Feb 262016

Photo Credit: National Geographic “Animal Myths Busted“.

I am an environmental social scientist by training, and over the last several years I have developed a rather unconventional set of views about the future of nature. The more I have examined and considered the environmental implications of technological change myself, the more I have come to realize how poorly these implications seem to be understood or even recognized by others across the environmental disciplines.

In short, I have learned that we are likely to see the arrival of technologies within just a few decades that to uninformed observers might seem to still lie centuries or millennia away. Science fiction, in other words, will become science fact far sooner than most of my colleagues would dare imagine. And on the whole the implications for the environment are not just extraordinary, but extraordinarily positive: problems that seem utterly intractable today may become solvable in the relatively near future.

Unfortunately, the blindness of the environmental disciplines to the tsunami of radically disruptive technological change barreling toward us is a pristine example of how otherwise highly-educated and intelligent people can arrive with gross overconfidence at spectacularly false conclusions when their reasoning is based on bad information or invalid assumptions.

I am very deeply concerned about this state of affairs because imminent technological change raises a wide range of environmental policy, planning, and ethics questions that I think we must begin to examine very carefully.

So to be clear, let me summarize my line of reasoning here at the outset:

  • Technological change is accelerating, and is being compounded most especially by advances in computing.
  • The implications of technological change over the course of this century are staggering.
  • Technologies that seem thousands of years away to uninformed observers actually lie only a few decades ahead.
  • Intelligent machine labor in particular is going to be a fundamental game-changer, but miniaturization and biotech will be a big deal too.
  • The implications have the potential to be hugely positive for the environment because they may render previously intractable problems solvable.
  • The environmental disciplines are either shamefully oblivious to, or are in near-total denial of, the technological prospects of the next several decades.
  • As a result, the environmental scenarios on decadal scales or longer that are presented as plausible forecasts by the scientific community are, to the contrary, profoundly unrealistic – and unduly pessimistic besides.
  • Some of this ignorance is genuinely innocent, although that is an increasingly unacceptable excuse.
  • Some of this ignorance may be willful, and that is a serious concern with grave consequences for policy and planning.
  • There are a number of good reasons to be wary of new technologies based on our historical experiences.
  • There also seem to be a number of other more cynical reasons to dismiss the potential of technology to redress environmental problems.
  • Regardless, there appears to be an increasingly cult-like antipathy toward technology across the environmental disciplines – as well as within the environmental movement that they inform – that is based not on reason but on a reflexive demonization and dismissal of “techno-fixes”.
  • As the potential of technology to solve major environmental problems becomes steadily clearer to other disciplines such as computer science and engineering, and eventually to the public, the willful ignorance and reflexive opposition toward technology within the environmental disciplines risks becoming a form of outright denialism.



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.