Archive for January, 2011

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: The Debiologization of Humanity

January 25, 2011

Aliens, in science fiction, no matter how weird, are usually basically like us in two fundamental respects: biological individuals.

That’s probably wrong.

Consider: our civilization is only a few thousand years old; we are far from interstellar travel. Any other civilization able to come here would have to be far older.

Our technological era is only centuries old; serious scientific technology even younger. But already we are on the cusp of profoundly altering human life. Ray Kurzweil talks about a coming “singularity,” a dividing point – before, life was one thing; after, something else entirely. He foresees this in a matter of decades.

Already, for many people, their iPhones and Droids and iWhatsises are becoming veritable extensions of themselves, virtually as though adding new organs to their original endowments. Miguel Nicolelis, in the latest Scientfic American, writes of advancements in brain control of machines. The prime example is giving mobility to paralyzed limbs; but why stop at remediating deficits? Why not enhancements?

Meantime, too, artificial intelligence is advancing. Yes, I know, the early promise has not been realized, a thinking machine turns out to be wickedly more complicated than previously realized. Yet still computers become smarter every day. Now they can learn. IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion at chess; more recently a computer beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy!

We don’t yet fully understand consciousness; but it’s not magical or supernatural. It’s perhaps best thought of as an “emergent property” of the complex neural network constituting a human brain. There is no reason in principle why an artificial system of comparable complexity could not develop consciousness.

Do you see where it’s all going? Humans becoming more computerized/mechanized; computers and machines becoming more humanlike. Convergence is inevitable.

Some express fear that we’ll someday be subjugated or supplanted by a race of super-intelligent machines. I believe, instead, that purely biological humanity will be superseded by a different kind of creature, representing a merger of the biological with the artificial. (“Artificial” merely meaning non-biological.) Or perhaps the biological will be dispensed with completely.

Will that be bad? No. If those computerized/mechanized entities have thoughts and feelings – a sense of self – like we do – then they’d still be what I’d call “human” in the ways that truly matter. Quite possibly in all those respects they’d actually be enhanced compared to us meager, frail biological things. It will be a natural evolution of humanity.

Furthermore, we already see the beginnings of not only a merger between biology and technology, but between the individual and the collective. Now, you won’t find a stronger advocate of the individual versus the collective than me; I don’t believe in society bending individuals to its will. But this is different. A key impetus of modern technological life is that people thirst for connectivity with other people. This can only escalate as technology facilitates such human interconnection ever more powerfully.

And, as we move toward becoming the cyberbeings foreseen above, no doubt the interconnectedness among individuals will grow; and indeed, individual consciousness will evolve toward merged consciousness.

This is the inevitable trajectory for any intelligent, technological civilization. If we ever do encounter some alien visitors, we won’t likely meet biological individuals, but rather some sort of collective consciousness which had long since evolved beyond its biological antecedents.

Just like we ourselves will do.

Just like a butterfly leaving behind its caterpillar antecedents — emerging as something very different and, arguably, far finer.


From Disgust to Humanity

January 21, 2011

Leon Kass is a “public intellectual” who was an advisor to President G.W. Bush on bioethics issues like stem cell research. One of Kass’s basic precepts boils down to listening to our gut: when the average person has a deep-seated aversion toward something, that should guide us in policy. Because such practices as stem cell research (using embryos) and cloning do trigger such a gut response, creeping out many people, that’s reason enough to ban them, Kass held. Similar thinking is sometimes applied to issues like gay marriage – in effect, if a majority has a deep-seated aversion toward homosexuality, then it’s okay for society to act accordingly in regard to gays.

Leon Kass

I would point out that in 1930s Germany, there was a widespread deep-seated aversion toward Jews. And in 1950s Mississippi, a deep-seated aversion toward blacks. Such prejudices do not reflect “the better angels of our nature” – or rationality – and are not a sound guide to right and wrong.

Similarly, at one time, the idea of transplanting organs from the dead to the living most definitely creeped people out. And in-vitro fertilization violated many people’s deeply held gut feelings about ethics. Few hold those views now.

We should rely on our brains, not our guts.

My own philosophy is rooted in a precept very different from Kass’s. Its starting point is the Social Contract – fundamentally (as per Thomas Hobbes), people create society to solve the problem of the “war of all against all.” I relinquish my freedom to bash you on the head and steal your food, and you give up your liberty to do it to me. In that limited sense we are less free, but our true freedom is actually enhanced because now we can go about our lives in relative security.

This viewpoint illuminates that “society” exists to serve its individual members; it’s wrong to view individuals as subservient to societal interests (which is the essence of all collectivist philosophies like fascism and communism). We want society to protect us from harm but not otherwise to boss us around.

John Stuart Mill, a far better philosopher

This is the libertarianism of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. We own ourselves; we’re not owned by society, participation in which is voluntary. Of course that’s a tacit assumption, but one necessary for human dignity. Society’s purpose is to protect us from harm from each other, and to give us the means to flourish, by living as each freely sees fit.

Thus, if Leon Kass’s gut finds gay sex disgusting, that’s no proper moral basis for societal action. Even if a majority agrees with Kass. Liberty, not disgust, is the proper touchstone.

And, as Mill argued, this view makes for a better society. Conformity to the prejudices of the many is a recipe for stagnation. When, instead, people are free to follow their own paths, society is enriched by the sparkle of diversity and the airing of novel and divergent ideas. That, indeed, is the very thing that has made America such a good society.

(For prompting the thoughts here, I am indebted to Kenneth Krause’s essay in the February 2011 Humanist magazine, discussing Martha Nussbaum’s book, From Disgust to Humanity.)


January 14, 2011

As an opinion blogger, the zeitgeist obliges me to comment about the Arizona shootings (even if I have nothing especially interesting to say).

The predictable response has been “Round up the usual suspects.” While the left in particular has jumped on this to excoriate extreme political rhetoric on the right, the left refuses to realize that its own rhetoric is often no less extreme. In fact, some of the left’s rhetoric, attacking the right’s alleged extremism, has itself been quite extreme. (This includes the overdone attack on Sarah Palin for using the term “blood libel;” click here for an example.)

I have commented before against extreme political rhetoric – especially the syndrome of not just disagreeing with political opponents, but demonizing them and impugning their motives. Here again the left shares fully in the guilt. (Republicans “want to destroy Social Security” and so forth.)

But – none of this has anything to do with the Arizona shootings. Based on what we know about the shooter, it is highly unlikely that he was influenced by that notorious map with congressional districts “targeted” or by any other political blathering. He was a very disturbed misfit whose actions would not have been prevented by some imagined halcyon climate of political civility.

Next. Few people are as libertarian as me. It’s a basic principle of mine that if government wants to tell folks what to do, it had better have a darn good reason, that concerns the well-being of others. You’re not allowed to harm someone, but otherwise should be free to do as you please.

But – I don’t see why anyone should be permitted to buy the kinds of guns and ammunition used by the Arizona shooter. They have no conceivable legitimate sporting use. They’re for killing people. Preventing such killing is society’s Job One; it’s the chief reason why we implicitly agree to surrender some of our liberty to government, in the Social Contract. Society cannot prevent every murder, but surely we can at least restrict access to equipment that has no purpose other than murder.


Helping Your Neighbor: A Duty, Or Irrational?

January 10, 2011

I recently read Amartya Sen’s The Idea Of Justice. I had loved his Development as Freedom (see my blog post on it), but found Justice less engaging. However, I was highly interested in his discussion of “Rational Choice Theory.”

Amartya Sen

It has become fashionable to disparage the idea of human rationality. Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational maintain that our decision making is deeply flawed, with people often not only unable to make choices that serve their interests, but unable to understand their true interests. All this is utilized to attack political stances that favor freedom to choose. Free market capitalism in particular is cast as requiring an assumption of “homo economicus” rationally pursuing self-interest; and if such creatures don’t actually exist, then free market economics is dismissed as delusional.

This goes way too far, argues Amartya Sen. Sure, humans are imperfect reasoning machines; yet, in our day-to-day activities, we must deploy a pretty high degree of rationality. If you think about it (rationally!), practically every action we take is rationally calculated to advance some goal, and practically every such goal is one that is rational for a person to pursue.

Sen also argues that when people do things that are considered (by some) as irrational, that might not actually be true. People usually have reasons for what they do. They may not be the best reasons, they may not match your reasons, but perfect irrationality is as rare as perfect rationality.

Cartoon by Doug Savage,

This leads to the problem of altruism. As Sen discusses, some philosophers maintain that the only rational course for a person is to pursue self-interest, and any contrary action is perforce irrational. Thus, the fact that people often do such things, and even engage in self-sacrifice, is ammunition for the debunkers of rationality and of all the political implications of assumed rational choice.

But that’s nonsense. Sen discusses various ways in which altruistic acts can be squared with rational objectives, and how it can be rational for a person to take into account not just his own goals and interests but those of others. And one wants to live in that kind of society. But I was surprised that Sen failed to make the clinching argument: when talking about one’s goals and self-interest, the ultimate goal is to feel good, including feeling good about onself. People do selfless or even seemingly self-sacrificing things to give them good feelings. That’s perfectly rational.

Sen also discusses the idea that there’s a duty to help one’s neighbor, but questions just who is a “neighbor.” And he cites the “shocking” notion of John Sparrow that in the parable of the good Samaritan, the guys who refused help cannot be faulted. I agree that there’s no duty to help. Duties do not arise from thin air, but out of our relationships with individuals. No relationship, no duty (apart from the requirement to avoid harming someone; though if you harm someone, that puts you into relationship with her.)

This take on the subject of duty is illuminated by Sen’s trouble with the “neighbor” issue. I find it highly problemsome to posit a duty to help neighbors but not others, with the duty hinging on proximity (or similarity?). True, it seems more callous to ignore the neighbor suffering at your doorstep than the African tribesman suffering half a world away – but what really is the moral difference? I reject the parochialism of discriminating on such bases; we are all neighbors. Of course, far more need help than anyone can possibly accommodate, so at best one can only choose to help a very few. This points up that helping cannot be a duty (impossible of fulfillment) but, instead, is a choice. And, again, it can be perfectly rational to make the choice to act altruistically. Most people do, routinely; it’s actually a fundamental aspect of human nature.

(Followers of this blog will not be surprised at my noting that these matters are discussed more fully in my very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)


Losing Faith in Faith

January 2, 2011

Dan Barker had religion, big-time. As a teenager he became a high-octane evangelical preacher, making his living performing at churches and writing Christian songs. After 19 years, he quit, having after a long struggle come to realize it was all hokum. His book, Losing Faith in Faith, explains.

It’s axiomatic that religionists and atheists have difficulty understanding each other. Barker’s book is useful because he has inhabited both worlds, and understands better than most atheists the religious psychology he critiques. It is indeed an all-encompassing worldview. Barker minces no words in calling it delusional.

As the title promises, he attacks the very concept of “faith,” arguing that real truth does not need swaddling in a protective cocoon of faith, a defensive rampart to stave off the intrusions of reality.

Barker is also remorseless in deconstructing the Bible. Its veneration is grounded mainly on what believers imagine it to be, rather than its actual content. Thus a powerful antidote to Bible worship is to actually read the book – to read it with clear eyes and an engaged mind. (I’ve subjected myself to this ordeal. It’s pretty depressing.)

Barker literally cites chapter and verse in his indictment of the book’s villain, questioning why anyone would choose to worship such a monster. While Christians talk about a loving God, that just doesn’t square with the one portrayed in the Bible, with all his smitings and slaughter of innocents. Barker cites several times the story of some children torn apart by bears as punishment for teasing a prophet’s baldness. (Repetition is one shortcoming of the book, being largely a compendium of previously published pieces.)

I noticed one Amazon reviewer related how a 4-year-old, watching the movie Prince of Egypt, where God kills all the Egyptian first-borns, blurted out, “That story’s not true. God wouldn’t be so mean.” The Christian adults present were stunned! (Out of the mouths of babes. . . )

The book lays waste to the entire catalog of defenses for the belief in God which its repentant author once promoted with such fervor. One of the best chapters is “Dear Theologian,” an imagined letter from God, asking questions. The first is “where do I come from?” As God himself muses about this, the logical black hole becomes evident. Barker also has God ask what – from his perspective – is the meaning of life; and, importantly, “How do I decide what is right and wrong?” More logical black holes.

Having lived the life, Barker is fully cognizant of religion’s comforts. He suffered in giving it up. But he says he’s actually happier as an atheist than he ever really was in faith: now a truly free man, able to use his mind and humanity to make his life in the world and among others.

A shortcoming of the book is its barely mentioning evolution, which is crucial not only scientifically, but also for understanding the human character and condition. In particular, a proper grasp of evolution is essential to refute claims that morality requires faith. (I must note that this extremely important subject is thoroughly explored in my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

Optimism might seem misplaced when contemplating the persistence of superstitious beliefs. But I am confident that their mystique has been irrevocably broken, and cannot ultimately survive the collision with reason and truth.