Humans are more than biological creatures

Earlier this month I attended one of the regular BRLSI philosophy talks.  Andreas Wasmuht prepared an excellent introduction to the work of Martin Heidegger, specifically his work Being and Time (first published in 1927). This post is not specifically about that work, but it got me thinking again about how much more we humans are than mere biological entities.

Intelligence is about taking effective, goal oriented actions within a specific, typically complex context. It’s essential to understand that all intelligence operates within a context; there is no meaning in the idea of a context free, general intelligence. You’ll also notice that I talk about taking actions, not about thinking or even ‘making decisions’. The only real (i.e. measurable) intelligence relates to actions, not ‘thoughts’.

Human intelligence now operates within the socio-technical constructs of our biological and social evolution. As biological creatures we have some unique abilities, notably language and sophisticated tool use. These enabled us to develop social constructs, which in turn affected our biological evolution – two evolutionary systems acting together, the Baldwin effect.

Whatever our occupation, we all use technology all the time. Not only digital technology, but machines, tools and constructions of all kinds. Our world is now largely artificial. Fields and ditches, hedges and dykes, roads, bridges and tunnels, harbours and dredged channels, power lines, canals and aqueducts, mines and quarries, managed forests, fish farms. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The world is not ‘natural’. We have formed it for our own use. We humans are now entirely reliant on our technology, a continuum from simple hand tools through to the entire planet we ride through space on. We reduce air quality, we affect the climate, we’ve altered the temperature of the deep oceans. Our polymers are pervasive throughout the biosphere. The planet is modified as a result of our human intelligence.

To return to Heidegger for a moment, our Being, our ‘Dasein’ is an inseparable amalgam of our biological heritage and our technology. To understand humanity, we must understand ourselves within our socio-technical context. We must not fail to grasp our reliance on technology, nor the extent to which our techno-assisted intelligence has modified our planet. We are now introducing artificial intelligence into this mix. We need to think very carefully about how we want to develop and deploy AI.  How will our Dasein evolve with this new action taking technology, will it improve our lot, or diminish it? As Heidegger observes, we are thrown into this world without choice. We live at a time of great expansion of humanity, both numerically and in terms of our effect on the planet. I hope we can choose to use AI wisely.

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