The Buddhist Philosophy of Disagreement

We’ve all had disagreements that feel irreconcilable. Are they? Actually, yes. Sometimes they are. A Buddhist teaching can help us understand why.

A Buddhist master and his student sit in a temple garden.

“What is Buddha nature?”, the student asks.

“Buddha nature is all things”, the master responds.

* the student spies a stray dog wandering into the garden*

“Does the dog have Buddha nature?”, the student inquires.

The master responds: “Mu.”

The story might seem vague, but it will reveal to us a profound insight. At the center of it all is the master’s final response: “mu”. In English, mu roughly translates to the following sentence:

In order to find the answer, you must “un-ask” the question.

In Buddhism, the essence of god (Buddha nature) is infinite and indivisible, making up all things. When the student asks if the dog has buddha nature, he is making an incorrect assumption that the nature of Buddha can be divided up into something like a dog. When in fact, Buddhism rejects the idea that Buddha nature can be categorized or quantified at all. The dog doesn’t have Buddha nature. The dog is Buddha nature. And because of this, the master is put into this odd but fascinating situation where, because of his beliefs, he can’t really answer the question. If he replies “no”, then he is wrong. If he replies “yes”, then he is also wrong. The only way out is “mu”.

So, why is this such an important idea? In the west, especially amongst educated people, there is a belief that disagreement can be reconciled through debate. There is a belief that logical discourse will lead to a single answer – the truth. But if we allow mu as an acceptable answer, it changes everything. Because when someone responds mu, they are admitting that there may be an inherent problem with the question being asked. Moreover they are admitting in general that questions can be wrong. If someone has a belief system in which mu is a common answer, in which questions can be wrong and answers irrelevant, then it is going to be impossible for that person to argue with someone who is purely logical. They simply have no mechanism for argument. This is the blueprint for impassible disagreement.

There are a huge number of conflicts that follow this blueprint. Whether its the war with radical islam or a common social debate, we spend a lot of time and energy to resolve conflicts. So, its worth knowing when a conflict is beyond reconciliation. Properly considered, the idea of mu can help us do just that.

Artificial Intelligence – Why we keep getting it wrong.

We are going to touch on a ton of cool stuff in this post but here is the big idea: fundamental beliefs can keep us from understanding artificial intelligence.

Now what the heck do I mean by that? What i mean is that artificial intelligence, both as an idea and potentially as a product, spans a massive idealogical spectrum from engineering and computer science all the way to philosophy. And so to understand what AI is and what AI means requires reconciling the idea of artificial intelligence with beliefs all along this spectrum. Mainstream media consistently fails to do this, and so the most widely read material on the topic of AI is fundamentally misguided. So, we are going to take a look at where things often go wrong….

Fundamental belief 1: intelligence is an exclusively human quality.

This is a tough one, because it runs deep. In some sense, modern scientific history (last 2,000 years) can be described as man’s slow realization of his own insignificance. At the core of this evolution in perspective is two competing belief systems: scientific truth and Judeo-Christian values. On the religious side we find deeply held views about human exceptionalism. According to most western religious texts, we owe our best qualities (intelligence, consciousness, etc.) to the will of god, who carefully chose to give people these advantages but not the other creatures of the world. But in the 16th century, these views were challenged by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. All of a sudden, there is an alternative explanation for the origin of man, and therefor also an alternative explanation for the exceptionalism of man. It made us think: if we evolved by the same processes as other animals, how exceptional are we really? Once we started seeing ourselves as animals (or at least as related to animals) it opened the door to a much deeper understanding of ourselves. It also opened the door to a much deeper understanding of our own intelligence. Intelligence became relative. We began to realize that intelligence isn’t a narrowly defined ability that just humans have, rather intelligence is a fluid, relative concept that appears all over the natural world. It is a relatively knew idea to recognize intelligence in all of the many shapes and forms it comes in – especially in nature. But its critical idea for understanding AI. Because in order to understand artificial intelligence, we must first broaden our definition of intelligence itself.

Fundamental belief 2: computers will never be able to do x.

I will concede that there may be some things computers cannot do – for arguments sake. However the point is that when most people draw this line (the line between what is possible for computers vs. what is impossible for computers), its arbitrary. And also, its a line that has constantly shifted over the last 100 years. So, if we can clearly see that we have been underestimating the abilities of computers, then why do we keep on doing it? The answer is simple: once we understand exactly how something works, it ceases being impressive to us. It was said for a long time that in order for something to do calculus, it would have to be intelligent. Yet it wasn’t long after computers were invented that computers could do calculus perfectly. It turns out calculus can be strictly defined by a set of logic (code). But once this program was written, people didn’t say “wow, how intelligent is the computer running this program!”. Rather they said “wow, how simple is calculus!”. Just because we don’t always intuitively understand how a process might be defined in a way that a computer can understand – doesn’t mean its not possible. Its an important point for understanding AI, and it brings us to our next one.

Fundamental belief 3: computers are stupid because they can’t do things that are easy for humans.

Some people might say “If robots are really that smart, why can’t they do things that are easy for me, like carry a tray of food in a restaurant? Why do we still have waiters?”. The simple answer is that balancing a tray of food is actually a tremendous feat of intelligence. It may not be intelligence in the way we normally think about it, like the kind of intelligence you use to solve complex problems. But its still a massive amount of information flowing all throughout your nervous system in cycles of continuous feedback. There are over 600 muscles in the body, and they all have to coordinate to pull off this feat. Another example of this is driving a car. For people, its a routine task that can be done while having a conversation or eating a cheeseburger. But computers are only just now getting the hang of it. Why? Because driving a car is actually extremely difficult. The amount of visual information that we constantly process is staggering. Difficulty is relative, and just because a task is easy for a human doesn’t mean its easy in absolute terms.

Conclusion

These are just a few of many fundamental beliefs that prove as obstacles in understanding artificial intelligence from the proper perspective. These beliefs can be wide ranging, and they tend to be supported by deep, long held, and potentially disproven ideas about reality. That is what makes them so obstructive. Artificial Intelligence is really a set of many ideas, and to understand AI as a whole is to understand how its underlying ideas support each other.

Why we can’t afford to lose the internet

If the world lost internet for 7 days, what would happen? Well, I started out writing this post as a pseudo sci-fi fiction hypothetical disaster piece, but as I really started to dig into a world without internet, i found something better. A big idea:

The internet connected world is one massive, finely-tuned machine with a very specific weakness: it doesn’t have an off button.

Without an off button. Thats the key. Now what do I mean by that? Well, there is a common line of thinking expressed especially by older people that goes something like this:

“What would the world look like without internet?”

“I don’t know but we didn’t have Netflix in the 70’s and everything was just fine!”

True. Kinda. People in the 70’s really were just fine. But there is a more nuanced point here that this response misses. One main thing separates the world today from the world in 1970: forty-six years in time. It took us forty-six years to get to the hyper-connected world we live in today from 1970, and we can’t just change back overnight. Sure it may (or may not) be easier to go backwards than forwards, but what I have realized whilst thinking about this post is that its not the technology thats so slow to change – its the people who use it. And since 1970 these people (us, people of earth!) have changed dramatically. Almost everything we do has been changed by the internet. Our work tools, our communications, the way we make and execute decisions – all completely changed. The point is, if the world lost internet for a week, we couldn’t just “roll back the lifestyle clock” and live like it was 1970. Rather, our delicate, global, interconnected world – built on the internet – would unravel. The effects would be devastating. 

We will start with a few obvious consequences and them piece them together to get at our big idea. Things that are more than likely to happen…

– Social panic. In the developed world, the internet is how we communicate. Its  Period. Our collective consciousness as a society lives on the internet. Pulling the plug, cold turkey, on every citizen on earth is going to cause anxiety at best and social chaos at worst.

– The workforce shuts down. Unless you are responsible for a critical service (law enforcement, medicine, infrastructure), you are staying home. Period. Your communications are down. Your work tools are unavailable. There are no suppliers to buy from and no customers to sell to. Business lives on the internet.

– Finance shuts down. No one can access their money. Banks are closed. The stock market is closed. The majority of financial records – exclusive to the internet – are unavailable. This one hurts because unless you have cash in your wallet, you have no means of purchasing the things you need like food, fuel, or medicine.

  Transportation shuts down. No drivers, no pilots, and no conductors showing up to work means no public transportation. If you are lucky enough to own a car AND have gas in your tank (you cant withdraw money for new gas), then you can trudge through an endless traffic jam caused by the disabling of internet connected traffic lights, not to mention the wrecked vehicles abandoned all over the road without emergency services to assist them.

In other words, the world goes on hold. Which brings us back to our big idea, which is that global society is not really designed to go on hold. Sure we can deal with hurricanes and earthquakes now and again, but we get to deal with them one a time, and we’ve had good practice. Losing the internet is a completely different story because of a phenomenon called complex systems failure. The gist of complex systems failure is that in a complex system, if one or more subsystem goes down, they can potentially cause a chain reaction that leads to the failure of an entire system. A good example of this is in an airplane. Modern planes can survive engine loss, or electrical faults, or pilot error, or a loss of cabin pressure, but when many of these systems fail at the same time, the airplane as a whole tends to fail. And because an airplane is not designed to simply “switch off” at 32,000 feet, airplane failures are catastrophic.

Global society, like an airplane, is also a complex system. Except instead of transporting passengers through the air, the purpose of the global society system is to service the needs of over six billion people. Like an airplane, this system cannot all-of-a-sudden switch off without catastrophic consequences. So what would catastrophic systems failure look like today? Well, we outlined a few of the subsystem failures earlier in the post: social communication, business/industry/workforce, finance, and transport.  Collectively, these subsystems are critical to support the delivery of basic human needs including….

Food – There are a few degrees of failure here. The first and most obvious is distribution failure. No truckers to deliver food. No internet systems to organize and communicate delivery across the supply chain. Then you add in the fact that no business or person has access to financial services to finance their operations. Moving to the second degree of failure, production yields will be impacted. In 2016, our staggering agricultural efficiency as a species is made possible by internet services. Without the internet, we literally can’t make as much food.

Medicine – The entire pharmaceutical business lives online. Patient records are online. Prescriptions are filed online. Payment and records are online. Add looting and social chaos to the mix, and this gets really bad really fast. For the people who need drugs right away, losing the internet is a potentially fatal disaster.

Water – Many of the worlds major cities have no more than five days supply of water treatment chemicals. If the global supply chain is crippled, many of these cities will not get the water treatment they need. In areas where water is drawn from far-away lands through irrigation, and where people absolutely depend on city water, municipal water failure would be absolutely devastating.

Now we can see the naivety of the senior citizen teasing about how “back in his day they didn’t have Netflix and they were just fine.” Losing internet is not a matter of seven days without Netflix. Its a matter of massive systems failure and a tragic unraveling of our internet-connected world. Millions of people would die and society shaken to its core. To be clear, I don’t think is something that is necessarily likely to happen. But I do think that this hypothetical provides an excellent space for considering big ideas about connected society and the global internet. So, think it over, and comment below if you have any crazyfuckingideas of your own. I can’t wait to hear them.

Why Crazy Fucking Ideas?

We had a crazy fucking idea…

There is a specific phenomenon whose significance in the course of human history absolutely dwarves all others. That phenomena is Crazy Fucking Ideas. You see, Crazy Fucking Ideas change the world. Humanity’s most important transformations come from leaps of imagination – not slow and steady progress. Amidst a world of unimaginably many factors (weather, politics, economy, environment, etc.), the consequences of a single idea can be staggering. As such the power of understanding (and spotting) these ideas is equally amazing. And that — understanding bold ideas and their importance — is the purpose of this blog.

So tune in each week as we deliver fresh new ideas to share, dissect, discuss, and inspire. It is our goal to deliver the absolute most original content. Period. Because we love ideas. Especially fucking crazy ones.