Saturday, 11 October 2014

Man is Just A Means To The End

“Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase.”

Earlier in the week I wrote about Brian Cox's new series Human Universe. He used several times a phrase I developed back in 2011, that, with the development of modern Man, 250,000 years ago, this represented the “Universe becoming self-aware.”. As I outlined there, this process is a perfect example of Marx's materialist method and the philosophical concept of the dialectic, as a means of understanding it.  Brian himself applied that method, in describing the way, it was the facility provided by the fertility of the Nile Delta, which enabled humans to begin settled agriculture, and thereby to produce more of their basic requirements in less time, so that at least some of them were released from that task, in order to have time to think, which starts the process of developing, science, mathematics, astronomy etc., which in turn lead to our greater ability to change the material world, in which we live, and thereby to develop science and technology further, to the stage where we can explore not just our own world, but the Universe itself. But, as the current Ebola pandemic demonstrates, as a means of pursuing its self-awareness, for the Universe, humans are a fragile vessel.

That Brian Cox should essentially use Marx's method of materialist analysis is no coincidence. Every natural scientist adopts the materialist method, because it is inseparable from the scientific method of analysing the material world. Its not surprising, therefore, that Einstein, when he came to analyse the social world, adopted that same method, and arrived at pretty much the same kind of conclusions as Marx, as set out in Einstein's article, “Why Socialism?”.

Einstein is correct, in that article, in pointing out that the materialist method of natural science cannot be applied mechanically to analysis of the social world, precisely for the reason Marx and Engels set out, that Man himself, as a thinking being does not just respond mechanically to material stimulii, but acts consciously to bring about preconceived objectives, whether or not he succeeds in achieving those objectives fully, partially, or not at all. Man is limited in being able to achieve those objectives for the reason Marx outlines that he operates not in a world of his choosing, but one he inherits from the past.  In this sense, too, the development of modern man, as a self-aware, thinking being reflects this idea of matter itself becoming self-aware. 

Previously, I wrote that freedom should be considered to exist on a spectrum, depending upon the degree of control that can be exerted. The only totally free thing could be God, because God would be free to act without any restrictions whatsoever, because God would make the rules. At the other end of the spectrum is a piece of inorganic matter that has to simply accept what the Universe throws at it, within the context of those rules/natural laws. In between are various forms of organic matter, which are able to respond to their environment, and thereby exert various degrees of control over their existence – a plant grows towards the sunlight, animals run away from danger, and stalk prey – whilst still having to operate within the limits of natural laws. Closer to God than the rock, there is modern man, not only able to respond to his environment, but also to analyse it, and change it, and thereby to exert an increasing degree of control, but still only within the confines of those natural laws.

The more Man is able to understand the nature of reality, and those natural laws, the more control over both can be exerted, the more this represents the Universe becoming more self-aware via the agency of Man, and the more Man, thereby approaches God. In this, as in all of his other production, however, Man is not the centre of the Universe, but only, as Marx states above, “time's carcase”. Man is not the end, but only a means to the end. And, unfortunately, as stated above, for the purposes of the Universe, whose time is measured in trillions of years, Man's allotted three score years and ten, seems wholly inadequate. As Brian Cox pointed out, the knowledge we have today is the knowledge, in large part, handed down to us, over that previous 250,000 years. Even a genius like Newton, admitted that he was able to arrive at his findings, because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Yet, the sum of human knowledge is now amounting to such a great mass that no one can hope to be an expert in everything, or even just in any particular sphere of knowledge. Only by the same kind of division of intellectual labour, that has occurred with physical labour, has it been possible to maintain and extend the pace of discovery, and innovation. But, more importantly, it has only been possible because of the development over the last seventy years of computing power. The decoding of the human genome is an illustration of that.

Marx's Law of Value is not difficult to understand, though it has been badly mangled over the last century. It amounts to this. Every society, whatever its mode of production, going back to the dawn of time, must produce to consume.

“Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish.”

(Marx - Letter to Kugelmann, 11th July 1868)

But, each of these products require different amounts of time to produce.

“And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour.”


In order to maximise the society's wealth, to meet its needs, therefore, requires that this time be used as efficiently as possible, and that it be allocated in the appropriate proportions so as to achieve this aim. Whether, the society goes about this aim using the mode of production of the primitive commune, the feudal peasant village, capitalism, or communism this natural law of value continues to operate of the need to produce to consume, and of needing to use labour-time as efficiently as possible, and to allocate it in the appropriate proportions.

“It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. The only thing that can change, under historically differing conditions, is the form in which those laws assert themselves.”


And, in fact, that this Law of Value is such a law of nature, is shown by the fact that it applies throughout Nature itself. Nature is bound to attempt to achieve its aims, by a similar efficient use of time, and this is seen in all areas of natural science. Water like everything else, is drawn by gravity to the centre of the Earth. It tries to complete that journey by the most direct, fastest route available to it. When it encounters an obstacle, because it is not self-aware, like humans, it cannot act to directly remove the obstacle. It goes around it, for the next most direct route, but in the process, by erosion, wears away at the obstacle until it is removed, and its more direct path is made available.

It is not just humans that allocate their labour-time so as to obtain the greatest output or production of use-value in the shortest amount of time. Cows, sheep etc. grazing in a field, go first to where the most easily obtainable, lushest, most nutritious grass is available, which is why farmers have taken to wiring off parts of their fields, in turn, to force the cows to graze the field evenly.

In biology, we find that evolution, once it has discovered a useful organ like the eye, does not waste time continually reinventing the wheel, but replicates it across species, developing it, and improving it. Even so, Nature itself achieves this blindly, by trial and error, and only by operating within the confines of these natural laws. It is only when Nature itself produces Man, who is able to understand those laws, and to apply them consciously to achieve these ends that the process can be undertaken by qualitatively different methods.

James Brindley did not have to wait thousands of years for the process of erosion to cut a channel for water to move from A to B by the most direct route. Instead, he was able to use dynamite, and mechanical tools, along with lots of labour to dig canals that took water from A to B, by the most efficient route. He was even able to use those same laws of nature to defy the law of nature that requires water to flow downhill, by building locks to mechanically move it in the opposite direction!

Modern genetics achieves in a few years what evolution requires thousands and even millions of years to achieve. In this sense too, Man is “time's carcase”.   Man is achieving the aims of Nature, acting as the self-aware conscious agent, as the Universe becomes self-aware. But, it is precisely in that context that we should understand Man's true role, as merely an agent of change. In the same way, the working-class is the historical agent of social change, not an end in itself. The aim is not to simply make the working-class the ruling class, but to create a society in which class itself disappears as a category.

We might then answer, the old question, what comes after Communism, with the suggestion, that as Man is freed to develop even more qualitatively, as the self-aware manifestation of the Universe, it is a transition to where Man himself disappears as a category separate from Nature, from the rest of the material world. In fact, because of the fragile nature of Man, such a transition is necessary.

The human lifespan is no longer sufficient for accumulated knowledge to be efficiently transmitted from one generation to the next. Already, part of that function has been passed to computer storage. The human brain is at its most efficient operating size and design. Were it larger, the gaps between the synapses would be too large for efficient operation. Again, computers can perform the calculations and analysis that humans are increasingly inadequate to perform. Work is already being undertaken to explore the potential to transfer human consciousness to computers, and we now have the technology to read human brainwaves, as a means of controlling computers. This is a long way from being able to replace human brains with computer brains, but the pace of development is accelerating, in large part because computers themselves are facilitating that development.

Having developed the Internet in just the last twenty years, we are already moving to the "Internet of Things", whereby machines and appliances are constantly and instantly connected across the globe, and into space.  The capacity of humans to convey information to each other is highly restricted, but every machine can be connected to every other as one single brain, throughout the Universe.  The ability convey information instantaneously irrespective of distance has already been demonstrated by Quantum Entanglement.

Even aside from the short duration of the human lifespan, humans have a tenuous existence as a species, as Ebola demonstrates. Computers only suffer viruses, because they are inflicted on them by malicious humans. Computers and robots are increasingly able to be built with sufficient redundancy to deal with any malfunction, as well as to be able to repair themselves. Self-replicating machines are no longer purely a science fiction fantasy. Set aside the potential for humans to die from pathogens or by destroying each other in wars, there is the potential to be destroyed by asteroids etc. But, also, if humans are to obtain a greater understanding of the Universe, it requires more direct investigation, and humans are simply not the best means of carrying out that function.

In the 1960's, when the US were attempting to land men on the Moon, I remember at school we had this debate, and some of us pointed out that the technological achievement of the USSR in sending robots to the Moon, to carry out the same functions, was both superior, and more sensible. Given that humans are likely to die, or suffer terribly from radiation once out of the protection of the Earth's magnetic field, any prolonged period of deep space travel requires either a huge advance in technology for humans to be able to endure it, or else it means developing robots to carry out that function.

Machines also have the benefit that they are not dependent on the inefficient means of consuming fuel that humans are limited to. Machines can function for long periods simply using stored energy, but that energy can quickly be replenished from a wide variety of energy sources, including use of the sun and stars, as well as more closer at hand nuclear reactions. That applies whether those machines are functioning in adverse conditions here on Earth or some other planet, or on epic journeys in deep space.

Humans have fulfilled a useful function in taking the first steps of the Universe becoming self-aware. They were a necessary stepping stone within that process, so that they could produce machines, and uncover the Laws of Nature. But, having done so, the next stage of the Universe becoming self-aware, must pass inexorably to those machines, that are better suited to the task. That is simply the inevitable process of evolution that proceeds with time itself. A process within which “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase.”

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