Monthly Archives: November 2017

The New American Civil War


I have written before about the increasing possibility of civil war in America, as did Robin Wright in “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?

Here are a few more recent developments to help you connect the dots. In “How Democracy dies? Voter Suppression + Court Packing + Killing Net Neutrality,” A. Siegel paints a frightening picture of the future of American “democracy” and the life of its subjects (citizens).

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. He could have added gerrymandering, building an unfair advantage into the census, the proposed virtual elimination of taxes on the super wealthy and corporations which will eventually lead to an attempt to destroy all of America’s limited social safety net, the conservative news bubble owned by the wealthy, the destruction of the State Department, the EPA, the packing of the courts, and more.

Net neutrality is especially important, as rolling it back is an attempt to control and distort information. You can find another piece of the puzzle in Pam Vogel’s: “Sinclair’s conservative news takeover will rock 15 regions.” If these changes go through, even my small voice will essentially be silenced. (For more on the net neutrality issue see “The Internet Is Freedom, and It Is Under Attack.“)

I hope I’m wrong, but I see even darker times ahead. I think the remnants of American democracy are about to collapse. (Since I wrote the above sentence, E. J. Dionne made a similar point in the Washington Post in “Our Political Foundation Is Rotting Away,” and Thomas Edsall wrote about the same issue in his excellent op-ed “The Self-Destruction of American Democracy.“)

What Are Slaughterbots?

The above video was produced by

While lethal, fully autonomous weapons systems, or killer robots, aren’t yet able to select and attack targets without human control, a number of countries are developing such devices. And a number of organizations including The Future of Life InstituteHuman Rights Watch, and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, have all warned against their development.

For those interested, you can sign an open letter against weaponizing AI at:

Also, Professor Stuart Russell of the computer science department at UC-Berkeley gave a TED Talk a few months ago which explored the issue:

And the science fiction writer Daniel Suarez explored the same theme in this TED talk:

Finally, consider that the political party in the USA most associated with toughness and defense is the same one that is anti-science and anti-intellectual. It doesn’t promote our security to undermine the science and technology that is the source of USA military power. If other countries develop AI, robots, and autonomous weapons first, then nuclear weapons may be obsolete. So it is counterproductive for a country that wants to dominate others or defend itself to make it almost impossible for bright foreign students to get HB1 visas. Of course, the primary enemies of the USA today are domestic ones.

The Question of Life’s Meaning

The Importance of the Question of Life’s Meaning

All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak, 
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life, 
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

Albert Camus opens his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” with these haunting lines: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”[i] Karl Jaspers wrote: “The question of the value and meaning of existence is unlike any other question: man does not seem to become really serious until he faces it.”[ii]Victor Frankl said: “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life” and “… concern about a meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.”[iii] The contemporary philosopher Robert Solomon considered the question of life’s meaning to be “the ultimate question of philosophy.”[iv] While major philosophers in the Western tradition have had much to say about the goal or final end of a human life, most have not—until the twentieth century—specifically addressed the question of life’s meaning.

In the Western world this lack of concern with the question of the meaning of life was in large part due to the domination of the Christian worldview. During the long period from about the 5th through the 18th century, the question of life’s meaning was not especially problematic, since the answer was obvious. That answer was, roughly, that the meaning of life was to know, love, and serve god in this life, and to be with him forever in heaven. According to this view all the suffering of the world would be redeemed in the afterlife, so that the sorrows of the world could be seen to have been worth it in the end, when we are united with god. However, with the decline of the influence of this worldview in subsequent centuries, the question of the meaning of life became a more pressing one, as we see beginning in nineteenth century thinkers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In the twentieth century the question took on a new urgency and western philosophers have increasingly written on the subject.

My own view is that the question of life’s meaning is the most important philosophical question, and possibly the most important question of any kind. This is not to say that it should be the only thing one thinks about, or that noble things cannot be done or happy lives cannot be lived without thinking about it. In fact one can think too much about it and, in the worst cases, compulsive analysis may lead to or manifest mental illness. Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but surely the over-examined life is not worth living either. Life may simply be too short to spend too much of one’s life thinking about life. (The Latin translation of Aristotle reads: “primum vivere deinde philosophare,” “First live, later philosophize.”) Many persons in all walks of life have lived good and happy lives without thinking deeply about meaning, or without answering the question even if they have thought much about it. In short, philosophers should not overestimate the importance of their ruminations.

Still, such an important question demands some reflection. Without a tentative answer to the question there seems to be no ultimate justification for any action, or even a reason to be at all. To put it somewhat differently: What is the point of living, if you don’t know the point of living? Why do anything, if you don’t know why you should do anything? You might answer that you live because you have a will to live or a self-preservation instinct; but that merely explains why you do go on, it does not justify why you should go on. Of course you can certainly remain alive without thinking about these questions, and circumstances force many people to spend their lives trying to survive, leaving little time for philosophical contemplation. But for those with sufficient leisure time, for those that have their basic needs met, do they not have some obligation to think about the meaning of their lives, and by extension the meaning of life in general? Might not such thinking improve their lives and benefit others? If so, then thinking about the question of meaning is certainly worthwhile.

[i] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008), 72.
[ii] Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1965), 333.
[iii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Beacon Press, 1963).
[iv] Robert Solomon, The Big Questions (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 44.

The Problem of Life

The Problem of Life

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human conditionBlaise Pascal

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.
Blaise Pascal

We are not at one. We have no instincts
like those of migratory birds. Useless, and late.
we force ourselves onto the wind,
and find no welcome from ponds where we alight.
We comprehend flowering and fading simultaneously.
~ Rainer Marie Rilke

A precipice in front of you, and wolves behind you, in your rear; that is life.
~ Latin Proverb

Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
~ Homer

Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, war, hatred, anxiety, disappointment, and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling or degrading work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history when life was often so insufferable that death was welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.

Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky, and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.

Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine, or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially, we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own.  In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.

But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us but we ultimately suffer and perish, raising the question of the point of it all. If all our hopes, plans, longings, and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? And the question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of the human existence.

Are Google and Facebook Evil?

I’ve read two recent pieces which attack the tech giants—Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft—in various ways. “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend,” and “Ashamed to work in Silicon Valley: how techies became the new bankers.”

Let me state unequivocally at the outset that I know almost nothing about how technology works, and I have no expertise in the complex relationship between technology, politics, and society. So what I say is tentative.

First, I have mixed feelings about these attacks, mostly because I’m a transhumanist who believes that only science and technology informed by philosophy can save us. Now obviously a lot of junk gets produced by technology companies, a lot of time is wasted on Facebook, there are a lot of clueless nerds in the world, and a lot of bad stuff happens when lies about politics are spread on the internet.

It is especially disconcerting when you consider that Google could cut off Breitbart, Alex Jones, and neo-Nazi nonsense from search results in a second, but it doesn’t want to be perceived as “left-leaning” or lose advertising money—keeping the advertisers is more important than making sure that people read the truth.

So I do think tech companies have huge responsibilities, perhaps a model like Wikipedia, where they take their civic responsibilities seriously, as opposed to just focusing on profit, would benefit us all. Of course, this depends on the creation of a new economic model, since the drive for profit, as opposed to increasing societal good, is by definition a large part of the problem.

As for jobs lost to tech, I’ve written about this multiple times, and I say again that we need a new economic system which doesn’t encourage despoiling the natural environment and climate, leaves vast wealth in the hands of a very few, etc.

Still, tech companies do research and produce things—some of the most important possible research like AI and robotics and longevity is done by tech companies. So in that way, they have the potential to do enormous good too. That also provides quite a contrast to Wall Street, the whole point of which is mostly to scam money off others without producing anything or contributing to society.

Finally, let me say that ideally sci-tech research should be mostly funded by the public sector with accountability towards public good vs. private profit. Or at least there should be enough government regulation to ensure that the private operate in the public interest.

And again, a disclaimer. I am not an expert in such matters and these are complex issues.