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.

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