Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Teleportation and Metaphysical Risk

Via Matt Yglesias, we get the news that teleportation technology is not going to happen. The basic gist of the problem is that the amount of information required to fully reconstruct the human brain and body would be so large that it's inconceivable that it could ever be superior to more traditional modes of transport.

Interesting stuff. As he mentions, it's long seemed likely to me that teleportation would be most efficient for transporting goods, rather than individuals.(Of course, if you have the technology to reconstruct goods using stored information, you wouldn't need the original item, and the technology would be closer to a Star Trek-type replicator rather than teleporter.)  However, there's reason to be skeptical about any definitive conclusions. I, for one, am not ready to throw in the towel for teleportation just yet.

It's easy enough to say "we don't know what will happen with future technology." If we did, it would be happening now, and it wouldn't be in the future. Predicting technological advances is inherently problematic for this reason.

But even more than just this, we know that many of the greatest inventions we have now would obviously have been inconceivable for our ancestors. And this is precisely because many inventions required paradigm shifts in science that made us think about the world and particular problems in a completely new way. If teleportation is to be a viable technology, it seems likely that it would require some kind of paradigm shifting revelation.

After all, one way around the information constraint problem Yglesias cites is not to worry about information transfer at all! Instead of scanning an item, destroying it, and reconstructing it elsewhere, you could move the item through space-time in such a way that it wasn't constrained by the usual problem of distance. Such an achievement could be possible if small, isolated, and controllable wormholes were technologically possible.

Obviously, that requires a stretch of the imagination; but then, so does a complete sub-atomic scan and reconstruction of an object. Given the information quantities needed for scan-based teleportation, my money is on wormhole-based teleportation.

And as an added bonus, wormhole-based transportation of animals (including humans) evades any metaphysical personal identity worries we might have about scan-based teleportation. The worry is that if the physical continuity of my body is disrupted, by being deconstructed and then reconstructed, the person who comes out the other side might not be me. Derek Parfit famously concludes that such worries are erroneous, but this is controversial, and even he acknowledges that he would hesitate to to undergo scan-based teleportation. Assuming the physics work out, wormhole-based teleportation would preserve physical continuity, and thus raise no metaphysical worries. For this reason, I've always preferred wormhole-based teleportation, and am not disheartened by its rival's potential pitfalls.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Against the Middle Ground

It's often been said that the United States is too politically polarized. This strikes me as a problem with no solution--which usually indicates that it's not a problem worth talking about. If lots of people have one view, and lots of other people strongly hold an opposing view, the interesting question is, who is correct? Perhaps both sides are wrong and there's an answer somewhere in the middle, or perhaps the issue needs to be re-framed altogether. But we need to figure out which view is the correct one to have, not just complain that we have differing views.

I say this, in part, because I have some radical views. There is nothing wrong with being radical, as long as your position is correct. We often get into discussions about radicalism, polarization, extremism, and people plead for a middle ground. But the middle ground is just another position that requires a reasonable defense. There is nothing special about being moderate between two poles that should give a position any extra credence.

Historical examples of radicals can help. It might have been radical in 1800 to favor abolishing slavery. John Stuart Mill was radical for proposing that women should have equal access to economic freedom as men in 1869.

I might want an eight-foot deep swimming pool in my backyard, and my partner might not. It helps neither of us to install a four-foot swimming pool.

This point is closely related to one of strategy in many movements. For example, when Obama administration first got into office, they proposed a stimulus spending bill far less than what many economists thought was necessary. They didn't want to overreach--but because they moderated their position, the stimulus failed to be a effective as it could have been. What's worse, this gave many people the impression that fiscal stimulus doesn't work at all.

Likewise, the modern "animal rights" movement has tried to be cautious. Many have thought that a vegan movement would have turned people off, so they instead have advocated vegetarianism, or slightly larger cages for exploited animals. In my view, this has deeply muddied the issue. I don't think we would have a vegan world if advocates had been clearer in the '80s, but we might be closer than we are now, and there would likely be more vegans. Instead, most people have no understanding of the most basic animal rights theory. One of the biggest struggles for vegan educators at this time is confronting an animal protection movement that has told the public it's okay to exploit animals for decades.

Obviously, many people will disagree with me, on both these examples. And there are other cases where strategically, some movements might correctly want to advocate for a middle ground. But this is certainly not always the case, and I think it often does harm.

When you advocate for a drastic societal change, many people might be sympathetic, but they may not be ready to accept the radical position quite yet. They will find their way to the middle ground, and hopefully (if you're correct) the culture will shift. But if you start out in the middle, they may still see you as extreme. And if now they find their way to some middle ground, they'll have progressed far less than if you had direct and honest to begin with.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Abortion, Animals, and Moral Disagreement

Many claim that despite the wide disagreements in moral theory, there is substantially less disagreement about what is often the right thing to do. Philosophers who make such claims often point to acts that are universally acknowledged to be bad, such as lying, stealing, making false promises, and most seriously, murder, as evidence of this general consensus.

I find this view to be rather mistaken. I think there is wide disagreement about what the right thing to do is. For example, I think consuming animal products is wrong; not only do most people disagree with me on that, but they disagree to such an extent that they consume substantial amounts of animal products daily.

Also, many people think all abortion is seriously wrong. I disagree strongly with this view, and support policies that they think are deeply immoral. I think that policies that limit women's reasonable choices about what happens to and inside their bodies are deeply immoral.

Those who believe in widespread moral agreement see these kinds of issues as disagreement "at the margins." Given the prevalence of abortion, and the extreme pervasiveness of animal use, it seems peculiar to me to think of these as marginal issues.And rather than being merely "marginal," our views on these issues derive from our position on other broader ethical and metaphysical views. Furthermore, there are many other deep divides.

Many people do not seem to care what happens to people in other countries. Although they would likely not assent to such a description of their views, the actual result of their practical views belies their protests. Thankfully, very many people do care what happens to people in other countries. I think some of our most pressing policy choices and personal choices concern our obligations to citizens of other countries.

Many people think that people who commit crimes or wrong actions deserve to suffer for it. Although punishment is sometimes warranted, I do not believe that it can ever be a good thing that someone suffers. Worse still, very many people believe that some acts can make you deserve to suffer forever.

Many people believe you can deserve to be impoverished just because you are not skilled enough to attain more wealth. They sometimes think that free market outcomes are inherently just, and that any redress to income disparities is wrong. This view is surprisingly popular, given how implausible it is.

And some people do not think that moral considerations are all that important. They think that the driving force behind their lives ought to be figuring out how best they can fulfill their own interests, perhaps with a few moral constraints on how they get there (see above, re: lying, stealing, etc.). Some people don't even think these constraints are important.

Perhaps my view is pessimistic, but I see a world full of deep and serious moral disagreement. One of my proposed solutions, naturally enough, is that everyone ought to study a bit of philosophy, and learn to engage in moral questions with one another. I think a higher degree of critical thinking in the world would do a lot toward solving many of these (and other) disagreements, thought presumably some rifts will persist.