Monday, March 17, 2008

The Aftermath of Absurdity: H?

The title of this post ("The Aftermath of Absurdity: H?") contains an oblique reference to the futurist philosophy known as transhumanism. Transhumanism, as the Wiki link shows at the time of this writing, is occasionally represented/symbolized by the characters >H or H+ to indicate progressing beyond humanity in its current form (which is presumably symbolized by H). I will use H?, then, to indicate a curiosity or uncertainty about what exactly a human is in the first place, before we go about augmenting it.

What does it mean to be human?

It means to be a finite being {limited to subjectivity; prey to irrational impulses; hampered by the physical world} with aspirations toward divinity {sub species aeternitatis; pure rationality; transcending physicality}. Even those of an atheistic persuasion frequently seek this divinity in one way or another--and, in fact, the atheist strives to see through God's eyes much more often than the theist, since the theist normally considers the very thought blasphemous {Lucifer went astray when he desired God's position; humanity was punished when it built a tower meaning to ascend to the heavens; and, of course, original sin is the very product of seeing through God's eyes--the serpent tells Eve that knowledge of Good and Evil will make her godlike, and this is indeed what condemns humanity}. When the scientist desires to understand the operations of the universe beyond our immediate ability to perceive {knowledge of particles; the constituents of stars; DNA; functioning of the body}, when she desires a simple system of laws from which everything else may be derived {Grand Unified Theory}, she is desiring to transcend her senses (and all that which is given immediately and simply) to discover the true nature of reality--something which, presumably, only a god would have direct access to. What was the pre-human world like? How was it formed? What "makes" a plant grow? Does the universe exhibit counterfactual definiteness? If not, is Laplace's demon an impossibility? Would a god be subject to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, or to the observer effect?

The aspiration to know this, coupled with the apparent impossibility of truly knowing, is one of the things that makes the human absurd. So many humans for so long have wanted to know what goes on "behind the scenes," and wanted to transcend this paltry, unreliable chunk of biological flesh and bones. Science/technology is presumably our best bet to facilitate this transcendence: it allows us to cleverly sneak around the limitations placed upon us by Nature, augmenting our vision through microscopy and telescopy, detecting and analyzing electromagnetic waves beyond our senses' ability to register, measuring quantities which we could never observe unaided. And, with the deepening of our knowledge, the greater becomes our ability to construct devices which manipulate nature for our own ends. This is the transhumanist goal, and, to a lesser extreme, the intention of nearly every technological endeavor since the dawn of time: harness natural forces so that we may prolong our life, ease our suffering, enable our own enjoyment.

Ever since we first realized that we could more regularly and readily find food if we planted seeds in the right kind of earth, that we can use sticks and rocks and other things to help us hunt and defend ourselves, that we can warm ourselves with animal skins and leaves, we have been on this path. The path which will make us God, perhaps? The path toward perfection?

Perhaps not. Perhaps I again assume too much about the rest of humanity, and I ascribe lofty, grandiose ambitions where they may not be entertained. Perhaps most people want simple, material/social comforts; they are not concerned with knowledge, or even with "transcending" the physical body through virtual reality and cybernetic augmentation. But I think they must be, otherwise why would the promise of heaven be so enticing? Why else would television and computer/console games enjoy the intense, sometimes addicting popularity that they have?

But then, perhaps it is only philosophers who dream this way.

What does it mean to be a philosopher ("What does 'P?' mean")?

Among other things, the philosopher examines presuppositions which underly our most fundamental beliefs. She makes the implicit explicit. She wanders the borders of human thought, heroically grappling with those speculative concepts which are on the outer limits of our ability to reason about, attempting to "make sense" of it all. ("Make sense" is an appropriate way to describe the process: humans often rely on metaphors derived from our senses when attempting to apprehend an abstract concept. See Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by George Lakoff and Raphael E. Núñez for some fascinating examples of how humans tend to map abstract mathematical concepts onto familiar experiential concepts.)

Now, the curious thing about philosophizing is its notorious "arm-chair" method of inquiry. In contrast with the empirical sciences, philosophy presumes to discover knowledge in a peculiar manner: reasoning built off of common intuitions, supplemented and refined by 1) the arguments of other philosophers, both those from the past and those contemporaneous; and 2) the discoveries handed down from the sciences. Rather than going out into the world and poking about, setting up controlled environments and acquiring measurements to discover regularities, the philosopher sits atop a mountain of academia, arguing vociferously about the ultimate truths of possibility and necessity. Truths applicable, presumably, to all modes of knowledge and all realms of inquiry--that is to say, truths applicable universally.

Early science - natural philosophy

This has not always been the case: during the Modern Era, "natural philosophy" gained prominence with its new-fangled focus on experimentation. A number of noteworthy philosophers either contributed directly to what we now call science or influenced it strongly with their theories, such as Descartes, Kant, Sir Francis Bacon, and Leibniz. Isaac Newton's legendary tome that lay the groundwork for classical physics was titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or "mathematical principles of natural philosophy." Newton and the other members of the Royal Society certainly considered their work to be "natural philosophy," and the continued use of "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society" as a name for the longest running science journal in existence is a testament to that attitude. This was by no means exclusive to the Modern period: Aristotle may have been one of the world's first biologists, for all that his conclusions were rife with what we now know are accuracies. Copernicus and Galileo no doubt considered themselves philosophers, etc. etc.

However, with the rise of natural philosophy and its subsequent successes came a devaluation of regular philosophy. By the 19th century (or perhaps the early 20th at the latest), "natural philosophy" had separated even farther from traditional philosophy; it was hereafter known as "science." Strong borders began to appear between the two, spurred on by the anti-metaphysical, pro-empirical agenda of the logical positivists. Since then, science, along with every other field in academia, has undergone a radical process of specialization: we have the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, then the social sciences of psychology and sociology (and perhaps economics and political science, depending on where ones draws the line). Finally, we have mathematics and computer science, which are hardly empirical, yet they are of such a systematic nature and of such relevance to science proper that they often fall under the general category "science." This segregation of subject matter seems to have arisen as a method of shared labor, or divide-and-conquer strategy: as scientific knowledge accumulates, it becomes inefficient--perhaps impossible--for one person to stay abreast of the current research, and impossible furthermore to devote one's own time to experimentation and theorizing toward the many facets of science at once. Specialization in academia, not surprisingly, mirrored the socio-economic specialization that sprung forth during the Industrial Revolution in the form of division of labor, mechanization, and streamlined factory assembly. Not that it was a new concept: Plato's Republic, Hume's Treatise, and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (and no doubt other sources) advocated specialization as the key to efficiency; and, indeed, natural selection itself preceded every thinker through the specialization of cells within an organism and the specialization of individuals within a pack or colony. However, the exponential, near-simultaneous growth of technology, population, science, and the humanities in the last two hundred years exquisitely highlights the role specialization has played, and it is doubtful we would have made the progress we have without it.

Specialization, in conjunction with cooperation, is a wonderful thing which enables synergy--a mysterious emergent property resulting from the pooling and interaction of individual components. Unfortunately, specialization has its drawbacks too: namely, the walls which develop between the expert and the non-expert. Mathematics is a perfect example; from what I hear, mathematics is perhaps the most inaccessible field even to expert mathematicians: at the highest levels of specialization, there might be some ten or fifteen people in the world capable of fully understanding what a given paper tries to prove. A mathematician who studies one niche branch of mathematics may be completely lost when faced with another.

So what does this have to do with philosophy? Well, philosophy was the mother of all inquiry--rational speculation began here, but academic subjects splintered off into child fields that have since then gained their own prominence. In the case of the sciences, that prominence now dwarfs philosophy such that philosophy is the "handmaiden of science," at best, and useless dialectical gobbledygook at worst. And, the inaccessibility that is a byproduct of specialization exacerbates the divide by making it difficult for science to communicate with non-scientific disciplines (see C.P. Snow's Two Cultures for a notorious take on the gulf between the science culture and non-science culture).

So, I suppose I am interested in what relevance philosophy has to non-moral matters. Is there any point to philosophers talking about science and mathematics when many scientists and mathematicians pretty much ignore us? If we have ascertained that philosophy does not give results the way that science has, what role does it play for us? I am interested in science and mathematics, but I do not have the training nor time required to get a full grasp on what the experts are doing. Should this concern me? Is there anything that can be done about it?

Is there a way to be a better/improved/augmented philosopher ('P+'), and what is the relationship between 'P?' and 'H?'?

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