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Author Information: Mirko Farina, King’s College London, mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk.

Farina, Mirko. “Exploring the Concepts of Science in 166 Pages: Reviewing Nigel Sanitt.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 28-33.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48g

A wax statue of Isaac Newton, deceased.
Image by Nadia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery, scientist Nigel Sanitt develops an empirically-informed, highly interdisciplinary, and richly holistic account of scientific progress and discovery. By drawing upon a vast range of historical and contemporary sources, Sanitt provides important, original insights to understand the nature of scientific reasoning and how it is practised.

The book contains a useful introduction in which Sanitt highlights the focal points of his project and 15 short chapters in which he further develops his positive proposal (the idea that the foundations of science are built on sand and that scientific theories are frameworks we use to model nature). The book also considers how meaning is created in science and argues that science is deeply grounded in questions.

In the first part of this critical notice I briefly summarise the book’s content. I then turn my attention to one of the most important theoretical tensions underlying it: the relationship between science and philosophy. I investigate this tension,  critically assess the claim that philosophy is dead (Hawking, 2010), and in agreement with Sanitt conclude that a synergetic relationship between science and philosophy is not only desirable but also mutually beneficial.

A Fast Walk Through Vast Territory

In chapters 1 and 2, Sanitt sets up the scene and looks at the role of truth in science (pp.2-6). He then goes on to discuss the function (prediction) of scientific theories (pp. 18-22) and their search for invariance (pp. 25-26). Sanitt also aptly reviews recent progresses in philosophy of science (pp.7-14) and convincingly argues that the foundations of science are built on sand. Let me notice here that the philosophical grounding of this latter set of ideas could have been enriched by discussing the work of Poincaré, Duhem, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

In chapters 3 and 4, Sanitt discusses two theories [the integrationist theory of meaning defended by Harris (1981); and the theory of problematology pioneered by Meyer 2014)] that play a pivotal role in the development of his book. In particular, the former (pp. 41-43) provides Sanitt with the conceptual palette for the latter, which he uses to argue that science is an answer-generating dynamic enterprise (p.53).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the idea that scientific theories are frameworks, networks with links and nodes (p.70), that we use to model nature. Here Sanitt gives the mathematical background to describe these networks using graph theory (pp.72-79).

Chapter 7 focuses on scientific communication and looks, in particular, at how scientists interact with the media, the public, the politicians, with scientific organisations, and with each other (pp.82-84). While the need for more public engagement is stressed, the picture that emerges is one where scientists are often forced, by lack of research funding, ‘to actively engage with all these actors in outreach, lobbying, publicity, and policy briefing’ (p.85). This highlights the political, economical and socio-cultural dimension of contemporary scientific practice, which – it is argued- may threaten the independence of science.

The central chapters of the book focus on the relation between science and literature (ch. 8), science and religion (ch. 9), science and art (ch. 10), and science and history (ch.11). Particularly interesting is chapter 10 where Sanitt looks at whether beauty (understood as Pythagorean harmony) can play a role in science (pp.105-107) and points out that many scientists were also successful artists (e.g. Feynman), musicians (e.g. Einstein, Plack, Heisenberg), or writers (e.g. Hoyle, Oppenheimer, Snow).

Chapters 12 looks at the relation between science and culture. Here Sanitt demonstrates that science -as an intellectual and practical pursuit- is deeply rooted and inexorably tied in with our culture (p.121). He also cogently argues for the crucial importance of science in our society (p.122).

Chapter 13 focuses on artificial intelligence and on consciousness (p.131).  Sanitt claims that in explaining these phenomena, ‘separating out meaning, thinking, embodiment, perception and decision making from each other does not work’ (p.135). He thus seems to endorse, albeit not stated, a view (Clark 1998) that involves mind, body and environment as direct and equal partners in the making of human cognitive behaviour.

In chapter 14 Sanitt looks at the relation between science and ethics. He reviews philosophical works on moral and ethical behaviour (pp.137-139), discusses examples of misconduct and professional malpractice in science (pp.141-142), and calls for the development of more rigorous enforcement measures to fight them (p.143).

Chapter 15 focuses on the relation between science and education, discusses gender anomalies in science (p.151) and calls for innovations (adoption of ebooks, contextualisation of textbooks) in educational practices (pp.152-153).

In chapter 16 Sanitt summarises what he has achieved in the book (pp.155-160) and concludes by condemning the idea that philosophy and science should be separated. He writes: ‘a lack of critical thinking skills leads to intellectual impoverishment and in the end, to poor science. There are many universities that include philosophy courses in their undergraduate science curriculum – this is to be encouraged’ (p.162).

Having described the contents of the monograph, I now briefly turn to what I believe is the most interesting theoretical tension underlying it; the relation between science and philosophy.

Philosophy and Science: A Sometimes Sublime Dynamic

The relation between science and philosophy is intricate and highly complicated, and is one that I can only start touching upon here. Roughly speaking we can say that until perhaps the 19th century, there was no real distinction between scientists and philosophers, and many of the greatest scientists were also great philosophers. Newton’s masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Newton, 1687/1999) is imbued with philosophical assumptions and is a paradigmatic example of this deep relation.

The gap between science and philosophy started to widen at the beginning of the last century when scientific specialisation drove a wedge between the two disciplines (Philipp, 1957). The gap became even more prominent over the last 50 years or so with the advent of the age of hyper-specialisation.

On the one hand, with the development of new technological breakthroughs, many scientists started to amass enormous amounts of empirical data (especially in disciplines like neuroscience, physics, and psychology) often forgetting (sometimes deliberately ignoring) the theoretical interpretation of such data; on the other hand, many philosophers failed to understand such developments and retreated to their ivory towers into the study of human affairs, leaving the study of nature to natural scientists and often deliberately refusing any interaction with them (this process is brilliantly summarised by Snow 1959/2012).

There were remarkable exceptions on both sides, of course. Einstein’s work (1935) demonstrated that there is a genuine interaction between science and philosophy. Heisenberg once said ‘my mind was formed by studying philosophy, Plato and that sort of thing’ (Buckley and Peat, 1996, p.6).

Russell (1914) argued that the difference between philosophy and science is of the degree not of kind.  Dewey (1938/1991) asserted that the roots of philosophy and science are the same. Poincaré (1905) and Duhem (1908/1991) spent their whole lives developing a ‘scientific philosophy’.

There are also numerous examples in the history of science that shows this deep mutual dependence and profound interaction. For example, Kepler and Sommerfeld were both inspired by Pythagorean ideas in developing their models of the harmonies of the solar system and of the atom (de Haro, 2013).

Non-Locality: Philosophy as a Guide for Quantum Physics

Next, however, I focus on the development of quantum mechanics and discuss a key moment in its history that shows how physical progress crucially depended on asking the right philosophical questions. The discussion of this case study demonstrates that the philosophical debate that took place during those years acted as a positive, driving force that pushed the development of science further.

In 1927, conflicting views on quantum physics started to crystallize. At the 5th Solvay conference in Brussels, Heisenberg declared quantum mechanics to be a ‘closed theory, whose fundamental physical and mathematical assumptions are no longer susceptible of any modification’ (Bacciagaluppi and Valentini, 2009, p. 437). With that assertion, Heisenberg voiced the feelings and the convinctions of many of his colleagues (among them Bohr, Pauli, and Dirac) also present at the conference.

Einstein, however, did not agree with Heisenberg. He believed that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics – the view that Heisenberg was indirectly defending —had philosophical implications (such as the lack of determinacy in physical quantities and events) that seemed undesirable.

Thus in 1935, with some of his colleagues (Podolsky, and Rosen), Einstein developed a famous thought experiment (known as EPR), which demonstrated the entanglement of two particles located at long distances and implied faster-than-light interactions. Since this explicitly contradicted Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics had to be an incomplete theory and the Copenhagen interpretation had to be wrong.

With this thought experiment Einstein wanted to arrive at a theory that fullfilled some ontological desiderata. More precisely, he wanted the theory to accurately describe the real world while incorporating the requirement that physics should be independent of the observer.

While the study of paradoxes has always played an important role in physics, the formulation of the EPR paradox required the development of a neat philosophical stance about the principles and methods that were deemed to be appropriate and valuable for the development of the theory. Thus, this example paradigmatically shows that Einstein’s quest was philosophical in character and therefore that philosophical ideas indeed can play a major role in the development of scientific theories.

Contemporary Alienation

Recently, however, Stephen Hawking declared (2010) the official ‘death’ of philosophy (for similar arguments see also Weinberg, 1992 , for a review of similar arguments see Kerr, 2018). Commenting on the nature of reality, Hawking wrote: ‘traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’ (Hawking 2010, p. 5).

To be fair to Hawking, his remark seems to be about the current status of philosophy. It does not seem to be a claim about philosophy as a discipline and including all its history (as some critics of Hawking have recently argued). Also, when Hawking made that provocative claim, he probably referred to just metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – not to all philosophy.

Now, I don’t want to enter here the discussion of whether all metaphysics should be naturalised (Ladyman et al., 2007). But having given Hawking the fairest possible understanding, I would still like to point out that his view of contemporary philosophy is partial, misleading, and ill-informed.

This is because Hawking, when making that claim, ignored that nowadays there is lots of philosophy born out of metaphysics (philosophy of mind and cognitive science, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience) that is deeply grounded in the sciences. He also ignored that there are many areas of research in philosophy (e.g. embodied cognition) that are inspired by scientific findings and that, in turn, guide scientific research. More importantly, he ignored that there are large groups of empirically-informed philosophers (I am one of them, for what that matters), who are increasing leaving their armchairs and ivory towers to work in close contact with scientists.

Here Sanitt, who is himself a scientist but one that is not crusading against philosophy, does (unlike Hawking) a good job in recognising the fundamental importance of philosophical thinking to scientific reasoning. He writes: ‘I believe that science research at the highest level is adversely affected by the lack of philosophical awareness and training for scientists’ (p.59).

Sanitt also recognises that ‘there are limits to the denial of philosophical import to science, which results in paralysis’ (p. 14) and goes on to condemn the process that has led to the fragmentation and alienation of science from philosophy: ‘science has been separated horizontally…from within by too much specialisation…..This separation … is also vertical in the sense that science is seen as a completely different kind of entity from areas dubbed the arts or literature. This kind of separation is just as damaging and just as specious’ (p.14).

The picture that Sanitt draws is therefore one where philosophy directly interacts with science on a number of different levels. In particular, Sanitt believes: i).that the way science is taught and practised should not be immune from philosophical speculations (p.12); ii).that philosophical theorising should play an instrumental role in raising the right questions (pp.52-55) that science aims to answer (pp.64-70); and iii).that philosophy should help scientists interfacing with the wider, non-academic, world (pp. 80-86). Sanitt sees in this collaboration the roots of scientific success and thus argues, pace Hawking, that a synergetic partnership between science and philosophy is highly desirable.

Conclusion

Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery shines a light through the mist of scientific research. It convincingly makes the case that science is driven by questions that often have a philosophical nature. The book also demonstrates that the foundations of science are built on sand and that the search for truth is always elusive.

The volume is thorough and does not at all shy away from conceptual complexity – quite the opposite.  The impressive sheer wealth and breadth of information presented makes the volume worthwhile. The prose is engaging, the style is captivating, the argument is coherently presented.

Structurally, however, I question the author’s decision of having 16 short chapters, each containing a lot of different subsections (often trying to summarise complex debates in a page or two). Occasionally, this results in having half-backed subsections (e.g. ‘free will’, p.99), which do not fully capture the nuances and the complexities of the issues debated. This sometimes interrupts the flow of the argumentation and prevents the reader from understanding the main point being made.

Nevertheless, this is a much needed (and welcomed) contribution to the field. A must read for scientists and philosophers, and more generally, for all those who are interested in understanding how scientific theories are constructed and verified.

Contact details: mirko.farina@kcl.ac.uk 

References

Bacciagaluppi, Guido, and Antony Valentini. Quantum theory at the crossroads: reconsidering the 1927 Solvay conference. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Buckley, Paul, and F. David Peat. Glimpsing reality: Ideas in physics and the link to biology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Clark, Andy. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

de Haro, Sebastian. “Science and Philosophy: A Love-Hate Relationship.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1307.1244 (2013).

Dewey, John. Logic, the theory of inquiry. Carbondale: IL, Southern University Press, 1938/1991.

Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie. The aim and structure of physical theory. Vol. 13. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1908/1991.

Einstein, Albert, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen. “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?.” Physical review 47, no. 10 (1935): 777.

Hawking, Stephen. The grand design. London, UK: Random House Digital, Inc., 2010.

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7: 1-6, 2018

Ladyman, James, Don Ross, David Spurrett, and John Collier. Every thing must go: Metaphysics naturalized. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Newton, Isaac. The Principia: mathematical principles of natural philosophy. Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 1687/1999.

Philipp, Frank. Philosophy of science: The link between science and philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957

Poincaré, Henri. Science and hypothesis. Science Press, 1905.

Russell, Bertrand. Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. Chicago, IL and London, UK: Open Court Publishing, 1914.

Snow, Charles Percy. The two cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959/2012.

Weinberg, Steven. Dream of a final theory, the scientist’s search for the ultimate laws of nature. New York, NYC: Vintage Books, (1992).

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, robert.frodeman@unt.edu

Frodeman, Robert. “The Politics of AI.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 48-49.

The pdf of the article provides specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3To

This robot, with its evocatively cute face, would turn its head toward the most prominent human face it could see.
Image from Jeena Paradies via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been a cheerleader for technology for decades. He begins an early 2018 column by declaring that he wants to take a break from the wall-to-wall Trump commentary. Instead, ‘While You Were Sleeping’ consists of an account of the latest computer wizardry that’s occurring under our noses. What Friedman misses is that he is still writing about Trump after all.

His focus is on quantum computing. Friedman revisits a lab he had been to a mere two years earlier; on the earlier visit he had come away impressed, but feeling that “this was Star Wars stuff — a galaxy and many years far away.” To his surprise, however, the technology had moved quicker than anticipated: “clearly quantum computing has gone from science fiction to nonfiction faster than most anyone expected.”

Friedman hears that quantum computers will work 100,000 times faster than the fastest computers today, and will be able to solve unimaginably complex problems. Wonders await – such as the NSA’s ability to crack the hardest encryption codes. Not that there is any reason for us to worry about that; the NSA has our best interests at heart. And in any case, the Chinese are working on quantum computing, too.

Friedman does note that this increase in computing power will lead to the supplanting of “middle-skill and even high-skill work.” Which he allows could pose a problem. Fortunately, there is a solution at hand: education! Our educational system simply needs to adapt to the imperatives of technology. This means not only K-12 education, and community colleges and universities, but also lifelong worker training. Friedman reports on an interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who told him:

“Every job will require some technology, and therefore we’ll need to revamp education. The K-12 curriculum is obvious, but it’s the adult retraining — lifelong learning systems — that will be even more important…. Some jobs will be displaced, but 100 percent of jobs will be augmented by AI.”

Rometty notes that technology companies “are inventing these technologies, so we have the responsibility to help people adapt to it — and I don’t mean just giving them tablets or P.C.s, but lifelong learning systems.”

For that’s how it works: people adapt to technology, rather than the other way around. And what if our job gets outsourced or taken over by a machine? Friedman then turns to education-to-work expert Heather McGowan: workers “must reach up and learn a new skill or in some ways expand our capabilities as humans in order to fully realize our collaborative potential.” Education must become “a continuous process where the focused outcome is the ability to learn and adapt with agency as opposed to the transactional action of acquiring a set skill.” It all sounds rather rigorous, frog-marched into the future for our own good.

Which should have brought Friedman back to Trump. Friedman and Rometty and McGowan are failing to connect the results of the last election. Clinton lost the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a total of 80,000 votes. Clinton lost these states in large part because of the disaffection of white, non-college educated voters, people who have been hurt by previous technological development, who are angry about being marginalized by the ‘system’, and who pine for the good old days, when America was Great and they had a decent paycheck. Of course, Clinton knew all this, which is why her platform, Friedman-like, proposed a whole series of worker re-education programs. But somehow the coal miners were not interested in becoming computer programmers or dental hygienists. They preferred to remain coal miners – or actually, not coal miners. And Trump rode their anger to the White House.

Commentators like Friedman might usefully spend some of their time speculating on how our politics will be affected as worker displacement moves up the socio-economic scale.

At root, Friedman and his cohorts remain children of the Enlightenment: universal education remains the solution to the political problems caused by run-amok technological advance. This, however, assumes that ‘all men are created equal’ – and not only in their ability, but also in their willingness to become educated, and then reeducated again, and once again. They do not seem to have considered the possibility that a sizeable minority of Americans—or any other nationality—will remain resistant to constant epistemic revolution, and that rather than engaging in ‘lifelong learning’ are likely to channel their displacement by artificial intelligence into angry, reactionary politics.

And as AI ascends the skills level, the number of the politically roused is likely to increase, helped along by the demagogue’s traditional arts, now married to the focus-group phrases of Frank Luntz. Perhaps the machinations of turning ‘estate tax’ into ‘death tax’ won’t fool the more sophisticated. It’s an experiment that we are running now, with a middle-class tax cut just passed by Congress, but which diminishes each year until it turns into a tax increase in a few years. But how many will notice the latest scam?

The problem, however, is that even if those of us who live in non-shithole countries manage to get with the educational program, that still leaves “countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, China and India — where huge numbers of youths are already unemployed because they lack the education for even this middle-skill work THAT’S [sic] now being automated.” A large cohort of angry, displaced young men ripe for apocalyptic recruitment. I wonder what Friedman’s solution is to that.

The point that no one seems willing to raise is whether it might be time to question the cultural imperative of constant innovation.

Contact details: robert.frodeman@unt.edu

References

Friedman, Thomas. “While You Were Sleeping.” New York Times. 16 January 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/opinion/while-you-were-sleeping.html