Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Good Read on Future Risks, with Practical Actions

The Future of Man- Extinction or Glory?
by Peter Hollings

This is an original, thought-provoking book on the topic of protecting our children’s future in a world of new dangers. Like Sir Martin Rees’ Our Final Hour, Hollings places our risks of technologically-enhanced self-destruction in both cosmological and evolutionary contexts. He also reminds us how misery is not an abstraction; that real injustices cause real people pain. But The Future of Man is unique in proceeding beyond the problems of war, WMD terrorism and environmental self-destruction to presenting specific, actionable steps we individually can take now.

I especially value Hollings observations about the importance of true spirituality in preserving our world. He explains how traditional religion evolved with man’s basic need for context and meaning, needs which remain. Although science has disproven many of the original beliefs of traditional “sacred scripture” religions, as he notes, scientific evidence now also shows our universe is disproportionately well suited to support life. Viewing this as evidence of willful creation, Hollings challenges the reader to become a ‘Future Man’. Real spirituality, as Hollings quotes from Albert Einstein, comes from “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all…” To do this, Hollings calls us “…to give meaning to all that has happened and will happen”, to assume responsibility for finding our God-given purpose. And, as Hollings well explains in a chapter so named, “we must act now’.

This book also presents a Deist’s argument for accepting God as omnipotent creator but rejecting the “sacred scripture” religions whose past intolerances often contributed to human self-destruction. As a Unitarian, believing that although all religious organizations are flawed we should strive to accept others’ faiths as common opportunities to seek truth and meaning, I found this argument not convincing but moderated and instructive nonetheless. In short, even those who disagree with the author about traditional religions will find Hollings larger argument well proven anyway.

The book is clearly written and the author’s compelling arguments are well supported. I highly recommend it.

To purchase, or for more information, go to or

Monday, October 25, 2010

WMD Risks and Consequence Mitigation (Under-implemented Singleton)

Michael Anisimov has another good post about the accelerating risk of genetically enginered bioviolece at

In considering our children’s future with genetically engineered bioviolence, I would add Dr. Dexler’s famous 2007 comment that “…Advancing technologies will eventually make it easy to suppress terrorism. The great struggle will be to keep this power from suppressing too much more.” Sir Martin Rees voiced the same concern in his 2006 Edge interview, even calling it his “greatest concern”. See also Nick Bostrom’s similar concern within his excellent ‘What is a Singleton’ article at his website.

Another excellent website on this topic is Peter Hollings at Peter's book, available at his website or, is also highly recommended.

If a technologically- enhanced, single regulatory authority is a possible (or likely) consequence of emerging technologies and super-empowered individual violence, what is the more likely outcome? For example, what does the history of man’s implementation of complex projects tell us about the likelihood of under-planning, under-testing, erronous implementation and other unintended consequences from a hastily implemented Singleton? As Nick Bostrom himself wrote, trial and error is not an effective approach to existential risks.

Is it possible that mass bioviolence is now otherwise unpreventable and that our best actionable focus is to mitigate the risks of an under-implemented Singleton? Is this issue even being discussed?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Deism or Agnosticism?

Following is an inquiry, a reqest for help. It is certainly not intended as an affront to anyone else's beliefs. As context, I sincerely offer this from the assumption that my reasoning is flawed-

I am myself an Agnostic. I am overwhelmed by the evidence that we cannot now know how much we don't yet know. I do not believe we today have nearly enough information to conclude that God, in all forms, including some we may not yet envision, is impossible (aka Hard Atheism). Similarly, I do not see how our current knowledge provides any support, let alone adequate proof, for any 'traditional' concept of God.

As an Agnostic, I struggle with the possibility that we don't know whether human life has any meaning. As the father of four, and as a 56 year old, I sometimes find this struggle troubling, almost debilitating.

My request is for help to challenge an analogy, comparing my Agnosticism to a hypothetical parent of a seriously ill child, an analogy which seems to suggest Deism.

  • Like the Parent, I find my possibility of pointlessness to be such a troubling malady, or undesired condition, that I desperately seek a favorable solution.
  • This Parent doesn't know whether the child can be cured, much as I don't know whether our lives have meanings transcending our mortality. In this very narrow sense, we are both agnostic.
  • Like the parent, I have a strong preference for the outcome. I want to find that there is meaning to Humanity and our actions, for my own children's sake and for myself.
  • As a parent, I believe with certainty that the hypothetical parent must act and must choose his/her actions based on the assumption that a cure is possible. Those choices may be constrained by opportunity costs, such as treatment A now may preclude Treatment B later or Treatment C may cause the patient side effects or add new patient risks, but the choices would still derive from that one assumption that a cure is possible.
  • As an Agnostic, and IF I assume no oportunity costs to acting based on an assumption that there is a 'higher force' willing a 'transcending absolute purpose for Humanity's actions', how is it invalid to apply the parent's logic, basing my choices of actions, and not of beliefs, on the assumptions of Deism?

I have emphasized the bolded assumption above in recognition that one effective counterargument would be to provide an example of such an opportunity cost. My own limited such efforts have found only negative opportunity costs, benefits. In that limited sense, this argument is structured akin to Pascal's Wager. An irony, of course, is that if the above logic was correct, and one acted accordingly, (s)he would accrue both the benefits of purposefulness in this life and the possible (infinite &/or eternal?) benefits of the as yet unconfirmable afterlife.

I realize that my conclusion assumes my personal definition of Deism. Please address the concept, a higher force willing a transcending absolute purpose..., even if you would not term that belief Deism.

Thank you for any assistance you can provide.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anihilism and Open Society

The following argument is a syllogism, proposing that a comprehensive basis for ethical choices can be derived from what we today don't know:

There is so much we don’t yet know. There are such fundamental questions and incomplete answers in physics, cosmology, neuroscience, psychology, etc. Consider the extent to which the scientific discoveries of the last decades were unexpected and that former scientific certainties are now verifiably incorrect. We must reasonably assume that we cannot now know how much we don’t know.

Second, given this evidence of ignorance, it is simply prudent to assume for now that there might be a knowable and actionable higher purpose for humanity. Not because we know there is one, but because we cannot possibly now have enough understanding to definitively presume otherwise. For example if my dog, or an ant, or we ourselves for that matter, can’t fully understand human consciousness, how can we today presume that we so fully understand all possible paradigms of theism as to reasonably assume them all disproven?

And humanity’s purposor(s) certainly need not be omnipotent, omniscient and eternal, like in the sacred texts of old. It/they need only be more sapient than we are currently. Given the level at which new understanding has recently surprised us, who would today consider that such a high standard? And they need not have literally created our higher purpose; they may instead simply add enough to our knowledge that we can understand and supportively act upon its true nature.

If we don’t know how many billions of solar systems there are, how do we have any certainty about the probability of more technologically advanced interstellar travelers? If we can’t explain replicated physics observations without ‘stringing’ multiple universes, how do we have any certainty that we accurately perceive a unitary WYSIWYG world?

Just one example of currently plausible ‘Godless’ more knowledgeable life forms is Nick Bostrom’s Philosophical Quarterly essay ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’, which I resummarize as:

IF human (or ANY other sapient being) technology is capable of eventually creating computer simulations (OR other complex perceptions) which appear to be as real as our current experiences,

And IF there is no PERSISTENT (essentially 100%) obstacle to human (OR other self-aware,
technological) beings surviving until that technology is achieved,

Then EITHER those controlling use of that technology would almost never (essentially nil %)
choose to create such artificial perceptions (WITH the parameters we now perceive),

OR the odds that we are not living in such an artificial perception are infinitely low.

For example, the continuing world we (I?) experience is, in terms of probability, one observation. If sufficiently advanced technological society(s) would choose to create ‘only’ one thousand (such defined) artificial perceptions (i.e. computer simulations), then the probability that we (I?) are NOT now experiencing one of those simulations as our reality is one tenth of one percent.

Furthermore, even if we are the only beings capable of self-awareness anywhere in the Universe, or alternatively if Deism is correct and all other such beings will forever choose to not interfere in our experience under any circumstances, so much is now unknown that we cannot yet know whether there is an actionable higher purpose which we can someday determine alone. It is even possible that such truth may already be known by some people and the rest of us are still unaware, or unconvinced, of what they have already discovered.

Third, If a knowable, actionable higher human purpose is truly plausible, this alone provides the only proper basis for all our choices. For the true (opportunity) cost (to the universe) of our having such a purpose and not finding it, or of unnecessary delay in finding and following it would be, quite literally, beyond our current comprehension. In the event that such a higher purpose doesn’t exist, life is fundamentally meaningless and the incremental cost of having looked for it in vain would be trivial (most likely negative, for reasons beyond the scope of this posting; if unsure, simply ask your mother to explain).

Regardless of the probabilities involved, which I argue are now fundamentally unknowable, the probability-adjusted present value of acquiring, and acting according to, that possible absolute human purpose(s) must exceed the value of any other outcome. This derives only from the presumption that a qualitative difference in the value of a more purposeful live might be infinitely better (not necessarily preferable, as we must assume we don’t currently know the basis for better living, but rather ethically better for humanity OR the Universe). Then simple arithmetic concludes this syllogism, which can be viewed as an expansion of Pascal’s Gambit.

In summary, Anihilism is basing ethical choices from belief that moral nihilism might be inaccurate. This one assumption calls us to specific actions, to aggressively search for, and then seek consensus to act from, the best knowable and actionable basis for human ethics.

The ethical implications of Anihilism, for a Humanist, a traditional Utilitarian, or even a Libertarian, and especially for an Agnostic or a 'Liberal Theist', are identical. Wouldn’t the only prudent choice be those actions which best promote the identification and broad evaluation of possible higher purposes (including search for external purposors)? If correct, this would include education for all who could benefit the search, open inquiry, leisure time for inquiry (antimaterialism), etc. Central to such application would be defense of open society, to preserve the free and open exchange of observations, ideas and questions.

But such an ethical system would not be without controversy. One of the more troubling possible ethical implications regards the issues of eugenics. Another example is issues of personal liberties, such as a perceived liberty to engage in sloth or to waste limited resources on hedonistic pursuits. As any absolutism, proactive anti-nihilism is not a risk-free, cost-free basis for ethical decisions.

But IF these three (bolded above) core assumptions are valid, what other basis for actions could be ethically valid?

Note- This post is a work in progress and your suggestions, questions, concerns are sincerely appreciated. I am intensely interested in feedback regarding both my core argument and ways to improve the clarity of my explanation.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dystopianist Ethics

Existential risks are not well resolved by trial and error, to paraphrase from Nick Bostrom. What then are we to do if we believe that ecological crisis, tyranny, or some other impending catastrophe is either likely or inevitable? Three core principles:

1. Consider that our fears are probably mistaken. From before biblical millenialists to yesterday's Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Tim McVeigh and Aum Shinrikyu, history recounts much misery caused by dystopians who foresaw imminent disaster.

2. But we must also then consider how much is at stake if one's fears are correct. Truly existential risks compel us to consider the true costs of a 'false negative' error. How could one today reasonably value the permanent diminution of humanity's potential? Consequential ethics confronts a unique obstacle when evaluating distant future impacts. Accepting that we don't know how much we don't yet know, we cannot now assume that future generations might not attain knowledge which makes their lives qualitatively better than our own. They might conceivably 'find God', perhaps even literally. Or they may learn and accept an actionable higher purpose for humanity. Any 21st century consideration of acceptable existential risks must accept this possibility, today unquantifiable, and with it the unknowable likelihood that the value of future lives should be 'premiumed' rather than 'discounted'. Assume any probability to an infinite future value and the cost/benefit arithmetic is fundamentally simplfied (as in Pascal's Gambit).

3. Open inquiry best identifies fallacy and clarifies reality. Those who want to act based on reality must first “mine the network” to collect paradigms, questions, facts and validations. This isn’t exactly rocket science, but history repeatedly shows that most harmful radical action is based on erroneous assumptions, uncritically accepted. Open inquiry is the best preventive of such error, but it needs to be open-minded as well as open sourced. Here we must be our brother's keepers, challenging our facts and paradigms and also our receptivenesses.

This is a work in progress and your thoughts, corrections and clarifications are sincerely appreciated.