Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 14: Darwin, the Death of God and the Birth of AI

Rush 2112

Otto Neurath was a founding member of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists in the early 20th century.  A latter day Comte, Neurath was both a Marxist utopian and a campaigner for the grand vision of the unification of all learning under one materialist, atheist, anti-metaphysical science. Neurath was a pre-cursor to Edward O. Wilson’s consilience and much of what Daniel Dennett has to say. To paraphrase thinking person’s rock band Rush, what these “Priests of the Temple of Syrinx”  have always been looking for in their unification project is not the liberation of mankind from things that hold us back, but a new religion called scientific socialism to make sure we stay controlled for good and all.  Understanding this is vital to how one responds to whatever the powers that be are whipping up hysteria about or promoting as the next big thing.  Whether it is nasty germs, climate change or AI you can bet dollars to doughnuts it has little to do with real science or honest philosophy; let alone saving people or the planet.

When Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” he was in line with Marx and later thinkers who believed Darwin ended once and for all the notion that there are permanent ideas, or Platonic forms behind what we see that give purpose to everything. While Copernicus, Galileo and Newton kicked off modern science and moved the earth from the center of the universe to somewhere considerably less grand, nothing challenged the notion of mankind’s special place in the universe, and hence the idea of a kind and benevolent deity ordering things for his benefit, quite as completely as did natural selection.  In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin laid out the evidence for the theory in considerable detail. But what Daniel Dennett has more recently referred to as Darwin’s Dangerous Idea in his eponymous book wasn’t Darwin’s idea and his magnum opus didn’t say what most people think it said.  For one thing, Darwin himself claimed Herbert Spencer started the survival of the fittest meme and was generally credited or blamed for the notion that what natural selection means is the constant battle of each against all, especially among intra-species competitors for resources and the ability to reproduce. For another thing, Darwin admits the title is a misnomer, in that he doesn’t there describe how species originate.  These are not mere quibbles, but we would do well to realize that people who are either for or against Darwin probably haven’t read him any more than is typical for people who are pro or contra Karl Marx.  One great and largely forgotten late 19th/early 20th century mind who did read both was Petr Kropotkin, who in his Mutual Aid explained how natural selection can’t be reduced to the struggle of each against all. In fact, people also inherited and are largely defined by the tendency to cooperate, both with each other and other creatures. Without this tendency, which is pre-rational and therefore meta-ethical, mankind never would have made it as far as creating the written word.  But whether one looks at Darwin’s ground-breaking work in a scientific and therefore skeptical light or not, the book and its sequel, The Descent of Man, radicalized moral philosophy as little else has done in the history of, well history.

Alan Turing is often hailed as the father of artificial intelligence (AI).  Since Turing’s pioneering work in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the entire AI field, riffing off of natural selection, has continued to push the notion that because newly minted computer scientists could write a program to get better at checkers, engineers could create thinking machines. This is like saying because many years before steam engines were given governors so they wouldn’t blow up that they thereby obtained souls.  But the mythology of AI was launched and is supported mainly by logical confusion, science fiction and malevolent promoters. The sponsors of AI as often as not see it is a way to gain and further control over the hoi polloi – or simply make them irrelevant. Their rhetoric says that AI will both: 1. not cause people to lose their jobs or quality of life (an obvious lie) and 2. provide for a much better future for people if they just completely retrain themselves every couple of years as their skills continually become obsolete through automation (a sociopathic approach to human progress).

Natural selection is a poor substitute for Platonic forms and won’t do as a theory of everything. This is so not only because the likes of Dennett and Richard Dawkins come off like kids torturing animals in the backyard when they whine about how contestants refuse to debate them by their rules or fall for their mendacious arguments. For one thing, the way it is used as a dogmatic bludgeon is like the worst of religiosity, and does not distinguish itself as science. For another, their position is based on the kind of weak logic they say supports any possible counter-argument. They seem to be evangelists for anti-religion using the absence of evidence as evidence of absence when it comes to whether our being wired to be ethical is an artifact of countless senseless routines that make up the club of automatons that is each of us; or there is something else behind it. For Dennett at least, consciousness and also the evolution of human social artifacts like freedom could only have happened through a kind of spontaneous generation and not because some all-encompassing mind or spirit willed it to be that way. Either way, one need not wish to engage in debate with people who are obviously trying to stack the deck while spuriously claiming the putative high ground of scientific legitimacy. At the same time, one can take a pragmatic approach to this and favor better outcomes in the absence of clear evidence, which is what William James did in Varieties of Religious Experience, which has my vote for one of the best books of all time. Moreover, a path to being a whole human is demonstrably better when it comprises heart and mind working together – something no positivist/materialist approach has yet done and that most actively militate against, especially when they lean towards the Marxist variety of command and control society depicted in Rush’s dystopic song.  In short, Plato, Plotinus, Boethius and even Kropotkin are still more “right” than Dennett, Wilson, Neurath, Turing or even Nietzsche, though the last has a distinct advantage in his self-critical awareness, and  belief in both individual creativity and self-possession.

It is by now as “scientifically certain” as anything else we think we know that people come hard-wired from the factory with an ethical sense and even a propensity for a kind of nature religion.  This does not mean that all that goes under the rubric “morality” has equal weight. Some tribal taboos and anomalies die the natural death they deserve when exposed to broader circulation. That they ever existed does not prove that all ethical bets are off and everything is relative, though many noted philosophers have fallen into this trap, including Nietzsche. At the same time, while there is plenty of evidence of competition between behaviors throughout the world we know, there are also plenty of examples where cooperation and spontaneous urges to help are decisive for individual and group survival. The bystander effect has gotten lots of play since the much publicized Kitty Genovese murder largely because, “if it bleeds it ledes.” But the pervasiveness of this is not proven, nor is it true that Hobbes’ notion of the state of nature is a complete or correct one.  However, if Hobbes was wrong, then Kropotkin could have been right. This doesn’t prove natural selection is false, but deprives many of its proponents of their reason to care.

Transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil are looking to do what Nietzsche prophesied. They want to create the man of tomorrow who will take the place of the man of yesterday and today. The singularity approaches, they say, like giddy children waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. What they mean is that self-awareness will happen for machines as AI “wakes up.”  What comes next is anybody’s guess but the faithful expect a New Jerusalem to automatically happen, along with their ability to be immortal as their consciousness can be downloaded to machines endlessly.  The midwives of the new consciousness also imagine that they will then have created a God worthy of the name.  That this is satanic as well as logically and physically improbable doesn’t seem to matter. The idea saturates popular culture and a great many people believe it is inevitable and just a matter of time before this occurs. Proponents started by trashing anything that came before their technocratic terror, since the past is gone and only the future matters.  This kind of nihilism, along with the idea that they should be creating as well as manifesting godhood over against what was formerly recognized as good or evil is perversely Nietzschean and is both ironic and hideous; as it depends first on accepting Hobbesian cynicism, Humean skepticism and thoroughgoing materialism.

Vivekananda said that that the excess of knowledge and power without holiness makes human beings devils. The nihilism that has been growing ever since smart people accepted Cartesian dualism has metastasized. The future could be bright, but unless large numbers of people are soon awakened to the idea that they stand in relation to the absolute and each other as individuals and will be held accountable; the near term outcome is likely to be more full of violence, death and suffering than the record breaking 20th century, with its substitution of the worship of the state and technology for all things holy.  Now is the time for each person to think hard about what is happening that “experts” say is inevitable, and what role they wish to continue to play in the creation of an endless nightmare that will most likely follow if good people do nothing to stop it.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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