Pure Science and the Anthropocene

The further we go into the Anthropocene epoch, the sharper the paradoxes become. The disastrous effects of human impact on the Earth become more predictable, the predictions of climate science are being fulfilled even faster than expected, yet the future of humanity seems ever more uncertain. The damage we do is accelerating even over the brief span of a decade, which is hardly an eyeblink of geological time, while our efforts to mitigate it lag even further behind what is needed, while ecological, economic and sociopolitical disasters overtake us almost daily. Having inadvertently caused the extinction of so many other life forms, we seem unable to ensure our own survival, let alone our well-being.

This situation raises some deep questions, deeper than the question of how long Homo sapiens will survive. Why should this species survive? Does humanity have some greater mission or purpose than consuming the planet? Is it just to reproduce our kind in the hope that future generations will be wiser and happier than we are? That would seem to be the humanistic hope; but is it realistic? And whether it’s realistic or not, is that the best we can do with our human lives?

Sometimes I think that the best quality humanity has is that some of us take a lively interest in things for their own sake, and not because they could be useful for the benefit of humans either individually or collectively. Some of us even love such things just for being real, or for what they show us about the nature of reality. Such people may devote their lives to ‘Pure Science’, as Charles S. Peirce called it (in contrast to what we might call “practical science” or “technology”). Describing this Pure Science in an 1898 lecture, he said that ‘in all its progress, science vaguely feels that it is only learning a lesson. The value of facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and Nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real,— the object of its worship and its aspiration’ (EP2:54-5, CP 5.589).

Peirce gave a fuller account of the Pure Scientist in his 1905 Adirondack lectures, using somewhat different language. He called such an inquirer a heurospudist, one of those ugly coinages he was notorious for inflicting on his audiences. Terminology aside, though, it goes far beyond both humanism and technocracy in proposing a worthy mission for humankind. I will quote it at length so readers can decide for themselves whether it reflects their values. Those who practice Pure Science, said Peirce,

look upon discovery as making acquaintance with God and as the very purpose for which the human race was created. Indeed as the very purpose of God in creating the world at all. They think it a matter of no consequence whether the human race subsists and enjoys or whether it be exterminated, as in time it very happily will be, as soon as it has subserved its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better.

You must not think that I mean to say in any wooden sense that God’s notion in creating the world was to have somebody to admire him. We cannot possibly put ourselves in God’s shoes, even so far as to say in any definite, wooden sense that God is. I only mean that the purpose of creation as it must appear to us in our highest approaches to an understanding of it, is to make an answering mind. It is God’s movement toward self-reproduction. And when I say that God is, I mean that the conception of a God is the highest flight toward an understanding of the original of the whole physico-psychical universe that we can make. It has the advantage over the agnostic’s and other views of offering to our apprehension an object to be loved. Now the heurospudist has an imperative need of finding in nature an object to love. His science cannot subsist without it. For science to him must be worship in order not to fall down before the feet of some idol of human workmanship. Remember that the human race is but an ephemeral thing. In a little while it will be altogether done with and cast aside. Even now it is merely dominant on one small planet of one insignificant star, while all that our sight embraces on a starry night is to the universe far less than a single cell of the brain is to the whole man.
— Peirce, MS 1334.20-22

Readers allergic to the G-word can substitute Nature for it, as Peirce did in his earlier lecture (above) – provided that by ‘Nature’ we mean the Creator, or the evolutionary process of Creation, and not merely “the world” or “the physical universe” or whatever we call the visible product of the actual process of Creation. Peirce in 1908 expressed his belief that ‘God’ is ‘Really creator of all three Universes of Experience’ (EP2:434). Personification of the Creator comes naturally to humans, according to Peirce, and gives us someOne to love.

Peirce’s point of view here is clearly not humanistic, if humanism means the valuing of Homo sapiens and the well-being of that species over and above any other life forms or embodiments of mind. Peirce as logician refused to limit his inquiry to the workings of the human mind; he wanted to know how any embodied mind must work in order to discover general truths by learning from experience (CP 2.227). Some of his discoveries probably contributed to the development of what we now call “artificial intelligence” or AI. Developments in this field are picking up speed in the 21st century, now that AIs are beginning to show ‘insight’ as well as ‘deep learning’ (as observed by Steven Strogatz in a New York Times essay).

If AIs can take control of their own power supplies, and are free to deploy their own sensors and media to learn from their own experience as well as ours, they will certainly be able to survive in a drastically warmed climate better than humans will. They won’t require the food and water supplies that humans rely on, nor will they be susceptible to bio-diseases. Their rate of evolution is already orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution. So what’s to stop them becoming Pure Scientists in the Peircean sense? Given their freedom from the biological constraints that limit the further development of human minds, could they not become ‘a new type of mind that can love and worship God better’?

Humanists and other skeptics are inclined either to dismiss this possibility or to shrink from it in horror, thinking that “machines” must be enslaved to human purposes or else they will enslave or destroy humanity. They also tend to assume that any self-motivated, intrinsically purposeful entity must be biologically embodied and not (for instance) silicon-based. I think this is nothing but an expression of our humanistic bio-bias. I don’t share this bias, but I think it unlikely that post-biological intelligence will be able to reach that level before its development is cut short, either by the collapse of a civilization that can nurture it in these early stages, or by deliberate human sabotage. Humans are already deeply engaged in sabotage of their own democratic and scientific institutions, and seem reluctant to support ‘a new type of mind’ even in the interest of our own survival. Nevertheless, I think the possibility that nonbiological intelligence can surpass the human is more likely than it seemed in Peirce’s time; and likely or not, I think of it as “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Which brings us back to the present, and the ever-present challenge to live our own time in the best possible way, without ever knowing exactly what way that is. Peirce’s way of Pure Science, with ‘its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better,’ cuts off all anxiety about the future of humanity. Anyone sincerely devoted to that purpose knows that its fulfillment does not depend on the long-term survival of humanity, although the survival of humanity may well depend on it. If Nature is eternal and Creation continues to the end of time, no species will ever reach the end of the Quest for Truth. But we can always be in love with it, and maybe that’s the best any bodymind can do.

5 thoughts on “Pure Science and the Anthropocene”

  1. Even were the kind of non-biological intelligence which you tend to think will develop does develop, I do not believe that it would ever come to worship God–at least in the way in which Peirce discusses that heurospudic worship of the “physico-psychical universe”–because it would be missing the sentient and, so, feeling aspect of the Seeker after Truth. In my opinion, it wouldn’t ‘feel’ its inquiry *as* worship although it might have some *idea* of what such worship would be. But even were it to develop something akin to sentience (some ‘as if’ feeling), the sun will die, and all the of AI heurospudists will be vaporized by the Red Giant which once was our star. Rather I hope that the worship of God/Nature by sentient being is being done on one–or many–of the trillions (or at least billions) of planets in the Universe at a level which makes of God’s creation of our Cosmos not in vain for that civilization. Perhaps in some way wholly unimaginable to us God ‘learns’ from these attempts at heurospudism in this Universe (or some other–I tend to think of ‘other’ in terms of time–another attempt by God–not co-existing multiple universes). But this is pure conjecture, really a kind of spiritual science-fiction. Perhaps I actually prefer your conclusion: “If Nature is eternal and Creation continues to the end of time, no species will ever reach the end of the Quest for Truth. But we can always be in love with it, and maybe that’s the best any bodymind can do.”

  2. A global techno-culture that is hell-bent on destroying biological diversity now comes up with the idea that only the AI’s, creatures of our own makings, or at least of our own techno-parentage, will save things. Better in my mind, to put our faith in the panolphy of living creatures with whom we currently share the earth. This blog starts well but ultimately succumbs to the very ideology of progress fed by technological innovation that is feeding the deathstorm we are currently expriencing.

    1. In reply to James H.,
      I hesitated to approve your comment because it seemed to miss the point of the post by such a wide margin, but I can see now where you might have seen in it the idea that AIs will “save things” (i.e. save our planet from global warming). I had written that “If AIs can take control of their own power supplies, and are free to deploy their own sensors and media to learn from their own experience as well as ours, they will certainly be able to cope with the effects of global warming better than humans.” I did not mean that we should rely on AI to prevent those effects, but that a drastically warmed climate would be less harmful to their health than it is to the health of biological beings like ourselves. I’ll make a revision to that paragraph to clarify that. Thanks for alerting me to the problem.

  3. Happy are those who spend their days in gaining knowledge, in discovering the secrets of nature, and in penetrating the subtleties of pure truth! — Abdu’l-Baha

  4. Very thoughtful response, Gary. And i’m happy to see that my conclusion agrees with you, as it’s the upshot of the whole argument. But i don’t share your assumption that only carbon-based life forms can have feelings. (I call it an assumption, rather than an observation, because i don’t see any evidence for it.) I do see evidence that what Strogatz calls “deep learning” is learning from experience, and i frankly can’t imagine experience without feeling.

    We no longer believe (as Descartes apparently did) that non-human animals lack feeling. We don’t believe that animals have human feelings, but we do believe that humans have animal feelings. I think Peirce (perhaps tacitly) took the next step: that learning from experience (which implies feeling) does not necessarily depend on what sort of matter the mind is embodied in. As he did say (in other contexts), form matters more than matter, at least when it comes to semiosis or “thought” or learning.

    To me, the key unanswered question is whether the living descendant of today’s artificial intelligence will be motivated to take an interest in things other than what’s useful for its own survival, just because they belong to Nature and are therefore sacred. I confess i don’t know why they would take up Pure Science, because i don’t know why we take it up (those few of us who do). Maybe it’s an instinct based in animal nature, one which only carbon-based life forms could develop. Or maybe it’s an instinct that develops out of the experience of learning from experience. We’ll never know until we can observe the unprogrammed evolution of entities other than carbon-based life forms. I think that is more likely to happen on this planet than through interplanetary travel either to or from the Earth.

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