Category Archives: Technological Ethics

Physicists to Test Simulation Hypothesis (AKA Theism)

Huffington Post UK has a new very brief article stating that physicists at the University of Washington are going to test the simulation hypothesis – the theory that we are all living inside a giant computer simulation.

The simulation hypothesis has become something of a popular idea as of late, boosted by people such as transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom and atheist author Sam Harris.

I am interested in whether the experiment will conclude anything. I have my doubts, just because metaphysical questions like that don’t tend to be  testable in any conclusive way (that being sort of the definition of metaphysics). And no matter what data they do get, there may be better theories to explain it.We can always come up with more ideas why something is the case – data underdetermines theory

From the perspective of theism, the simulation hypothesis could be either problematic or validating. It does imply a “simulation engineer” after all. And that engineer would be “God.” Maybe not the God theists currently believe in, but perhaps it could be. After all, as Sam Harris notes on his blog, if the simulation hypothesis is correct and we gain the same power to produce simulations as the one we are currently inhabiting, then its just a matter of time before some religion creates a simulation which validates its theology. (And I appreciate Harris’s honesty here, admitting that the idea can undercut his own atheist position.)

A rather strange and humorous idea, I think. I wonder what people will think of next?


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

Geoengineering Goes Rogue

It was only a matter of time, but I had no idea it would be this soon. Geoengineering has gone rogue.

An environmental entrepreneur whose plan to dump iron in a patch of the Pacific Ocean was shelved four years ago after a scientific outcry has gone ahead with a similar experiment without any academic or government oversight, startling and unnerving marine researchers.

My first reaction is “environmental entrepreneur”? And my second one is “wow, this is a completely new thing.” Never in human history has a small group of humans intentionally tried to manipulate the atmosphere, much less without any kind of oversight. A true ethical novum. Brought to us by our own scientific-technological power. The New York Times continues:

The entrepreneur, Russ George, said his team scattered 100 tons of iron dust in mid-July in the Pacific several hundred miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, in a $2.5 million project financed by a native Canadian group.

The substance acted as a fertilizer, Mr. George said, fostering the growth of enormous amounts of plankton that were monitored by the team for several months. He said the result could help the project meet what it casts as its top goal: aiding the recovery of the salmon fishery for the native Haida people.

But marine scientists and other experts said the experiment, which they learned about only in news reports this week, was shoddy science, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change.

While the environmental impact of Mr. George’s foray could well prove minimal, they said, it raises the specter of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that could upend ecosystems one day put the planet at risk. Mark L. Wells, a marine scientist at the University of Maine, said that what Mr. George’s team did “could be described as ocean dumping.”

I have discussed geoengineering and the hubristic dangers that accompany it before, arguing that it might seem logical and yet still be, perhaps, a very bad choice. I really do have mixed feelings on it. But what I can say with certainty is that anybody just going out and deciding to do it on their own must be stopped and held responsible for some type of violation.  This is an issue concerning the common good, not just of all humanity, but for the entire ecosphere. We can’t just have individuals going out there and doing giant experiments with no supervision or legitimate authorization (even if this is, in fact, what we have already accidentally done with fossil fuels, chlorofluorocarbons, and so on – this is not a road to continue on).

This is a fascinating test case, and luckily, a rather minor one. Iron dumping for plankton fertilizer is a relatively small thing compared to, say, spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. But now that the threshold has been crossed, we can expect to see more of this, and perhaps states “going rogue” in major ways, and not just one guy and his friends.

Strange times we live in.

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.