Vanity thought #1498. Overtime

Maybe it’s too much to talk about one show featuring atheists for three days and, incidentally, the part I want to discuss today is also called “Overtime with Bill Maher”. It’s available only on Youtube, HBO doesn’t broadcast it, so it’s a nice gesture on the part of the guests to stay on for free. At least that’s the impression Bill Maher leaves when he asks his guests who appear at the start if they would stay for Overtime, too. Usually they do, and last Friday it was Bill Maher, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins answering questions from internet audience. There were three other panelists and they had their own questions, too, but I’ll talk about science.

First question was to both Tyson and Dawkins: “Is it worth engaging with people who deny facts like evolution and climate change?” The “and” in there kind of spoiled it for me because it restricted engagement only to a certain wing of Christian orthodoxy. We got missed, and so did the Pope who, I presume, can still be counted among creationists and he doesn’t deny the climate change. Still the gist of it is valid and answers can apply to a broad spectrum of non-believers in atheism.

Tyson deflected it to Dawkins who has more experience with battling religionists and Dawkins was convinced that it’s worth it, people need to be told the truth because “we” have to (why?), otherwise we are “screwed”. That’s not a very convincing argument. He didn’t have time to explain “screwed” and so he could have offered a more reasonable explanation but we’ve had religions since the beginning of time and came out alright. No one would refer to the time as little as fifty years ago as “screwed”, and everyone was religious then.

Tyson advocated a different approach. He sees himself as an educator and so his role is to show people the way, bring them to a new understanding, make it a pleasant experience. Beating them with shoes and telling them they are stupid is not a part of his plan. Okay, but we’ve been left out once again – most devotees joining ISKCON in the West are not converts from Christianity, they aren’t ignorant about evolution and atheism. Atheistic arguments and reasoning do not convince us and Tyson makes it slightly more presentable than usual, and hopes to infect people with his enthusiasm, but his hyper-emotional appeal can go only so far.

When he got up and started rubbing his odd looking vest against Bill Maher even Dawkins chose to tactfully sip his coffee. Yes, his approach looked better compared to Dawkins but one of the panelists didn’t miss a chance to sarcastically point out how Tyson goes out of his way to look like a good guy. Fortunately, it didn’t really register or Tyson was smart enough to avoid replying.

Next science question was about dangers of artificial intelligence. Recently we’ve had another warning from Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, the real life Ironman, is also worried about it. Dawkins said he was surprised we haven’t progressed as far in this field as he hoped when he first took interest in it in the seventies. That’s an important admission because that’s what we’ve been saying all along – science keeps feeding people with dreams but always comes awfully short on fulfilling them. Most of the time people don’t remember what they have been promised, no one owes up to the failures, and we are told about the bright future instead.

Tyson interjected that we actually do have flying cars, as promised, they are called helicopters and the reason they are not as widespread is because we don’t like the noise and the wind associated with flying. This didn’t convince anybody because for anyone who expected flying cars as they were presented back then helicopters just don’t cut it and they feel cheated. So, the bad science cop feels frustrated with the lack of progress and the good science cop tries to convince us that predictions about future were delivered exactly as promised. One of them must be wrong but they somehow don’t realize it.

Tyson also said that he is not afraid of artificial intelligence, it’s all around us already, we have computers that “smoked” human champions in chess, he mentioned, and it didn’t do anyone any harm. Others objected that this kind of AI is rudimentary and is very restricted in its applications, that we don’t have AI advanced enough to make any important decisions.

This made me think – all intelligence is ultimately artificial in a sense it’s a material element, our computers work just like our brains and we have no problem delegating some of our brain work to machines. What they really mean by artificial intelligence is artificial life. Unless machines display sings of life, signs of independent feeling and willing they won’t have an advanced AI of the kind we could be wary of. So far machines are only extensions of our desires and so they pose no more danger than our own contradictions. Unless they are alive they won’t stand up and object to our plans. This consideration is completely missing from AI debates and it’s because scientists still don’t know the difference between life and matter.

Tyson, however, raised an interesting point in emulating real life. He said that we, as humans, carry a lot of evolutionary baggage that is not rational or logical, most of the time it’s dormant but every now and then it shines through and it could actually be responsible for our creativity. Machines do not carry that baggage, they have no illogical parts, so can they ever become as creative as humans? Dawkins replied that we could introduce randomness in their decision making as a solution.

First of all, Tyson is simultaneously right and wrong. We express our desires according to our “evolutionary baggage”, according to our accumulated karma, but those are our desires as living beings, dead matter doesn’t have them. The creativity is expressed through matter but that’s because the living entities inside want some new experiences. Dawkins suggestion that this could be emulated with random desires generator might work on the surface but isn’t it the same as suggesting that given enough time and enough monkeys with brushes and paints you could eventually recreate Picasso? Human ingenuity is not random, it’s distinctly different from throwing stuff at a wall and waiting for something to stick.

This has been tried in business, of course, but that’s not how Jobs invented an iPhone or an iPad. They have standardized creative industry, too, and wrote down rules for creating works of art, but they haven’t produced any actual art this way, only cheap entertainment for the masses, factory produced books, movies, and music no one remembers for longer than a day.

The last question was about most exciting topics in science. Dawkins answered straight off the bat – origin of life. It’s a mystery and we don’t know anything about it. This totally contradicts his earlier assertion in the show that “we understand how life, in particular, came about.” Did he even notice? Tyson chipped in by calling mystery of life as his top three topics as well. At this point Bill Maher and another panelist barged in, trying to be holier than the Pope and telling Dawkins and Tyson that this has been solved years ago by flashing electricity through chemical compounds in a flask. Of course it didn’t produce any life and Dawkins was painfully aware of that but these over-eager pupils of science were somehow convinced that the answer has been found.

Tyson diffused the situation by gently explaining that the same results, the organic molecules, are found in meteorites, too, but they are still not life and no one knows how to go from this to self-replicating mechanisms. He further explained that life has appeared very very early in the universe, whether it was on Earth or on other planets. Tyson himself, btw, is a proponent of panspermia, the theory that life was brought to Earth from outer space. That’s a big topic for another day, I’ve been preparing for it some time ago but then got distracted and forgot about it.

The show ended with a very interesting point made by Tyson, challenging the common narrative pushed by Stephen Hawking and science fiction that in order to survive we, as humans, must learn to populate other planets so that if something bad happens in one place it doesn’t wipe out our entire civilization. Tyson’s point is simple – if we are able to “terraform” other planets to be just like Earth, shouldn’t we be able to fix the Earth itself to be like Earth when things go wrong? So far we clearly can’t but hope that we’ll have better luck on Mars.

At the end of the day that’s all that science is – promises, promises, and more promises that go contrary to everything they have “achieved” so far. Always living for another day, which is another big topic that should be left for the future, ironically.


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