Fast Thought: Should We Repeatedly Vote for the Same Thing?

Similar to my post on Brain space and real estate, this is a post not much related to my own general areas of research (when I’m researching). It is even less related to my research. It’s just an idea. There’s a bit of time stuff in it, but it’s mainly naive politics.

A. Proposal: Every important thing we vote on should have a statute of limitations, and be up for re-vote on a regular basis.

  1. When we vote, we vote for someone to do something (e.g., the referendum) or for someone (a politician) so that, when they can, they will do something. For example, we vote for the eighth referendum (in 1983) or for the 8th referendum to be repealed (in 2018).
  2. In most cases, we vote for something to happen that has future and/or long-lasting consequences (it might also happen only in the future but that’s a separate issue).  For example, the 1983 vote forced many women to travel overseas for operations outlawed at home (with many other consequences besides). In most cases, we do not vote for something to happen right now with consequences that are only right now.
  3. Yet, in such initial votes (let us call them), many people who will at some time be capable of voting and on whom the consequences of such a vote fall — who will reap benefits or suffer woes — do not have the opportunity to vote. These are adults who are children now. For example, your two-year old daughter will grow up to be an adult. If a government is voted in today who sets certain policies about the environment, policies that have long-term effects stretching to her adulthood, then what happens to her is determined in part by these policies of your current government. People who are children now will have to live and act in the consequences of our present votes.
  4. This means what we are voting for is a society that is occupied by many adults who, currently, cannot vote for it.
  5. One way around this is to only vote for short-term, temporary actions with short-term, temporary consequences. Say you vote in a constitutional change: it only lasts, say, for a generation, e.g., eighteen years. Then everyone has to vote again for it. That way, for every action we vote on, our children do get to vote — in 18 years.

This may work for voting in governments. We certainly do it. Such votes have a time limit of about four or six years. However, some actions need longer than this to carry out or develop. For example, some environmental or social actions need decades to complete.

Perhaps in that case we do not vote for them. We only vote for things that take a short time to do, say, for the lifetime of our own lives. We vote as members of a kind of temporalised or presentist society. We are not concerned with the future beyond our own homes or lifetimes. To use a business term, the consequences of our votes and their resulting actions on the future beyond are externalities.

It’s just like the voting we do — it is a vote for only what happens in our own country and not what happens in others. For example, to increase jobs, we vote to sell warplanes to a foreign country, to invade a foreign country, or to stop refugees. It’s not like voting most people do — to develop ourselves as a humane society, concerned about the environment, we vote in a party that is fine with decreasing spurious and menial jobs, discourages materialism, welcomes refugees, and even tries to help them in their own country.

I’m sure this suits some people. They only care about life as they are living it and not about the future, and only want to vote on consequences that happen during their lifetime. It is, again, like being someone who only cares about life in their own country and not overseas, and only wanting to vote on consequences that happen in their own country, and not overseas.

B. Some Responses

  1. There will be consequences in the future beyond the voter’s life. If I vote in economic and environmental policies that make it easier for me to drive in my own car to work every day, then the consequence will be that there more petrol will be burned now.
    • At some future point, there will be no petrol — not for someone like me, who wants to drive to work (but I never liked my kind of person anyway). However, there is also not enough petrol for, say, a hospital’s backup generator you terrible person you.
    • Still,  you’re free to vote for actions that only consider what happens now;  that won’t change given this idea.
  2. However, not everyone only cares about what happens in their lifetime. They also care about the future beyond their lives. They care about things like their kids; they like to be remembered. Few people would feel warm and happy knowing that, in the future, they will be predominantly remembered with contempt.
    • So, when they vote, they may vote with that in mind, for example, voting against the action that will make it easier to drive to work over future hospitals getting petrol (what a nice person they are! Oh. They own the hospital….).

C. Another question is: Should the vote that only considers the present have the same weight as the vote that considers the future?

That is, say we have two options: one has negative future consequences and positive present consequences; the other has positive present consequences, with no sense of or else only negative future consequences.

Which is a more important vote? Which has more value?

It’s not much point asking future people: for them, the future is the present. They need to ask that question about the still further future.

It’s not much point asking past people. They are either present people, and so also future people to their past selves. They are then in the same boat as us.

There might be a point about asking ourselves about past votes. Should the votes of, say, people in 1919, 1945, 1967, 1983, and 2011 have had less weight if it only considered their time than the votes that considered now?

Why I ask this is because, for votes that have more weight, we may then wish to give every generation a chance to vote on it. We may renew the social contract between us in society by acting to maintain or overturn our laws.

I’m aware there have been some terrible voting outcomes in the minds of many of my friends, especially those not in Ireland. The possibility of overturning old good votes may seem a dangerous idea. There are others that may worry current good votes — now sacrosanct — may get destroyed.

But I do not see how we can decide for the rest of time, and expect everyone us to simply obey and yet remain active political animals. We need to pass the responsibility of deciding for society to each generation. Voting is one way we enact our responsibilities. I struggle to see that it is bad to make the rules of our society something we explicitly uphold.

D. End

Just as this idea has nothing much to do with my research, it hasn’t much to do with my teaching. I’ve taught political philosophy, along with lots of other things I’m not expert on. However, my teaching focused on the history of the subject: Plato’s Republic, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism, etc. And I taught it through my own obsessions, of thinking about human beings as things. It seemed to me that different political systems think of humans as different kinds of thing, with different fundamental properties, capacities, and so on. So, for example, to a libertarian, humans are fundamentally free beings; to an Aristotlean, they are fundamentally reasonable; to a utilitarian, they are fundamentally happiness-seeking, pain-avoiding, desire-satisfying (I guess racists might think they are fundamentally race-loyal, or some other stupendously dumb thing). Each conception of a human being has different consequences for how one thinks society should be organised.

This has also got nothing to do with my personal life as it is currently. I do not have children, adopted or otherwise, and so am not a parent. I am not making decisions for future people who will remember me, with contempt or otherwise.

I guess that’s sort of relevant to my idea. My question is, however, more about what a vote is, rather than what a person is. A human may be desire-seeking, free, reasonable, etc… but it’s still a question of if how to spread votes among human beings. And how the weight of a vote relates to the responsibility and the consequence of a vote.

Finally, this question has nothing to do with Big Brother, Dragon’s Den, Atlantis’ Got Talent, or anything else in which the results of vote don’t actually matter.

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They Might be Aliens

[Reprinted from Hackcircus #4, 2014.]


How would we know that we have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)? What would distinguish ETI from unintelligent aliens (like the parasite in Alien) and intelligent terrestrials (us)?

It may seem obvious that we can come up with an answer. We know of some intelligent things – ourselves. And we know about extraterrestrial things – planets, stars, interstellar clouds of vinegar.[1] One kind of ETI could be a combination of the two together: things like us, but from space. Consider the tall waving alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it is not enough to give an easy example. We cannot assume the first ETIs we meet will be just like us. How they might not be like us makes it hard to identify them at all.

1 Does It Matter that We Recognise Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

Say we encounter something extraterrestrial which has something we want, such as a mineral. If it is not living, e.g., an asteroid, there seems to be no moral obstacle to simply taking it. Even if it is alive, e.g., extraterrestrial bacteria, there is no immediately obvious obstacle. We take something essential to another living thing every time we eat. But there are ethical issues if ET is in any way intelligent. If something has the capacity for self-awareness, it looks safe to assume that it can suffer and there is some moral obligation toward it.

Of course, we might not care about that. Even if it suffers or is self-conscious, we may decide to take from it anyhow. But this assumes the situation is one in which we are the ones taking. The more likely situation is one in which ETI can take something from us. If intelligence only evolved in this Solar System on Earth, it’s more likely that we’ll encounter ETI which travels to us. It survives well enough in space, an environment in which we have barely touched. If it can also enter our atmosphere, then it also can survive somewhat on Earth.

You can’t reason with unintelligent things. An asteroid rushing toward the Earth is not slowed by arguing for your rights. Alien bacteria chemically synthesizing flesh is not moved by suffering. But if you can make yourself understood, you can at least ask an intelligent alien to stop what it is doing – to slow down; to eat something else.

If it recognises you. In his short story ‘The Things’, Peter Watts narrates Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ from the perspective of the alien.[2] It is a compassionate, intelligent being which does not understand humans at all. It is horrified by us. Sees us as empty and blind, lacking sentience, self or feeling.

2 Language

Perhaps there is one feature unique to intelligent beings. Like us, ETIs use language. If we encounter an extraterrestrial language, then we know that there is intelligence behind it.

Here are three ways we might encounter an ETI language:

(a)  Communication aimed at us by something that understands us.

(b)  Communication aimed at us by something that does not understand us.

(c) Communication not aimed at us at all (and which we only coincidentally encounter).

(a) is relatively easy to identify, as easy as a broadcast in a familiar human language. (b) is a common target of SETI and relatively simple as well. Intended for us (the aliens to the communicating ETIs), it should include patterns strongly indicative of intelligence, patterns which do not naturally occur but which all intelligent beings should know, e.g., sequences of primes.

These sequences make sense if ETIs tries to communicate with us. Yet, it’s reasonable to think that most ETI signals we pick up, aware of it or not, are (c): they are messages ETI is sending to itself. Human-directed broadcasts by humans (e.g., TV broadcasts) far outweigh ETI-directed ones (e.g., the Voyager probes). This is something we should assume is true of ETI as well. We are more likely to be eavesdropping than be involved in the first ETI we hear.

Whether or not we recognise it. Given an influential theory of language development, we may not be able to tell eavesdropped ETI conversations from noise.

According to Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition, the available linguistic data surrounding an infant (e.g., parents’ speech) is insufficient for the infant to learn that language. Yet nearly every infant learns the language which surrounds them. Chomsky posits what Kukla[3] calls the Innateness Hypothesis: An infant is born with something, an innate module, to supplement the environmental data. And, as infants can typically learn any language, this module uses a ‘universal grammar’.

The psychologist Kukla argues that this raises a problem with communicating with ETI. Chomsky’s universal grammar applies only to human languages. It is not evidence that any language shares the grammar. If the grammar is only ‘universal’ for humans, one lacking the innate module can’t learn it the way one who possesses it can. If the module is necessary to learn it, those without it cannot learn it.

If our innate language modules evolved, then ETI and we are unlikely to share the same innate modules. We do not share the same evolutionary history.

One way out of this is convergent evolution. Perhaps the same module and grammar evolves under similar environments. Perhaps those environments exist in other places than Earth. If so, then we may encounter ETI which we can understand and which can understand us.

This still leaves out all the other possible environments in which ETI may have evolved. If those other environments are more numerous than those like ours, then we are more likely to encounter an ETI from them. We are more likely to pick up their signals. If Chomsky is right, we will not be able to comprehend them.

3 Technology

Perhaps we can avoid using language to detect ETI. Perhaps ETI does non-linguistic things that indicate intelligence. Especially if we have a close encounter with ETI — on its own world, in deep space, on Earth.

Here is one non-linguistic possibility: ETI exhibits awareness of mathematical, chemical, biological and physical principles. They are more technologically advanced than us. They turn up in gigantic starships hanging effortlessly in the sky. Their hulls are constructed of complex difficult-to-comprehend chemical alloys. When one of them is injured, they heal using advanced medical procedures.

Such traits may convince us that the extraterrestrial before us is ETI. Advanced technology seems inconceivable without engineering plans, invention, devised and tested theories of physics, chemistry, an understanding of the body.

Yet, only recently did we grasp how bees fly: their flight was once thought impossible.[4]  As the philosopher Dupré notes, not humans but microbes are “the most versatile and effective chemists in the biosphere” (Dupré, p.37[5]). And next time you cut yourself, look at the scar. Your body is repairing itself in a way no current doctor can.

All of these processes occur due to natural evolution — by definition, an unintelligent blind process. They are far more advanced than anything we can do now.

The complex giant ship hanging over your city may be the extraterrestrial equivalent of lichen.

4 Scale

There is one significant difference between lichen and that ship. Size. Lichen doesn’t grow that big or spread across space.

One of the main reasons Earth life does not grow so huge is because of gravity and heat. The different sizes and shapes regulate body temperature, allow movement, and allow creatures to eat. Elephants do not look like mice. Humans have soft tissue on the outside. Without it, when we move we would easily break. Insects, which are smaller, have no need of that tissue. A real Godzilla could not walk or even breath; he couldn’t even cool down.[6]

Yet, ET does not need to be so restricted. It did not evolve here on Earth. If an ET evolved, say, in the depths of an interstellar cloud, it is not clear what size or shape it could be. The morphology and scale of extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life, could vary as widely as extraterrestrial environments allow.

The only reason to deny this possibility for intelligent aliens is if intelligence can only survive for any significant time in Earth-like environments. But if intelligence can only survive in Earth-like environments, then no ETI has crossed space to arrive here. Nor shall we ourselves ever make it to meet them on their own world, or anywhere in-between.

There is a final way that size and shape might indicate intelligence. If ETI turns out to be the same scale as us, then, given the wide range of options, this would be so much a coincidence that it may be better to think it is intentional. The ET is copying us. It’s difficult to understand how this could be possible through natural selection. They didn’t evolve with us to mimic us. They would have to do it on arrival. The better explanation is they have studied us. These human-sized things may be like costumes worn to raise whooping cranes.[7]

That an ETI copies us, then, may tell us that it is intelligent. But it does not mean that it recognises our intelligence. That may be the more important challenge: how to convince ETI that there is terrestrial intelligence.

Just ask the ‘Thing’.