Category Archives: Technological Ethics

Information is not value free

If printing a gun is the equivalent to the liberation of the printing press, as Cody Wilson claims (see video), then critically thinking about information has hit hard times. Meaning: ideology and violence have become the only methods of “real” communication.

While, I understand that access to information can be empowering, I believe the philosophy behind the Defense Distributed project is oversimplified, naive, and partially paranoid. It does not take into account that we live in a world made complex by a growing population, poverty, restricted resources, and various governmental and economic systems. While I may agree that not all politicians have “the greater good” or the individual rights in mind, these concepts alone deserve greater contemplation than Hobbesian (i.e., “life is nasty, brutish, and short”), Marxian-utopian (i.e., elitist politicians are corrupt and want to only maintain the status quo), libertarian (i.e., we exist only as an aggregate of individuals and as such deserve unfettered access to anything we want, when we want it) cracker-jack platitudes.—-yet.html

My New Article: Teleology and Theology, Aristotle and Cognitive Science

From the abstract:

Recent research in cognitive science has shown that humans innately prefer teleological explanations. Children even go so far as to hypothesize the existence of a deity in order to justify teleological explanations. Aristotle also believed in the importance of teleology for human psychology. This paper investigates the convergence of ideas from the cognitive science of teleology with the Aristotelian understanding of teleology visible in the virtues of techne and wisdom. I argue that Aristotelian psychology and ethics is gaining empirical support, and that this could have important implications for science, philosophy, and theology.

So cut to the chase – what’s the point? Humans evolved to pick up teleology – the purposes of other humans, of tools, and of skilled behaviors. This same sensitivity allows us to ponder the purpose of our own existence and the purpose of the universe as a whole, as well as hypothesize a creator. In other words, this is a major part of what makes us capax Dei – capable of relating to God.

From a theistic perspective this is great – science has shown us part of the religious architecture of our minds, as aspect of what makes us homo religiosus. And equally, from an atheistic perspective this is great; theistically-inclined humans are just misapplying an otherwise perfectly useful cognitive bias – one used to figure out what another human is doing, their purpose, or the purpose of an object – to try to figure out something purposeless, the universe. But notice that the first move is a metaphysical one – the declaration that the universe is purposeful or purposeless. No scientific experiment can tell you the answer to that, it is an assumption, not a conclusion. The data can go either way, depending on the framework it is placed in.

I have to say, I really like this paper. I worked on it a long time. The peer reviewers said nice things about it. I could easily spend more time investigating this sort of work, and at some point I most likely will.

But, alas, one of my committee members always counsels me “Go for the deeper problem!” And so the deeper problem from the cognitive science of the virtues, at least from the standpoint of naturalistic ethics, is how to relate science and ethics – or, in more Humean terms, how to get “ought’ from “is.” So that is what I am doing now.

And then the deeper problem after that is how to let that knowledge make a positive difference in the world, both for the individual and everyone. Currently some of my applications are towards environmental ethics, bioethics and technological ethics more generally, and the ethics of space exploration.

All of this is because I want to know how humans ought to relate to technology. Technology is absolutely essential to our humanity. We lack hair (we need clothes) and our digestive systems are inadequate to eat many foods (we need to prepare and cook it). And yet technology can also be extremely dangerous. Human technology has now reached the point where it can begin to alter human nature itself.

To know what to do, we must first know who we are. Identity creates action. And then action creates identity. Transhumanists will argue that our nature is to transcend humanity. And bioconservatives will argue that that is impossible – that no matter what we may become we will always remain human. Natural law yields virtue and vice. What we think humans are will dictate what we think humans should do. We are manipulating creatures – what will we do when we finally come to target ourselves? In this century, we will find out.


For more info, see my page.

Is Geoengineering Now Inevitable? Or, Is the Only Solution to a Technological Problem More Technology?

Scaling the Heights of the Scala Naturae (Wikipedia)

Once a year I teach a course at Santa Clara University called “Energy, Climate Change, and Social Justice.” I love teaching it. The premise is to help engineering graduate students learn how to think ethically about the problems generated by global warming, with an eye towards coming up with innovative solutions. We look at conventional and renewable energy sources, vulnerabilities that different areas and people’s of the world face due to global warming, and potential policy solutions to help get the world on track towards carbon neutrality or negativity.

But this year a strange thought continually crossed my mind as I was teaching the course. Is active human control over the climate now inevitable?  A few months ago a friend of mine at another university had expressed to me the wish that humans would not be responsible for the Earth’s environment – not responsible for the climate, not responsible for the weather, not responsible for the deaths and destruction and rising oceans. To him it seemed much better that such events were not blameworthy, that things could just happen and they would not be anyone’s fault. The idea of filing a lawsuit over climate change just seemed very wrong. Shouldn’t there just be some things that no-one is responsible and guilty for? Would that not be a better world?

I was unsure how to respond, but the question remained on my mind. I agree that a world where humans were not responsible for the climate might be a better world, but I’m not sure we can ever go back. Here is my thinking. Continue reading

Brian’s Links 2012 June 1: SpaceX and the Return of Adventure

SpaceX did it. Off the Earth, up to the ISS, and back again. The era of private spaceflight is really here. And what is SpaceX’s long range goal? Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. Not just his company – him, personally. And, while he’s at it, he’s going to save the world.

If you haven’t heard of Planetary Resources, you should. They’ve got billionaire backing. And they want to gobble up asteroids for their platinum. (Well, and their other elements too.) Between these guys and SpaceX, exploration is actually becoming really interesting again. And why should Christians or ethicists care? (go here to find out) Because, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead “Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” And I think these folks are proving that we are not nearly dead yet.

Now, from air to water, literally. For areas with fresh water shortage this is brilliant: a wind turbine that condenses water from the air.  It would be perfect for the Marshall Islands, where is is windy, humid, and fresh water is unreliable. And if you were an ancient Greek, this could count as elemental transmutation.

And how about a new kind (not just a new use) of wind power while we are at it?

Every wonder about what the future was supposed to look like? Well here’s a funny one: kids carrying around computers in a museum. A cowboy using at what looks like an iPad. Kids using computers in school (wearing Atari helmets!). All from back in 1982.

Fascinating maps of America’s invisible borders. Like whether a soda is a “pop” or a “coke” (its a soda).

The USCCB’s and CDF’s document on the LCWR.

Ever wonder where ketchup came from? Wonder no longer.

Yes, Chinese medicine can be dangerous.  Lots of medicines can be dangerous. The early chemist and pharmacist Paracelsus (real name: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – you can see why he went by Paracelsus) is noted for his phrase “the dosage makes the poison.” But seeing as many forms of Chinese medicine have never actually been scientifically tested to see what they do – in any dosage – taking them can be especially dangerous.

It’s called “Blood Falls.” It’s a blood-red frozen waterfall in Antarctica. Now if only there were monstrous creatures at its source, the story would be complete. But wait! There are!

These next two stories are both from God and the Machine, my new favorite blog for theology and technology. First, a young man finds his lost home and family, a home he lost when he fell asleep on a train when he was 5. How did he find his way home? Google Earth!

Second, someday you will be able to buy your own tricorder, just like in Star Trek.  Seriously.  This guy is making them and they work!

And lastly, poor static dog. Cats have a reputation for getting all the lols, but dogs can do it too.

What Kind of a World for Our Children?

Earth as the “Blue Marble” of Apollo 11, from NASA (via Wikipedia).

My father is a quiet man. Very smart, but not exactly philosophical. I once asked him if he had any wisdom to share with me after his long life and he said (in sum) “no.”

Which is why something he said to me many years before strikes me as all the more important. He said “I don’t think we’re leaving you a world as good as the one we were given.”

When you are a little kid that doesn’t really make sense. The world changes? The world gets better and worse? Why is it worse now? What happened to make it worse?

Now that I’m an adult it unfortunately makes perfect sense. Continue reading

Brian’s Links 18 May 2012: Medicine, Crime, Climate Change, and Creatures

A cute little jumping robot.

This US wind map is really cool.

Conservation in the Age of Man – its not about protecting the wild anymore – its more like gardening… and using nature to protect people. An interesting shift in philosophy from the Nature Conservancy.

Mind over matter: paralyzed patients moving robotic arms with only their minds.  In the video, a locked-in patient uses her mind via the robotic arm to reach for her coffee and drink it for the first time in 15 years.

First it’s shocking and horrible (UC Davis) and then it’s normal, barely even news. From last month. Didn’t get enough coverage.

How to deal with psychopaths, using Girardian theory.  I especially like the “gray rock” strategy.

Brain injuries are very bad things. In this new study deceased US military veterans were autopsied and found to have similar brain damage to athletes such as football players.

This story is grotesquely unjust. An elderly man accidentally sets off his medic alarm. Cops come to man’s home.  He informs them it was an accident. Cops shoot man dead. Can you guess the victim’s skin color?

The dollar is being slowly, intentionally, steadily devalued, as anyone who has watched gas or gold (or any) prices might suspect. No conspiracy, just economics – its the best the Fed thinks they can do to keep the monetary system stable.

Yes, your dog does need plastic surgery. No, the starving children don’t need food.

Three fun climate-change-related links.  One on Washington D.C.’s warmest winter ever (I was there in late December, and it was quite pleasant), another on the record-breakingly warm March, and the last imagining San Francisco as an island after the sea level has risen. The time frame on SF Island is totally unrealistic (IPCC estimate is less than 3 feet in the next century, not 3 feet per year – see Wikipedia), but people like to imagine disasters.Interesting linked info too.

And one for any skeptics: the US military thinks climate change is real.

What bacteria can survive 1000 times more radiation than a human? Also known as Conan the Bacterium? Well Deinococcus radiodurans, of course. Luckily, its also friendly.

The RoboBonobo. Not only does it look freaky, it really just is. It’s basically an ape-controlled drone (well, humans are apes too… so it’s a non-human-ape-controlled drone…) armed with a squirt gun. Yeah, next we’ll have them invading and bombing foreign countries! Well, maybe we could just keep this one for fun, for now, at least.

Some very alien places on Earth. Very interesting pictures.

An enormously giant bunny. The world’s biggest. Bigger than small children. About four and a half feet and 50 pounds of bunny.

Lastly, happy bouncing cows.

Brian’s Links 12 May 2012: Science, Space, Cardinals, and Ennui

Robotic support brings freedom to paraplegics – Tek RMD. More really cool technology.

A Stanford scientist conducts an experiment on himself, producing “an integrative personal omics profile (iPOP) [that] combines cutting-edge scientific fields such as genomics (study of one’s DNA), metabolomics (study of metabolism), and proteomics (study of proteins).” And he discovers a link between viral infections and type-2 diabetes, among other things.

Elon Musk, billionaire founder of Paypal, Solar City, Tesla Motors, and Space X, wants to save the world. He wants to get humans off-planet, on Mars, to “back up the biosphere.” Sounds like a good idea to me. Here’s a fascinating interview from CBS’s 60 Minutes.

A “seed vault for culture.” From the folks at The Long Now Foundation.

Yes, there are even invasive plant species in Antarctica.

George Monbiot tells us what he really thinks about Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Hint: it includes the word “psychopath.”

According to these guys women can be Catholic Cardinals. How interesting.

Panera restaurants make paying for food voluntary. And it works! At and USA Today.

The South Korean scientists who faked his human-cloning data is off to redeem his reputation. By trying to clone a Woolly Mammoth.

So the Galactic Empire in Star Wars has leadership troubles. The Sith really need to work on their “people skills.” Here’s how you can learn from their failures.

Grass fed cows! They still exist? Yes! And they can be environmentally friendly? Well, yes. Moo.

The NSA is watching you. And You. And you, and you, and you, and…

Okay, near the end of the links I try to be funny. Here’s research about sexually rejected fruit flies turning to alcohol to cheer themselves up. No joke! Gives a new meaning to “bar flies.”

Lastly, Henri, Cat of Ennui.

Two Amazing Innovations for Persons with Disabilities

Technology can do some amazing things, and today I came across two big stories.

For the first, imagine being both blind and deaf. How incredibly isolating. This glove cannot remove those burdens, but it does allow deafblind people to send and receive text messages, thus permitting communication with people who do not know the intricate signals necessary to communicate with deafblind persons. What a fantastic technology – this is what tech is all about.

(h/t to God and the Machine)

The second story is perhaps even more incredible: the restoration of sight to people who are blind.People are calling it a bionic eye, and, well… IT IS! It’s fantastic. The field of vision restored is miniscule (the size of a CD at arm’s length), but the proof of concept in this experimental implant is mind boggling. The chip turns light into nerve impulses. This is full neural-electronic interface, which, while it has been done before in various contexts, is becoming more and more effective and miniaturized.

In this video a prototype from 2008 is tested:

Now, this technology has potential for weirdness. With modification, the image, for example, could be fed to outsiders, not just the implantee’s optic nerve, so you could literally see through someone else’s eyes (this has been done before with cats). And the reverse, perhaps false signals could be put into the chip, or even messages written directly into neural patterns (talk about a personal text message). And the list could go on and on.

But for now, it is just plain amazing.

Brian’s Links 16 April 2012: Can You Find a Theme?

“Riding the Booster.” This video is simply amazing – the solid rocket booster goes up and it comes back down again. I must say, I got a bit dizzy after booster separation. But worth the ride!

Benedict XVI has been dubbed “The Green Pope” for his environmental concern. I like it, and not just because my last name is Green. Here’s a report from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Climate Change.

Ever wondered if your brain was messing with your ability to judge and reason correctly? Well, it is: here is a list of cognitive biases. And the bias I address in some of my research, teleological bias, isn’t even on this immense list. (Teleological bias is the tendency to infer purposes where there are none, e.g., the lightning striking your dog really was a random accident, not because you named your dog Zeus.)

The thought experiment of “ethical autocorrect.”

So, all your traceable purchases are being traced and compiled in myriad computers.  The easy way to stop store-centered ones is to pay cash (like a criminal) and never use those store “clubs.” But the internet is tracking you too! Here are some more sophisticated responses for the internet. And if you tell your Facebook friends to warn them, it just gives the trackers more info on you!

The Nobel Peace Prize committee is under investigation for straying from the prize’s original purpose…

Contagious twitching. A very strange case.

Muggers just need a nice dinner and some conversation.

The case of the Millionaire Metaphysician. For more info see

The Guerrilla Grafters, surreptitiously turning non-fruiting city trees into fruiting ones. I like it.

Is it wrong to father 400 children through sperm donation? (And if not, then where is the cutoff? Is there one?) Because of sperm banks, some guys are “fathering” (in a biological sense only) an immense number of children.  This is not insignificant; this is the human gene pool being altered here, not to mention people’s lives.

English Muslim baroness warns Christians to stand up for their religion.

And how to prove the absurdity of the Supreme Court case “Citizens United”? Colbert is on it. Because Mitt Romney is a serial killer. Corporation are people. Bain Capital repeatedly bought and broke up corporations, killing them. Therefore Romney’s a serial killer. I love absurdity. This link to the Colbert Report will get you the video in case the embedded video below has failed. (The embed is a mirror copy of the original (removed for some kind of YouTube terms violation) and likely won’t be alive for long.) This is a few months old, but still just as pertinent.

Brian’s Links 2 April 2012: Robots, Romney, and More Robots

These little robots are just waiting for Skynet to give them guidance. Someday I am going to have to write a more extensive post on the philosophy (and theology) behind these kinds of inventions, but for now I’ll just say that the militarized versions can’t be too far off. Hang a pistol and camera on them and you’ve got a fleet of unpleasant little drones. They remind me of the mechanical hounds in Fahrenheit 451, except that these fly.

Hey, turns out multicellular life is not so hard to get after all. Just repeatedly select for the yeast colonies that settle fastest and voila! Multicellular yeast. One blogger doesn’t like it though.  If multicellular life is so easy to get, he reasons, then what was once a serious obstacle to the evolution of spacefaring intelligence has been easily past. Which means there must be something else causing Fermi’s Paradox… such as intelligent species always destroying themselves.  I have previously discussed “The Great Filterhere, but I’m not as pessimistic as the fellow at Marginal Revolution. We still have a pretty good chance, I think. Though the robots above are not helping my case right now.

Antibiotic-free meat still has drug-resistant bacteria in it, including deadly MRSA. The bacteria don’t seem to follow our ideas about what they ought to be infecting. And you thought meat was supposed to be safe!

Fascinating article about UX, the “Urban eXperiment” in Paris. A literal underground movement – way ahead of the police, and luckily, also not too dangerous, doing such dastardly deeds as sneaking in and repairing the broken clock in the French Pantheon.

Vibrations on rockets make seeing difficult. An expensive problem and a $5 solution. Good thinking.

Another from Be Scofield at Tikkun: the new atheists and racism.

Old news, but in case you missed it: Romney is not concerned about the very poor. Dana Dillon at Catholic Moral Theology takes Romney down, at least from a Catholic perspective: “for Catholics, being unconcerned with the very poor is not an option.”

And (besides the above disturbing comment) why is Mitt Romney so unappealing? Well, it could be that he’s (like) a robot

Penultimately, an atheist in Texas thinks about suing to get a Nativity scene removed. But he discovers he’s going blind, cannot pay for treatment, and so has to give up pursuing the case. And then the town Christians come to his aid, donating to help him pay his rent and get the medical treatment he needs.

And lastly, the lil’ Skynet robots play the James Bond theme.  I bet if they got together with the Stayin’ Alive Petman they could really do something interesting.


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