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Yet another weird SF fan
 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Abolition of Man?

There's a discussion at Less Wrong on the feasibility and morality of stopping possible future changes in values:

Change in values of the future agents, however sudden of gradual, means that the Future (the whole freackin' Future!) won't be optimized according to our values, won't be anywhere as good as it could've been otherwise. It's easier to see a sudden change as morally relevant, and easier to rationalize gradual development as morally "business as usual", but if we look at the end result, the risks of value drift are the same. And it is difficult to make it so that the future is optimized: to stop uncontrolled "evolution" of value (value drift) or recover more of astronomical waste.

Regardless of difficulty of the challenge, it's NOT OK to lose the Future. The loss might prove impossible to avert, but still it's not OK, the value judgment cares not for feasibility of its desire. Let's not succumb to the deathist pattern and lose the battle before it's done. Have the courage and rationality to admit that the loss is real, even if it's too great for mere human emotions to express.

A society that can stop values from changing is what C. S. Lewis warned about in The Abolition of Man:

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man's power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well aas stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

Reading mid-20th-century SF (with psychohistory or the Lensmen or the Psychology Service etc.) and comparing it to mid-20th-century history made me realize that the above quote was not any kind of a straw-man argument. At the time, it was a common idea that just as knowledge of Nature led to control of Nature, knowledge of Man would lead to control of Man. The question of who would do the controlling was rarely mentioned. (Reading The Abolition of Man out of context makes it look like a wacko combination of “traditional values” conservatism and green nonsense.) It looks like there's an attempt at Less Wrong to revive this.

As for fighting this, I suspect the best tactic is likely to be, of all things, space colonization. Once hominids are spread over several solar systems, even the most powerful Planners won't have complete control. Interstellar distances might not yet be “God's quarantine regulations” but they might be someday.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Vader said...

The Abolition of Man is great stuff. Like most great stuff, it can be made to sound pretty rotten with careful excerpting and a few ellipses.

12:35 PM  

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