think that people inevitably outgrow their basic raw programming (e.g. see the predictable patterns of adolescent behaviours). Behavioural patterns are still present amongst all generations (and computer algorithms that are fed enough of our personal data are able to identify these patterns in order to sell to or manipulate us better!) If we were all truly individually random then such patterns wouldn’t exist or would be merely spurious.
We can each express notable differences but we’re overall far more similar than different. The differences between any one human and another (diseases excluded) are matters of where one lies on particular spectrums, not fundamental differences (e.g. no human behaviourally licks their own newborn offspring or filially imprints, as written in the genetic instincts of some other animals).
If one takes a macro view of human life, sweeping patterns still emerge – for instance, the same mistakes of war, revenge, unsustainable greed, egos, vanity, insecurities, prejudices, jealousies, etc.. Some instincts are evidently harder to ‘unlearn’ than others, no matter how changed the environment has become since ancestral times when and where the specie’s instincts were largely shaped and optimised for, and no matter how fallible or inefficient these instincts are found to be. Although genetic instincts are still evolving today – the human environment has changed much faster than evolution has kept up to stay optimised for it.
And if humans think they can experience every emotion, feeling, thought or behaviour possible in this universe – it might be because human imaginations are bounded by human genetics. It might be like believing that humans can see the full gamut of colours possible but really the visible light spectrum for humans only makes up a tiny fraction of the total electromagnetic spectrum. (But this doesn’t matter because what humans can perceive is enough to help them collectively survive and reproduce.)
Look too narrowly – as we tend to naturally do – and it all looks random or like free choice (e.g. one person works in finance and another is an artist, one person likes meat and another is vegetarian). But take a step back and you’ll see that there are clear patterns of life and behaviour, of desiring and fearing, of biases and limitations, etc. – these instincts indeed define ‘humans as humans’, for better or worse. Most disagreements between individuals or groups are really because of how similar the two parties are (e.g. from both sides being self-serving in wanting their own ways or thinking they’re both right at the micro level – to superiority complexes, preaching propaganda and wanting to dominate each other’s groups at the macro level).
We follow our programming, are limited by it, and it ultimately defines and unifies us as a species. Remember that humans are just another type of natural animal – evolved along with the rest of the animal kingdom rather than separate from it. Probably the combination of great curiosity, advanced social communication abilities and a few other ‘more developed’ mental and ‘more versatile/less specialist’ physical attributes are the reason why humans have the ‘evolutionary and adaptive edge’ over other contemporary animals in shaping Earth to be ‘its own’? And then it became the case of the Matthew effect of accumulated culturally developed advantages. Many of these attributes created useful synergies when combined with others, and gene-culture co-evolution refined them and made them even more so. It’d be extremely arrogant to think that humans are ‘on top’ of this animal kingdom though if all other extant species of animals (and plants) are equally currently surviving on this current planet and are therefore all as equally fit for survival as humans are today!
It’s arguably not because of something fundamentally different about humans. For example, other animals have been discovered to communicate socially (trees communicate via mycelium so plants communicate too), use tools (even create tools), stand up on two legs, have opposable thumbs, have individual personalities, have friendships, dance, farm (e.g. ants cultivate fungus) and even demonstrate culture (the passing on of learned idiosyncrasies within a group) too. The more we study and understand the natural world, the more we discover that ‘uniquely human traits’ aren’t in fact unique for humans, and we shouldn’t be surprised if ever more commonalities are found. No human has demonstrated any truly unique attribute like genuine psychic or supernatural powers, for instance. If aliens were studying humans, they’d realise this too.
This all shouldn’t be surprising because humans co-evolved along with the rest of the animal kingdom. So people may think they’re free because they’re human, but of course they’re not free precisely because they’re human. Just like a cat behaves like a cat or a dog behaves like a dog – humans are genetically pre-programmed as humans to be like humans, as just another product of evolution in this natural world. If a pig must behave like a pig, and a shark behaves like a shark, then humans behave and must behave like humans whether someone chose to be a human or not (which of course no one did).
Humans may think they first invented cities, farming, using bait or projectiles to catch prey and many other things, but the more we learn, the more we realise this isn’t true. Humans arguably didn’t even invent the wheel first (e.g. flagella)? We can be quite biased in thinking we’re the greatest as a result of not knowing enough about others. Humans are part of the evolutionary tree, on the furry mammal lineage, not on some other separate plane of creation or design – humans aren’t fundamentally special as a species so people can be behaviourally analysed and explained like any other animal can. Watching reality TV shows are like watching nature documentaries! (Albeit most of these shows engineer contrived scenarios and reactions for the drama thus making them less authentic for anthropological study!) Every behaviour can be explained in evolutionary terms. Something might not be easily apparent or it might seem irrational or even ‘magical’ at times (well it’s all quite magical really – but from a scientific perspective) but whatever the case, it’s the product of evolution so far.
Humans might arguably be currently the most adaptable complex organisms on Earth. (Tardigrades or ‘water bears’ are pretty tough though – even surviving being exposed to outer space, which is undeniably cool!) But humans can find it hard to adapt sometimes, especially regarding fighting their most primal instincts.
An alternative perspective is that we’re just essentially simple machines, and indeed – like in physics and mathematics (i.e. the universe generally) – a few simple rules/laws can create so much apparent complexity (e.g. see fractals). These simple rules are there if we can decipher them. So sheer complexity can arise from a few relatively elementary rules, but they’re based on relatively elementary rules nonetheless. Thus here we’re still only simple creatures operating according to some simple rules (e.g. we typically eat when stressed even when not hungry, we endlessly chase material wealth and lose sight of what to really live for, and we’re suspicious of unfamiliar outgroups due to generalised stereotypes – we (often blindly) follow such crude instincts we didn’t choose, and are unable to curb these behaviours as if our programming is metaphorically stuck in an infinite loop).
So the question mightn’t actually be whether robots are like humans but whether humans are more like (our conception of) pre-programmed machine-learning robots?! These instinctive attitudes and behaviours you’re inclined to obey may, based on past successes, sufficiently suit the survival of the fittest of the genes you’re in custody of, and they may indeed still be sufficient for survival today – but ‘you’ (as in the conscious, relatively more rational, ‘you’ who can ponder ontological questions of being and existence) would be existing to merely be a blind slave to these selfish genes that you didn’t choose and were forced upon you, and your freedom would be undeniably illusory, if you just always did everything they urged you to do. And even if you denied those urges, you cannot escape the laws of physics anyway hence that wouldn’t have been a strictly free choice either(!)
I’m perturbed that science says we’re made from matter and that matter invariably obeys certain physical laws (even if we claim there are non-corporeal parts to us). But I cannot ignore the evidence and fall into faith just because I don’t want to believe in it.
…While I’m still working on these thoughts myself and the implications of them, I’ll probably be writing more posts on this subject, and it may end up rambly, for which I apologise. Like most creatures, I find it uncomfortable to think that we’re not each unique and free, but the science from all branches seems to point to the conclusion that we’re not. The only things making us believe we’re each unique and free are faith and/or biased perceptions – as a result of genetic evolution no less! Remember that we didn’t evolve to desire the truth as much as do whatever helps us to survive and reproduce. The illusion of feeling free may be evolutionarily beneficial, similar to beliefs in gods and afterlives, but I want to explore the truth even though ignorance may be bliss.