Two Recluses on Cosmos and Psyche

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

The Brain — is wider than the Sky—
For — put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside—

~ Emily Dickinson, 632

The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

Sociobiology as the Transcendence of Biological Ecology

The central idea of sociobiology is that the emergence of social creatures (herd animals) coincided with the creation of what might be termed a socio-cultural environment. The socio-cultural environment is as much an environment that social creatures inhabited as the material environment. As social creatures evolve, two things happen to the socio-cultural environment:

  1. As with evolution of species morphology, the maximum complexity of socio-cultural environments increases (there is selection pressure on the entire socio-cultural environment as, say, predators develop way of thwarting or exploiting the social aspect of their prey and the social species evolve to countervail this development, e.g. parasitic cordyceps and ants; that is, there is species-level selection, since a social characteristic unrecognized by a counterpart comes to nothing; consider this as an analogy for fourth generation warfare).

  2. Subsequent generations of herd animals come to rely ever more heavily upon social cohesion — as opposed to horns, honed perceptive apparatus, efficient digestion, et cetera — as their primary means of survival.

As this socio-cultural environment becomes more sophisticated and intricate and increasingly important as a means of survival, the socio-cultural environment grows in importance as the universe of factors shaping the evolution of social animals, while the objective, geological, hydrological and biological environment recedes in its evolutionary force.

Sexual selection (a type of sociobiological selection, as opposed to natural or Malthusian selection) is the sort of selection pressure that a species faces when its fellows, rather than the environment becomes the main challenge to getting its genes into the future. The shifting balance of natural selection and sexual selection in the play of evolutionary forces is meta-evolutionary. Evolution is recursive, with developments in the subjects of evolution backpropigating into the mechanism itself. In this respect every new thing in the universe (or at least in the effective realm) can potentially alter the functioning of the evolutionary dynamic. In this broadened perspective, the idea of machine or meme evolution supplanting biological evolution should not be so surprising.

Among a certain sector of the wildly technologically enthusiastic (among whom I count myself, though Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is presently doing a lot to kick the piss out of this pretention), there is a notion that humans are rapidly disencumbering themselves of the material world and constructing for ourselves a world of pure ideas, information, mind-stuff. At some point in human history saber-toothed tigers, virulent microbes, droughts and tar pits ceased to be the primary challenge to humans seeking to survive and reproduce. Such extra-human threats were replaced as the primary danger by human-originating threats such as careening contraptions, shoddy construction techniques, insufficient precaution with the kitchen fire, marauding hoplites, jilted dagger-wielding lovers, corrupt institutions and flawed regimes of succession in governance. It is at the point where today it is plausible that the human socio-cultural environment has attained a level of preponderance where even the level of environmental catastrophe such as an asteroid strike that caused the mass extinctions of the past might be thwarted by the constituents of the human socio-cultural environment (on the other hand, the complexity of our socio-cultural environment might be just the sort of run-away biological factor that caused past mass extinction such as the oxygen catastrophe or the Canfield ocean thesis of the Permian–Triassic extinction event). In this conception, it is usually the the information revolution, the invention of the computer — a brain-like device — that is the cause of this transcending of matter. The advent of technology was not the key turning point. The recognition of sociobiology is that this trend is an aspect of evolution; that it long predates not only technology, but also even predates humans. In this way, we are not unique, not the penultimate branch of the tree of life, but only the latest in a succession of forms.

Update, 15 September 2009: It’s worth noting that while computers are not the revolution, nor the source of the revolution, they do form a paradigm, shaping our conceptualizations in ways that allow us to perceive the revolution.

Knowledge is a Network

Bollen, Johan, et al., Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, Public Library of Science One

Knowledge is a network phenomenon. Only primitive knowledge consists of non-systematized catalogues of facts. System is the highest state of knowledge. Right now the system of our knowledge might be said to be clumpy, with well developed disciplines, but tenuous connections between them. Knowledge is still subject to cluster analysis. The apogee of knowledge will be a system of complete propositional consistency.

I present here a selection of discussions of the network nature of knowledge:

Kevin Kelly (“The Fifth and Sixth Discontinuity,” The Technium, 15 June 2009):

We casually talk about the “discovery of America” in 1492, or the “discovery of gorillas” in 1856, or the “discovery of vaccines” in 1796. Yet vaccines, gorillas and America were not unknown before their “discovery.” Native peoples had been living in the Americas for 10,000 years before Columbus arrived and they had explored the continent far better than any European ever could. Certain West African tribes were intimately familiar the gorilla, and many more primate species yet to be “discovered.” Dairy farmers had long been aware of the protective power of vaccines that related diseases offered, although they did not have a name for it. The same argument can be made about whole libraries worth of knowledge — herbal wisdom, traditional practices, spiritual insights — that are “discovered” by the educated but only after having been long known by native and folk peoples. These supposed “discoveries” seems imperialistic and condescending, and often are.

Yet there is one legitimate way in which we can claim that Columbus discovered America, and the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu discovered gorillas, and Edward Jenner discovered vaccines. They “discovered” previously locally known knowledge by adding it to the growing pool of structured global knowledge. Nowadays we would call that accumulating structured knowledge science. Until du Chaillu’s adventures in Gabon any knowledge about gorillas was extremely parochial; the local tribes’ vast natural knowledge about these primates was not integrated into all that science knew about all other animals. Information about “gorillas” remained outside of the structured known. In fact, until zoologists got their hands on Paul du Chaillu’s specimens, gorillas were scientifically considered to be a mythical creature similar to Big Foot, seen only by uneducated, gullible natives. Du Chaillu’s “discovery” was actually science’s discovery. The meager anatomical information contained in the killed animals was fitted into the vetted system of zoology. Once their existence was “known,” essential information about the gorilla’s behavior and natural history could be annexed. In the same way, local farmers’ knowledge about how cowpox could inoculate against small pox remained local knowledge and was not connected to the rest of what was known about medicine. The remedy therefore remained isolated. When Jenner “discovered” the effect, he took what was known locally, and linked its effect into to medical theory and all the little science knew of infection and germs. He did not so much “discover” vaccines as much as he “linked in” vaccines. Likewise America. Columbus’s encounter put America on the map of the globe, linking it to the rest of the known world, integrating its own inherent body of knowledge into the slowly accumulating, unified body of verified knowledge. Columbus joined two large continents of knowledge into a growing global consilience.

The reason science absorbs local knowledge and not the other way around is because science is a machine we have invented to connect information. It is built to integrate new knowledge with the web of the old. If a new insight is presented with too many “facts” that don’t fit into what is already known, then the new knowledge is rejected until those facts can be explained. A new theory does not need to have every unexpected detail explained (and rarely does) but it must be woven to some satisfaction into the established order. Every strand of conjecture, assumption, observation is subject to scrutiny, testing, skepticism and verification. Piece by piece consilience is built.

Pierre Bayard (How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read [New York: Bloomsbury, 2007]):

As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. …

Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment. It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation …

The idea of overall perspective has implications for more than just situating a book within the collective library; it is equally relevant to the task of situating each passage within a book. (pgs. 10-11, 12, 14)

And I might add that it is not only passages within a book, but passages between books. Books, passages, paragraphs, et cetera are all stand-ins for or not-quite-there-yet stabs at the notion of memes. It is the relation of memes that is critical and books or passages therefrom are proxies or meme carriers. A book is a bundle of memes. And those memes bear a certain set of relations to all the other memes bundled in all the other books (or magazines, memos, blog posts, radio broadcasts, conversations, thoughts, or any of the other carriers of memes).

This brings us to the ur-theory of them all, W.V.O. Quine’s thumb-nail sketch epistemology from “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” (The Philosophical Review vol. 60, 1951, pp. 20-43; Reprinted in From a Logical Point of View [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953; second, revised, edition 1961]):

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Reevaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections — the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, certain further elements of the field. Having reevaluated one statement we must reevaluate some others, whether they be statements logically connected with the first or whether they be the statements of logical connections themselves. But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.

If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement — especially if it be a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore it becomes folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements which hold come what may. Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?

For vividness I have been speaking in terms of varying distances from a sensory periphery. Let me try now to clarify this notion without metaphor. Certain statements, though about physical objects and not sense experience, seem peculiarly germane to sense experience — and in a selective way: some statements to some experiences, others to others. Such statements, especially germane to particular experiences, I picture as near the periphery. But in this relation of “germaneness” I envisage nothing more than a loose association reflecting the relative likelihood, in practice, of our choosing one statement rather than another for revision in the event of recalcitrant experience. For example, we can imagine recalcitrant experiences to which we would surely be inclined to accommodate our system by reevaluating just the statement that there are brick houses on Elm Street, together with related statements on the same topic. We can imagine other recalcitrant experiences to which we would be inclined to accommodate our system by reevaluating just the statement that there are no centaurs, along with kindred statements. A recalcitrant experience can, I have already urged, be accommodated by any of various alternative reevaluations in various alternative quarters of the total system; but, in the cases which we are now imagining, our natural tendency to disturb the total system as little as possible would lead us to focus our revisions upon these specific statements concerning brick houses or centaurs. These statements are felt, therefore, to have a sharper empirical reference than highly theoretical statements of physics or logic or ontology. The latter statements may be thought of as relatively centrally located within the total network, meaning merely that little preferential connection with any particular sense data obtrudes itself.

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries — not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.

Image from Bollen, Johan, Herbert Van de Sompel, Aric Hagberg, Luis Bettencourt, Ryan Chute, et al., “Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science,” Public Library of Science One, vol. 4, no. 3, March 2009, e4803, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004803. See article for a larger version.

Reconstructing Hegelianism

Here’s why Charles Mudede has become one of my most closely followed blogger-thinkers: because his project is my project (“The End of Internalism,” SLOG, The Stranger, 9 June 2009):

I’m quietly building a case for the importance of Hegel in an age that cares neither for him or his direct descendant, Marx. A part of the case will, one, link Hegel’s concept of geist and its movement in time (world history) with the idea of the evolution of noosphere in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man; and, two, link Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit with the ideas expressed in Alva Noë’s new book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness — some of these ideas can be heard on the Brain Science Podcast.

I am very interested in using contemporary information economy concepts such as the noosphere or general systems theory to reconstruct the Hegelian system. I’m less sure where Mr. Mudede is going with the second part of this, but Out of Our Heads is on my list now.

Information Phenotype

The fractal tree at the corner of 18th and Lamont, Washington, D.C., 29 April 2009

I have previously commented on my love of the movie π (“The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup,” 2 November 2008). It left me with two enduring images: mixing coffee and cream as an example of turbulence, previously discussed; and the branching of tree limbs as an example of fractal symmetry. I love winter for its exposure of this fabulous phenomena, innocuously right over our heads. I am always a little sad for the arrival of spring and the enshrouding of all these thought-provoking fractals in greenery.

The picture above is of my favorite tree in the neighborhood where I live. The degree to which the pattern of major arc over two-thirds of growth length followed by sharp break and lesser arc over remainder of growth length is repeated trunk to twig is amazing. Notice the arc of the trunk: unlike many trees which follow one rule for trunk and a separate rule for the branches, this tree follows a single rule throughout.

We think of a fractal as a recursive algorithm, a mathematical formula. But there’s no math in that tree. The recipe for that fractal is coded somewhere in the tree’s DNA. But the DNA contains no fractal. The DNA is a bunch of nucleotides that are transcribed by messenger RNA that code amino acids that assemble into proteins that form the structures of cells. The cells then split and differentiate in response to a complex of internal chemical signals and environmental stimuli to grow in a pattern that is the fractal.

One might say that there is a fractal somewhere in that tree, but there are so many transformation rules between nucleotide sequence and fractal growth pattern, that it is only in a manner of speaking. I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s discussion of what constitutes following a rule and going against it (Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe [Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1953]):

198. “But how can a rule shew me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule.” — That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.

“Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?” — Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule — say a sign-post — got to do with my actions? What sort of connection is there here? — Well perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I so react to it.

But that is only to give the causal connection; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the-sign really consists in. On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign posts, a custom.

199. Is what we call “obeying a rule” something that it would be possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his life? — This is of course a note on the grammar of the expression “to obey a rule.”

It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on. — To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions).

To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.

200. It is, of course, imaginable that two people belonging to a tribe unacquainted with games should sit at a chess-board and go through the moves of a game of chess; and even with all the appropriate mental accompaniments. And if we were to see it we should say they were playing chess. But now imagine a game of chess translated according to certain rules into a series of actions which we do not ordinarily associate with a game — say into yells and stamping of feet. And now suppose those two people to yell and stamp instead of playing the form of chess that we are used to; and this in such a way that their procedure is translatable by suitable rules into a game of chess. Should we still be inclined to say that they were playing a game? What right would one have to say so?

201. This is our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.

It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we gave one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call “obeying the rule” and “going against it” in actual cases.

Of course Wittgenstein is writing about social phenomena where custom and training are factors, but the undecidability of rules is the point here. Socially dogmatic, we are dismissive of blatant divergence from consensus. Less dogmatic — but not free of dogma — science resorts to the metaphysical-aesthetic notion of Ockham’s razor with which to cut through the myriad of rules that might potentially be made to accord with observed behavior. Is there really a fractal in the tree’s DNA? The fractal pattern of tree growth is but an interpretation of the tree’s DNA — an interpretation that would be different given a differing machinery of RNA transcription, amino acid assembly, protein expression, etc.

Auto-Impalement

When I was in college and struggling to get postmodernism in philosophy, I asked a friend who was a writing student what postmodernism in literature meant. His very brief description — he was dismissive like that — was that in modernist literature, ordinary, every-day occurrences drove the drama of the story. In postmodernist literature, extraordinary events drove the plot of the story. The example that he made was that a story might start one morning when a man realizes that there’s a tree growing out of his leg.

Today, Komsomolskaya Pravda Daily reports that Artyom Sidorkin of Izhevsk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation, went for surgery to remove what doctors had believed to be a tumor, but in fact turned out to be a five centimeter tall spruce tree growing in Mr. Sidorkin’s lung (“5 cm. Fir Tree Removed from Patient’s Lung,” MosNews.com, 13 April 2009 [Warning: Images Not Safe For Dinner]).

Two observations:

  1. Life imitates art — and vice versa. It’s not just philosophy and literature that are post-modern. They are merely middling indicators. They have become so only to the extent that actual lived life has become post-modern. Trees are actually growing out of people. I’m concerned that tomorrow I might read news of a man who woke up to find that he had turned into a giant beetle, or that the latest trend among young people was to turn into a rhinoceros.

  2. Life is fucking relentless. I used to find it bizarre that a mile out into Lake Washington on the 520 floating bridge, weeds grew in the automobile soot that had accumulated in the crevices in the asphalt and spiders had spun webs amidst their stems and apparently caught enough food to survive. Here you have a tree that actually tried to make a feeder-log of a man.

Update, 2 May 2009: On Monday, Steven Colbert picked up the story for his segment, Craziest Fucking Thing I’ve Ever Heard. He offered that that’s why he uses Roundup Nasal Spray.

A Cyberpunk Rereading of German Idealism

Pattie Maes's TED talk demonstrating an enhanced reality device, February 2009

Over at SLOG there is a bit of a conversation is going on about Pattie Maes’s recent TED talk in which she demonstrated what she calls “sixth sense,” but that I would call “augmented reality” (with Pranav Mistry, “Unveiling the ‘Sixth Sense,’ Game-Changing Wearable Tech,” TED, February 2009; Hecht, Anthony, “Holy Freaking Crap,” SLOG, The Stranger, 3 April 2009).

Today Charles Mudede, one of the thinkers to whom I consider myself most close, comments on the significance of Ms. Maes’s innovations along a line similar to my own project (“The Near Future,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 April 2008):

It’s as if Hegel’s geist in his grand narrative of the history of consciousness, Phenomenology of the Spirit, actually came true. We can laugh at Hegel and his impossible absolute spirit, but we cannot laugh at Pattie Maes and her wearable tech.

For some time now I have been thinking that a cyberpunk rereading of the German Idealists is necessary. I have made a number of posts along this line (see Related Posts below). One of the themes of this blog — one that has emerged accidentally — is of the hard materiality of that which we call “ideal”; the degree to which mind is in the world; and not just statically so, but the degree to which the balance of matter and information is giving ground to information, processes of reification, the “imperialism of information”; that tool for rendering the study of ideology a material science, the meme; of those twain machines which bridge the gap: brains and computers.

My contributions to the project to date:

The Deus ex Machina of Economic Crisis,” 25 March 2009
The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009
Emergence and Aufhebung (Hegel and the Swarm),” 5 December 2008
The Day I Became a Hegelian,” 18 August 2008
Imagination Unmoored,” 8 August 2008

“What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational”!

Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

Consider the Hermit Crab

À la David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster” — published in Gourmet of all places (August 2004) — new research shows that hermit crabs experience pain, remember it, can recognize and take steps to avoid future encounters of a similar kind (“Crabs ‘Sense and Remember Pain’,” BBC, 27 March 2009). The full research report is:

Elwood, Bob and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behaviour, vol. 77, no. 5, May 2009, pp. TBD, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.01.028.

I’m a vegetarian so of course I find the practice of boiling crustaceans alive disturbing — and have since the first time I witnessed the gruesome spectacle at about the age of eight or ten. Nevertheless, I find Professor Elwood’s characterization of the practice as “potentially very large problem” to be bizarre. “Problems” have no objective existence. A “problem” is an issue of perspective. It would seem that, say, 5,000 years and trillions of boiled crustaceans into the practice of cooking arthropods alive, it’s a little late to declare it a “potentially very large problem.” An ethical lapse is only “a problem” if the perpetrator runs afoul someone who objects and is in sufficient a position of power to do something about it. Unless we wake up in the antechamber of the afterlife and it turns out that the correct answer was Hinduism, or unless it turns out that Yahweh takes seriously that bit in Isaiah about wolves and lambs lying down together (11:6-9), or unless we vegetarians establish a GULAG and declare universal jurisdiction for crims against animals then there is no problem here — at least not for the humans.

Machine Ethics

Two great new books on the future of robots, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong and Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century are out right now. I’m not going to have time for either, but in the meantime, the New York Times constantly runs articles on this subject, most recently “A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center” (Dean, Cornelia, 25 November 2008, p. D1). To the list of all the things that robots will be better at than humans, we can add that they will be more ethical than us:

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army.

In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’ ” which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

His report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Troops who were stressed, angry, anxious or mourning lost colleagues or who had handled dead bodies were more likely to say they had mistreated civilian noncombatants, the survey said [Mental Health Advisory Team IV, FINAL REPORT, Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army Medical Command, 17 November 2006].

It is incorrect to imagine machines as behaving more ethically than humans insofar as it construes humans and machines as occupying the same ethical continuum. We may program machines to have human-compatible ethics, but that shouldn’t confuse us; the same ethical prohibitions that apply to us will not apply to robots.

Right and wrong aren’t something floating out there on the other side of the sphere of the stars. Right and wrong are derived from the characteristics of the human body, human tastes and tendencies as endowed in us by our natural history, the structure of the human lifecycle, our conceptions of the good life, shared human experience, and communal mythos. Creatures for whom these factors are different will have different ideas about right and wrong. As the last three items on the list — conceptions of the good life and shared experience, public reference symbols — differ among people, we have different ideas about right and wrong. A creature with a transferable consciousness won’t have an essentialist view of the relation of body to self and hence won’t take moral exception to bodily damage. A creature with a polymorphous consciousness wouldn’t disparage even psychic damage (though the question of identity for such a creature would be even more difficult than it is with us, as already elusive as we are).

Creatures with different conceptions interacting have to develop ethical interfaces. The minimalist limitations of rights-based liberalism and the law of nations are to some extent that: interfaces between differing moral systems — the former an interface for people within a society, the latter between different societies. What an interface between different species, or an interface between different types of life, would look like, I have no idea. Whether such an interface is even possible is perhaps more pressing: they only seem to hold up so well amidst humans.

Neil Sinhababu, “the Ethical Werewolf,” and Ramesh Ponnuru had a go-round back in 2006 that touched on the ethical status of non-human creatures, but I don’t think it really goes beyond the natural extension of liberalism to different physical morphologies, with which liberalism has an extensive history in the various rights movements. And different physical morphologies is all that aliens and other mythological creatures, as conventionally conceived, are (Sinhababu, Neil, “Mind Matters,” The American Prospect, 23 August 2006; Ponnuru, Ramesh, “Fear Not, Frodo,” National Review Online, 28 August 2006; Sinhababu, Neil, “More on Minds,” TAPPED, 30 August 2006).