On Informed Speculation and Scientific Practice September 9, 2011Posted by Summerspeaker in Technology.
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.