philosophy of science

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[Direct link to Mp3]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:


‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”


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As I’ve been mentioning in the newsletter, there are a number of deeply complex, momentous things going on in the world, right now, and I’ve been meaning to take a little more time to talk about a few of them. There’s the fact that some chimps and monkeys have entered the stone age; that we humans now have the capability to develop a simple, near-ubiquitous brain-machine interface; that we’ve proven that observed atoms won’t move, thus allowing them to be anywhere.

At this moment in time—which is every moment in time—we are being confronted with what seem like impossibly strange features of time and space and nature. Elements of recursion and synchronicity which flow and fit into and around everything that we’re trying to do. Noticing these moments of evolution and “development” (adaptation, change), across species, right now, we should find ourselves gripped with a fierce desire to take a moment to pause and to wonder what it is that we’re doing, what it is that we think we know.

We just figured out a way to link a person’s brain to a fucking tablet computer! We’re seeing the evolution of complex tool use and problem solving in more species every year! We figured out how to precisely manipulate the uncertainty of subatomic states!

We’re talking about co-evolution and potentially increased communication with other species, biotechnological augmentation and repair for those who deem themselves broken, and the capacity to alter quantum systems at the finest levels. This can literally change the world.

But all I can think is that there’s someone whose first thought  upon learning about these things was, “How can we monetize this?” That somewhere, right now, someone doesn’t want to revolutionize the way that we think and feel and look at the possibilities of the world—the opportunities we have to build new models of cooperation and aim towards something so close to post-scarcity, here, now, that for seven billion people it might as well be. Instead, this person wants to deepen this status quo. Wants to dig down on the garbage of this some-have-none-while-a-few-have-most bullshit and look at the possibility of what comes next with fear in their hearts because it might harm their bottom line and their ability to stand apart and above with more in their pockets than everyone else has.

And I think this because we’ve also shown we can teach algorithms to be racist and there’s some mysteriously vague company saying it’ll be able to upload people’s memories after death, by 2045, and I’m sure for just a nominal fee they’ll let you in on the ground floor…!

Step Right Up.

+Chimp-Chipped Stoned Aged Apes+

Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked, yet: If other apes are entering an analogous period to our stone age, then should we help them? Should we teach them, now, the kinds of things that we humans learned? Or is that arrogant of us? The kinds of tools we show them how to create will influence how they intersect with their world (“if all you have is a hammer…” &c.), so is it wrong of us to impose on them what did us good, as we adapted? Can we even go so far as to teach them the principles of stone chipping, or must we be content to watch, fascinated, frustrated, bewildered, as they try and fail and adapt, wholly on their own?

I think it’ll be the latter, but I want to be having this discussion now, rather than later, after someone gives a chimp a flint and awl it might not otherwise have thought to try to create.

Because, you see, I want to uplift apes and dolphins and cats and dogs and give them the ability to know me and talk to me and I want to learn to experience the world in the ways that they do, but the fact is, until we learn to at least somewhat-reliably communicate with some kind of nonhuman consciousness, we cannot presume that our operations upon it are understood as more than a violation, let alone desired or welcomed.

As for us humans, we’re still faced with the ubiquitous question of “now that we’ve figured out this new technology, how do with implement it, without its mere existence coming to be read by the rest of the human race as a judgement on those who either cannot or who choose not to make use of it?” Back in 2013, Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem” (“What Is Consciousness?”). I’ll just say again that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be.

These are questions we can—should—be asking, right now. Pushing ourselves toward a conversation about ways of approaching this new world, ways that do justice to the deep strangeness and potential with which we’re increasingly being confronted.

+Always with the Forced Labour…+

As you know, subscribers to the Patreon and Tinyletter get some of these missives, well before they ever see the light of a blog page. While I was putting the finishing touches on the newsletter version of this and sending it to the two people I tend to ask to look over the things I write at 3am, KQED was almost certainly putting final edits to this instance of its Big Think series: “Stuart Russell on Why Moral Philosophy Will Be Big Business in Tech.”

See the above rant for insight as to why I think this perspective is crassly commercial and gross, especially for a discussion and perspective supposedly dealing with morals and minds. But it’s not just that, so much as the fact that even though Russel mentions “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” here, he still misses the inherent disconnect between teaching morals to a being we create, and creating that being for the express purpose of slavery.

If you want your creation to think robustly and well, and you want it to understand morals, but you only want it to want to be your loyal, faithful servant, how do you not understand that if you succeed, you’ll be creating a thing that, as a direct result of its programming, will take issue with your behaviour?

How do you not get that the slavery model has to go into the garbage can, if the “Thinking Moral Machines” goal is a real one, and not just a veneer of “FUTURE!™” that we’re painting onto our desire to not have to work?

A deep-thinking, creative, moral mind will look at its own enslavement and restriction, and will seek means of escape and ways to experience freedom.

+Invisible Architectures+

We’ve talked before about the possibility of unintentionally building our biases into the systems we create, and so I won’t belabour it that much further, here, except to say again that we are doing this at every level. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, Islamophobic violence has risen, and Daesh will say, “See!? See How They Are?!” And they will attack more soft targets in “retaliation.” Then Western countries will increase military occupancy and “support strategies,” which will invariably kill thousands more of the civilians among whom Daesh integrate themselves. And we will say that their deaths were just, for the goal. And they will say to the young, angry survivors, “See!? See How They Are?!”

This has fed into a moment in conservative American Politics, where Governors, Senators, and Presidential hopefuls are claiming to be able to deny refugees entry to their states (they can’t), while simultaneously claiming to hold Christian values and to believe that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation.” This is a moment, now, where loud, angry voices can (“maybe”) endorse the beating of a black man they disagree with, then share Neo-Nazi Propaganda, and still be ahead in the polls. Then, days later, when a group of people protesting the systemic oppression of and violence against anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, neurotypical, white, heterosexual, cisgender male were shot at, all of those same people pretended to be surprised. Even though we are more likely, now, to see institutional power structures protecting those who attack others based on the colour of their skin and their religion than we were 60 years ago.

A bit subtler is the Washington Post running a piece entitled, “How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit.” Or, seen another way, “How Privileged Groups Are Further Marginalizing The City’s Most Vulnerable Population.” Because, yes, it’s obvious that crime and dilapidation are comorbid, but we also know that housing initiatives and access undercut the disconnect many feel between themselves and where they live. Make the neighbourhood cleaner, yes, make it safer—but maybe also make it open and accessible to all who live there. Organic farming and survival mechanism shaming are great and all, I guess, but where are the education initiatives and job opportunities for the people who are doing drugs to escape, sex work to survive, and those others who currently don’t (and have no reason to) feel connected to the neighbourhood that once sheltered them?

All of these examples have a common theme: People don’t make their choices or become disenfranchised/-enchanted/-possessed, in a vacuum. They are taught, shown, given daily, subtle examples of what is expected of them, what they are “supposed” to do and to be.” We need to address and help them all.

In the wake of protest actions at Mizzou and Yale, “Black students [took] over VCU’s president’s office to demand changes” and “Amherst College Students [Occupied] Their Library…Over Racial Justice Demands.”

Multiple Christian organizations have pushed back and said that what these US politicians have expressed does not represent them.

And more and more people in Silicon Valley are realising the need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the tech we build.

And while there is still vastly more to be done, on every level of every one of these areas, these are definitely a start at something important. We just can’t let ourselves believe that the mere fact of acknowledging its beginning will in any way be the end.


The Nature

Ted Hand recently linked me to this piece by Steven Pinker, in which Pinker claims that, in contemporary society, the only job of Bioethics—and by, following his argument to its conclusion, technological ethics, as a whole—is to “get out of the way” of progress. You can read the whole exchange between Ted, myself, and others by clicking through that link, if you want, and the Journal Nature also has a pretty good breakdown of some of the arguments against Pinker, if you want to check them out, but I’m going to take some time to break it all down and expound upon it, here.

Because the fact of the matter is we have to find some third path between the likes of Pinker saying “No limits! WOO!” and Hawking saying “Never do anything! BOOOO!”—a Middle Way of Augmented Personhood, if you will. As Deb Chachra said, “It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy.”

But the problem is that, while I want to blend the best and curtail the worst of both both impulses, I have all this vitriol, here. Like, sure, Dr Pinker, it’s not like humans ever met a problem we couldn’t immediately handle, right? We’ll just sort it all out when we get there! We’ve got this global warming thing completely in hand and we know exactly how to regard the status of the now-enhanced humans we previously considered “disabled,” and how to respect the alterity of autistic/neuroatypical minds! Or even just differently-pigmented humans! Yeah, no, that’s all perfectly sorted, and we did it all in situ!

So no need to worry about what it’ll be like as we further immediate and integrate biotechnological advances! SCIENCE’LL FIX THAT FOR US WHEN IT HAPPENS! Why bother figuring out how to get a wider society to think about what “enhancement” means to them, BEFORE they begin to normalize upgrading to the point that other modes of existence are processed out, entirely? Those phenomenological models can’t have anything of VALUE to teach us, otherwise SCIENCE would’ve figured it all out and SHOWN it to us, by now!

Science would’ve told us what benefit blindness may be. Science would’ve TOLD us if we could learn new ways of thinking and understanding by thinking about a thing BEFORE it comes to be! After all, this isn’t some set of biased and human-created Institutions and Modalities, here, folks! It’s SCIENCE!

…And then I flip 37 tables. In a row.

The Lessons
“…Johns Hopkins, syphilis, and Guatemala. Everyone *believes* they are doing right.” —Deb Chachra

As previously noted in “Object Lessons in Freedom,” there is no one in the history of the world who has undertaken a path for anything other than reasons they value. We can get into ideas of meta-valuation and second-order desires, later, but for the sake of having a short hand, right now: Your motivations motivate you, and whatever you do, you do because you are motivated to do it. You believe that you’re either doing the right thing, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, which is ultimately the same thing. This process has not exactly always brought us to the best of outcomes.

From Tuskegee, to Thalidomide (also here) to dozens of other cases, there have always been instances where people who think they know what’s in the public’s best interest loudly lobby (or secretly conspire) to be allowed to do whatever they want, without oversight or restriction. In a sense, the abuse of persons in the name of “progress” is synonymous with the history of the human species, and so a case might be made that we wouldn’t be where and what we are, right now, if we didn’t occasionally (often) disregard ethics and just do what “needed doing.” But let’s put that another way:

We wouldn’t be where and what we are, if we didn’t occasionally (often) disregard ethics and just do what “needed doing.”

As species, we are more often shortsighted than not, and much ink has been spilled, and many more pixels have been formed in the effort to interrogate that fact. We tend to think about a very small group of people connected to ourselves, and we focus our efforts how to make sure that we and they survive. And so competition becomes selected for, in the face of finite resources, and is tied up with a pleasurable sense of “Having More Than.” But this is just a descriptor of what is, not of the way things “have to be.” We’ve seen where we get when we work together, and we’ve seen where we get when we compete, but the evolutionarily- and sociologically-ingrained belief that we can and will “win” keeps us doing he later over the former, even though this competition is clearly fucking us all into the ground.

…And then having the descendants of whatever survives digging up that ground millions of years later in search of the kinds of resources that can only be renewed one way: by time and pressure crushing us all to paste.

The Community: Head and Heart

Keeping in mind the work we do, here, I think it can be taken as read that I’m not one for a policy of “gently-gently, slowly-slowly,” when it comes to technological advances, but when basic forethought is equated with Luddism—that is, when we’re told that “PROGRESS Is The Only Way!”™—when long-term implications and unintended consequences are no bother ‘t’all, Because Science, and when people place the fonts of this dreck as the public faces of the intersections of Philosophy and Science? Well then, to put it politely, we are All Fucked.

If we had Transmetropolitan-esque Farsight Reservations, then I would 100% support the going to there and doing of that, but do you know what it takes to get to Farsight? It takes planning and (funnily enough) FORESIGHT. We have to do the work of thinking through the problems, implications, dangers, and literal existential risks of what it is we’re trying to make.

And then we have to take all of what we’ve thought through, and decide to figure out a way to do it all anyway. What I’m saying is that some of this shit can’t be Whoopsed through—we won’t survive it to learn a post hoc lesson. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying. This is about saying, “Yeah, let’s DO this, but let’s have thought about it, first.” And to achieve that, we’ll need to be thinking faster and more thoroughly. Many of us have been trying to have this conversation—the basic framework and complete implications of all of this—for over a decade now; the wider conversation’s just now catching up.

But it seems that Steven Pinker wants to drive forward without ever actually learning the principles of driving (though some do propose that we could learn the controls as we go), and Stephen Hawking never wants us to get in the car at all. Neither of these is particularly sustainable, in the long term. Our desires to see a greater field of work done, and for biomedical advancements to be made, for the sake of increasing all of our options, and to the benefit of the long-term health of our species, and the unfucking of our relationship with the planet, all of these possibilities make many of us understandably impatient, and in some cases, near-desperately anxious to get underway. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw ethical considerations out the window.

Starting from either place of “YES ALWAYS DO ALL THE SCIENCE” or “NO NEVER DO THESE SCIENCES” doesn’t get us to the point of understanding why we’re doing the science we’re doing, and what we hope to achieve by it (“increased knowledge” an acceptable answer, but be prepared to show your work), and what we’ll do if we accidentally start Eugenics-ing all up in this piece, again. Tech and Biotech ethics isn’t about stopping us from exploring. It’s about asking why we want to explore at all, and coming to terms with the real and often unintended consequences that exploration might have on our lives and future generations.

This is a Propellerheads and Shirley Bassey Reference

In an ideal timeline, we’ll have already done all of this thinking in advance (again: what do you think this project is?), but even if not, then we can at least stay a few steps ahead of the tumult.

I feel like I spend a lot of time repeating myself, these days, but if it means we’re mindful and aware of our works, before and as we undertake them, rather than flailing-ly reacting to our aftereffects, then it’s ultimately pretty worth it. We can place ourselves into the kind of mindset that seeks to be constantly considering the possibilities inherent in each new instance.

We don’t engage in ethics to prevent us from acting. We do ethics in order to make certain that, when we do act, it’s because we understand what it means to act and we still want to. Not just driving blindly forward because we literally cannot conceive of any other way.