Nonhuman intelligence — Beyond Brilliant Green

Photo 2009 © by Jenny Hood

Brilliant Green from Stefano Mancuso is an interesting book. In its core it makes an argument for plants as being intelligent. The main method to convey this point is by comparison with humans. Plants as nonhuman intelligence — not not-human intelligence.

Brilliant Green

Scattered around the book are some interesting tidbits and facts — like that Switzerland ascribes dignity to plants or that the root tip is super sensitive sensorfilled and acts like a swarm together with the other few million root tips.

And every time the comparison to humans comes up. There is a certain eagerness in the constant promoting of plants as at least as intelligent as humans. This is probably also the fundamental flaw of the book. All aspiration aside — it is not the time to elevate something, anything to the level of being human. Especially if that elevation means getting more rights.

Human Law & Order

Our system of laws and rights are built and maintained around the human. “Of course!” you say. But we are in a age where some of us try to ascribe personhood to dolphins. A process that should end up in dolphins having the same rights as humans. Other animals like octopuses or ravens are also elevated and of course there are the apes.

Animal rights are ultimately important and a logical step and there are ongoing initiatives, projects and discourses about that subject. Ultimately animal rights are also a fail in the long run.

Ascribing rights to animals is nothing short of colonizing the animal meta space and brings so many problems with it. In the very least we superimpose our understanding of the world onto the animals. And not only one species but all of them. Now imagine we add plants to this matter. Let us just make all beings equal. Let us all be reigned by the same laws. Our laws are made and maintained by humans. That means they are made in the human way and through human language.

Weird Intelligence

The problem isn’t just that machines think differently from people. It is that people can’t figure out why. […] “When systems act in ways humans would not, we can see that their pareidolia is different from ours.”

Nautilus has a very good article titled Artificial Intelligence Is Already Weirdly Inhuman. In it they describe how our artificial intelligence system produce weird results and we don’t understand why.

Pareidolia is a beautiful word. It’s sisters are apophenia and hierophany and the three together may have helped ancient societies organize chaos and make the world intelligible. It’s also one of the many reasons why we wont to ascribe intelligence and rights to animals and plants. The moment we think we’re able to prove that they are more human than nonhuman we can’t just handle them as objects anymore.

But that is wrong. Our ways of recognizing and interacting with the environment we’re embedded in, is not that same as theirs. And to superimpose our ways is bad — see colonialism. Jerry Kaplan has written a book titled “Humans need not apply”. It’s probably well worth a read just for it’s absurdity. The moment we think about if raping a robot is possible we do something wrong.

We need to be able to recognize and interact with nonhuman intelligence with superimposing our ways as little as possible. Especially as long as we can’t even understand artificial intelligence which is made in our own image.

Alien Phenomenology

Enter Object Oriented Ontology, the brainchild of some of the weirder philosophers. There are several currents within OOO. Ian Bogost delivers this stunning description:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally-plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

He also wrote a book titled Alien Phenomenology Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. It is somehow a bit like a stoner’s metaphysical inquiry into the things that suround us but on a solid philosophical base.

Nonhuman Law & Order

Based on our experiences in colonialism and humanism we should try to skip the current process of superimposing our human ways onto the nonhuman. What I’d like to see is an inquiry into law- and policy-making lead by an OOO approach. Morals would need to follow later, but we can’t possibly imagine how those would look like.

We need to find nonhuman ways to recognize and interact with the nonhuman and this process is lead by speculative thinking.