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Towards Cyberethics

Daniel DeLuna.Geomteric-Maze-BlueThe question of how we act in the light of our technological situation has become, almost unnoticed, the central question in ethics. This transformation is rooted in the extent to which the networks underlying our purportedly neutral tools – cars, nuclear weapons, computers, armed drones, DNA analysers, anonymous communications, programmable agents – serve to make the moral impact of technology no longer a question of individual agency. It is not that any individual car is a problem, but that our networks of roads and cars kills millions of humans each year, and that the networks of metal and oil that manufacture and power them add to this a terrible contribution towards the on-going devastation of our planet that is far wider and deeper than the anxieties about climate change.

Descartes and Kant cleaved subject from object rather too well – giving all the ethical qualities to subjects alone. But free will, while far from an illusion, operates in a landscape of possibilities carved by objects, which were in turn shaped by design process driven by subjects, motivated by concerns that utterly straddled the divide. To create cars was to have a moral impact far beyond the imagined purpose of transportation; to continue to participate in the automotive network at all is to be complicit in extinctions and denudations we are aware of but still do not grasp – and yet despite our collective emphasis on ideals of  ‘freedom’, not participating in the reigning paradigm of transportation seems as if it is barely an option for most people. Things have their own ethical agency; their own trajectories within the moral perspective, even without conscious awareness of this. Thus ethics is not the exclusive domain of the human, and never was, for all that our powerful imagination shapes moral concerns like no other animal before us.

The twentieth century was the site of three tragic failures of moral thinking. Firstly, the imperialist mythos of a clockwork universe begotten by the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Enlightenment and made firm by Victorian scientists opened up a path of power and control that made technological progress seem not only desirable but inevitable, such that no matter what purportedly neutral tool was invented it never brought to question the process of researching new technology. Thus mechanized transport and flight give us the World Wars, ostensibly ended by the invention of a nuclear weapon that was far worse, and which led directly to the end of conventional warfare, such that now extermination, rather than (say) honourable conflict, is a primary activity of the United States military forces, dishonouring the country that did the most to usher in the era of human rights. So here we are suggesting, without a trace of irony, that our robot cars should kill pedestrians to save drivers, while designing our cars to be limited to 30 mph and thus saving millions of lives each year isn’t even on the table for discussion.

None of this could have happened without the second tragic failure of moral thinking, the reduction of moral philosophy to a contest between competing systems of thought. The rule-focussed systems that led to human rights and the outcome-focussed systems that are the de facto moral mythos of corporations set themselves up to fight one another, assured (for some reason) that one of them had to be right. Virtue ethics, meanwhile, was reduced to a small crowd of refugees on the moral stage, staring in horror at the calamities wrought by the two competing views of the moral ‘ought’. Kant’s faith that morality was expressible as a unity was based on the idea that all religions encoded a common core of moral truth; cleaved from ties to any tradition, however, and moral thought lost its secure footing at precisely the time it was most forcibly demanding adherence to singular views of ethical truth.

This is turn was the product of the third tragic failure of moral thinking, the breach with tradition opened – in radically different but intimately related ways – by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Nihilism is not the problem here, since it marks nothing more than a mere loss of faith, with merely pathetic consequences. The problem is that the crisis of the existentialists was rooted in the individual – the isolated subject handed to de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus could then be isolated from other subjects as well as objects (despite honourable attempts, especially by de Beauvoir, to prevent this). The successes of this newly empowered mythic individual has been consistently less than is claimed; de Beauvoir’s feminism, for instance, led paradoxically to feminist oppressions of the kind brought to brutal light by the long-overdue intersectionality critiques. Freedom does not mean isolation; indeed, we have very nearly lost any concept of autonomy worth having.

My own Chaos Ethics is an analysis of these and other problems, and a tentative step towards illuminating possible paths forward. Wikipedia Knows Nothing is a more positive response, sketching both a rescue of equality as an ideal and an understanding of knowledge as a practice that invites a repositioning of ‘expertise’ in order to better understand the diversity of knowledge. Both books build upon the idea of an ethical and phenomenal multiverse, which was always where we lived. In such a place, finding the correct moral system is the wrong grail to quest after, for moral truth can be translated only, as with all translation, through distortion. The question cannot be ‘which moral system must we impose?’ – that very proposition is self-defeating – but ‘which moral practices do we still have?’ and ‘how do we make them speak to one another?’

If the epistemology (i.e. view of knowledge) in Wikipedia Knows Nothing holds, and I contend that it does, the next step for me is applied ethics, practical reason as Kant puts it. If knowledge is indeed best understood as practices, then moral knowledge is also a practice, as Alasdair MacIntyre has more-or-less argued already. That doesn’t make virtue ethics the only game in town – far from it – but it does mean that any authentic moral knowledge must be at the very least expressible as virtues, and that eliminates from plausibility all attempts to calculate the good, as I already argued in Chaos Ethics. The notorious Trolley Problem, as Allen Wood has argued, all too successfully misleads us into accepting a mathematics of harm born from the horrors of battlefield logic as a surrogate for authentic ethical thought. Both States and corporations must therefore be challenged to adapt to new conditions of moral being where calculable consequences are at best only part of the process of reaching ethical decisions.

Cyberethics, or the moral craft of living within technological networks, is not exactly new (the Amish chose a particular kind of cyberethics, for instance) – but it does not yet exist in the form we need for our own peculiar situation. A craft in good order has to be embodied in a tradition in good order, as MacIntyre says, and this means if we lack the moral craft we need (and we do) we must either create or identify a suitable tradition that might be able to embody it, or to allow it to develop. Yet knowing we live in a multiverse makes this problem somewhat harder… a new tradition is not likely to be the best path forward, or even a plausible option for that matter, even though the existing traditions are so numerous the challenge of working with them all can seem intractable.

One way around the impasse of needing a tradition to carry the moral craft required might be to offer a kind of ‘cyberethics add on’, an ‘expansion pack’ for moral thinking that could be used to upgrade any any all existing traditions to take into account our new situation. Of the three ways of conducting ethical thought, outcome-focussed thought can only emphasise the extent of our problems, while rights-focussed thinking is (sadly) not currently a tradition in good order, leaving agent-focussed ethics to carry the day. This implies the need to imagine what a virtuous cyborg would be like, and thus to identify cybervirtues for humans, and cybervirtues for our robots too. It is this substantial challenge that I want to pursue, but I clearly cannot get there alone; my path from here must lead me away from the comfort of the philosopher’s armchair, and towards some authentic form of cyberethics practice.

The opening image is Geometric Blaze Blue by Daniel DeLuna, which I found here at Mutant Space. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Likened to Hume

Always pleasant to hear nice things about your own work, but my email this morning had an especially joyous moment when a book editor not only offered me a gig but wrote of Imaginary Games:

…I came to your book with enthusiasm. It did not disappoint. In fact, aside from the great exposition of ideas I found your prose style astonishingly lucid and generous. Hume came to mind.

Being compared to Hume is a great complement, since not only was he Scottish (I am one quarter Scottish, on my mother’s side) but like me he was also an ‘outsider philosopher’, utterly disconnected from the academic philosophy of his day. A great start to my week!


WKN: Reviews Wanted!

WKN Free PDF QRAt the moment, there are no reviews of Wikipedia Knows Nothing anywhere at all. It would be great to raise that number by an infinite degree through the simple expedient of having at least one review on, say, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, or indeed anywhere else where book reviews live.

If you’ve already read the book, please consider writing a short review for a suitable site, and if you haven’t, why not scan this QR code and pull down the free PDF, or follow the link above for details of the paperback or ebook? Your assistance is appreciated!


A Colloquial Colloquium

Wax SealWill be holding a colloquium (which means literally ‘get together to talk’) in an as-yet-unspecified pub in Manchester on Friday 11th November – not coincidentally, the Discordian festival of Fortuna. Three folks, myself included, confirmed, but I’m looking for a fourth and fifth. An interest in my philosophy might be helpful, but would not be required. Drinks, conversation, a little philosophy, inevitably flowing over into politics, probably some media industry talk too (music, games etc.)…

If you want in, please contact me through the usual channels. This is virtuous discourse in person, over a single malt or a pint. Whether you’re a player of the Game or just someone who’d like to have a chat with me, if you’ll be in or around Manchester that evening you’d be more than welcome.


What is Reality? (2): Subject and Object

Veres SzabolcsBeginning with Descartes’ cogito, discussed last week, and later developed in intricate detail by Kant, the buffered self emerges by cleaving up existence into two halves: subjects (the cogito, mind), and objects (the world around us, matter). That this philosophy has been successful is an understatement: almost everyone today can distinguish between what is subjective and what is objective, and most associate subjectivity with either personal experience or with error, and objectivity with factuality and truth. It is against this mythos that my recent philosophy argues, offering a different understanding of objectivity, and thus a different perspective on the subjective.

Both of the competing mythologies outlined in the first part, positivism and anti-realism, descend from this Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible, among other things, for providing the contemporary sciences with their foundations and motives, and for dividing academia into arts and sciences. Positivism elevates objectivity above subjectivity, placing the truth entirely into the objective and thus valorising the sciences. Anti-realism is not the reverse of this, but picks up a different strand in Kant, who recognised that there was a rift between subjective experience and things-in-themselves, such that human subjects are cut off from reality because this noumenal world of objects (as Kant termed it) is completely unknowable through sense perception.

All contemporary views of reality respond to Kant in some way. For instance, object-oriented ontology positions itself as a substantial break from Kant who is accused of correlationism. This is a purported error that speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux characterised as the idea that we only have access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to either considered in isolation. According to Graham Harman, whose work is the wellspring of the object-oriented ontology movement, objects are withdrawn from one another; the Kantian rift between subject and object thus applies between all objects, not just human subjects, a philosophy he develops from Heidegger. Nothing has access to the real, which is always beyond the rift (a term that I am borrowing here from object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton).

This is a fascinating attempt to break from both anti-realism (by decentralising the thinking subject) and positivism (by keeping the real always out of reach), but it is clearly a sophisticated extension of Kantian noumena, and not a break from it. Reality is still just-out-of-reach for the object-oriented ontologists, it is just that it is so for everything, and not just for humans. Reality is cloaked in obscurity, and thus the only kind of realism that is plausible must find clever ways to speculate (hence, speculative realism). There is an excess of the real, always beyond reach, and this limitation on access to reality applies for all things. 

 

Contact with Reality

At the turn of the twentieth century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was struggling to incorporate the new discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) into a philosophy of reality, and modified Kant in a different way. Reworking Kant’s foundational Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead suggested that all entities encounter each other through a process of contact he termed prehension. When you put an apple upon a table, the apple prehends the table and the table prehends the apple, while you prehend both through your hand and vision.

Whitehead was an influence upon Harman, and in Whitehead’s extension of Kant’s philosophy to all things, we can see the commonality. But Whitehead offers the opposite move to expanding the Kantian rift, suggesting that our sense experiences are objective, and that subjectivity only comes in when we interpret those experiences into subjective forms. Again, we’re working with Kant’s toolbox, but Whitehead’s claim that sense impressions are objective is a radical break since it downplays the importance of the rift.

Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor look to Heidegger for a very different path to Harman’s. If object-oriented ontology has correlationism as its bugbear, for Dreyfus and Taylor it is mediational theories, which all descend from Descartes’ splitting of the world into subject and object. Against this, they suggest that Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the later work of Wittgenstein suggest a contact theory in which there is:

…a re-embedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place. The attempt is to articulate the framework or context within which our explicit depictions of reality make sense, and to show how this is inseparable from our activity as the kind of embodied, social, and cultural beings we are. The contact here is… something primordial, something we never escape. It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them. These beings are at grips with a world and each other; this original contact provides the sense-making context for all their knowledge constructions, which, however much they are based on mediating depictions, rely for their meaning on this primordial and indissoluble involvement of the surrounding reality.

Like Whitehead, Dreyfus and Taylor downplay the significance of the rift. They, however, run into problems when they try to incorporate the work of the sciences into their scheme, and are forced to afford scientific investigation a rather special status when they say “You can't explain [science] to anyone while avoiding all such words as ‘true,’ ‘correct,’ ‘real,’...” This for me, as for other commentators on their book Retrieving Realism (e.g. Eric Gerlach), is a substantial weak point in their otherwise brilliant critique of mediational theories.

In Wikipedia Knows Nothing, I back Dreyfus and Taylor’s contact theories of reality – we, and indeed all things, are in contact with the reality we live within – but I resolve the question of the sciences through Isabelle Stengers’ concept of a reliable witness. The sciences are engaged in translation of the knowledge of objects – it is this which deserves the name objective knowledge, and viewed this way it entails no magical road to truth (as Plato effectively claimed philosophers possessed, and positivists sometimes imply scientists possess). The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true.

If we are all in contact with the realities we live within, but different things prehend each other in different ways, then we live in a multiverse, an idea offered by William James at the end of the nineteenth century; an each-form of reality, instead of an all-form. Dreyfus and Taylor talk of plural realism to make a similar point, and I have developed the same idea from the work of novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the physicists inherited the term ‘multiverse’ in a rather different sense). Rather than associating reality with that excess beyond anything’s ability to encounter, we can place reality right here with us, in contact with all things, yet being experienced differently, and yes, ultimately mediated by imagined worlds – but worlds that can only be understood by virtue of our living within them.

Viewing reality as a multiverse does not mean denying any claim of the real, as anti-realism attempts, but acknowledging the different ways of being in contact with reality. It means acknowledging different real worlds instead of making reality a grail that it always just out of reach. If this feels alien, it is because we are accustomed to the modern scheme of belief and reality, subject and object, which presumes – following the long tradition descending from Plato – a single true universe, a unitary reality. Kant’s rift between this and the subject, whether or not it is extended to all things, is not incorrect, it just places the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, there is an excess of the real, but it is just as much present in the different contact that all things have with reality as it is hidden beyond them.

For more about what it means to live in a multiverse, my new book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is available from ETC Press as a free PDF, or from Lulu as a paid paperback or ebook.

The opening image is a painting by Romanian artist Veres Szabolcs; I am uncertain of the title, but I found it here, on a list of emerging painters at the Modern Edition website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


What is Reality? (1): Belief and Reality

The EncounterThe science fiction novelist Phillip K. Dick suggested that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion. It might be surprising to realise, therefore, that it encodes a perspective on reality that emerges in the philosophy of Plato some two millennia ago, and receives new codification in the last few centuries by Descartes and Kant. Given that the concept of reality has in effect been constructed by these philosophers, should we be cautious about thinking that questions of reality are merely matters of common sense?

Dick’s adage contrasts belief and reality, suggesting in effect two key relationships between the two: belief in reality, which is marked by nothing being changed in the world by that belief, and belief against reality, which is marked by creating something that is not real and that which thus disappears when it is no longer believed. Note that core to this understanding is not reality, which is admitted to be a blurred affair in this conception, but belief.

The twentieth century was marked not by challenges to this model of reality, but by ethical conflicts over the meaning of beliefs. On the one hand, the early twentieth century positivists proposed that we ought not engage in belief against reality since it is nonsense, a simple and honourable position sadly elevated to a cultural war by certain atheists at the century’s close. On the other, various kinds of anti-realists proposed that we ought to recognise that reality is constructed by belief, and thus ‘belief in reality’ is nonsense, a position taken by positivists as anti-scientific (and therefore wrong, both morally and practically).

What both positions have in common is that they are both modern, which is to say, they are a product of the philosophical changes wrought in Europe in the Reformation era (16th century) and by the Enlightenment (18th century), which bequeath us ‘the modern age’. One of the most fascinating things about early twenty first century philosophy is its obsession with creating distance from the modern, an ethos captured beautifully in Bruno Latour’s book title We Have Never Been Modern. If we want to understand reality – and thus see beyond the juxtaposition of ‘belief versus reality’ – we have to see where modern reality comes from, and also take stock of where it might be going.

 

The Porous Self in an Enchanted World

There was no reality prior to the modern era. It is not until the 1540s that the term was used to mark the quality of real, and a century later before it was first used to mean ‘everything that is real’. Prior to this, there was no such term in usage, nor any particular need for it. This can be a difficult idea to absorb since ‘reality’ is a central concept to our time, and it can be hard to imagine what came before.

In his epic work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the changes in our understanding of the world over the last five centuries, and provides an extremely detailed description of the European mythos immediately prior to the modern era. At the core of this is the notion of a porous self in an enchanted world, where the influence of spirits and things-with-power is a lived experience. This is a markedly different understanding to the distinction between self and world (mind and matter) that originates in Descartes. Taylor writes of this time:

..the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us… The porousness of the boundary emerges here in the various kinds of “possession”, all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to the various kinds of domination by, or partial fusion with, a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory”, or “belief”.

Here we have a way of being in the world that entails an intense vulnerability, and a corresponding anxiety. Dark magic and unseen spirits could enter into a person and change them, affect them, creating a need for protection from such influence. Thus, villages were grateful to the clergy for keeping a holy relic, since the power and influence of that item would suffuse the entire region, offering everyone living nearby some measure of protection. This is the essence of the porous self concept that Taylor back-projects from our own utterly contrary understanding of ourselves.

What happens immediately prior to the Enlightenment, and largely as a result of the philosophy of Descartes, is the emergence of a kind of buffered self that has no such permeability, and this in turn leads to what Max Weber in the nineteenth century calls the “disenchantment of the world”. Descartes work is itself part of a lineage of philosophy and theology, and inherits important influences from Augustine’s work, which (Taylor explains in The Sources of the Self) cross-bred Plato’s vision of cosmic order and reason with Jewish theism. It is Augustine, Taylor attests, who introduces an inwardness of our reflexivity, and this leads to Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’, I think therefore I am.

Descartes’ cogito, the individual mind, emerges from Descartes’ commitment to doubt everything, to discard all belief and then attempt to rebuild on sure foundations. This radical thorough-going doubt is very different from Plato’s philosophy, but takes from it a division into a true world ‘outside’ and an experience of the shadow of that world, now placed ‘inside’ a mind. Descartes radical doubt gives us the contemporary sciences, and thus the positivism that undermines belief, which is a great irony since Descartes was a dedicated theist and thought his philosophy was providing an ultimate proof to the reality of God.

Once the mind is severed from reality, as Descartes effectively pioneered, we gain the new concept of a buffered self that is not subjected to the porous influence of dark or holy forces around us. Instead, we gain a subject, and against it, the objects that it perceives. In this modern view, which we have inherited, our individual self is not vulnerable in the way the medieval mythos entailed since an insurmountable gap has been opened up between us, and the world around us. It is this gap that is required to make sense of the concept of reality.

Next week, the final part: Subject and Object

The opening image is The Encounter by Curtis Verdun, which I found here on his website, Art by Abstraction. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.