Overcoming Bias: Why Not?

In a recent New Atlantis essay, “In Defense of Prejudice, Sort of,” I criticized what I call the new rationalism:

Today there is an intellectual project on the rise that puts a novel spin on the old rationalist ideal. This project takes reason not as a goal but as a subject for study: It aims to examine human rationality empirically and mathematically. Bringing together the tools of economics, statistics, psychology, and cognitive science, it flies under many disciplinary banners: decision theory, moral psychology, behavioral economics, descriptive ethics. The main shared component across these fields is the study of many forms of “cognitive bias,” supposed flaws in our ability to reason. Many of the researchers engaged in this project — Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Dan Ariely, and Richard Thaler, to name a few — are also prominent popularizers of science and economics, with a bevy of bestselling books and a corner on the TED talk circuit.

While those scholars are some of the most prominent of the new rationalists, here on Futurisms it’s worth mentioning that many others are also spokesmen of transhumanism. These latter thinkers draw on the same cognitive science research but lean more on statistics and economics. More significantly, they drop the scientific pretense of mere description, claiming not only to study but unabashedly to perfect the practice of rationality.

Their projects have modest names like Overcoming Bias, Less Wrong, and the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR, pronounced “see far” — get it?). CFAR is run by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, whose board has included many of the big guns of artificial intelligence and futurism. Among the project’s most prominent members are George Mason University economist and New York Times quote darling Robin Hanson, and self-described genius Eliezer Yudkowsky. With books, blogs, websites, conferences, meetup groups in various cities, $3,900 rationality training workshops, and powerful connections in digital society, they are increasingly considered gurus of rational uplift by Silicon Valley and its intellectual hangers-on.

A colleague of mine suggested that these figures bear a certain similarity to Mr. Spock, and this is fitting on a number of levels, from their goal of bringing all human action under the thumb of logic, to their faith in the relative straightforwardness of this goal — which is taken to be achievable not by disciplines working across many generations but by individual mentation — to the preening but otherwise eerily emotionless tone of their writing. So I’ll refer to them for shorthand as the Vulcans.

The Vulcans are but the latest members of an elaborately extended tradition of anti-traditionalist thought going back at least to the French Enlightenment. This inheritance includes revolutionary ambitions, now far higher than most of their forebears, from the rational restructuring of society in the short term to the abolition of man in the only-slightly-less-short term. And at levels both social and individual, the reformist project is inseparable from the rationalist one: for example, Yudkowsky takes the imperative to have one’s body cryogenically preserved upon death to be virtually axiomatic. He notes that only a thousand or so people have signed up for this service, and comes to the only logical conclusion: this is the maximum number of reliably rational people in the world. One can infer that it will be an elect few deemed fit to command the remaking of the world, or even to understand, when the time arrives to usher in the glorious future, why it need happen at all.

The Vulcans also represent a purified version of the idea that rationality can be usefully studied as a thing in itself, and perfected more or less from scratch. Their writing has the revealing habit of talking about reason as if they are the first to discuss the idea. Take Less Wrong, for example, which rarely acknowledges the existence of any intellectual history prior to late-nineteenth-century mathematics except to signal disgust for the brutish Past, and advertises as a sort of manifesto its “Twelve Virtues of Rationality.”

Among those virtues, “relinquishment” takes spot number two (“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”), “lightness” spot three (“Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy”), “argument” and “empiricism” are modestly granted spots five and six, and “scholarship” pulls up the rear at number eleven. What about the twelfth virtue? There isn’t one, for the other virtue transcends mere numbering, and “is nameless,” except that its name is “the Way.” Presented as the Path to Pure Reason, the Way is drawn, like much Vulcan writing, from Eastern mysticism, without comment or apology.

Burke vs. Spock

It’s wise not to overstate the influence of Vulcanism, which may well wind up in the dustbin of pseudoscience history, along with fads like the rather more defensible psychoanalysis. The movement is significant mainly for what it reveals. For at its core lie some ingredients of Enlightenment thought with enduring appeal, usefully evaporated of diluting elements, boiled down to a syrupy attitudinal essence covered with a thin argumentative crust. It contains a version of the parable of the Cave, revised to hold the promise of final, dramatic escape; an uneasy marriage of skepticism and self-confidence whose offspring is the aspiration to revolution.

In the book The Place of Prejudice, which I reviewed in the essay linked above, Adam Adatto Sandel notes rationalism’s reactionary counterpart, typically voiced through Edmund Burke, which accepts the conflict between reason and tradition but embraces the other side. Like Sandel, I see this stance as wrongheaded, a license to draw a line around some swath of the human world as forever beyond understanding, and draw it arbitrarily — or worse, around just those things one sees as most in need of intellectual defense. But the conflict cannot be avoided as an epistemological and practical matter, a duel over the reasons for our imperfect understanding, and the best guides for action in light of it.

Looking at the schemes of the Vulcans, it’s hard not to hear Burke’s point about the politically cautious advantages of (philosophical) prejudice in contrast with the dangerous instability of Reason. The link between the aspirations of the French Enlightenment and the outrages of the French Revolution was not incidental, nor are the links of either to today’s hyper-rationalists.

A few years ago, I attended a conference at which James Hughes eagerly cited the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, which seems to prefigure transhumanism and depicts a nearer future in which reason has fully liberated us from the brutality of tradition. Hughes mentioned that this work was written when Condorcet was in hiding, but skipped past the irony: as Charles Taylor writes of the Sketch, with a bit of understatement:

it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future.

Condorcet died in prison a few months later.

But it persists as stubbornly as any prejudice, this presumption of the simple cleansing power of reason, this eagerness to unmoor. Whether action might jump ahead of theory, or rationalism decay into rationalization, providing intellectual cover for baser forces — these are problems to which rationalists are exquisitely attuned when it comes to inherited ideas, but show almost no worry when it comes to their own, inherited though their ideas are too. “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own,” counsels one of the Virtues of Rationality, the image well more apt than it’s meant to be.

Un-Mainstreaming Human Enhancement

Chris Kim @ NYT

America’s Grey Lady, the New York Times, has long been willing to take transhumanist topics seriously, perhaps in some hope that she too will be somehow rejuvenated. Indeed, a recent piece by David Ewing Duncan on human enhancement has something of the aura of a second childhood about it, with its relatively breathless and uncritical account of the various promising technologies of enhancement in the works. There follows the stock paragraph noting with remarkable brevity the safety, distributional, political and “what it means to be human” issues these developments might create, before Duncan really gets to the core of the matter: “Still, the enhancements are coming, and they will be hard to resist. The real issue is what we do with them once they become irresistible.”

Here at Futurisms, we were not unaware that human enhancements may be hard to resist. Speaking only for myself, however, I can add that there are all kinds of things I find hard to resist. It was hard to resist the desire to stay in bed this morning, hard to resist the desire for dark chocolate last night. It is hard to resist the temptation not to grade student papers just yet, hard to resist the urge to make a joke. I’m sure I need not go on. We all face things that are hard to resist on a daily basis. It requires motivation and discipline to resist them, and sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t. Mostly, however, we have it, at least where it counts most, or our lives together would be far more difficult than they already are.

By saying in effect that because enhancements are coming and the “real issue” is what to do about them when “they become irresistible,” Duncan is really saying he sees no reason to resist what is hard to resist, no reason to think that the question of human enhancement might be linked to self-control in any sense other than willful self-creation. That is a pretty strong form of technological determinism. Under the posited circumstances, of course enhancements will become irresistible, because we will have made no effort, moral or intellectual, to resist them. But should that situation arise, how will it be possible to decide “what we do with them”? If the underlying principle is “resist not enhancements” then the only answer to the question “what do we do with them” can be “whatever any of us wants to do with them.” Under these circumstances, even Duncan’s anodyne concerns about issues of safety, distribution, politics and “what it means to be human” will go out the window. After all, it is my body, my life, my money, my choice, my will, my desire, that will be the important things.

Duncan reports that when he asks parents whether they would give their children a memory-boosting drug if everybody else were doing it, most reply yes. But that is hardly interesting; if most people are doing anything, it will be hard for a few to say no. What is more noteworthy is where he begins his questioning:

I have asked thousands of people a hypothetical question that goes like this: “If I could offer you a pill that allowed your child to increase his or her memory by 25 percent, would you give it to them?” The show of hands in this informal poll has been overwhelming, with 80 percent or more voting no.

That is to say, most people he has asked at least say they think they would resist the temptation to give their child such a pill. If these healthy inclinations can be supported by social consensus buttressed by a variety of good reasons, perhaps enhancement will not be so hard to resist after all.

Forcing People to Be Good

[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce Brendan Foht, the new assistant editor of The New Atlantis. He holds degrees in political science from the University of Calgary and in biology from the University of Alberta. This is his first post for Futurisms, to which he will be a regular contributor.]

Peter Singer, along with researcher Agata Sagan, recently made an appearance on the philosophy blog of the New York Times. Suggesting the need for a “morality pill” that could boost human ethical behavior, Singer reminds us why he is the king of crass consequentialism:

Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

As long as we’re asking people to take morality pills, we might as well preemptively implant those we deem pre-criminals with tracking devices, right?
Singer’s ideas about moral enhancement, however, pale in comparison to those of Julian Savulescu, who drops even the rhetorical semblance of doubt as to whether moral enhancements ought to be compulsory. Indeed, he seems to believe that without the development of genetic or other biomedical methods for moral enhancement, the human race is doomed to extinction.
Savulescu, a professor at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and one of the most prominent academic advocates of human biological enhancement, has argued that the human race is “unfit for the future,” and is heading into a “Bermuda Triangle of Extinction.” The three points of this triangle (representing the three factors pulling us toward extinction) consist of our rapidly advancing technological and scientific power, the evolutionary origins of our moral nature, and our commitment to liberal democracy.
The moral nature we received from our ancestors is far from perfect, rooted as it is in a world of supposedly violent and xenophobic cavemen. With the development and dispersal of powerful new technologies, it is becoming increasingly likely that powerful weapons, like genetically engineered super-plagues, might end up in the hands of people whose moral nature disposes them to violent, possibly catastrophic acts. Liberal democracy is represented in the triangle because it prevents us from taking the measures necessary to ensure the survival of the human race — measures like compulsory moral enhancement.

The idea of using genetic engineering as a measure to secure global security or peace is, hopefully needless to say, totally removed from medical, scientific, and political realities — not to mention from basic ethical and practical concerns. The idea of actually implementing such a scheme, effectively and successfully, is laughable.
Since facts don’t play much of a role in these proposals, consider just one small bit of relevant data. In Afghanistan — a country that would be high on the list as a potential source of troublesome weapons or people — the infant mortality rate in 2009 was over 13%, and one in five children died before the age of five. Even from a purely practical standpoint, are we to take seriously the idea of going into country that lags a century behind today’s medical standards, and undertaking a massive program of chemical or genetic manipulation, using techniques that are as of now barely hypothetical, targeting genes that we have barely begun to identify, on “patients” who are unlikely to understand the procedures, and in any case will almost certainly be coerced into them?
While it is true that our moral dispositions are to some extent rooted in our biology, our moral and political actions are rooted at least as much in our beliefs about justice and injustice as in our innate dispositions. And one would think that just about any society would not take kindly to an attempt to violate its members’ bodily autonomy. Even if the technical and medical problems were somehow miraculously solved, the fact that some state or international agency would have to force people to take these “moral enhancements” — as Savulescu notes, those who most “need” them would be the least likely to take them voluntarily — would create a backlash that would almost surely inspire more violence than the intervention could possibly prevent.

The apparent failure of transhumanists to recognize the basic political problems with such a scheme makes plain some of the lapses in their understanding of human nature. Savulescu’s argument that human beings are “unfit for the future” reflects an anxiety common among many people — not just transhumanists — who think about how messy and imperfect our biological nature can be. Evolutionary biology seems to show us that our bodies were designed to compete in a vicious, pre-historical struggle, burdening us with desires and vices that conflict with our higher longings and our moral values.
But this insight is of course not new; Plato and the authors of Genesis seemed to have some notion that human nature is prone to bad as much as good, and common sense shows that we are not always as good as we would like to be.
The difference between transhumanists and more serious ethical traditions is that transhumanists think that because nature is not perfectly designed, it is completely up for grabs — while others acknowledge that ethics is about learning the best way to live with our natural imperfections. In this sense, trying to eliminate the aspects of our nature we don’t like would not be a moral “enhancement,” but would rather be a profound change in the meaning of a moral human life.

The Myth of Libertarian Enhancement

In the previous post here on Futurisms, my co-blogger Charles T. Rubin argues that one can only have a libertarian stance towards transhumanism “if one believes that all ‘lifestyle’ choices are morally incommensurable, that the height of moral wisdom is ‘do your own thing’ (and for as long as possible).” This is certainly right, but I worry that most transhumanists would in fact happily agree with this statement. They would see it not as a condemnation of their moral disarmament, but a celebration of their moral enlightenment through radical self-determination. Charlie concludes that “[w]hat is really at stake here is not whether some people want to boss others around, but whether technological change is worth thinking about at all.” I’d like to expand on this point — that is, to argue that technological change must be thought about, even and especially by libertarians.
While Charlie was discussing just one particular comment thread, it is worth noting that there is a strong, perhaps even dominant, libertarian strain among transhumanists. As Woody Evans noted in H+ Magazine, “Take it as a given that most supporters of transhumanism trend toward advocating for more personal freedom: keep the government out of our bedrooms and biologies please.” This certainly matches my own observations: try exploring with a transhumanist the wisdom of any possible restriction on enhancement and you are very likely to hear a similar refrain.
Strangely, this discussion-ending response is not characteristic just of transhumanists. Ask someone who is skeptical of — or even opposed to — enhancing himself or herself, and you are likely to hear expressions of tolerance similar to those proffered by participants in a recent study on cognitive enhancement in academia: “I see it more as a lifestyle. You are making this choice to find the easy way out and morally I think that that is someone’s lifestyle choice.” And, “I don’t feel comfortable about the word ‘acceptable’ because I don’t think that I am able to judge someone…. I think it is a matter of your own conscience if it is acceptable or not.”
The “to each his own” argument against governmental restrictions of personal freedom is shaky for several reasons, not the least of which is that government is not the only force that restricts personal freedom. The widespread use of enhancement creates tremendous social pressures to compete and conform; these pressures, too, can be said to restrict personal freedom. One need look only to the history of professional baseball over the last ten years to see a clear example. And beyond the world of competitive sports, the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin for nontherapeutic purposes is soaring among working professionals and among high school and college students (as shown in the study cited above, and as discussed in this sobering article by our New Atlantis colleague Matt Crawford). The specific choices — Should I start doping during the off-season? Should I take this pill to help me study? — may have been made by individuals, but they were influenced by others and their impact was collective. There is a sort of prisoner’s dilemma at work here, with decisions made for the individual good having a detrimental effect on the larger whole.
(To be sure, much the same point holds for other technological changes that create social pressures. Take cell phones, for example — which some transhumanists consider a primitive form of enhancement: the advantages gained by early adopters of cell phones created pressures that led the rest of us to get cell phones, too.)
The point that technological change is not just a matter of individual concern is made perfectly clear in the transhumanists’ own rhetoric, rife with grand talk of ushering in the next phase of human evolution, doing away with antiquated social constructs, and so forth. They promise not just to remake humanity but to thoroughly remake civilization. And yet, when confronted with questions about how societies ought to decide which technologies are good or bad, they often duck behind appeals to personal choice. The only way to reconcile this seeming contradiction is by recognizing that transhumanists do not value unrestricted individual liberty so much as unrestricted individual power.
Those who worry about how tyranny of the government might rob them of their freedom are right to do so. But they would do well also to consider the other ways freedom can be diminished.

[Photo source: Fly Navy (CC)]

Remembering, forgetting, and improving our minds

[Continuing coverage of the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City.]
Gary Marcus, an NYU psychologist, is underway with the first of the afternoon talks, “The Fallibility and Improvability of the Human Mind.” (Abstract and bio.)

Marcus starts off discussing natural language, and the common argument that it is highly imperfect. He says that many linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, have argued that natural language is in fact very close to an ideal system — that is, one that a set of super-engineers would design if they had built it from scratch. He says that he doesn’t want to make the argument that necessarily “things that look like human bugs are actually features,” but he says it’s something we should keep in mind.
Next Marcus moves on to discuss aspects of “the human system” that are problematic (he mentions the spinal column), and asking about limitations of the human mind. He starts with basic things, like how easily we forget simple things like where we left our keys. Computers, he note, store all memory in specific locations; our brains don’t. Minds are also susceptible to irrationality, like “framing effects” (where the same issue can yield very different opinions depending on how it’s described).
Now he’s launching into the selfsame systematic descriptions of the human mind that he seemed to be warning us against earlier: he says this last problem is due to something like “garbage in, garbage out” — that is, we remember best the last thing we have heard, and that’s why we are susceptible to framing. Marcus doesn’t seem to have considered his own advice of whether this apparent “bug” might actually be a “feature.”
Marcus concludes by saying that the current state of human biology is an accident, and there is room for improvement, “if we dare.” At least as far as this talk goes, that claim is short on evidence and long on opinion.
During the questions, an audience member asks about the case of those rare individuals who seem to remember everything. Marcus says this is more a disorder where people obsess about recording and documenting their lives, and that enhances their memory. He wrote a Wired article earlier this year about Jill Price, the most famous recent non-forgetter. Marcus says that while the media has focused on the sad parts of Price’s story — she cannot forget bad things — he knows of another case where the unforgetter is a DJ who seems quite happy. (More data points, please!)

Enhancing cognitive abilities

[Continuing coverage of the 2009 Singularity Summit.]

The penultimate talk of the first day comes from William Dickens of Northeastern University. He’s talking on “Cognitive Ability: Past and Future Enhancements and Implications.” (Abstract and bio.)

Dickens is extolling the virtues of the embattled IQ test. He says it has more predictive power over a person’s success than any other measure (such as parents’ income). (Somewhere, Charles Murray‘s ears are burning.) Dickens is discussing the controversy over general versus specialized intelligence, and showing how current data seems to indicate that cognitive ability is not very malleable. People, particularly children, can see rapid gains in their abilities if, for example, they move from foster care to adoption, or if they are put in intensive schooling. But the gains eventually disappear once people reach adulthood.
But, he says, there have been many documented cases of countries where the general intelligence level has increased greatly, and stayed that way. Americans have apparently gotten markedly smarter over the last six decades. (Don’t tell Bill Maher.) The gains are uneven: much greater gains in areas of fluid reasoning, with little progress on learned skills like math.
Dickens goes through controversies over these findings — disputes about whether the gains are real, and questions about how they could happen if, as many think, intelligence is mostly general and mostly a matter of genetics. Dickens has found, however, that environment can explain most of the improvement. This makes intuitive sense, he says, as all sorts of aspects of the way we try to improve our skills would not be possible if we couldn’t train and better ourselves. In other words, he says, there is a good reason to believe that practice and training makes us better. (Will he work back to the earlier point about how gained intelligence eventually fades?)
He’s bringing it together now: Society has gotten smarter. Why? He says it’s not just habits of mind. It’s the fact that training in particular areas actually increases our gray matter, which increases our overall intelligence. As the world becomes faster-paced and more virtual, he says, we think more and more, and our abilities increase even more. (Not too different from Steven Johnson’s argument.) Cognitive enhancement, Dickens says, is already here.
Intriguing, but, um, can’t our skull only hold so much gray matter and aren’t we pretty close to it already?