Category Archives: Social Theory

The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.


The Composition of Our Lives

More than a creative written work, the word composition reminds me of a mixture of ingredients, as in Chemistry. With that meaning in mind, I have entitled this post as “the composition of our lives.” However, that shouldn’t give you the impression that this post is about the chemical composition of our lives(what does that mean anyway?). Not at all! Rather this is only a humble attempt to present my analysis of what constitutes our lives. In other words, at the end of our lives, when we look back, what are the ingredients that make up our lives? The list I am going to give might not resonate with that of your’s, as you might have your own list, and that’s fair.

Before I present my list, I should share with you the concept of emergence. That concept will help in making more sense of my list. Christian Smith in his book What is a Person? notes: “Emergence involves the following: First, two or more entities that exist at a “lower” level interact or combine. Second, that interaction or combination serves as the basis of some new, real entity that has existence at a “higher” level. Third, the existence of the new higher-level entity is fully dependent upon the two or more lower-level entities interacting or combining, as they could not exist without doing so. Fourth, the new, higher-level entity nevertheless possesses characteristic qualities (e.g., structures, qualities, capacities, textures, mechanisms) that cannot be reduced to those of the lower-level entities that gave rise to the new entity possessing them” (26). When these four things happen, Smith considers emergence to have happened. The example that he provides is that of water (H20). Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O) combine to form a new thing, water, that is quite unlike either H or O. The physical and chemical characteristics of water are quite different from that of it’s constituent ingredients. Anyway, the whole point in presenting this concept and elaborate quote is to say that the three ingredients that I am going to present combine or interact and result in the emergence of life – not in the biological sense, but in the sense of a lived life. 

After all that hype, here’s my list: experiments, experiences, and memories. These three aspects are correlative, and they mutually shape and modify one another, and make up our lives. If we consider our lives to constitute the correlative wheel of experiments, experiences, and memories, then it is possible that at times one of these aspects might function as a hub and influences the other two. Some other times another aspect might take the position of the hub and influence the other two aspects of the correlative wheel of life. Before I lose you, let me explain: For instance, at the age of ninety, memories may serve as the hub of the correlative wheel of our lives. Similarly during childhood, experiments could serve as the hub. This is all hypothetical, but the point that I am trying to make is that, although all the three aspects make up our lives, one might play a major role at one particular point of time. Without any hint of doubt, however, all the three of them keep operating throughout our lives.  At this point, one may ask, aren’t experiments not experiences, and wouldn’t experiments and experiences form memories? The answer is: yes, they are and they will, yet they are not replaceable with one another. They are almost like the three forms that water can take: ice, water, and water vapor. To conclude, the three aspects – experiments, experiences, and memories – combine or interact and constitute our lives.  


Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?

Yes.

There, that was easy. But apparently not all academic ethicists think this is true. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside at The Splintered Mind (a mind laying in splinters would be a “mindfield,” no?) wrote on this question earlier this week, and it deserves a look:

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper).

Talk about not walking the talk. No wonder academic ethics seems so confused to outsiders – if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it.

For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good.

But surely the ethicists in question would not agree that they are hypocrites – philosophers can rationalize much better than most, after all. Here is Schwitzgebel’s scenario of what a hypothetical academic ethicist might say when asked why they do not practice their theoretically-higher standards:

But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions. Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists.

Indeed, Aristotle grounds his Nicomachean Ethics with the idea that the point of studying ethics is to become good, and in so doing become a virtuous, flourishing, fulfilled, happy human being.

Because really, what other point could there be? Become a famous philosopher? Ha! Well, less flippantly, finding “The Truth” might be another point, and the truth might not actually make you so happy, one might retort, but you can bet that if I figured out “The Truth,” I’d be happy since I’d just accomplished a pretty big thing.

Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out?

Because if you say you have it figured out and then you don’t do it, you don’t bother to try, then, it seems like you don’t actually think it is good. That your theories won’t make you a better person, that they won’t make you happier. You say one thing and live another.

And if you say one thing and consciously do another… I start to scowl.

But I can’t say I am surprised. Many contemporary academic ethicists just don’t think ethics is about becoming a good person. That is a very ancient strand of ethics, and no longer popular.

Aristotelians and Thomists are exceptions to this. I would be interested in knowing whether they also fall into this theory/practice trap, or whether it is more the Kantians and/or utilitarians. Also I wonder if religion would have any effect.  I’m not saying I expect it would, but I hope would. After all, at least in Christianity, hypocrisy gets called out by the Big Guy himself. And if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. And that is scandalous.

In any case, this is terrific research and I appreciate The Splintered Mind for bringing it to light. Good job guys.


Science Proves Religious People Are Stupid and Atheists Are Smart

Where to begin with this one?

A group of researchers have performed a metastudy purporting to show that atheism is correlated to high IQ and that religiosity is not (sorry, it’s behind a pay wall).

Normally I like metastudies, but this is just bad. Seriously. There are so many things wrong with this I cannot address them all. So I will just pick five:

1) Racist sources

2) Secular education

3) “Religions” are all the same, and “atheists” are all opposed to them in the same way

4) Garbage in garbage out

5) Your IQ is not worth… ____

One. Continue reading


Child Sacrifice at the Altar of the Gun God

The Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut is one of the most horrific spree killings we have had in our nation, ever. And none of them seem to ever have any effect on our lax national gun laws. There are many other problems at stake here too, such as care for the mentally ill, media violence, media sensationalization of spree killers, and so on. But the gun aspect of this is obvious. It just happens over and over again. Predictable. Expected. Routine.

Why then do we never seem to take measures to stop future massacres?

I have no answer, I just have a comparison.

The Hebrew Scriptures have a recurrent theme of child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was something the Hebrew’s neighboring tribes did; these were the behaviors of Moloch and Baal worshippers. Child sacrifice was NOT something God wanted of his people, as is made clear over and over again in many and various ways.

We have accepted child sacrifice in our culture, and one of the idols we have chosen is the gun. In our culture we idolize guns and we implicitly recognize these periodic mass-murders and daily gun violence as an acceptable side-effect of our mania for power and violence.

This is horribly wrong, and only a true believer in the gun god can’t see the connection. Nicholas Kristof reported (h/t Charlie Camosy) that the NRA commented that the school attack in China, with a knife, shows that it’s not just a gun problem. But NONE of those children died. Still absolutely horrible! But alive. Only the true believer in the gun god cannot see the connection.

Other countries do not have this problem; this is an American gun-cult problem.

Are guns really a cult? Guns freed us from Britain and “tamed” the Wild West (by murdering the natives). Guns protect the righteous from evil (so it is said). People get an emotional high from practicing the faith (gun shops, shooting ranges, and gun shows). And the Second Amendment is the Holy Writ.

We have a cult with an origin myth and glorious history, practical good consequences (for some), collective effervescent feelings, and a religious text.

This is, needless to say, a religion of death. No matter how it is wrapped in patriotism and righteousness, if your first instinct after a mass shooting is to declare that guns are not the problem you are a true believer in the gun god. Please find a better god.

I am otherwise at a loss for words, so to close I am just going to post three links.

Two from CatholicMoralTheology.com, from Charlie Camosy and Dana Dillon.

Garry Wills says much the same as I do here, but more eloquently. I wrote this before reading his, but I guess this idea’s time has come. Maybe that means we can finally begin to purge ourselves of this demonic faith.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a spectacular novel. It is a tour-de-force through six stories, each story with its own genre, creating a multigenre whole unlike any work I’ve read before. (There may be other works out there like this, but I don’t know them – I’m an ethicist, not a lit guy – so if you have suggested readings, let me know!)

I picked up this book because I saw the trailer for the movie version by the Wachowskis (of “The Matrix” fame) that is coming out today. I could tell that the story was going to be fascinatingly intricate, and that a movie could not do it justice, so I wanted to read the novel first before seeing the movie. I won’t include the trailer here because it may affect your reading of the story; it did for me (while reading I kept thinking “I wonder who is going to play this character?”). I will review the movie in a few days and include the trailer then.

In this review I am going to try to avoid specific spoilers, however, the generalities of the work will come up and especially what I see as the moral and philosophical core of the work. If you read this review it may spoil the novel for you on that level, so if that concerns you, just go read the book instead, then come back.

But if you want to know anyway, come along. Here’s how we will go: 1) The story itself, its style and composition, 2) Its major themes, 3) Its similarities and differences with a few other works, and a few allusions I picked up, 4) Its movie potential. Continue reading


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