Monthly Archives: September 2015

Future Technology and Philosophy

(This essay was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 11, 2015)

Technology, especially intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence, have the potential to transform the future of philosophy.  Why? Because our cognitive limitations impede philosophical progress. But while we aren’t smart enough to resolve important philosophical conundrums, our cognitive limitations can be overcome by enhancing our intellectual capacities or by creating superintelligence. As a result, we would be able to better answer philosophical questions rather than being forced by intellectual honesty to remain ignorant. Put simply, if philosophy is an intellectual pursuit, then enhancing our cognitive faculties will make us better philosophers. (My colleague Phiippe Verdoux and Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom have made the same point )

As an example of accepting philosophy’s limitations consider the recent New York Times piece, “There Is No Theory of Everything,” by the philosopher Simon Critchley. (I admire his work and have written about it here and here.) Critchley admits that philosophy hasn’t made much progress “because people keep asking the same questions and [are] perplexed by the same difficulties.”  But Critchley counsels us to accept that philosophy can’t give definitive answers.

Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

Next Critchley applies his insight to the question of life’s meaning. There is nothing wrong with being justifiably perplexed by our lives, he argues, but it a mistake to believe we will find an answer. Instead of seeking answers we should continue to ask questions; we should keep scratching the itch. He approvingly quotes Wittgenstein, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”

But what if philosophy could be a healing balm? What if it worked better than Neosporin?What if we had the intellectual wherewithal to soothe our itch. Then we wouldn’t have to choose between accepting philosophical limitations or subscribing to imaginary supernatural cures for our existential maladies. If we augmented our intelligence we could really begin to understand what it’s all about. This ability to answer our deepest questions provides one of the very best reasons to become posthuman.

Mario Livio: The Hubble Telescope and Our Immense Universe

The Hubble Telescope has revealed an unimaginably immense and beautiful universe. In the following brief videos Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, discusses the philosophical implications of what we’ve seen with Hubble. This first one is called “In an Immense Universe, Small is Significant. The key idea is that, although we are extraordinarily small in this immense universe, that does not mean we are insignificant.

The second short video Livio speaks to the beauty and power of science itself.

Livio is also the author of popular books including:

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
,

The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number,

Is God a Mathematician?

The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos, and

 

Cryonics and Kim Souzzi

(This essay was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 28, 2015)

A recent New York Times article chronicled 23-year-old Kim Souzzi’s decision to cryonically preserve her brain. Kim, who died recently of cancer, raised the money for her cryonic preservation by soliciting donations with this post at the subreddit “atheism” at the online site reddit. She was successful in raising the funds—I wonder if the religious would have been as generous as the theists? Here is the video that accompanied the post:

(The New York Times, with Kim’s permission, produced a great video that chronicled the last few months of her life; it can be found here.) http://www.nytimes.com/video/science/100000003897597/kim-suozzis-last-wishes.html

Cryonics is controversial, but for those of us who don’t believe that dying is like moving to a better neighborhood, it is a reasonable choice. We might call it the cryonics wager, which would go like this.

What happens if I preserve my whole body or my brain? The continuum of possibilities looks like this:

I—————————————————————l—————————————————————-I

awake in a great reality                       never wake up                      awake in an awful reality

I might be awakened by post-human descendants as an immortal being in a heavenly world, or by beings who torture me hellishly for all eternity, or I might never wake up. How then should I proceed? Should I get a cryonics policy? I don’t know. If I don’t preserve myself cryonically, then I might die and go to heaven, hell, or experience nothingness. If I do preserve myself, as we have just seen, similar outcomes await me.

In this situation all I can do is assess the probabilities. Does having a cryonics policy, as opposed to dying and taking my chances, increase or decrease my chances of being revived in a good reality? We can’t say for sure. But if the policy increases that chance, if you desire a blissful immortality, and if you can afford a policy, then you should get one.

Personally I believe that having a cryonics policy greatly increases your chance of being revived in a better reality as opposed to just dying and taking your chances. I place more faith in my post-human descendants than in unseen supernatural beings. Still I can understand why others would choose differently, and we should respect their autonomy to die and hope for the best. In the end we just can’t say for certain what the best move is.

As for Kim Souzzi, I admire that she had the courage of her convictions. And I hope she becomes conscious again.

Cosmic Evolution, Transhumanism, and the Meaning of Life

(Reprinted as “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 19, 2015.)

Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life 

Earlier this year I published a piece in Scientia Salon entitled “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life.”  Then a few days ago I wrote about my friend Larry Rifkin’s beautiful video about evolution and the meaning of life.

All of this got me to thinking about the many online comments about my paper and the many emails I exchanged with other academics who responded to it. In the paper I concluded, roughly, that while cosmic evolution leaves me awestruck, we have good reasons to doubt that a more meaningful reality is unfolding. And this implies sobriety and skepticism regarding the claim that cosmic evolution provides meaning for our lives.

Generally my peers thought I had been too cautious in linking cosmic evolution and the meaning of life, as did this prominent European philosopher:

I agree that the best rational strategy is to oscillate between hope within a cosmic vision, tempered with skepticism. However, to maximize well-being, I’d rather argue that most people should believe in something like a grand cosmic vision (e.g. à la Teilhard de Chardin), and to leave the critical, skepticism, to the more learned, curious and academic scholars. I don’t think it makes any good to people to preach the heat death of the universe.

The best email I received was from an English psychologist who said, “I might go so far as to say it was almost a religious experience reading your essay.” When I asked him to further explain, he replied,

The things I liked the most about your “cosmic vision” were that it removed both God and Man from centre stage while still providing the genuine possibility for personal meaning and that is genuinely cosmic in scope looking forwards more than backwards. I found it to be more optimistic than skeptical. It allowed the possibility that progress is a real thing through biological evolution (and whatever comes next). I thought the ending was more about sobriety than skepticism.

All our small attempts to make our world and ourselves better might amount to naught and people are free to think that. But they might well amount to something more. We can never know for sure but ‘meaning’ or progress seems to provide a heuristic by which to steer our own baby steps on the long path into the far, far future.  It doesn’t bother me that I won’t be there. But it does inspire me to think that it is important to that future that enough of us are striving towards it. It’s a bit like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker without recourse to a Star Maker.

Then, after seeing Rifkin’s video, I asked myself again: Can I find meaning as a part of cosmic evolution? Is there something about being a part of this larger thing that gives my life meaning? Can I take comfort knowing that the future might be better than the past?

There is a lot to say about all this but let me begin here. While the story of cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness, beauty, and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. For example, we don’t know if our science and technology will bring about a utopia, a dystopia, or hasten our destruction. We don’t know what the future holds. This is reason enough to be skeptical about cosmic evolution providing a meaning to life.  

Still we can hope that our lives are significant, that our descendants will live more meaningful lives than we do, that our science and technology will save us, and that life will culminate in, or at least approach, complete meaning. These hopes help us to brave the struggle of life, keeping alive the possibility that we will create a better and more meaningful reality.

Transhumanism and the Meaning of Life 

The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish and, if possible, abolish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic, working to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, pleasure, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the purpose of our lives. 

In a concrete way this implies being better thinkers, friends, lovers, artists, and parents. It means caring for the planet that sustains us and acting in ways that promote the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about what this entails and how we move from theory to practice, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher states of being and consciousness. As we become more intellectually and morally virtuous. 

Nonetheless, knowing the purpose of our lives does not ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail in our mission to give life more meaning; we may not achieve our purpose. And if we don’t fulfill our purpose, then life wasn’t fully meaningful. Thus the tentative answer to our question—is life ultimately meaningful—is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. Life can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose by making it better and more meaningful. 

Meaning then, like the consciousness and freedom from which it derives, is an emergent property of cosmic evolution—and we find our purpose by playing our small part in aiding its emergence. If we are successful our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of human limitations, and our (post-human) descendents will live fully meaningful lives. If we do achieve our purpose in the far distant future, if a fully meaningful reality comes to fruition, and if somehow we are a part of that meaningful reality, then we could say that our life and all life was, and is, deeply meaningful. In the interim we can find inspiration in the hope that we can succeed.

Evolution and The Meaning of Life

(Reprinted as “Evolution Will Change How You See The World—Evolutionary Thinking As Spirituality,” in Humanity+ Magazine, September 16, 2015. )

My friend and fellow author, Larwence Rifkin M.D., frequently writes about cosmic evolution and the meaning of life, a primary focus of my own research. His articles have appeared in: The Huffington PostScientific American, Contemporary PediatricsFree Inquiry, The Humanist, Medical Economics, and The New Humanism, among others.  His piece, “A Matter of Trust,” was the Grand Prize Winner, of their 2008 Doctors’ Writing Contest.

Dr. Rifkin has just produced the following video, “Evolution Will Change How You See The World.”  It may be the single most profound video on evolution that I have ever seen.

Here is a recap of the main ideas.

Every living thing owes its existence to evolution; thus every living thing is connected to other living things and to the world. So we are not strangers in this world, but products of it. Evolution has produced the human consciousness which seeks meaning, imagines the future, and which knows truth, beauty and goodness. Our ideas and actions transform the world, which makes us “the most wonderful and the most despicable animal on earth.” We are significant, but we should be humbled by the fact that we are cosmic accidents. The odds that we were born at all are astronomical.

Still we are part of something larger than ourselves, born into a universe which precedes us, and which will live on after we are gone. And while it is astonishing that any one of us exists at all, we will determine the future course of evolution; we are the protagonists of the great evolutionary epic to which we all past, present and future life depend. As Rifkin concludes, “We perform our solos with passion, but we are playing in nature’s grand symphony.”

What Rifkin sees clearly is that cosmic evolution provides the only true narrative that may give our lives meaning. I don’t know if life is ultimately meaningful, but if we do exist as links in a chain leading upward toward higher levels of being and consciousness, then cosmic evolution will have made our lives meaningful.

I would like to publicly thank Dr. Rifkin for his most moving video. It provides a vivid contrast to the vacuous, petty and mean-spirited discourse that dominates so much public discourse in America today.