This series of articles on Slate, written by William Saletan, and a response here, might be of interest to some people, centering on an issue that recently came up in the news. Personally, I cannot endorse what Saletan says, and I hope by all accounts that he is mistaken.


Fun with Technology

One of these days (today?), I'm going to redesign my sidebar to match up more with my new trajectory. But for now, here are a couple of interesting pieces of technology news.

First, is an opinion piece from PC Magazine rightfully complaining about the primitive attitude that American consumers have about robots. We're too obsessed with robot uprisings and worries about sex robots to take home robotics seriously, the author rightly complains. This is why Japan and other parts of SE Asia are years ahead of the curve here--and further fuel for the inevitable 21st century ascendancy of East over West. (Also, largely why I'd like to move to Tokyo one of these days.)

Second should be something even idiotic American Luddites could appreciate: growing organs from scratch! We're not quite there yet, but according to this article, we may only be a decade or so away, because nature already does so much of the work for us. It's extremely promising, showing how (again, stupidly misguided) American fears about raising clones to harvest organs are totally misplaced. I wonder what Biblical verses the fundamentalists will be wrangling up to oppose this particular advance...


Informal Review of John Harris's Enhancing Evolution

This evening/morning I finished one of the latest books on human enhancement (HE) by renowned bioethicist John Harris. Enhancing Evolution aspires not simply to argue for the permissibility of HE, but also to defend a moral obligation to use such technology, particularly with respect to procreation, and to help foster research which could lead to it.

I'll be frank. Harris is not a particularly gifted author--if enhancements to writing ability emerge, he would be wise to use them. His sentences can be long and digressive, and his organization of arguments is a bit jumbled. He also has an annoying tendency to rely on citations of his past publications in lieu of developing more elaborate arguments.

Despite these shortcomings, there is much of value in the book. He does a nice job of showing that the arguments against enhancement are largely based on prejudices and intuitions that result from fear and limited imagination. His treatment of Leon Kass--if I had to choose an archenemy, Kass would certainly be the odds-on favorite, so great is my hatred for him--is pointed and downright hilarious.

His main argument--although not explicitly suggested as such--is perhaps decisive on the issue. It's essentially the same argument for a woman's right to choose abortion, or an individual's right to take psychotropic drugs in the privacy of his own home. It begins with what Harris calls "the democratic presumption":

One of the presumptions of liberal democracies is that the freedom of citizens should not be interfered with unless good and sufficient justification can be produced for so doing. The presumption is that citizens should be free to make their own choices in the light of their own values, whether or not these choices and values are acceptable to the majority. Only serious real and present danger either to other citizens or to society is sufficient to rebut this presumption. If anything less than this high standard is accepted, liberty is dead. [72]

As Harris notes, this is essentially the principle that Mill defends in On Liberty. It puts the burden on those who would restrict research into or employment of enhancement technologies. The issue is not, are enhancements morally right, but rather, is there a good enough reason to forbid those who judge them to be desirable from developing or using them?

This emphasis on individual choice (and parental choice in the case of germline genetic engineering and other reproductive technologies) is what distinguishes contemporary proponents of genetic enhancement from the much maligned eugenicists of the previous century. Equating the two is nothing but guilt by association.

What was problematic in eugenics is not the motive to better humanity--indeed, any society which enforces compulsory education has such a motive--but the totalitarian imposition on individuals that would compel them to undergo selective breeding or participation in dangerous experiments. Indeed, if anyone is close to the totalitarian spirit here, it is those who would restrict me from using the enhancements I desire to use on myself or my offspring.

I love this argument often employed by HE proponents (especially its nifty reversal of totalitarian roles--who's the Nazi now, Luddite?)! With the exception of certain conservatives, virtually everyone subscribes to this democratic presumption. The problem is that they are inconsistent in its application, especially when it comes to technology and HE.

On top of this central argument, Harris does an admirable job of showing how a right to individual self-determination as suggested here can be extended to include choices over offspring. The primary reasons given for denying such reproductive interventions, when teased out, amount to mere fears and prejudices.

For instance, the harm that might be caused to a child who grew up knowing they were designed is seen as compelling enough to restrict liberty. Potential psychological harm (of which there is no evidence; children of in vitro fertilization certainly seem to adept well enough despite the "artificial" process which generated them), especially when we're talking about children who are hopefully designed to be more resilient to such things, is by no means decisive.

Moreover, his consideration of the moral status of embryos is perhaps the best discussion I've seen of the subject (although admittedly I am not well versed on the extensive literature here). The most ingenious point is his discussion of embryonic splitting and recombination. An embryo of four cells can be split into four separate single cells, each of which can develop into a fetus (indeed, identical twins are the result of this kind of process). However, they can also be brought back together into a single embryo that will develop as normal.

So what has happened if we split an embryo into four and then recombine them (a process in which no matter is created or destroyed, but only rearranged in space)? Have we spawned four lives from one, and then killed off three of them (in which case we might also ask, which of the four would survive)? Applying the doctrine of ensoulment at fertilization only makes things more absurd; can souls split and recombine too? (Incidentally, even if it is the most popular view, ensoulment is a vulgar prejudice that I don't take too seriously; the kind of people who advocate it are not likely to be the kind that respond to reason.)

This example is also useful in addressing those who try to argue for value in potentiality. If each embryo can actually develop into many different individuals, do we have an obligation to split every embryo as much as possible in order to realize their full potential? Similarly, with the right technology, virtually any cell in the body could become a distinct individual (all that is necessary for this is the genome that every cell contains).

Embryos are just (collections of) cells. They have no intrinsic worth or value. Deal with it.

Lastly, I like his treatment of the issue of disability in relation to enhancement. He uses a simple distinction to show how the rights of the disabled have no moral force for preventing HE. Just because we value a certain trait in ourselves or our offspring by no means entails that we disvalue individuals who lack this trait.

For instance, if I were to lose my hearing, I would strongly desire to restore it through whatever technological means necessary. This reasonable desire is totally consistent with regarding the deaf as individuals who deserve the same legal and ethical status as anyone else. The same applies to distinctions between the enhanced and non-enhanced; a kind of egalitarianism can be maintained here, should one desire to do so.

In the end, I give Enhancing Evolution a half-hearted recommendation. Some of its arguments and discussions are excellent, but others are the usual fare of HE proponents, and all the while one has to deal with Harris's sometimes garbled prose. However, I would strongly recommend reading chapter 8 for his vicious and entertaining take-down of Kass (and Habermas, to boot!).


Something unexpected...

Last night, I inadvertendly induced in myself what might best be described as a mystical experience. I won't say how I did so, but I must say that it was very educational. I've had experiences somewhat similar, but nothing quite this intense.

This is a subject I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on, looking at James' Varieties of Religious Experience and at later research in what is sometimes called "neurotheology". As can be expected, the firsthand account cannot be captured in words, but I can see that the terms often used make some limited sense of it.

There's a sort of feeling of oneness, a sense of unique insight into the world and a profound feeling of certainty, and a kind of sublime awareness so intense that it led me alternatively to cry, laugh, and then do both at the same time--at least, I was unable to tell at one point which it was.

I felt like I finally understood what the Greeks tried to capture in their tragedies; I experienced a confirmation of the Heraclitean hypothesis "panta rhei" (everything flows; all is in flux; there is no being only becoming); and I realized that the solitude I have recently been trying to celebrate comes at a heavy price, that is, I saw with clarity how necessary it is that I connect to others and end this partially self-imposed loneliness. This last insight has provided a much needed remedy to the cynicism which has been dominating my thoughts of late.

What is remarkable about these experiences is how open they are to interpretation. At no point did I ever get the sense of a divine presence--which is one thing that people often talk about but which still remains foreign to me. Indeed, the experience was intensely solipsistic in a certain respect. I even felt that reflecting upon my prior knowledge of the causes of such experiences actually enhanced it in a unique way.

I, of course, recognized that the scientific account is no more adequate than the self-reports of mystics. I even saw more clearly than before how both traditional religion and scientific dogmatism are on the same self-defeating page here, denying that which is directly in front of them for the sake of something not immediately experienced.

I think Sam Harris, who I wrote about relatively recently, is dead on about the importance of such kinds of experience and the practices that surround them. The atheist who denies this aspect of life is throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I saw with such clarity how such experiences are nothing but a natural side effect of all the various modules that make up that "experience machine" that is constituted by various parts of our brain.

If you think about all of the aspects of experience that we take for granted--the feeling of our bodies in space (proprioception), the distinction between our self and the rest of the world, the differentiation of the world into individual objects that persist over time, the capacity for intense emotional responses, etc.--you can see how messing with this subtle chemistry by meditation (or other more direct means) can produce amazing results that, to the uninitiated, could suggest contact with some supernatural force.

As for me, I had a very "naturalistic" kind of mystical experience. I still believe the universe to be utterly indifferent (and almost entirely outside of our grasp), but I see how value, worth, meaning is real despite the fact that it can only be created by tiny parts of the world that, like cosmic mirrors, reflect the universe back on itself. We may just be ephemeral modes of being, but we do constitute something qualitatively different.

If there is such a thing as the "divine", it's a distinctly human divinity (or, to be open to the possibility of other kinds of beings capable of the same, a finite divinity). If there is anything like immortality, it is the immortality of the singular moment, the kind of eternity that I think Wittgenstein recognized which made him see it as irrational to fear death.

I am still grappling with the recognition that everyone who undergoes these experiences emerges from them with a feeling of profound certainty about whatever knowledge they gained from them (such so that I am skeptical about any such knowledge claims), on the one hand, and the possibility that the reason they are so sure is that they actually did see some truth, on the other. (As Spinoza suggests, truly adequate knowledge is incapable of being doubted.) I also don't know whether I wish to try to induce further such experiences in the future. But, at least I'm feeling pretty good today, in the wake of all of this.

There are other things, more personal things, that I won't say here. I'm still not exactly sure what to "do" with these memories now. I at least wanted to have some written record so that when the less intense aspects fade further, I might be able to recall them some other time. And, I must admit, I find some value in sharing this experience with others (pretending for a moment that people actually read my exhibitionistic logorrhea).


Now what?

So I gave my paper on "robocracy" last night. I think it went quite well. I got some great questions from my peers, who actually took it seriously, and in light of their criticisms, I think I'm going to abandon the idea.

(The basic premise: Plato's Republic w/ superintelligent machines serving as the guardians, i.e., rule by [hopefully benevolent] AI experts.)

I think I'm going to try to take a more "descriptive" approach to these issues. It's difficult enough to lay out what the future is going to look like. I want to wait and see what forms artificial life and intelligence takes in the future before I advocate making them part of the political structure.

Generally speaking, I think I'm going to put some of this AI stuff on the back burner, and focus more on the issue of human enhancement. I am more or less convinced now that ordinary, unmodified humans will go extinct this century. But human extinction is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we are replaced by something better.

For a nice intro to the subject, I highly recommend this lecture by Michael Bess. He lays out some of the expectations and a lot of the relevant moral concerns. Even if you have no background at all on human enhancement, it should make sense (it was written for a popular [educated] audience).

If there is one thing I lament about losing confidence in the AI-ocracy schema, it's that now I come very close to being perceivable as a "prophet of doom". I frankly don't see anyway humanity can be saved. Our creations are already out of our control, so how could we possibly hope to prevent weakly godlike intelligences from destroying our species? Our best bet is probably to enhance ourselves, but that may result in a different kind of loss of humanity.

And I'm just not sure whether that's good or bad. So much of what humanity takes itself to be is simply the product of ignorance, chance, and wishful thinking. It's mere pretense, flight-of-fancy, romantic sentimentalism. I'm not even sure what I value about our species, except perhaps the ability to recognize this (that our reason has some power over our affects) and our creativity and innovation.

But, these things are the province of a slim minority. On this logic, it makes no sense for me to be anything other than an elitist. I'm content to put the rest of humanity on a par with the bulk of mammalian life. That's not to say they don't warrant moral concern--we should not be cruel to animals--but they certainly don't deserve any reverence or respect. I suppose I shan't miss them when they're gone.


The End of "Atheism"?

This is a fascinating piece from the recent conference of the Atheist Alliance in D.C. by Sam Harris who--along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett--is regarded as one of the "four horsemen" of the new atheism. However, in this speech he argues, I think cogently, that we should abandon atheism both as a term and as a structured viewpoint.

(He makes analogies with "non-racists" and "non-astrologers" and points out how claiming to be an atheist lumps one in with nasty people like Stalin, at least in the minds of the religious.)

The speech apparently caused quite a stir, with one woman even vowing to throw away Harris' books in the Q&A session, but it reflects well on his author that he chose to be frank with an audience that was hoping for something quite different. I particularly like what he says about meditation and other such practices, in defiance of atheistic conventional wisdom.

My days of being a militant, anti-religious atheist are in the past, but I have tended to still use the term, even writing about it in a recent post. I think that I may continue to use it when forced to select among options for "religion" on various websites (it's the shortest answer for me to that question), but I have no reason to go around advertising myself as one.

On Facebook, where they allow you to type in a response to the religion question, I've called myself an "unbeliever", a description which is both apt and less problematic. I am also fond of the terms "materialist" and "naturalist"--although I also like to call myself an "unnaturalist", but with a different sense of the term "nature".

(If, by "nature", we understand the universe [or if you prefer, multiverse] and everything in it, I am a naturalist [as opposed to a supernaturalist], but if we instead mean that which is opposed to civilization, artificiality, and technology, I am an unnaturalist. Incidentally, if by "god", we understand the totality of all being, I am not an a-theist, because that "god" exists by definition. In short, a lot of this stuff is just a question of the meanings of words, but since these are always manifold, labels can be misleading.)


Untimely Reflections

Every time I read Nietzsche, I get the sense that all of 20th Century philosophy (the interesting stuff, not all-too-clever "analytic" claptrap) is, to twist Whitehead's phrase, a footnote to Nietzsche. It has become impossible for me not to be inspired as I pore over his words, especially his last few books.

Many of the social maladies that he was the first to diagnose have only continued and worsened. We live in such a thoroughly mediocratized age that even the elite are afraid to be elitists. People of superior intelligence and creativity are made to feel guilty for their talents. (And while it can hardly be said that we "deserve" such things, since they are parceled out by chance as it were, we should certainly not feel bad for possessing them.)

I think Nietzsche is wrong to the extent that he ties some of his valuations to gender and race (of course, this may be a bad interpretation of his use of "types"). Indeed, it is an advancement that our age strives to look past superficialities like sex and skin color. However, we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Evaluating individuals on account of group identity is a mistake; evaluating individuals per se is not.

The mediocratic spirit is virtually uncontested in America today. The one area in which we allow the flowering of productive conflicts and the ascendancy of the victors--the business world--is corrupted by its extreme short-sightedness (profitability in the upcoming fiscal quarter as guiding ideal). The race to the bottom that is called "politics" in America today disgusts me, to be sure, but when we go behind the scenes--looking at those who control money, media, power, the fabrication of reality--the stupidity of the corporate world just becomes more nauseating.

The temptation when reading Nietzsche is to want to cast oneself as a master, as a free spirit, a true philosopher. But most of us don't have the stomach for it; we are too much the product of our anti-elitist culture. So, let me be frank. It is impossible to have democratic or socialistic sympathies and to be Nietzschean. This may not be a problem, of course (who wants to be merely derivative of some previous thinker?), but let's at least not lie about it.

Perhaps it's the years of living alone, a lifelong paucity of friendships and other close relationships, the tendency to drift apart from my peers when I do discover them--in short, my solitude--that has allowed me to read Nietzsche differently than when I was a naive undergraduate. I complain of loneliness, sure, but I need solitude, time to reflect, to talk to myself, to take a break from the hell of other people (and exchange it for the purgatory of my own mind). I've had more than my fill of it lately, to be sure, but I should not be ungrateful for the effects it has had on my development. Still, it makes it even harder to resist that temptation...

As I begin to embrace my more meritocratic, even aristocratic, sentiments, I find that I have a lot of assumptions to rethink. The unidimensional range of acceptable political opinions--not simply in political theater, but in academia in particular--is especially constraining. The issues I care about don't fit anywhere on a left-right axis.

If I had to summarize my ideals, I would say that I want to see the improvement of humanity--but what does this mean now?

Contrary to prevailing tendencies, I think we should, as far as possible, make nature--and especially human nature--submit to our will. This, I think, can be the ultimate triumph of humanity: the recasting of the world in our image. But not "our" in the sense of just anyone. Those individuals who are truly exceptional--and I think these will eventually be, for the most part, those we call "posthuman"--should be the ones to do this. If we must have democracy to keep the masses in line, then let us also have a Solon, let us have lawgivers who can craft the appearance of popular sovereignty. And among those lawgivers let there be real equality.

And now we come to the real difficulty in espousing such opinions. My intense desire for honesty, and not simply directed toward myself, leads me to make public what might better be kept private. But I am not ashamed of my radical ideas (and for the time being they remain relatively unthreatening, drowned out in a sea of other voices) and sometimes I want to invite trouble, to make life a little more interesting. In any case, I change my mind often enough that I have no problem distancing myself from previous assertions if necessary. Old opinions get boring after a while anyway.

Nevertheless, I should tame my vanity and recall Descartes' parting maxim: Bene qui latuit, bene vixit (or, better yet, Spinoza's Caute!). Perhaps reinvigorating an old custom and writing in Latin would be worthwhile (because not writing is simply not an option). That would just leave me with the task of learning it... (Damn these American public schools!)


Depression and Human Enhancement (HE)

Here's something really neat but possibly scary to the uninitiated. The article, "Happiness is a Warm Electrode" in Popular Science details a new treatment for depression that involves, as you might expect, implanting electrodes in certain parts of the brain.

Called "Deep Brain Stimulation" (DBS), it does exactly that, and has been effective for about 2/3 of the couple dozen who have undergone it, and apparently a larger trial involving 100 patients is in the works. Most notably, the patients who are undergoing the surgery are ones who have not responded well to drugs or even ECT (electro-convulsive therapy). (Incidentally, DBS was first used on patients with Parkinson's disease, and has proven to be an effective treatment there.)

Of course, the usual suspects are comparing this to the lobotomy and other sense nonsense. I think such an assessment evinces a crass misunderstanding of what depression is and what treatment of it entails. An effective therapeutic intervention for depression should produce what Spinoza calls "joy" (laetitia), that is, not merely happiness but an increase in an individual's power to act.

And in the case study examined in the article, DBS does precisely that. A woman who could not even muster the energy to get off of her sofa and clean her house has her life turned around by the procedure. She finds herself able to communicate more effectively with friends, family, and even strangers and is able to get out and exercise more. The transformation is rather extraordinary.

When I think of human enhancement, this is precisely the sort of thing I have in mind. This woman has changed who she is, but what she was before was essentially a defective human being. People are afraid to make value judgments like that, and they try to skirt around the issue, but it's the truth. This is a good that technology can allow: HE as an enhancement of our humanness.

Of course, it can move us above the human level as well (and this is what is typically distinguished as "enhancement" in contrast to "treatment", although I obviously question such a distinction). But isn't becoming something greater than what one is "naturally" a distinctive part of what it means to be human? To me, that's the part that matters, not the biological substrate.

I'm beginning to get a clearer sense of what I want to write my dissertation on. I want to challenge the simplistic, sometimes positivistic value judgments that proponents--and in a different way, opponents--of HE implicitly or explicitly make. However, instead of merely criticizing the notion of HE, I want to put forth an alternative formulation that draws on ethical thinkers like Aristotle, Spinoza, and Nietzsche (my philosophical triumvirate, as it so happens).

In other words, I want to develop a richer conception of what it would mean to improve humanity through the use of technology, one that is responsive to the criticisms coming from, for instance, Adorno and Horkheimer, certain strains of feminism and environmentalism, and so forth.

(The criticisms coming from the religious are of little philosophical interest to me; they are based on a fundamental disagreement not simply in premises but, as Wittgenstein reminds us, in ways of life. In other words, there's no point in arguing against them. Religion will have to be defeated by other means. [I'm thinking robots. :-) ])

I have many details to work out, but I think this project is quite workable and certainly worthwhile from my standpoint. It's unpopular and perhaps even offensive to many academics in the humanities, but as far as I'm concerned that's a plus. (Haven't all great ideas been initially regarded as distasteful, foolish, crazy, and downright dangerous?)


Assorted Musings, Political, Technological, and Otherwise

After many months of actually working hard, I've finished all of the papers that I was working on, and now have additional free time on my hands to do, among other things, some blogging. Have written something like 150 pages just over the course of the summer, I'm more confident about finishing this program on time so that I can move on to better things, such as locations outside of the South.

I wrote on a variety of subjects, many of which went to the heart of my interests, and sustained reflection and research on these matters has led me to question old opinions and values. But there have also been some unanticipated side effects.

For instance, having abstained from reading political blogs for the past several months in an effort to use my time more productively, I think I've discovered that I enjoy not being engaged in politics. If nothing else, I'm less angry than I used to be. I've been reading snippets in the news here and there, but blogs have been excluded almost entirely.

Instead, I find myself reading more about technology. I recently purchased a subscription to Wired, a magazine run by techno-libertarians, but nonetheless one which addresses issues I believe important. The nice thing about technology news is that--with the notable exception of apocalyptic forecasts and so forth--it's on the whole positive.

The kinds of discoveries and inventions emerging in science and engineering are often astounding, and it's one area in which something like progress can be identified. (Speaking on the descriptive level here; the repercussions of new advances reside in far murkier waters.)

(For instance, I read in Wired just today that researchers at Wake Forest have successfully grown human bladders as replacement organs by extracting muscle and other tissue cells from, I assume, individuals in need of a transplant. This is a huge breakthrough that could totally revolutionize medicine if it could be extended to regenerate other organs and body parts.

The very same technology should, in principle, allow us to "grow meat" by cultivating muscle tissue from various animals. Thus, not only could we replace the horrific practice of factory farming with something probably more cost effective [at least, in the long run] and cruelty-free, but we could also have more control over things like fat content, I imagine, to make for healthier meat. Perhaps people will be uneasy about eating meat grown "in a vat" or whatever, but eventually we'll get used to it.)

But, really, my politics have changed, and I find myself now concerned with emerging issues that transcend our current simplistic political divide. I still detest the Republicans, if for nothing else than their anti-science ideological tendencies, but I identify less with the American left now. It's not as though I've ever strongly identified as a Democrat (I've registered to vote either as independent or as Green), but I am now more wary of the Ludditism all too often found in the left (especially among academics in the humanities; just because they can't do math they have to take it out on the whole scientific enterprise!).

While I still have a lot of interest in human enhancement, I've been reading up more on artificial intelligence. I feel more confident about a few predictions for the future (leaving aside the timescale issue). The 21st Century will, more likely than not, result in the end of human civilization as we know it. Either we will enter a new dark ages, make ourselves extinct (and take quite a few other species with us), or in the worst case eradicate virtually all life on earth (I suspect some strains of bacteria will survive). There is a slim chance, though, that we will be able to control our technology well enough so that it makes life for us a paradise.

It all hinges on the development of hyperhuman intelligence (to use the terminology of researcher J. Storrs Hall, whose excellent Beyond AI has been my pleasure reading of recent). Autogenous, that is, self-developing, AI could quickly grow many times more intelligent--or at least more powerful--than any human government. They might seize control of world affairs, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, because they could try to organize the world to make life better for us, and they might be able to stop the existential threats posed by rogue bio- and nanotechnology.

Our best bet is to develop strong safeguards, a kind of conscience for our machines, that would prevent them from viewing us as a threat. If done right (a big "if", mind you), I think it could result in almost godlike beings that would have possess wisdom orders of magnitude greater than could be found in any human being. (I've been working on an argument re-casting AI as the Platonic philosopher-kings of a Cyber-Republic.)

My thinking is that to be a capital-D Democrat, it is probably necessary to at least be a small-d democrat, and it is questionable whether I fall into the latter camp anymore. In a world growing in complexity at an exponential rate, why should a mob of bigoted, mouth-breathing yokels have any say at all in how affairs are conducted, and why should I entrust non-expert politicians who neither stand for nor understand anything of significance to make national decisions?

I should be clear. I am still interested in many of the values I espoused when I more readily affiliated with the left. I would like to see effective freedoms (within reasonable limits), basic provisions (guaranteed life necessities, medical coverage, access to advanced technology [free wireless internet for all!]), and justice (that is, everyone getting what is appropriate for them) for everyone. I just don't think popular sovereignty is an effective way of bringing this about. The prejudices of the vulgar are just too strong--and when it comes down to it, we are all vulgar.

I think I agree with Winston Churchill's apocryphal description of democracy as the worst form of government except for all of the other ones. Indeed, it is a lesser evil (although a hybrid form of democracy and aristocracy like, say, Madison preferred, might be an even lesser one). But new technology brings new possibilities and we should ask ourselves whether there are not better ways of achieving the goals we have when we settle for democratic governance.

For now, I think I might just call myself a non-traditional democrat, if for no other reason than the ostracism that someone who said they were opposed to democracy would likely face in today's political climate. But really, this is not a stretch, because I have strong Enlightenment values that lead me to favor democratic outcomes, just not procedures based on popular sovereignty. (Perhaps I will write more about this later.)


And now for something completely different...

Let's talk about a topic I almost never consider: sports.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't care about something like Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's record. (Back in the day, when I was in my early teens, I was a huge baseball fan for some reason. Now I find the game painfully boring and would never watch it on TV.) However, I was taken aback by this article by some sports writer named Dan Wetzel.

Bonds has hit 756 home runs, the most ever, but it isn't just the number that comes with a performance-enhancing-inspired asterisk. It's Bonds himself, it's baseball as a whole, it's an era of sports where rule-breaking is rampant and honest heroes such as Henry Aaron are in the shortest of supplies....

If this was supposedly the making of history, then realize history isn't going to make much of this. Ten, 30, 50 years from now, it will be looked upon with bewilderment – did people really celebrate a phony number that punctuated a fraudulent era of the game? No one will give much credence to what happened in Major League Baseball from, say, 1996 to the advent of mandatory steroids testing.

The truly naive one here, however, is Mr. Wetzel if he thinks that baseball will be the same game in 50 years. Steroids is only the tip of the human enhancement iceberg. What happens when you start having genetically modified players or cybernetically enhanced ones?

You can disallow these things (so long as they are detectable) but eventually they will become so common that you might have a repetition of the split that took place in bodybuilding, in which an "anything goes" level of competition was implemented to allow for a separate "natural" series of events.

I find sports a diversion, but it will likely undergo even more radical changes in the future at just about every level. It is absurd to think that the performance enhancement era is at a close because of steroid testing. If this is a problem now, it's only going to get worse when more and more drugs and procedures become available.

But really, what is particularly naive is the simplistic natural/unnatural distinction that Wetzel unthinkingly reiterates. Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, there's a gene that can be modified to allow for enhanced pitching ability, hyper-fastballs and so forth. What difference does it make whether a mutation occurs randomly in some gamete or whether it was induced in a lab?

Moreover, are the training regimens that players use today "natural"? Aren't they also a type of technology that enhances performance?

Of course, when you start to ask questions like these, you begin to see how silly the competitiveness of sports is--perhaps even human competitiveness in general. When we see a record being broken what we have is the confluence of certain biological dispositions and a developmental history that allows greater expression of the potential(s) in question.

Perhaps someday the world will, say, see someone run a 3 minute mile--perhaps this person will even be born "naturally" and not take any drugs or have any special surgeries or anything like that. Given enough time and enough people (along with greater recognition of natural talents and better training programs designed to exploit them) you could see just about any record broken. But what of it?

And if it is so thrilling, how would "unnatural" record breaking be any less thrilling? Isn't that still some amazing human accomplishment? If certain games became too easy, new challenges are always waiting to be found.

And in team sports like baseball, enhanced batters would have to be up against enhanced pitchers and fielders, for example, so that you'd have the kind of "arms race" you see in nature between predators and prey. There'd remain some equilibrium that would allow for the "excitement" of competition. (Here, it'd be going a bit too far perhaps if I simply said the cure for performance enhancement was... more performance enhancement. But I'd like to say that.)

Sports may be dumb, but sports writers can be even dumber. (That might be a fun final line, but even I recognize it's grossly unfair. This issue of enhancement is a serious one in which there are many implications and much room for reasonable disagreement. It would be interesting if Bonds' achievement provoked dialogue in this direction.)



(Forgive me for the rambling and verbose nature of this post; I may write another later with a more concise statement of what I'm trying to say, but right now I am thinking as I write. Even more than in my usual habit of posting, this is an exercise done for the sake of aiding in reflection. I highly recommend the post immediately previous to this one, if you're looking for something coherent.)

Utilitarianism functions on basically two simple premises: "pain is bad" and "pleasure is good". Combined with a kind of reductive mechanistic conception of the universe, its logical conclusion is found in the example of Dave Pearce and his Hedonistic Imperative, about which I have written before.

The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

Mr. Pearce is just about the most consistent person I've ever had the opportunity to speak with. While the value of consistency is debatable, I think it important that individuals who are sympathetic to utilitarianism realize what their ideals would lead to--and I have had my utilitarian moments.

Recently, I have been working on a paper on Nietzsche and the value of pain and suffering which has exploded for me the simplistic stance of the utilitarian. Upon further reflection, there is far more taken for granted than the pain=bad/pleasure=good equivalence.

One possibility I hope to open up with my investigations is a more refined utilitarianism, one with a more sophisticated understanding of pleasure and pain. With such a view, a precise hedonistic calculus would be impossible--but, of course, not even Bentham was able to come up with an applicable instance.

Let me venture this: the appeal of utilitarianism today is due to the difficulty with which we moderns have with the assignment of intrinsic value. A plurality of conceptions of the good--to use the classical language of liberal political theory--leads us to doubt that anything is simply valuable in itself. All goods are instrumental, it seems, only good for certain other purposes. Under such a formulation, though, the real questions of morality are dodged--this is a valuable insight to be taken from critical theory--because an instrumental logic can foster any purpose, from ending poverty to systemic genocide.

So what does the liberal or pragmatist or modernist have to fall back on? I think there are actually two slightly different but related answers to this question. First is the obvious case of pleasure and pain. If anything is intrinsically good or bad, these seem to be the most likely candidates. Second is a notion taken from William James' oft-cited "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life", in which demand--desire--is what is taken as primary. Something is desirable only if it is desired--and indeed John Stuart Mill uses this proposition to argue for the validity of his system.

Even here we can start to see that pain and pleasure are a bit more complex than they might at first seem, because of their relation to desire (not to mention other human affect). Allow me to leave pleasure to one side, because I think pain is the more interesting case, and much of what I say about it applies to pleasure.

As far as I can discern, there are at least 3 aspects to any pain: 1) the "hurt", the raw visceral feel of pain, pain as sensation; 2) nociception, i.e., the information that pain conveys, such as the report of (potential) tissue damage; and 3) a desire, viz., that one not be having the experience that one is having, a demand that things be otherwise.

There is a significant question about how separable these different aspects are. Individuals who are unable to experience 1, also do not experience 3, and fail with respect to 2. These individuals tend not to live very long because, so it seems to me, nociception is the adaptive aspect of pain, its evolutionary raison d'etre. This is one example, in which a mutation led to the incapacity to feel pain. Perhaps it is the case that 1 & 3 are inseparable, that it is the very nature of pain to desire that things be otherwise, or that the hurt of pain inevitably leads to this desire. It's hard to say precisely. A good test would be if people are capable of feeling pain but "not care" so to speak. I think I've heard of such examples, but I can't seem to find any medical/scientific references right now.

What Pearce wants to do, basically, is find an alternative pathway for nociception that doesn't "hurt". In other words, if possible, he wants to find a way that allows for the transmission of information about tissue damage that causes--and this is vital--the body to react in the appropriate way. We could think of it as something like a more advanced reflex. Does this mean he wants to eliminate 1 or 3 or both? For the sake of argument, let's say both, since we know that movement can be caused by things other than desire.

But when we start to advance this analysis, we see that what is taken to be valuable is not simply pleasure and the absence of pain, but also something like survival, self-preservation. If this were not the case, then it would be just as desirable that there be no conscious life at all, or that there only be organisms that are in a constant state of bliss with automatic systems working to prolong this capacity.

Nietzsche's reflections further complicate this picture. In The Gay Science he says a number of remarkable things about pain, e.g., that violent stimuli as such are neither painful nor pleasant but must be interpreted one way or the other by the body, that those who complain the most about pain are the ones who experience it the least--a brilliant insight almost certainly true--and that pain has value insofar as it produces individuals who are not simply mediocre. Contrary to what might be argued, he doesn't simply replace pleasure with "health" or "life-affirmation" or something like that; he even suggests that his notoriously erratic health has value because of the insight and different perspectives that it affords.

Moreover, there is not just one kind of health, or one kind of suffering, for that matter. Utilitarianism is essentially a universalistic approach to ethics, which assumes that the pain/pleasure experienced by different beings is comparable and interchangeable.

Personally, I think that I must give up utilitarianism's ambition to find a source of intrinsic value in an otherwise instrumental world. Let us ask the question, what is pain good or bad for? I don't want to be romantic or sensualist here, and take any kind of experience as worthwhile simply for being something new and different, but it seems to me that even the undesirable aspect of pain, whatever that may be, has effects we would consider positive.

I think one of the biggest problems with America today is its relative isolation from suffering, death, poverty, and all the various unpleasantnesses of the world. There is something to the idea that suffering builds character. Yet part of me wants to say, what's so great about character? Would it be bad to be extremely sensitive to pain in a world in which pain scarcely existed?

What if it were possible to transmit the memory of pain w/o the pain itself? We could learn the lessons of pain without having to feel it. A real question that Nietzsche raises is whether a diminution in the capacity for pain entails a similar reduction in the ability to feel pleasure. I think this is a more complicated question than could be answered by saying something like, "the neural pathways/specific brain chemicals/genetic determinants of pain and pleasure are distinct".

What about other unpleasant affects? Personally, I detest fear, probably even more than I do pain. Is fear painful? Not exactly, but I doubt that Mr. Pearce would be satisfied with a world that abolished pain but let fear remain. What about anger? Righteous anger can be a pleasant feeling, but one can get burnt out feeling angry all the time--one reason why I've practically stopped following American politics, at least for a while.

What about desire itself? Doesn't any kind of desire demand something different? Would we want all desires instantly to be satisfied? Stoicism and Buddhism agree in seeing desire as the source of all suffering, but most of us would not want to minimize our desires as they advocate--and it's certainly foreign to the consumer capitalist spirit. Desire is a great example because it is, by its nature, a source of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction.


What I'm hoping to do is raise some questions about the moral status of pain and suffering. While a world without either is still entirely fantastical, it is helpful to reflect on what we think makes life valuable or disvaluable.

I would like to suggest that what is least desirable--in the ethical sense--is sadness, in the Spinozan sense. Sadness is simply the feeling that accompanies a diminution in power. It is, in a sense, the counterpart of eudaimonia. Unlike other kinds of suffering--that is, undergoing, experiencing--sadness makes the individual less open to experience and less inclined to action. Sadness slows the speed of thought, and focuses the mind on a small number of fixed ideas; it reduces motivation and colors the entire world.

But even here, I cannot help but wonder if there isn't a beauty in sadness? Or is this simply a pretense? Would we not do well to take to heart another teaching of Nietzsche's, that what human beings truly cannot stand is the meaninglessness of suffering? Do we make sadness beautiful to make it easier to bear?

I feel like Descartes at the beginning of the 2nd Meditation. When you begin to ask questions not simply concerning the satisfaction of desires but about what ought to be desired in the first place--particularly in this nihilism-inducing postmodern world--you are going to run into trouble.

It seems to me I have come up against a reason why the social engineering of utopianism is problematic. Value is the creation of a historical process. There is simply no ground to stand on if you try to start from scratch. I think there is some truth to what James suggest about desire as the only possible source of desirability, except that desires should be differentiated more than just according to their intensity. Some desires, like self-preservation and self-development (self-enhancement?) are more important because they make other desires possible.

Nietzsche asks the question of the value of systems of valuation. Is value itself valuable? Should we desire more desire? Is not the quiescence and perpetual satisfaction of the utopian ideal--not to mention the ideal of heaven--indistinguishable from death? Is life anything more than conflict, suffering, desire, will to power?

I have no clue. To continue to speak in Nietzschean terms, my will to truth here is effectively trumping all of my other drives. Maybe I should just pick some value scheme and go with it. I mean, whose judgment do I really care about here, other than my own? I think I might just go with the whole transhumanism thing, because it's interesting and unpopular.


Against "Against Happiness"

But should alienation always be eliminated? Some lives are better than other kinds of lives, regardless of the psychological well-being of the person who is living them. And some kinds of lives are so soul-deadening that we might worry more about a person who was not alienated. Is the happy slave really better off than the alienated slave? Is a medicated Sisyphus obviously better off than an unmedicated Sisyphus? Is there not something disturbing about trying to medicate that alienation away?

Kramer seems to miss this point. He argues that in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus had imagined Sisyphus happy, despite the fact that the gods had intended Sisyphus to suffer. But the happiness or unhappiness of Sisyphus is not the issue. What is the issue is the wisdom of making psychological well-being the sole measure of a successful life. It is not hard to see why a psychiatrist would put Sisyphus on Prozac. Prozac might well help Sisyphus push the boulder up the mountain more enthusiastically. Sisyphus might even appreciate the prescription. Yet this would not mean that Sisyphus had a mental health problem. Sisyphus is in a predicament, and to understand his predicament you cannot simply look at his internal psychological state. You must also understand his circumstances. Given the fact that he will be pushing the boulder up the mountain for eternity, alienation seems like an appropriate response. [emphasis added]

This moving passage is from Carl Elliott's poignant review, entitled "Against Happiness", reviewing Peter Kramer's book Against Depression. Kramer is well known for his Listening to Prozac, an early account of the impact that antidepressants could have on people's lives, well Elliott is the author of the excellent Better Than Well, a "diagnosis" of the American cultural anxiety surrounding the tension between ideals of authenticity and self-improvement. I've read all 3 of these works and I would recommend all of them to individuals interested on this issue.

Elliott finds that Kramer's polemical new book, which tries to argue against people who romanticize depression, is aimed for an audience that scarcely exists. And insofar as it is targeted at an American audience, this is to a large extent right. When I read Against Depression, this did not occur to me, because as an academic in the humanities, I encounter people who try to justify depression all of the time, along with those who decry the overuse of antidepressants and other psychopharmaceuticals.

Regardless of whether the book has an audience, it does address a serious issue. Elliott gets at the heart of the matter in the portion I emphasized above: Should psychological wellbeing--happiness as most Americans understand it--be "the sole measure of a successful life"? This is a question I have struggled with for a few years now--perhaps since I started taking antidepressants myself--and the only response that makes sense to me is "yes".

Even though Elliott does a better job than most in his attack on the "medicalization" of what were once considered character traits (drunkenness as alcoholism, awkwardness as social anxiety, sadness as depression, etc.), the force of his appeal must ultimately be an emotional one. In fact, it's the very same appeal that you find in all kinds of arguments against the use of enhancement technologies on humans. Elliott asks, don't we find this whole business a little disturbing?

A lot of people do. I for one don't. Yes, sadness does have a function in human life. Yes, widespread alienation in the developed world is likely a consequence of the ways in which these societies are organized. Yes, it's a luxury that we even have the opportunity to think about questions of happiness--I was recently reminded of how, for so many, practical matters associated with survival and making a living rule out consideration of such things--let alone to choose many of the conditions of our lives according to whether we think we'll find them fulfilling.

But what does that matter to me as a depressed individual? I cannot change the fact--or at least, I would certainly not want to--that I live in an affluent society that allows me to pay little attention to basic issues of survival. Right now it's unfair, but I think this is a better way to live and I would love to see it more prevalent throughout the world, because it's a way of life that allows us to ask questions of how we ought to live. Moreover, we now live in an age in which we can inquire not only about the requirements of living and of living well, but also of the possibility of living "better than well".

Of course this makes a lot of people uncomfortable. One reason I think this is so, although Elliott doesn't explicitly raise it, is that the existence of this possibility depends on a lot of social conditions which are unjust and produce a lot of unnecessary suffering. Besides America's various underclasses, there are many developing nations in which persons are ruthlessly exploited to produce cheap consumer goods. Similarly, many of us lack awareness of the sordid and bloody history of attaining and sustaining this affluence.

I think that this is an excellent point. In focusing on one's own individual contentment, it's easy to lose track of the massive amount of unjust suffering in the world. However--and this is my central argument against a position like Elliott's--while in a state of extreme sadness, one simply lacks the motivation and the energy to do something about that.

As Spinoza understands it, and rightly so I think, sadness is a recognition of our impotence, of the ways in which we are limited. Nothing is gained by feeling sad about something that cannot be changed--such as the past--and something is lost or at least endangered, viz., our capacity to do something positive, if we feel sad about those things which we might be able to affect.

While sadness might have some evolutionarily adaptive value, it is simply a counterproductive feeling and is by no means a necessary prerequisite of bringing about positive social change. Sadness is the real luxury, not happiness. Alienation may be "reasonable" or "appropriate" in our society, but it sure as hell won't change anything.

Let us return to the example of Sisyphus. Keeping in mind that his situation is fantastical, I think that especially for him what matters is happiness. He is stuck in a situation he has no power to change. What does it matter if he, as Elliott interprets Camus, is happy, not in the sense of emotional wellbeing, but only in the sense of being conscious of the absurdity of his predicament? In other words, what does it matter if he is alienated? Perhaps it makes us feel better that his is an "appropriate response" to his "predicament", but it does little for Sisyphus except perhaps give him some feeling of moral superiority, a slim consolation indeed compared to the tragedy of his infinite torment.

As Wittgenstein so aptly puts it, somewhere in his notebooks, "The world of the happy man is not the same as the world of the unhappy man." And the difference between the happy world and the unhappy world can be the only one that matters in our nihilistic age. (This last point I recently wrote a paper about, so I will not develop it further for right now. By nihilism, I mean something like recognition of the contingency of all structures of meaning. In other words, every belief or value is simply regarded as a choice among numerous others, with no criteria upon which to choose. Picture life in the existential shopping mall, to use philosopher James Edwards' analogy.)

I am not convinced that medicalizing life's woes is incompatible with social critique. The suffering that depression brings about is as real as the suffering of malnutrition, although different in kind. It is certainly tragic that so many ignore the latter kind of suffering, but the cure for this is not to be found in the former. In short, this is why I am against "Against Happiness" and for Against Depression.


Problems with Technology

In preparation for a paper on Critical Theory and the critique of "Instrumental Rationality", I've been reading a number of articles in the philosophy of technology. As might be suspected from a discipline that has virtually eschewed any technological innovation--aside from the word processor, I can scarcely think of any concrete examples--most of them are critical, with some even celebrating their "Luddism".

Just today, I came upon a review for yet another book against genetic engineering by philosopher Michael Sandel, who I think I used to like. Called "The Case Against Perfection", it's typical of a certain class of problems that I'll explicate below. At least his critique seems somewhat novel, according to the reviewer, who calls it "half right".

Reading these various pieces has helped to clear up, in my own mind, what my general advocacy of technology more specifically entails, and where I am in agreement with its critics. To that end, I've been experimenting with a simple typology of problems, which I present in a draft form now.

I see two basic categories of problems, which I call "Problems of Destruction" and "Problems of Transformation". With respect to the former, I am on the same page with the most rabid of Luddites; it is the latter that I am less inclined to think of as problematic. Of course, these categories are not likely to be exhaustive--I can think of some examples which seem to fit into neither--nor mutually exclusive; they are simply schematic.

I) Problems of Destruction, as might be inferred, are those that deal with issues of survival. These include various threats to individuals, species, the environment, civilization, even life itself.

Certain fields like the recently emergent "synthetic biology"--a name I only came across days ago, but which already seems ubiquitous on the net--along with other sectors of biotechnology and nanotechnology have the potential to unleash massive devastation on par with nuclear holocaust (but without all that messy radiation). The engineering of a super-virus not found in nature or something like the infamous "gray goo" scenario (in which self-replicating nanobots are let loose and convert the entire biosphere into copies of themselves) would be examples of this.

(Artificial intelligence and robotics pose different kinds of threats, such as replacing human beings, which are considered by some as instances of the other class of problems. Insofar as an artificially intelligent civilization might mitigate the risk of other kinds of destruction, I find myself potentially sympathetic. This is an area I'll have to return to.)

Less destructive examples include pollution and other industrial processes which contribute to global warming, as well as more locally situated contaminations. The development of biofuels--undoubtedly the stupidest way of trying to resolve the energy crisis so unsurprisingly one championed by our president--poses significant dangers which have largely gone unrecognized. According to a recent report human beings already consume a quarter of nature's productive capacity, a figure which would be made even worse if fossil fuels were simply exchanged for biofuels.

Threats to the survival of human beings and other life would be regarded seriously by all but the most misanthropic. Efforts like the green energy movement and oversight of the most dangerous areas of research would be in our best interest. Those who resist these measures are simply not examining long-term consequences. Unfortunately, some major corporate players fall into this camp as a consequence of our brand of capitalism which is incapable of looking ahead more than a couple of years, usually being focused on this quarter's earnings and whatnot.

II) Problems of Transformation are more problematic in their problematicity. (As ugly as that last sentence is, it conveys what I want to say tersely.) Sandel's diatribe against genetic engineering is but one of a broad range of examples. In essence, what I'm calling "transformations" involve significant alterations to established ways of life, some more profound than others.

Since at least the industrial revolution, we have undergone a number of significant transformations. We live very differently than did our ancestors. The more conservative elements of society are likely to lament this as a loss, but most people are happy to call this "progress". I use the more neutral term "transformation" to avoid overt bias, even though I tend more often than not to fall into the latter camp. (Also, it's foolish to view a change as progressive simply in virtue of the fact that it is novel.)

The largest areas of concern today seem to be the potentially radical transformations to human beings that come from "enhancement technologies" such as genetics and cybernetics. Many critics contend that the blurring of boundaries occasioned by such interventions threaten our "humanity", "dignity", "meaning", or whatever other romantic buzzword one cares to use. In the very least, I grant them that not all "enhancements" will necessarily be improvements.

The more sophisticated critics realize that humans will (by and large) adapt to changes and take them for a new "normal"--and see this as part of the problem. However, it is difficult for such critiques to find purchase; either they rest on some dubious metaphysical ground, or they rely on the equally dubious strategy of taking certain characteristics of human beings--like the way that certain things disgust or frighten us--as essential. Quite frankly, I think "postmodern" intellectuals have no basis for criticizing transhumanism except their individual prejudices, which are only valid to those who share them.

Other examples of this would include heightening of the gap between technological elites and those without access. I'm inclined to think that such partitions are more a function of capitalism than a necessary consequence of technology. In fact, I see no way of finding positive alternatives to capitalism without significant technological change. Proponents of technology like to see this gap as more of a "lag"; the poor eventually do get access, as can be seen, e.g., in the spread of cell phones in the developing world.

I think that this Transformation category probably requires some greater specification since it covers such a broad range of issues. What's important to note is the way in which they tend to effect not merely our material circumstances, but also our beliefs, attitudes, and structures of meaning. The latter is what is most scary to people, but as an anti-essentialist, I am unconcerned.

Social critics will always find ways to complain of deficits of meaning in a society; conservatives will always long for the good old days that never were; but most people will adapt. Clinging to the old ways of life I see as a consequence of a couple of factors. Often, it's just greater fear of unknown evils than of known ones. When it's opposition to ostensible improvements, it's a way to make people feel better about the unnecessary suffering that they had to endure ("suffering is just a part of life!", "pain is what gives human existence meaning", "our imperfections constitute our humanness", and other such drivel).

Most likely, the intelligent inhabitants of earth a century from now (if there are any) would not appear "human" to most people today. As for me, I see no reason to cling to an evolutionary accident. What matters are things like rich experience, intelligence, reason, happiness, meaningfulness, benevolence, and so forth. Whether or not such beings think of themselves as "human", perhaps as some nostalgic sentiment, is to me entirely inconsequential. (I think an extension of the category of speciesism would be appropriate here.)


Why do I call myself an atheist?

In researching this paper on Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion, I've been coming upon some really fascinating ideas. My understanding of what faith is and what it means to be religious has changed, and I think it valuable to attempt to apply this to my own particular faith, or lack thereof.

To begin, just like religion is many different things to many different people, so too is atheism. Thus, the answer I give will be above all a personal one. Other people may choose to take it up, and that might give me some measure of satisfaction, but by and large I'm indifferent.

In practice, I think the differences that I have from many religious believers, particularly those who are reflective and philosophically-inclined, are really not so great. A lot of it amounts to differences in the use of language.

I have no problem speaking in religious terms--I talk about God all the time, particularly when teaching. However, I feel no need to understand my life in terms of such categories. If I were to use the word "God" in speaking about my Weltanschauung, I would probably either follow Spinoza's usage and treat it as equivalent to nature (i.e., all that is, was, and ever will be), or use it as another way of talking about myself. I, of course, recognize that I am finite and imperfect, but nothing requires that God be otherwise except the conventions of particular faiths.

So, in short, I am an atheist because I have no need of God. In fact, I find very admirable the figure of Lucifer in Christian mythology. Not insofar as he as anything to do with human suffering--here, I'd be much more sympathetic to Jesus--but because he refuses to submit to God.

Following Wittgenstein, I see faith as, for the most part, an act of submission to authority. (It is no coincidence that Islam, for instance, is a word meaning "submission".) I submit to no one but myself, and so I am proud, but I see this as a virtue and not a sin (so long as the pride does not become overweening).

Incidentally, this is one reason I love the series His Dark Materials. Pullman does more than undermine traditional religion with this work. I see him as actually putting forth another ideal, which we might call the Republic of Heaven.

Most of us do not deal with God on a face-to-face basis, so the act of submission is in practice to worldly authorities--priests, politicians, religious communities, and so forth. Their invocation of God as ultimate authority is meant to put an end to questioning and independent thought; again, it is a call for submission. But why submit to God? Or if this is too objectionable, why submit to those who claim to speak for him?

In my own case, there is no good reason for unthinking obedience (under ordinary circumstances, but I can imagine exceptions). But I don't think this is by any means true of everyone. Nor do I condemn them for it. From some perspectives, reasoning and questioning authority only causes problems, leading people away from God and salvation, etc. It would be cruel of me to try to force people who are otherwise happy in their beliefs (however misguided I may find them) into another mode of thinking.

This point, in particular, is something I have wavered on. I've had my periods of militant, evangelical atheism. But why should I care about what other people believe? Unlike some, I have no salvation to offer. Nor have I access to some absolute truth or knowledge of some correct way of living. Religious tolerance is, to me, the only reasonable option.

In fact, it would be hypocritical of me to try to proselytize, since it is an activity that I find objectionable when practiced by others. Certainly, I can see why people do it, but here is a place where they cross the line between living in their own worlds of constructed meanings and attempting to infringe on mine.

But one can't help but wonder, what motivates proselytizing atheologians like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? I can't speak for them, but I know in my own case, the reason is primarily emotional. I just do not care for religion. At times, I even hate it.

Here now we must tread with caution. What exactly am I saying when I say that I hate religion? Case in point: I watched, for the first time, the movie Gandhi last night. In this instance, we have religion serving as a means of uniting people and overcoming injustice. It would be inhuman of me to want to rid the world of examples like Gandhi. Here is a case where, unambiguously (because there's no question here, unlike in so many other cases, of an individual justifying the violation of the very rules his religion provides with the excuse that the end justifies the means) where religion is a boon to humanity.

That is an atypical example. More commonly, we find individuals who perhaps do no great goods for the world, but do affect the people in their communities positively with support from a religious worldview. These more neutral cases I am tempted to dislike, but only because of association. In all honesty, I have no good reason for experiencing the irritation I sometimes do when encountering the typical, harmless believer.

If I am to be reasonable, I must distinguish between the cases where religion is harmful, and those in which it is positive or neutral. I don't really hate religion, per se, but only those cases in which people use it to justify violence or some other form of oppression, or when it is used as the basis for making decisions which would better be made on the basis of scientific evidence and critical reasoning.


I've become sidetracked. Really, there are just a few key points that I see as distinguishing me from most religious believers.

1. I grant the existence of genuine loss, of meaningless, unnecessary suffering in the world. Things do not always turn out for the best. No cosmic being has a "plan" that will make everything okay in the end. Life is tragic.

Of course, I think granting this is not simply a cause for despair. The world may not be as we like it to, but sitting around and crying about it does no good. Instead, we should do the best we can to make things better, for ourselves and everyone else.

2. I recognize meaning as a human construction. In itself, the universe lacks purpose or direction. All that can be said of nature outside of the human world is that it is. It is not good or bad, beautiful or ugly, comic or tragic. It simply is.

However, this does nothing to undermine all our structures of meaning. Even though I recognize any way of understanding the world as ultimately contingent, I do so within my own structures of meaning. One can never step outside of these--or if one could, one can say nothing about it, nothing meaningful (this should be self-evident).

There is no Archimedean point, no ground for neutral criticism of any worldview. If I take objection to someone's way of looking at life, if I call it unreasonable, I am presupposing a standard of reasonability (and, moreover, presupposing that reasonability is something valuable itself) that is, perhaps regrettably, not shared by everyone.

3. Lastly, as I have said before, but almost as a consequence of the previous two points, I have no need to use religious language in my own case. No cosmic being has my back, or cares in the slightest about me. The only support is that which I receive from other human beings. But this is enough for me.

In saying that, I realize that I am fortunate and that many people are not able to live this way. (Personally, I see this newly discovered strength as a consequence of the mental health treatment I've been receiving over the past several years.)

I also reject other religious conceptions without negative consequence. I deny freedom of the will, and yet I feel freer than before, insofar as I feel more self-determined (granting that I am only in this position as a result of contingencies totally beyond my control). I deny personal immortality, and yet death does not concern me, but only encourages me to make the most of the life that I have. I deny transcendent ethical categories, but feel no less committed to leading a life that is ethical by human standards.

I may be living proof that one does not need to be religious to lead a decent life (and I am not alone; many in the 17th century were perplexed by the case of Spinoza, a man who led a virtuous and happy life--he saw these two as coextensive--but who was regarded as an atheist).

I feel confident and self-sufficient, able to live without consolation. I'm perhaps happier than I've ever been, including those times when I was a believer (if for no other reason than I no longer am plagued by doubts about the truth of my worldview).

Moreover, I am not exempt from ethical concerns. Even though I recognize that no one is keeping score and that I stand to gain nothing from it directly, I still strongly desire to diminish suffering in the world. Watching the story of Gandhi really made this hit home for me. I felt more keenly the suffering of others than I have in quite some time.

Usually, I maintain a certain kind of distance, a general coping strategy that I tend to employ often (and unconsciously), to keep me from getting caught up in all the world's pain. Last night, I felt it. But even though it hurt, I ultimately felt the better for it.

I know now--and this is something I had doubts about before--that deep down I am a compassionate person. If I can care for my fellow living creatures when I stand to gain nothing from it, that can only mean that I am a good person. I hope this to be a countervailing force to many of my self-centered tendencies.

I can see firsthand how Spinoza can ground ethics in (enlightened) self-interest. Part of my self-interest is an interest in others. Regardless of the circumstances of my own life, I could not be fully satisfied in the face of rampant injustice and suffering.


If I had more time, I might organize these thoughts more coherently. I may incorporate some of them into the paper I'm writing, although they are on the personal side. I don't know that I've answered my initial question (I neglected to mention the strategic/prudential considerations, e.g., in the circles I run in, being an atheist is viewed favorably), but it is good to write out one's thoughts.


An Informal Review of The Courtier and the Heretic

As I begin to turn my thoughts to a paper on the philosophy of religion, I found myself this evening (which has now turned into this morning) gripped by a fascinating piece of intellectual history, viz., Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. I had read something like the first 5 chapters over the span of nearly a month, but tonight I just couldn't put the book down (when I tried to do so, I inevitably returned to picking it back up).

To begin with, Stewart is an excellent writer. This is a topic I already find interesting, but I think that he does an admirable job making something esoteric profoundly interesting and, above all, human. He takes to heart the Nietzschean maxim he cites that philosophies are merely expressions of the temperaments of their creators; the story he tells is more about the men and the times in which they lived than their ideas.

What little is known of Spinoza's life is something I'm already familiar with, but I knew next to nothing about Leibniz. Stewart's analysis of the two figures is perhaps a bit too neat to be accurate, but it makes for a wonderful account that is not totally implausible.

I find it difficult to determine which philosopher he sides with. More of the book is devoted to Leibniz (in part because he lived so much longer) but Leibniz characterized as a reaction to Spinoza.

In terms of the exposition of the two thinkers' philosophies, Stewart does an admirable job for a popular work. I can speak less for Leibniz, but on many of the most important points, he gets Spinoza right. He rightly recognizes Spinoza primarily as an ethical and political thinker (so too, Leibniz, for which he provides evidence ample enough to convince me at least).

He uses a few turns of phrase I don't care for: e.g., he talks about Spinoza's "parallelism" while simultaneously describing it as distinctly not that (unless a single line can be parallel to itself). Extension and thought are two aspects of the same nature, and he clearly understands this, so in what sense is this "parallel"? To me that seems a better epithet for something like Malebranche's fantastical "occasionalism" or even Leibniz's "preestablished harmony". He also follows Shirley in rendering what is better translated as "joy" and "sorrow" into the unduly austere terms "pleasure" and "pain".

The way he connects the two philosophers to two fundamentally different reactions to modernity is compelling, if a bit overstated. While throughout the work he is trying to argue for a greater than recognized influence of Spinoza (albeit a negative one) on Leibniz, his own thinking really comes to the fore in the closing chapter. I love the way that he unapologetically lumps Heidegger and the Postmodernists into the same camp as Kant and Hegel, essentially imitators of Leibniz's reactionary stance. It is by no means fair to these thinkers, but it is certainly amusing to imagine the reactions of their contemporary proponents.

He also makes a solid case for my suspicion that Locke is largely a hack who stole Spinoza's ideas without crediting him because he was too controversial. And in a few short paragraphs he demolishes the established practice of calling Spinoza and Leibniz, along with Descartes, "rationalists".

Do I regard Spinoza as a champion of modernity, as Stewart clearly maintains? I suppose it depends on what we understand by modernity, but Spinoza undoubtedly embodies many of the greatest values of the Enlightenment and was a thinker centuries ahead of his time. The world that we live in now, I think, is constituted largely by this struggle between the proponents of a secular society and a great hodgepodge of reactionary forces. On this note, Stewart's closing passages are particularly apt (the bracketed insertions are my own, obviously):

Leibniz was a man whose failings were writ as large as his outsized virtues. Yet it was his greed, his vanity, and above all, his insatiable, all too human neediness that made his work so emblematic for the species. With the promise that the cruel surface of experience conceals a most pleasing and beautiful truth, a world in which everything happens for a reason and all is for the best, the glamorous courtier of Hanover made himself into the philosopher of the common man. [What audacity! To claim a thinker so abstruse as Leibniz to be "of the common man" is obscene. I love it!] If Spinoza was the first great thinker of the modern era, then perhaps Leibniz should count as its first human being.

Spinoza, on the other hand, was marked from the start as a rara avis. [Philosophers cannot resist showing off their familiarity with dead languages even in purportedly popular works.] Given his eerie self-sufficiency, his inhuman virtue, and his contempt for the multitudes, it could not have been otherwise. [I think this is a bit overstated, and partially a product of our lack of knowledge about the circumstances of Spinoza's life.] Yet the message of his philosophy is not that we know all that there is to know; but rather that there is nothing that cannot be known. Spinoza's teaching is that there is no unfathomable mystery in the world; no other-world accessible only through revelation or epiphany; no hidden power capable of judging or affirming us; no secret truth about everything. There is instead only the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths; and the most important of these is that we need expect nothing more in order to find happiness in this world. His is a philosophy for philosophers, who are as uncommon now as they have always been. [An obvious allusion to Spinoza's final thought in the Ethics: "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare". I take this as evidence that he ultimately favors Spinoza, but I'm not always so sure.]

In contrast to the suggestion of this poetic denouement, I recommend Stewart's book to philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Finding decent popular accounts of Spinoza's philosophy is nearly impossible, and while Stewart has his flaws, the beauty of the historical narrative alone makes it worth reading. To everyone (and I know there are so many of you who read this) curious to understand what I find so remarkable about Spinoza, this is not a bad place to start.


What exactly is natural selection?

I am no scientist--my background in the sciences is, at best, patchy--but I try to learn what I can about the natural sciences. I can't help myself from voraciously consuming news of the latest breakthroughs (for instance, check this out), or from spending hours on Wikipedia reading articles on quantum mechanics that I can scarcely comprehend, or from dabbling in a little philosophy of science now and then.

One issue that has long fascinated me is evolution. A few years ago, I read Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and was impressed by the way he connected evolution to other physical phenomena. If we think about things in terms of the probability that they should exist--this is highly speculative but bear with me--we would expect to find, for instance, things that last a long time (like rocks) or that are frequently produced (like clouds). But add in something that can replicate itself--but does so imperfectly--and the history of life on this planet seems like a foregone conclusion. (This is a partial response to creationist "arguments" concerning the improbability of life.)

I've also had debates with colleagues about evolution, trying to argue on premises like Dawkins' that natural selection (leaving aside the phenomena of mutation/variation and genetic drift, which are in some ways more straightforward, as generators of a kind of "randomness") is a general physical process not specific to biological organisms. Even higher-level phenomena like culture and technology, I would say, undergo an analogous process in their development.

As it turns out there are physicists who are trying to argue exactly this. A common "criticism" leveled by creationist idiots is that life is incompatible with the second law of thermal dynamics (viz., that entropy in a closed system increases over time). Contrary to what we might think, living things actually do more to increase entropy than do non-living things. One physicist in particular, Roderick Dewar, has even argued that what natural selection is really selecting for is not something vague like "fitness" but rather "maximum entropy production" (MEP):

Dewar has shown that MEP is the most probable behavior of an open, nonequilibrium system made up of many interacting elements, provided that system is free to “choose” its state and not subject to any strong external forces.... The large-scale state of MEP represents the largest proportion of the countless possible arrangements of the system's microscopic parts, regardless of what those parts are up to.

Natural selection in biology could work the same way, Dewar thinks: “In physics, to speak of natural selection is to ask, among all possible states, which is the one that nature selects.” This, he points out, is a question of probability. “The state that nature selects is the one that can be realized in more ways than any other. Biologists don't think like that, but I want to entertain the hypothesis that natural selection in biology works the same way, and see where that gets us.”

The issues here are actually quite complex, and I encourage you to read the whole article, which includes opposing points of view and an alternative theory about increasing matter and energy "flow"--did someone say "Heraclitus"?

Part of what we're dealing with is a question about the distinction between living and non-living things, but it also pertains to the issue of scientific reductionism: is biology ultimately explicable in terms of physics? Personally, I'm inclined to believe in emergent properties that require "higher" levels of description to account for.

In any case, I think it advantageous to see natural selection as a more general--dare I say metaphysical?--principle. Some have even argued that a kind of selection operates between different universes--although this is too speculative to entertain as anything more than a neat idea. When it comes down to it, we may not be able to ask why there is something rather than nothing, but the question of why this something rather than another may be in bounds.


Emotions and Reason: Together at Last

The emotion-reason connection has now bled through to popular media, as evidenced in this Boston Globe article:

Ever since Plato, scholars have drawn a clear distinction between thinking and feeling. Cognitive psychology tended to reinforce this divide: emotions were seen as interfering with cognition; they were the antagonists of reason. Now, building on more than a decade of mounting work, researchers have discovered that it is impossible to understand how we think without understanding how we feel.


Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC, has played a pivotal role in challenging the old assumptions and establishing emotions as an important scientific subject. When Damasio first published his results in the early 1990s, most cognitive scientists assumed that emotions interfered with rational thought. A person without any emotions should be a better thinker, since their cortical computer could process information without any distractions.

But Damasio sought out patients who had suffered brain injuries that prevented them from perceiving their own feelings, and put this idea to the test. The lives of these patients quickly fell apart, he found, because they could not make effective decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. These results suggest that proper thinking requires feeling. Pure reason is a disease.

Besides Damasio (whose Looking for Spinoza is a must read!), the article makes reference to other theorists who I've been in the habit of reading, Jon Haidt and Josh Greene.

Spinoza, of course, goes unmentioned, but again we find that he was centuries ahead of his time.

(Tangential Remarks: Recently, I've been toying with some unusual interpretations of Spinoza, not so far from Damasio's neuroscience-infused account of the mind-body relationship. For instance, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics would be consistent with Spinoza's claim that everything that is possible exists.

Now I'm not so brash as to claim that Spinoza anticipated modern physics, anymore than he anticipated evolution with his outstanding refutation of intelligent design in Ethics I Appendix. Rather, like Damasio has argued with respect to the brain, Spinoza provides a framework for thinking about the sciences that is far preferable to other paradigms, like the Cartesian.

In a similar vein, Spinoza also seems to have a notion of identity as continuing proportion which meshes nicely with current ideas about identity as patterns of information--which has now led me to believe that mind uploading is possible [particularly if the upload is gradual, but perhaps even in the case of instantaneous transfer or the activation of a "backup" copy--imagine being able to "save" your life story!--it's something I've wanted to do for as long as I've been playing RPGs].

These recent ideas, which are extremely exciting, have spawned from my recent reading of Hans Moravec's brilliant 1988 work Mind Children. Moravec's solution to the problem of consciousness copying strikes me as brilliant, if extremely counterintuitive.

I hope to write more on this work at some other point, because it's been extremely fruitful for my thinking: so much so, that I think the more appropriate title would be Mind Fuck [which would be a natural predecessor to Mind Children, anyway.] The first 100 pages can be a bit boring, especially since he dabbles in what's state of the art for 1988 [i.e., even before the Internet], but beginning with the fourth chapter's discussion of the Robotic Bush [not the George variety, but the branching kind] things take a turn for the surreal-yet-plausible.)


Upon Further Reflection...

The musings of yesterday evening did not quite sit well with me, even immediately after writing them. While I do think the problem of technology is of vital importance, my feeling is that some of my political conclusions were over-hasty. I was caught up in the rush of radical new ideas and just got carried away. This post is a more critical take on some of the issues raised previously.

When one reaches conclusions that clash dramatically with the sensibilities of most others, it's a good idea to try to understand as well as possible what really underlies these conclusions, and whether they rest on secure foundations. Thus, I want to consider this from at least two perspectives. One is the rational and evidentiary basis of the claims, while the other is more psychological, looking at the factors that motivate the creation of the arguments.

First, it seems yesterday's conclusions depend on a number of presuppositions which I either failed to mention or inadequately argued for. The prediction of rapid progress is premised on the continuation of a trend that so far shows no signs of slackening, but it is far from certain that the conditions which support it will be stable.

While I mentioned the possibility of an apocalyptic disaster which other wiped out or species or at least destroyed a good chunk of it and ended civilization as we know it, I didn't consider other, more minor catastrophes which might serve to delay or reverse scientific progress. For example, the looming specters of global warming and the energy crisis constituted by the depletion of fossil fuels are significant problems which I've been content to lump in with other problems having merely technological solutions. It may be the case that we find new, cleaner sources of energy, or technological fixes to reverse the effects of excessive carbon emissions, but this is far from certain. One could raise other problems as well: instability caused by economic collapses and shifts in the balance of political power, wars over certain limited resources like oil, and so forth.

On top of that, there may be certain things which are just not physically possible to achieve, or that come with such adverse side effects as not to be worth pursuing. One could imagine certain genetic augmentations that disrupt a finely balanced natural system, or the problem of creating software to use all our powerful computing hardware to its fullest capacity, to name just two.

Next, in terms of the basis of the normative claims, it is by no means obvious that greater intelligence necessitates better judgment or wisdom. My inclination is to believe that this would be the case, but it's something of an empirical question, although one that is simultaneously normative since the meaning of better judgment is itself a question of ethical/political judgment. Furthermore, I downplayed the possibilities of other reasons why letting greater-than-human artificial intelligences decide for us might be undesirable. One such instance would be the importance for well being of the sense of being free to decide for oneself, determine the course of one's own life, etc.

Moving on to the second view, I find that psychologically my motivation in the previous post is highly misanthropic, in addition to being highly anti-natural. Now, granted, that I think this hatred of natural processes and of human beings is justified, but there are some serious repercussions to being so motivated. In the least, I need to offer a better justification for this attitude.

For the first time in my quarter-century or so of life, I have broken a bone. It happened I think about a month ago, but I didn't notice any effects of it until I started feeling pain in my right foot about two weeks ago, and it was not confirmed until just today after I had X-rays taken. Suffice it to say that it has reminded me of the frailty of human bodies.

Similarly, although it places me in a camp with some of the most violently ascetic individuals in history, there are many things that annoy me about the kinds of bodies that we have: all the effort that is required to maintain physical hygiene, the inefficiency of many systems, the unpleasant wastes that our bodies produce, the way that we get so easily tired by sustained activity, etc.

My body in particular is not in the greatest of shape, even after I devote considerable time to habits of maintenance. I have never been particularly strong or fast or resilient. Frankly, if not for safety concerns, I think I would be one of the first in line for a prosthetic body if such a thing should be developed. As it stands, I can easily imagine myself voluntarily opting for cybernetic limbs to replace my perfectly healthy ones, once these are safe and indistinguishable from natural limbs.

All of these shortcomings are to be expected by the unintelligent design of blind evolutionary forces. Unfortunately, as imperfect as they are they are still exceedingly complex, having reached solutions to problems of organization that we are not even aware of at the present. I think we will eventually design better bodies, but it may be quite some time. In the interim, the best option may just be to try to optimize the basic design that we do have, and this is a problem for biotech more than anything else.

Furthermore, I was explicit previously in my suggestion that suffering is pointless and worthless, but this is a bit of an overgeneralization. Pain certainly has an evolutionary function, which involves, among other things, learning how to respond to complex environments. What I see as another unfortunate consequence of nature's blind designs is that pain seems to accomplish the task of learning far more readily than does pleasure.

I have seen evolutionary justifications for this empirical fact, such as the far greater cost imposed by death (which must in turn be avoided to the greatest degree possible) versus the relatively small benefit accrued by successfully obtaining food for the day, or by one act of mating, and so forth. The consequence of this is that, on the whole, there is likely a far greater degree of pain than pleasure in the world, and to me this is simply unacceptable. On simple utilitarian grounds alone, it would be incumbent upon us to undertake to redesign natural processes as far as possible, so that we might reverse this pernicious trend with all its adverse consequences (e.g., the possibility of torture).

Lastly, on this note concerning my distaste for "nature" and "human nature", there are the myriad of social and political problems which I see as ultimately unresolvable. My contention is that most of these problems have at least two kinds of solutions, one of which is primarily social and the other of which is medical or otherwise technological.

For example, take the difficulties imposed on the handicapped in virtue of their injuries and defects. The problem here is fundamentally a mismatch between certain individuals and their social environments. To an extent, the environment can be altered: e.g., handicapped bathrooms and ramps are fairly common accommodations that society has made for those bound to wheelchairs.

But, rather than taking all that effort to redesign the environment--including some that are extremely difficult to change, viz., opinions and attitudes--we can attack the problem at an individual level. By screening for genetic defects, and by developing highly effective prosthetics, cures for paralysis, and so forth, we can simply eliminate the handicaps themselves. (And unlike the deplorable eugenics movements of the past, this totally avoids killing people; it simply remedies certain existing conditions and prevents certain genetic combinations from attaining life.)

Not all social problems may be resolvable on this model, but I believe that many of the causes of unhappiness in people can be so resolved, and this would be a major step forward. One can think of it as something like "applied stoicism": I change myself rather than my environment, because I have so little power over the latter.

In short, I like to see this as a problem of figuring out how reason can best overpower negative affects. I've been meaning to write a post to show why Spinoza would agree with me about all this technology stuff (and it's not even that big of a stretch, as I hope to show), but certainly we have a case here of people coming together (thus having more power than individuals alone) and crafting artifices which allow for more direct control of those things which disempower us. To my mind, that's what human enhancement truly is: the augmentation of our freedom.

Returning to the previous perspective (beliefs that underlie my conclusions), it is vital to note that certain conclusions I have reached concerning human freedom and divinity are essential presuppositions for me. I believe, but will not argue for here, that what is taken for free will is simply ignorance of the causes of our desires (for one excellent argument, see the invaluable Appendix to Spinoza's Ethics Part I). I maintain that the choices we are presented with when it comes to technological control are between numerous causes (of which we are ignorant) interacting in highly complex ways producing highly contingent effects, on the one hand, and more direct control based on scientific knowledge.

(As an aside, I use the word "choice" deliberately; I do not deny that we have the freedom to make choices. Rather, I maintain that the basis on which those choices are made consists of desires that are primarily the product of external forces--and to the extent that we can change our desires, this requires the operation of second order desires, whose origin will ultimately be derived from external factors.)

In short, the choice is between chance and ignorance, on the one hand, and control and knowledge on the other. To me, this is really no choice at all; only a fool would choose ignorance. The problem that most people face, and this is a point that B.F. Skinner, of all people, has made remarkably well, is that the external determination is more evident in cases of control (because, of course, we're ignorant in the more complex cases), so it's easier to see this as simply being manipulated. But, as I construe it, we're being determined to action either way; the path of knowledge though allows us to be more determined by our own nature, which is what I think true freedom is.

This should be sufficient for now. Let me to some extent rescind my previous rejection of certain democratic values, and leave them in a sort of questionable area, a matter of doubt requiring further reflection.