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Hi. I'm a Unix Administrator, mathematics enthusiast, and amateur philosopher. This is where I rant about that which upsets me, laugh about that which amuses me, and jabber about that which holds my interest most: Unix.
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If Intel designed human beings...

Posted 01-01-2010 at 08:55 PM by rocket357
Updated 01-02-2010 at 09:55 PM by rocket357

The title is a quote from "Structured Computer Organization, Fifth Edition" by Andrew S. Tanenbaum. The full quote:

"If Intel designed human beings, it would have put in a bit that made them revert back to chimpanzee mode (most of the brain disabled, no speech, sleeps in trees, eats mostly bananas, etc.)."

I'm quite often seen around the internet using a "monkey with glasses" avatar (See it on my LQ profile), and on many occasions people have said strange things to me regarding this choice:

"Why do you degrade yourself, Jonathon? You're more than just some monkey!"

"Hey! You look just like George Burns!"

"Is that a banana in your pocket or...oh nevermind!"

Truth is, I picked this avatar for a few reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I like monkeys, and seeing a monkey in a "human" situation is quite possibly the funniest thing I know of. But with any break in logical levels, there comes deeply profound truth.

The monkey with glasses avatar represents (to me, at least), the fact that no matter how much we strive to make an animal appear human, that animal is not human. Now, before I go much further let me state that I realize that animals share many traits with humans. We are, afterall, a bunch of organic chemical bags that follow the same sets of rules (i.e. life). A chimpanzee shares 98% of the genetic makeup that humans have. Strange then, that chimpanzees share characteristics with humans? I think not. Animals have been known to express intelligence, physical characteristics of emotion, and many other key features that human beings are capable of. There is quite an array of studies that demonstrate how animals are capable of such feats...this is pretty well covered.

What I'm getting at is that while we (meaning life) share common characteristics, no other species in the known cosmos has the capacity for building and destroying entire civilizations as efficiently and on as grand a scale as us. We have a "spark" that makes us different. In one breath you can proclaim the wonder of a human who chose to devote their life to saving animals, or other humans. In another breath you can curse the name of a human who sentenced 6 million people to death because of religious beliefs, or who created weapons capable of destroying entire cities.

Now, there are instances of animals showing tremendous courage/compassion in saving another animal (or human) life. I can't recall the exact details, but I remember reading a story some time ago about a young boy who fell into an ape pit at a zoo. A very large male gorilla was closing in on the boy and looked to wish harm to the boy, but a smaller female gorilla grabbed the boy and protected him from the male gorilla. She then rocked the boy until a rescue team managed to secure the other animals and enter the pit to take the boy back to his mother.

"See! Animals are just like people!", I've heard some say.

What animal has devoted its entire life to peacefully freeing a nation of its peers from oppression? What animal has made personal sacrifices to help other species even if it means increased competition for food and resources? And what animal has caused the death of millions of its peers? On a very small scale, perhaps some of this has happened...but never on a scale as grand as humans are capable of.

Animals lack the "spark" that makes humans human. Sure, the picture of the monkey with glasses is humorous, but above and beyond that it speaks to the creative nature of humanity. We share a common set of characteristics with animals for sure, but life is just a medium through which we express our humanity. This physical bag of chemicals that I take care of (well, ok...I probably should take better care of it haha) is just a medium for my brain to interact with the world around me (when I was around 6 years old it occurred to me that everyone around me could easily just be an illusion...like I was watching TV, only the illusions were capable of providing feedback to me. I could choose to act like everyone around me was just an illusion and life was a game that I could play until the illusions caught up to me (and probably killed me or threw me in jail), or I could trust that these illusions were real human beings and try to act in a manner that would benefit other people around me as well). Reality is created in my mind and I interpret the *meaning* behind it independently (and differently) of everyone else. I have the capacity to make moral and ethical judgments. I have choice.

So, like the OSI model, my physical bag of chemicals is the transport used by layers above it to carry out actions. My brain is a step up from there, carrying out decision making in a logical and/or emotional context. Above and beyond that, my "spark" exists a step up to carry out decision making in a moral or ethical context. The drive is what is important, not the action. I can save your life given numerous drives (greedy for reward, sympathy, etc...), and even though the event is the same the context in which I carry out the event is not (this is why law doesn't work...actions can be monitored, but motivation for action cannot). Laws, therefore, are a specialized instance of actions that are desired. "Do not kill your neighbor" is a law that can be observed through fear or love. I can not kill you for fear that I myself will be put to death, or I can not kill you because I genuinely care for your well-being. The problem with choice #1 is that it *only covers the act of not killing you*, whereas choice #2 covers other situations as well, such as warning you if someone else wishes you harm. If I choose #1, I may very well rob you because by definition I'm not breaking any existing law. This leads to more laws and more complexity. Choice #2 is more efficient, because me caring for your well-being means I won't rob you, either (or slander your name, or harm your family, or anything else that would harm you). The difference is that in choice #2, there is a jump in levels of logic...I'm operating at a higher level than simple rules. Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't operate on simple rules. Unfortunately, neither did Hitler.

Therein lies the rub. You can teach an animal through repetition a group of actions that are desired...you can, in effect, set up a batch of rules that demonstrate the desired moral or ethical state...indeed the same must be done for children! Once the "moral state" is achieved, a child can make ethical decisions based on their teachings and apply those decisions to a wider variety of other entities than animals can.

My daughter asked me one time why sharks were mean to people. I told her that sharks aren't mean...they just act based on instinct. The meaning behind a shark attack is a human-generated concept...the shark attacks because it is hungry, or curious, or defending itself, etc...not because it is "mean", or "malicious", or such. Even a tiger who becomes a reknown "maneater" does so simply because humans are easier targets than other animals. There is no moral judgment for the shark or the tiger or any other animal.
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