The progress in modern biology, complex systems, nonlinear science has drawn another humanitarian epic narrative (Wilson, 1999), out of the Darwin jungle one — indeed we are stardust, but we are also children of the sun: “Human social existence, unlike animal sociality, is based on the genetic propensity to form long-term contracts that evolve by culture into moral precepts and law. They evolved over tens or hundreds of millennia because they conferred upon the genes prescribing their survival and the opportunity to be represented in future generations. We are not errant children who occasionally sin by disobeying instructions from outside our species. We are adults who have discovered which covenants are necessary for survival, and we have accepted the necessity of securing them by sacred oath.”
This is Shuai Li, or Shawn Lee. I have worked on understanding the human mind from mathematical principles throughout the past years --- the joint efforts of such an understanding are commonly known as Artificial Intelligence, or Cybernetics. It is based on the realization that it might be the key force that would reshape human civilization in the coming decades. The realization came from the following past experience.
In a way, I have more or less lived through the new attempts in philosophy of contemporary societies in the past years. I began with an admiration of hacker ethics (Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic) and majored in Computer Science under the Special Class for Gifted Young program at University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Meanwhile, I was involved in a youth movement that in spirits was similar with the counter culture in 70s (Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture) but with local characteristics and a much smaller scale, and was educated in likely the first efforts to introduce the Maker culture to China through the joint ME310 Innovation and Design program between USTC and Stanford University (and later the joint MEMSI program between the Hong Kong Universities and MIT). Upon graduation, I went to Hong Kong to study the Confucianism legacy there and obtained a Master of Philosophy in Electronic Engineering at Chinese University of Hong Kong, though I mostly did mathematics there. I might not need to mention that I have lived in a socialism country with a massive state meditated commercial sector. Throughout the years, the research on Artificial Intelligence as an extension of hacker spirits, as makers' agenda to make the world a better place, as the scientific foundation of an extension of analytic philosophy, as the next agent of liberating technology, is the thread that connects the institutes I have involved with, i.e., USTC, Stanford University, Microsoft Research Asia, Chinese University of Hong Kong and MIT.
Thorough out all these years, I started to realize the deep philosophical problem of our contemporary societies resulted from the deconstruction of the classical philosophy, e.g., Confucianism and Christianity, and the massive dislocation resulted from the informatization. Tackling the problem requires an overhaul of both the philosophy and the infrastructure of our societies. This overhaul is happening at frontiers of many fields. But to put the philosophy at a solid scientific foundation and to reshape the future infrastructure, artificial intelligence might be one of the deciding forces.
With an Icarus ideal to work out a mathematical theory of neural networks --- and a mild depression as a result of the disillusion with the hypocrisy in all the propaganda built on the contemporary philosophies --- to initialize the study on the mathematical principles of the mind with maximally possible academic freedom, I went back to the Mainland, and took an temporary associate researcher position at South China University of Technology. That is where I am staying now.
The theory ultimately aims to build a version of epistemology that serves as the foundation of a likely new philosophy. The philosophy is expected to 1) consist of a scientific worldview (the result of the revised epistemology) that continues the project initialized by Renaissance Humanism, the Enlightenment, Logical Positivism and Analytical Philosophy, 2) a value system that carries on the Golden Rules from the classic philosophy, e.g., Confucianism and Christianity, and balances Individual, Community and Ecology (moral and ethnic philosophy), 3) and leads to a meaning of human existence built on the existential conservatism in Consilience by E. O. Wilson (life philosophy). The philosophy and the implementation of the computational theory in turn aim to first be the guide to build an infrastructure, then possibly to prefigure an institution (public philosophy). The efforts are made to understand human conditions in the 21st century, and are with the challenges of humanities in the 21st century as the imagined adversary. There are already significant works in the space, e.g., Philosophy of Information and Principia Cybernetica. I am still making sense of the possibly ill-formed impression that existing works look rather ivory-tower, and are of limited real world impact. I am in the progress of surveying them.
The essay here is to demonstrate the philosophy that is still under development. It is not final, and is under constant revision.
Humans are teleological animals. Science has made significant progress in understanding Homo Sapiens. The research until now suggests that humans are teleological animals that are guided by instincts to self-perpetuate their genes and memes of their cultures. The instincts are not meant in a base way, referring to the base instincts of animals, i.e., status protection, violence, sex, food, though they are also part of us. The characteristics that are commonly held as humane, which I mean love, bravery, righteousness, empathy, rationality, are all evolved instincts to serve the teleological purpose of Homo Sapiens, i.e., to survive as a species in the biosphere of Earth.
A civilization is a complex system of which the microscopic units are humans, and the order parameter is the available resources, which decides the system is in the chaotic regimen, i.e., a jungle, or orderly regimen, i.e., a cooperative society. Homo Sapiens survive as groups that collectively make up complex systems. The systems are what we call civilizations. The early-evolved instincts and the later-evolved instincts are constantly fighting each other, and reach a dynamic balance, but the fighting serves a shared goal, the survival of the genes and cultural memes. The early instincts fight to survive with jungle rules, while the later instincts achieve survival through cooperation. Which set of instincts takes an upper hand determines by whether cooperation achieves a better end than competition.
Cooperation or competition is a choice when minimal material conditions are met, and Golden rules in the past institutionalized cooperation and built great civilizations. The choice to cooperate, or compete is self-reinforcing when all parties can survive under minimal rations. Thus, the key to the continuation of human civilization is the continuous efforts to move human from the baser instincts to the instincts that are developed in the later stage of the evolution, to promote love, empathy, rationality, righteousness, goodness, community, curiosity etc. Thus, the key is to institutionalize them. Here institution not only means by a set of constitution laws that a society works under, but also a system of education that educates cooperative humans. The milestone of the development of civilization is the institutionalization of community in the form of Confucianism, or Christianity. The civilizations that reached this milestone survive to the modern age, and the civilization that did not died, or were wiped out.
A civilization undergoes cycles of prosperity and decline when internal cooperation is broken. Civilization progresses by moving the order parameter away from the regimen below the critical threshold where cooperation is not possible as a result of resource scarcity. However, the progress are often driven by a small group initially. And if the gain is not shared to the whole group timely, the group would split, tension would be built, and eventually competition between groups would make the civilization deteriorate until cooperation is reached again. The cycle characterizes the dynasty cycles in the past, or more precisely, the replacement of the ruling class.
Human rights, representative governing and a universal education system avoid the prosperity-decline cycle by introducing peaceful internal group competition that safeguards cooperation. To avoid such cycles, human rights and its corresponding public philosophy, i.e., representative governing, were born to institutionalize the choice that the privileged small group, i.e., the ruling class, should not suppress the unprivileged group to maintain their ancestors' gain in a violent way. A universal education system safeguards that the citizens of the civilization are well-informed enough to live the human rights, and participate in the representative governing. A constant internal peaceful competition thus is introduced in the system to ensure the timely replacement of the elites that are not functioning anymore to maintain societal cooperation. The replacement does not only refer to the renewal of the governments, but also the innovation in technology.
It is emphasized that human rights and representative governing are hypothesized to safeguards cooperation when the system is already in the orderly regimen, it may not be able to move the system to the orderly regimen from the chaotic regimen. This might be why things in the developing countries are going badly. The order parameter needs to be satisfied for the human rights and representative governing to work, which at least should include the alleviation of poverty, a well-built infrastructure, and a majority of well-informed well-educated citizens.
The constant absorption of the innovation of small sub-groups increase the productivity and improve relations of production, and maintain the system in a meta-transition phase where the order parameter is constantly moving away from the cooperation-impossibility regime. This one thing is what we may call progress.
The populism movements in our time are the result of a broken internal cooperation. Maintaining the internal cooperation has been the key to the winning of the Cold War by the U.S.A. So why things are broken now? The hypothesis on the direct cause is that a minority of the system has achieved a destabilizing power --- not only in the form of capital, but in the form of the knowledge to leverage that capital --- that gradually broke the internal cooperation that aims for common prosperity.
A democratization of knowledge would bring back the cooperation in the current knowledge economy. To prevent the decline, the democracy of the gain by the minority to the whole system is the solution. This is not meant to advocate wealth transfer in a bad way, but to advocate to democratize the means to achieve that gain by spreading knowledge. In the previous age, a minority with an immerse power is inevitable since the channel for the transmission of knowledge is limited, thus, the ruling class was put to the throne or committee one way or another, to meditate the cooperation. Currently, the advent of Internet has made the cheap massive transmission of knowledge possible. The thing that is missing is the cheap massive guidance. That is what the technique of artificial intelligence could do. An wisdom librarian who offers you all the information in the world in way that is digestible by your interests.
The democratization knowledge is also the continuation of the enlightenment project. The enlightenment was initiated by the printing press, which enables the massive dissemination of knowledge and information. In the contemporary society, the situation is reversed. It is not the access to information that becomes the bottleneck, but the capacity to process it: we are drowning in information, but starving for knowledge. Internet has pushed the situation to the extreme, and helped build polarized societies — Google is powerful on the condition that you ask the right question. If the science of learning is worked out, we may build an upgraded version of Google Books, or in other words, finish what Google Books set out to be: a World Knowledge Organization System (WKOS) that organizes all human knowledge, and serves as a guide to everyone who is willing to learn and tackle challenges humanity facing, thus offers world-class education to everyone, and continues the enlightenment project initiated by the printing press, while fixing its errors.
While the knowledge democratization reworks the infrastructure that maintain the material benefits part of order parameter away from the chaotic regimen, a deeper task is to rework the philosophy that lead to the current broken order parameter.
Instead of just economical deterioration, contemporary world faces a full spectrum of problems. For anyone who understand the word post-modernity, its presence arouses gray melancholy. The contemporary era has faced a full spectrum of problems. Culturally, postmodernism resigns to the alienation, ephemerality, fragmentation and patent chaos of modern life and places individualized aesthetics over science, rationality, politics and morality (Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity). Politically, procedural liberalism emphasizes an unencumbered self at the expense of self-rule and public goods, and cannot secure the liberty promised (Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent). Ecologically, the seeming economical prosperity and extravagant lifestyle are overdrawing the energy reserve and creating enormous materials wastes, pollution and environmental complications, e.g. global warming (Clark, Ariadne’s Thread).
The root of the problems are the result of 500 years’ emancipatory struggle away from repressive gods, kings, and states (Öcalan, Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization Vol I, II; Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity; Talisse, Democracy After Liberalism), without a substitute for the tranquility and the sacred it destroyed. Underlying the facial seeking for rationality and efficiency, the value system of social actors is money driven jungle-style competition, inducing “fetishism of commodities”, hedonism and nihilism. The collective actions in this complex social system guided by such value system created the social economic condition that caused the cultural, politic and environmental problems debriefed. Terrorism, chauvinism, religion fundamentalism are complications of this illness (Castells, Network Society Trilogy). Twenty years ago, Jacque judged the western culture is in decadence, for “the loss it faces is that of Possibility” in his masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence. Also, Castells states in End of Millennial that the key to build a new vibrant new society is “by proposing new cultural codes with the potential to transform the values of society”.
The ultimate solution is a new philosophy of the 21st century.