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Obsolete the Dilemma!
Ben Goertzel   Apr 6, 2010   Cosmist Manifesto  

It’s all very well to enunciate lovely-sounding values like Joy, Growth and Choice ... but in real life we’re faced with difficult decisions. We’re faced with choosing one being’s joy over another’s, or choosing joy versus growth in a given situation, and so forth.

There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution to such dilemmas.

But Cosmism does provide one valuable principle, that is very frequently appropriate for beings in the phase of evolution that humans currently occupy.

This is the principle of obsoleting the dilemma.

Rather than trying to resolve the dilemma, use a change in technology or perspective to redefine the reality within which the dilemma exists.

This may of course lead to new and different dilemmas—which is a natural aspect of the universe’s growth process.

This approach has tremendous power and we’ll revisit it frequently in upcoming articles.

To make the idea clear, first of all I’ll explore it in the context of a couple simple, everyday issues that—in the human world right now—seem to have a tremendous power to divide thoughtful, compassionate people.

Cosmism doesn’t solve these issues—but it does advocate a systematic route to resolving them ... not by solving them but rather by obsoleting them.

The Dilemma of Abortion

Abortion is perhaps the most obvious case of a divisive ethical dilemma, in modern society.

Even among individuals who reject traditional religious notions of the human soul and the special sacredness of human life, it poses a huge ethical challenge.

On the one hand, compassion dictates that killing babies is wrong ... and the fact is that we don’t really know when a fetus develops enough “reflective awareness” that killing it becomes more like killing a person than like killing a sheep, or more like killing a sheep than like killing a fish, etc.

On the other hand, forcing an adult human woman to create an infant when they don’t wish to, is a clearly uncompassionate violation of that woman’s personal choice and happiness, of her ability to grow in the directions she chooses.

So, there is a balance to be struck, and different caring, thoughtful people want to strike it in different ways.

The Dilemma of Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism presents a similar dilemma to abortion, though one that the mainstream of modern society seems less concerned about (due to its species-centrism).

Clearly, killing animals to eat them is uncompassionate and, in itself, “wrong” according to principles of joy, growth and choice. Cows, pigs and chickens may not be as smart as we humans are, but they have their own experiences, emotions and wills, and we’re pretty damn nasty to abort these so we can have a tastier dinner.


Yes, nature is bloody and violent ... animals kill each other ... but we have the capability to much more fully understand what we’re doing and to make a more considered choice….

Yet there are plenty of borderline cases. It’s not clear, for instance, whether fish experience pain in the same way that birds and mammals do. It’s not clear in what sense a fish has a theater of reflective consciousness. Personally, I don’t feel confident that killing a fish is cutting off tremendous joy and experience, any more so than cutting down a tree or picking a carrot out of the ground.

One argument against vegetarianism is that we’re evolved to be omnivores and some level of meat consumption is necessary for us to feel “natural.” I personally do feel that way: in the past when I’ve eaten a vegetarian diet for a while, I have felt a certain disturbing lack of energy and aggressive initiative. Eating fish cures that for me just as well as eating other meat ... but without some fish or other meat intake, I really don’t feel like “myself.” So the question becomes: how much cruelty to fish would I incur to gain a certain amount of personal energy?

Obsoleting the Dilemmas

What does Cosmism have to contribute to these familiar dilemmas?

It doesn’t provide any trick for drawing the line between right and wrong in these tricky situations. The principles of joy, growth and choice are all very well; but these are cases where two or more different options exist, each bringing joy/growth/choice to some minds at the cost of others ... and so there’s a difficult judgment to be made.

What Cosmism suggests is an alternate path: obsolete the dilemma.

This is already happening, to some extent. We should try to make it happen far more as the future unfolds.

Birth control largely obsoletes the dilemma of abortion, though it doesn’t quite work well enough yet. The ability to remove an embryo from the mother without pain or danger, and incubate it in a lab from a very early stage, would obsolete the abortion dilemma in a different way.

The capability to grow cloned steaks, fish cutlets and chicken breasts and such in the lab would obsolete the dilemma of vegetarianism ... as would advances in synthetic food technology; or pharmacology that conferred the recreational, physiological and neurochemical benefits of various forms of food without requiring actual food ingestion.

There is a powerful general principle here. Ethical dilemmas are never going to be completely avoidable, but the advance of technology can blunt them pretty thoroughly, if it’s done with a specific eye toward obsoleting the dilemmas.

The Dilemma of Poverty and Charity

The issue of poverty and charity can be perceived in much the same way as abortion and vegetarianism.. The ethical dilemma of whether to send 80% of my income to help starving children in Africa (I never do so, but feel some guilt over this), will be neatly obsoleted by advanced technology that eliminates material scarcity.


Why don’t I send 80% of my income to help starving children in Africa (nor even 10%, for that matter)? Due to the usual mixed motivations. Part of it is surely plain old selfishness; I don’t claim to be a wholly altruistic individual. And part of it is a sense that the world as a whole would not be better off if those of us fortunate enough to live in wealthy nations (or the upper classes of poorer nations) were to revert to the economic mean.

If I sent most of my income to help starving children I would not only be less happy on a day by day basis—I would also be in much less of a mental and practical position to create new technologies, literary works and so forth ... things that I value a great deal. My own children would be in a much worse position to create such things as well, if I were to deprive them of books, computers and education so as to feed the starving kids in Africa. And yet, I’m never quite sure it’s right to value these creations over peoples’ lives.

What I’m quite sure of, is that it’s right to obsolete the dilemma.

Dialectics Redux?

If you’ve had some contact with Marxist or Hegelian philosophy you may find something familiar in the “obsolete the dilemma” notion.

Hegel, as a key point of his philosophy, described how thesis and antithesis lead to synthesis via the “dialectical” process. The synthesis obsoletes the dilemma between the thesis and antithesis. The dilemma between Being and Nothingness is resolved to yield Becoming. The dilemma between lords and vassals is resolved to yield new social classes emerging due to the advance of industrial technology. Marx saw the advance of society as a result of a series of dialectical dilemma-resolutions.

In Hegelian dialectics, dilemmas are obsoleted by redefining realities so that previously oppositional realities become unified in a new set of structures and dynamics. This is indeed closely related to the Cosmist notion of obsoleting the dilemma (and arguing the precise relationship would be a task of technical philosophy that I won’t undertake here!).

However, the big difference between the Hegelian/Marxist perspective and the Cosmist perspective is the amount of determinism that the former perceived to exist in the world. The notion of a precise, orderly series of dilemmas, getting obsoleted and then leading to new dilemmas in a predictable fashion—this is anathema to the Cosmist perspective, which is all about embracing the unknown and growing oneself to as to understand and become new things that previously would have been wholly incomprehensible to oneself. Often, once a previous dilemma has become obsoleted, the world looks like a totally new place ... and the path forward is one that you never could have imagined to exist before.

Society of course has not evolved according to anything like the particular path that Marx and Hegel foresaw. It has evolved according to a “quasi-dialectical” process of iterative dilemma-obsoletion, though ... and will continue to do so ... so they did get some things fundamentally right.

Figuring out how to obsolete the dilemmas facing us is an ongoing intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual challenge—not at all matter of following some predetermined path.

This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.

Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (


I often can’t believe you could ever one-up yourself, Ben, but by golly, you seem to have hit it right out of the park with this one. This argument is so ethically reductionist and dismissive of current realities that it is borderline offensive. Human beings and their dilemmas are NOT EQUATIONS and, mind-blowing as it may seem, their annoying qualities of free will and cultural inertia do quite a bit to complicate your pretty little world view. I’m going to use your trite treatment of abortion as an example.

1. The birth control techniques we have now are effectively the same as the ones we’ve had since the sixties. The Pill, condoms, IUDs, being the most popular and effective. Technology alone hasn’t solved the problem. UH OH, WHAT DO WE DO?

2. All control methods fail occasionally. All control methods rely on a human user choosing to use them regularly and correctly. All control methods cost money. All control methods reduce or complicate sex, sex drive, and/or reproduction. All control methods must be legalized and readily available. ARE YOU STARTING TO SEE THE COMPLICATIONS?

3. Birth control is considered, by some, as morally problematic as abortion itself. There are likely to be similar concerns regarding your external cyber-womb scenario.

4. This is the critical one: regardless of whether or not your Hegelian techno-solutions manifest, these are ethical dilemmas NOW, these are political issues NOW, there are moral imperatives NOW. No time to wait for history to obsolete our problems, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

We can’t just sit around hoping that boffins will solve our problems with some wiz-bang technology because we don’t have time for that, ethical problems exist now, in the present. Further, if and when the technology manifests, it doesn’t necessarily “obsolete” the dilemma, it often CREATES MORE. Unbelievable.

Stuart Kauffman gives a similar illustration of the ever-growing options that arise from the evolution of complex systems which he calls the ‘adjacent possible’.  Where the Hegelian dialectic arrives at one synthesis, the adjacent possible is a non-deterministic combinatorial explosion of new avenues of exploration.  Among these new avenues are paths to obsolesce previous dilemmas (and no doubt cause new ones in the process!).

The optimists, chirpsters, of the ‘60s did us a disservice with their inflated view of the coming 21st century; now that we are well into the 21st—the second decade—we can ask ourselves why is it that more balanced, though not necessarily less optimistic, persons were not listened to. I remember the ‘60s well, there was enormous hype: we were going to simultaneously end poverty, colonize space, legalize marijuana, and usher in the Age of Aquarius. Not bad for government work.

“The birth control techniques we have now are effectively the same as the ones we’ve had since the sixties. The Pill, condoms, IUDs, being the most popular and effective. Technology alone hasn’t solved the problem…”
Right there we have an almost fool-proof answer to fundamentalists: an advantage of homosexuality is the complete avoidance of unwanted pregnancy. How can they possibly argue with that, except from a most limited metaphysical base? Now we got ‘em by the… well, never mind.

@Kyle: “Obsolete the Dilemma!” is not proposed here as a practical solution for the here-and-now, but as a possible future solution.

It is perfectly possible to speculate on obsoleting current dilemmas as a possible future solution, while at the same time working hard to implement viable solutions for the here-and-now.

Agree with Prisco. I’ve obsoleted many a problem, but only after dealing with them (often ineffectually) first. If at all possible, it’s the way to go!

“3. Birth control is considered, by some, as morally problematic as abortion itself.”

Those some people can be considered morally problematic themselves, by some, in some cases; creating an unrestricted number (dictated by your, ahem, fertility choices and preferences) of new sentiences to an overcrowded place fighting for scarce resources.

Removing the embryo from the mother to an artificial womb would arguably just substitute one dilemma for another. Some women would not feel comfortable in the knowledge that there is a person out in the world who might possibly be affected by the implicit rejection of being grown in an artificial womb. Better that that person had never been. I have heard this from women.

As to your feelings about lack of aggression and listlessness on a vegetarian diet, that argument always strikes me as a type of confirmation bias based in magical thinking i.e. that there is some magical ingredient to flesh foods.

In an era of vat-grown meat you would probably have people valuing the meat of slaughtered animals because they have some nagging feeling that something is missing from the vat-meat.

Perhaps its just because I have been vegetarian for 30 years without any sense of lacking aggression and energy.

Then again, maybe the world was spared another Attilla the Hun by my choice of eschewing meat. wink

@Giulio: It’s not a “solution,” be it now or later, for reasons 1, 2, and 3 above. Sometimes you actually have to do philosophical work and take a stand on an issue, not say “You’re both right! I guess we’re at an impasse.”

Ben constructs “Obsolete the Dilemma” as one of the tenets of his Cosmist manifesto, as if its a heuristic for ethics. But it isn’t a solution to anything, because all “Obsolete the Dilemma” does is encourage a person to close their eyes and wish for a technofuturist deus ex machina to resolve our problems for us. It deliberately ignores the complexities of human culture and polarizes debates, thereby over-simplifying the problem as well as removing the impetus to work towards a solution.

The Cosmist manifesto is no more a philosophy than “The Secret” or “The Purpose Driven Life.” It’s a simplistic, baseless string of platitudes and this latest post is the best evidence of that.

Should we obsolete dilemmas or should we face them head on? When choices give rise to ethical dilemmas or even paradoxes, should we merely direct our understandings to eliminate these problems in aligning our positions to incorporate compromise, or is this merely the case of “shifting goal posts”, left or right, or making them wider or narrower?

Sure it would appear that humanity has evolved from barbarism to where it is now, by the twists and turns of compromise, so in other words we are heading in the right direction aren’t we? Are we moving forwards guided by our history of philosophies and ethics? I would say that we are, although we could perhaps all try a little harder, (Self-understanding).

I cannot foresee any situations where technologies would not help us in our goals of spiritual and ethical evolution, nor can I see any incompatibility with technology and humanity. Yet we have large brains that we can use to great advantage, technologies should be regarded as a plus?

Regarding selfishness, common goals and overcoming dilemmas..

Selfishness is an inherent trait of the “Self” that persists in separation. The “I-consciousness”, the “theatre of reflective consciousness” only exists in separation and therefore perceptions and views are subjective. We may rationalise and objectify dilemmas and achieve much success, yet there will always be dilemmas and choices. Freewill at the level of mind exists, this ability to sanction or veto that we have, and thus speculations and choices arise and the apparent ability to choose? Without choices, there would be no dilemmas, no contradictions concerning ethics, no problems to overcome?

Yet freedom to think and act does exist, is real, and we have to work with it, and use it as a very valuable tool to achieve connectedness, (of ethical values, ideals and goals). We have not yet overcome separation and the selfishness associated with “Self”.

How can the “Self” be anything but selfish, how can it ever hope to perceive the world and contemplate dilemmas, wants, desires and cravings other than from the point of view of “it-Self”? Even the yogi that sits in a cave and meditates all his life is still selfish? The desire for enlightenment is still a desire which requires to be overcome; dispassion is still a selfish discipline? Since we cannot yet overcome the “Self” rationally, (and we may never achieve this through rationalism), then we can only limit the effects of selfishness using mindfulness, and “right intention”. In this way we can limit ethical dilemmas, and obsolete selfish desires and attachments through common goals and values?

True “synthesis” must be to realise and absorb oneself into the whole, which is totally devoid of choices that lead to dilemmas? These Cosmic patterns that you have referred to previously would be in perfect alignment if any challenge to this alignment simply ceased to exist? How can the “Self” align to this patternement? While choices exist, dilemmas must exist. Pure monism, (pure non-duality), of mind and/or consciousness is the only situation that implies freedom from choices and thus dilemmas.

Merging of consciousness and the persistence of separate identities will not overcome dilemmas or ethical choices, although merging may overcome the ignorance concerned with misconceptions, (due to separation of minds) a very Platonic ideal?

@Kyle: you have to take a stand when two attitudes are incompatible, which is not the case here. On the contrary, working hard to find viable concrete solutions for the short term, and speculating on future approaches, are perfectly compatible attitudes that may co-exist in the same person or group.

a simplistic, baseless string of platitudes I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this.

“Society of course has not evolved according to anything like the particular path that Marx and Hegel foresaw.”

This is obviously a misunderstanding of Marxist theory. The fundamental premise of Marxism revolves around the labour theory of value, and that as machines replace living labour, the capitalist system will be brought into crisis. This represents the basis for a new type of social formation, made possible by the technological developments arising out of the class struggles of capitalism…Freed of the constraints of wage labour by more intelligent machines, the greater portion of humanity that is now marginalized will be able to fully participate in the further development of the productive forces, eventually freeing man from the constraints of nature.

One of the basic misunderstandings of Marx’s writings is that he analyzes capitalism in the abstract (distils the most essential and fundamental features).  This means that Marx analyzed capitalism in its totality, not from a national perspective, which is how we experience it in our daily lives. This is a necessary part of the scientific process.

The basic driving force for the evolution of capitalism, and hence society, is production for the sake of production of capital, accumulation as an end in itself, where capital is transformed into commodities which must then be transformed into more capital to justify production in the first place.  At the heart of this lies the contradiction between exchange value and use value.  There might not be a conscious awareness of this process because on the surface it might seem that production is for consumption, since the capitalist assumes that all products will be sold. However, the goods produced must yield the average rate of profit in the particular industry in order to justify continuing in that line of business, regardless of its use value.

Because capital comprises many capitals in competition, based on the exchange value of the products produced, this leads to the problem of overproduction.  It could be proven that all the wages of workers could not purchase all the products that could be produced at any point in time.

The rise of finance capital is the response to the falling rate of profit, as capital searches for new ways to maintain profit levels. However, in the final analysis, the extraction of surplus value, which can only come from living labour, is the source of all value.  Money cannot beget more money, leading to the periodic financial crashes in financial market as billions of dollars in paper wealth disappears.  The rise of finance capital is an unsustainable response to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  To the extent that new sources of cheap labour become integrated into the world economy, and the productivity of this labour increases, the more this labour will eventually be displaced in the production process, again reinforcing the tendency of the rate of the profit to fall.

The development of the social productivity of labour, prepared by the historical development of capitalism, has laid the objective foundations for the creation of a new and higher form of society.

The evolution of human society has been governed by the level of development of the productivity of labour and the dialectical relationship between labour and the tools used by labour, with each influencing and impacting on the other.  Man/woman creates technology and technology creates man/woman, the direction of which is determined by the balance of social forces (class struggle-conscious intervention, where any particular outcome is not inevitable nor pre-determined).

This is the Marxist analysis of how society has evolved and continues to evolve which seems very accurate to me.

You simply cannot understand social reality in 2010 without an understanding of Marx and Hegel.

“Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” (CW 38:212) - Lenin

Good rundown on Marxism. But the notion of a classless society is pie-in-the-sky, as people care about their positions as much as anything else, and want to push themselves and their families as far up the food chain as they possibly can. IMO, Sarkar’s “progressive utilization” and his social theories are more interesting than Marx’s 19th century ideas.

Whenever I feel negative—about 70 percent of the time—I read Progressive Utilization theory (ProUt), based on much of PR Sarkar’s ideas from the mid 1950s, popularized by professor of economics Ravi Batra. It is Eastern religion blended with both Eastern & Western schools of economics. I don’t understand most of it; however, Prout appears to suggest absolute poverty can be ended soon by (you’d never guess) using Proutist educational methods and economic applications:

“Why don’t I send 80% of my income to help starving children in Africa (nor even 10%, for that matter)?”

Poverty is not solved by charity.  In fact, if you were to send 80 per cent of your income to help starving children in Africa, most of it would not reach the people who need it most.  This is the case with most development funding, which really goes to support social layers of consultants.

The standard of living of people in underveloped countries can be improved by better trading terms with their major trading partners; reducing the transaction cost of trade; improved energy and environmental management, improved standards, efficient and effective tax systems, legislation and regulation; targeted skills training, technology transfers etc.; dealing with the demand for drugs in the U.S. so as to end the destruction wrought by drug trafficking and the high crime rates that this trade engenders in developing countries which threatens their stability and, hence, economic growth.

In short, what is required is the right institutional framework and effective political leadership, not 80 per cent of any one’s income.

Effective political leadership? when? in the 22nd century?

I really think the future is totally unwritten - there are so many possibilities out there as we know, but poverty and suffering has got to be on the forefront of “futurist” thinking!  Interesting article and comments! Keep the dialog going!

Frankly I have been vegetarian (At some points vegan) for about 5 years now.  I do feel a difference.  I find that it makes me more compassionate, upbeat and less aggressive.  Of course I view those all as positive things so I personally don’t feel it is a detriment.  But I can see someone who is hooked on negative emotional feedback seeing it as a detriment.

But being a negative SOB can foster longevity: Stalin lived to age 74; Jesus only made it to 33.

Indeed it is strange JC only made it to 33, just think at what he could have achieved with a few more decades?

Buddha Gautama made it to 80 years however!

It’s not the anomalies such as Gautama & Jesus—only two subjects out of millions is a negligible statistic. But what of the numerous Christians thrown to lions and Buddhists killed in Asia?
The benefits packages and golden parachutes for saints has not been nearly as good as for the Clergy.

I want to look at the view that humanism is a broad category of active ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people,based on our ability to determine what is right using the qualities innate to humanity,particularly rationality.Humanism is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical system.Since humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through the human means in support of human interests.There should be a thorough mine justification so as to help people who are in need of this help.

Kyle—your anger and negativity seem misplaced here, as they seem to be arguing against something totally different than what I actually said in this article.

I never meant to argue that working on practical near-term solutions to human problems is unnecessary or worthless.  In the immediate term, of course it’s important to help others in their current circumstances.  Many others have made this point and are making it constantly, nobody needs me to tell them that…

Nevertheless, even though the local assistance of people with near-term problems is important, there is also a larger and longer view.  This larger view is where “obsoleting the dilemma” pertains.  Plenty of historical dilemmas have been obsoleted via advances of technology and society, and I think most of our current dilemmas will be obsoleted in future via additional advances. 

You’re free to disagree with me of course.  And your emotions on the topic seem so strong that trying to convince you of anything related would seem pointless.  However, I’m writing this comment so other readers won’t be misled by your comment into following along with your misinterpretation and believing I am somehow against helping people with their current problems in the here and now.

Regarding Africa—in the time since this article was posted, I’ve helped some Ethiopian friends found the first AI company in Ethiopia, and have learned a lot about the African situation and its current practicalities.  I’ve even managed to help out a few Ethiopians in practical ways.  But that would be another story….  My point for now is that my Cosmist ideals and views don’t stop me from acting in the world now to help fellow humans with current situations.  The contrast between Cosmist vision and immediate-term beneficial work is in your mind not in reality…

—Ben Goertzel

Ben.. ? Have you only just replied to a comment from yesterday.. that is like 5 years ago?

Either that or my Tardis needs an MOT service!

(I’m gonna “obsolete” this paradox)

This is priceless; akin to getting the punchline to a joke from five years ago—I really like it!

Also the five years gone by has given us (though of course am not speaking for the rest of you) time to calm down. After all, Buddhist Right Speech was instituted at IEET since this article and its original comments were written.

Mark: Poverty is not solved by charity.  In fact, if you were to send 80 per cent of your income to help starving children in Africa, most of it would not reach the people who need it most.  This is the case with most development funding, which really goes to support social layers of consultants

In fact, last I heard, foreign aid as a whole—govt and private—is poor people in rich nations giving aid to rich people in poor nations. But there’s no real rhyme or reason to foreign affairs.

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