Discussing the Shape of Things (that might be) to Come

ThingstocomescifiOne stock criticism of philosophers is their uselessness: they address useless matters or address useful matters in a way that is useless. One interesting specific variation is to criticize a philosopher for philosophically discussing matters of what might be. For example, a philosopher might discuss the ethics of modifying animals to possess human levels of intelligence. As another example, a philosopher might present an essay on the problem of personal identity as it relates to cybernetic replacement of the human body. In general terms, these speculative flights can be dismissed as doubly useless: not only do they have the standard uselessness of philosophy, they also have the uselessness of talking about what is not and might never be. Since I have, at length and elsewhere, addressed the general charge of uselessness against philosophy, I will focus on this specific sort of criticism.

One version of this sort of criticism can be seen as practical: since the shape of what might be cannot be known, philosophical discussions involve a double speculation: the first speculation is about what might be and the second is the usual philosophical speculation. While the exact mathematics of the speculation (is it additive or exponential?) is uncertain, it can be argued that such speculation about speculation has little value—and this assumes that philosophy has value and speculation about the future has value (both of which can be doubted).

This sort of criticism is often used as the foundation for a second sort of criticism. This criticism does assume that philosophy has value and it is this assumption that also provides a foundation for the criticism. The basic idea is that philosophical speculation about what might be uses up resources that could be used to apply philosophy to existing problems. Naturally, someone who regards all philosophy as useless would regard philosophical discussion about what might be as being a waste of time—responding to this view would require a general defense of philosophy and this goes beyond the scope of this short essay. Now, to return to the matter at hand.

As an example, a discussion of the ethics of using autonomous, intelligent weapon systems in war could be criticized on the grounds that the discussion should have focused on the ethical problems regarding current warfare. After all, there is a multitude of unsolved moral problems in regards to existing warfare—there hardly seems any need to add more unsolved problems until either the existing problems are solved or the possible problems become actual problems.

This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, if a person has not completed the work in the course she is taking now, it does not make sense for her to spend her time trying to complete the work that might be assigned four semesters from now. To use another analogy, if a person has a hole in her roof, it would not be reasonable to spend time speculating about what sort of force-field roof technology they might have in the future. This is, of course, the classic “don’t you have something better to do?” problem.

As might be suspected, this criticism rests on the principle that resources should be spent effectively and less effective uses of resources are subject to criticism. As the analogies given above show, using resources effectively is certainly reasonable and ineffective use can be justly criticized. However, there is an obvious concern with this principle: to be consistent in its application it would need to be applied across the board so that a person is applying all her resources with proper utility. For example, a person who prepares a fancy meal when she could be working on addressing the problems presented by poverty is wasting time. As another example, a person who is reading a book for enjoyment should be out addressing the threat posed by terrorist groups. As a third example, someone who is developing yet another likely-to-fail social media company should be spending her time addressing prison reform. And so on. In fact, for almost anything a person might be doing, there will be something better she could be doing.

As others have argued, this sort of maximization would be counterproductive: a person would exhaust herself and her resources, thus (ironically) doing more harm than good. As such, the “don’t you have something better to do?” criticism should be used with due care. That said, it can be a fair criticism if a person really does have something better to do and what she is doing instead is detrimental enough to warrant correction.

In the case of philosophical discussions about what might be, it can almost always be argued that while a person could be doing something better (such as addressing current problems), such speculation would generally be harm free. That is, it is rather unlikely that the person would have solved the problem of war, poverty or crime if only she had not been writing about ethics and cyborgs. Of course, this just defends such discussion in the same way one might defend any other harmless amusement, such as playing a game of Scrabble or watching a sunset. It would be preferable to have a somewhat better defense of such philosophical discussions of the shape of things (that might be) to come.

A reasonable defense of such discussions can be based on the plausible notion that it is better to address a problem before it occurs than after it arrives in force. To use the classic analogy, it is much easier to address a rolling snowball than the avalanche that it will cause.

In the case of speculative matters that have ethical aspects, it seems that it would be generally useful to already have moral discussions in place ahead of time. This would provide the practical advantage of already having a framework and context in which to discuss the matter when (or if) it becomes a reality. One excellent illustration of this is the driverless car—it certainly seems to be a good idea to work out the ethics of such matters of how the car should be programmed when it must “decide” what to hit and what to avoid when an accident is occurring. Another illustration is developing the moral guidelines for ever more sophisticated automated weapon systems.  Since these are being developed at a rapid pace, what were once theoretical problems will soon be actual moral problems. As a final example, consider the moral concerns governing modifying and augmenting humans using technology and genetic modification. It would seem to be a good idea to have some moral guidance going into this brave new world rather than scrambling with the ethics after the fact.

Philosophers also like to discuss what might be in other contexts than ethics. Not surprisingly, the realm of what might be is rich ground for discussions of metaphysics and epistemology. While these fields are often considered the most useless aspects of philosophy, they have rather practical implications that matter—even (or even especially) in regards to speculation about what might be.

To illustrate this, consider the research being conducted in repairing, augmenting and preserving the human mind (or brain, if one prefers). One classic problem in metaphysics is the problem of personal identity: what is it to be a person, what is it to be distinct from all other things, and what is it to be that person across time? While this might seem to be a purely theoretical concern, it quickly becomes a very practical concern when one is discussing the above mentioned technology. For example, consider a company that offers a special sort of life insurance: they claim they can back-up a person to a storage system and, upon the death of the original body, restore the back-up to a cloned (or robotic) body. While the question of whether that restored backup would be you or not is clearly a metaphysical question of personal identity, it is also a very practical question. After all, paying to ensure that you survive your bodily death is a rather different matter from paying so that someone who thinks they are you can go to your house and have sex with your spouse after you are dead.

There are, of course, numerous other examples that can be used to illustrate the value of such speculation of what might be—in fact, I have already written many of these in previous posts. In light of the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that philosophical discussions about what might be need not be a waste of time. In fact, such discussions can be useful in a practical sense.


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  1. s. wallerstein

    I think that one of the most problematic aspects of dealing with problems which might come to pass is that it’s done without knowledge of future social contexts and generally, assuming that the social context will remain more or less the same.

    Thus, one imagines a world of driveless cars, without knowing what will be the socio-economic conditions of that world, without any idea of what the social climate may be (increased crime? decreased crime? more violent crime? less violent crime? more drug use? less drug use? increased break-down of a sense of community?, better or worse wealth and income distribution?, more or less unemployment? etc., etc.)

    Technological changes don’t occur in isolation. As Marx and others point out, changes in technology produce changes in mentalities, which are almost impossible to foresee.

    Thus, while philosophers have every right to speculate on future technology, it seems more fruitful for them to speculate on current problems.

  2. “I had a lot of problems in my life, most of them never happened” Mark Twain

    I think we all worry and complicate our life with things that never happen, without paying attention to what actually is happening. Perhaps, an in depth discussion on the philosophy and ethics of war itself is more valuable then the ethics of any way of killing each other. What are the ethics of conflict resolution at this time?
    Having said that, I value your articles on futuristic scenarios; they are a good exercise, and can indeed prepare ourselves for future ethic consideration. And sometimes I wonder if we are placing current ethical problems in a futuristic scenario.
    Anyway, thanks for your posts,

  3. Philosophy should not be put in a box; making it alright for this to be considered but not that. Of all the disciplines it is the most comprehensive.

    Discussing and speculating about the future need not limit or exclude discussions of current events and problems, or looking for solutions; both can be done and should be done. Time is a factor here, current problems can be addressed, and worked at to ameliorate them, but change cannot be expected to take place overnight.

    There are people whose interests do not extend beyond themselves, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they are boring. Metaphysics and epistemology are topics beyond their range, from lack of interest, not from lack of intelligence.

    Stretching the mind and the imagination expands the world and is fun, and relaxing. It gives a break from the latest shooting or heinous crime. We can still support people who support reforming gun laws and advocate for mental health solutions without making that the only thing we do.

    Then our minds can range from the distant past to the distant future and what the possible outcomes of technology might be. It was speculated about before it was a factor in daily life, and many of the speculations were not totally off the mark, they fueled interest in the future and helped prepare for future discoveries and events.

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler

    I don’t think it is a question of the “usefulness” of philosophical speculation generally. Human beings seem always to have so speculated. It has entertainment and psychological value, as in the ancient Iliad and Odyssey (many believed in the existence of sirens and monstrous beings) and in the endless sci-fi books and movies of today: we like to be scared from the safety of our homes and theatre seats.
    But such speculation is intellectually and morally stimulating and forces you to think of logical and emotional responses to unlikely situations. In that sense it is mind-expanding without the use of drugs. But often there is an analogy with life here and now and autonomous, mechanized armies gone amok have a connection with pilotless drones, huge stocks of nuclear weapons and other modes of mechanized warfare: if one is terrifying, inhuman and unethical so should be the judgment on the actual state of affairs. It would seem.
    Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia posits the sudden destruction of Earth by flyby rogue planet.
    It isn’t literally impossible but the analogy is inescapable: sudden death from innumerable causes
    (the precariousness of life) and death of the planet itself by human actions.
    Should make you think of the beauty of life, but might make some people destructively fatalistic.
    Sometimes worthwhile speculation is confused with action that is less than worthwhile.
    Some see the colonization of Mars as a viable solution and are actually working in that direction. We’ve seen photographs of Mars and it isn’t coming back anytime soon. This venture could possibly encourage a cavalier and fatalistic attitude about our use of this planet and its
    resources. That would be an example of a dishonest and destructive use of philosophical speculation.

  5. John M,

    Good point. I agree with you that a general ethics of war is more useful than splitting fine points about exact methodologies. That said, the general ethics of war would certainly need to cover methods broadly. For example, I would say that weapons that create excessive and needless suffering would be morally problematic even without going into the fine details of specific awful weapons.

  6. As opposed to the rest of the animal world, human beings seem to have the mental capacity to turn over in their minds, things which interest them, and catch their imagination. It is not clear if other animals have this ability. Their mental states probably embrace, and are devoted, to feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction. I think the joy of ratiocination, that is to say the process of exact thinking or reasoning, is denied them, outside of its application to the essentials of the animals’ continued daily existance. So far as my knowledge goes a chimpanzee whose genetic makeup is similar to humans, still lacks the capacity to cogitate on the whys and wherefores of its own existence.
    Out of this it is apparent that human beings can spend a considerable amount of time considering, wondering, and talking about a massive number of different states of affairs which do not immediately impinge on their well-being or future states. It is apparent to me that nearly everybody has a philosophical trait which is highly manifested in some but not so evident in others. I think the vast majority of people have at one time or another wondered how they should behave, what they are doing here, and what is the purpose for their existence. Human beings can hold opinions concerning a vast number of states of affairs or possible states of affairs. Human beings have an innate propensity for curiosity which embraces far more than any other animal It is doubtful that similar thoughts ever enter the minds of other animals. They can certainly learn and some show remarkable ability in so doing, but to reflect internally on things which lie outside of its basic drives if it exists at all, is minuscule compared to the ability of human beings in this connection. Human beings have an innate propensity for a curiosity which embraces far more than any other animal;
    So we have to consider the question as to what use is this philosophical trait which human beings possess. Are they just wasting their time in idle thoughts, idle speculations, considering problems which in the light of present knowledge, have no solution. In addition to wasting their own time they also waste the time of others in their deliverance of very often complex and almost unfathomable treatises which they call Ontology, Epistemology, Ethics et cetera. One criticism of all this is that philosophical speculation about what is or might be uses up resources that could be used to apply philosophy to existing problems concerning survival. The point I’m trying to make here is that human beings are unique in so far as having the capacity to apply their mental acumen to problems which are not necessarily central to the daily round of living. For a considerable period of time, philosophy has been gradually spilling over into science, but neither of these disciplines could exist without the natural curiosity that man has about things. and his ability to question and lay plans for the possible solution of problems, which do not appear at that juncture, to impact the more mundane problems of living a daily life.
    The point I’m trying to make with all the foregoing is that human beings are naturally philosophical creatures with a curiosity which extends beyond the mere basic essentials of life.

  7. Creativity, usually stems from nebulous ideas; some vague impression built upon a little bit of logic, empiricism, and speculation.

    To remove philosophy as a useful endeavor would hinder our ability to find innovative solutions in science, art, and ethics. It just happens to be the way we think. Maybe someday philosophy will have no benefit, but not yet.

  8. “One stock criticism of philosophers is their uselessness:”

    And a French existentialist, would draw on a Gitane, blow smoke and shrug; what is usefulness?

    Usefulness is subjective. A wristwatch is useless to cow, but .. and you can completely disappear down the rabbit hole. And ask, is there any ultimate use for the subject. And if you can’t think of one, then the hole chain of usefulness collapses and everything is quite useless.

    If a philosopher or an ethician is asked, by a military type person, whether the use of one kind of munition is more ethical over the use of another. How should the ethician respond. Here the military person does have a use for the philosopher, but the naïve philosopher may find themselves like the engineer; considering how they can get as much gas through the pipe as efficiently and quickly as possible, without considering the people they may be gassing.

    By arguing that one munitiion is less ethical than another, the less ethical weapon now makes the more ethical one, ethical. As, ethical is the opposite of unethical. The military person cheerfully marches off to bomb a village, with their ethical weapon. And the ethician, can say, that’s not what I meant. But, why the hell did you think that bloodthirsty psycho was asking you the question for in the first place. What kind of use did you think he’d put your answer to.

  9. JMRC,

    Quite right-what counts as useful is itself a philosophical question about defining value.

    Interesting point about the relative ethics of weapons. As you say, a really bad weapon makes other weapons seem better by comparison and this can be used to warrant the acceptance of the less bad weapon. For example, the machine gun was initially regarded as a horrific weapon (Gatling wrote that he wanted to reduce deaths by lowering the size of armies and also show how futile war is), but weapons like poison gas made it seem less bad. So now machine guns are regarded as morally acceptable weapons of war. So, perhaps the moral trick is to make ever more horrible weapons so the generals and politicians can say “we are not using the worst weapons we could be using.”

  10. Re Mike La Bossiere July 28th

    So, perhaps the moral trick is to make ever more horrible weapons so the generals and politicians can say “we are not using the worst weapons we could be using.”
    Which is already the case.

  11. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Interesting point about the relative ethics of weapons. As you say, a really bad weapon makes other weapons seem better by comparison and this can be used to warrant the acceptance of the less bad weapon.”

    It’s an even broader problem. And an unusual instance for ethics, in having applications and consequences in the real world.

    Militaries need ethics otherwise it’s just the Glanton Gang. But if they intend to use ethics in bad faith, whatever commentary they’re given, they’re likely to deploy as an unethical weapon in itself. The use of phosphorous munitions against personnel is prohibited by the Geneva conventions. Violations of the convention are actionable as war crimes that can be prosecuted in the international criminal court. The US military frequently reiterates its’ commitment to high standard of ethical behaviour in warfare by saying it abides by the international conventions. The US military do not use phosphorous munitions against enemy personnel, instead US soldiers are trained to call in phosphorous strikes on the equipment of enemy personnel. And the abides business is also in bad faith; the US is not a signatory of the Geneva conventions, nor does it participate in the International Criminal Court, though it demands other countries hand over those sought by the court.

    Abide, is one of these strange cowboy words. I think it means to admire something very much, and see it’s necessity, for other people.

    If requested by the US military to give an opinion on the ethicality of using something as innocuous seeming as a mousetrap, offer no response. There is a likelihood they have something in mind that at the very least could be said to be unpleasant.

    However, if you want the US military to be defeated, do proffer a comment. The most effective weapon against the colonial and imperial powers in the last century, has been their own lack of ethics. Bomb a village to send a message to a small band of malcontents, and they mysteriously grow in number. Repeat the same strategy expecting a different result, and they grow larger. Until, you get to the point you don’t know how you’re going to get out of there without it looking like the fall of Saigon.

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