Jan 262013

The Long Term

In recent weeks I have been perusing the seminars and written works of The Long Now Foundation, whose stated mission is “to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

This certainly seems an admirable goal, and the foundation’s projects do a superb job of melding science and engineering together with artistic and cultural sensibilities – a prime example of which is the 10,000 Year Clock, a 200-foot-tall multi-million-dollar monument being built inside a cave in a remote western Texas mountain that, as the name implies, is designed to mark the passage of time for the next ten millennia.

The Long Now Foundation emphasizes the importance of our perception of the passage of time, and indeed our cultural conceptions of the passage of time. (J. Stephen Lansing, for example, shares insights into the role that language plays in shaping our perception and conception of time by discussing the case of Polynesian and Austranesian languages that do not have tenses but instead construe time in “multiple concurrent cycles”). More specifically, The Long Now Foundation asserts that long-term thinking is in short supply, and that in the face of accelerating technological change our culture needs more rather than less of it if we are to avoid both imperiling and impoverishing future generations.


Oct 172012

I did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit when I first launched Letter to a Conservative Nation in February, and I promised that I would do another as we neared the election.

I had a range of interesting questions last time, especially from right-Libertarians who challenged my thesis that the conservatives tend to have a narrower sphere of compassion than liberals, and that the common term we use to describe those who are not sufficiently inclusive of others in their interest-maximizing calculus is selfish. I’m looking forward to fielding these and other challenges again!

I also had a number of interesting questions about on-demand publishing, electronic publishing, and the future of the book publishing industry. I encourage anyone who has ever been interested in writing a book strongly to consider on-demand publishing – which is, in all honesty, a 21st Century form of self-publishing. Today the process is simple, cheap, and delivers incredibly high-quality finished products.

I’ll be giving away free electronic copies of the book in ePub format (should work on most electronic book readers) to the first 20 people who get in touch with me.

Thanks, and ask away!

– Adam

Jul 092012

I’ve recently been debating a handful of people about the validity of mind-body dualism, most notably the Cartesian Dualism proposed by Rene Decartes (of cogito ergo sum fame: I think, therefore I am).

The modern brain sciences leave little room for doubt that conscious minds are entirely a product of physical brains, but the Cartesian notion that consciousness is somehow a phenomenon that exists independently of its physical substrate has proven remarkably persistent.  It is odd how insistently – even desperately – some people (including some extraordinary philosophers) cling to the idea that consciousness is somehow a magical phenomenon that transcends the physical world.  The experiences of consciousness – the deep azure blue of a summer sky, the crisp taste of an orange, the quiet contentment of sitting beside a fire – are stunning in their richness and variety, but must they also be something more than just jostling atoms, sparks of energy and patterns of information in order to be beautiful?  Must they transcend the world of flesh and dust in order to be miraculous?

Those who cling to dualism seem to need to believe that consciousness is be something more than just the regular, old, dirty, grubby, undignified stuff of matter, energy and information.  This need strikes me as very much like the need to believe in the supernatural in general: in gods, in fate and karma, in higher powers and purpose, in magic.

If science were to show that consciousness is just another emergent property of complex systems, would our egos be bruised in the same way that they were with scientific discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe?  Human beings seem to have an innate need to feel special, and among philosophers the attachment to dualism despite any supporting evidence (and much evidence to the contrary from the modern brain sciences) strikes me as egotistical in precisely the way that other forms of faith and superstition so often can be.

Jul 012012


(jump to full essay)

Can we have a science of morality?

What is right and what is wrong? What are good and evil? These questions about the origins of morality, ethics and justice have been the subject of philosophy for millennia, but never science. Unlike philosophy, science demands that any claims made about the universe be not only logically consistent, but supported by testable evidence as well. A science of morality would therefore require empirical data across the full range of relevant spatial scales, from the micro-level of the individual person to the macro-level of our entire species. An insurmountable obstacle up until now has been that data at the micro-level are inaccessible, locked within the minds of individuals. For more than a century the prevailing view among philosophers and scientists alike has been that these data will remain forever out of reach – that the inner workings of the mind are inherently subjective, with no prospects of ever being observable. So while a great deal of work can be done by making micro-level inferences about individual minds from macro-level observations of human behavior, scholars have so far been critical of any notion that a science of morality might emerge alongside psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the other social and behavioral sciences. But a handful of thinkers believe that this may soon change as a result of the exponential progression of technology.

One of these thinkers is Sam Harris. In his 2010 book, The Moral Landscape, Harris makes a strong case for a future science of morality. He argues that morality is a function of wellbeing and suffering, and that because wellbeing and suffering are a product of our neurological machinery, morality must therefore be measurable at the level of brain. On this view, a science of morality is both a logical and an inevitable extension of the neurological and mental health sciences.

In this essay I am going to argue that although Harris’s Moral Landscape is based upon a futuristic vision of the sciences and technologies related to the human brain, this vision is not nearly futuristic enough. Harris’s arguments are not wrong per se, but rather are incomplete because like other cognitive scientists he is still implicitly basing his analysis on the assumption that human biology is immutable. Harris is right to assume that the science of morality will be a brain science, but he is wrong to assume that in the future human brains will be no different than they are today. By the end of this century we will have the technology to dramatically modify how our brains work, and the moral implications of re-engineering our minds are nothing short of staggering.

The impending availability of empirical data at the level of the brain means that age-old questions of right and wrong, and of good and evil, will become scientific questions in the near future. A science of morality is indeed in the offing. But when we abandon the assumption of biological immutability we open the door to a more fundamental debate than simply what is moral: we can begin to ask what should be moral, and why.

Let me begin by providing some conceptual context for Harris’s Moral Landscape.


Jul 012012

Welcome to my new site!  The purpose of changing over to a blog format is so that I can more easily add new content and invite participation and comments.  The focus of the site will continue to be on things that I find intellectually interesting that lie outside the scope of my formal research work, such as moral philosophy and futurism.  Thanks for stopping by!

– Adam