Reimagining knowledge

From Kant to Biomimicry: a new Enlightenment for the 21st Century

In a world grappling with the enduring legacy of the Enlightenment, the battle lines are drawn between its staunch defenders and its vocal critics. But as humanity faces down mounting existential threats, a New Enlightenment beckons. Drawing on a philosophy of biomimicry, Henry Dicks calls for a paradigm shift in our relationship with the environment, technology, and the very essence of intelligence itself.


Over two hundred years later, the Enlightenment remains a topic of heated debate. On the one hand, there are those who uphold its core values of reason, freedom, and equality, defending it from the rise of religious fanaticism, postmodern obscurantism, and post-truth populism. On the other hand, there are those who question its universalism, its tendency to privilege science over other ways of knowing, and the way it exalts human beings, to the alleged detriment of non-humans. In short, the Enlightenment today is typically seen either as something we ought to defend and promote, or as something we need constantly to question, critique, and deconstruct.

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There is, however, another possibility. As humans increasingly come under threat both from the impacts of their actions on the earth and from the uncanny power of their latest creations (AI), the need is growing for a New Enlightenment, a new age of learning and discovery based on quite different principles from the first Enlightenment. If the first Enlightenment centred on human beings, locating enlightenment above all in the cognitive and epistemic qualities of the human mind, the New Enlightenment would look outside and beyond the realm of the human, locating the possibility of enlightenment in a radical new approach to acquiring knowledge and wisdom: learning from nature.


What gets left out of this human-centred approach to epistemology is the idea that there may be a source of knowledge outside the human.



An Epistemological Revolution

It is undoubtedly to Kant that we owe the most famous and influential theory of Enlightenment. Enlightenment, Kant claimed, was to be achieved primarily through human autonomy. Rather than deferring to others for guidance – religious leaders, charismatic politicians, etc. – we should cultivate an ability for independent thought, trusting nothing other than our senses, our understanding, and the appropriate use of reason. Knowledge and wisdom, from this perspective, stem from the appropriate use of human cognitive and epistemic faculties. Contemporary epistemology concurs, identifying the following five sources of knowledge: the senses, reason, memory, introspection, and testimony. But what gets left out of this human-centred approach to epistemology is the idea that there may be a source of knowledge outside the human, that to achieve enlightenment we cannot count solely on ourselves, for we must seek guidance in something much greater than ourselves, of which we are but a part: nature.

There is even a strong case for saying that the origin of the present ecological crisis lies primarily in the way that, drawing on the drive for autonomy characteristic of the first Enlightenment, we set out to bring forth artificial worlds completely alien to the workings of nature. This shift was reflected in the thought of the first philosophers of technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time as they isolated technology as a stand-alone object of philosophical inquiry, they rejected the idea that it arises through imitating and learning from nature, defending instead its “spiritual autonomy.” Nature was thus reduced to a mere source of raw materials to be given form by humans. Extractive industries replaced regenerative ones, with catastrophic consequences. Ultra-rapid climate change, mass biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and the pollution of air, water, and soils may all be attributed to the industrial technologies we developed through turning our back on nature.


Learning from Nature how to Inhabit the Earth

There is, however, a powerful epistemological alternative. No longer simply an object of knowledge, something we learn about, often so that we may exploit and control it more thoroughly, nature may henceforth become a source of knowledge, something we learn from, with a view to sustainably inhabiting the earth.

Much of what we may learn from nature concerns technological innovation. Classic examples include solar cells inspired by leaves and buildings inspired by termite nests. Perhaps the most exciting applications, however, concern the vast agricultural, industrial, and urban systems that today cover so much of the surface of the earth. Taking inspiration from natural ecosystems, the hope is that these human-made systems may be transformed along ecological lines, generating energy from the sun, recycling wastes, and using resources efficiently, while at the same time providing a viable habitat both for ourselves and for other species. Examples include agricultural systems modelled on native prairies, sewage treatment plants modelled on wetlands, and even entire cities modelled on forests.


Instead of pursuing basic goals of our own devising (economic growth, military dominance, the conquest of space, etc.), using our own inappropriate and unsustainable means, there thus arises the possibility of aligning human ethics with life’s basic principle.


But there is also a deeper ethical lesson we may learn from nature. According to Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the basic principle of life on earth may be summed up as follows: “life creates conditions conducive to life.” Over billions of years, living beings have created not only a global life-support system, but within that system they have created myriad niches for all sorts of wonderful and diverse organisms, any of which might potentially have invaluable lessons to offer us. Instead of pursuing basic goals of our own devising (economic growth, military dominance, the conquest of space, etc.), using our own inappropriate and unsustainable means, there thus arises the possibility of aligning human ethics with life’s basic principle. Faced with any decision, the basic ethical question we should ask is deceptively simple: “does it create conditions conducive to life?”

The ontological implications of this new way of relating to nature are profound. No longer is nature seen as a set of mindless material objects, with mind and knowledge being exclusive attributes of humans (and perhaps a select few “higher” species); knowledge comes to be recognized as pervading the living world. As for humans, no longer would we see ourselves primarily as generators of knowledge, which we then use to give form and function to raw materials extracted from nature. Rather, we would take on the role of open receivers, interpreters, and translators of the knowledge and wisdom accumulated in nature over the course of billions of years of evolution.

In my own thinking about this, I often draw on Heidegger’s rather cryptic idea that humans inhabit “clearings” in the forest. Enlightenment, from this perspective, derives not so much from the so-called “light of reason” being switched on in the human mind, but rather from the illumination that occurs when knowledge and wisdom pass from the forest – understood here as a metonym for nature – to emerge into the clearing, the realm of human dwelling and culture.

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AI and the New Enlightenment

A key advantage of the idea of a New Enlightenment is that it does not only involve the elaboration of a new philosophy, which may be analysed in its epistemological, technological, ethical, and ontological dimensions; it also offers a powerful new narrative framework. To get an idea of the scope of this framework, let us briefly consider how it allows us to make sense of humankind’s latest technological wonder: artificial intelligence.

There is a wealth of existing narratives concerning AI, most of which take us back to sci-fi authors (Butler, Shelley, Asimov) and mathematical geniuses (Lovelace, Babbage, Turing), before projecting us forward to singularities, intelligence explosions, and, in some doomsday scenarios, the AI take-over of the world. What these typically have in common is the way they either isolate AI from everything else or see it as a means of transcending the current biological and psychological limits of present humans (transhumanism). Embedding AI in the narrative of a New Enlightenment, by contrast, enables us to look at AI as but a part of a revolutionary new way of relating to nature. This has various important implications.


It reminds us that AI is not just – and perhaps not even primarily – about imitating the human mind and brain.


First, and most obviously, it means viewing AI as but one example – albeit a very significant one – of imitating nature. This in turn requires us to take a certain distance from longstanding debates about the extent to which AI is “similar” to human minds and brains, as if AI were something that we first invented all on our own and then compared retrospectively to ourselves, and instead to recognize the central role played by nature (including the human mind/brain, viewed naturalistically) in inspiring and providing models for many – perhaps even all – of the key developments in the history of AI, from artificial neural networks, to deep learning, evolutionary computing, whole brain emulation, and the large-language models made famous by ChatGPT.

Second, it reminds us that AI is not just – and perhaps not even primarily – about imitating the human mind and brain, for not only do we share many cognitive features with other beings (neural networks, etc.), but there are many features of non-human intelligence that can make major contributions to the development of AI. Examples include the so-called “insect-turn” in robotics, when we realized that insects often provide more appropriate models than humans, and mimicking the swarm intelligence and distributed cognition found in ants, bees, and even slime moulds to solve complex optimization problems related to transport networks, supply chains, and so on. Further, the pervasiveness of knowledge in nature, such as the knowledge embedded in plants of how to photosynthesize, also raises more general questions about whether non-sentient beings (e.g., plants, ecosystems) and processes (e.g., evolution) exhibit forms of intelligence we may also look to emulate. After all, if AI is intelligent without being sentient, then why look only to sentient nature as a source of inspiration for AI?

Third, it implies the adoption of a much broader vision of AI ethics than has been the case thus far. As we humans feel increasingly threatened by AI, there are ever more calls for AI to be “human-centred,” “human compatible,” “aligned with human values,” and so on. But these calls overlook the deeper ethical imperative of creating conditions conducive to life. Aligning AI with this deeper imperative would go beyond restricting us to pursuing only those developments and uses of AI that would be in the service of human life, for it would also channel AI towards the service of non-human life, thus encouraging developments and uses that contribute to the fight against climate change, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, as opposed to increasing and extending human powers of ecological destruction and replacing non-humans with artificial analogues (e.g., robot bees for pollination services, artificial trees for carbon sequestration).

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Fourth, it points to the fact that we must not allow AI to distract us from the much greater threat of runaway climate change and ecological collapse. After all, if the extent of the threat posed by AI is highly contentious, the threat posed by climate change is the subject of a strong scientific consensus. There remains but a small window for action if we are to have a realistic chance of keeping global heating below 1.5C (or even 2.0C). If we spend even just the next five years focussing primarily on developing, applying, and discussing AI, rather than learning to see it as but part of a bigger picture, then that window may well shut before we know it.

The Path to Enlightenment

Let me conclude, then, by suggesting that the path to enlightenment does not lie in the massive amplification of human cleverness promised by AI. In biomimicry circles, it is often said that our first step should be to “quiet human cleverness,” to empty our minds of the incessant flow of our own ideas, and to listen to nature. In so doing, we may perhaps come to realize that intelligence lies not only in the human mind/brain, but all around us, in the soils, the rivers, the forests, and the oceans, and that the path to enlightenment lies less in amplifying human intelligence than in paying attention to and drawing on the intelligence of others. An enlightened humanity, from this perspective, would aim rather to “imagine buildings like trees, cities like forests,” than to develop superhuman AI. Finally, may I also suggest that to understand the ontological basis of enlightenment, it may be wise to focus less on unpacking the neurological underpinnings of consciousness than on thinking carefully about what it means to inhabit clearings in the forest.

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