The standard division of reason into two aspects — instrumental and value — has seen us humans beat around quite a few philosophical bushes over the centuries. I’ve recently done some research to get a handle on current strains of thought on the subject. As I worked through the material I realized that my thinking has moved toward a different division of the aspects of reason, one that found no reflection in the discussions I came across. This post is my attempt to link two aspects of intelligence that seem to me important from both the individual and collective perspectives.
Instrumental intelligence is easy to define: the intelligence we use to get things done. I think it’s also important to define it as biological intelligence. It comes with us as part of the equipment of the mammals we are. In that sense it could be called our animal intelligence. I don’t find much talk in the literature before 2000 about similarities between human and animal intelligence, but since the turn of the millennium some interesting research has yielded some interesting results. In 2013 phys.org reported on work at the University of Adelaide in Australia under the title, “Humans not smarter than animals, just different, experts say” (webpage here):
“For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” says Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University’s School of Medical Sciences.
“However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”
He says the belief that humans have superior intelligence harks back to the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago when people began producing cereals and domesticating animals. This gained momentum with the development of organised religion, which viewed human beings as the top species in creation.
“The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences. Even Aristotle, probably the most influential of all thinkers, argued that humans were superior to other animals due to our exclusive ability to reason,” Dr Saniotis says.
While animal rights began to rise in prominence during the 19th century, the drive of the Industrial Revolution forestalled any gains made in the awareness of other animals.
Professor Maciej Henneberg, a professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy from the School of Medical Sciences, says animals often possess different abilities that are misunderstood by humans.
“The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different,” Professor Henneberg says.
“Animals offer different kinds of intelligences which have been under-rated due to humans’ fixation on language and technology. These include social and kinaesthetic intelligence. Some mammals, like gibbons, can produce a large number of varied sounds – over 20 different sounds with clearly different meanings that allow these arboreal primates to communicate across tropical forest canopy. The fact that they do not build houses is irrelevant to the gibbons.
“Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking. Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can’t even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world,” he says.
Professor Henneberg says domestic pets also give us close insight into mental abilities of mammals and birds. “They can even communicate to us their demands and make us do things they want. The animal world is much more complex than we give it credit for,” he says.
We don’t hear much talk that like that and it’s time we heard more. I’m more than happy to concede the point to the good doctors. Anybody who has pets knows full well they have a much more ample range of consciousness and intelligence than animals are allotted in philosophical treatises. We needn’t debate the issue ad infinitum like the academicianso. One point for the away team: animals are as smart as or smarter than humans. Ka-ching, box ticked.
Since nobody’s kitty-cat or pooch has devised an equivalent to quantum chromodynamics or figured out how to do heart transplants, some may raise their eyebrows at ascribing to animals intelligence equal to that of humans. The difference is simply one of degree, however, not of nature. Instrumental intelligence is about getting something done for a specific purpose. If you’re a weaver bird that means using your know-how to build a nest, just like humans use their instrumental intelligence (however ill-advisedly) to build condo complexes. The purpose is the same but the complexity of the human production process is vastly greater. All the same, we’re talking about different degrees on a single continuum, not the use of some type of intelligence outside instrumentality. That’s the key point. The purpose of all the hoorah humans do is the manipulation of nature and the service of self-interest. We want to use, shape and control our environment and its contents for our purposes as the human animals we are. In that regard we differ not at all from other animal species, who are all busy doing exactly the same.
At this point I need to pull in our old friend Max Horkheimer (1895-1973, info here) and his work on instrumental reason, Eclipse of Reason (1947). Horkheimer’s ideas received additional treatment in the earlier work The Dialectic of Enlightenment, written together with Theodor Adorno and published in 1944. An excellent discussion of Horkheimer’s main ideas in both works appears in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, another of those web-based resources before which I bow down in gratitude. It’s worthwhile having a close look at section 4.2 from the Encyclopedia’s article on Horkheimer (here), which carries the title “The Domination of Outer and Inner Nature”:
Instrumental rationality necessarily involves the domination of nature. Taken in its most straightforward sense, this point has become something of a commonplace. As the sciences developed during the enlightenment period (and earlier, insofar as myth was already enlightenment), technology also developed, at the service of self-preservation. Technology involves making over nature for human purposes. This movement ends up thwarting human preservation, however, insofar as the destruction of nature involves the destruction of humanity. This now fairly common line of critique is complicated in Horkheimer’s work from the 1940s, however, because instrumental rationality’s distortion of “outer nature” (nature taken in the most straightforward sense), is directly tied to the repression of “inner nature.” …
The same points are made in Eclipse in the chapter “The Revolt of Nature,” where the domination of inner nature is described as following necessarily from the domination of outer nature. Instrumental reason leads us to dominate outer nature by taking outer nature to be meaningless apart from the way it can satisfy the prerogatives of our self-preservation. But this further requires that our desires must be construed in such a way that they can provide a clear guide for the technological and industrial activity that makes use of outer nature. In this case, “domination becomes ‘internalized’ for domination’s sake. What is usually indicated as a goal—the happiness of the individual, health, wealth—gains its significance exclusively from its functional potentiality” (p. 64). Lohmann 1993 suggestively sums up Horkheimer’s point by referring to the domination of outer and inner nature as a process of “desubstantialization” (p. 392). This connects clearly with the contrast between objective and subjective reason discussed above. Nature loses its objective meaning, or in this sense, its own “substance”; not only in the case of outer nature, but also in the case of inner nature, because of the functionalization of our desires and drives. Eclipse construes this in terms of a loss of autonomy, which would involve our creatively developing drives and desires into ideal ends that could orient the ways we act on our environments (see, for example, 66). This can make sense of the somewhat unique interpretation in Dialectic of Odysseus telling the cyclops that he is “Nobody” (p. 53). As we reduce our inner nature to instrumental functions, we lose any strong sense of self, and thus lack the inner substance in a manner that makes us, metaphorically, into nobodies.
Put your hands together for the team at Stanford because believe me, if you had to plow through either work by Horkheimer in the original German (which I’ve done, fear not) you’d be a good while arriving at that tidy synopsis of the main points.
The emphasis on domination is of critical importance because it goes through human instrumentality like mold through blue cheese. I doubt there’s a single weaver bird on the Planet who aspires to world domination. A look at human history, however, shows the tendency to say “mine, ALL MINE” comes as standard equipment with human beings, particularly those of the male persuasion. When human instrumentality extends that urge for domination through technology, it becomes an enormous threat. In the default state, then, human are dangerous without some sort of check on that native expansionist impulse. The other half of reason — morality or ethics — has failed for millenia to offer an adequate safeguard from the damages human instrumentality causes when it goes unchecked. What happened in Europe while Horkheimer was writing Eclipse makes that fact abundantly clear.
We already tend to forget in 2019 that Horkheimer was chased out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and wrote both Eclipse and Dialectic while the Third Reich was busy killing millions of people in concentration camps, to say nothing of combat casualties. The immediacy of Horkheimer’s experience as a refugee and the horrors of what happened in his native country during the war doesn’t receive much mention in discussion of his ideas nowadays. Those horrors were, however, fundamental to the development of the ideas both Horkheimer and Adorno elaborated. Adorno famously wrote in the 1949 essay Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (= Cultural Critique and Society) “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” — “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Typical Adorno hyperbole, perhaps, but I see his point. What happened at Auschwitz and at the other places where the Nazis transacted with such efficiency the business of their “Final Solution” is for both Horkheimer and Adorno an excoriating example of human instrumental intelligence gone amok, as it has done consistently throughout human history. Small wonder that both Horkheimer and Adorno were frantic to identify and dissect what had made the Third Reich possible and how to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. I understand their urgency very well. Things that have happened in my own lifetime show me that the urgency they felt is still a valid reaction to what happens on the ground. Human instrumentality and its extension through technology now stands to become fatal to much of life on the Planet, not just to other humans.
The standard division of reason into two parts has been useless as a means to ground instrumental reason in a framework that renders it less dangerous. I make here the radical suggestion that we dispense with the standard division entirely. Philosophizing about moral rationality in light of human history is almost as absurd as Adorno calls the writing of poetry post holocaustum. Horkheimer’s concept of instrumentality — as set forth in the books Eclipse of Reason and The Dialectic of Enlightenment — is itself a sufficient baseline for considering the moral implications of reason. Let’s have a look at the following citation, taken once again from the Stanford Encyclopedia website (here):
It is noteworthy that the text of Eclipse would eventually be published in German as “Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft” (“On the Critique of Instrumental Reason”). Both Eclipse and Dialectic are nuanced texts that present a number of themes, but if there is one overarching theme to the work from the 40s it is, as that German title suggests, the critical description of how reason collapses into irrationality through its emphasis on instrumental concerns. What is at stake here is made most clear by the first chapter of Eclipse, which is straightforwardly titled “Means and Ends.” Instrumental reason is interested only in determining the means to a goal, without reasoning about ends in themselves. In Dialectic, the Enlightenment is largely equated with the advance of instrumental reason, and through instrumental reason, Enlightenment turns against itself. This is noted in the very beginning of the text: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1).
The last sentence makes perfect sense if you consider that the author wrote it only a few years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, which offered a perfect example of triumphant calamity engineered by human instrumental reason. I’m reminded as I write of an instance when I was invited to dinner at the home of an older man who was a student in one of the English classes I taught while living in Germany in the 1980’s. After his wife dutifully served dinner on the patio he took me up to the man cave on the top floor and in the course of conversation took out of a closet a framed portrait of Adolf Hitler. As he held it briefly for my appreciation before putting it away he remarked, “Jawohl, in der Zeit gab’s Ordnung.” In English: “Yes indeed, in those times things were in order.” There’s the voice of human instrumentality talking. Dangerous, indeed.
Examples are hand over fist in human history of “how reason collapses into irrationality through its emphasis on instrumental concerns.” But we needn’t comb through history, we have an excellent example right on our doorstep: climate change. Our instrumental intelligence created industrial civilization and has altered the chemistry of the biosphere to the point that we’re precipitating catastrophic changes, the outcomes of which point to our own extinction. All the evidence of history points to the fact that instrumental intelligence can’t be trusted to keep the house in order as it pursues its objectives. Why? “Instrumental reason is interested only in determining the means to a goal, without reasoning about ends in themselves.” Dangerous, indeed.
Philosophers have always gone outside instrumentality to address things like morality and ethics. Descartes’ escape route was formulated thusly: “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” In English: “The heart has its reasons about which reason is ignorant.” In other words, reason and faith are disjunct and instrumental intelligence is separate from religion, which provides the only available moral framework for instrumentality. Kant wanders into similar territory (more info than you ever wanted to know is available in the Stanford Encyclopedia article “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion” here). I’m taking exception to that strategy of division and disjuncture. I want to use instrumental intelligence itself as the basis for the extrapolation of its ethical dimensions. The disjuncture of instrumental reason from value reason is as dangerous as the blindness to outcomes inherent to instrumental reason itself. We need a framework for human instrumental reason that makes sense for the physical reality we inhabit and for the physical lives we lead — in other words, instrumental reason requires a moral or ethical dimension within the physical framework of human instrumentality. How can we do that?
In my opinion the best place to start is the rationality of the “implicate order” as the term was developed in the 1960’s by David Bohm (info here) to apply to quantum physics. A Wikipedia page on the difference between implicate and explicate order is here, from which I cite the following:
Bohm believes that the weirdness of the behavior of quantum particles is caused by unobserved forces, maintaining that space and time might actually be derived from an even deeper level of objective reality. In the words of F. David Peat, Bohm considers that what we take for reality are “surface phenomena, explicate forms that have temporarily unfolded out of an underlying implicate order”. That is, the implicate order is the ground from which reality emerges.
There’s our point of departure for understanding human reason as one phenomenon on a single continuum. If we consider instrumental reason as the micro-phenomenon, then we can embed it in a macro-phenomenon called — for lack of a better term — “ambient intelligence.” Where does this ambient intelligence come from? It comes from Reality itself — reality with a capital R, which is to say from physical reality in toto.
Reality with a capital R is the causal substrate of everything physical. Since we ourselves are physical, that includes us humans. Reality writ large runs both large-scale spacetime and the quantum level. It runs our biochemical processes. We talk these days of “biosphere services” that accrue automatically to our benefit as a function of the Planet doing what comes naturally. Biosphere services give us fresh water, air to breathe — in fact they supply the physical context on which we depend as physical creatures. The biosphere similarly relies on what could be called services of physicality — gravity, quantum mechanics, the periodic table, all the things that make up physicality itself, which I call for short Reality. At every point this Reality is infused with an implicate order from the smallest scale to the largest. I think it’s this Reality that should form the framework in which human instrumental reason is nested. This implicate order of Reality is also the source of what I mean by “ambient reason.” It’s ambient because it’s everywhere throughout the physical universe. If you’re physical, you’re in it. Period, end of story.
In traditional philosophy’s standard division value reason is made responsible for ethics or morality on a completely virtual, ideological basis. The results are ineffectual and bring about disastrous consequences, as any look at the course of human history shows. Does the ambient reason I’m considering here use any abstractions or mysteries in order to establish its value framework? Intangibles, yes, with regard to their susceptibility to direct human perception, but not abstractions. Both instrumental and ambient reason are manifestations of implicate order on a single physical continuum that’s self-justifying a priori through the force of its own beingness. The contextual pressure from the ambient level on human instrumentality is the pressure of Reality itself. We’re conditioned by Reality’s implicate order because we’re one of its explicate manifestations. That also means that human instrumentality does NOT get off the hook. If it screws things up there are consequences. Physicality itself shows us the truth of that relationship through such things as the effects of human-induced climate change on the biosphere. Cause A results in Effect B — nothing ideological about that, is there.
Ambient intelligence delivers a set of conditions to human instrumentality rather than imposing a set of arbitrary commandments blazoned on stone tablets. The existence of the implicate order sets the first condition, a condition that our current industrial civilization has never accepted: the Universe is primevally and massively ordered and that order must not be tampered with because it is primary. If that notion had infiltrated human consciousness 10,000 years ago the course of human history would look very different. We’re beginning to understand the ineluctable truth of it only now as it dawns on our pathetically limited understanding that we’ve pushed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the edge toward catastropic change that will bring about our own undoing. We’re not destroying the implicate order of the Universe in that process, of course. In a sense the implicate order is destroying us, because we’ve violated the primeval order on which our own physical existence depends. Our instrumental reason went unchecked by any consideration of that larger order in which we exist as physical creatures. If that isn’t a case in point for the dangers of human instrumental reason left to its own devices, I don’t know what is. Extinction will be the booby prize for our folly.
Religion has always been hostile toward physicality, often to the point of being crassly prejudicial against it. By contrast ambient intelligence is part and parcel of physical reality and relates directly to the physicality of the creatures we are. That seems to me a much more reasonable framework. It pays the credit due to the physicality of our beingness rather than requiring us to dismiss or overcome it in some mental slight of hand that makes us disjunct from our own physical beingness. Ambient reason reveals itself to human intelligence easily, in conformity with our own physical nature. It’s a win/win situation: the more we understand the implicate order of Reality, the more we understand about our own explicate nature as part of it.
That approach seems to me infinitely preferable to walling yourself up in a single cell for years on end like a medieval anchorite or a Tibetan yogi. Doubtless there’s great value in cultivating such intense exploration into the realms of consciousness, but it won’t do for running a world Using the framework of ambient intelligence imposes no need to forego cappuccinos and double choco muffins in order to perceive Reality. That happy difference in and of itself should be enough to make the ambient intelligence framework appealing to the average person. Especially appealing to me is that the source of revelation is continuously and physically present — we live our daily lives in the midst of it. Any increase in our knowledge increases our comprehension of the implicate order and of its relatedness to explicate manifestations, so revelation is continuous with the expansion of human understanding. We don’t have to sit around for centuries waiting for some prophet or other to get something sorted out and then give us the memo. We can do it ourselves as our knowledge expands. What’s not to like about that scenario?
If there’s tension between the ambient and instrumental levels it comes from the fact that the ambient level isn’t mammalian and we are mammals to the core. The conditions — one might even say the prime directives — proceeding from the ambient level will not coddle our mammalian prejudices and predelictions in the way religion has done. I think that’s a good thing, to be honest. Human instrumentality has already shown itself to be thoroughly unfit for organizing large-scale reality. It has no rudder and goes off in the oddest conceivable directions without anybody giving the matter a second thought. When things subsequently hit a brick wall — as inevitably they do — people stand rubbing the lumps on their foreheads in utter amazement. Why? Because instrumental reason is of the moment only, which is entirely in the mammalian order of things — our native range extends no farther. It’s like the strong nuclear force: effective at extremely short distances but operationally absent at larger ones. Consequently, it’s useless for perceiving and projecting longer-term cause and effect without some conditioning factor that supplies the motivation and the means to achieve that perceptive range. Ambient reason natively draws us out into the reality of the larger reality we inhabit. Without that layer of reason on top of our instrumentality we become a danger to ourselves and to the world we inhabit.
The inherently limited range of instrumental reason makes it susceptible to basing itself on a false premise from the get-go. That’s how the bugbear of ideology enters the picture, creating a false foundation for an entire stance toward reality, which has happened again and again over the course of human history. Recent examples include the Third Reich, of course, and things like the Flat Earth Society (info here). Even that august body isn’t immune to irony, however. Among its early members is Thomas Dolby (membership number 00001), famous for the 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” Clearly she blinded him with something, but I don’t think it was science LOL.
David Bohm’s model of implicate order makes good sense to some people whose opinion should count for something — for example, the Dalai Lama. There’s a YouTube video (here) of Bohm speaking on the issue “From Fragmentation to Wholeness” at a conference where the Dalai Lama was also one of the featured speakers. One of the comments on the video suggests that if the Dalai Lama is the person fixing Bohm’s microphone so everyone can hear him, we should probably pay attention to what he says. Here’s an excerpt from the description:
Excerpt from the documentary “Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy – From Fragmentation to Wholeness” Artists, scientists, spiritual leaders and economists gathered in Amsterdam in 1990 to explore the emerging paradigm of a holistic world view and the implications for a global economy.
The prominence given Bohm’s opinions in the framework of that conference contrasts sharply with the reception his ideas had in the physics community. Quite apart from the serious hot water Bohm’s leftist politics got him into in the 1950’s — that led ultimately to his departure from the USA and his living abroad for the rest of his life — his challenge to the established model of particle physics caused the scientific community to put him summarily on the scrap heap. This information comes from an article on Bohm in encyclopedia.com (here):
Hidden Variables. It was also in June 1951 that Bohm submitted a pair of articles published on 15 January 1952 in the leading physics journal in the United States if not the world, Physical Review, titled, “A Suggested Interpretation of the Quantum Theory in Terms of ‘Hidden’ Variables.” In these articles Bohm argued that the standard view, although consistent, simply assumes that the most complete explanation of a system involves probabilities and that this assumption cannot be tested experimentally. For him, the only way to investigate the truth of this assumption was by trying to find some other interpretation of the quantum theory in terms of hidden variables, which in principle determine the precise behavior of an individual system, but which are in practice averaged over in the measurements that could be carried out at the time. In supporting his claim that physicists ought to consider this alternative, Bohm demonstrated that his interpretation led to precisely the same results for all physical processes as did the usual one. He believed the benefit of the hidden variables interpretation was that it provided a broader conceptual framework than the usual interpretation, in that it made possible a precise and continuous description of all processes even at the quantum level. This broader framework allowed for more general mathematical formulations of the theory than those allowed by the usual interpretation. In putting forth this argument, Bohm suggested that the mere possibility of such an interpretation proved that it was not necessary to give up a precise, rational, and objective description of individual systems at a quantum level of accuracy.
The initial response to Bohm’s work from physicists was silence. Worse than disagreeing with his work, many scientists, including key figures such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, did not feel that Bohm’s challenge merited a response. For most working physicists at the time, his alternative did not seem worth considering because it did not yield new results, but simply offered a different explanation than the standard view. Because physicists were already familiar with the Copenhagen approach, they found little or nothing to be gained from adopting the hidden variables interpretation. With respect to the issues that Bohm sought to raise, most in the physics community saw the subject as closed.
It just goes to prove the great similarity between science and religion in their use of similar means for establishing and maintaining legitimacy. Both obviously use excommunication. So much for the notion of “free inquiry.”
In the community of philsophers, however, Bohm’s ideas were received with much more open arms. Bohm was the only crossover physicist of his generation, able to deal both with the nuts and bolts of particle physics and with the conceptual frameworks of philosophy. His contribution to philosophy is still in alive in our day, a fact shown in an excellent article by William Seager (University of Toronto, Scarborough) published this year in Entropy (PDF version here) under the title “The Philosophical and Scientific Metaphysics of David Bohm.” Here’s the abstract:
Abstract: Although David Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is sometimes thought to be a kind of regression towards classical thinking, it is in fact an extremely radical metaphysics of nature. The view goes far beyond the familiar but perennially peculiar non-locality and entanglement of quantum systems. In this paper, a philosophical exploration, I examine three core features of Bohm’s metaphysical views, which have been both supported by features of quantum mechanics and integrated into a comprehensive system. These are the holistic nature of the world, the role of a unique kind of information as the ontological basis of the world, and the integration of mentality into this basis as an essential and irreducible aspect of it.
Phrases like “radical metaphysics of nature” and “information as the ontological basis of the world” make me go all tingly up and down the spine. That’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been looking for. It’s what we need to make sense of things before the lights go out in the wake of the extinction event we’ve so cleverly orchestrated for ourselves. I hope we can leave a record of what we did wrong for any consciousness that might find our remains in the future.
We don’t have time now to fix anything except at the metaphysical level — we’ve already pushed the button on the toaster that will fry the biosphere and us along with it. I think the only valuable contribution humanity can make before it bites the dust is to understand what went wrong with the path it took and to come right in the head about the implicate order it violated to its own detriment and to the detriment of millions of companion species. I don’t hold out any hope that such a thing will occur at the collective level, so I’m doing the best I can to accomplish that enlightenment at the level of my individual consciousness. Bohm’s conceptual framework is an enormous help in that effort.
Understanding the integral relationship between instrumental and ambient reason is one of the essential keys, I think. When I sit in my quiet times and ponder the implications, I see that one could write entire books about the moral and ethical dimensions of coupling ambient intelligence with human instrumentality. The goal of the project would be to evolve human consciousness into a higher faculty that finds both levels operating simultaneously and synergistically. Our instrumental reason would then have a built-in rudder that keeps it from going off on dangerous and destructive tangents as it’s done repeatedly over the course of our history. Our capacity for projecting delayed effects from present causes would increase dramatically. No short-term fixit devised by instrumental reason would be exempt from conditioning by ambient reason in a feedback process that brings the goals and products of instrumental reason into alignment with the implicate order of physicality itself.
So, there’s a lot to think about. As the folk wisdom from my neck of the woods puts it, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” I’ll just keep pulling my own cart along the road toward the junction where instrumental and ambient reason dovetail. That should keep me busy for a decade or two. 🙂