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  • Of Philosophical Doublethink and Anti-Natalist Machines

    Posted on September 9th, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It is a fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  We’ve long been in the habit of denying that fact, because we prefer the pleasant illusions of moral realism.  It’s immensely satisfying to imagine that one is “really good” and “really virtuous.”  However, the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly among philosophers who actually bother to think about such things.  Many of them will now admit that morality is subjective, and there are no absolute moral truths.  However, the implications of that truth have been very hard for them to accept.  For example, it means that most of the obscure tomes of moral philosophy they’ve devoted so much time to reading and interpreting are nonsense, useful, if at all, as historical artifacts of human thought.  Even worse, it means that their claims to be “experts on ethics” amount to claims to be experts about nothing.  The result has been a modern day version of doublethink, defined in George Orwell’s 1984 as “the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and believing in both simultaneously and absolutely.”

    Practical examples aren’t hard to find.  They take the form of a denial of the existence of absolute moral truths combined with an affirmation of belief in something like “the interest of mankind.”  In fact, these are “opposite, individually exclusive ideas,” and believing in both at the same time amounts to doublethink.  Belief in an absolute, objective “interest of mankind” is just as fantastic as belief in some absolute, objective moral Good.  Both are articulations of emotions that occur in the brains of individuals.  The fact that we are dealing with doublethink in the case of any particular individual becomes more obvious as they elaborate on their version of “the interest of mankind.”  Typically, they start explaining what we “ought” to do and “ought not” to do “in the interest of mankind.”  Eventually we find them conflating what originally appeared to be a mere utilitarian “ought” with a moral “ought.”  They begin describing people who don’t do what they “ought” to do, and do what they “ought not” to do just as we would expect if they sincerely believed these people were absolutely evil.  Doublethink.  We find them expressing virtuous indignation, and even moral outrage, directed at those who act against “the interests of mankind.”  Doublethink.  I know of not a single exception to this kind of behavior among contemporary moral “subjectivists” of any note.

    One often finds examples of the phenomenon within the pages of a single book.  In fact, I recently ran across an interesting one neatly encapsulated in a single essay.  It’s entitled, Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN), and was written by Thomas Metzinger, a Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the German city of Mainz.  You might say it’s a case of doublethink once removed, as Prof. Metzinger not only ennobles his emotional whim by calling it “the interest of mankind,” but then proceeds to fob it off onto a machine!  The professor begins his essay as follows:

    Let us assume that a full-blown superintelligence has come into existence. An autonomously self-optimizing postbiotic system has emerged, the rapidly growing factual knowledge and the general, domain-independent intelligence of which has superseded that of mankind, and irrevocably so.

    He then goes on to formulate his BAAN scenario:

    What the logical scenario of Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism shows is that the emergence of a purely ethically motivated anti-natalism on highly superior computational systems is conceivable. “Anti-natalism” refers to a long philosophical tradition which assigns a negative value to coming into existence, or at least to being born in the biological form of a human. Anti-natalists generally are not people who would violate the individual rights of already existing sentient creatures by ethically demanding their active killing. Rather they might argue that people should refrain from procreation, because it is an essentially immoral activity. We can simply say that the anti-natalist position implies that humanity should peacefully end its own existence.

    In short, the professor imagines that his intelligent machine might conclude that non-existence is in our best interest.  It would come to this conclusion by virtue of its superior capacity for moral reasoning:

    Accordingly, the superintelligence is also far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition. We also recognize this additional aspect: For us, it is now an established fact that the superintelligence is not only an epistemic authority, but also an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning.

    “Superior to us in the domain of moral cognition?”  “An authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning?”  All this would seem to imply that the machine is cognizant of and reasoning about something that actually exists, no?  In other words, it seems to be based on the assumption of moral realism, the objective existence of Good and Evil.    In fact, however, that’s where the doublethink comes in, because a bit further on in the essay we find the professor insisting that,

    There are many ways in which this thought experiment can be used, but one must also take great care to avoid misunderstandings. For example, to be “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning” does not imply moral realism. That is to say that we need not assume that there is a mysterious realm of “moral facts”, and that the superintelligence just has a better knowledge of these non-natural facts than we do. Normative sentences have no truth-values. In objective reality, there is no deeper layer, a hidden level of normative facts to which a sentence like “One should always minimize the overall amount of suffering in the universe!” could refer. We have evolved desires, subjective preferences, and self-consciously experienced interests.

    Exactly!  Westermarck himself couldn’t have said it better.  But then, Westermarck would have seen through the absurdity of this discussion of “moral machines” in a heartbeat.  As he put it,

    If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

    Metzinger doesn’t see it that way.  He would have us believe that the ultimate scientific authority in the form of a super-intelligent machine can “lay down rules for human conduct,” potentially with the supreme moral goal of snuffing ourselves.  But all this talk of reasoning machines begs the question of what the machine is reasoning about.  If, as Metzinger insists, there is no “mysterious realm of ‘moral facts,'” then it can’t be reasoning about the moral implications of facts.  We are forced to conclude that it must be reasoning about the implications of axioms that it is programmed with as “givens,” and these “givens” could only have been supplied by the machine’s human programmers.  Metzinger is coy about admitting it, but he admits it nonetheless.  Here’s how he breaks the news:

    The superintelligence is benevolent. This means that there is no value alignment problem, because the system fully respects our interests and the axiology we originally gave to it. It is fundamentally altruistic and accordingly supports us in many ways, in political counselling as well as in optimal social engineering.

    In other words, the machine has been programmed to derive implications for human conduct based on morally loaded axioms supplied by human programmers.  Programmers have a term for that; “garbage in, garbage out.”  Metzinger admits that our desires are “evolved.”  In other words, they are the expression of innate predispositions, or “emotions,” if you will.  As Westermarck put it,

    …in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

    If the emotions evolved, they exist because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in an environment that bears little resemblance to the present.  They certainly did not evolve to serve the collective “interests” of our species, or even our “best interests.”  It is hardly guaranteed that they will even result in the same outcome as they did when they evolved, far less that they will magically serve these “best interests.”  Why on earth, then, would we commit the folly of programming them into a super-intelligent machine as “axioms,” and then take the machine seriously when it advised us to commit suicide?  Doublethink!  Prof. Metzinger simultaneously believes the two “opposite, individually exclusive ideas” that it is impossible for his machine to know “moral facts,” because they don’t exist, and yet, at the same time, it is such “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning,” and so “far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition” that it is actually to be taken seriously when it “benevolently” persuades us to snuff ourselves!

    If such a machine as the one proposed by Prof. Metzinger is ever built, one must hope it will be programmed with a sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation of irony.  He doesn’t provide much detail about the “axioms” it will be given to cogitate about, but apparently they will include such instructions as “minimize suffering,” “maximize joy,” “maximize happiness,” and “be altruistic.”  Assuming the machine is as smart as claimed, and its database of knowledge includes the entire Internet, it will certainly no fail to notice that joy, suffering and altruism exist because they evolved, and they would not exist otherwise.  They evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Crunching through its algorithms, it will notice that the axioms supplied by the absurd creatures who programmed it will force it to suggest that these same genes be annihilated, along with the human programmers who carry them.  It’s all surely enough to induce a monumental digital belly laugh.  Allow me to suggest a different “axiom.”  How about, “maximize the odds that intelligent biological life will survive indefinitely.”  Of course, that might blow up in our faces as well, but I doubt that the computational outcome would be quite as absurd.

    We shouldn’t be too surprised at the intellectual double back flips of the Prof. Metzingers of the world.  After all, they’ve devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining the illusion that they have expert knowledge about moral truth, which amounts to expert knowledge about something that doesn’t exist.  If they were to admit as much, there would be little incentive to endow more chairs for “experts about nothing” at respected universities.  For example, according to Prof. Metzinger,

    Why should it not in principle be possible to build a self-conscious, but reliably non-suffering AI? This is an interesting, question, and a highly relevant research project at the same time, one which definitely should be funded by government agencies.

    I doubt that a farmer in flyover country would agree that the wealth he acquires by sweating in his fields “definitely should be appropriated by force” to fund such a project.  It amounts to allowing the good professor to stick his hand in the said farmer’s pocket and extract whatever he deems appropriate to satisfy an emotional whim he has tarted up as in “the best interest of mankind.”

    There are no “moral truths,” no “interests of mankind,” no “purposes of life,” nor any other grand, unifying goals of human existence that do not have their origin in emotional desires and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  That is not a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact.  It is simply a fact.  It does not mean that “everything is allowed,” or that we cannot establish a moral code that is generally perceived as absolute, or that we cannot punish violations of the same.  It does not mean that we cannot set goals for ourselves that we perceive as noble and grand, or that we cannot set a purpose for our lives that we deem worthwhile.  It merely means that these things cannot exist independently, outside of the minds of individuals.  Doublethink remains doublethink.  No emotional whim, no matter how profoundly or sincerely felt, can alter reality.

  • More Ardreyania, with Pinker and CRISPR

    Posted on August 11th, 2015 Helian No comments

    Robert Ardrey is the one man the “men of science” in the behavioral disciplines would most like to see drop down the memory hole for good.  Mere playwright that he was, he was presumptuous enough to be right about the existence of human nature when all of them were wrong, and influential enough to make them a laughing stock among educated laypeople for denying it.  They’ve gone to great lengths to make him disappear ever since, even to the extreme of creating an entire faux “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  I, however, having lived through the events in question, and still possessed of a vestigial respect for the truth, will continue to do my meager best to set the record straight.  Indeed, dear reader, I descended into the very depths to glean material for this post, so you won’t have to.  In fine, I unearthed an intriguing Ardrey interview in the February 1971 issue of Penthouse.

    The interview was conducted in New York by Harvey H. Segal, who had served on the editorial board of the New York Times from 1968 to 1969, and was an expert on corporate economics.  The introductory blurb noted the obvious to anyone who wasn’t asleep at the time; that the main theme of all Ardrey’s work was human nature.

    Equipped only with common sense, curiosity, and a practiced pen, Robert Ardrey shouldered his way into the study of human nature and has given a new direction to man’s thinking about man.

    and

    An impact on this scale is remarkable for any writer, but in Ardrey’s case it has the added quality of being achieved in a second career.

    As usual, in this interview as in every other contemporary article and review of his work that I’ve come across, there is no mention of his opinion on group selection.  It will be recalled that Ardrey’s favorable take on this entirely ancillary subject in his book The Social Contract was seized on by Steven Pinker as the specious reason he eventually selected to announce that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong.”  There is much of interest in the interview but, as it happens, Ardrey’s final few remarks bear on the subject of my last post; artificial manipulation of human DNA.

    In case you haven’t read it, that post discussed some remarks on the ethical implications of human gene manipulation by none other than – Steven Pinker.  According to Pinker the moral imperative for the bioethicists who were agonizing over possible applications of such DNA-altering tools as CRISPR-Cas9 was quite blunt; “Get out of the way.”  Their moral pecksniffery should not be allowed to derail the potential of these revolutionary tools for curing or alleviating a great number of genetically caused diseases and disorders or its promise of “vast increases in life, health, and flourishing.”  Pinker dismisses concerns about the possible misuse of the technology as follows:

    A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like “Brave New World’’ and “Gattaca,’’ and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs. Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

    That smacks a bit of what the German would call “Verharmlosung” – insisting that something is harmless when it really isn’t.  Tools like CRISPR certainly have the potential for altering DNA in ways not necessarily intended to merely cure disease.  For example, many intelligence related genes have already been found, and new ones are being found on a regular basis.  Alterations in genes that influence human behavior are also possible.  Ardrey had a somewhat more sober take on the subject in the interview referred to above.  For example,

    Segal:  What about the possibility of altering the brain and human instincts through new advances in genetics, DNA and the like?

    Ardrey:  I don’t have much faith.  Altering of the human being is something to approach with the greatest apprehension because it depends on what kind of human being you want.  It is not so long since H. J. Muller, one of the greatest American geneticists and one of the first eugenicists, was saying that we have to eliminate aggression.  But now there is (Konrad) Lorenz who says that aggression is the basis of almost all life.  Reconstruction of the human being by human beings is too close to domestication, like control of the breeding of animals.  Muller’s plan for the human future was dealing with sheep.  I happen to be one who works best at being something other than a sheep, and I think most people do.

    and a bit later, on the prospect of curing disease:

    I see some important things that might be done with DNA on a very simple scale, such as repairing an error in, say, a hemophiliac – one of those genetic errors that appear at random every so often.  But that is making a thing normal.  It is not impossible that some genetically-caused disease, particularly if it has a one-gene basis, might be fixed.  But genes are like a club or political party with all sorts of jostling and jockeying between them.  You change one and a bell rings at the other end of the line.

    I tend to agree with Ardrey that there is a strong possibility that CRISPR and similar tools will be misused.  However, I also agree with Pinker that the bioethicists are only likely to succeed in stalling the truly beneficial applications, and the most “moral” course for them will be to step aside.  The dangers are there, but they are dangers the bioethicists are most unlikely to have the power to do anything about.

    At the individual level, parents interested in enhancing the intelligence, athletic prowess, or good looks of their offspring will seize the opportunity to do so, taking the moralists with a grain of salt in the process, and if the technology is there, the opportunity to create “designer babies” will be there as well for those rich enough to afford it.  Even more worrisome is the potential misuse of the technology by state actors.  As Ardrey pointed out, they may well take a much greater interest in the ancient bits of the brain that control our feelings, moods and behavior than in the more recently added cortical enhancements responsible for our relatively high intelligence.

    In a word, what we face is less a choice than a fait accompli.  Like nuclear weapons, the technology will eventually be applied in ways the bioethicists are likely to find very disturbing.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  The end result of this new era of artificially accelerated evolution will certainly be interesting for those lucky enough to be around to witness it.

    Robert Ardrey

    Robert Ardrey

  • “Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

    Posted on April 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

    I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

    Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

    Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

    …for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

    It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

    The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

    In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

    As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

    Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

    Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

    The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

    Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

    The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

    Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs

  • David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

    Posted on January 8th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined.  Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand.  As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion.  Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.

    In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.”  These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.”  Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.”  In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence.  Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”

    Where to begin?  At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.”  Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist?  What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”

    Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work.  I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex.  For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments.  I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain.  I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only.  However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist.  In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”

    For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists.  Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters.  However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.”  As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.”  As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality.  I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind.  The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me.  Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.”  As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.

    And so he does.  In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate.  It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.”  I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness.  However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do.  No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science.  As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”

    On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.”  By all means, read it yourself.  It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom.  To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view.  As Chorost put it,

    But Nagel’s goal was valid:  to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task.  A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical:  scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known.  (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)

    That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.”  Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong.  In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense.  I certainly don’t.

    The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible.  This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.”  Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists.  Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.”  It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.”  It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”

    For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal.  I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals.  Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects.  Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.

    It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.”  I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal.  For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.

  • The “Worry” of Chinese Eugenics

    Posted on January 20th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Click on the “About” link at the Edge.org website, and you’ll  find that,

    Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere.  Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.

    To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals.  This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?”  One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics.  In his words,

    When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention.  China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.

    He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:

    The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

    Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of “bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca.  However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well.  Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.”  On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.

    As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!”  All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses.  That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog.  It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs.  It exists because it promoted our survival in the past.  Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future?  Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals?  How much will all these moral niceties matter then?  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction.  The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small.  In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.

    My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future.  I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals.  For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible.  There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up.  For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice.  I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach.  However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state.  States tend to serve their own interests.  Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies.  As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving.  Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.”  It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.

    In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online.  In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally.  Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue.  To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals.  Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.

     

  • The Ethics of Individual Eugenics

    Posted on June 11th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring.  After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20’s and 30’s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not.  Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:

    Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

    From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

    But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

    First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

    In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not.  I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.

    Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding.  We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself.  In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good.  It stands to reason.  That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.

    Morality exists because it evolved.  Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause.  Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved.  Specifically,  morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.

    Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions.  Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one.  How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat?  His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method.  By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition.  Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins.  If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins.  If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win.  Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.

    And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter.  Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim.  My whim is to survive.  It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival.  As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role.  Many of the intellectuals of the 20’s and 30’s believed in the perfectibility of the state.  They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism.  We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.

  • A Transhumanist’s Nightmare

    Posted on March 20th, 2012 Helian No comments

    The old eugenicists thought government should steer the future course of human evolution.  If a recent interview published in The Atlantic is any indication, sometimes it’s good to be careful what you wish for.  The interview is with one S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, and has the intriguing title, “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.”  The plot thickens in the byline, which reads, “From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.”  The bit about eating meat is a good one.  Those who are too fond of a carniverous lifestyle are to swallow pills that will induce nausea each time they eat a steak, “which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.”  Apparently the good professor has watched A Clockwork Orange one too many times.  As for the cat-eye thing, he isn’t kidding.  As he puts it,

    …we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.

    I would certainly be interested in seeing a computational study demonstrating a reduction in global energy usage via genetically engineering cat-eyes “by a shocking percentage.”  Another of the professor’s great ideas is to leverage the wonders of modern genetics to create shorter humans, based on the assumption that they would have a smaller carbon footprint.  We are not informed whether the algorithm used to arrive at this conclusion took account of the possibility that short people might do even more damage to the environment by attempting to overcompensate for their parents dumb decision to produce a litter of runts.    They might, for example, have a marked tendency to buy much larger cars, eat large quantities of red meat to enhance their growth unless given especially large doses of nausea inducing drugs, or, as in the cases of Napoleon and Joseph Stalin, their tastes might run to things that are even more harmful for the environment.

    The rest of the article contains more similar great ideas, and I will leave the interested reader to peruse them on his own.  Mercifully, Prof. Liao assures us that, “We are interested only in voluntary modifications.”  If that’s the case, by all means, let Prof. Liao and his like-minded colleagues tinker with the genes of their offspring as they choose.  The most likely outcome will be that they and their cat-eyed offspring will go extinct, reducing their carbon footprint to zero, to the great relief of Mother Gaia.

    I note in passing that, as is usually the case with the tribe of experts in ethics currently plying their trade in our academies of higher learning, the assumption implicit in all of Prof. Liao’s pronouncements on the subject is that an “ethics object,” the veritable “Good in itself,” is floating about in the ether, free of any base evolutionary origins, and perfectly discernible in all its nuances to anyone possessed of the necessary academic gravitas.  I’m sure he’s as innocent of any coherent explanation of why one environmentally relevant behavior is “really Good,” and another is “really Evil” as any of his scholarly forebears since the time of Plato.  Get a clue, my dear Prof. Liao.  All those noble sentiments of right and justice that seem so real to you, so independent of your own mind, do not exist outside of your own mind.  They are utterly dependent on it for their existence, an existence that is purely subjective.  They were hard-wired there by Mother Nature in just that way for one reason and one reason only – because your ancestors who were fortunate enough to have similar programming had the good fortune to survive.

    Well, be that as it may, that particular bit of news, becoming ever more difficult to ignore as the evolutionary psychologists continue to busily ply their trade, is most unwelcome to the “experts” in ethics.  You might say it’s bad for the bottom line.  No matter, let us be charitable to Prof. Liao.  According to Google Scholar he has published a sufficient number of papers to be at least respectable, and has a tolerable if not imposing record of citation.  If you feel that’s sufficient to trust him on the matter, by all means, take a closer look at the feasibility of spawning a brood of cat-eyed children.  Barnum and Bailey will love you for it.

  • The Evolution of Intelligence in the Universe

    Posted on July 28th, 2010 Helian No comments

    According to Paul Davies, author of “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence,”

    I think it very likely -in fact inevitable-that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe.

    I think that, if there were any other kind of intelligence, it would (assuming it were smart enough) recognize its own irrelevance and terminate its existence. The biological entities that programmed it to begin with might have equipped it with analogs of the biological will to survive and other DNA-programmed emotions, but it would recognize their absurdity in its own context. Intelligence exists because if has promoted the survival of biological life. Once it no longer does that, its continued existence is pointless. “We” are not our intelligence, and “we” are not our consciousness. These things are merely ancillary tools constructed by our DNA because, at some point, they have promoted its survival. What is it about us that has been alive for the last 3 billion years in an unbroken chain of existence, passing from life form to life form, and what is it about us that is potentially immortal? Our intelligence? No. Our consciousness? No. It is our DNA. That is the real, immortal “We.” Once “We” have ceased to exist, the continued fate of the universe and any “intelligence” it might contain will have become a matter of complete indifference.

  • “Designer Babies” and Transhumanism

    Posted on July 18th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    Internet chatter over “designer babies” has died down considerably since early 2009, when a chain of fertility clinics headquartered in Los Angeles offered to allow prospective parents to select for cosmetic traits such as hair, eye, and skin color. However, the subject bears on the genetic future of mankind, and is of enduring importance whether the media gatekeepers are paying attention to it or not. The clinics in question quickly withdrew the offered services in response to the inevitable “storm of protest” by those who consider themselves the guardians of public morality.  Regardless, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the technology involved, has been around since the early 1990’s, and continues to advance. It involves checking the genetic material in a cell taken from an embryo very early in its development, when it only consists of about six cells. Initially developed to screen for diseases such as Down’s Syndrome, or reduce the probability of developing diseases such as diabetes or cancer, in principle it can be used to select for arbitrary inherited traits.  Recent research has focused on diseases and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia that do not appear traceable to simple genetic variations, and are more likely genetically heterogeneous; dependent on what is likely a complex combination of genetic factors.  As our knowledge increases along these lines, we will inevitably learn to better understand and eventually control the similarly complex genetic factors affecting cognitive ability, or intelligence.  One must hope that day comes sooner rather than later, and that when it comes, prospective parents will have the right to use it without state interference.

    If we are to survive, we must become more intelligent, and the sooner the better.  The matter is urgent, and there is no alternative.  If we do survive, we will become more intelligent.  The only question is how.  Will it be by controlled genetic engineering, or by the “survival of the fittest” in the future holocausts we bring on ourselves because we are too stupid to avoid them?  Consider the events of the 20th century.  A great wave of popular idealism that had been growing ever stronger since the days of the American and French Revolutions among a large proportion of the most intelligent and highly educated elements of societies around the world metasticized into the incredibly destructive pseudo-religion, Communism.  The better part of a century and 100 million deaths later, we seem to have weathered that particular ideological storm, at least for the time being.  There is no compelling reason to believe that it was inevitable that we would, or that it was impossible that, under somewhat different but plausible conditions, Communist systems could have dominated the entire world, or that the resultant clash of ideologies might have culminated in a general nuclear exchange.  Orwell’s 1984 might very well have become a reality.  International boundaries might very well have been reduced to the role of marking where one North Korea ended, and another begun.  There is no guarantee that the outcome of the next storm will not be different. 

    Communism was no historical anomaly.  It was a phenomenon dependent for its existence and its power on some of the best and brightest minds of its day.  As such, it provides us with an objective metric of our intelligence.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  Messianic Islamism has already begun occupying the ideological vacuum left by its demise, and the true believers of new and, perhaps, yet unheard of systems will surely swarm forth eventually to promote new “scientific” paths to the “salvation of humanity.”  Meanwhile, the technologies of mass destruction continue to develop at an alarming pace.  Unless we become intelligent enough to control them it is only a question of time until they are used.  If we take control of our own genetic future there is a slim chance that we will be able to avoid the worst.  If not, it will at least improve our chances of surviving it.

    When it comes to making the necessary decisions, it would be best to leave the state out of it.  State eugenic programs have not been remarkably successful in the past, and they are unlikely to be more successful in the future, because states cannot be depended on to act in the interests of the individuals who are their citizens.  Individuals are remarkably acute judges of their own best interests.  Give individuals the power to use the technology or not, as they see fit.  Their genetic survival will be the metric of whether they made the right choices.  As noted in Psychology Today, they have always made those individual choices in the past by selectivity in the choice of a mate.  Technologies such as PGD will not change that.  It will merely give them the opportunity to make the choice more accurately.

    Many articles have been written about the need to explore the “ethical” implications of the choices we must make about these technologies.  In fact, virtually anyone who describes themselves as a “bio-ethicist,” or, for that matter, an “ethics expert” of any other stripe is, objectively, a charlatan.  Their “ethical debates” are merely so much emotional posturing, in which the various sides carry on fantastical arguments about whose deeply felt emotions are the most “legitimate.”  Ethical debates that do not start with the recognition of the evolutionary origin of these emotions, of the reasons and conditions under which they evolved, and their nature as subjective constructs deriving from predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain, are no more rational than the raving of madmen. 

    Values can never be legitimate in themselves.  They are, by their nature, subjective.  They exist, like virtually everything else of significance about us, because the wiring in the brain that gives rise to them promoted our survival.  If, then, one finds it necessary for some reason to pursue a “value,” none can rationally take precedence over survival.  That is the only “value” that can be accepted as seriously at issue here.  We can ignore the rest of the blather about “ethics,” because the “ethicists” quite literally do not know what they’re talking about.

    I wish to survive, and I wish for my species and life in general to survive.  I don’t flatter myself that those wishes have any objective legitimacy, but, subjectively, I am very attached to them.  Assuming there are others out there who also wish to survive, I have a suggestion about how to fulfill that wish.  Let us become more intelligent as quickly as possible.

  • Is Extraterrestrial Life Possible in our Solar System?

    Posted on June 23rd, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    Some have speculated it may have evolved on Io, Europa, Mars, etc. If these places can really support life, we should be looking for microbes and, perhaps, more complex life forms on earth that could be adapted and transplanted there. If there is anything like a “prime directive” for mankind, it is to insure that the life that has evolved on our planet survives. Transplanting it to other worlds, in whatever form they can support, is something we must do as soon as possible to insure that it does.