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Would AI and Aliens be Moral in a Godless Universe?
Rick Searle   Aug 30, 2015   Utopia or Dystopia  

Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions.

Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist.

The name of the book was Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (contemporary philosophy isn’t all that sharp when it comes to titles), by Erik J. Wielenberg. Now, I won’t even attempt to write a proper philosophical review of Robust Ethics for the book has been excellently dissected by a proper philosopher, John Danaher in pieces such as this, this, and this,  and one more.  Indeed, it was Danaher’s thoughtful reviews that had resulted in Wielenberg’s short work being in the ever changing pile of books that shadows my living room floor like a patch of unextractable mold. It was just the book I needed when thinking about what types of intelligence might be possessed by extraterrestrials.

It’s a problem I ran into when reviewing David Roden’s Post-human Life that goes like this: while it is not so much easy, as it is that I don’t simply draw a blank for me to conceive of an alternative form of intelligence to our human type, it’s damned near impossible for me to imagine what our an alternative form to our moral cognition and action would consist of and how it would be embedded in these other forms of intelligence.

The way Wielenberg answers this question would seem to throw a wrench into Bakker’s idea of Blind Brain Theory (BBT) because what Bakker is urging is that we be suspicious of our cognitive intuitions because they were provided by evolution not as a means of knowing the truth but in terms of their effectiveness in supporting survival and reproduction, whereas Wielenberg is making the case that we can generally rely on these intuitions ( luckily) because of the way they have emerged out of a very peculiar human evolutionary story one which we largely do not share with other animals. That is, Wielenberg argument, is anthropocentric to its core and therein lies a new set of problems.

His contention, in essence, is that the ability of human being to perceive moral truth arises as a consequence of the prolonged period of childhood we experience in comparison to other animals. In responding to the argument by Sharon Street that moral “truth” would seem quite different from the perspective of lions, or bonobos, or social insects than from a human standpoint Wielenberg  responds:

Lions and bonobos lack the nuclear family structure. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests the “bonobos have stretched the single parent system to the limit”. He also claims that an essential component of human reproductive success is the male-female pair bond which he suggests “sets us apart from the apes more than anything else” . These considerations provide some support for the idea that a moralizing species like ours requires an evolutionary path significantly different from that of lions or bonobos. (171)

The prolonged childhood of humans necessitates both pair-bonding and “alloparents” that for Wielenberg shape and indeed create our moral disposition and perception in a way seen in no other animals.

As for the social insects scenario suggested by Street, the social insects (termites, ants, and many species of bees and wasps) are so different from us that it’s hard to evaluate whether such a scenario is nomologically possible.  (171).

In a sense the ability to perceive moral truth, what Wielenberg  characterizes as “brute facts” such as “rape is wrong” emerges out of slow speed in which knowledge is passed from adults to the young were children born fully formed with sufficient information for their own survival neither the pair bond nor the care of the “village” would be necessary and the moral knowledge that comes as a result of this period of dependence/interdependence might go undiscovered.

Though I was very much rooting that Wielenberg would have succeeded in providing an account of moral realism absent any need for God, I believe in these thoughts found in the very last pages of Robust Ethics he may have inadvertently undermined that very noble project.

I have complained before about someone like E.O. Wilson’s lack of imagination when it comes to alternative forms of intelligence on worlds other than our own, but what Wielenberg has done is perhaps even more suffocating. For if the perception of moral truth depends upon the evolution of creatures dependent on pair bonding and alloparenting then what this suggests is due to our peculiarities human beings might be the only species in the universe capable of perceiving moral truth. This is not the argument Wielenberg likely hoped he was making at all, and indeed is more anthropocentric than the argument of some card carrying theists.

I suppose Wielenberg might object that any intelligent aliens would likely require the same extended period of learning as ourselves because they too would have arrived at their station via cultural evolution which seems to demand long periods of dependent learning. Perhaps, or perhaps not, for even if I can’t imagine some biological species where knowledge from parent to offspring is directly passed, I know that it’s possible- the efficiency of DNA as a cultural storage device is well known.

Besides, I think it’s a mistake to see biological intelligence as the type of intelligence that commands the stage over the long duree- even if artificial intelligence like children need to learn many task through actual experience rather than programming “from above” the  advantages of artificial intelligence over the biological sort is that it can then share this learning directly with fully grown copies of itself a like Neo in the Matrix its’ “progeny” can say “I know kung fu” without ever having themselves learned it. It doesn’t seem that such intelligent entities would necessarily perceive brute moral facts or ethical truths, so if Wielenberg is right an enormous contraction of the potential scale of the moral universe would have occurred . The actual existence of moral truth, limited to perhaps one species in a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy, would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has one.

The only way it seems one can hold both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment different from our own.

I think the best chance here is if moral truth were somehow related to the truths of mathematics (indeed Wielenberg thinks the principle of contradiction [which is the core of mathematics/logic] is essential to the articulation and development of our own moral sense which begins with the emotions but doesn’t end there.) Like us other animals seem not only to possess forms of moral cognition that rival our own, but that even social insects are capable of discovering mathematical truths about the world, the kind of logic that underlies moral reasoning, something I explored extensively here.

Let’s hope that the perception of moral truth isn’t as dependent on our very peculiar evolutionary development, for if that’s the case this form of truth might be so short lived and isolated in the cosmos that someone might be led to the mistaken conclusion that it never existed at all.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

“The only way it seems one can hold both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment different from our own.”

This is clearly the case, as already observed in the commonalities between our own moral sense and the proto-morality seen in lower animals. Moral “truths” are only true and objective to the extent they are shared across subjects, which is itself a reflection of a sort of convergent sociobiological evolution - us developing a moral sense in response to the demands of living as a social species, like us developing eyes in response to the demands of living in a photic environment. A hypothetical alien being would share our perception of certain moral “truths” to the extent they are subject to similar evolutionary pressures.

From a taxonomical point of view, I had ling thought that “morals” come from somebody supernatural, but Ethics are how people deal with,  or treat other people. I could be absolutely wrong about all this.

Canadian philosopher, John Leslie has long written about what he termed “ethical requiredness,” where even a God or gods, or and infinite set of infinite minds, have a natural duty to care after their creations. The requiredness is more of a logical, rational, sense of the phrase. Leslie used the example of the maker of an intelligent machine has to no right to destroy that machine, even though he built it. Leslie further proposes that even a God who created a personality in his brain has no right to forget this person He created.

I am guessing on the kindness of hyperintelligent aliens, might also extend in Leslie’s direction. Most of the human violence against our own species, has been driven by primate reproduction and resource (land) possession. Technologically, I suspect that once the production of all goods and services become superabundant and thus, cheaper, one of the under-pinnings for violence will be gone.  Maybe Fermis Great Silence are Aliens, standing back from us, awaiting our transition, from viscious primates, to self-satisfied, less war-like primates?

More likely, the universe might be dead as a door nail, and earth life is just a fluke?

Some would, some wouldn’t. Just like, you know, down here on Earth.

Same in an universe with Gods.

@SHaGGGz:

Yes! I think you’re absolutely right which was why I was baffled that W. drew such a sharp line between us and even very similar social animals such as bonobos. I’d go so far as to say that any animal that needs motherhood would be privy to the types of experiences he sees as the root of our moral perception.

@Giulio:

Although, unlike those on earth, if we met up with them they’d likely be too smart for us to tell the good from the ill.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood’s_End

@spud100:

“Canadian philosopher, John Leslie has long written about what he termed “ethical requiredness,” where even a God or gods, or and infinite set of infinite minds, have a natural duty to care after their creations. The requiredness is more of a logical, rational, sense of the phrase. Leslie used the example of the maker of an intelligent machine has to no right to destroy that machine, even though he built it. Leslie further proposes that even a God who created a personality in his brain has no right to forget this person He created.”

I don’t have much “faith” in the reliability of extrapolating from the moral intuitions attained through Darwinian evolution on a very particular sliver within the multiversal possibility space, to the nature of said multiverse, using said intuitions. Because…

“Most of the human violence against our own species, has been driven by primate reproduction and resource (land) possession.”

Relying on the intuitions that emerge from the brutality entailed within this scenario has many potential pitfalls, to say the least, especially when generalizing to the most abstract and fundamental nature of reality.

“Technologically, I suspect that once the production of all goods and services become superabundant and thus, cheaper, one of the under-pinnings for violence will be gone.”

Agreed.

“Maybe Fermis Great Silence are Aliens, standing back from us, awaiting our transition, from viscious primates, to self-satisfied, less war-like primates?

More likely, the universe might be dead as a door nail, and earth life is just a fluke?”

I think you’ve correctly sketched out the contours of the likely answers to Fermi: either the party is happening at the end of spacetime and/or on some hyperdimensional plane, and we are incapable of accessing it (yet?) due to our primitive state, or there isn’t one happening because the dismal probability of attaining a technological civilization that we observe is indicative of the actual rarity of the phenomenon.

I’m moderately optimistic that we will be able to shine actual, empirical light on such seemingly indissoluble questions, with emerging technologies such as quantum computing. Once we’re able to entangle enough atoms that simulation of possibility spaces of increasing complexity are implementable, useful inferences about the distribution of existential tendencies among the various potential configurations governing our own universe and others become possible.

@Rick:

“Yes! I think you’re absolutely right which was why I was baffled that W. drew such a sharp line between us and even very similar social animals such as bonobos. I’d go so far as to say that any animal that needs motherhood would be privy to the types of experiences he sees as the root of our moral perception.”

Yes, he seems incapable of exercising the aforesaid restraint in the face of temptation to make hasty, ill-considered ontological generalizations.

Would differences in developmental history and forms of life really make comprehension impossible from one intelligent species to another?  With some effort, we human beings can understand one another across considerable differences in personal background and in the circumstances that we face.  Some of us even try to empathize with some non-human animals.  If there are intelligent extraterrestrials, then they should be at least as able as human beings at thinking beyond the immediate situations in which they find themselves.  Of course, some extraterrestrials may be much more intelligent than people.  But if we cannot with our own mental resources understand these superintelligent ones, at any rate they should be smart enough to be able to figure out how to explain their thinking to us.  More than that, we all live in the same world, so at some level all thinking beings have to confront the same problems.  Although people have not reached consensus in ethics, we nevertheless understand each other well enough to discuss a common set of problems.  If there are intelligent extraterrestrials and if somehow we were able to communicate with them, I think we would find more commonality than incomprehension.

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