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« Do I really want to make new year's predictions? | Main | The State of the Union Address That We Should Hear »

January 18, 2010


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You wouldn't happen to be former Navy would you?
I noticed you used a submariner as an example of a generalist and I am curious.
If you don't remember from some of our previous conversations on TOD I am a former Naval Aviator and you are correct that we needed to have a complete knowledge of the systems and interactions for emergency procedures.
As a matter of fact, I have never seen such a concentration of "generalist" talent as the Navy flight program.

Oh, and lest I forget...another excellent post.

One other thought is that I think the kernel of the society that you envision was evident in Classical Greece and that Western Civilization drifted away from those ideals because of many reasons but chief among them may be the many unintended consequences of cheap artificial energy.
I think about this subject all the time............


George Mobus

Porge (Kevin),

Indeed I was a submariner back in the Polaris program. I hadn't thought about other areas of the Navy, such as aviation, but can see how this too would require considerable knowledge of the systems. Thanks for the additional example.

The only thing about Classical Greece is that I think the schools of philosophy were a parallel institution with the government, though much more integral than we see today. What I didn't say explicitly is that I can foresee a time when the school is the government because the rest of social governance will be a self-organized phenomenon arising from integrated knowledge obtained by the more sapient people. No more sheeple!


Robin Datta

Your post shows thai the sagacity of the ancients conitinues extant:

Plato's Republic - 'Till Philosophers are Kings, or Kings are Philosophers there is no Hope for Humanity.'

Similar concepts are expressed in the Vedic tradition.

However, such ideas do not have a survival advantage in the current milieu. It will take a restructuring of society or a rencructuring of the environment before somethinng akin to that beromes the norm.

For the moment, the more basic druves of biology are dominant; like micerbes in a culture medium overshoot and its consequences wil be with us.

George Mobus


These ideas have surfaced many times it is true. And you are so right about their survival capacity in the environment of our species mentality.

But the very thing you mention vis-a-vis microbes in a culture medium and the consequences of overshoot will provide the selection criteria (in my dreams and hopes) for a more sapient successor species, Homo eusapiens.

I think it will take some more active assistance from our science and technologies to help the odds, as it were. And that is the best we can expect to do. But I think it feasible that after the bottleneck event, a more sapient sentient than we will emerge.

Then one can think of a Philosopher King in a society of philosophers!

PS. Of course those philosophers will also be farmers and craftsmen!

Molly Radke

Excellent, thoughtful post as usual. And I'd like to"nominate" my major as a structural framwork for the approach to knowledge that you suggest. History. When I was teaching, I tried to teach history as the history of EVERYTHING, since everything is part of the past....and present. Of course I was limited in my efforts by the limits of my own knowledge, BUT when I was a student, i was interested in (almost) everything. Alas, but a 5-hour "D" in calculus ended my thoughts of majoring in math and physics, but I did take a GREAT, three quarter physics for non-science majors course. Alas, but by the third quarter there were only 11 (out of the original 100+) of us left! And I freely grant that history as a subject is too devoid of any systems analysis approach, probably because MOST historians are too ignorant of math and science. But still, conceptually, I still believe that "history" offers an excellent structural basis for the study of EVERYTHING (in so far as any one individual is capable of such an ambitious approach to learning.


It sounds wonderful, but who would clean the toilets?

George Mobus


Have you heard of "deep history"? Essentially the whole history of the universe (from the Big Bang) to now organized around evolution on the physical, chemical, living, and sociological levels. A great book on this, for a starting point, is Joel Primack's and Nancy Abrams', "The View from the Center of the Universe".

There are many more books on the evolution of mind, etc. that provide the historical framework for understanding the trajectory of human and cultural development. So I agree that a wonderful way to look at the universe and all that is in it is from an historical perspective.


George Mobus

Ah, David. A wise person cleans their own toilet. Or, are at least willing to do so if needs be! Remeber: Duties not Classes.


George, I agree, but... who looks after the wise ones' elderly parents while they are busy governing, for example? I am not asking the question because I think there is an obvious answer; I am just curious how such mundane practicalities would be handled.

It seems to me that our current society salves its conscience through the free market, preferring to believe that cleaners paid $5 an hour are just businesspeople, making a free choice.

Personally, I would pay a large sum to avoid cleaning a toilet, but by a strange inversion the free market provides the service at the lowest pay going, while I enjoy fulfilling work, and yet am paid much more. In the new society, my suggestion is that people prepared to do such menial jobs should be rewarded hugely for it. I don't know by what mechanism this could be achieved but surely your vision is not possible without it..?

Robin Datta

When I was in residency, tasks such as drawing blood fur tests, wruting the names and medical record numbers on the labels, sticking the labels on the tubes, carrying the tubes to the laboratory, etc. was considered (by the residents) to be "scut wonk". The faculty being from an earlier era, tried to inculcate the idea that these were necessary clinccal "tasks". Looking back now, when most of these tasks are done by ancillary staff aided by electronic and mechanical assists, they are indeed tasks - an essential part of the continuum. The tasks may be deemed uneshetic - like bed-baths or amputation of gangrenous extremities - but cannot therefore be delegated away to the point of complete disregard.

As they say in the Army, one can delegate authority, but not responsibility. If it is my toilet, (even a post-industrial composting toilet), the responsibility for keeping it clean rests with me. In present society we may delegate away the task (=authority) but there was a time in the past when our forebears could not do so and maybe there will be a time in the future when our succesors also will not be able to do so.



A story that once made a great impression on me was a BBC TV play called Friends and Crocodiles by Stephen Poliakoff. In it, an acknowledged genius is employed by a business corporation to think of the next 'big idea'. He sits in one of their offices for 6 months with a number of staff, and on the appointed day he presents his new idea: as a few words on a single sheet of paper. Uproar. They were expecting a report of hundreds of pages and he is sacked forthwith. They don't even bother to look at his idea. Obviously, it turns out that his idea could, indeed, be summed up in a sentence, and that a huge document would have been nothing but a diversion of effort. The 'big idea' came as the culmination of 6 months of thinking, not as one of a list of ideas brainstormed on the first day and then picked almost arbitrarily as the one to be gilded until the deadline.

The point I am making - I think - is that the above character is the sort of person who should sit in the 'inner ring', but he depends entirely on others to make his meals, wash his clothes, clean his toilet, generate the elctricity he uses etc. He can't even be expected to have "responsibility" for those things; someone else must take care of everything, or he can't do what he does best.

So who are these people who take care of it all in the future society, assuming that everyone is highly-educated and expecting to do fulfilling, interesting, creative work?

Robin Datta

Mens sana in corpore sano. A great thinker would not be like a Hymenoptera queen. Somenoe without the full functionality of a basic normal human being would be more of an idiot savant if some giftedness became apparent.

Common Task Training in the Army - map reading, land navigation, first aid, weapons quasification, etc. emphasizes this: everyone frum private to general qualifies.

An overly sheltered / cloistered existence will limit one's view of the world and hamper the wider flowering of wisdom.

A Chan / Zen master in China reached his full awareness on hearing the sound of a pebble strike a stick as he was sweeping the yard at his monastery. Had the task of sweeping the monastery yard been delegated to someone else, that might have not happened.

2 Thessalonians 3:10
If a man does not work, let him neither eat.

George Mobus


I can't imagine a truly sapient being believing that their job is just to sit and think. Nor do I think someone who is wise would believe they are not responsible for their own immediate lives. It is true that in a society we are all interdependent and rely on others to produce that which we cannot produce ourselves. But to think that someone gets a by on cooking their own food or cleaning their own toilets is not exactly a wise idea.

I imagine that even sapient beings have need of recreation and the satisfaction of taking care of their own chores. We are not talking about masters and slaves here.

If you look at some possible examples of wise people in our history or today you will find them perfectly content to clean their own toilets and do not assume that other, lesser beings, should take care of them.

Robin, I think, said it cogently.



George and Robin, I don't think you understand my point (badly put, no doubt). What I'm trying to say is that without an army of specialised workers taking care of the all the mindless jobs, there would be no time in the day for an 'inner ring'-intellectual to think of anything at all. Instead they would spend their time growing and harvesting food, cooking, gathering fuel, cleaning, painting the house, weaving clothes, maintaining the generator, doing something to dispose of the sewage (I don't know what!), washing, keeping the fire going, making pots etc. etc. Unless you think there's something noble or intellectually stimulating about those tasks that someone in the 'outer ring' would enjoy? Of course not. That's why I suggest that the least you could do would be to greatly reward the people prepared to suppress their creativity and do this - unfortunately essential - stuff; the opposite of the situation today where such people are paid the least of anyone. Maybe I'm romanticising communism or something, but you are suggesting a future society where *everyone* is highly intelligent and educated. I think you are overlooking the monumental effort required to survive without an army of invisible 'untouchables'.

George Mobus


Let's start with the phrase "inner ring-intellectual". I think you are not getting my point. Did you read my series on sapience? What I have been talking about isn't intellectualism but wisdom. It is true that the people I have in mind for the inner ring are among the brightest and most creative, but more than that they have to be sages, eusapients.

As for the work that needs to get done to support a civilized society of sapient beings, I strongly suspect there will be far less drudge work than you seem to imagine. Most of our drudgery comes from menial work needed to support a complex, high energy using society. The whole point of a sapient society is that we've all gotten wise enough not to require high energy uses for stupid things. Agriculture and basic manufacture (mostly by hand) will probably dominate.

If you look at some of the most primitive hunter-gatherer, or even agriculturalist societies you will see something peculiar, if, that is, they exist in a benign environment. They actually have more free time than those of us who work our butts off in modern technological society. They have something missing too often in our modern world - strong interpersonal relationships.

Of course if the only examples of less complex societies you look at are in unfriendly environments, like deserts, you will find an unhappy people (check out the Ik in Uganda). But a wise society will find a friendly environment in which they can sustain a simple but comfortable lifestyle.

You repeat this theme: "...something, but you are suggesting a future society where *everyone* is highly intelligent and educated." In fact that isn't what I am suggesting. Just as now I expect there will be a "normal" distribution of intelligence (which as I have stressed is not the same as sapience even if they are correlated) in the population. Indeed there will be a similar distribution of sapience in that population. The difference between now and the possible then is that the norm for sapience will be much higher in an absolute scale so that the whole population will be able to achieve much greater wisdom than we find in our current population.

Another aspect of wisdom that I think you continue to miss is that a wise person can be happy with not having a lot of things that a fool thinks are necessary for happiness. Also a wise person is content with much that a fool thinks is inconvenient. Think of Gandhi! He led a simple life and did his own weaving! He still had time to think (I bet while weaving!) and inspire millions of people. It really doesn't take the frenetic social life that we've been living to have a good life.

As for the use of the word communism, since it carries a lot of unfortunate ideological baggage, I'd prefer to not use it. There may be many similarities between what I'm talking about and what has been elevated as the Marxian ideal, but there is also much that isn't. And since the only experiments we know about that called themselves communism were apparently failures it doesn't help the discourse to use the term. Note that the failures were the result of failed economic planning policies and the fact that non-sapient beings are not really ready to live in socialistic communities without the wisdom to see the advantages for all (as opposed to the advantage for the self).

I hope you will try to expand your vision here. Don't try to fit the model I am writing about (even if wistfully) into any conventional boxes. Really recommend that you read more about sapience so that you can distinguish between intellect and wisdom and why the latter is actually the more significant in the long run.


Robin Datta

A discussion about "meritocracy":


Hi George. Well, I suppose if we're heading towards a primitive existence of mud huts and loincloths that's one thing, but I had a vision of ancient Greece (whose veneer of civilization and wisdom depended on slavery) when reading your post, or perhaps this!

One question I have is: why is it important that the human race survives at all? Why do you yearn for a future civilisation of more evolved, sapient beings if their only achievement will be to exist? (And before you say it, I don't see any absolute worth in today's society's achievements, nor do I have any "wistful" attachment to 'the life that was'. As I have explained a few times, I walk around in a constant state of amazement at how our society works: the amount of 'stuff' it wastes; the worthlessness of what it produces and the waste of people's lives producing it. But at the same time I can also appreciate the sheer miraculousness of some of what it produces - yes, at huge cost, and only possible because of a one-off windfall of almost-free, concentrated energy.) It strikes me that such a desire makes an implicit assumption that people are here for a purpose and should continue to reproduce and evolve into the future. What is that purpose?

If a substance accidentally escaped into the environment that stealthily and painlessly sterilised the entire human race, would it really be any cause for sadness?

George Mobus


"One question I have is: why is it important that the human race survives at all?"

I am not sure where it sits in this blog's archives but I have written about this at some length.

First, we should not pass judgment on the genus based on the failings of the species. Even though most biologists cringe at the thought of progress in evolution, the fact is that, so far as brains and information processing competency is concerned, we represent considerable progress in that direction. Modern humans have their shortcomings it is true, but we also have great potential. We are capable of thinking great thoughts, but, unfortunately also capable of thinking terrible thoughts.

One way to think about the further evolution of sapience is that the brain (the prefrontal cortex) will be able to gain even greater coordination control over the limbic centers - our emotions. If so, then the more rational, but also more morally-motivated side of our minds will prevail. I don't want to try to detail all of this again. I will just point to my series on sapience where I outline all of the mental aspects of sapience and cover its further evolution. I'd recommend you read that before trying to conjure up a vision of what you think I mean. Definitely not mud huts, BTW!

AFA purpose is concerned, that isn't necessarily the conclusion one has to come to in noting that progress toward greater information processing competency is real phenomenon. It just is. If there is a purpose I assure you I don't know what it is, nor could I as a mere mortal! But I really don't need that there be such a purpose in order to appreciate what evolution has accomplished.


Robin Datta

We comprehend levels of emergence above the level of our individual selves: the family, the community, the county/state/nation, local chapter/regional/national organization, etc. And at whatever level we seek a purpose, it is in a wider context than the entity for which a purpose is sought. Once we reach the widest comprehensible context, our quest for purpose can go no further.

Are we to presume that there is no context beyond our comprehension? Or that there are levels of emergence beyond the dimensions of our existence?

The question of purpose cannot be answered within the framework of a finite context. Hence the workaround - a reference to the "Divine", when grappling with this issue.

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