Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Singularity as Summa Bonum

For the last week or so I have been delving into some of the more philosophical issues associated with the Singularity world view. I have decided to call it a world view because it leaves no concept untouched.

If I had to place the current discussion under one rubric it would have to be the place of rational, self-reflective thought on the accelerating development of human civilization. In large measure I have Ian Stuart, one of my readers, to thank for provoking my thought on this issue. Ian has been in dialog with me through the comments and also through his own blog, which he just recently started, entitled Rationality.

One of the issues that we have agreed needs to be solved is none other than the ancient philosophical question first raised by Socrates “What is the Good”? This is the ultimate question.

Only self-reflective beings can ask this question and it is how one answers this question that governs the actions of all rational beings. What I mean by this is that all intermediate goals have as their aim one ultimate goal. In ancient philosophy this goal is called 'The Good'. It is generally thought that this is none other than happiness. The Greek word for happy is Eudimonia. This word has a slightly different connotation in Greek than in English; it means human flourishing.

So what I'm saying is that all rational, self-reflective beings have as their super-goal attaining a greatest state of good. Those species which are not governed by reason but by instinct alone give no consideration to this, for which reason they are called irrational.

Now different people have different ideas about just what state of affairs is the most good, or what conditions will bring about the most happiness.

I believe that the greatest good is maximum freedom. I also believe that this is hard-wired into all of us even if only dimly recognized by some and that this internal motivation to maximize freedom is the driving force behind the accelerating advancement of our civilization. Allow me to explain what I mean.

First, you may want to know, what I mean by freedom. Quite simply all I mean is unrestricted action toward the attainment of The Good. But what is limiting freedom? Let me clarify that one is only free in as much as one is rational. Those who do not direct their actions toward The Good act according to the compulsion of their animal nature and are therefore in bondage to that which is outside of their will.

The purpose of Law is to coerce those who cannot govern themselves into rational action and also to teach them by example. The purpose of government becomes obsolete once the first stage of rationality is achieved. This is Hegel's rational state which was discussed previously. Once this state is achieved there are only two limits on freedom: Knowledge and Power – which go hand in hand. Knowledge in this context can be defined as the ability to imagine what is possible. Our ability to imagine what is possible is limited by our knowledge of how the universe works. And by power I mean the ability to manipulate and transform reality into what we imagine. And what we Imagine for ourselves is a state where we have more intelligence, more knowledge and more power to bring about what we envision, whether as individuals or as a collective. So both the goal and the means of attaining that goal are in a cybernetic feed back loop. In other words the goal is to be able to better understand the cosmos and to be able to use that knowledge to build more powerful technologies to better understand and have command over the unfolding of the cosmos. But in achieving this we will be able to imagine possibilities that were previously unimaginable and we will then have the tools to realize what we imagine. And so on ad infinitum.

According to this thesis all rational action should be directed toward the attainment of this goal. Therefor the Summa Bonum is a goal which can never be fully obtained but toward which we are constantly moving at an ever accelerating rate. The goal is perfect knowledge and perfect power.

Does this mean that there is no limit to what is possible? I believe so. The future beyond the singularity is Unfathomable, incomprehensible, and ineffable. And this is so precisely because we do not have the intelligence or the knowledge to imagine what is possible beyond that point. What we do know is that beyond that point we will have the knowledge and intelligence to imagine what is next and we will also have the tools to bring that about.

So I guess that answers the age old question.


"...The future beyond the singularity is Unfathomable, incomprehensible, and ineffable..."

There are at least two qualitative differences between a nuclear explosion and the Singularity: the resulting disorganized and organized transformation of matter, and the limited and unlimited extent of that transformation, respectively.

This make the Singularity potentially infinitely more dangerous than a nuclear explosion.

By Blogger Pirx the Pilot, at 4/12/05 13:10  

Just a thought on power. I'm reminded that Nietzsche's use has a lot more to do with creativity and potentia than our current conception of it (he was a philologist, after all). Seems like this works quite nicely with your concept of freedom- 'will to potentiate' has a nice ring to it.
I guess I would only encourage you to expand y(our) understanding of such concepts like power and knowledge to include or account for other essential phenomena. For example, where in relation to this absolute good are qualities like balance and harmony, interdependence, human love (speaking of things that only we can do), wisdom (which implies ambiguity) and responsibility in action (which again phenomenologically points toward ambiguity)? These are just a few aspects of human experience that to me seem integral and cannot be boiled down as derivative of some other experience or in service of a greater good. They are intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. To say that love is ultimately in service of expanding knowledge or power is kind of to miss the point.
I agree with your vision of the ordered, structured reality of a final telos, as well as the ineffability of the future. I suppose that many have been inspired by these ideas toward ambitious creativity and excellence, some toward a sensitivite openess and humility, and for very few, toward both.

By Blogger seek, at 4/12/05 14:04  

to pilot pirx:
I'm not quite following your logic. A nuclear explosion is a destructive force which disorganizes matter, while the singularity can only occur as the result of forces of construction which organize matter according to the concerted will of intelligence. The danger of a nuclear explosion is the nihlism that its destructive powers represent. But the Singularity represents the limitless expansion of the organization of matter toward a final goal. I define this final goal as summa bonum - the greatest good.
Of coarse I get your point. Both of these things represent incredible power and all powerful things are dangerous. I think that what you are saying is that because the Singularity potentialy represents infiite power it is therefor of infinite danger while a nuclear explosion is of a finite power and danger.
This is a good point. And this is why I want to define the greatest good toward which we should aim. If something as powerful as a greater than human AI had a super goal that differed from this it would be a destructive power that would come into conflict with the goal of humanity. If this happened there would probably be no Singularity but rather a human vs. machine war which would certainly end in destruction.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 4/12/05 22:41  

to Seek:
Thanks for the insight on Nietzsche's use of power as potentia and creativity. This is exactly the conception I had in mind. As to your questions. Are some goals goods unto themselves and not in service to a super goal? Part of the philosophy that I am trying to expound has to do with the interrelation of all things. Both of individuals to their fellows human beings and of the human race to the greater cosmos. Having said that allow me to show how this one point answers all of the examples which you have offered as possible goods in and of themselves.

1.balance and harmony:

As I understand things the Hegelian philosophy is the ultimate answer to this problem. All dualities are resolved yet as soon is there is resolution there is a new duality. Infinite movement through series of conflict and resolution toward one ultimate is a perfect picture of balance and harmony.


If all share the same goal of perfect freedom then all action is interdependent. For example the people of this planet are more interdependent now then they ever have been before. This trend will continue at an exponential rate until we are so interdependent we are practically a new organism.

3.human love:

Love can mean many things: A vestigial animal instinct, altruism, or an intense enjoyment of something or someone. None of these things are strictly human. I will assume then that you mean altruism though you may mean something more vague. I believe that perfect love is the result of enlightenment. When you see that all things are part of a whole that are acting together toward a final goal then the I/them dualism is defeated and altruism is the result. The movement toward Summa Bonum is a history of Altruism. As in all great philosophy the final good can be spoken of under many names which ultimately mean the good. These would include beauty, justice, and love. All of these things become more and more indistinguishable as the human race moves toward the final good at an accelerating pace. - even though we are far from that point presently.

4.wisdom (which implies ambiguity):

Wisdom is synonymous with knowledge in the way that I have defined it here. Wisdom is the knowledge of right action. Right action is ambiguous precisely because we do not understand the final good and because we do not understand the universe well enough to fully understand the effects of our actions.

responsibility in action:

This is a correlate of wisdom. One can only be responsible for the results of actions which one intended. If one does not have sufficient knowledge or power one cannot be certain of the effects of one's actions. Also if one does not act rationally toward the Good then one is not even capable of responsibility at all because one is not free at all. So as freedom grows so grows responsibility.

So in conclusion all of these things are goods in and of themselves, but they are so precisely because all of these things are aspects of the Summa Bonum. Remember, the Summa Boum is an infinite. It can never be achieved - only approached. So every goal that is achieved is always only one step closer to the Good.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 4/12/05 23:34  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 5/12/05 09:17  

I am reposting this comment because it was not displaying correctly for me. If it appears twice for anyone else please let me know and I'll delete one.


There is something about which I am not totally clear. Are you positing that The Good is the necessary attractor state for any rational being regardless of substrate or learning environment? What I am asking is this; Is there some logical reason why both a rational human and a rational A.I. would, by necessity, gravitate to the idea of personal freedoms being the optimal super-goal? I'm not disagreeing, I'm just wondering if there is some obvious reason why this would occur.


By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 5/12/05 10:52  

Good question. You seem to have a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. I have been tossing this around in my head. If this were so it would be kind of a natural law of the universe that any system of sufficient intelligence would gravitate toward freedom as the optimal super-goal.
I tend to think that this is the case but for now I'm just saying that this is the case for human-beings.
What do you think about this thesis?
As to an obvious reason this would occur. I have a lot of ideas about this and its hard to do them justice on a blog post but let me give it a shot. (I realize I just sort of glossed over this important part before). Part of the answer is analagous to biology: why do biological systems have reproduction as a super-goal? Well if they didn't we would not be around to ask the question. Similarly a rational agent would not advance very far technologically if he did not have as at least part of his goal to gain more information about his environment so that he could build better tools so that he could acomplish more. And the ability to do this grants more freedom than not. And I think that rational agents are inherently technological.
Another aspect of this thesis is that I think freedom is another way of saying that one has full power to develop one's potential. And I dare say that we have a lot of potential as a civilization. So of course the more resources you have toward developing your potential the faster you approach actualization of potential.
This entire concept hinges on how deep we can define the meaning of freedom. In one sense I imagine freedom as being defined as the most efficient state of affaires. It is not efficient to try and force beings to act against their nature. But if every individual in a system of intelligent beings are naturally in accord in their actions toward a common goal then they avoid all conflict, every indvidual is acting without hinderence in accord with their own internal nature (reason), and the coordination of effort toward the super-goal is maximized.
Well I hope I made some sense. I'm curius to know what you think.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 5/12/05 13:35  

I think that there can be no distinction made between rational humans and any other rational being. If it would be rational for a human to pursue some super-goal then it would be rational for any agent to pursue that super-goal as long as they are working with the same information. I also agree that for any human to be altruistic to his/her own detriment would be irrational.

The way that I see it, we have two opposing forces, or rather 1 force and 1 immovable object. On the one hand we have a universe which we have to assume is a finite supply of resources (should this turn out not to be the case then please disregard this entire comment) and on the other hand you have resource hungry humans (and whatever other sentient agents are around by then).

I believe that in a competitive environment there can never be complete harmony, unless for some non-obvious reason progress halts automatically once we run up against the end of the resources. I also believe that we will encounter many local resource voids before we reach the end of all consumable resources in the universe/multi-verse. Of course this will be hundreds of years from now. (It is ironic that these things are now viewed as happening in hundreds rather than millions of years, and that you and I can reasonably expect to be around to see them happen.)

One possible force that could guide us into the attractor of presonal freedoms is that of self-balancing forces. In a world of 6.6 Billion people, the probability of any one person gaining complete control is miniscule, but it would be horrible to conteplate a world where everyone acted rationally, but the only reason in which any individual did not seek to control all resources was that it would be irrational to believe that they could succeed against everyone else.

So, in summary, I believe that we will be able to support reciprocal altruism right up until we reach either a local or a global shortage of resources, be they energy, computational cycles, materials, etc. . . And that we will then be forced to begin competition again in order to stave off stagnation and the onset of entropy.

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 5/12/05 14:20  

Great comments Ian. Once again you have managed to go straight to the heart of the matter. When I said at the end of the post that I thought the possibilites were limitless this was basically pure speculation based on the theory that perhaps Being is infinite. Whether this means that there is an infinite multiverse or infinite dimensions or something else I cannot say. My thinking is that beyond the Singularity our grasp of science will be so far beyond where it is now that our picture of Being will hardly resemble current cosmology. If this is the case I think that as our technology and science accelerate so will the availability of resources. Of course if I am wrong and the universe is but a finite island of Being in an ocean of nothingness then you are right and we will eventually run out of recources. I think its safe to say that compertition of all kinds, from economic competiton to war, is based on the scarcity of resources. But imagine how it will be when the only limitation on advancement is the physical laws binding how fast matter can be transfomed. Then there is no scarcity of resources to be distributed through the mode of competition. The first stages of this would be once we have mastered the energy of the vaccume and once we can reconstruct matter at the atomic level with perfect efficency. I imagine that abilities such as this are what will cause the Singlarity.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 5/12/05 15:29  

This is a stimulating discussion. To keep it from resembling a late night dorm "bull session" too closely, either of you might consider dropping in a few links to support your lines of reasoning, or to extend your rationale a bit. That is the beauty of hyperlinking, and what draws a lot of people to the web. For example, rather than just telling us what a particular philosopher says, why not also supply a link? Or if you are aware (a lot of this is subconscious) of where a particular idea in your mind may have started, consider linking to one or two sources.

Nice discussion. Thanks.

By Blogger al fin, at 6/12/05 08:37  

al fin,

Normally I would be happy to do this. If you'll notice, my blog ( is repleat with links to Wikipedia and various other hopefully illuminating sources. Unfortunately, in the current discussion we are both sort of speculating about things which I would estimate only about 0.001% of the population have ever even heard of, so published materials are few and far between. However; realizing this, I think that both Micah and I are basing our arguments on sound logical footing with relatively few and well stated assumptions.

I, for instance, made clear in my last post that my concerns were only valid if the universe was not an infinite resource pool, something for which I really have no evidence. It was simply a conditional argument.

With any luck at all, this discussion will end up having a sound rational basis and will be the catalyst for many more posts and speculation that other bloggers and thinkers may refer to when discussing such things.

To make a long story short (too late), I am truly a believer in supporting opinions with as much corroborating evidence as possible, but there simply isn't very much to reference when you are talking possible philosophies of the 22nd century.

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 6/12/05 09:18  

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