Birds, Bats, and the Occult

Turkey_vulture (1)In 1920, Herbert H. Beck of Franklin & Marshall College published a short article in The Auk, a publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union. His article was titled “The Occult Senses in Birds”.

While Beck was explicit in his allegiance to the idea of human superiority—describing the human mind as “Nature’s master product” and other animals as “below man”—he could not deny that certain animal abilities exceeded those found in human beings; that humans had lost something as they pulled away from other animals. He wrote:

certain senses widely or selectively a part of animal life, are absolutely gone in man. So thoroughly are these senses atrophied or lacking in the human mind that man with all his highly developed imagination cannot even vaguely visualize the subtle processes by which they operate

As examples of occult powers which he believed to be highly developed in birds but absent in humanity, Beck addresses a homing sense, a food-finding sense, and a mate-finding sense.

Beck argues that acute vision and great memory are insufficient to explain the migration of birds who cover vast distances across unfamiliar terrain. Beck shares anecdotal evidence that he believes supports the claim that sight and smell alone cannot account for the turkey vulture’s (and other scavengers’) ability to find food. And at his most (admittedly) speculative, Beck suggests a mate-finding sense which may exist but resorts to observations of insects to bolster the claim before concluding that “unfortunately research on these occult senses is difficult—often impossible.”

At this point, depending on one’s perspective, it may be disappointing, a great relief, or simply anticlimactic to discover that Beck does not mean to imply that these occult powers are to be understood as in any way supernatural. He explains that

intimately interwoven with the life histories of thousands of animal species of past ages and many species of the present day there is an active sense which may be called occult simply because it is hidden from the experience and understanding of man

So what strikes modern ears as a highly sensational title hides a fairly reasonable claim: other animals possess senses and ways of knowing that are unavailable to human beings. This may be because such senses have atrophied and been lost or possibly because we never possessed them in the first place. More from Beck’s article:

All phases of the occult sense have long since been lost in the channels of life that progressed toward civilized man; they exist only selectively in animals below man to-day; but they are still an important factor of existence in many life forms, as they have been a potent determinant in past ages.

Over fifty years after Beck’s article and forty years ago to the month, philosopher Thomas Nagel published a highly influential article in the October 1974 issue of The Philosophical Review titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. In his article, Nagel chides his colleagues noting that:

Philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different

Nagel, not being an ornithologist like Beck or a chiropterologist as his title might suggest, is not principally concerned with determining which species possess which senses to what extent. Instead, he is grappling with the difficulty inherent in understanding the nature of consciousness; if it’s possible to explain consciousness without leaving anything out. Nagel’s principal point is that “the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism”.

To take his example of a bat, we may be highly confident that there is something it is like to be a bat even if that experience and knowledge is inaccessible to human beings. In contrast, we are probably less confident that there is something it is like to be a rock.

Nagel explains:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life…No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us

and more specifically,

bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we [human beings] possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine

If I were to speculate, I would think that Beck would categorize bat sonar as an occult power; and while avoiding that particular buzzword, Nagel seems to be in agreement as it is clearly “hidden from the experience” of human beings.

Unfortunately, the real significance of this observation seems to have been lost on Beck who repeatedly affirms human superiority in his article. The realization that there are many ways of knowing and ways of being in the world that are completely alien to humanity should be quite humbling. Other animals know things that humans do not know and cannot know.

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Gigadeath: The Metric of Transhumanism

Giga-death is the characteristic number of human deaths in a
major 21st century war.
 (173)*

As previously addressed here at Uncivilized Animals, anarcho-primitivists have been harshly criticized for suggesting that the size of the current human population is not compatible with a living earth that can also support other forms of life. This assertion has lead to vitriolic accusations labeling primitivists as genocidal.

Ironically, the most genuine alternative to primitivism—transhumanism—also has what we might call a genocide problem…and it is not simply an accusation made by the most uncharitable of critics; rather it has been voiced by one of their own.

Meet Hugo de Garis:Hugo_de_Garis

I see humanity splitting into two major political groups, which in time will become increasingly bitterly opposed, as the artilect issue becomes more real and less science fiction like.” (11)

I am so pessimistic that I am glad to be alive today. At least I will die peacefully in my bed. However I fear for my grandchildren. They may well see the horror of it and very probably they will be destroyed by it. (17)

The above quotes are from de Garis’ book The Artilect War. In the book, de Garis lays out a doomsday scenario where the development of artifical intellects (hence his term “artilect”) divides humanity into two rival camps: Cosmists and Terrans. The Cosmists are those who wish to rapidly move forward with the development of these seemingly god-like artilects while the Terrans are essentially the Luddites who aim to halt the project seeing it as an existential threat to humanity. The Cosmists are purportedly motivated by awe whereas the Terrans are motivated by fear.

The two camps will be so passionate about their respective positions that billions will die in the conflict. Given his idiosyncratic tendency to coin new terms and acronyms, de Garis labels the result as “gigadeath”.

One startling aspect is that de Garis’ own area of research has been the development of artificial brains and intelligences. Before retiring in 2010, he was the director of Xiamen University’s Artificial Brain Lab in China. So what he is suggesting is that the most deadly war in the history of humanity (“a planetary civil war” (86) which will destroy his grandchildren) is a likely—perhaps even inevitable—consequence of his life’s work.

I feel terribly guilty in many ways, because I feel that my own work is part of the problem.” (82)

And while he may express some guilt, it is apparently not the kind of guilt that results from feeling one has made a serious mistake or would do things differently if given the opportunity; it’s guilt without regret. In The Artilect War he dedicates a whole chapter a set of arguments that could be employed by the Cosmists and an additional chapter for arguments that could be employed by the Terrans (these are probably the two most worthwhile chapters of his needlessly long book), but he does not pretend to be neutral; he is, at heart, a Cosmist.

If such a war does occur, killing billions, “gigadeath,” doesn’t that make me a monster, and the worst monster, worse than the monsters of Hitler, the Japanese, Stalin and Mao? Yet despite all this, I push on, because at the deepest level, I’m a Cosmist. I think that NOT building the artilects would be an even greater tragedy.” (84)

Humans “are of zero significance on a cosmic scale” (88) and so for de Garis there is no number of human death that could outweigh the pursuit of an intelligence that would purportedly be trillions of trillions of trillions of times more advanced than human intelligence. The loss of human being is in fact no loss at all. This is transhumanism.

By way of conclusion, it is important to note that amongst transhumanists de Garis is not a fringe figure. He has appeared in films such as Transcendent Man (a documentary on Ray Kurzweil), Singularity or Bust, and the BBC’s Human v2.0. His work is taken seriously be prominent transhumanist organizations and websites such as the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Humanity+, Singularity University, and KurzweilAI. He has been the subject of numerous interviews within transhumanist circles and The Artilect War has been widely reviewed by his colleagues. His work has been referenced in mainstream publications such The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

The existence of transhumanists such as de Garis creates something of a dilemma. On one hand, it is tempting to dismiss them as kooks or perhaps value them simply for the entertainment value of their grandiose aspirations. On the other hand, their fantasies do not need to be feasible in order for the pursuit of such fantasies to be genuinely dangerous.

Addendum:
de Garis predicts that Ted Kaczynski may eventually come to be regarded as “the first Terran” who was “decades ahead of his time” striking out at proto-Cosmists and that he may eventually occupy a historical place similar to that of abolitionist John Brown (174)

Note:
Hugo de Garis’ The Artilect War can be read in its entirety online at:
http://profhugodegaris.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/artilectwar.pdf

*Numbers in parentheses all refer to de Garis’ The Artilect War.