Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is civilization a success or a failure, or is it too soon to tell?

As long as there is grinding poverty on the same planet that supports extravagant luxury and opulence, we cannot say we have a just society. As long as we are consuming natural resources at profligate, unsustainable rates, civilization will be subject to collapse. If we have a large fraction of human beings living in dire poverty and natural resources are being depleted at truly astounding rates—in short, if our civilization is unjust and unsustainable—we cannot call it a success.

When we study history, we can see that civilizations thrive and collapse. But there has never been a collapse of a global civilization. Whether there will be such a collapse will depend on what we do. A key question will be whether we respect our basic moral principles and remember the golden rule when voting. Since we have no authority as individuals to initiate use of force against peaceful people, then we have no authority to delegate that power to government or to give political power (our vote) to politicians, to lawmakers, who would use government as an instrument of force or violence against a peaceful person. There should be no first-use of force by government; no regulation of private behavior by government. When we recognize this limit on our freedom of action in the voting booth and exercise appropriate self-restraint in our voting choices, we will free up attention and resources of government to address the more urgent problems of the day.

Can we create a world where the people could express their opinion about what are the most appropriate rates of use and taking of natural resources (publicly-owned resources)? Can we design our public policy such that the people's expressed preferences are taken into account in a way that makes a real difference, so that only the environmental impacts that most people say are appropriate and acceptable would be manifest in reality? We would base our collective opinion on what citizens see in their environment and what they learn from other citizens like themselves (or from citizens somewhat like themselves, but with different experiences, education and character types).

A democratic political system that respects public property rights would provide mechanisms whereby information (opinions) from citizens about acceptable levels of pollution, rates of taking or depletion of resources, extent of paving or monoculture, etc., could be conveyed to the people and (or including) corporate entities who actually produce these kinds of effects. And the citizens—each person (each natural person)—ought to receive a monetary payment equal to their share of the value of natural resource wealth taken by corporate interests for the purpose of economic gain.

In an economic system, information is carried and value is represented by money. If the signal that the people want to send to industry is that they value clean air and water so much that they feel it is necessary for industries to try harder to avoid fouling the air and water, then the most efficient and fair way of communicating this information would be to charge a fee on those actions that are causing the harm that the people want to limit. A free market auction of a limited number of natural resource user-permits would cause those resources that the people wish to conserve to cost more. If the number of permits issued reflects what most people feel is an acceptable level of environmental impact, then the price of natural resources would come to match what society collectively decides they must cost to cause industry to put the necessary amount of effort into conservation and pollution prevention.

When a random survey shows that a particular kind of environmental impact is neither excessive nor is it too severely limited— when most people say the particular kind of environmental impact is about right (whether it be the extent of paving, intensity of light pollution, rate of emission of carbon dioxide, methane or other chemical, for example)—then we will know that the appropriate amount of effort is being put into controlling that kind of impact. We will know that the fee is set at the right amount.

Within a public property rights paradigm, expressions of opinion by the people about what are the most appropriate limits on human transformation of the Earth would directly affect the actions that humans perform that impact the Earth and that affect the human community. Similarly, signals from neurons in biological brains affect the state or behavior of other neurons, and they affect conditions in the larger organism. A system of fees on those activities that the people feel are harmful or should be limited (or sale of a limited number of permits) would function as an autonomic nervous system for Earth by helping to maintain a healthy ecological balance.

When we define appropriate limits to government power by ending the practice of using government to regulate private behavior, we bring our society more into accord with our basic moral principles. When we free up attention and resources of government that have, up to this point, been devoted to regulating private behavior, those resources and that mental effort can be directed toward the task of regulating effectively those things that people do that adversely impact the natural and social environments.

Moral principles require that we respect privacy. Moral principles require that we respect public property rights and share natural wealth equitably. Moral principles and human rights (including property rights) are a kind of natural law. If we respect basic laws of nature (moral principles are natural law that governs social interaction) we can produce a sustainable and just civilization.

Natural law requires equal ownership of natural resources

Human society as neural network

Monday, March 30, 2009

Neural Networks Follow the Golden Rule

We can understand the functioning of neural networks best when we see them as communities of neurons. Like communities or societies in the more conventional sense, their members behave in ways that reflect concern for the well-being of their neighbors.

Recalling Marshall McLuhan, we are able to do only what some portion of our body specializes in doing. Our various organs have cells that specialize in doing the work of that organ. We can be members of communities concerned about one another perhaps only because we have brain cells that try to help their neighbors.

Neural networks within organisms emerge when entities (cells) within the organism develop the ability to read or discern the state of other entities like themselves which they are in contact with, in communication with, with the "intention" or aim of helping their neighbors approach their more ideal state.

Neural networks function most effectively to the extent that each neuron, each member of the community of neurons, is "trying" to bring itself toward its more ideal state (that is, either a state of being active at a steady pace, OR a state of rest); while at the same time "trying" to help bring its neighbors toward their more ideal state (of steady activity OR rest).

For neurons that are molecular machines within biological organisms, the question of whether a neuron is at or near its ideal state depends on the levels of activity and patterns of connections among the various members of the community. These patterns of connection are exceedingly variable, since each synapse tip can grow or shrink slightly to form or break a connection with a neighbor. Each neuron has about 10,000 synapses. Ten thousand neighbors that it chooses to be or to not be in communication with.

Particular patterns of connectedness can result in a particular neuron community's having most of its members settled firmly into either a resting or a steadily active state (the ideal); or, conversely, with a different pattern of connectedness, most of the members of a community could be in an in-between, somewhat active state (a less-efficient state).

When in the less-efficient state, each member will try to adjust its connections with its neighbors so that moderately active elements will become fully active, while moderately quiet members will become more completely quiet. They do this by forming connections with some neighbors while breaking connections with others.

Each member of the community seeks to adjust its connections with its neighbors so as to approach a state of steady activity, OR (if it is near a resting state) to approach a state of being fully at rest. But it makes these adjustments while also "discerning" and responding to what changes would most aid its neighbors in their movement toward either a state of activity or rest.

The golden rule among members of a neuron community is to increase signaling to neighbors that appear to be tending toward more activity, while decreasing signaling to those who are inclined to become more quiet. In other words, the golden rule is to help your neighbors reach their more ideal state.

Without this concern for the 'other', any adjustments that a neuron might make in seeking a pattern of connectedness that results in a more nearly ideal state for itself would very likely frustrate the attempts of neighboring neurons to reach their more ideal state.

(Within each neuron there are countless microtubules that are able to affect one another's states, which are defined by how many electrons or ions are trapped in them, if any. When these microtubules lengthen or shorten or bend slightly, they change which of their neighbors they are able to communicate with.)

If we think of a society of human beings as a neural network, then we will see that we are more likely to bring ourselves AND the larger community (one another) toward our ideal state when we are trying to help others and respect the golden rule while also trying to take care of ourselves.

Natural Law Requires Respect of Public Property Rights, Too

Biodiversityt as a public good