a blog by josef johann

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the impulse toward helplessness

It's just stunning to me how often people treat a hypothetical question as an invitation to think like an absolute lunatic.

A good response to a hypothetical question finds a way to faithfully continue that relationship with the unkown that makes the hypothetical question difficult to answer. I think that's the hardest part, as we tend to take the opening premise of a hypothetical as a cue that we too, should be playing a creative role in answering the question, just as the questioner did in asking the question. We should try to reinvent the question in any direction we wish for the purpose of making our own cute little counter-points.

Unfortunately, this assumption that one should be equal partners with the questioner causes many people to play calvinball with the question and completely dislodge their answer from any reality that the hypothetical could ever have hoped to shed light on. As there is little difference, at least in the form taken both by science fiction questions and abstract moral questions, it is not difficult to see why even serious questions posed in the abstract are treated with a lack of seriousness that corresponds to an overarching failure to appreciate what abstract questions can tell us.

Perhaps the single biggest source of cognitive error that exists consists in the mistaking a contingent fact about the world for an immutable truth. Understanding what it would take to change a belief tells you much about what that belief is. And your ability to specify how and in what context that belief would change, tells you what curiousity, what self awareness, what integrity lives in that belief now. I think frequently this is what happens when a great speech is given- it causes us to stand our world aside many possible worlds, to shake us out of indifference, to go over what distinguishes us and why this course of action is necessary at this moment in history.

But such exercises can be intellectually demanding, and so you find people writhing and twisting with all their might to find some way to collapse the question, with an impulse toward helplessness that disguises itself as a legitimate answer. So I'd like you to observe these statements, psychotically confident in the obviousness of their answer, taken from reddit, that serve utterly nothing except to deflate the question, and arrive at an emotionally satisfying cop-out.

On teleportation:
You don't want [teleportation] - allow me to explain.

Suppose I wanted to transport you from, say, Earth to Mars. Theoretically, I supposed you could technically break you down and send your individual particles zooming through space. Earth engineers, however, would quickly realize that it's much easier and faster to have a cache of particles at the destination, since we all share the same basic building blocks, and then send a signal representing you to Mars, and rebuilding you from scratch. Essentially it would be a long range cloning device.

However, this would leave a problem for the engineers, I mean after all we can't have two of the same person running around. The obvious solution to this is brutally murdering the original. There also might be a line for the teleporter, so they can't leave a corpse, leaving them no choice but to vaporize you.

Of course people, if they knew they were to die, and have a bastardized clone version of themselves running around they would opt out. So the engineers would tell nobody, and commit genocide of millions while stuffing their pockets with money. Supposing it became widespread, people would be committing suicide anywhere from one to 100 times a day.

Now I recognize that this represents a subset of a subset.... of a subset of possible representations of the problem of teleportation. But it doesn't seem plausible that the human race would unthinkingly frolic forward, over and through nuance, multiplying catastrophe upon catastrophe.

And yet without a blink the commenter takes it as obvious that (1) cloning is trivially similar to teleportation, which may be true but isn't necessarily so, (2) that you are for some reason supposed to "get rid of" the original person, which may be true but isn't necessarily so, (3) that the only way to get rid of them is to "brutally murder them," which may be true but isn't necessarily so. At this point the gap between this survey of the problem and what a real, settled answer would look like is wide enough to fit several solar systems through. But that doesn't stop the commenter from concluding that there cannot be teleportation.

Here is a rejection of immortality:
Sorry, but this would be the last scientific discovery I'd want to see.

First of all, overpopulation would probably reach unsustainable levels in our lifetime.

The only way to avoid our self-destruction by overpopulation would be pay or merit based immortality; we'd revert to a caste system even worse than ancient India's.

Rapid destruction of the environment, overcrowding, or a completely unequal and un-egalitarian society? No thanks.

If we harbored similar aversions to improvements in the human condition which were good in themselves, but which had the effect of contributing to overpopulation, we could with equal justification take principled stands against washing our hands, or sanitizing broken limbs in order to prevent gangrene. To suggest that immortality is impossibly and absolutely conjoined with prohibitive population growth, is at best, lacking in imagination.

This is follwed by the gentle but implausible prodding from a commenter:
Overpopulation would make colonizing the moon and Mars not just novelty projects, but goals with real immediacy. To me, that's a win-win.

And as others have said, immortality (which is probably humanity's fate anyway) can be dealt with in other ways, i.e., accepting sterilization.

Then a response:
The people who would get to be immortal would not be the people you would want to be immortal. (The rich and powerful, no matter how evil)

Of course this is treated like an inevitability, and it's supposed to be a coincidence that by answering thus she has taken the path of least intellectual resistance.

Here is another cowardly cop-out, couched in good natured love for parents:
What about adults really close to their parents? I would honestly not chose immortality if it meant I had to watch my parents die from old age and keep that memory with me for an eternity.

About finding aliens:
Either they would exterminate us, or we'd exterminate them.

We can't even get along with other people, how the hell would we get along with aliens?

This merits no response other than to note that here too, the direction is toward non-engagement with the details that would be demanded of a fuller answer.

And an absolutely nonsensical discussion of time travel, about traveling foward in time to get a cure for your mother's cancer:
You don't think outside of the box very well do you? I said "time travel". Go forward. Get cure. Go backward.
The response:
Go forward. Find burned ashes of former civilization, no survivors. Return home. Become crazy street person with sandwich boards warning of impending apocalypse. No one will listen!
Response to the response:
Just go farther forward. Evolution will create a new civilization. I'd be surprised if not one single species evolves far enough in the amount of time our sun is going to give us here on earth to cure cancer in humans

Here's a dismissal of a world with star trek like replicators, where everyone has what they want:
I actually have doubts about this utopian vision. Real society demonstrates that in a large proportion of cases, people who get more free time than they can handle do not embark and grandeous personal endeavours but rather try to satiate the senses with extravagance.

I expect this effect would become worse for people born with this comfort than those who had to learn to appreciate the good things in life the hard way.

If a technology like this became available then one would hope social development could keep up to provide an environment where the individual is still driven to achievement.

Maybe, maybe not. The only thing that is obvious in all these cases is commenters being dominated by an intellectual sleepiness that is begging them to come back to bed. This is the same impulse that causes people to say that any wish granted by a genie will be granted in the most ironical and unanticipated way possible. And any utopian vision is doomed to fail. What jars me is not that these claims are necessarily false, but the ludcrious confidence with which these scenarios, with their splinteringly miniscule plausibility are put forward.

I think this is important because this same failure of imagination (or worse: unwillingness to imagine) colors many moral positions people take on controversial issues, to the extent that we have a deeper fear of the unknown than we do of coming on the wrong side of an issue. Abortion is just wrong. We don't have to worry about the degree of suffering that may or may not be caused, we don't have to try and enter into a utilitarian calculus of whose life is worth more or under what conditions suffering should be endured. A tiredness and general lack of courage closes all of those issues up under a single refusal to engage in them whatsoever.

We should never clone anyone, ever. There should not be weapons in space. I'm going to hypothesize that the more open ended a moral question is, the more likely you are to find a faction that treats of it with an all-or-nothing prescription.

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