Saturday, August 27, 2011

Human augmentation and other scary stories for Evangelicals

Twenty-one years ago a philosopher by the name of Stephen R.L. Clark wrote an article titled, "World Religions and World Orders". He essentially complains (indeed in several places simply rants without argument) that "there are good reasons for being suspicious of the very concept of 'a religion', let alone a 'world religion'. As is often the case with these kinds of arguments against using certain concepts, the author just happens to be -- surprise! -- a socially conservative Christian, and sports the strange mythological, apocalyptic views often associated with that crowd: "My fear is that we shall instead live to see the rise and fall of Babylon, that tradition tells us must precede the Coming."[1] By this he means Jesus: The Sequel, whereby God's messiah won't be so meek and loving the second time around. An ancillary thesis to his anathema over the possibility a unified concept of religion is the possibility of a unified culture for the religious traditions of humankind:
"So there are at least two futures for us that embody some ideal of unity: the rationally crafted Kantian vessel, and the baroque contrivance pieced together by a struggling crew. As far as our biological future goes, the latter has my vote. I had rather imagine humankind, lifekind, continue on the drunkard's walk through God's immensity than be re-engineered by certified experts."
If you detect any anti-intellectualistic undertones in the above quote, you'd be right; the article is filled with little asides depreciating reason, science, and anyone who would dare think that human beings might be able to manage their own future without relying on conservative interpretations of late iron-age values, originating from more sandier parts of the world.

Now something unique that caught my eye in the article was this notion of being 're-engineered' by certified experts', and Clark does expand on this later in the article. Again, as is standard shtick for Evangelicals, his tone is that we can't trust trust scientists any more than we can leash them with pietistic values, so it's best to warn the faithful when possible. In complaining about the works of Chardin, a 1930s intellectual, Clark notes,
"Scientific industrialism -- although its spokesmen regularly denounce old-fashioned dualisms of of 'matter' and 'spirit' -- actually embodies a powerful dualism of its own, between wild Nature and the technosphere. Sometimes its fantasies are of a space-travelling civilization that need never again adapt itself to a non-human environment (precisely by placing itself in that most alien and deadly space beyond the living Earth). Chardin's fantasies of the fantasies of the Overmind [...] are to be realized through computer networks, genetic engineering, bionic enhancement of sense and muscle. Those of us old-fashioned faith-holders who suspect that we shall not be allowed to 'build a tower to heaven', nor yet to remake our bodies and the living earth, can expect to be denounced as backward-looking obscurantists, to be swept away (as Chardin hoped) in the tide of progress"[1]
As earlier noted, this article appeared over two decades ago, but science has the benefit of accumulative knowledge and expansive technology, even with the intellectual drag of conservative clergy prophesying doom about human advancement. So while the idea that we can remake ourselves was just on the edge of loony in 1990, it's now pretty much an accepted fact about what is coming down the pike. Actually it understates the case that it is coming, for the first round of the technology is already here.

In a timely coincidence with my reading, a new documentary[2] has come out just this week which examines the human enhancement themes showcased in a well-received video game. (Video games are the vehicles of 21st century secular mythology.) It shows what is the current state of the most advanced prosthetics, and how real people are using these computer-enhanced devices. The filmmaker himself, Rob Spence, is known as "Eyeborg", because he has a prosthetic eye that can be activated by waving a magnet in front of it. The eye can record video, and in the documentary it uses some of the video from his eye as part of the narrative cinematography of the film.

Seeing this documentary re-emphasizes just how forward and insightful was the thinking of that 1930s writer, Chardin; but how backward and neanderthalic is Clark's understanding of religion and culture.  Sadly, Clark has lots of evangelical ditto-heads who think the same way.  But Chardin had an insightful analysis about them too.



[1] Stephen R. L. Clark, "World Religions and World Orders" Religious Studies 26 (1990), pp. 43-57
[2] Rob Spence "Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary" YouTube 8/25/11

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

W.D. Hudson and Religious Beliefs

Some musings after reading the philosopher W.D. Hudson.

Yet again I've read Hudson's article titled, "What makes Religious Beliefs Religious." I've done this a few times over the years. It's the opening article in a Philosophy of Religion anthology I use. Hudson was a reader in Philosophy at the University of Exeter, and had quite the run of Philosophy articles in the 60s and 70s. He put out plenty of books too, apparently specializing in the study of Wittgenstein's philosophy as it could be applied to Religion.

In the article noted, he argues that religious belief is constituted by the concept of 'god'.  This special "constitution" relationship applies to particular claims (one's that can't be logically doubted) when they are made within a larger universe of discourse.  What's that mean? Well, take an example--in the universe of discourse about physics, it would make no sense to doubt that there are physical objects.  A physical science system is constituted by physical objects; or, more accurately, the concept of the former is constituted by the concept of the latter.  One can't make sense of a physical science system without importing the concept of physical objects.  So, in his big move on religion, Hudson likewise thinks one can't make sense of religion without importing the concept of 'god'.

At first, I was going to write that I'm not so big on armchair philosophizing--namely, where one deeply contemplates one's navel for a bit, and then comes back from The Brink to report one's own psychological feelings about connotations of words and meanings of statements.  But that would have been a lie, since I do it farily regularly. 

Even so, I certainly don't trust that method as a way of discovering what's true of reality.  Nor do I think it's the most reliable way to "do" philosophy, whatever that special activity is supposed to be.  Instead, my position is this: armchair philosophizing is merely a starting point for creative thinking, a way to begin setting-up the more rigorous project of mathematical and/or scientific reasoning.   (People used to freebasing too much Wittgenstein would vigorously disagree with this, I'd bet.  That's why one should take Wittgenstein only as supplement, and not as sustenance.)

I'll develop no extended response to Hudson, but I will leverage some of his arm-chairing to show the limitations of this method of philosophy.  Consider this snippet, appearing as it does toward the very end of the article:
"There are, no doubt, some logical limits on what can be discussed within any particular universe of discourse; it is difficult to conceive, for instance, of what a treatise on the chemistry of moral judgements or the morality of chemical equations could be about."[1]
I'll grant him it's futile to think about the morality of chemical equations.  Of course there is the morality of consequences, such as whether one should reveal deadly chemical equations to unscrupulous parties.   "Here, my terrorist friend, is an equation to make a bioweapon from baking soda and algae--overnite!"  But how bonkers to think that there's a moral principle about the equations themselves, such as whether 'Na + Cl2 -> 2NaCl' is more righteous than 'Cu + S -> CuS' due to some inherent property of the symbols or their arrangements.

In contrast, it seems much easier, even preferable, to concede there is a chemistry of moral judgement.  Maybe one is taken by this kind of approach:
  1.  All types of brain states are electro-chemical, material states.
  2.  All moral beliefs are types of brain states.
  3.  So, all moral beliefs are electro-chemical, material states.
In this case, a treatise on the chemistry of moral judgements might look a whole lot like a treatise on genetics and neuro-pharmacology. Hudson's armchair philosophizing fails him. It may be hard to understand the chemistry of judgements, but it's no longer so hard to conceive what such a universe of discourse is about.  In fact, it's becoming frighteningly easy.



[1] W.D. Hudson "What Makes Religious Beliefs Religious" Religious Studies 13 (1977) pp. 221-42.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google can soon peek under dresses with mapping robots.

And then everybody else could take the tour too

Google has a street trike which a person rides as the newest way to make maps.[1]  It allows the company to map even smaller and closer spaces than a full car could manage.  As a matter of efficiency, the principle is to shrink down the apparatus so more places can be mapped.  Clearly this principle is extensible until you have the smallest of robots scurrying around the nooks and crannies of every publicly accessible place. In principle, then, one could take the view of a mouse or a fly (eventually) and cruse around at Google's "street view" and see things from that perspective.  No doubt Google can already do this, but to explicity advertise such abilities would be too shocking for the public.  (But already used for intelligence agencies, of course.) Privacy concerns are already a touchy issue in Europe, and would be so here in the U.S. were it not for this country's general ignorance about the implications of its own Science.



[image] "Pesky fly or Peeing Tom" The Latest and Greatest Technology (Accessed 8/20/11)

[1] "Google Street View trikes up close" TechCrunch (Accessed 8/20/11)

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