Tuesday, August 15, 2017

We are what we can create

Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here. - Interstellar

The human species was not meant to die on Earth.  This claim can be taken in different ways.  At the first mention of grand purpose and meaning, the human mind tends to fly to cosmic beings and supernatural creators.  But this claim can be understood without recourse to either metaphor or metaphysics.  All that is needed to fully understand this claim is an understanding of the kinds of beings we find ourselves as.  That is, we can understand where we are going and, indeed, where we ought to go, by understanding where we are and where we've come from.

We are a peculiar species because we are peculiar kinds of creators.  Other species create things (spiders, beavers, etc.) so what is peculiar about our mode of creativity?  There are several ways in which our creative capacities are unique, but here I will focus on the one I believe is most general and of broadest philosophical import.  We are the only species who augment our creative capacity with our creations.  We create and then use our creations to enhance our creative capacities.  That is, we are the only species who make creative progress.

A spider builds a web and its work is finished.  A beaver constructs a dam and moves on with its life.  A human forges a sword to protect himself and then notices this sharp metal is useful for cutting wood, turning soil, etc. and then, half by luck and half by ingenuity, notices that when this metal is rubbed and struck in different ways, different types of pleasing sounds can be produced.  The human creates and then uses what was created to keep creating.  Further, human history, especially the last couple of centuries, has revealed that once this capacity of self-augmenting creativity reaches a certain stage of development, it explodes into a landscape of creative possibility as diverse and complex as anything else in the known universe.  Recent human history has revealed, it seems, that we are not merely creators of parochial, locally useful tools, but are general creators.  That is, we can create technology of virtually infinite variety that is universally useful and our creative capacities seem limited by nothing other than time and the laws of physics.

Part of what a spider is is a web-builder.  Part of what a beaver is is a dam-builder.  Part of what a human is is a general creator.  This means, however, that what we are is still an open question, or, better, that what we are is essentially, that is, will always be, an open question.  The fact that we are general creators seems clear and is an important insight, but what our creative capacities are capable of is still obviously an unanswered question.  Again, it may be that it is in principle unanswerable, that every time we make a new creative breakthrough new vistas open up before us.  The faster we fly forward the faster the horizon races away.

All of this implies, of course, that engineering projects are not of mere practical import, but relate to questions of the meaning and purpose of human existence.  The question of whether we can build the requisite technology to colonize Mars, for example, is not just of practical or economic import, but bears on the most basic of questions, "What are we?"

Despite the fact that we have reason to believe that the question of the full capabilities of our creative capacities will always remain an open question (if you find this claim too strong, it is still certainly the case that we are nowhere near our creative limits) and that our identity and nature will therefore always remain an open question, the more we create, the more detailed our picture of ourselves becomes.  We know much more now about the kinds of beings we are than humans did 2000 years ago, or 1000 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  We know, for example that we are a kind of being that is capable of leaving its home planet and reaching other heavenly bodies.  (Armstrong's first step on the moon was no mere engineering accomplishment, it was one of the most important philosophical and spiritual revelations in human history. (Perhaps of greater importance was Yuri Gagarin's first journey into space, but the same point can be made with either event.))

And this insight brings us back to our point of departure.  Armstrong's step revealed that, by some immense stroke of luck, back on the prehistoric African savannah, the first humans to tell tales and sharpen stone tools had a roadmap to the stars written in their DNA.  Those first humans had no idea what they were capable of, the kind of beings that they were.  Only we lucky few in the last five decades or so understand this most peculiar of facts about the species homo sapiens.  

The African savannah gave birth to a creature unlike any other to ever walk the face of the Earth and, as far as we currently know, unlike any creature to ever wake up in this cosmos.  The Earth, one way or another, is destined to die, but this peculiar animal, this homo sapiens, is the only creature she ever gave birth to which has the ability to escape.  Our species wasn't meant to die here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

We're already there

Some years ago I was painting a house with a few friends.  We were giving a hand to another friend who was about to move into this house.  While engaged in this work among friends I had a particular intuition or perception.  I perceived, in some way, that this was heaven.  We were already there.

At the time, I held certain religious convictions and believed this experience to be an intuition of what was to come.  This was mistaken.  My interpretation at the time was not faithful to the content of the experience.  The experience wasn't pointing beyond itself to another world or to some future fulfillment.  The content of the experience was precisely that this, now is heaven.

I've had many experiences in my life that might be described as transcendental or metaphysical, but none with the precise content of the experience described above.  However, the experience above serves as a reminder that every beautiful, meaningful experience should be cherished, and we should pursue and cultivate those experiences were we find the most meaning and beauty.  Because this is it.  We're already there.

“There is another world, but it is in this one.”
-Paul √Čluard

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Universal Basic Income as a Moral Right

Universal basic income, hereafter referred to as UBI, is the proposal that every individual in a society receive regular payments from the government sufficient to maintain a reasonable standard of living regardless of employment status, living situation, or other sources of income.  UBI has recently gained more attention due to the predicted near-future replacement of a significant percentage of low-skill labor with automation.  Indeed, the first ever delivery run made by a self-driving vehicle just took place recently between our own Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  In what follows I will argue that the unique ethical and social import of UBI makes UBI a moral right in any society in which it is logistically feasible to enact, but the impending wave of automation and consequent rise of unemployment makes this discussion especially urgent.
I follow Kitcher’s Pragmatic Naturalism in my conception of ethics and extend the general framework developed in Kitcher’s The Ethical Project to the realm of rights.  In The Ethical Project Kitcher distinguishes between different types of progress and claims ethical progress is akin to technological progress.  He writes, “Technological progress is often a matter of discharging certain functions more efficiently or more fully."  So ethics and, in our case, human rights, are a social technology aimed at discharging social functions more efficiently by promoting trust, cooperation, peace, well-being, and other social goods.  Pragmatic Naturalism holds that ethics and rights follow something like the following developmental path:  Taboos and rules of thumb arise organically within cultures due to their social utility.  As cultures mature, these taboos and rules of thumb take on a more solid, explicit, codified form and carry more weight due to the momentum of tradition and increasingly complex social interactions that presuppose layers of rules and taboos.  Eventually these rules become so central to a culture that they come to be be considered inviolable and are codified as rights. Therefore, Pragmatic Naturalism holds that philosophical work in human rights should not aim to find some antecedent foundation or justification for human rights, but ask whether or not certain existing human rights or proposed human rights produce or are likely to produce the consequences we aim at as a society and desire for individuals.
It may strike one as odd that I am arguing that UBI is a moral right rather than merely a legal one.  Indeed, De Wispelaeres and Morales believe it is implausible UBI could be a moral right.  They argue that thinking of UBI as a moral right confuses ends and means.  The right underlying the motivation to enact UBI, they claim, is the right to an adequate standard of living, and a variety of different policies, not just UBI, can fulfill what this right requires of a government.  I argue, however, that the ethical import and societal significance of UBI cannot be reduced to merely the right to an adequate standard of living.  Rather, I hold that the ethical import and societal significance of UBI can only be adequately cashed out in terms of a variety of different rights considerations and social goals which UBI is uniquely positioned to fulfill.  It may be the case that UBI can be reduced to a set of more basic rights and social goals but the fact that these basic rights and goals can only be provided for by UBI means that it makes sense to call UBI itself a right.  In the same way, it makes sense to say that one has a right to medical care adequate to one’s needs even though this could be reduced to a more basic right to the resources necessary to live or simply the right to life.  It is important to note that I have claimed the ethical import and societal significance of UBI can only be cashed out in terms of both rights considerations and social goals.  It will be helpful to spend a bit of space to highlight the relevance of social goals to the status of UBI as a moral right.
Why are social goals relevant to whether or not UBI is a moral right?  The relevance of social goals here derives from a key difference between the traditional approach to rights and the Pragmatic Naturalist approach.  It represents both an awareness of the historical situatedness of rights and the natural, functionalist nature of rights.  The rights considerations UBI can be cashed out in terms of is the backward-looking movement; what we consider to be rights now are social norms and rules which have become such an integral part of the social fabric that they are now thought of as all but inviolable.  The consideration of social goals is forward-looking.  There can be no progress in human rights without an awareness of where we want to go.  And all of this is done with the present situation in mind.  We must take account of our fears, hopes, desires, visions, resources, shortcomings, areas of success, etc. when discussing rights.
These broader social goals offer a justification of rights that obviously goes beyond the traditional scope of a right, but these justifications are available to the Pragmatic Naturalist approach to human rights because it recognizes a few key characteristics of rights that are ignored by more traditional approaches to human rights.  First, rights are the product of historical forces.  The current human rights regime is a reaction to the horrors of the second world war.  We would do well to recognize this historical situatedness and consider what new human rights the changing social landscape might entail.  Second, rights are a communal phenomenon.  Rights are an outgrowth of morality and ethics which are necessarily social phenomena.  It therefore makes no sense to discuss the import of rights only for the individual while ignoring the social fabric she is inextricably woven into and the impact a right will have on this fabric (which will, in turn, have a deep effect on the individual).  Third, rights are a social technology.  Again, rights are an outgrowth of ethics and morality and these arise and persist in society due to their social and practical utility.  And fourth, as a technology, rights have a consequent rather than antecedent justification.  As we do not decide the optimal design of a shovel without actually employing competing designs to dig holes, so we must look to the consequences or potential consequences of rights and not merely their theoretical robustness.  This last point implies that we cannot discover human rights a priori by reflecting on the intrinsic nature of human beings or some aspect of them, but must consider the past, present, and the future of communal human existence.  This also means that rights are tentative and experimental, constructed through trial and error, not pre-given, based on observation and experience and not inward reflection.  Indeed, many cities in Europe are already testing UBI and thereby performing the crucial social experiments needed to confirm that UBI should indeed be considered a moral right.
To return to my disagreement with De Wispelaeres and Morales, UBI is about more than guaranteeing a decent material standard of living.  It is about freedom, about living a maximally meaningful and dignified human life, about exercising one’s capacities and fulfilling one’s potential.  It is not about merely theoretical freedom - “no one is literally directly stopping you from doing things” - but about freedom in the real world.  One needs a minimum of resources in order exercise freedom and autonomy in the real world.  It is also about equality and fairness.  Why should some individuals have the opportunity to pursue their art or passion just because they were born into money, while others don’t because of the resource limitations of the family they were born into?  A piecemeal set of other policies might achieve the guarantee of a decent material standard of living, but only UBI provides the freedom and flexibility for individuals to actually be able to freely and autonomously follow their interests, desires, and abilities.  And it is precisely these conditions which are necessary to achieve social goals such as the promotion of creativity, innovation, and scientific and artistic achievement.
Imagine, for example, if instead of UBI a government provided a variety of free basic services sufficient to meet anyone’s needs who required these services.  So, instead of receiving a guaranteed payment, an individual would enroll in food stamp programs or have to frequent a government-run food distribution facility, would have to live in government-owned housing or depend on some kind of government rent vouchers, and would have to sign up for clothes vouchers or obtain clothes from a government distributor.  Clearly, these alternatives to UBI represent a considerable loss in freedom, autonomy, flexibility, and, in many cases, dignity, when compared to UBI.  For example, many individuals who would have to depend on some suite of government programs instead of receiving UBI would be motivated to stay off of these programs in order to retain the autonomy of using ordinary money and choosing more freely where one lives as well as avoiding any social stigma associated with being someone who has to depend on the government.  This would eliminate one of the primary ways UBI benefits both individuals and society.  Individuals who feel that both their material welfare and freedom/autonomy are secure are much less likely to accept employment they do not find meaningful or rewarding.  They are also probably more likely to pursue more adventurous and creative ventures benefiting both themselves and society as a whole.  A society full of individuals who are free to pursue what they are best at or most interested in is a society of happier individuals and one which will likely have higher levels of creativity, innovation, and scientific and artistic output.  A staunch Capitalist might object that creativity, innovation, etc. will decrease without the profit motive, but I hold it is only a deeply impoverished anthropology that insists human are exclusively motivated by profit.
Consider the current situation in academia as one example of the benefits of UBI for both individuals and society.  We are currently producing far more PhD holders than there are available paying research positions.  As a consequence, much intellectual power is going to waste.  The individuals who receive this high level of training and are unable to use it suffer from not being able to exercise their skills and capacities and society suffers from the lack of whatever creative or intellectual output they would have been able to produce had they been able to obtain a research position rather than being forced into some occupation just to make ends meet.  With UBI in place, universities and private research institutions would not be as restricted by funding in the number of researchers they could take on because they could accept researchers who are willing to work without receiving a salary from the institution - and the researchers wouldn’t have to starve.
I am sure the previous example strikes some readers as high-brow and involving such a small percentage of the population as to be irrelevant.  What about the masses in retail, manufacturing, customer service, the food industry, and other low-skill jobs?  UBI will benefit people in low-skill occupations as much as it will benefit academics and intellectuals.  The level of monotony and tedium involved in many low-skill jobs is unprecedented in human history (or at least before the Industrial Revolution).  It is of course true that intelligence is highly variable and not everyone is intellectually capable of performing work in the arts and sciences.  This misses the more basic point, however.  Virtually every human possesses intelligence in vast excess of what is required to drive a truck, ring up items at a supermarket, or do any of the other multitude of repetitive tasks demanded by low-skill jobs.  The human brain evolved in a natural setting that required an understanding of a multitude of different plants, animals, seasons, cycles, natural variables, and a broad knowledge of tool use and tool production.  It is generally accepted that meaningful, rewarding, and engaging work requires that one’s capacities and capabilities are engaged.  It seems far-fetched to claim that the sterile, mechanical, repetitive, mathematically streamlined and simplified tasks demanded by most low-skill jobs engage even the below average intellect at a level that is intrinsically meaningful and satisfying.
My claim that low-skill work is not especially meaningful, fulfilling, or interesting may seem arrogant and possibly false.  Who am I to contradict the opinion of a truck driver who finds driving a truck 2000+ hours a year a meaningful and interesting occupation?  I fully recognize it is possible an individual could find this work meaningful and interesting.  The problem is that economic circumstances cast doubt on the truck driver’s self-evaluation.  How much of his positive evaluation of his profession is the result of  making the best of what he has been forced to do in order to survive?  How much force is being exerted on his evaluation by the momentum of habit?  Would he choose the same profession if presented with workable real-world alternatives?  I hold that any human being, given the right opportunity and training will find many professions and activities more interesting than many of the mechanically repetitive jobs low-skill laborers are currently forced into.  Further, it is important to remember that UBI does not eliminate the possibility of driving a truck or doing any other low-skill labor.  Rather, it simply provides the possibility of not doing so.  In a society which enacts UBI, truck drivers are free to keep driving trucks.
The above examples may seem like nothing more than a list of possible practical benefits to UBI, but what they are intended to be is concrete examples of how UBI promotes values and outcomes that are virtually universally assented to as good and which are also at the foundation of traditional theories of human rights. These include more traditional human rights values like freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning and universally valued social goods such as scientific and artistic output and innovation and creativity in general.  UBI produces these goods by freeing individuals (if they so choose) to pursue professions and activities that more fully engage their capacities and capabilities thereby increasing the quality of what they produce and leaving the individual more fully satisfied.
The Pragmatic Naturalist approach to thinking about UBI and rights in general may be foreign to some readers but it is a much more historically conscious and realistic approach to thinking about these issues.  The last few centuries have been a history of rising social safety nets and increasing expectations for quality of life and humaneness of treatment of our fellow human beings.  These rising nets and expectations have enabled humans to flourish and to produce works of art and science which would have been impossible in an earlier social state.  Many European countries, for example, now provide free higher education to anyone who chooses to go on to study at this level and has performed well enough in their educational past.  Because of this, many Europeans have come to expect access to free higher education to the point where many consider it a right.  Further, society at large benefits from this as it is virtually universally acknowledged that a well-educated society is better off than a poorly educated one overall, as well as in many specific areas such as innovation, economics, and political engagement.  One short century ago in Europe it would have been absurd to insist that higher education was a right; now it is commonplace.  And this is precisely how all ethics and human rights progress.  Historical events, good or bad, suggest new possible directions for ethics and human rights to evolve in.  Cultural sentiment shapes which of these paths a society travels down and new ethical norms and rights arise.  
This, however, is not to say that ethical norms and rights necessarily always promote some objective good.  Rather, as stated before, they are a social technology for discharging social functions more efficiently and achieving social goals.  Cultural factors will determine which functions a society agrees to carry out and the goals it agrees to pursue.  It is possible that a society will agree to carry out certain functions and pursue certain goals that entail ethics and rights (or lack of rights) that we find reprehensible.  UBI is a moral right only in those societies that have agreed to pursue goals and carry out functions in line with liberal post-enlightenment ideals such as freedom, autonomy, self-criticism, and scientific and artistic achievement.  I do hold it can be convincingly argued that projects and goals informed by liberal post-enlightenment ideals are, in a real sense, objectively better than projects and goals informed by other value systems, but there is no space to argue for this here.
One might wonder if it makes sense to speak of human rights at all under the Pragmatic Naturalist picture.  In what sense is a human rights violation wrong if it is a social technology, if there is no actual right and wrong to the matter?  One Pragmatic Naturalist response is that it is useful to give rights and ethical norms a designation stronger than “useful.”  The strength of the terms “right” and “wrong” help convey the integral role that human rights play in society.  By the time an ethical norm becomes a right, it has woven itself so deeply into society that it has become more than merely useful, it has become essential, it has become “right.”  William James wrote, “Truth happens to an idea.”  So too, moral rightness happens to a social norm.
One might further object that what has been outlined here represents a convincing list of reasons why, from a social utility perspective, we should enact UBI, but fails to demonstrate that UBI is a moral right, i.e., that any person or organization has a moral duty to provide UBI.  But from the Pragmatic Naturalist perspective, these are precisely the kinds of considerations that underlie even the most widely agreed upon human rights, such as the right to life.  Rights are never anything more than policies and standards for human action that arose due to their social utility and became, over time, more or less inviolable due to the momentum of tradition, cultural zeitgeist, the integral role they play in social order, or some combination of these.

     It has been argued that in societies which possess the level of economic development 

necessary to enact UBI, UBI is a moral right. Due to the unique benefits that UBI has for 

individual freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning as well for broader social goods like 

scientific and artistic achievement, societies which have the practical means to implement 

UBI are morally obligated to do so. Insofar as we consider infringing on individuals’ 

freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning in life a violation of basic rights, we should 

consider the failure to enact UBI a similar violation.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Humanity as a Cancer on the Biosphere, Transhumanism as the Cure

We have entered the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth.  Some estimates predict that two thirds of all terrestrial species will be extinct by the end of this century.  Though mass extinction is nothing new under the sun, the cause of the ongoing mass extinction is novel.  The current extinction is being caused by human activity.  This is the first time a single species has caused such an extinction.  Philip Cafaro’s essay “Three ways to think about the sixth mass extinction,” struggles with how we should conceptualize the human relation to the biosphere in light of the ways we are inflicting massive damage on it.  Of the three ways of conceptualizing the sixth mass extinction that Cafaro discusses, I want to focus on one in particular: humanity as a cancer on the biosphere, i.e., our destructiveness is inevitable.  I will argue that basic ecological principles provide strong support for the contention that the relation of humanity to the biosphere is best understood as a cancerous one.  I will also contend that, other than self-annihilation, Transhumanism, the idea that humans can use technology to augment ourselves and our civilization to the extent that we can entirely transcend our biology and our dependence on Earth systems, holds the only viable cure to the cancer we have become to the biosphere.  Finally, I will argue for a revision of the environmentalist project based on the fact that humanity is a cancer on the biosphere and Transhumanism is the only viable cure.
A basic principle of population dynamics is that any species left unchecked by any forces other than resource availability will multiply until it has consumed all available resources.  This typically leads to significant ecological disturbance and a crash in the population of that species.  Thanks to the industrial and scientific revolutions, humanity seems to be on such a trajectory.  Before the scientific and industrial revolutions, the quantity of resources homo sapiens could consume was limited by a variety of practical barriers.  Agricultural productivity was low compared to today and medicine was much more crude, both of which limited population growth and therefore resource demand.  Further, the amount of raw physical force humanity could exert on any element of the world was generally limited to the force that could be generated with muscle, bone, and simple machines.  In other words, like other species, nature had set a limit to the quantity of resources we could consume.
This is not to say, however, that the presence of humanity on the Earth was completely benign prior to the scientific and industrial revolutions.  Fossil evidence shows that a wave of destruction and extinction followed humanity as it migrated out of Africa and across the globe.  A variety of the characteristics of our species, such as our ability to work together as well as produce tools and weapons and use fire have always made it such that we could overcome some natural and physical limitations to resource consumption that no other species could.  However, for most of the history of our species, our creativity and ingenuity remained relatively limited.
The scientific and industrial revolutions changed this situation dramatically.  The crux of these two revolutions with respect to humanity’s relationship to the natural world is that we suddenly found ourselves with the tools necessary to think and engineer our way around many of the limits to our ability to consume resources that had been in place since the beginning of our species.  Human history since the beginning of the industrial and scientific revolutions has seen a series of engineering and problem-solving feats that have continuously broken down previous natural and physical limitations to our ability to consume resources.
These considerations provide strong support for the idea that humanity is a cancer on the biosphere.   If a basic feature of population dynamics is for species to multiply and exhaust all available resources if left unchecked by any natural or practical barriers and if the scientific and industrial revolutions have effectively removed all natural and practical barriers to our consumption of resources, then what else should we expect but being diagnosed as a malignant, rapidly metastasizing tumor?  These considerations also raise the following questions:  If such powerful and fundamental forces are driving the anthropogenic extinction of species and general destruction of the biosphere, can environmentalists realistically hope to be able to do anything to stop it?  If something close to an evolutionary law coupled with all of our scientific and industrial prowess is dictating the destructive human relation to the biosphere, are environmentalists not trying to hold back tectonic plates with wooden braces?  In what follows, I will argue that the appropriate reaction to these realities is not to give up, but to look to Transhumanist ideas for a different approach to environmental problems.
Rather than give up or make futile attempts to derail and piecemeal reengineer this unstoppable, destructive machine to no longer follow fundamental evolutionary laws, I argue the environmentalist’s best bet is to do everything in their power to accelerate the machine’s progress, specifically its techno-scientific component.  I argue that the forces driving our ever-increasing destructiveness are too powerful to be stopped, but that one of these forces, the techno-scientific force, is rapidly leading to a future where our lives and projects will be completely decoupled from the biosphere, from biology, and even from Earth itself.  The same scientific and industrial revolutions which have caused so much destruction by allowing us to overcome so many natural and practical barriers to resource consumption have, in recent decades, begun intimating a future where humanity’s utilization of resources will be limited by nothing but the laws of physics.  It may seem at first that this scenario would only worsen our current predicament, but, as I will show, there are good reasons to believe that this outcome will actually be the cure for the cancer we have become.  The ideology which contends we will transcend our biology and completely transform the nature of our resource utilization is commonly referred to as Transhumanism.  I will now consider some of the expected details of this projected future and show why it offers a solution to, rather than an amplification of, our current environmental predicament.
Projections about the exact nature of a Transhumanist civilization vary, but what is widely agreed upon is that our knowledge of every aspect of reality will be enormously increased.  Again, this may seem like it will only exacerbate our problems as our increased knowledge will give us increased abilities to utilize resources.  However, the degree of increase in our understanding of reality required to build a truly Transhumanist civilization will make the resources available to us on Earth trivial compared to the vast and limitless resources in space which will be opened to us by this level of knowledge.  The capabilities and possibilities that will be open to us in a Transhumanist civilization will completely transform the scale and scope of human activity.  A Transhumanist civilization will not think on a planetary scale, but on a solar system and galactic scale.  A Transhumanist civilization will possess the requisite knowledge to access and travel through space with ease, colonize other planets, mine resources from asteroids and other planets, harness the most powerful energy source in our solar system, the sun (and eventually other stars), reengineer and/or replace human biology with nanotechnology/synthetic biology, and eventually transmute elements and manipulate the fabric of spacetime itself.
The Transhumanist solution to our present environmental predicament I am proposing then is to completely offload humanity from Earth’s biosphere.  Given current trends in economic and population growth as well as the previous discussion about population dynamics, I argue this is the only viable long-term solution to environmental destruction.  While environmentalists have had some successes in protecting natural systems over the last century, they are ultimately fighting a losing battle.  Environmentalists might succeed in defeating a proposal for more offshore drilling today, but population growth and economic demand will, sooner or later, turn this victory into a defeat.  
But the work of environmentalists has not been in vain.  Environmentalists’ single greatest victory has probably been to help to instill a level of general environmental awareness and appreciation into popular culture.  I believe this will be crucial for the Transhumanist solution to our environmental problems.  As scientific and technological progress extend our reach as a species and begin to unlock the vast resources of our solar system we will have a choice to make:  Do we continue to strip mine the Earth for raw resources or do we instead look elsewhere in our solar system (and eventually our galaxy)?  I believe that the general environmental consciousness that is now present across a wide spectrum of societies and cultures will make this decision relatively easy with a simple utilitarian calculation.  Assuming we possess the technological know-how to easily utilize the vast resources in our solar system we will have to decide if we would rather utilize the resources present on Earth, thereby jeopardizing Earth’s biotic systems, or to utilize the resources elsewhere in our solar system, such as on Mars, where no biotic systems exist.  Assuming the resources elsewhere in the solar system are as easily utilized as those on Earth (and I argue that the level of knowledge requisite to build a Transhuman civilization will make this the case) the choice to leave the resources on Earth alone in order to preserve its ecosystems will be an easy one.  Resource acquisition on Earth will have a cost, the cost of environmental destruction.  Resource acquisition elsewhere in the solar system will not have this cost.  Therefore, on a simple cost/benefit analysis, we will be compelled to leave Earth’s resources and biosphere be.  
Of course, to one who sees no reason to believe that these capabilities and this level of knowledge are anywhere close to being within our reach the above discussion will seem like nothing more than pie-in-the-sky science fiction nonsense.  However, there are good reasons to believe these abilities are within humanity's reach, even within the relative near term (potentially as soon as 30-50 years).  The two key reasons to suppose these capabilities are within reach in the relative near term are the exponential nature of technological progress (specifically information technology) and the seeming inevitability that this progress will lead to the creation of artificial superintelligence.
First, consider the accelerating exponential rate of progress of information technology and the counter-intuitive conclusions one arrives at when extrapolating a few decades into the future based on trends that have proven reliable since the beginning of computer science.  The most famous of these trends is Moore’s Law.  In 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors that could be squeezed onto a microchip was doubling roughly every 24 months.  This trend has not merely held steady until today, it has actually accelerated.  This doubling, coupled with other synergistic improvements in chip architecture as well as an inverse exponential curve for cost-per-transistor, has resulted in the trend we see today where price-performance of computation doubles more than once per year.  This exponential trend has consistently yielded surprising results.  For example, the average middle-class adult can now purchase pocket-sized devices with a level of computing power that was only available to generously funded government organizations only a decade or two ago.  If this trend continues at its current pace (and there are no signs of it slowing down) we should see computers within the next 25 years that are a billion times more powerful than current smartphones, but are the size of a red blood cell.  This prediction might seem outlandish, but 25 years ago no one would have believed that in 2016 we would be carrying around computers in our pockets more powerful than the most powerful computer in the world at the time (which were also the size of large rooms).
Progress in information technology is of enormous significance to the future of human technological progress in general because it holds the key to the ultimate invention: artificial superintelligence.  The universal nature of computation makes it possible to simulate any natural system inside of a computer with the requisite computational power.  We know that intelligence in humans is the product of one such natural system, the human brain.  Because intelligence is the product of a natural system we can conclude that this system can be simulated or reproduced in a computer and, therefore, that silicon-based artificial intelligence is possible.  (A simulation of the brain requires enormous computational power, but we have already succeeded in building computers which exceed the amount of computational power estimated to be necessary to simulate a human brain.)
The creation of the first “strong AI” will result in what has been called an “intelligence explosion.”  A strong artificial intelligence will possess every intellectual ability that humanity possesses and this includes the ability to design intelligent machines.  Therefore, once we succeed in creating the first strong AI it will be able to design an improved AI, which will in turn be able to do the same.  This will rapidly result in machines with intellectual capacities far beyond anything we can now imagine.  In order for the intelligence explosion to happen, it is not necessary that we succeed in designing a computer from scratch that is more intelligent than we are.  All that is necessary is for us to create a sufficiently high resolution simulation of a human brain inside a computer with sufficient computational resources (and this should be possible in the near future as the resolution of live brain scanning is also doubling every year or so).  Such a mind would, in many respects, be structurally and qualitatively identical to a human mind, but would have the advantage of running on silicon instead of neurons.  Running on silicon would give this artificial mind the ability to think at least 1,000,000 times faster than its human counterparts.  This means that this artificial mind could do the equivalent of over 2,700 years of intellectual labor in a single day.
This intelligence explosion will, of course, also bring about a knowledge explosion.  Superintelligent machines designed by superintelligent machines will be able to carry out millions of years of scientific research in a single month.  With this level of knowledge and intelligence we have reason to believe that our only limits will be the laws of physics themselves.  Therefore, in order to get to the Transhumanist civilization that has offloaded itself from the Earth and its systems, all we need do is build the first superintelligent machine.  The day the first superintelligent machine comes online will the the last day of human history and the first day of a new era of history where we transcend the biology that both dramatically limits our possibilities as a species and condemns us to be a cancer on the biosphere.
In order to find the above scenario plausible one need only accept two uncontroversial premises.  First, that progress in information technology will continue on the same path that it has since the conception of computer science.  And, second, that human intelligence is the result of a physical system.  No fudging or leaps of faith are necessary to get from these two premises to the belief that a Transhuman future is not far away (likely 30-50 years).
Despite the fact that the only the premises necessary to arrive at the conclusion that we are rapidly heading toward a Transhuman future are uncontroversial, many have a hard time accepting this conclusion due to the fact that it seems completely crazy.  Ray Kurzweil explains this common inability to accept this warranted conclusion in terms of our inability to understand the exponential function,
Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments because they are based on what I call the "intuitive linear" view of history rather than the "historical exponential" view. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade [...]. Thus the twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today's rate of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about twenty years of progress at the rate in 2000. we'll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another way, we won't experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today's rate of progress), or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century.

Elsewhere Kurzweil writes of how our evolutionary history and daily experience have conditioned us to think solely in linear terms.  However, a simple mathematical example can demonstrate how woefully wrong both engineers and average people can be in their predictions if they expect something to obey a linear curve when it is in fact obeying an exponential one.  If we start counting from 2 and count linearly 20 steps, we end up at 22.  If we do the same with exponential steps we end up at over 1,000,000.  The difference between the linear and exponential curve is the difference between a future in which we only advance enough in our scientific knowledge and technical prowess to amplify our current environmental problems and the future where we offload humanity from the Earth altogether and cure the cancer we have become to the biosphere.
Given the fact that we have good reason to conclude humanity is an incurable (by any standard methods) cancer on the biosphere and that we are rapidly heading toward a transhuman future, how should environmentalists change their approach to environmental issues?  I suggest that a two-pronged approach is wisest.  The first prong is basically to continue to do what environmentalists have done for the last century: pressure governments and corporations to consider the ecological impact of economic activities, expand nature reserves, lobby for stricter emissions regulations etc.  The second prong I suggest is to lobby for, fundraise for, and generally do everything in their power to accelerate research in the areas most important for developing strong AI, such as computer science, neuroscience, quantum computation, and AI research.  The general structure to this approach is to try to preserve as much as possible while simultaneously trying to accelerate the advent of a new era of history in which humanity will no longer plague the biosphere.  These two prongs are complimentary and they both essentially aim at the same target:  the preservation of as many species and as much of the biosphere as possible.  Every new nature reserve means more species saved.  Every month shaved off of the time it will take to get to strong AI will result in the preservation of more habitat and more species.
To most environmentalists, Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism probably seem about as distant as it can get from their concerns and aims.  However, I have showed here that not only are they intimately related, but AI and Transhumanism are the only way we will be able to save the biosphere from enormous anthropogenic destruction.  Transhumanism is the only cure for the cancer currently afflicting the biosphere.


Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. OUP Oxford, 2014.

Cafaro, Philip. "Three ways to think about the sixth mass extinction." Biological Conservation 192 (2015): 387-393.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House (2014): 68.

Kurzweil, Ray. The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. Penguin, 2005.

My Android phone is literally several billion times more powerful, per dollar, than the computer I used when I was a student. And it’s also 100,000 times smaller. We’ll do both of those things again in 25 years. It’ll be a billion times more powerful, and will be the size of a blood cell.” Ray Kurzweil.  http://www.nextbigfuture.com/2013/10/kurzweil-prediction-of-blood-cell-sized.html

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Shadow, Light, and Human Being

So many curious features of human existence arise from the structures, forms, physical parameters of our organism. The eye evolved as a light sensor. But the fact, resulting from physics, the nature of light, that it is the only sense organ which can sense itself being sensed, can see itself being seen, gives it a unique reflexive character. It reveals to another how one is taking the other in. It reveals agency, attention, interest, intention, intelligence. It is the window into the soul. I cannot feel myself being felt, smell myself being smelled, hear myself being heard, taste myself being tasted. But I can see my self being seen and I can see myself being sensed in all these other ways.

Did our observation of our own shadow lead to pictorial and symbolic representation?  What a wondrous accident.  Natural selection drove the development of our brains for practical reasons - it proved a highly useful tool for survival - but an unintentional byproduct of this enhanced cognitive ability was an unprecedented curiosity.  This black form on the cave wall matches my hand...

Our consciousness is the result of and part of the physical universe. It is produced by the play of the laws of physics in organic life.

Light. Is light the basis of human being? Shadow and light.

Brain as barrel of light and shadows.

It is said that our ability to depict, to represent symbolically, separates us from other animals... but is our ability to make images so unique?  Nature makes images all the time - shadows, camera obscura, etc.  We are the naturally-occurring image making ability of the universe become self-aware.

How to Read

Those who look to the Bible and other sacred texts for meaning and guidance are those who don't know how to read nature, life, or the story of their own lives.  That is, ironically, fixation on texts is the result of a kind of illiteracy.

This illiteracy is more difficult to overcome than standard illiteracy.  Standard illiteracy is easily avoided with simple education and exercise.  On the other hand, this, one might call it, "existential illiteracy," the inability to read the meaning in the world, is, for many, encouraged and reinforced at every turn by their culture, upbringing, and temperament.  When someone is taught to read, they do not have to be convinced that there is something on the page.  With this existential illiteracy, however, often convincing someone there is something there to read at all is the most difficult step.  And many lack even the sense that they are missing anything.

How then can this form of literacy be taught?  I believe there are a variety of paths.  The most basic begins with practical interaction with nature.  The reductive materialistic worldview insists that the world is a bleak and meaningless place, but any amount of intentional interaction with a natural environment shows this to be false.  The natural world is rife with symbol and signification to the one who cares (for one reason or another) to pay attention.  Footprints, owl pellets, an apple tree's spring standard, yawning hole, stripped bark, upturned stone, snapped branch.  These things have meaning not just on some anthropocentric interpretation, but for a great number of members of the natural world.

One might argue that these examples are irrelevant to meaning in human life, that what a human looks for is an overarching, permanent meaning of things, not just local, temporary meanings.  But we'll get there.  And more is accomplished with this simple observation than may be immediately obvious.  When one grants that the natural world is not at all merely matter in motion, as is the fashion among some to claim, but is instead a web of interconnected symbols, the most important step has already been taken.

After one grants that the natural world is a web of interconnected symbols, or a kind of text to be read/deciphered, many paths diverge.  One might go an Aboriginal route, or a Pragmatistic route, or the route of an open-minded scientist not committed to reductive materialism.  Indeed, there are countless divergent paths that lead from here to fully blossoming and meaningful worldviews and countless points of departure other than the one here used.  No one can, or need, or should follow all these paths, so I will continue on that one which is most accessible and interesting to me, the most challenging and rewarding one I've equipped myself for.

When one realizes they are not an infinitesimally small point in uniform and infinite Cartesian space, but a nexus of significations in a deeply interconnected and meaningful natural world, everything changes.  In each individual moment and across time, past, present, future, untold billions of natural events go into making you who you are and building the meaningful situation in which you find yourself.  Evolution shaped you and the natural world sustains you.  Looking for the meaning of your life?  Look around.  You won't find a dove composed of light bestowing unchanging and eternal meaning on your life - we cannot even understand that which does not change - but you will find yourself engulfed in ripples from events in the incomprehensible past and you can make ripples of your own that will expand into the indefinite future.

While observation and appreciation of one's local situation are sufficient for finding guidance and discovering meaning, certain areas of science can paint an even richer picture of things.  For example, science has begun to appreciate the fact that life on Earth is not merely the result of the right mix of "mud and water" but that life depends on certain fundamental facts about the structure of the universe.  More than that, life is just a certain organization of some of the basic patterns and propensities of matter.  We are a combination of elements AND patterns always already present throughout the physical universe.  We are a natural outgrowth or development of the universe itself.  Contrary to much mythology, we are not some spirit beings condemned to a miserable sojourn within the material.  We are fully a part of, fully at home in the universe.  We are akin as much to the inorganic as we are to the organic.

When we begin to learn how to read the multiplicity of (kinds of) meanings that compose our world, sacred texts lose their central significance.  We learn to find meaning not between dusty covers, but in the clouds, waves, branches, gestures, glances, falling pitches, inventions, discoveries, and explanations.


We are what we can create

Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here. - Interstellar The human species was not meant to die on Earth.  This claim ...