The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, March 8, 2012
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Being a public agency employee, I spend some time each workday perusing a variety of web sites. Nothing that could get me into trouble, of course. I look for interesting, well-written articles, not for lurid pics or video.

One of today’s interesting articles was on the Atlantic magazine web site. It was a discussion with a professor of philosophy named Nick Bostrom on the possibility of human extinction over the next few hundred years. During the chat, the good profession made a quick aside that I found just as interesting as his various doomsday scenarios. I.e., that even if we don’t go extinct, evolving social, economic, technical and environmental trends could conspire to create a rather unpleasant world, a bit of a hi-tech revival of the Dark Ages.

Here’s what Prof. Bostrom had to say about that:

Of course there are also existential risks that are not extinction risks . . . One could imagine certain scenarios where there might be a permanent global totalitarian dystopia. Once again that’s related to the possibility of the development of technologies that could make it a lot easier for oppressive regimes to weed out dissidents or to perform surveillance on their populations, so that you could have a permanently stable tyranny, rather than the ones we have seen throughout history, which have eventually been overthrown.

Hmmm, a stable authoritarian regime using high-tech tools to keep an eye the rebels and rabble in check. Hate to say it, but doesn’t that sound a bit like modern China?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:44 pm      

  1. Jim, I have not yet read the article–and will write another comment when I finish reading when I can get to it–in a day or so.

    But I find myself wondering: Couldn’t one take another point of view–that things will be positive, that good will happen to the human race, that instead of becoming extinct it will evolve….into a kind of life we cannot possibly imagine. Think of it: 500 years ago would the people who lived then even imagine the world we have today–to say nothing at all of people who lived 2000 years ago (or more).

    Then too, I think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his view of the human race, the human phenomenon. I doubt he’d come up with an idea that the human race would come to extinction. I wonder if what we have now would surprise HIM. Maybe he’d say, I told you so.

    But as I say, I’ll give the article a chance, read it as soon as I can get to it, and comment. So, later…. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 9, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

  2. Jim, I read “The Atlantic” article and it was much more than I tho’t it was. Mr. Bostrom has some interesting ideas that give one pause for tho’t.

    This article and Mr. Bostrom’s tho’ts reminded me of the book I read back in the 1960s—A Canticle for Liebowitz. (I think this book must be long out of print; yet I still have my copy on my book shelf.) This book’s theme is that humanity continually almost totally destroys itself, leaving only a few to survive. These few survivors then, over one or two millennia gradually rediscover what the previous humanity had, reconstruct it, and again humanity destroys itself again, leaving only a few clues for the survivors. . . etc. I’ve tho’t about that book often over the 40+ years since I read it, particularly when it comes to the possibility of nuclear war. I ask myself, will humanity destroy itself this time, leaving only a few survivors. . . .

    As to Mr. Bostrom, I find myself thinking that in the end, he goes back to what seems to me to be a closed idea: “Why wouldn’t future humanity be just more and better of what we already are/have?” (My words for what I think his idea basically is.)

    What I did like about his concept: I agree with him when he considers that humanity may be fooling around with something it has no experience with when it meddles with biotechnology and synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and nuclear weapons, for starters. He’s got a definite point when he says humanity has survived all sorts of environmental changes (cold/hot/warming changes, that sort of thing) but has had no experience in surviving information technology tampering with things humanity has never dealt with before. (Well, that presumes that perhaps Atlantis is simply a myth and never actually existed.) Canticle for Liebowitz wasn’t far wrong, perhaps; I think there may be a good idea here. (Which leads me tangentially to the piece on “60 Minutes” I saw recently about Symantec discovering the Suxnet (sp?) program prowling around all the computers in the world, looking to undermine surreptitiously Iran’s nuclear program. A Pandora’s box opened when Symantec discovered this program obviously designed and set in motion from either the USA’s CIA or from Israel. Now this program can be used in so many ways against us and/or Israel.)

    Some years ago a moral theologian said that humanity was toying with a lot of biological “stuff” (e.g., test tube babies for one, fertility treatments for two) that churches had not begun to even think about having any considered, learned opinion regarding. And here we are perhaps 15 years later and most of the churches have little—actually nothing truly practical—to say for their followers that makes any real sense of what is available scientific-wise–and now not only in the biological area.

    The reporter interviewing Mr. Bostrom asks if there might be “more to human flourishing than just increasing mastery of energy sources”. Mr. Bostrom says, “Certainly.” But then starts talking about “large-scale colonization” in the galaxy and beyond, which to me is a really limiting concept, as if the only possible way humanity might grow or evolve would be in some external manner.

    I find myself wondering what the evolution of humanity would be like if it grew inwardly rather than outwardly. Specifically, what would humanity be like if its consciousness evolved and its sub- and unconscious grew and evolved. What would humanity be like if we knew much more about our own consciousness? Here I do not mean simply more about how the neurons of the brain allow consciousness to express itself. I refer to consciousness, the intangible aspect, growing and evolving; and the subconscious and unconscious growing and evolving.

    I do think that here humanity has already some experience of growth and evolution as it already has evolved. Surely, we have not reached the pinnacle of evolution in these intangible areas.

    Maybe we are doomed to a scenario such as A Canticle for Liebowitz envisons. Mr. Bostrom does have some excellent ideas that certainly should be considered, but I find myself ultimately disappointed in his conclusions as I think he misses the point of evolution as de Chardin (see my previous note to this particular blog) would have considered such evolution of humanity. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 10, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  3. Jim, And another tho’t: I have done a lot of reading about China. Yes, China will weed out its dissidents and does have them. Yet China has a very different view of society than we have. Our emphasis is on the individual in society, and our individuals take that very seriously. But in China the emphasis is on society and the individual is not always necessarily averse to submitting him/herself to China’s society as a whole.

    I tend to think that Russia is likely to be a country that will unhesitatingly squash the individual for the sake of the political powers that be.

    So I tend to think that Russia sounds more like what Bostrom was talking about than China. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 11, 2012 @ 9:45 am

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