Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for August 2023

              of multiple urban reflections as visual allusion to the
              confusion caused by metaphor
What are we really looking at?
August 28, 2023

"The Price of Metaphor Is (still) Eternal Vigilance" 

**WARNING** Car Crash metaphor ahead.

It is obvious that The Car has left the road, although the passengers still disagree. It is now racing down a bumpy slope toward a cliff, and the Drunk Driver stubbornly refuses to hit the brakes, insisting he knows where he is. The Scientist has her head out a window and gives dire warnings about the approaching cliff; the PR Guy in front insists that The Cliff is merely a topographical anomaly and totally natural; The Consumer in back is watching the semi-naked Celebrity draped across the hood trying to get noticed; The Environmentalist strapped to the roof rack is announcing that The Cliff is only one of many dangers ahead, but nobody inside The Car can hear; The Politician is looking at his watch, trying to decide if it is time to jump, while working on his next campaign speech and telling everyone that the situation needs more study; The Historian is peering out the back window, trying to work out how The Car got wherever it is; The Money Man is handing out treats to anyone who thinks the way he wants them to, and is expecting to buy his way out at the bottom. Many Other People are buckled into their seats, playing various games, each with their own Very Special Opinions while the Sound System blares out all the Latest Scores. Just before, or soon after, The Car goes off The Cliff, someone will surely remark that Car Crash Metaphors are inherently misleading.

Okay, sure, we know there really is no "Car".

And besides, it isn't anywhere near "The Cliff". Right?

And what's wrong with doomerism? How does it affect our thinking?

As with other writing, the meaning in this little symbol-laden narrative will vary with whatever conceptual approach each reader brings to the encounter, and how well it can be integrated with their belief systems. More literally inclined minds might find it confusing, while the metaphorically sophisticated might find it more positively or negatively engaging. The text itself is obviously attempted advocacy, but the extent and the perceived goal of that advocacy will depend on the prior experiences of each reader. My apologies if all this seems obvious.

Next week I'll look at some of the questions that might be asked about this type of simplistic metaphorical narrative.

Photo of
              Maligne Lake in the Canadian Rockies from the ridge
How has Nature given this to humans?
August 21, 2023

A Short Review Continued

It may seem too difficult to pay attention to the definitions and hidden implications of words used in conversations, but shouldn't we be more careful to watch our language while thinking to ourselves? I've mentioned that much of our thinking is anthropocentric, as when nature consists of a boat load of "natural resources". Additionally, there are  anthropomorphisms like "ecosystem services", and nature's "gifts". For some, anthropomorphism now even extends to thinking that LLM text generators can "reason" and may somehow become "sentient".

It's not simply that such anthropomorphisms can be inappropriate or misguided. They are pernicious to the extent that they go unnoticed as they restrict and shape our perceptions of reality. They mess with our minds. One of the reasons they go unnoticed may be that we are exposed to all sorts of anthropomorphisms from early childhood, including in much of our entertainment. We have classic, much loved examples like Dumbo and Babar and more modern fantasies like Hal in the movie 2001. But even when we do notice anthropomorphism, we are likely to underestimate its effects. After all, everybody already *knows* animals can't speak English, right?

It seems clear that humans learn to mis-attribute human thoughts, emotions, and behaviour to non humans, and even inanimate objects. But what are some of the less obvious effects of this? Yes, it leads to faulty expectations, skewed perceptions, and inappropriate reactions. But a flawed picture of reality built on such misunderstanding can also spawn highly inaccurate assumptions that combine to channel the core thought patterns in human minds. How many steps is it from cute, talking gold fish to ecosystem services? Ah, but everyone knows goldfish don't really talk.

Misuses of language have recognisable consequences for the way we view and interact with the world. While this might be more obvious in the political sphere, it also seems significant in our attempts to think about our "place" in nature.

Photo of confusing scaffolding of obscure purpose
Confusing structures serving obscure purposes
August 14, 2023

A Short Review  

I'd like to review a few things now after weeks of suggesting ways to consider our use and misuse of language, the nature of beliefs (particularly about nature), and the origins of values.

Several months ago, I started writing about potential threats to nature posed by "Artificial Intelligence" and Large Language Model (LLM) text and image generators. As many people have pointed out, these programs are just designed to put words together in ways that are likely to impress humans. Contrary to what some people believe, LLMs cannot actually think, reason, understand, or know anything. The fact that there is now so much confusion about what these programs are really doing is a symptom of much broader problems.

While there is considerable ambiguity associated with the meanings of words like "think", "reason", "understand", and "know", machines don't experience anything like the human growth and development that has lead to the formation of these concepts. Context plays a huge part in meaning and much of that context involves a human body moving through time and space - which obviously involves nature. Our continuing interactions with nature change our thought processes, however slowly.

I am guessing that humans create (or at least maintain) the ambiguity in language, consciously or not, for potential manipulative benefits. This could mean manipulating other people, or manipulating ourselves through our own thoughts - just a little more resource extraction won't make a difference to this ecosystem. We now seem to be facing the automation of misunderstanding in addition to all our traditional misuses of language as LLM text generators provide an amplification of existing misuse and misunderstanding. They will likely be able to accomplish some tasks more quickly than humans, and will be extolled for those feats by their proponents, but the "collateral damage" looks like it will be extensive.

It should be (but generally is not) obvious that as human populations have multiplied, and technologies have proliferated, human interactions with each other and with nature have become increasingly complex. Values and platitudes that got people by in the past are no longer really acceptable. Accelerated misuse of language, exemplified by the spread and confused reception of LLM text generators, will probably make it much harder to create a reasonable future.

Photo of
              people taking pictures of scenic lake benefiting from
              nature's beauty...
What sort of bargain could we have with nature?
August 7, 2023

Transactional Values 

In the context of the Tragedy of the Commons in nature, I've mentioned some of the problems I think people encounter when they speak of nature providing "ecosystem services". That language seems to be one part of a much broader problem with anthropocentricsm, and not just a case of misplaced metaphor. It is remarkable that humans seem to anthropomorphise all of nature - even speaking of nature's resource "gifts". When that is combined with another common human tendency - bargain hunting - negative results can be both pervasive and unnoticed. Do humans have a one-sided implicit "bargain" with nature?  

"You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

Many (most?) human relationships are what I would call transactional. People do things for others expecting something (more) in return, and they "grow up" learning that this is a good, "fair" way to interact. At the same time, individuals tend to overestimate the value of their own contributions and underestimate the value returned from others. This doesn't seem like a recipe for satisfying interactions. It might be worthwhile looking at how we acquire our sense of "fairness" and the roles it plays in the evolution of our value systems.

The semi-ironic phrase, "...but, what have you done for me lately?" is sometimes used to point out perceived abuse in transactional interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, this recognition of unfairness usually only extends to individual transactions, and ignores the broader social and environmental consequences.

Nature doesn't do bargains or offer anyone a "good deal". Despite our training to the contrary, transactions are a risky way for humans to interact with each other, and an ultimately perilous way for humans to interact with nature. It may be the norm, and what we are used to, but we really only get away with it for a while.