Monthly Archives: October 2017

What is Social Cooling?

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“Like oil leads to global warming …
Data leads to social cooling”

 

Social cooling refers to the idea that if “you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior.” And the massive amounts of data being collected, especially online, is exxagerating this effect. This may limit our desire to speak or think freely thus bring about “chilling effects” on society—or social cooling.

Here’s a summary of how this works:1.  Your data is collected and scored. Then data brokers use algorithms to reveal thousands of private details about you—friends and acquaintances, religious and political beliefs, educational background, sexual orientation, reading habits, personality traits and flaws, economic stability,  etc. This derived data is protected as corporate free speech.

2. Your digital reputation may affect your opportunities. Facebook posts may affect job chances of getting or losing a job, bad friends may affect the rate of your loan, etc. These effects are independent of whether the data is good or bad.

3. People start changing their behavior to get better scores which have disparate outcomes. Social Cooling describes the negative side effects of trying to be reputable online. Some of the negative effects are:

a) Conformity – you may hesitate to click on a link because you fear being tracked. This is self-censoring, which has a chilling effect. You fear choosing freely.

b) Risk-aversion –  When physicians are scored, those who try to help sicker patients have lower scores than those who avoid such patients because sicker patients have higher mortality rates.

c) Social rigidity – Our digital reputations limit our will to protest. For instance, Chinese citizens have begun to get “social credit scores,” which score how well-behaved they are. Such social pressure is a powerful form of control.

4) As your weaknesses are mapped, you become increasingly transparent. This leads to self-censorship, conformity, risk-aversion, and social rigidity becoming normal. No longer is data a matter of simple credit scores.

All of this leads to questions like: When we become more well-behaved, do we also become less human? What does freedom mean in a world where surveillance is the dominant business model? Are we undermining our creative economy because people fear non-conformity? Can minority views still inform us?

5) The solution? Pollution of our social environment is invisible to most people, just like air pollution and climate change once were. So we begin by increasing awareness.  But we should act quickly, as data mining and the secrets it reveals is increasing exponentially.

(Example – I have an advanced degree. This simple piece of data predicts that: I despise and fear Donald Trump and the Republicans; I am a good critical thinker who understands the difference between the high journalistic standards of the New York Times and the non-existent ones of Fox “News,” Breitbart, etc.; I don’t believe in alien abductions or faked moon landings; I know that evolution and climate change are true beyond any reasonable doubt; I’m not a theist, much less a Christian, Mormon, or Islamic fundamentalist; etc. All that from just one bit of data. Imagine what else others know about you and me?)

6) Conclusion 

a) Data is not the new gold, it is the new oil, and it damages the social environment.

b) Privacy is the right to be imperfect, even when judged by algorithms.

c) Privacy is the right to be human.

(My resource for this brief summary is https://www.socialcooling.com/index.html. The site has this note: “Feel free to re-use content, it’s all under a CC-BY 4.0 License.”)

A Graph of Cognitive Biases

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist – (To view, click on the link above.)

This is the most complete graph I’ve ever seen of cognitive biases. It is especially timely as the mechanisms for social and political control grow ever more sophisticated at manipulating human behavior based on an understanding of how poorly our brains work. Hopefully, an increased awareness of our many brain bugs will help us to differentiate between truth and falsity.

In fact, our very survival probably depends on combatting the influence of our reptilian brains and the medieval institutions they created in a world of increasing technological power. Unless we can find a way to enhance our moral and intellectual faculties, our extinction is likely if not inevitable.

Let us face up to what we really are, and transform ourselves.

Review of Phil Torres’ “Morality, Foresight & Human Flourishing

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 6, 2017.)

Phil Torres has just published an important new book: Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. Torres is the founding Director of the Project for Future Human Flourishing, which aims to both understand and mitigate existential threats to humanity. Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom Martin Rees writes the book’s foreword, where he states that the book “draws attention to issues our civilization’s entire fate may depend on.” (13) We would do well to take this statement seriously—our lives may depend on it.

The book is a comprehensive survey of existential risks such as asteroid impacts, climate change, molecular nanotechnology, and machine superintelligence. It argues that avoiding an existential catastrophe should be among our highest priorities, and it offers strategies for doing so. But are we especially likely to go extinct today? Is today a particularly perilous time? While Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that we live in the most peaceful time in human history, Torres replies, “we might also live in the most dangerous period of human history ever. The fact is that our species is haunted by a growing swarm of risks that could either trip us into the eternal grave of extinction or irreversibly catapult us back into the Stone Age.” (21) I think Torres has it right.

While we have lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation for more than 70 years, the number of existential risk scenarios are increasing. How great a threat do we face? About 20% of the experts surveyed by the Future of Humanity Institute believe we will go extinct by the end of this century. Rees is even more pessimistic, arguing that we have only a 50% of surviving the century. And the doomsday clock reflects such warnings; it currently rests at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Compare all this to your chance of dying in an airplane crash or being killed by terrorists—the chance of either is exceedingly small.

Torres uses the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s definition of existential risk:

An existential risk is one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development. (27)

Thus we can differentiate between total annihilation and existential risks that prevent us from achieving post-humanity. The latter type of risk includes: permanent technological stagnation; flawed technological realization; and technological maturity and subsequent ruination. Bostrom also distinguishes risks in terms of scope—from personal to trans-generational—and intensity—from imperceptible to terminal. Existential risks are both trans-generational and terminal.

As Torres notes, these risks are singular events that happen only once. Thus strategies to deal with them must be anticipatory, not reactionary, and this makes individual and governmental action to deal with such risks unlikely. Furthermore, the reduction of risks is a global public good, precisely the kind of goods the market is poor at providing. So while future generations would pay astronomical sums to us to increase their chance of living happily in the future, we wouldn’t necessarily benefit from our efforts to save the future.

But why should we care about existential risks? Consider that while a pandemic killing 100 million would be a tragedy, as would the death of any subsequent 100 million people, the death of the last 100 million people on earth would be exponentially worse. Civilization is only a few thousand years old, and we may have an unimaginably long and bright future ahead of us, perhaps as post-humans. If so, total annihilation would be unimaginably tragic, ending a civilization perhaps destined to conquer both the stars and themselves. Thus, the expected value of the future is astronomically high, a concept that Torres calls “the astronomical value thesis.” Torres conveys this point with a striking image.

the present moment …. is a narrow foundation upon which an extremely tall skyscraper rests. The entire future of humanity resides in this skyscraper, towering above us, stretching far beyond the clouds. If this foundation were to fail, the whole building would come crashing to the ground. Since this would be astronomically bad according to the above thesis, it behooves us to do everything possible to ensure that the foundation remains intact. The future depends crucially on the decisions we make today … and this is a moral burden that everyone should feel pressing down on their shoulders. (42)

As to why we should value future persons, Torres argues that considerations of one’s place in time have as little to do with moral worth as considerations of space—moral worth does not depend on what country you live in. Furthermore, discounting future lives is counter-intuitive from a moral point of view. Is a life now really worth the lives of a billion or a trillion future ones? It seems not. Clearly, living persons have no special claim to moral worth, and thus they should do what they can to reduce the possibility of catastrophe.

Next Torres addresses how cognitive biases distort thinking about the future—most people only think a few years in advance. Moreover, throughout history, humans have thought their generation was the last one. Even today, more than 40% of US Christians think that Jesus will probably or definitely return in their lifetimes, and many more Muslims believe the Mahdi will do so too. And, since these apocalyptic scenarios have not yet occurred, one might be skeptical of scientific worries about global catastrophic risks. The difference is that reason and evidence ground scientific concerns about an apocalypse, as opposed to being based in religious faith. We should heed the former and ignore the latter. However, Torres is aware that we live in an anti-intellectual age, especially in America, so reasonable concerns often go unheeded, and superstition rules the day.

Torres also hopes that understanding the etiology of existential risk will help us minimize the chance of catastrophe. To better understand causal risks Torres  distinguishes:

natural risks—super volcanoes, pandemics, asteroids, etc.
anthropogenic risks—nuclear weapons, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc.
unintended risks—climate change, environmental damage, physics experiments, etc.
other risks—geoengineering, bad governance, unforeseen risks, etc., and
context risks—some combination of any of the above.

Next Torres proposes strategies for mitigating catastrophic threats. He divides these strategies as follows: 1) agent-oriented; 2) tool-oriented; and 3) other options. Agent-oriented strategies refer mostly to cognitive and moral enhancement of individuals, but also with reducing environmental triggers, creating friendly AI, and improving social conditions. Tool-oriented strategies focus on reducing the destructive power of our existing tools, or altogether relinquishing future technologies that pose existential risks, or developing defensive technologies to deal with potential risks. Other strategies include space colonization, tracking near-earth objects, stratospheric geoengineering, and creating subterranean, aquatic, or extraterrestrial bunkers.

His discussion of cognitive and moral enhancements is particularly illuminating. Cognitive enhancements, especially radical ones like nootropics, machine-brain interfaces, genetic engineering and embryo selection, seem promising. Smart beings would be less likely to do stupid things, like destroy themselves, and the cognitively enhanced might discover threats from phenomena that unenhanced beings could never discern. The caveat is that smarter individuals are better at completing their nefarious plans, and cognitive enhancements would expedite the development of new technologies, perhaps making our situation more perilous.

Similar concerns surround the issue of biological moral enhancements. Why not augment the moral dispositions of empathy, caring, and justice through genetic engineering, neural implants or mostropics? One problem is that the unenhanced may prove to be a great threat to the morally enhanced, so the system may only be safe if everyone is enhanced.  Another problem is that the morally enhanced may become even more fervent in their pursuit of justice, at the expense of those who have a different view of what is just. In fact, concerns about justice often motivate immoral acts. So we can’t be sure that moral bioenhancements are the answer either.

My own view is that we will not survive without radical cognitive and moral enhancement. Reptilian brains and twenty-first-century technology are a toxic brew, and there is nothing sacrosanct about remaining modified monkeys. We should transform ourselves as soon as possible, otherwise, we will almost certainly be annihilated. This I believe is our only hope. Yes this risky, but there is no risk-free way to proceed.

Torres concludes by considering multiple a priori arguments which purportedly demonstrate that we considerably underestimate the possibility of our annihilation. I find these arguments compelling. Still, Torres doesn’t want to give in to pessimism. Instead, he recommends an active optimism which recognizes risks and tries to eliminate them. So while we may be intellectually pessimistic about the future, we can still work to save the world. As Torres concludes: “The invisible hand of time inexorably pushes us forward, but the direction in which we move is not entirely outside of our control.” (223)

Reflections

This is a work of extraordinary depth and breadth, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Its arguments are philosophically sophisticated, and often emotionally moving as well. Torres’ concern with preserving a future for our descendants is transparent and sincere, and readers come away from the work convinced that the problems of existential risk are of utmost significance. After all, existence is the prerequisite for … everything.

Yet reading the work fills me with sadness and despair too. For a possible, unimaginably glorious future seems to depend on the most reckless, narcissistic, uninformed, and vile among us. The future seems to rest primarily in the hands of those ignorant of both the delicate foundations of civilization that separate us from a warlike state of nature and the fragility of an ecosystem and biosphere that shield us from the cold, dark, emptiness of space. But, as Torres counsels, we must not give in to pessimism, and our optimism must not be passive. Instead, our desire to save the world must inspire action.

For in the end what keeps us going is the hope that the future might be better than the past. That, if anything, is what gives our lives meaning. If we are not as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher states of being and consciousness, then what is the point of our little lives? But to be successful in this quest, we must both survive and flourish, which is what Torres urges us to do. Let us hope we listen.

Summary of Feminism on Human Nature

(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Traditionally theories of human nature are conceived of by men and seem to equate human nature with male nature. Some of these thinkers believed that women were just different from men; others that they were inferior.

There are two basic responses from feminist theory. Humanist feminists believe that the notion of a shared human nature is valuable even if it didn’t accommodate sexual differences. Such humanists emphasize a core human nature that women and men share. In this view, traditional theories go wrong when they ignore this common nature or suggest that women can’t fulfill that nature as men can.

The second view, social constructionist, derives from the work of the 20th-century philosopher Simone de Beauvior. She argues that gender is a socially constructed rather than biological category: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” ( suppose there are various socially constructed ideas of maleness too.) She also believed that women often don’t experience full selfhood because of oppressive social constraints.

But both views believe in a common human nature, and that social and political change is needed to remove the constraints on woman fully developing this nature.

Feminist Philosophy and Feminism 

Feminist philosophy supports female equality and opposes oppression of women. Feminism as a political movement grew out of feminist philosophy—emphasizing the right to vote or working for abolitionist, antiwar, or disarmament. While political feminism stresses action and political change, feminist philosophy seeks to understand the nature of inequality and the oppression of women.

Contemporary Humanist Feminism

CHF stresses the equality of men and women, demanding equal treatment for women. Thus they are skeptical of notions of justice that omit consideration of private family life, the context of much of women’s oppression—-unpaid housework, maternal care, submission to their husbands, etc. Other humanistic feminists emphasize the equality of opportunity. Societies should be so arranged as to provide the conditions under which all citizens can actualize the potential inherent in their natures.

Neohumanist Feminism and Dehumanization

Can the notion of dehumanization shed light on the value of a shared human nature? Some feminists argue that the concept of dehumanization captures what is morally wrong with discrimination, domination, and oppression against any group. Dehumanization can be directed at anyone, and it is also connected to justice. Justice is about equality in family life, the chance to develop one’s capacities, the right not to be treated inhumanely, and more. In the end, justice must spring from a consideration of our shared human nature.

Critical Perspectives on Humanist Feminism 

Some feminists criticize humanist feminism as ignoring the differences between men and women by adopting traditional male conceptions of human nature. Others argue that human nature is defined either from an external biological perspective, which doesn’t make moral prescriptions or an internal notion that reduces to morality to individual subjective values. One solution to this problem would be to recognize that biology and moral norms can be joined since we are all by nature social beings. After all, human beings are interdependent, as the feminist have always emphasized.

My Reflection – The world would immediately improve if half of all social, political, governmental positions were filled by women.

Summary of Islam on Human Nature

(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Historical Background

Islam arose in Arabia in the 7th century CE with the visions of the prophet Muhammad. These visions are thought by most Muslims to be divine revelations, and they comprise the text of the Koran. After Muhammad’s death, Islam split into two basic divisions—Sunnis, who held that the Prophet should be succeeded by an individual chosen by tribal elders; and Shi’a, who held that the Prophet should be succeeded by a blood relative.

From the 7th through the 12th century the Muslims acquired vast territories and great wealth, rivaling the extent of the Roman empire. In addition, Islamic civilization made great advances in philosophy, theology, science, medicine, and law. Many believe that Europe helped escape their dark ages bu coming in contact with Islam in Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. Over the last 500 years or so European military might has allowed them to advance their own empires and dominate the Islamic world. In response, some Muslims favor assimilation with European culture; others favor affirming their Muslim identity.

The Koran’s Relationship to Biblical Literature

The origins of the Koran are mysterious. Islamic tradition maintains that what we today call the Koran was a standard edition produced within a decade or so after Muhammad’s death. This suggests that there may have been other versions of the Koran, but we have no direct evidence of this. The Koran claims to confirm the truth of biblical revelation in many of its passages, but the stories do this in such a way that Muslims began to consider the Koran as replacing the Bible.

Metaphysical Background

The Koran assumes monotheism, and Allah is the word for God. Allah means “the god” and Arab speakers, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim, refer to their God as Allah. Allah is the creator of the universe who uses prophets like Moses and Jesus to communicate with human beings. Allah alone is due worship, and Allah is one—as compared to the trinitarian Christian God. So Jesus is a prophet to be revered, not a god to be worshipped. (Of course, the Christian church didn’t definitively declare Jesus both god and man until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.) For the Muslims to worship a prophet would be to diminished Allah.

As an article of faith Muslims believe that Allah is incomparable to anything else, so little can be said about Allah. Nonetheless, Muslims believe that Allah is omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc., although it is difficult to reconcile this with the idea that Allah is beyond word and thought. Thus there are different interpretations as to who or what Allah is, just as Jews and Christians differ on the nature of their conception of the divine.

Theory of Human Nature 

Muslim revere Adam as a prophet while in orthodox Christianity Adam passes along original sin to all humans. For Muslims, Adam and Eve were tempted together by Satan in the garden, but Adam repents and Allah forgives him—-although little is said about Eve. Islamic tradition later pairs Adam with Muhammad as the alpha and omega of history. (Our nature is essentially the nature Allah gave to Adam.)

Diagnosis

A central purpose of the Koran is to serve as a reminder of important forgotten truths. In this way the Koran presents itself as a third revelation after the previous ones in the Old and New Testaments. For the Muslims, Christians mistake the messenger, Jesus, with the message, pious teachings. They have forgotten this, similar to how Adam forgot what Allah had told him. But descendants of Adam must remember their covenant with Allah and their special role as Allah’s representatives—what they call khalifa. Of course, people forget all this and evil follows. (The basic human problem is ignoring Allah.)

Prescription 

Muslims consider humans both inclined toward and away from Allah. Turning toward Allah demands an exercise of free will, although Muslims recognize that environment and chance also shape human beings. But Muslims definitively believe Allah loves them and has a plan for their individual lives. This plan can be discovered by the lessons drawn from the Koran itself. By listening to the word of Allah one is guided toward the truth. (We should listen to Allah’s words contained in the Koran.)

Conclusion

Human nature is complex and in tension: individuals and social environments; unity and diversity within society; evil desires and desires for Allah. To guide us Allah sent prophets and saints to call us to lead lives according to the khalifa ideal.