Monday, May 14, 2007

Rational Response Squad vs. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron

I'll do my bit to spread around Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's embarrassment. Here is the "debate" between the Rational Response Squad and Comfort/Cameron. It is occasionally painful to watch, hehe. Were I given to feeling bad for idiots who intentionally put themselves in harm's way, I'd feel sorry for them. But I don't. So, here's the video, at any rate:

And because, y'know, if you don't know who Ray Comfort is, you can look here - because we all know a banana is an atheist's worst nightmare!

Funny stuff! This guy, this Ray Comfort guy, with failed child actor Kirk Cameron, decided to offer to "prove" without reference to the Bible the scientific reality of god! Like I said, it was almost painful to watch, but was funny, instead.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Trust in Science, a Brief Overview

Nowadays, we put a lot of trust in science. I think we place so much trust in science that we don't really grasp how recently it was science earned widespread trust.

The crossover was probably during World War II. It was during WWII that science fairly obviously made a difference. Not just the dropping of the atomic bomb – though, more than any other one thing, probably did “convince” people that science was a big thing – but also things such as radar, jet engines, rocketry and so on.

Before then, even engineers were apprenticed. To become an engineer, one first became a draftsman and people with the “right” talents would learn under an engineer. The great inventors of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries were not scientists, by and large – people like Edison and Tesla were not scientifically trained and Edison, for instance, held science in some contempt. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics!

In the 19th century and earlier, science was, by and large, a dilettante's field. Roentgen did his work in the attic of his house – fiddling with big razor switches and exposed copper wiring hooked up to smoking capacitors and all sorts of vacuum tubes. He fussed around with barium platinocyanide plates and discovered x-rays. It was like Frankenstein's castle, no joke. The guy who started nuclear technology was hiding in his attic because he was fearful that his associates would think him mad.

A surprising amount of 19th century science was like that. When Darwin did his seminal work on evolution, it was a dilettante's work – he was the naturalist. The job of the Beagle was survey to produce naval charts for commerce and war. Darwin had to pay out of his own pockets to get the position of naturalist, and he was considered a kind of passenger. He was a scientific dilettante – a passionately committed one, but all of this science was done on shoestring budgets, and as such was normally done by people of some wealth.

Their studies had very little practical impact, at least initially. X-rays were developed – sometimes with fatal consequences – as a type of medical therapy for the rich and all sorts of snake oil claims about them were made. X-rays for the kinds of medical purposes we associate today, like checking to see where bones are broken and where bullets are inside of people, didn't get popularized until, again, World War II. Until then, x-rays were a dilettante's toy.

But World War II thrust science permanently into public consciousness as a force that would inevitably change the world. But before that? Yes, as early as the 18th century people like David Hume were proposing that the world was an entirely naturalistic place and forecasting that gods had no place in that world – but it is difficult to express how much of that was an aberration and most people during the Enlightenment seriously thought that religion lead to a proof of god's existence (they also believed this during the Romantic Era, but amongst scientists to a far lesser extent). And the ancient Greeks and Indians had several purely naturalistic philosophies. But the great mass of people were largely ignorant of science, and what scientists were doing was mostly irrelevant to them.

And when it did! It was this shock. Scientists had, for the first time ever, set their minds and wills to destruction, and created a weapon with which to destroy the world. It was not a midwifery to engender tremendous love of science – but fear. The 50s had tremendous nuclear anxiety – it was the time of air raid drills in school, children huddling under schools as if a desk could protect them from nuclear destruction.

So, even when people started to trust science they did in the sense that they trusted science to work, not trusting in science to make the world a better place.

Fortunately for the world, a full-scale war between industrialized nations hasn't occurred. Let us hope it never will. But science has begun to get people's trust in the sense that not only does it work, but it makes the world a better place. Now, while there is still some anxiety about nuclear destruction, scientists are see as people arguing to control climate change, they are the people who work on new drugs, they make us better, faster computers, things of this nature. Science has shown it's ability to build more than weaponry.

I think that a lot of people still don't trust science. I don't know how much this is due to the anxiety of science's power being demonstrated by nuclear weaponry – but during the 50s the definitive image of science was nuclear science, particularly nuclear weapons. Nowadays? Computer technology, which his far less immediately threatening. Computers help us, they entertain us, work with us, etc., which is somewhat different than the image of nuclear fire. But I think that science and people's trust of science has suffered because of it's nuclear aberrations.

The trust of science as a benevolent force, however, developed, IMO, during the 70s and 80s – and certainly not before the 60s. Before that, science was seen as fierce nuclear fire and before that . . . as useless dilettantes.

Again, while it is indisputable that science works better than any other epistemological force on earth in a material sense, with impressive predictive power and multifaceted technological implications, but until recently it hasn't been the least bit friendly. In the fight between science and other epistemological systems (and I'm sure the people who read my journal “get it” that I'm talking about religion, primarily), I think it's important to point out that until recently science was threatening and before that it was irrelevant. Friendly science has existed for less than forty years.

Which now strikes me as a bit jumbled, but containing an important lesson on why we have these struggles with science. The trust we have in science is still new, and it is raw from it's nuclear aberrations. But it is founded in an increasingly unshakable sense that it works, which distinguishes it from other epistemological systems. But this trust has been hard won.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Becomin' a Webcam Ho

So, since it's May Day, I'm not really doing any work. It appears I'm becoming something of a webcam ho, however, because I've been doing webcam stuff. I've made two videos today. Both of them are responses to other people's stuff. Heaven knows I love mouthing off. Perhaps after a few more of these I'll actually get good at it.

Here's the first:

This is a response to a Christian who asked questions about the falsifibility of natural selection and DNA as the criteria of life.

Here's the second:

It's a video response to a text comment to my video about if atheists hate god where he proposes stuff like if gay people are allowed to marry it infringes on his rights as a Christian. Which is a silly argument, but common, I find.

Tomorrow I'm going to actually post a short story written in the fashion of Simon Peter, called "Immaculate Conception". It deals with the, ahem, birth of Jesus Christ, told in the way I am telling the story of Simon Peter. Unlike the other things I've posted here, it actually is pretty short, being about 4200 words. And after that, I promise I'll have a few more days of text content.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Contradiction, Science and the Completely Material Universe

This is mostly an add-on to previous post.

I was talking with a friend about the idea of pride in submission. She thought it was a goofy concept, and it is, but I pointed out that it's really common. How many Christians are proud of their “submission” to Jesus, for instance? I'd say most of them. At least, that's my experience.

Then I said, to paraphrase, that most ideas prior to the very modern world were so primitive that not a single one of them really explained human experience without obvious contradictions not only of each other, but of the observable world. Say, Christianity demands that people accept the miracles but very few Christians claim to see even one such miracle. At the same time, during the Middle Ages, they were taught that the poor were blessed, meekness was good, violence was bad, all that, but they were also part of feudal contracts that lionized aristocrats that murdered for profit. They could be both “good Christians” and “good aristocrats”, even tho' the first wholly contradicted the second.

So, people have had a lot of experience holding in their minds two or more ideas that simply did not make sense, not with each other, not with the world around them. People lived in a state of perpetual contradiction.

It has taken a very long time for any ideas at all to come into existence that do not require a person to flatly contradict themselves entirely. I think most people don't grasp how recently strong ideas to support a purely physical universe is. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Big Bang became publicly known (with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, which basically killed the steady state model). If you were educated before the 60s, then, you were not taught that the universe could possibly have a purely material origin, because science, itself, hadn't developed the idea with sufficient proof to popularize it. So, it's only been around 42 years that there was enough scientific hypotheses to take us from the initial conditions of the material universe to the development of life on earth and our present civilization.

And we have thousands, tens of thousands, of years of cultural history, however, in holding multiple, contradictory thoughts in our head. It's gonna take a while to purge out all that crap, I figure – people are being told right now that contradictory ideas are better than a self-supporting group of theories that make sense in whole as well as their individual parts. These contradictory ideas are, furthermore, in many ways the very foundation of our culture, in their religious forms. So, to reject those cultural ideas is to reject, in some way, our very identities. I, myself, am not so enamored of my current identity to fear replacing it with a better one – but, clearly, many people are.

However, we're very close to having a system of knowledge – not just science, but also modern politics, epistemology and such – that is not contradictory, that a person can honestly support, and that epistemological system is of great power and utility, but for many people it will have to become their culture before they accept it, because of the damage done to the human psyche because our identity is based on these contradictory ideas that we've learned to live with.

Then my friend said, “It is good that our knowledge is catching up to our capacity for reason.” That's exactly it. That's exactly it.

Addendum to the Add-On

Yeah. Science. It works.

Here is a brief survey of science news from this weekend.

First, scientists are making concrete progress on reversing memory damage from diseases like Alzheimer's. Second, scientists have probably discovered the way to switch on the fat burning process of the human body. We are very closer to having a purely medical solution to the problem of weight in America. Third, a significant part of a mouse's brain has been computer modeled. We are very, very close, too, to unlocking so many mysteries of the brain with this sort of computer modeling – not just being able to do far more complex neurological research than ever before, but this also has significant importance for artificial intelligence.

So, uh, what's the religious news for this weekend? On the BBC RSS feed, the closest I found was a huge rally for secularism in Turkey. Religious fundies are on the verge of taking over Turkey, it appears. There is no other news that is strictly religious on the BBC right now (which, other than local news sources, is the only thing news I bother to read because . . . so much of it is so bad).

We, of course, see this sort of thing all the time. Hardly a day can go by without scientists making another advance in some field or another. Where is the religious equivalent to this? Where are the religious folks saying, “Today, our god healed some of the memory loss attributable to degenerative neurological diseases”? Or, “Today, our god decided that he'll stop people from getting fat because it's a health risk, and fat doesn't have so much a place in the modern world as it once did”?

What does religion do?

For me, this is the absolute key difference between science and religion. When all those religious folks try to say that science “is just another religion” they seem to absolutely forget that even if science was “just another religion” it's like comparing the right way of doing something to the wrong way of doing it. If religion and science were both vehicles, religion would be the rusty junker in the yard and science would be the Wrightspeed X-1. One works, the other doesn't. It baffles me that difference doesn't seem to matter to religious people. Utterly baffles me.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Science: Still the New Kid on the Block, But Scrappy

I know it's easy for people to get really . . . freaked out about how religion still struggles against science, and the fairly obvious inequality of the struggle. Science is so right, after all, in just about any way a person puts it. Science is demonstrable, makes accurate predictions, can be replicated by anyone, can be falsified, etc., etc. Even if science was “another religion” (it isn't, but even if it was) it would be an altogether better religion – because putting your faith in science generally works. Like I've said before, let a Christian try to miracle their way to LA and I'll take a plane and we'll see who gets there first. When a person gets cancer, let one group try prayer and the other try modern oncology and see which group survives longer. Or, in other words, “Science. It works, bitches.” Which is something that religious folks just can't say about religion.

Given this truth, I know that lots of atheists and the saner theists out there get are confused when science and religion collide that religious folks keep fighting the losing fight. Even while, at the same time, trying to curry the legitimacy of science with stuff like creation science, intelligent design and arguments about “the appearance of design”. Even as religious people criticize science, they seek it's legitimacy, because the legitimacy of science far exceeds that of religion for most people (when you get shot, you call the ambulance and then pray). The fight, like I said, is one-sided and it's confusing to a lot of people why religious folks keep trying to fight it at all, rather than admit that religion is mystical (a field outside of science's purview) and have their cake and eat it, too.

I will now veer to talk about the Enlightenment. For a lot of people, the Enlightenment was a time when people used “reason” and it is seen as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. People were obsessed with reason. And a lot of our hassles come from this period, I think.

To me, the Enlightenment used reason much in the same way that Star Trek's Spock used logic – that what people in the Enlightenment meant by “reason” wasn't really that reasonable at all.

For instance, most of the Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton's ground-breaking tome about physics and mathematics was mostly about astrology. Newton was seeking more accurate measurements of the planets and stars in order to make more accurate astrological charts. Not precisely the poster child of scientific reason. Indeed, it's rather like “flood geologists” using modern geology to try to justify the Biblical flood – any advance in geology they make must be separated from their non-scientific hypotheses before it can be useful (tho', to my knowledge, no flood geologist has advanced the field of geology – science is not what it was in Newton's day, which is sort of my point).

Likewise, it was the general consensus of Enlightenment scientists (who were all white upper-class Christian men, I should point out – though right now I don't intend to talk about the racism, classism and sexism of Enlightenment thinking) was that study of Nature – invariably spelled with a capital N – would lead to a scientific proof for god's existence. The whole enterprise of science was built on finding their god.

Unfortunately for them, the evidence actually took them in a wholly different direction. And it wasn't until the Romantic Era that scientists faced that. It isn't really the Enlightenment (also known as the “Era of Religious Wars”, which is often forgotten by cheerleaders of the Enlightenment that the worst Christian-on-Christian violence was during the Enlightenment – the Thirty Year's War destroyed Germany, for instance, which in terms of relative death made WWII look like a border skirmish; the horror rivaled the Black Death) that the scientific method was developed. It was during the foofy Romantic Era that scientists really broke away from religion. Those Enlightenment scientists looked for god. The Romantic scientists? Nope. They're the people who stopped looking for evidence of the divine because, after centuries of looking for such evidence, it became obvious that the conclusions pointed in the other direction.

So, for my own part, I actually see the creation scientists, intelligent designers and their ilk as being the heirs to the Enlightenment, still engaged in the fool's errand of trying to prove the existence of their god with “science”. Unsurprisingly, then, that these same people would gleefully plunge our world into a new Age of Religious Wars – armed with the material certainty that their god is the right one, it would follow with the mindless mechanical precision of Newtonian physics that they would use violence to spread their faith. Give me the Romantic view of science any day, which is sprawling and brawling, and, yes, passionate – but entirely material, without the faintest whiff of the divine, and thus absent of religious certainty and the raw material of genocidal religious conflicts.

And . . . to try to get to my point, modern science, as a Romantic invention, is about 200 years old. Christianity is 2000 years old. Science is a mere tenth the age of Christianity and every day, almost every hour, the strength of science grows. Science is a new growth compared to the mighty oak of Christianity (and other religions, but I tend to focus on Christianity because I'm American and Christianity is very relevant). It is largely cultural inertia that prevents religion from being discarded – for thousands of years, for a hundred generations, people have been told the religious lies. So, charting the progress of science vs. religion, the destruction of religion is nigh. The last thing we scientific materialists need to overcome is the Enlightenment baggage that Christians keep trying to project into religion – which is inevitable, because the evidence still points away from a higher power.

So, despair not.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Consensus Government and SCIENCE

I am pretty politically radical. I won't be talking very much about specific political issues on this blog – mostly because I find the news so totally banal and filled with so many lies that it makes me a combination of bored and angry – but I'll occasionally cave in.

What I am is a consensualist. I think that democracy is a fairly primitive form of government, given our current level of technological advance – and certainly for the technologies that will be available to us in the not-too-distant future. It is fairly clear to just about everyone that the will of the majority can screw a lot of people.

However, one of the problems that a lot of people will have with consensus is the notion that it is impossible to get a lot of people from all over to agree with anything at all. So I've been trying to look out for forms of consensus decision making that can be used as examples.

Of course, politically, there have been communes that have tried various forms of consensualism, and some will point to Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a form of consensualism. But, well, most of the consensualist communes have failed, and Christiania is both small and in part supported by Denmark.

What is needed, then, in a good, solid example is something that has lasted over a great length of time, includes a great number of diverse people, and is indisputably successful. It must also be, of course, consensualist.

Enter science. Science isn't democratic. There is no vote on what is right or wrong. Scientists do science, publish their findings, they are discussed by other scientists who then accept or reject those findings – usually by building on them in a number of ways. Over time, a consensus grows amongst scientists about how to handle science.

There are several million scientists in the world, so it easily fits the requisite size requirements. There are scientists in every country in the world, of all religions, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, etc., that contribute to science. No one doubts the success of science, either – even its worse detractors are, in daily life, almost entirely dependent on science and it's findings.

Additionally, science is wildly more flexible than politics. Take climate change. If scientists were in charge, no one would doubt that we would be very far advanced of our current policies. Save for those few scientists that are on the rolls of energy companies, scientists of climate would be taking far more radical steps to solve our climate problems – ranging from cars that were more efficient to solar panels in space beaming down power, to moving towards a hydrogen based economy. They know what to do to avert climate disaster! But politicians, even those elected democratically, stall and hem and haw about things – moving with dreadful slowness, even when they agree, in principle, with scientists' predictions. Far from being monolithic, scientific consensualism is brisk compared to politics – in large measure because of the autonomy of scientists. So, consensus can build to action faster than democracy.

So, I'm thinking that the world will, ere long, owe something more than science. Not only has science provided us with all the material advantages we enjoy from health care to computers to a diet stunning in its variety and quality, but it is also providing a model for how consensus can work. To me, that's quite exciting.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Mind Reading Computer Interfaces

I was reading this Pandagon post by Roxanne about the integration of computers with human consciousness, based on this Wired story.

The military is working on a plan to:

figure out how to monitor brain activity while it was happening -- and then have that affect a computer's display of information.

Roxanne characterizes this as “mind-fuck research”. And, let us be fair, when something is being funded by DARPA it isn't because someone wants to do happy warm fuzzies. Those DARPA boys are thinking about improved interfaces for killing machines:

So much of what’s done today in the military involves staring at a computer screen — parsing an intelligence report, keeping track of fellow soldiers, flying a drone airplane — that it can quickly lead to information overload.

This research is about war.

Roxanne asks, “Can you think of any commercial applications?” I can, easily, in everything from surgery to fast-food. A computer interface that adapts, automatically, to my needs even as I conceive them? Yes, there will be commercial applications in just about anything where a person needs to manipulate a large amount of data quickly. This will have some predictable effects that aren't much better than the military applications – it will destroy jobs. As businesses become more streamlined, they'll need fewer and fewer people to do them. It is part of the process that will cause us, some day, to have to confront the post-labor society – very few people will be needed to do a great number of things, and, soon, perhaps none at all.

It will also have truly wide-ranging law enforcement and privacy concerns, as are already happening with brain fingerprinting. A machine that reads a person's mind very obviously has tremendous potential for abuse, but also tremendous potential to stop abuse. No more lying on the stand, right? Hook someone into an augmented cognition device and power it up. It has the potential for effective and certain lie detection.

Hooked up to unwilling participants, it probably also has tremendous use as an interrogation tool – not only in the legitimate sense of catching murderers and the like, but in the illegitimate sense of tracking down enemies of the state or things that are “wrong” but not illegal (such as extra-marital affairs).

Or psychology! A machine that can give real insight into what a person thinks and feels. The ability to look into a person's mind – even partially – will be of great use to psychologists and psychiatrists and could easily lead to very real advances in those fields. Human minds won't be opaque, or at least not as opaque, where the only way “in” is through the clumsy medium of language, often when a person is being hindered in honesty by the same trauma that brings them to a psychologist or psychiatrist in the first place.

On top of that, the huge privacy concerns. There will be this machine and it will be reading your mind. Data theft is an issue with computers now. A machine that can honestly figure out pieces of your consciousness, and manipulates them, will be learning an awful lot about you. Just how much is uncertain, but in the fashion of technological progress it will tend to rapidly increase. After all, the more the computer knows about your wants and needs (even those you keep from yourself) the better it will serve you. The computer will learn things about you that no one else knows, in order to serve you better. To properly adapt will require accurate and useful information about you in all sorts of ways that, initially, we might find creepy. F'rex, what if a person works best while sexually aroused?

For me, the more exciting implications are in consciousness expansion. The computer will know things about us, real things, and personal ones. That data could be shared and studied. After long association with a person that has had a lot of trauma, there will be data about what a traumatized person wants and needs. That data could be shown to others, who then might take understanding about trauma from it.

It will, I think, also show us a lot of trauma that is now hidden. Those conservative fundie Christian workaholic cheerleaders for global corporate imperialism – we'll have access to what motivates them, too. Which will help everyone understand what is going on. Very exciting stuff.

Additionally, if I haven't gone on long enough about this subject, one of the key barriers to a society of consent and not violence is clear and concise data about relevant issues in a person's life. That's the whole point behind enhanced cognition as DARPA envisions it. We are overloaded with data. This is not, precisely, unknown to netizens. This sort of data interface would allow people to get concise information based on their wants and needs, handled in a way that maximizes the efficiency of communication between the computer and the user. And, of course, that computer is connected to the world through the Internet, so it becomes an increasingly efficient interface between users on the Internet. We will be able to share, amongst ourselves, information of increasing complexity and precision more efficiently than ever before. Blogs, newspapers, television will seem ridiculously crude in comparison to this ever updated, every personalized, ever concise and efficient data stream.

And because the more a person uses the system the more it adapts to them in a very personal way, and because these systems are connected, we will gain increasingly large insights into the people who use them. It isn't just that research groups will be able to study this data and talk about what is in our minds, or psychologists use it for therapy, or police for interrogations, but we will be able to use this information to see very personal, very private things about each other – if we are sufficiently brave. (F'rex, do you want your significant other to know that you work best sexually aroused? To know that working makes you sexually aroused?) These systems will, in some ways, mirror our consciousness (at least as when we use them) and that data can be experienced by others – through the same systems.

(Can you imagine what instant messaging would be with something like this? Where the system would try to express your real intentions to the person you're messaging in an adaptive way that increases the depth of conversation? That, to some extent, the enhanced cognition will help them feel what you are feeling? And that the system will know when it has succeeded? Can you imagine a world of increasing certainty in conversation? Where people can feel as you feel?)

People might think I'm being pretty over-the-top with this sort of thing. I don't think so. Sure, initially, it's just going to be a handless interface used in jet fighters or killer robots. But the plans are far more ambitious and we're far closer to realizing them than, I think, most people want to admit. Because what is being discussed is an adaptive control interface that is almost directly between our brain and a computer. To do this, the computer will become a practical learning tool about the consciousness of it's users, connecting us to each other with greater precision and efficiency than ever before. To use this sort of thing on weapons is callow and crude, much like the use of the Internet for weapons was callow and crude and has come to the front as a system of interpersonal communications – people talking horizontally to each other, rather than vertically through tightly hierarchical systems. This will not only expand our horizons, but the depths of communication in magnificent ways. If they succeed – and, eventually, they will – the military will lose control of this almost instantly.

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

Karl Popper vs. logical positivists!

I got into a long discussion with a rather nice fellow over at No God Blog, rainbows4dinosaurs. He mentioned one of my favorite things, falsifiability. That's not even irony! To the extent I possess an education, it's actually in philosophy of science and history of science, so it's a very interesting subject to me - how this idea has shaped science and thinking in general, and how society shapes the creation of ideas.

The idea of falsifiability doesn't bother me at all, but there's an interesting way that Popper's scientific philosophy got to be so important to the world.

Karl Popper, like a lot of philosophers of science at the time, was Austrian. However, the Vienna philosophers were massively logical positivist. Indeed, continental philosophy of science at the time was dominated by logical positivists during the first third of the 2oth century. Popper's ideas weren't getting any love from the Vienna Circle.

Then something big happened. The power of Nazi Germany started to rise, and with it came a powerful anti-intellectualism. The logical positivists were, as a group, very much scientific materialists. In 1936, the leader of the Vienna circle of logical positivists was Moritz Schlick and as he was coming to class one day, a former student of his, Johann Nelböck, shot and killed Schlick.

Nelböck was convicted but was paroled after only two years when the Nazis took over. Subsequently he became a good little Nazi.

You see, Schlick had spoken good of Jews, and he was an intellectual, and in conversation he had been oppposed to Hitler (even before Hitler started annexing places and ramping up for open war). So, Johann Nelböck blew him away.

This had a profound effect on logical positivists. Many fled to America or Great Britain (including Karl Popper, I should note). Some stayed behind. They tended to die, both in Austria and Germany (such as Kurt Grelling who died in Auszwitch or, perhaps, in transport to Auszwitch).

What does this have to do with falsifiability?! I'm getting there, I promise.

In Austria, Popper was surrounded by logical positivists. They had their own criteria for the validity of science, verificationism, and Popper couldn't get much traction in that crowd. However, in New Zealand and then England, the Angl0-American philosophers took to him much more than they warmed to the logical positivists. During this time, however, logical positivists were scattered and socially isolated. There were no proponents of verificationism to challenge Popper's falsifiability criteria (or to note that verificationism functionally included falsifiability) because some of them had been murdered by the Nazis and the rest had been flung to the far corners of the world. Logical positivism, until quite recently, was thought dead. Into that void, Popper was able to place his own philosophy.

This isn't to blame Popper for this. Far from it. I like Popper, even as I like Hempel and Carnap. No, no. I'm blame the Nazis.

This also gives me pause to consider how knowledge gets shaped and formed. In the inter-war period, logical positivism was high and Popperism was low. Because of purely political events unrelated to the relative merit of logical positivism vs. Popper the first was suppressed and the second was enhanced. It's part of the reason I strongly believe that the development of ideas is shaped, strongly, by the surrounding culture and events in the world. Logical positivism wasn't discarded because people found it silly or wrong - it was discarded because one of it's key leaders was murdered causing a mass exodus of logical positivists away from their homes, and those that stayed were persecuted, occasionally to their deaths. It was murdered.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Robots and the post-labor society

Robots are one of my favorite things, but, man, they're going to mess with our heads in social terms.

Some societies are addressing that issue. Fairly recently, a British commission wrote a report that said that artificial intelligences will probably rights as organic sentient life (that'd be humans). This would include full legal rights, including the right to health care and retirement. Very exciting times we live in.

In South Korea:

"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

The article goes on to praise South Korea's high tech society. Of particular interest to me is this:

A recent government report forecast that robots would routinely carry out surgery by 2018.

The Ministry of Information and Communication has also predicted that every South Korean household will have a robot by between 2015 and 2020.

Fuckin' A right. I have been saying that robots will be carrying out more and more human tasks - including increasingly skilled tasks - for years. Apparently I should have been born a Korean because the government, there, believes as I do.

What no one seems to be talking about, however, is the social and economic ramifications of this. Robots will be so cheap that in 8 to 13 years "every South Korean household" will have a robot. Meaning that every Japanese household will have a robot. And that a couple of years later every American household will have a robot. Translation: they'll be cheap enough for everyone to afford.

Which means that they'll definitely be cheap enough for huge corporations to afford. So I ask my readers - which at this time constitute about two people, alas - this: who'd you rather buy a hamburger from? A sullen and surly youth or a shiny clean robot that's always efficient and polite? For me, this is a no-brainer. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. What will happen to the the workforce when . . . I mean, not when surgeons are replaced by robots but when fast-food workers and construction workers are replaced by robots? When, in 10 to 15 years and maybe sooner for service and light industrial jobs, literally tens of millions of people start to get fired because technology will have developed to the point where human labor is all but irrelevant?

I say this because we're nearing the cusp that this is a reality. Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our intellectual labor and robots will very soon make our physical labor downright irrelevant. Our entire economy is based on the concept that people must work for their bread and prosperity - but increasingly that won't be possible.

While I think it's significant that people are starting to think about rights for AIs and rules for human-robot interactions, I think the bigger shift is going to be economic and social when humans are made irrelevant for virtually all economic and social tasks.

For me, this suggests that we are nearing the point of having a post-labor society. Aristotle said that people will labor until the looms work themselves. They're fixing to go totally automated. Soon, very soon, they will work themselves, and fix themselves. But there are going to be so many shocks! How many people define themselves by their labor? They will resist the robots doing everything. And, of course, initially the capitalists will own the robot factories and they'll be trying to make a profit on a shrinking wealth base because robots won't be buying anything (tho' AIs might, of course) but the people that do buy things will be having a harder and harder time getting a job to afford things. People will feel replaced by machines far more than ever before.

I can't say with certainty what the reaction to this will be. I think that once the shock wears off, though, we'll be glad to be able to pursue our own interests without having to worry about having to do anything, because everything that we have to do will be done for us by robots. Which might mean that in the future humans will define themselves by their capacity to be happy, which would thrill me no end.

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