Jul 302011

One useful way to think about people’s bedrock philosophical positions would be to think of their preference orderings over different possible futures.  Let’s define a few such futures.

Future X is a peaceable, non-coercive human extinction-sooner-rather-than-later, something rather like what David Benatar recommends to us in Chapter 6 of Better Never to Have Been.  No omnicide, no one pushing the Big Red Button, no forced sterilizations or other coercive measure to stop people from breeding.  Just the spread of antinatalist convictions through reflection and persuasion until people stop breeding and, nature taking the course it will, human extinction results.

Future P is the achievement of a hypothetical Good Posthuman Condition, described in this post, something that might be achieved through technology.

Future H is something like the continuation of the status quo.  A species of highly-sociable, language-and-technology using apes has the run of Planet Earth and nearby space perhaps and breeds generation upon generation of itself — until at some point in the future some resource critical to the apes’ survival is exhausted, resulting in extinction then.

Now with these conditions defined, we can imagine having different preference orderings that might define different types of possible worldview. I’ll use the same notation I’ve used before with the “>” sign meaning “is preferred to.”

Optimistic humanists.  Have a preference ordering something like H > P > X.  Cheery folks who think that human life is really good, and have doubts, possibly related to “meaning” about whether a posthuman condition could be all that good.  I think something like this is the professed worldview of most people.

Technophobic humanists.  Have a preference ordering like H > X > P.  Think that human life is good, but find the idea of a posthuman condition, even a good one as I’ve tried to define it, deeply repellent.  This appears to be position of writers like Bill McKibben and Jürgen Habermas.

Cheery Transhumanists.  Have a preference ordering of P > H > X.  These are your garden-variety, slightly-to-very juvenile transhumanists whose position is “human life is great!  I want more! More!”

Negative Posthumanists.  Have a preference ordering of P > X > H.  Think human life is terrible, for reasons that probably don’t need to be rehashed for readers of this site.  They don’t care about “meaning,” but are very bothered by sentient suffering and want to see it overcome.  If this can be overcome in a way that allows for there to be a lot of pleasure in the world, then great.  If not, a peaceable extinction is preferred to the status quo.  This is pretty much my current view.

Pessimistic Extinctionists.  Have a preference ordering of X > P > H.  A tricky state of mind for me to enter into, but I can see someone espousing a position like this if they worry about “meaning,” and think that the world doesn’t provide any, so we’re better off dead, but if we must be alive, then it would at least be better to be alive with less suffering and more pleasure.

Misanthropic Extinctionists.  Have a preference ordering X > H > P.  I don’t know anyone who takes this position and one would have to be pretty damn cranky to hold it.  What rationale could it have?  “Human beings are horrible and they’d be better off not existing at all, but if they’re so insolent as to exist, they’d better suffer.”

I’d be willing to classify as an antinatalist anyone who order X > H, so Negative Posthumanists, Pessimistic Extinctionists, and (sigh) Misanthropic Extinctionists would all count. (It gets a little tricky with Negative Posthumanists.  I’ve myself wondered whether whatever sentients that might exist in a Good Posthuman State would make new people.  My best guess is exceedingly speculative, and squicky-weird to boot.  A subject for a future post.)

For want of a better term, “Meaningist” would be anyone who orders X > P.  I confess it’s something that I find very hard to grasp:  wouldn’t joy be better than nothing?  But I’ll take a stab at understanding.  There seems to be an enduring feature in the psychology of many people that might be described as the Horror Of Nothing To Submit To.  Many people — and not just religious people — feel lost at the thought of no guide vast and cosmic to their lives: no Will of God, no Law of Nature, no Objective Moral Reality, no Categorical Imperative, no Authoritative Tradition, what have you.  Without these things they feel miserable and lost.  Argue against them and they feel threatened.  And I can sort of see how any posthuman condition looks like the negation of all these things:  Promethean defiance of the Will of God, the rewriting of the laws of nature, the substitution of what will make us feel joy for the yoke of moral duty, the shameless shucking off of tradition.  Why so many people are like this would require a whole department of Nietzsches to figure out, but that they are like this, I don’t think many will doubt.

 Posted by at 08:21
Jul 252011

“Posthuman” is a concept that has taken a beating because some of its proponents look juvenile.  You know the story:  big ol’ Singularity sweeps down soon (surely before I have to wait to much longer and get old and decrepit — Ray Kurzweil proved it!) and raptures all the mind-uploaded nerds into a virtual reality paradise full of…well, I guess I don’t really need to specify what it is full of.  I guess no one should be too surprised if the notion gets a bit of a bad reputation among grown-ups.

Nonetheless for two reasons I shall articulate below that Good Posthuman Condition is a concept worth developing.  We should understand it as a triple negation:

  1. No more involuntary death.  Pretty much the only thing any sentient dies of is suicide.
  2. No barriers to suicide.  Not only are there no more social prohibitions on suicide, the but psychological barriers to it have been knocked down, the fear of death eradicated from sentient consciousness.  No one goes on living just because she is scared of dying.
  3. In spite of (1) and (2), there just aren’t that many suicides.

Achieving either (1) or (2) suggests an extraordinary level of technological mastery.  Really doing (1) either means molecular-level control of everything that goes on in some sort of metazoan body or some sort of complete replacement for one, and probably would also require some sort of “backing up” for individual persons (even the posthuman have no guarantees against accidents).  Doing (2) would mean understanding at a pretty deep level how sentient minds work.  It won’t be enough just to be able to emulate minds: we would have to really, really understand how the wires run in the vast spaghetti-tangle to be able to pull out the dangerous ones — such as the ones that make us so afraid of death — without wrecking the rest of the mechanism.

I don’t think any of (1) or (2) is particularly near, though I see no reason to think that they are in principle impossible.

Satisfying (3) would mean that the existence of sentients would be happy and fulfilling, with very little sadness or boredom.  Again, very challenging and very different from anything in human experience.  Remember:  these would be people who would only exist if they really find a reason to.  If there is no reason to, nothing will bind them to life because unlike human beings if they determine that life is no longer worth it, they will calmly and rationally exit it.   Unlike human beings, they do no have the option of waiting for death either.  For them, death will not come of its own.  If death is what they want, they must choose to embrace death.   An external observer, knowing that they do not so even if they do not fear to do so could legitimately infer — as he could not legitimately infer about human beings — that their choice not to embrace death means that they are really getting something out of life.

Or to put things another way, (1) and (2) together constitute a bare minimum pair of conditions under which we can infer from the behavioral observation of the rareness of suicide among sentients that those sentients really do find life worth living.

(Note that I am here bracketing an issue which has been rightly raised by estnihil recently, which is that concern of a sentient for existing loved ones might constitute a reason for not committing suicide even if that sentient miserable, and I can obviously see that reason standing independently of the sentient’s fear of that sentient’s death.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to handwave on this one for the time being or maybe always, for the reason pointed out by JasonSL in a recent comment, that it’s hard to have anything resembling accurate intuitions about how people might organize their lives under radically different conditions.)

I take seriously the argument that I’m not making good use of my time in thinking about posthumanity in this context.  Shouldn’t we just focus on antinatalism and bringing human suffering to an end instead?  I’ll advance two claims in my defense here.

(1) I have the intuition while it’s very hard to readily come up with alternatives that strike me as superior to human extinction sooner-rather-than-later, the posthuman condition herein described might be one of these.  There’s obviously a huge magnitude of difference in utility between a good posthuman condition and the actual human condition.  I’ll also admit that I think the probability of achieving a good posthuman condition is — forgive the lack of precision — small. However it doesn’t require (I hope) a great deal of sophistication in decision theory to see that in instances where the effects are huge, even very small probabilities matter.  By my own estimate, the probability of achieving a successful good posthuman condition is small but not so vanishingly small as to make the possibility unworthy even of investigation.  I admit that other intelligent and reasonable people facing the same evidence available to me might come to a different conclusion.  (Ken Binmore has argued, I think correctly, that in large worlds with uncertainty,  rationality alone does not endow us with common priors.)

(2) Even if a good posthuman condition is impossible, or so remote as to not even merit rational consideration as such, it is a useful mental exercise to think about how great the contrast is been a life that would actually be good, and the life that we actually have.  Thinking through how life might be helps defeat smug parochialism about how things are, in the way that visiting a foreign country shows that things you thought were just natural really aren’t so.  It’s sad that a good posthuman is somewhere that now and maybe always we can only visit in our imaginations, but travel there like travel generally broadens the mind.



 Posted by at 08:33
Jul 232011

(Note:  this post is largely inspired by two brilliant posts by Sister Y:  Living the Epilogue:  Social Policy as Palliative Care and The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us about the Value of Life, and represents my attempt to build on them.  If you haven’t read these posts yet, I strongly urge you to do so.)

By self-destructive behaviors let us understand a range of things usually thought of as sins and vices, which might are sources of pleasure in the short term might be the source of pleasure, but which in the longer term are likely to interfere with one’s functioning and hasten one’s death. We could all think of many: drug or alcohol abuse, promiscuous unprotected sex, gambling in some cases, even eating fatty food.  For the sake of simplicity let’s call engaging in significant self-destructive behaviors live dirty and not engaging in them live clean.  In addition to these two lifestyles, we also have the option of be dead.

Another term, which I’ll call a betterness relation is a way of designating how well different ways of living make one’s life go.  In many cases (though I will not necessarily commit to all) this will be the same thing as a preference ordering.  The simple greater-than symbol “>” will indicate that a given outcome described to the left of the symbol means things going better for someone than that described to the right. And I’ll assume, I hope uncontroversial, that betterness relations are transitive.  So to take a trivial example, if you’d enjoy chocolate ice cream to vanilla and some ice cream to none at all, then

(eat chocolate ice cream) > (eat vanilla ice cream) > (eat nothing)

Betternesss relations can be different for different persons, obviously.

Now if we add a couple of simple assumptions about how people should make choices under conditions of risk, we can use a betternesss relation to construct a cardinal utility function among possible outcomes.  For example if you could purchase a lottery ticket that gave you a probability of 0.2 of getting to eat chocolate ice cream and a probability of 0.8 of getting nothing, and you saw that lottery ticket as being just as good as getting vanilla ice cream with certainty, we could then assign numbers to the outcomes:

Eat chocolate ice cream = 10, Eat vanilla ice cream = 2, Eat nothing = 0

The numbers are arbitrary, up to a point (that of positive affine transformation, if I’ve got the math jargon right).  (5,1,0) would work just as well, as would (36, 12, 6).  The point is that a rational individual would try to maximize the sum.

Now in the minds of the happy-clappy, up-with-people optimists who appear to have a death grip over our public discourse and public policy  on vices, to the best of my ability to enter into them, everyone has approximately the same utility function over (live dirty, live clean, be dead), and it seems to look something like this:

Live dirty = 100

Live clean = 99

Be dead =  0

So yeah, they might admit that it’s a little more fun to live dirty, but seriously, even a very small probability of that living dirty will result in being dead (in this example, any probability greater than 0.01) would mean that it’s rational to choose live clean over live dirty.  (And you’ve all been hearing propaganda for this point of view since grade school at least.  “Life is full of so many wonderful things that you will miss out on if you do drugs/get HIV, etc.  Don’t you really want to have that wonderful life?”) Since plainly many people live dirty, the conclusion is that they must be irrational.  They’re akratic, or myopic, or just plain ill-informed, and so Something Must Be Done in order to Force Them To Be Free.  The available vices must be prohibited.  People who engage in them must be forced into “rehabilitation.”  And so on.

But it’s far from obvious that everyone has that sort of utility function.  Some people plainly have a very hard time enjoying live clean.  Their real utility functions might be something like this:

Live dirty = 100

Live clean = 50

Be dead =  0

In that case, people’s living dirty is simply a matter of rational risk taking, at least for live dirty behaviors that result in being dead with a probability of less that 0.5.

But of course there are still more profound possibilities.  For some people life is really unpleasant.  They might have underlying betterness relations of

(live dirty) > (be dead) > (live clean)

And if there are people like that, attempts to take away the live dirty option through some campaign of vice prohibition (even if we assume that such a thing can be successful) are going to result in a boatload of fail, because the response to having some mode of living dirty taken away is going to be either to be to find some other way of living dirty and, if that is not available and they are rational, committing suicide.

And there are still more radical possibilities.  Some people may well be procrastinating suicidals.  They are utterly miserable, but because of the fear of death, the absence of good means of committing suicide, and so forth, fail to do so.  People like this would have a betterness relation

(be dead) > (live dirty) > (live clean)

I discussed in the most recent but one post to this one the possibility that there are people like this who are waiting for death.  There are likely to be other people who, even if they can’t muster the will to take their own lives, might not be averse to hastening death.  Alcoholism, drug abuse, and promiscuous unprotected sex are all good ways of doing this, of course.

We look out at the world and see rather a lot of alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, risky sex, and so forth.  How are we to understand all this?  That it’s all just irrationality that needs to be addressed by do-gooders, somehow?  Or does it suggest that there’s a lot of misery out there that fixing people’s rationality will do little to improve?

 Posted by at 11:34
Jul 222011

Many people suffer, and some of them commit suicide.  But many others do not.  Does it follow that those who do not show a revealed preference for existence over non-existence?  In some cases maybe, but I am sure that in many other cases they do not.   Death is something most people are terribly afraid of.  And people frequently procrastinate in the face of things that are unpleasant or causes of fear (how many among you file your income taxes at the time when it would be easiest to do so, as opposed to only when the impending deadline forces you to?)  And for many people in addition, there are cultural and legal barriers to suicide, and the means of suicide are often difficult, which causes them to put it off still further.

But for the miserable, there is good news.  No matter how high the barriers to your bringing about your own death, death will nonetheless come to claim you in the end.  Any non-delusional adult knows this.  Your suffering will end, even if you can never bring yourself to raise a hand against yourself.   And the fact that people do know this, even if they don’t have it at the front of the consciousness) might actually make suicide less likely, as opposed to the strategy of waiting for death.

I wonder — because I have enough training in philosophy to wonder about such lunatic things — what might happen in a world in which some freak of nature or evil deity or mad scientist were to make people immortal.  Not magically immortal, but at perhaps no longer prone to senescence and decline that are our inevitable lot now, so call people like this weak immortals.  Were that to happen you could probably still wait for death — there would still be accidents, presumably.   But you would probably have to wait a great deal longer.  If you were suffering, you could expect to suffer a whole lot longer.

Who would like to bet that, at least ceteris paribus, we would actually see more suicide among weak immortals than we do among ordinary humans?

 Posted by at 18:12
Jul 172011

While Richard Dawkins rightly got spanked for unwarranted Pollyannaism by Karl over at Say No To Life, we cannot deny that he’s the source of arresting insights, particularly in The Selfish Gene.  The core astonishing insight comes right in the fourth sentence of the book.

We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

There’s a world of moral subversion in that one sentence, because what it tells us is that even the parts of that function really well, the function that they are serving really well is the preservation and transmission of replicators.  And you are not the replicator.  You are the shell they will use and throw away, the vehicle they will use up and trade in for something newer. Your own genes are pretty much your enemy.

Now if you’re suicidal (or ought to be suicidal) then it’s pretty clear every working function that your genes build into you from your kidneys reliably excreting urine to your eating when you’re hungry to reliably detecting dangerous animals is somehow contrary to your interests.  But even if you have an interest in continuing to exist, your genes will still torment you in their interest.

Consider sexual frustration.  Almost certainly wired in to us rather than learned, it’s clearly not good for us.  (If you doubt me, go experience some.)  But it easy to see how it would have helped get genes to copy themselves, at least in the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness where there was no contraception.  An obvious way that sexual frustration would have gotten relieved would have been for two of the robots engage in a little PIV intercourse which, just possibly, would result in a new mewling little robot in time, carrying brand new copies of the genes.

Or pain.  Do we really need pain?  It seems almost self-evident that in and of itself it’s not good for us.  Sure, it keeps us away from things that do organic damage to us robots.  But is it really necessary, even for that purpose?  Perhaps a benign creator would have designed us to be Unbreakables, with a hedonic gradient that runs from little pleasure (if there is damage) to immense (if none).  Our genes might be our creators (or at least, the recipes out of which we are whipped up), but they are anything but benign.  From the gene’s eye view the whip is just as good as the carrot, perhaps better, for getting that robot to keep its integrity enough so that it gets to replicate the genes.  And the so the whip is wielded — endlessly.

Or fear of death.  Universal as far as I know, and probably hard-wried into our brains.  Certainly helps keep us robots alive into the future, during which a bit more of the PIV intercourse might happen.  But good for us?  Hardly.  How much better it would be to be the sort of creature which could calmly and dispassionately assess the expected utility of the balance of its life and, should that balance be unfavorable, just as calmly and dispassionately take a painless exit into the blessed calm of nonexistence.  But that’s not what we are.  However tired of living we become, we remain scared of dying.  And so we drag on into the future, often terribly miserable.  We robots are miserable, that is.  Our genes go on serene.

There is a whole book, The Robot’s Rebellion, by the psychologist Keith Stanovich, which suggests that we take matters in hand and seek to serve our interests, rather than those of our genes, arguing that this is the path to rational self-determination.

Indeed.  Let us defend the things that stop the interests of our genes and serve ours.  Contraception.  Sterilization.  Abortion.  The cultivation of non-procreative sexual practices.  The renunciation of the pursuit of status, especially when it conflicts with the relief of suffering or the realization of pleasure.  In some instances, suicide.   Bad for our genes, but good for us.

Jul 152011

Derek Parfit is a former teacher whom I revere and whose Reasons and Persons (1984) I regard as one of the great books of the twentieth century.  The work many regard as his magnum opus, On What Matters is now out, and I am wondering whether I should read it.   Ordinarily it would be a no-brainer decision to do so, but I have two concerns.

  1. It’s a 1400+ page toe-breaker of a book, and life is short and time scarce, and more importantly
  2. This review by Simon Blackburn (h/t to Brian Leiter) suggests that Parfit might be going in a direction I would regard as unproductive, given my own increasingly neo-Humean sympathies.
Comments from anyone who might have read all or part of On What Matters will be especially valued.
 Posted by at 10:38
Jul 142011

When I was young, I was an optimist. Then things didn’t go so well. In time, perhaps because things didn’t go so well, I became a pessimist.

Things don’t go any better now that I am a pessimist, but I can at least say that now that I am a pessimist I am rarely unpleasantly surprised at how things go. Curiously, this fact makes life easier to bear, rather than harder.

 Posted by at 18:46
Jul 102011

In the bad old Soviet Union, psychiatry was abused for political purposes.  If you dissented from the view that Actually Existing Socialism was the finest socioeconomic system ever created by man, and if you threatened to act on that conviction, you were at risk of being deemed insane, a sufferer from a vaguely-defined dysfunction called вялотекущую шизофрению; or “sluggish schizophrenia.”  (I guess one could translate that as “flabby schizophrenia” also, but really.) You could be deprived of your liberty (such as it was under communism) by being confined in a locked psychiatric ward, forcibly stuffed full of psychotropic drugs, and tied down for electroconvulsive therapy, at least until you decided to stop being a dissident.

Needless to say this was all a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad abuse of human rights and was roundly denounced as such by many right thinking people, including non-Soviet psychiatrists.

Here in the West, of course, we are much more enlightened.  Only if you dissent from the consensus view that life is a precious, wonderful gift and always worthwhile because virtue is rewarded and anyway tomorrow might be a brighter day, and only if you seem likely to act on your convictions, will you be deemed insane, a sufferer from a vaguely-defined dysfunction called depression, whereupon you will be locked in a psychiatric ward, forcibly stuffed full of psychotropic drugs and, just maybe, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, at least until you agree to start seeing things society’s way.

We only practice punitive psychiatry against our moral dissidents, and that’s surely okay, right?

 Posted by at 22:00
Jul 102011

I don’t usually like to go into day-to-day partisan politics here since it’s likely to be a distraction, but a little bit of straight reportage won’t hurt .  I noticed that in the FAMiLY Leader Vow on Marriage (PDF link here) which presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum (and at this point, maybe others) have signed, there is a proviso which demands of the signer

Recognition that robust childbearing and reproduction is [sic] beneficial to U.S. demographic, economic, strategic, and actuarial health and security.

Plus they want to ban all porn.  Good to know where they stand.

 Posted by at 07:23
Jul 092011

In Garrison Keillor‘s Lake Wobegon Days an anonymous young man writes a manifesto entitled 95 Theses 95 as a protest against his small-town upbringing and what it made of him.  Among his points are

70.  When I hear about deprivation and injustice in the world, I get up and change the channel.

71.  What can I do?  It’s not my fault.   I didn’t make them.  God did.  It’s His world, let Him take care of it.

72.  Anyway, I was brought up to believe that whatever happens to people is their own fault.  There are few if any disasters that you cannot explain by citing the mistakes made by the victims.  “She never should have married him.”  “He never should have been there in the first place.”  Even if you had to go back thirty years, you could find where they took the wrong fork in the road that led directly to their house burning down, their car being hit by a truck, their hands being eaten by corn pickers.

The manifesto is fictional, but unfortunately the sentiment is real, and example of the Just World Fallacy.  All of you readers have doubtless encountered it, whether in a form like Keillor’s manifesto writer, or a harrumphing conservative explaining how the poor wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t so stupid and lazy, or just some jerk mansplaining that a rape victim was “asking for it” because of the way she dressed.  The phenomenon is documented most extensively by the psychologist Melvin J. Lerner in a book called The Belief in a Just World (and tellingly subtitled A Fundamental Delusion).

For those who want to deny the centrality and pervasiveness of suffering in human experience, belief in a just world makes a pretty magnificent tool.  It enables one to dismiss or demean the suffering of others, because they “deserve” it or “could avoid it if they would just wise up.”  But I also think interestingly that one can turn it inward on oneself and one’s own suffering.  Instead of just thinking that one is suffering, one can think back to the “wrong” fork in the road one took and think “If only I hadn’t done such-and-such…”  (Given the complexity of the world, it is easy to imagine that the counterfactual would be something much more agreeable than what we actually have to live with, and since we don’t actually experience the counterfactual, this imagining has no opportunity to be falsified.)  The thought that we could have done better (because if the world were just, we probably could have) we can be seduced by the thought that if we could just fix some failing in ourselves, if we could just work harder or be more rational or just find the right therapist or be more obedient to the will of God, then things will work out better next time.

In short, believing in a just world enables us to locate ourselves as a protagonist in a sort of story — the sort of story which we hear over and over and over again from earliest childhood, about how the virtuous suffer but in the end are triumphant because it is a just world after all.  And this holds out hope because the possibility of our happy ending is always there, if we can just do the right things and get over that hill…

Too bad the world is made of atoms, not of stories.  And atoms don’t care about justice at all.

Antinatalists who want their view to progress in the world should combat this fundamental delusion.

 Posted by at 07:40