Monday, March 05, 2018

Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress......

I'm thinking about Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress....with occasional back-references to The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both are good books, and I find myself wanting to quote them at somebody, or just wishing I'd said that. Still, I'd agree with Bill Gates that he's too dismissive of the dangers of AI; he does not answer my concerns in previous blog posts except to dismiss them as science fiction, which is not much of a dismissal from my point of view. I also think that he's a bit too dismissive of the dangers of resource (e.g. fossil fuel) depletion, and of electric grid collapse. In fact I believe that his kind of systematic "superforecaster" argument does overemphasize trends and underestimates the possibility of fundamental changes in those trends. So it does very very well, much better than normal people or normal experts, at the near term and maybe even the medium term, but if there's an inflection point in the trends then I don't think that he'll see it as well as he thinks.That doesn't mean his conclusions are wrong, but I think there are holes in the argument. There are holes in my optimism. As I wrote in A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan...
We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
  We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
  We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that:

  We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead.

I'm thinking about progress, though, relating it to my own experience of the world. It's very real. Back in the 1950s and 60s I was an elementary-school student going through atomic air raid drills just north of Baltimore, and then an elementary student in Mexico when Kennedy was shot, and then a junior-high-schooler worrying about Vietnam and the draft and about my Sunday-school teacher's husband immolating himself on the Pentagon steps as a Vietnam protest, and then a high-schooler listening to the radio about the nearby Baltimore Riots after King's assassination...and still worrying about Vietnam and the draft. The world overall has become a great deal more peaceful, more free, and more moral---and yes, more fair to women and minorities. Pinker's right about that.

Not-so-incidentally, the world overall has also become immensely wealthier in Stuff (and in Information/Education) for the relatively rich and for the relatively poor, the latter being mostly much less poor (in absolute terms) than they were; Pinker's right about that, too; even as population has risen, the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen -- and the proportion of people in extreme poverty has fallen even more. From almost 95% as the Industrial Revolution got going, to more than 70% when I was born, to less than 10% now and still falling. All is not well with the world, a great deal is very far from well, but these trends are very positive and mostly just need to be continued....mostly.

From being a high-school pessimist who did not expect civilization to last into the 21st century, I have gradually turned into an optimist: I now think that these trends more likely than not will be continued. But there's certainly no certainty. I don't mean to suggest that Pinker claims such certainty; he doesn't. In Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?: The Munk Debates I was rather depressed by the extent to which his debate opponents,‎ Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell, seemed to resort to straw-man arguments, attacking a "we're inevitably headed for perfection" which he never said at all. He is saying that the Enlightenment ideas have already achieved a great deal of great value, that progress has been Good, and that it can and should be continued. I'd agree with all of that. But I think he seriously underestimates some of the problems.

(Or then again, maybe not.)


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