Wednesday 22 September 2010

In/tolerance without the ethics

One way or another the subject of tolerance - or the lack of it - always hovers around social and political issues. Whether it is the treatment of certain demographics, or immigration, or foreign policy in general, even if not articulated explicitly it remains the elephant in the room.

What effect tolerance and its opposite have can be examined away from the ethical and emotional by considering what these functionalities mean in terms of human activity systems.

Our current perspective is based on affinity relationships and how they come into being. As their name implies, they represent connections made possible by the content of representative states of the system's members such that a degree of synchronicity exists. The label 'member' can refer to neurons in the mind of an individual, they can equally stand for the citizens in a society. Right now we are dealing with the latter.

Any content, imported via the senses, turns into representative states. These states are unique to a given domain (a cluster of members) and, in a very real sense, define it. Any similarity between one domain and another in terms of their respective representative states produces an affinity between the two. Since any domain with its members is an importer of information as well as an exporter, not only do the internal states determine the quality of further information processing but so do any affinity relationships.

Processing means traversal across the members, and the greater the similarity between two or more domains the higher the probability the processes during the traversal will contain content from the entire set. Or, put another way, the higher the probability the traversal will include the set of domains and their members. All things being equal, the traversal will proceed along the path of similar content (higher degrees of similarity being favoured). However, representative states being merely representative, anything that modifies the states of some other domains can bring the latter within reach of the former, because both have become affinitive with each other.

For example, drugs that change the chemical metabolism among neurotransmitters can have the effect of producing associations that otherwise would have been unlikely if not impossible. Depressants modify the pathways such that negative connections, that is to say domains representative of what is perceived as negative by their host, possess a higher degree of probability of being traversed during processing and/or access than those being representative of more positive content. The converse is true in the case of stimulants.

Let us now focus more closely on our topic. A society that displays a certain measure of intolerance does so because within its sumtotal of perceptions, values and priorities it discriminates against manifestations that it sees as a sign of opposition to its nature. Since intolerance needs to be exercised for it to be recognised as such, that society will pro-actively seek out reasons to act out its attitude.

Note that affinity does not need something directly similar; it equally responds to the opposite (just as 'light' indirectly defines 'dark' and 'wet' indirectly defines 'dry').

Therefore, to understand what an intolerant society dislikes one only has to find out what it favours, and vice versa. In other words, what makes an intolerant society raise its opposition is as much part of its affinity envelope as are its values.

For that reason an intolerant society will interact - albeit antagonistically - with those sections it considers as, well, intolerable.

A tolerant society on the other hand sees no inherent reason to engage with different sections since the affinity relationships as described above do not hold. While there is no direct reason to engage, likewise there is no direct reason not to either.

If interaction engenders a certain familiarity and knowledge (due to the likelihood of traversals), we can expect an intolerant society to have more information about its disparate sections than a tolerant one. Note however that an antagonism does not preclude presumption, especially if driven by a need to distance oneself. How much that last factor influences the quality of information about the 'other' that is admitted into a domain is also a function of ideological intensity overall. (In this context it should be remembered that no society can be identified in terms of a single aspect only)

Examples of these relationships are not hard to find. Consider the reasons given for some intolerance towards a demographic or a custom by those who have come into contact with them, compared to the assumptions about the same held by those whose experience does not include a similar exposure. The difference can also be observed in arguments that arise when both sides seek to justify their opinions against each other, using their respective perception to bolster their positions.

In conclusion, having a diverse society does not in itself widen its intellectual scope; just as wisdom is not a direct result of the accumulation of data.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Should we be scared of aliens?

When discussing alien life forms science fiction writers either tend to delineate from existing circumstances and project into the future, or invent something completely new.

As to the first, since out of necessity only some aspects belonging to their starting point are used, the future represents an exaggeration of what is already. Hence it can't be a complete picture.

The other option is to leave the familiar altogether and construct a scenario without any reference to the known. What we get in this case is an idealised version of the writer's vision - not necessarily something positive in human terms, and it is a complete construct. So neither of them is helpful if we want to seriously consider the nature of intelligent aliens.

Yet there is a third option.

Since we are talking about alien life, we are considering complex, dynamic systems. CDSs follow certain rules and regardless of the content, in a functional sense they all are similar. On Earth human societies are and have been as varied as they come. Whether it was the ancient Phoenicians, the Mayas, the Russian Empire or the British, or whether some mountain community in Tyrol, certain features are shared by all of them. Even among relatively lower life forms we find traces of them.

Generally speaking, and focusing on intelligent life, they are -

1. Procreation: the most important of them all, it defines the life form's survival and its identity. The first forces any potential competition into the background, a degree of priority that subsumes anything else under its authority.

The second determines the value its owners place on any of its manifestations, and being the core value elevating it to what some of our languages label 'sacred'.

Not only is identity held important, it is the least likely to be subject to rational considerations;

2. Cooperation: any life form that creates a civilisation must have the capacity to form and favour the herd at whatever level of sophistication. Cooperation needs to be understood as a dynamic applied to the whole (ie, the tribe, society, culture, etc) such that it can be enforced if need be.

Adjacent to its usually positive connotation therefore sits its other side, the will and readiness to move against any usurper. Hence the greater the degree of cooperation overall, the more stringent the measures designed to protect it;

3. Aggression: considered in relation to the whole it serves to protect against anyone and anything perceived to be a threat.

The dynamics of identity and cooperation are combined to ensure a positive outcome for their host. Identity serves as the cause, cooperation as the reason, and together they supply the quality and quantity of defense nurtured by aggression.

The question then, "Should we be scared of aliens" can be answered by assuming there is a civilisation sufficiently evolved to make contact (note: they contact us). This means science and technology exist as a powerful product of the three basics described above, and the intellectual wherewithal to sustain them all.

Sustainability implies understanding, and understanding contains the potential for empathy. Rapacious, colonialising behaviour for its own sake is inherently unsustainable because in a growing system sooner or later the resources needed to control the conquered surpass the benefits.

Yet evolutionary growth also implies the willingness to assert oneself if no other option is left. Both, empathy and assertiveness, go hand in hand but a successful civilisation will still favour assertiveness over empathy in the end.

Should there be an alien race that has achieved the capability to make contact, we can expect them to be curious, firm, but fair overall. Since CDSs incorporate mutually opposing qualities which become apparent should the perceived need arise, we can also expect them to be intrusive, lenient, and capricious.

How that translates into the world view of an alien would be the most urgent task on our side.

Considering the above it would help being most careful when touching on anything having to do with the context of their procreation, respecting their team spirit when dealing with any representative, and honouring their aims. As to the last, we probably won't have much choice anyway.

Since we can expect them to be intelligent, one way to understand the values and priorities of their minds is to observe their kind of humour. To do that we need to have the opportunity, and this in itself is part of the challenge.

It should be an interesting exercise!