I have always found it curious the way, in the give and take of a realtime argument, techno-transcendentalists cheerleading about mind-uploading info-soul immortalization schemes and about coding history-ending superintelligent Robot Gods and the like, cannot help but crow whenever we arrive at the inevitable point in the argument when I point out that I am not a scientist. For a fairly representative example of the phenomenon, from a twitter spat I found myself in with a Robot Cultist last night, observe:
I am, of course, a philosopher and rhetorician by training, and never ever pretend otherwise in the least. Since so much of the force of futurological discourses depends on their recourse to metaphors, hyperbolizations, reframing commonplaces as novelties, naturalizations of contested terms, distractions from rather than solutions to conspicuous problems, consoling subcultural signaling and appeals to identity, and so on, it has always seemed to me that my training provides a useful critical perspective rather than a disqualification. The cackling delight with which my status as a non-scientist gets trotted out by the futurological faithful who declare me incapable of engaging in the relevant "technical" specifications endorsing their triumphalism is all the more bizarre given how many of them are no more practicing scientists than I am. Time and time again, a query for their science degree, current lab, or published papers goes unanswered or reveals I am in the presence of yet another coder fancying themselves an honorary biologist, plasma physicist, civic engineer, and political economist as a result. Last night's interlocutor was just such a coder. From my Futurological Brickbats
: LXX. I know enough to know I don't know enough to be a scientific authority, while futurologists know enough to know that most people don't know enough to know the difference when they pretend to be scientific authorities.
Beyond this deceptive and also probably self-deceptive gambit, I also have to say that there is something that feels to me not only pseudo-scientific but actively anti-scientific in the Wall of Words partisans of cryonics and uploading and drextechian nano-abundance and the rest like to fling up in the name of "the technical discussion" to silence criticisms of conceptual and otherwise rhetorical sleights of hand on which their rationalizations tend ultimately to depend. Confronted with a critic who exposes the fairly conspicuous religiosity of their fervent assertions about the techno-transcendental arrival at immortality as info-spirit-selves in Holodeck Heaven under the ministrations of a post-biological post-parental superintelligent Robot God and with omni-competent nano or femto matter-mulching Anything-for-Nothing machines at their every whim's disposal, these faith-based futurologists like to retreat as quickly as possible to the prosaic. Cryonicists start lecturing you about the harmless revival of the drowned and of organs cryopreserved for transatlantic treks to surgery, nano-cornucopiasts handwave about the productive factory floor of the molecule, SENS longevists blather on about the new car smell of a century old roadster repaired and maintained by a loving hobbyist, AI-deadenders keep winning Chess and Jeopardy with glorified abacuses with database access, and on and on and on.
Of course, quite a lot of the science and technique these futurologists are drawing on argumentatively is perfectly well warranted as far as that goes. As a matter of fact, my impression is that most of the science the priestly experts of the Robot Cult archipelago lean on amounts to fairly undergraduate tech talk, sound as far as it goes but never particularly advanced. And their preferences in the matter of the "advanced" tend to incline more in the direction of the Aquarian, I find, their cutting-edge looks to be rather, er, cosmic.
Let us delve deeper into an aria offered up by my interlocutor last night. First, read through the twitter scroll, and then my reading and response will follow. (I am fairly confident, by the way that "Andre@" would regard this very sequence as their strongest most triumphant portion of the debate. This selection is not offered up in an effort to ridicule through expurgated editorial shenanigans on my part, and I do hope none of the directly interested parties would perceive otherwise. The tweets are clickable and fuller reconstructions of what was a much longer and ramifying twitterscrum should be possible for the diligent):
Got that? You will notice that my "strong claim" is the suggestion that, given all the questions we have about the relations of brain processes to the phenomena we describe as "intelligence" and "mind," modesty may be more warranted than declarations of certainty that software minds indistinguishable from human minds are obviously possible and immortalizing uploads of info-selves on the horizon no less obviously. I am someone who celebrates science as much as the next geek, but I do think our discoveries raise more and more questions rather than providing rationalizations for faith in wish-fulfillment fantasies. Notice, I am explicitly materialist
in these exchanges in a way that leads me to think it probably actually matters that what we mean by minds in the real world have always been specifically materialized in biological brains and social formations and to think we should qualify, to say the least, expectations that non-biological non-social materializations will be "indistinguishable" from human minds or even intelligibly described as "minds" at all. I am not the one blathering on about superintelligent AIs, info-souls, cyberangel avatars and so on. But presumably I am the one indulging in "bullshit argument by assertion"? Presumably I am the one "desperately grasping at magic pixie dust"?
I am far from denying the warranted assertions my interlocutor breathlessly exhaled in the Wall of Words made to loom before me last night, tweet by tweet, block by block. Indeed, most of the science scribbled on the Wall is well-worn enough that for all I know it was being read off the promotional descriptions on the back of a set of Cosmos blu-rays (which I own myself, by the way, despiser of science that I am). As I have said, futurologists tend to retreat in such moments to fairly undergraduate science in performing their technical preening acts. The rhetorician in me cannot help but notice that the argumentative force of the tirade does indeed derive in important part from the illustrative scenery painting of figures -- "supervene" in the first one, "fix[ation]" in the next, "computab[ility]" in the next, "extrem[ity]" in the next, and so on. The definition of materialist in the first post is idiosyncratic in the extreme, and hardly dispositive. Brazening it out nonetheless is something a rhetorician can appreciate as commonplace, needless to say. However warranted the string of observations following, there is nothing in what we are well warranted to believe we know in them to warrant the further declarations that "behavior... *is fixed by known physics* -- there is *nothing* [emphasis in the original, but I would add it if it weren't there --d] mysterious or unknown about the behavior" or that our knowledge as it is renders assertions about mind-uploads "perfectly
[emphasis added --d] justified" or that "[t]he unknowns in physics are all
[emphasis added --d] under extreme conditions" (famous last words) or that "[t]he only
[emphasis added --d] thing that matters under the conditions that occur in the brain is ordinary" as we conceive it, and so on. The criteria on the basis of which we select as warranted the beliefs that would yield prediction and control are always defeasible and never provide grounds for the unqualified superlatives of "only" "all" "nothing" "perfect" that freight the discourse of the faithful far more than the scientific.
One of the reasons that vanishingly few actually qualified, actually practicing scientists in the actually relevant fields associated with the confident super-predicated assertions of futurologists will have anything whatsoever to do with these superlative futurologists is that their robocultic tech talk is too rudimentary to be of much interest to scientists while the spirited projections where all the robocultic action is are far too wild and wooly and unwarranted for them to take seriously. Contrary to the insistence of cryonicists and mind-uploaders who decry the corpse-coddling "deathism" and "sheeple" timidity of those who dare not Challenge! Death! (those who, you know, recognize the fact that all humans are mortal and that death denialism may yield an irrational death in life but will not render the spellcaster immortal in fact) the reason biologists and gerontologists and lab techs administering diagnostic brain scans aren't in the futurological megachurch pews is that there simply is a whole hell of a lot of distance between where we are and where we would have to be to begin even to contemplate modest variations on superlative futurological aspirations.
Again, of course it is true that there are enormously interesting problems and possibilities for better sensors and materials in biochemistry; and of course it is true that there are ferocious hopes and fraught hurdles for better therapies in brain diagnostic media and organ cryopreservation and gene therapies; and of course it is true that planetary digitally networked data framing, surveillance, marketing, and finance introduce extraordinary dangers of error and attack and crucial demands for accountability and user-friendliness for software designers, and so on. Although Robot Cultists retreat to this register to ground their wish-fulfillment fantasies in something like an everyday "reality effect," it is crucial to recognize that no futurologist qua futurologist has ever made a problem-solving contribution at this level of technicality (it could happen accidentally or incidentally, I suppose).
The substance of futurology consists in its reframing of such problems and accomplishments as stepping stones along a path to super-predicated capacities providing personal transcendence. This, in turn, is simply a reductio ad absurdum
or amplification into the cadences of outright religiosity of the already prevalent deceptions and hyperbole of advertizing norms and forms as well as the ideology promulgated by self-esteem pop psychology for the consumer masses and management seminars for the actual and aspirational venture capital/"creative" class minority. Age Defying Skin Kreme! Find Your Inner Winner! Grasping the nature and consequences of these formations depends far less than you might expect on technical debates over the scientific claims on which Robot Cultists pin their hopes (especially since futurologists will tend to retreat to the warranted in such debates, disavowing the hyperbolizations which really substantiate their distinctive claims, making these discussion exactly as relevant and decisive as technical debates among monks over angels cavorting on pinheads) and benefit far more than you might expect on the expertise of literary and cultural critics and ethnographers who are more familiar with the actual dynamisms playing out in futurological discourses and sub(cult)ures.
It is not a scientific but an altogether rhetorical production to try to create the efficacious impression that it is not the one who affirms the warranted in a qualified and contextual way who supports the scientific but instead the one who leaps from the warranted into the superlative who so supports it. To declare modesty assertive, and the refusal of wish-fulfillment a belief in magic requires something of a bravura rhetorical operation, reminding one not least of the dynamics of the Big Lie. Needless to say, it is the one who makes the extraordinary claim who is required to provide extraordinary evidence in support of it. But beyond this, it is not the one who indulges in the superlative rather than the warranted who gets to determine what claims actually are
the extraordinary ones and what evidence is extraordinary enough to support them. It is not for Robot Cultists to tell me that their marginal and unqualified assertions are the ordinary ones and that the burden of proof for the support of qualified, contextualized, modest warranted assertibility falls on me because mine is the extraordinary position, that my skepticism of their magic is the magical thinking. Cultists ALWAYS seem to think their articles of faith are commonsensical and undeniable. This sort of facile abuse is hardly unprecedented.
Quite a few Robot Cultists are crowing (although some are doing so in an ironic way meant to cover all their bases in case the verdict changes) about how I "lost" the battle with my robocultic interlocutor last night. I cannot say I know exactly what "winning" or "losing" such an exchange would actually mean. Certainly nothing particularly unexpected happened for someone who has engaged in too many exchanges of this sort over the years to count them. The debate such as it was seemed to me interestingly representative, and worthy, as you see, of a closer reading. In such matters I suppose that winning and whining can become rather hard to distinguish sometimes.
I am well aware of the history of anarchism, and the Propaganda of the Deed isn't something you can wish away my friend. As for free market anarchists -- there is no such thing as "the free market," markets are constituted and maintained by laws, norms, and infrastructural affordances, and the denial of this serves the reactionary status quo. Neither are there "spontaneous orders," although I'm sure insulated and privileged people live a life conducive to such fancies. "Liberty" and "Authority" (As Such) are particularly slippery sites of institutional and conceptual contestation, usually at a fairly abstract level for boys.
I believe in education, agitation, and organization -- both within actually-constituted legal and organizational frameworks and also pushing from their left with intellectual imagination and nonviolent resistance -- in the service of ever greater equity-in-diversity, a practical progressive usually reformist struggle that is almost certainly interminable. I don't want to smash states but to democratize them. For more on what I take to be the connections between democratization, nonviolence, equity-in-diversity, consent, consensus science, taxation, and such do read the pieces archived under the heading Against Anarchy.