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On Informed Speculation and Scientific Practice September 9, 2011

Posted by Summerspeaker in Technology.
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That epic thread over at Anissimov’s blog has clarified one of my disagreements with Dale Carrico on the subject of science and dreaming. Dale considers futuristic musings about artificial general intelligence and molecular manufacturing only appropriate for science fiction and outside of meaningful political discussion. I argue the lines aren’t as clear as ey suggests.

For example, Alan Turing’s infatuation with the idea of thinking machines connect directly to eir role as a founder of computer science. It’s both speculative fantasy and deeply grounded in eir understanding of computing theory.  Similarly, Freeman Dyson’s purely hypothetical concept of orbital solar collectors that harness the entire energy output of a star was part of eir professional scientific practice and published in the Journal Science. Science and science fiction bleed together and cannot be so easily separated. What was once science fiction has now become daily material reality or at least a laboratory novelty: lunar missions, prosthetic limbs, brain-computer interfaces, mind-reading devices, battlefield robots, video conferences, and these very internets.

Dale responds to the cases of Turing and Dyson with an irrelevant joke about masturbation inspiring scientific inquiry. (I don’t grasp what’s so funny about masturbation, but it’s always pleasant to think about.) Ey continues as follows:

My point is it still makes sense to say that scientific beliefs yield benefits unlike those yielded by other modes of belief (eg, science — prediction and control, morals — belonging within communities of affinity; politics — contingent reconciliation of stakeholder disputes; etc) and that the criteria of warrant on the basis of which beliefs in the various domains are adjudged reasonable also differ but still do exist (eg, science — falsifiability, testability, coherence, saves the phenomena, etc; morals — standards shared by the relevant community; politics — plurality, legitimacy, unintended consequences; etc.).

I overwhelmingly agree with this, but perceive fuzzier distinctions and adopt different standards for distinguishing the modes in question. I value foregrounding the uncertainty and arbitrariness involved. We specifically disagree on how much respect to ascribe to futuristic musings from folks like Turing. In the scientific and technical community, abstract speculation based on the known laws of physics rides in close company with rigorous empirical research. Physics journals in particular accept all manner thought experiments. Scientists concern themselves with more than just actually existing projects. Informed speculation isn’t the same animal as whimsical fancy. (I write this with the utmost reverence for the latter endeavor.)

Thus, Dale’s attempt to segregate transhumanism and the Singularity movement from real science stumbles. The distinction ey marks between futurology and empirical evidence needs to be made, but the framing ey employs obscures as much as it reveals. Informed speculation based on models and theories forms much of what scientists do. For instance, see climate change predictions and cosmology. Though scientific, these projects provide rather less certainty than replicable experiments. (No, you can’t make a Big Bang in that test tube you’ve got there.)

Nobody knows the future, and I concur with Dale that we should ground our politics in actually existing conditions. Assuming salvation through the law of accelerating returns, as Kurzweil does, has profoundly pernicious implications.  Transhumanism and the Singularity movement indeed contain the problems Dale alleges, both in regards to reactionary narratives that support the status quo and the confusion of science with nonsense. However, I argue both of these elements permeate the scientific community as well as this society as a whole. It’s worthwhile to question them whenever and wherever they appear.

I see no Eden to return to, so I’ll plant my garden here.

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Comments»

1. Dale Carrico - September 9, 2011

You are hardly more sensitive to the multidimensional character of human history, effort, or aspiration than I am, or to the resulting intertwining of agencies. It remains true nonetheless that we draw must distinctions, and then we take responsibility for them, else everything is anything making everything nothing. Similarly, if you disdain taking seriously the fault I find where I do even while conceding it and then respond you find fault everywhere instead that amounts to much the same as finding it nowhere. The “anarchic” intellectual position you have assumed is unassailable and also completely irrelevant. Either you have and deploy standards you won’t own because you are cowardly or hypocritical about them or you don’t deploy standards consistently at all and are utterly frivolous and unreliable. You can’t plant a tree that will live in a cloud. No doubt you like the sound of trying, will even want to say there is something revolutionary about the attempt. But nobody will ever benefit from such a “revolution” but your ego. Haraway (to the superficial misreading of whom I think some of this post of yours is indebted) insists at one and the same time that we must learn to take pleasure in the confusion of boundaries while taking responsibility for drawing them. You seem to me — pretty much as usual — to embrace the cheap and easy part while forgetting the tricky and demanding part. I must say it rather cracks me up that everybody at Anissimov’s blog was hectoring me as a pomo relativist and then you dropped in to declare me a jackbooted thug who isn’t relativist enough. That’s the gang of reactionary dunderheads you want to raise your revolutionary banner for? If I ever met anybody in my life who needed to learn the value of standards it’s you. I think I’m done talking with you for a while. Best of luck to you.

Summerspeaker - September 9, 2011

Similarly, if you disdain taking seriously the fault I find where I do even while conceding it and then respond you find fault everywhere instead that amounts to much the same as finding it nowhere.

I endeavor to evade this pitfall. I should add to my post above that widespread faults like the progress narrative and social reductionism reach their apogee in the Singularity movement. Criticizing Kurzweil and company has particular merit in this regard. I’m not arguing for uniformity, but against your uncritical deployment of real science as a counter to futurology.

You can’t plant a tree that will live in a cloud.

Actually, as James Hughes argues, I have to.

Haraway (to the superficial misreading of whom I think some of this post of yours is indebted) insists at one and the same time that we must learn to take pleasure in the confusion of boundaries while taking responsibility for drawing them.

Definitely. I obviously make all of manner of distinctions, especially passionate political ones. I’m more comfortable with this in that arena. How I wish the world to be necessary comes from – though is not limited to – my own subjectivity. It’s the truth claims that upset me.

That’s the gang of reactionary dunderheads you want to raise your revolutionary banner for?

Perish the thought. I know a handful of revolutionary transhumanists and would like to see more, but most of my comrades aren’t part of the movement. I write to illustrate the dangers of transhumanism/Singularitarianism for fellow radicals as much as to encourage folks to change that scene from within.

Dale Carrico - September 9, 2011

You are a very confused person.

2. richard holt - September 15, 2011

“Dale responds to the cases of Turing and Dyson with an irrelevant joke about masturbation inspiring scientific inquiry”

Counter-examples aren’t really his thing. Too empirical perhaps ?

“In the scientific and technical community, abstract speculation based on the known laws of physics rides in close company with rigorous empirical research”

Absolutely. Moreover the same applies to speculation based upon uninformed and misguided notions, For example the religious speculations and reasoning of Keplar and Newton were inseparable from the empirical trajectory of their work.

Kurtzweil’s empirical work and his tangible technological contributions
are inextricably linked to his passion for sci-fi and futurology.

I think Dale needs to get up to speed on his history and philosophy of science.

3. richard holt - September 15, 2011

“Dale responds to the cases of Turing and Dyson with an irrelevant joke about masturbation inspiring scientific inquiry.”

Counter-examples are too empirical for his tastes I think.

In the scientific and technical community, abstract speculation based on the known laws of physics rides in close company with rigorous empirical research.

Absolutely true. As does speculation based upon misguided notions.
Hypotheses and speculation differ in their immediate falsifyability, but not in the extent to which they are capable of motivatating rigourous
empirical research and tangible technological progress.

For Newton and Keplar, their theological motivations and reasoning, whether misguided or not, were inextricably linked to the progress they made.

Kurtzweil makes another good counter-example which Dale refuses to engage with.

I think Dale needs to brush up on his history and philosophy of science.

Dale Carrico - September 23, 2011

What you don’t know about what I know is a lot.

4. richard holt - September 15, 2011

Apologies for the repetition. I thought i’d lost the original post so i rewrote it. I’d like to add an additional comment.

‘Assuming salvation through the law of accelerating returns, as Kurzweil does, has profoundly pernicious implications.’

I agree. To many people unthinkingly assume good outcomes. However by no means can all transhumanists be tarred with this brush. Many who would self-identify as such, are profoundly concerned with the inherent dangers and socio-political implications of both near-term and distantly envisioned technologies.

The ‘law of accelerating returns’, is better described neutrally as a law of accelerating change. I don’t think a position which denies accelerating change is tenable.

Summerspeaker - September 15, 2011

The ‘law of accelerating returns’, is better described neutrally as a law of accelerating change. I don’t think a position which denies accelerating change is tenable.

Even then, as a statistics professor told me during my undergraduate studies, trends only continue until they stop. Extrapolation is inherently uncertain. Though conventional, describing historical trends as laws gives them perhaps more weight than they deserve. I can imagine various scenarios in which the technological change graphed by Kurzweil either peters out or comes to an abrupt halt. I don’t think these are terribly likely, but they’re thoroughly plausible.

richard holt - September 15, 2011

Good comment. ‘Law of accelerating returns’ is an overstatement. Equally ‘trend of accelerating change’ seems understated if acceleration does indeed lead to Singularity on whatever timescale.

I agree there are cataclysmic scenarios in which change abruptly ceases, some of which involve a ‘bad Singularity’.
I find it harder to imagine petering out scenarios. Please give me an example.

5. Summerspeaker - September 15, 2011

One or more of the following could cause the current trend to peter out: cultural campaigns against technoscientific innovation, draconian governmental repression, a long-term global economic depression (perhaps associated with environmental devastation/resource shortages), and unforeseen technical barriers.

For a specific scenario, imagine that conservative religious parties come to power across the world, attacks on scientists increase exponentially, celebrities preach against the dangers of technology on every media outlet, oil prices spike, the financial system melts down again, and natural disasters kill hundreds of thousands from Tokyo to San Francisco. Then Intel’s newest supercomputer fails mysteriously and a report reveals climate change is unfolding much faster than expected. People go into survival mode and start praying a lot more.

Industrial civilization lives a precarious existence. In the above hypothetical it stalls rather than collapses completely.

richard holt - September 15, 2011

Thank you for your reply. Many good ideas here on what might cause a 21st Century ‘Dark Age’

There is a difference between stalling (which i think is very plausible) and petering out or hitting a ceiling.


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