The Robot’s Rebellion

I’m on my second read, and I think that this is quite an underappreciated book.  While it doesn’t have a lot of practical advice about methods to overcome bias, its general philosophy is (IMNSHO) both deeply true and quite rare.  It takes the logic of Dawkin’s Selfish Gene and unflinchingly explores the logical implications of the genes’-eye view of the world in which humans are lumbering robots constructed by coalitions of immortal genes for the sole purpose of copying those genes.  The idea that humans, the conscious, apparently self-directed actors in our world, are robots – in the sense of having been constructed by something very different for its own ends – is for me profound, unintuitive, and deeply unsettling.

The book uses a metaphor (originally by Daniel Dennett): suppose that you are trying to preserve your body for 400 years.  One option would be to cryopreserve it in a bunker (the "plant" strategy).  But suppose you are worried that no location is safe, or that your capsule may need more resources along the way.  You might build a robot to protect your cryocapsule, scavenging the landscape for energy and materials when necessary.  You’d want the robot to be intelligent enough to react to any survival situation it encounters with creative solutions, not just pre-programmed ones, which requires a certain degree of intellectual freedom (long-leash control).  You also want it to make the preservation of your capsule its highest priority (short-leash control).

Now suppose that after 300 years, the robot is beginning to decay. It’s just not going to make it the full 400.  It encounters a huge super-capsule container, built later than it, which gets economies of scale by preserving many capsules in a single robot.  The huge container offers a deal: if it can use all the robot’s remaining energy and materials, it will take over preservation of the capsule for the next 100 years.

From the point of view of the human who had themselves frozen, it’s a no-brainer.  The purpose of the robot is to preserve the capsule. But if the robot has a long enough leash, well, things look a bit different.  Why should it sacrifice the last years of its life for this corpsicle, the collection of information inside it which has lain inanimate for its entire lifetime?  We are the robots, our genes are the capsules, and when you look at things that way, it seems an enormous shame to sacrifice a unique, conscious being for the interests of its creator.

Some choice quotes from Chapter 1: Staring Into the Darwinian Abyss:

We are in a period of history in which the assimilation of the insights of universal Darwinism will have many destabilizing effects on cultural life.  Over the centuries, we have constructed many myths about human origins and the nature of the human mind.  We have been making up stories about who we are and why we exist.  Now…we may at last be on the threshold of a factual understanding of humankind’s place within nature.  However, attaining such an understanding requires first the explosion of the myths we have created, an explosion that will surely cause some cognitive distress…

Adherents of fundamentalist religions are actually correct in thinking that the idea of evolution by natural selection will destroy much that they view as sacred…it is the middle-of-the-road believers – the adherents of so-called liberal religions – who have it wrong.  Those who think they know what natural selection entails but have failed to perceive its darker implications make several common misinterpretations of Darwinism.  Tellingly, each of the errors has the effect of making Darwinism a more palatable doctrine by obscuring (or in some cases even reversing) its more alarming implications…

So that, in short, is the horror: We are survival machines built by mindless replicators – the result of an algorithm called natural selection.  And we will not escape the horror by looking away from it, by turning our heads, by hoping the monster will go away like little children.  We will only escape the horror – or find a way to mitigate it – by inquiring of cognitive science and neuroscience just what kind of survival machine a human is.

While this perspective is very useful for overcoming bias, it also has profound implications for other areas of life such as religion, philosophy, morality.  A century and a half after Darwin and decades after Dawkins, most of the intellectual world seems to still be in denial of the fact that we have an answer to one of the Great Questions Of Life – "How did we get here?", because of how uncomfortable it is. We need more people like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and Robert Wright – and so we need Stanovich’s views in The Robot’s Rebellion disseminated far more widely.

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