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On the Utility of Shooting Informants (Rogue One Spoilers) January 22, 2017

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Epistemology, Science Fiction, Technology, Transhumanism.
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Che was a devout Marxist-Leninist who believed that capitalism was doomed and that inevitably socialism, then communism, would take its place. He also possessed an unshakable faith that the entire process could be hurried along at the point of a gun. According to Alberto Granado, who as a young medical student had accompanied Che on his motorcycle journey through South America, when Che looked through a sniper scope at a soldier and pulled the trigger, he fully believed that he was helping reduce repression by ‘saving 30,000 future children from lives of hunger.’ When Granado looked through a sniper scope, by contrast, he saw only a man with a wife and children. The difference between them, Granado said, was that Che felt certain he was ushering in a new world order.

In Rogue One, rebel stalwart Cassian shoots a disabled informant in eir first appearance on screen. Cassian does this presumably to facilitate eir own escape and to prevent the informant from talking under interrogation. The film presents this action as unpleasant but morally justified as long as the fight against the Empire succeeds. A prominent anarchist has present Cassian’s act as obviously correct because utilitarianism.

I’m skeptical.

Guerrilla warfare historically involves lots of shooting and/or torturing a variety of types of informants. Guevara, for example, shot supposed enemy informants, most or all of whom were in the class position Guevara nominally fought for. While Cassian shot a friendly informant, the logic of elimination to deny the enemy information is similar. This sordid record ain’t anything to celebrate.

While there may conceivably be situations in which murder to control knowledge flows constitutes the optimal option, I doubt this happens often in our world. (It may not happen at all.) I suspect the trope/model of inflicting physical damage to feeling beings for the greater good causes more harm than it prevents.

Based on my experience and understanding of the world, humans don’t need any prodding from utilitarians to commit horrors in the name of God/nation/liberation/revolution/etc. I want to challenge this pattern of thought, not encourage it.

Sure, social regeneration though violence makes sense within its own terms. If defeating the allegedly evil enemy via pain and terror is the sole path to freedom and prosperity, it’s hard to argue against the approach. The trick is predicting the effect of hurting people with any confidence and of ruling out alternative options.

Humans in the cultures I’m familiar with default to violence as means for making the world a better place. We’re programmed by World War II, the atomic bombings of Japan, popular media, the police, the military, and so on to accept that narrative. Anarchist utilitarians who feed this discourse cheerlead for the status quo.

When you contemplate the revolutionary utility of murdering folks, I recommend reviewing the messy real-world history of insurgency rather than simplified fictional stories. Perhaps this will be your best option at some point in the coming years or decades. If so, weigh the odds and uncertainties carefully beforehand. Afterward, file a mental note to improve yourself and the resistance as a whole so you can do better in the future.

As transhumanists, we have to hold fast to the goal of engineering our way out of these ethical dilemmas. There’s always or almost always a superior course of action. What we can imagine, we’ll make. As Salvor Hardin said, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

On Human Nature September 19, 2015

Posted by Summerspeaker in Epistemology, Evo psych.
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Humans are biologically hardwired to breathe, drink, eat, piss, and shit. With absolutely no exception as far as I know, members of the species Homo sapiens have to take in nutrients and excrete waste. Beyond those universals human nature gets tricky. Surely human nature exists to some extent or another – humans have profound and fundamental differences from cats, etc. – but its contours and limits remain unclear. I’m always wary when I encounter anybody who invokes human nature, especially without citing unambiguous studies. Assuming exponentially increasing intelligence and all that, I imagine beings of some sort will eventually solve the question of human nature and really know what it means.

Until then, I advise caution.

William Gillis Finally Finished “Science as Radicalism” August 19, 2015

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Epistemology, Technology, Transhumanism.
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Science graphic.

You can read it here. The piece provides a useful intervention. I’ll provide further commentary when I get the chance. Check out the anarchistnews.org version if you’re brave.

Update July 26, 2015

Posted by Summerspeaker in Despair, Epistemology, Transhumanism.
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I’ve been reclusive lately, focused on academics, an interpersonal relationship or two, and distracting myself. My career in the Imperial Academy goes well enough, I guess, while the human connections have been a disaster. I’ve enjoyed drowning my sorrows in cardstock (MTG, specifically EDH) and will continue to do so, but over the last couple weeks my health has taken a downturn that makes indulging in distraction more difficult. At the moment I can hardly breath because of allergies, so I’m not good for much – even when taking the allergy meds they use to cook meth.

My main engagement with transhumanism this year has been via William Gillis’s thought. Between Gillis and Meera Nanda, I’m reassessing the value of criticizing versus supporting science and rationality. I plan to continue doing both, of course, and in many cases criticizing examples of actually existing science as a social practice supports science as a set of principles and methods. With that said, in retrospect I feel I’ve at times given excessive weight to critiques of science and rationality coming from humanities scholarship, both because I found them more convincing than I should have and because I considered these critiques important for an audience I assumed had an unshakably positive view of science. I still regard critiques of science useful, but Gillis and Nanda make a powerful case for the dangers of any move away from science and rationality.

At base I remain fond of old-school skepticism and of relativism; the former amounts to an intellectual game while the later has more meaningful implications. Regarding skepticism, I see no absolutely stable grounds for knowledge, as our senses could be deceiving us and/or our reasoning may be misguided. The edifice of science rests on foundations that haven’t been and probably can’t be definitely proven. However, these foundations are overwhelmingly plausible. The scientific worldview based on empirical evidence, logic, and modeling strikes me as far more likely and practical than any alternative. Regarding relativism, we have zero evidence by the scientific worldview that the universe gives a shit about anything. Values comes from humans and other sentient beings. As such, no universal guide for what should be exists. Our senses and reasoning presumably give us access, albeit mediated access, to objective reality. but what we make of this access only matters to the minds involved. Apart from us, nobody cares. The scientific worldview by all indications provides a closer model of objective reality and this becomes valuable insofar as sentient beings decide it is. I consider this exceedingly valuable as do many other people, but I shouldn’t beguile myself into believing there’s some higher purpose beyond my interests and those of other humans. By universe’s lights, a mind wrapped up in its own subjective reality is every bit as good as one striving toward objective reality: both simply are.

As such, I support science and rationality because I believe they align with my interests and, at least in the long term, with the interests of the vast majority of other currently existing minds (especially human minds). Objective material reality has quite a hold on most of us. Humans tend to suffer when we can’t manage basics like food, water, shelter, and healthcare. Improving the quantity and quality of these basics benefits lots of folks regardless of their position on science and rationality, regardless of whatever subjective realities they’re pursuing. Excessive criticism of science can prove dangerous if it obscures the profound importance of improving shared material conditions and/or if it presents alternatives to science as credible. Playing with subjective realities comes much recommended, but objective material reality stands out as the primary basis for political struggle.

On Assessing Progress June 1, 2015

Posted by Summerspeaker in Epistemology, Primitivism, Transhumanism.
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Reluctance or refusal to rank different times, places, and experiences in no way goes against or implies at rejection of rationality, empiricism, or science. To the contrary, it’s commonly a rational move informed by an understanding of the power of knowledge production and the danger of spurious claims. It’s entirely legitimate to admit ignorance and to question the desire for assessment. Why assert progress? What does this assertion do? Whom does it serve?

While certain types of progress are almost undeniable empirically – the overall worldwide increase in life expectancy at birth over the last couple centuries comes immediately to mind – any attempt a grand evaluation runs into a whole host of problems. As the word itself suggests, evaluation is a matter of values. The lack of data compounds this arbitrariness. How do you figure out, for example, what medieval English laborers thought of their lives? The documentary record is spotty at best and tends to get worse the farther back you go. Both studies and my personal experience suggest that happiness is a tricky thing. One theory is that it’s significantly genetic or otherwise set early on. Wherever you go, there you are. While I might think myself privileged over the medieval serf with laptop and internet connection, it’s not certain that I’m enjoying life more.

I still find Philippe Verdoux’s sweeping analysis of the historical record compelling. However, regardless of whether there’s progress in the human condition since prehistory or medieval times or 1965, we can and should do so much better than all that’s come before.


Context: This post comes as immediate to a Facebook argument with William Gillis but relates to key themes in futurism and transhumanism.

Where Have All the Pyrrhos Gone? March 25, 2014

Posted by Summerspeaker in Epistemology.
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I’d like to see skepticism move back toward its I-don’t-know-if-it’s-better-to-help-you-out-of-a-ditch-or-not origins. The contemporary mainstream-science-is-awesome! version is getting tedious. I recognize and respect the benefits of crusading against woo and lauding peer review, but it strikes me as a thoroughly partisan form of skepticism. As James Hughes writes about reason and rationality, acknowledging the uncertainty and shaky foundations of knowledge is “damned scary” but required for intellectual honesty.

“The Specter of Eugenics” Up at IEET June 5, 2013

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Anti-imperialism, Decolonization, Epistemology, Evo psych, Transhumanism.
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The recent controversy surrounding Jason Richwine’s Havard dissertation “IQ and Immigration Policy” serves as an opportune point of departure for reflecting on biological determinism in transhumanist thought. Are transhumanists, as Michael Anissimov says, eugenicists without the coercion? What does channeling eugenics in a white-supremacist society mean and do? Why the obsession with IQ among various transhumanists, particularly AI enthusiasts? I argue that the scientific racism of Richwine and company, with all its elaborate statistical wizardry, functions first and foremost as rationalization of inequality and privilege. I call on transhumanists to reject to biological determinism and struggle for social justice in social terms.

Read it here.

Scholars Counter Anti-Hispanic Scientific Racism May 17, 2013

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Anti-imperialism, Decolonization, Epistemology, Evo psych.
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This is a hard one for me. Invoking academic authority against racism seems convenient but dangerous. I’m more interested in opposing white supremacy on political than epistemological grounds, though I grant both hold merit. The final paragraph strikes me as particularly glaring, especially that assertion that academic debates are “based on valid constructs and scientific evidence.” This attempted purification of the Imperial Academy reinforces its privilege and prestige. Within a materialist-empiricist epistemological framework, I absolutely agree with the statement’s argument against scientific racism. That’s the framework I operate under most of the time and the one I find most useful, but I’m too much of a skeptic to consider it incontestable truth. The whole idea of scientific or academic authority enables appeals like Jason Richwine’s. I’d prefer to undermine the entire edifice than to expel the bad apples and fortify the gates. But I did reluctantly sign on.

Standing Watch against Witches: Magic and Rationality June 13, 2012

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Epistemology, Technology, Transhumanism.

Over at amor mundi, Dale Carrico lampoons futurism with a mock writing guide. While the piece effectively satirizes futurists – who hasn’t read numerous articles that conform to Dale’s mold? – it relies on an unambiguous division between the sense and nonsense in the classic western intellectual tradition. Dale assumes the impossibility of outcomes “normally attributable to magic” and smugly positions eirself on the side of “serious science” rather than “stupid magic.” In this narrative, futurists earn ridicule through their inability to distinguish between the real and unreal. Dale taps into a deep vein of modern culture here; folks from countless political persuasions enjoy making fun of those they deem beyond the bounds of authoritative knowledge. I consider this dynamic problematic and overwhelmingly a tool of oppression. Rather than simply seeking to include transhumanists and company within the walls of scientific respectability, I question the conceptual apparatus that starkly separates magic from science as well as the desirability of ostracizing epistemological deviants.

To begin, I note that the lines blur even with a cursory look at canonical science history. Dale tellingly omits flight and transmutation from eir parenthetical list of outcomes attributable to magic; innovation has already shifted these two tricks from the realm of the fantastic to the practical. Thus historical association with the supernatural appears a dubious basis for assessing possibility. Furthermore, innumerable icons of science across the ages held views about the world sufficient to give PZ Myers a heart attack. Isaac Netwon loved Jesus and alchemy. Niels Bohr dabbled in mysticism and abstract speculation. Etc. Before leaving the mainstream account of scientific progress, we already discover grounds for epistemological humility. Today’s supposed consensus might become tomorrow’s quackery, and vice versa.

Wandering farther from charted territory, the critical scholarship of the last few decades has emphasized the cultural specificity of the scientific mode of knowledge production. These critiques come from a variety of directions, ranging from Native studies to French poststructuralism. As an example, you have academics such as Eva Marie Garroutte who advocate for indigenous traditional epistemologies to take an equal place beside western rationalism. A bit of reflection quickly leads to skepticism about the solidity of any and all claims to truth and authority. As James Hughes writes, we’ve built our houses in mid-air. Personal experience with actual scientists -who aren’t necessarily above falsifying data when pressed and gleefully indulge in petty squabbling over resources – muddies the waters further. Unless you’re a researcher referring to your own experiments, empiricism means stuff you’ve read about and judge credible. Maybe some of y’all out there have a sure route to knowledge, but I don’t and I doubt any exist. (If one did, how could I tell?) I value science and rationality for their material and intellectual utility, not as a way to access some unitary or reliable truth.

In the context of well-established hierarchy between science and magic Dale invokes, I’m most concerned with the social and political effects of these boundaries. What does exalting the former and denigrating the latter do? As mentioned above, intense mockery of the unenlightened other serves as a beloved pastime for rationalists. Juicy targets include alternative healthcare practitioners, astrologers, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists, creationists, homophobes, New Agers, psychics, Scientologists, and utopians. The act of naming and denouncing the gullible fool of the day places the denouncer on the side intelligence and reason by contrast. In demeaning crystal-carrying hippies, rationalists assert and revel in their superior status as people who know the difference between truth and superstition. As with queers – and the resonances abound – the insults make and maintain the border of normativity. We define what we are by condemning what we’re not.

Like many who endeavor to disabuse the duped via scorn, Dale makes a point of insisting on the triumph of reality over illusion. Ey concludes the piece by reminding the imagined transhumanist reader of the inevitability of death: “you will die because magic is not real.” Under this schema, rationalism operates as a totalizing vision that tolerates no thought outside of the scientific mainstream. It’s not enough to deny the viability of rejuvenation therapy or even to laugh at the silly immortalists. This project holds the objective of obliterating wrong belief entirely. For Dale, immortalists need to recognize their error and accept mortality. Exposure leads to shame, then repentance and absolution. Sound familiar?

This crusade against falsehood has vast rhetorical potency and a compelling practical logic. At times it advances positive political ends, such as when wielded against bosses whose views conflict with scientific authority. As critical as I am, I shy away from categorical opposition. Proponents point to a version of the public-private distinction in their defense: While everyone deserves the liberty to espouse crackpot ideas in their own home or with friends, the public sphere demands materialist empiricism. Dale distinguishes dreaming – conduct by non-transhumanist actors, presumably in private – from “telling really stupid shitty lies” designed to extract resources from the unwary.  I sympathize with concerns about absurd notions infringing on my well-being – at the extreme, this could mean some adherent of an Abrahamic religion stoning me to death. Likewise, I second the desire for shared reality as a foundation for political struggle. However, I’m loathe to bar the gates on epistemological grounds. To borrow a term from Judith Butler, that strikes me as an authoritarian ruse that has deleterious effects at both the political and conceptual level.

By wielding consensus science – at best an exaggeration – as a bludgeon against unbelievers, we enshrine authority and intolerance. This goes directly against the forms of intellectual inquiry and interpersonal interaction I intend to foster. Scientific institutions don’t hold a monopoly on insight. To the contrary, the knowledge claims of science turn tenuous under scrutiny. While pleasurable and occasionally effective at weakening the powers that be, rationalist mockery creates a hostile social environment defined by untenable borders between reason and nonsense. It actually inhibits the wide-ranging curiosity and openness so important in innovation. The fear of being called a quack paralyzes promising research. Faith in established theories facilitates exploitation by experts who of course know better than you do.

Culturally, as mentioned, the rigid rationalist framework privileges one single western tradition over all others. It not only blinds us to potentially valuable alternative ways of comprehending the world(s) but creates an epistemological hierarchy inflected by colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy. Grasping these points hasn’t been easy for me. I could be quite comfortable fighting the good fight for materialism. Rather than criticizing the hammer of science, I’d hurl it at Dale in stereotypically triumphalist transhumanist fashion, aiming to annihilate the superstitious scourges of death-worship and anthropocentrism. However, skepticism combined with close friends who espouse a variety of views at odds with mainstream empiricist rationality has lead me here. I’m still figuring out how to navigate encounters with astrology, auras, conspiracy theories, psychics, reincarnation, sacred sites, spirits, vampires, and werewolves. For the moment I take an agnostic approach and survey for commonality case by case. I’m rooted in empiricism and predict I’ll remain so, but my dreams of freedom and equality entail at least the limited embrace of epistemological diversity. I’ve already found the journey edifying and humbling. If nothing else, the supernatural, spiritual, and intuitive provide a language of resistance against ascendent technoscientific modernity.

Along with Wendy Brown, I recommend political argument in place of epistemological claims. I don’t advocate revolution based on the grand trajectory of history or some universal moral imperative, but because I want it. I don’t have or long for the weight of objective truth on my side; I don’t consider my enemies stupid. Criticism of transhumanism that reiterates the game of status and yearns for a position above reproach disappoints me. I encourage Dale and others to question the plausibility of futurist technological assertions without recourse to certainty while simultaneously examining the often pernicious political implication of their superlative proclamations. Contesting the self-serving progress narratives of the elite constitutes beneficial political work; designating a new group to mock as idiotic and infantile from the standpoint of established knowledge replays a dominant oppressive tune.

In conclusion, death to authority and the Imperial Academy! Let’s get some of that magic in our lives. All power to all people. ♥