A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

Plato argued that we can’t have a good lives without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now consider that if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, you wouldn’t take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane in the grocery store. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber or psychologist. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist not a politician ignorant of climate science. Since running the society is the most important job of all, Plato believed it imperative that those occupying political positions must be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class. Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result, because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations is better than if were chosen randomly or by a vote!

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she know nothing of medicine but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You must expect that those who practice are qualified. And like Plato I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate some relevant knowledge of the job, in the same way you must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhDs) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Surely this is insane. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. This is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions I want someone who understand health care, the economy, the environment and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a sufficient and not a necessary condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model or the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

In the meantime we must hope that we have the wisdom to prevent morally and intellectually bankrupt individuals like Donald Trump from holding high office. And I would like to thank all the woman in this country who are disproportionately saving us from this catastrophe.

Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

A recent piece New York Times article, “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks,” reports on a new survey by the Pew Research Center which show public skepticism about improving the physical and intellectual life of the human species. As reported, “Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.” Of course a visceral sense of disgust—what philosophers sometimes call the “yuch” factor—isn’t a good reason to reject new technologies. Antibiotics, in vitro fertilization, and countless beneficial technologies also elicited negative visceral reactions before their use became widespread. And, in the social realm, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia also emanate from deep inside our ape-like brains.

The survey also “shows a profound distrust of scientists …” a particularly painful finding. The public seems unaware that science is the single best means humans have ever had to uncover the truth about the world, as well as being the primary source of human progress. Without science half the people reading this sentence would have died of childhood diseases, and those surviving would have had a short and painful life without clean water, dentistry, vaccinations, antibiotics, and an adequate food supply for billions. And this is to say nothing of planetary communication, computers, air travel, indoor plumbing, etc.

The survey specifically asked the public about three futuristic technologies: 1)using gene editing to protect babies from disease; 2)implanting chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think; and 3)transfusing synthetic blood that would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance. The finding weren’t surprising, but were nonetheless depressing: “The public was not enthusiastic … even about protecting babies from disease. Most, at least seven out of 10, thought scientists would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” I’m glad such sentiments were less widespread in the early part of the twentieth-century when childhood diseases were virtually eliminated.

The finding that was most interesting to me was that:

Religiosity affected attitudes on these issues. The more religious people said they were, the less likely they were to want genetic alterations of babies or technologies to enhance adults. The differences were especially pronounced between evangelical Protestants and people who said they were atheists or agnostics. For example, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants said gene editing to protect babies from serious diseases was meddling with nature. In contrast, 81 percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said it was not fundamentally different than other ways humans have tried to better themselves.

These results confirm what I have experienced teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades. When students maintain a religious, usually Christian, worldview, they overwhelming oppose scientific and technological progress and innovation; whereas when they don’t hold a religious worldviews, they are generally receptive to scientific and technological advance. The reasons for this are straightforward. If you believe an omnipotent super-being fashioned a good creation then there is little need to significantly modify it. Furthermore, if said super-being governs that creation and demands respect, then we best not meddle with either the creation or the super-being. On the other hand, if students believe that whether such super-beings exist or not it is up to human beings to determine their own fate, then they typically find nothing problematic about appealing ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds.

The public also expressed the typical concerns about how such technologies meddle with nature, a version of the “let nature take its course” argument. Again, not surprisingly, it was religious believers who adopted this viewpoint much more often than non-believers. There is much that refutes this argument, but suffice it to say that almost everything about modern medicine is about meddling with nature; it is about not letting nature takes its course. Letting nature take its course means that when you contract an infection your immune system either destroys it or you often die. In the past simple infections were potentially deadly and amputation was a common medical practice. So do you really believe that we shouldn’t meddle with nature? And does doing so follow from a belief in the gods? Why wouldn’t the gods want us to use our reason to improve the world?

In fact the results of these surveys are amazing if you think about it. The majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! I suppose either they believe we should not try to make things better—a truly astonishing claim—or they believe there is a better way than science to make the world a better place. And what way would that be? Would constant petitionary prayer to the gods eradicate cancer? Would fervent belief in Jesus or Mohammed do the trick? Of course many religious people accept using science to improve the human (and post-human?) condition, but there is something about religious belief that makes scientific and technological progress harder to accept.

But the most important point is this. While there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if one is serious about making things better, they should use scientific knowledge and its application as technology to do so, for those have been the most successful means of improving the human condition in the past.  Science is the primary reason we live longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before.

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

Everything changes; everything evolves, all is transitory. This may be the fundamental fact of life. Buddhist philosophy is particularly insightful on this point with its distinction between gross and subtle impermanence. In simple language, George Harrison set this idea to music.

“All Things Must Pass”

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
Sunset doesn’t last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this, my love is up and must be leaving
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So, I must be on my way
And face another day
Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away


Atul Gawande’s CalTech Commencement Address, June 10, 2016

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, public-health researcher, and a New Yorker staff writer.  His 2016 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology addressed the current American distrust of science. Let me begin by stating that I wholeheartedly endorse the ideas that Gawande sets forth in his address. In what follows I will summarize some of its themes while interjecting my own comments. But I will say this; if we turn our back on rational, scientific thinking—the kind of thinking that Gawande so nobly defends— then we will hurdle toward a new Dark Ages.

Gawande begins by pointing out that science

is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

It is so easy to accept the first ideas that come along, the first thought to which one is exposed. But so often those ideas are wrong. Time does slow down as speed increases; the earth is curved even if it appears flat; and quantum, relativity, evolutionary, and atomic theories are true even if they are counter-intuitive. A real searcher of truth adopts a scientific mindset which is:

more than a way of thinking. It was a way of being—a weird way of being. You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge. Hubble said it best …“The scientist explains the world by successive approximations.”

As a philosopher I would call Hubble an evolutionary epistemologist. The idea is that science typically progresses, not through scientific revolutions as Thomas Kuhn thought, but through a gradual evolution. The successive approximations of science to the truth about the world can be compared to an idea in analytic geometry—an asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero as they tend to infinity. Science too gets closer and closer to the truth while always remaining provisional, that is, open to future evidence. As Gawande notes:

The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful. It has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).

Nonetheless many people still fear vaccines “despite decades of research showing [such fears] to be unfounded … hundreds of studies have found no link, yet … fears persist. In response, vaccine rates have plunged, leading to outbreaks of measles and mumps that, last year, sickened tens of thousands of children across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and resulted in deaths.” Part of the reason is that people “don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. [But] they do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.” How do we dislodge these false beliefs? It is hard.

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.

Studies confirm alarming trends regarding trust in science. Part of the reason is that many factions present themselves as quasi-scientific authorities. Religious groups challenge biological evolution, certain industries challenge climate science, and others reject the medical establishment altogether. “As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.” To discriminate between science and pseudo-science Gawande identifies five hallmark of pseudoscientists.

They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another. [And] It’s not that some of these approaches never provide valid arguments. Sometimes an analogy is useful, or higher levels of certainty are required. But when you see several or all of these tactics deployed, you know that you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance.

How then do we defend science as the best way to explain the world? The problem is that people aren’t swayed by reason and evidence, as science itself has discovered. (A fact I can attest to after 30 years of college teaching. I’ve found that, as the songwriter Paul Simon wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

What then do we do? Gawande notes that science itself provides a partial answer. It turns out that providing a narrative of scientific accomplishments is the best way to convince science deniers.

You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out: giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before. Between 1989 and 1991, vaccination among poor urban children in the U.S. dropped. And the result was fifty-five thousand cases of measles and a hundred and twenty-three deaths.

Gawande also argues that we need “to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people. Bad science has a pattern, and helping people recognize the pattern arms them to come to more scientific beliefs themselves.” Thus we need to help people to better be able to judge which information to trust. (For example, if you want to understand the truth about biological evolution visit a site like this one from the biology department at UC-Berkeley, rather than the site of a religious group that has a vested interest in misleading you.)

Science is the best method of uncovering truth that we have discovered. It is an organized, systematic, collective, self-correcting project whose errors are slowly eliminated. Look in the cockpit of a jetliner and you see more than a hundred years of the self-correcting nature of science—hence the plane is amazingly safe. Of course science isn’t perfect.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

Gawande also notes that scientific ignorance isn’t the exclusive purview of the uneducated. “The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.” Education then doesn’t give anyone special authority on truth, but it does give us an idea of what real truth-seeking is like. “It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.”

Gawande concludes by emphasizing the social implications of good thinking. “Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.” (Consider that nearly half the American population in 2016 is prepared to vote for a Presidential candidate who is an egomaniacal, mentally unstable, proto-fascist, manifestly unfit and unqualified for political office. Yes, many of the candidate’s supporters are racists, bigots, misogynists and xenophobes, but many simply don’t understand that they those who hold political office need qualifications, just as their physicians, attorneys, accountants, dentists, nurses, and professors do. And they don’t understand the threat when unqualified people hold power.)

As we confront climate change, nuclear war, bacteria and viruses, and so many other existential threats, we will survive and flourish only if become better critical thinkers. This can be accomplished partly by education, but in my view ultimately the answer must involve artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation. We will not survive unless we direct our own evolution. In the meantime we can only hope that the uninformed and misinformed don’t gain too much political influence.