Thoughts on morality, technology, and evolution

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Communicating Climate Change Controversy to Space Aliens

If you were a space alien visiting Earth, global warming would seem a strangely inflammatory topic. That’s because the controversy doesn’t really make sense until you understand the curious particularities of human psychology. Otherwise you’d be confused as to why an issue that at its core is purely scientific (is human activity warming the earth?) would be so contentious.

At the bottom of it, there’s just some simple unfeeling truth: Either the world is or isn’t warming, and if it is, then there’s some concrete fraction of that warming which results from human activity (somewhere inbetween zero and one hundred percent). So we might expect the debate between climate change believers and sceptics to be about science.

But instead, there’s strong evidence that disagreement about global warming mainly highlights how poorly humans are at being self-aware – how bad we are at noticing flaws...

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Clear Thinking

If you had asked me a few years ago – “Are you a clear thinker?”, I’d have said yes. But I’d have been very wrong. It’s not that my thinking is completely pure now, but at least it’s improved.

At the time, many of my opinions were muddled. They were mindlessly adopted from others – mostly from people on my political “team.” I hadn’t thought deeply enough about the ideas themselves to really own them. It was enough for ideas to sound good on the surface, and for them to come from people I thought I was like, or wanted to be like. “Good” arguments were those that sounded cozy: They fit comfortably with what I already believed.

But I wasn’t thinking clearly, even though I was completely convinced that I was. It’s one of the worst catch-22’s: Unclear thinking prevents us from seeing how unclearly we think. The best defense is to always to maintain some distance from your beliefs, and to...

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The Need for Moral Enhancement

To understand humanity’s problems, revisit our origins: We’re slightly-evolved apes. In other words, evolution works slowly and our species remains burdened by biological baggage inherited from our caveman ancestors. The key insight is that our brains evolved in a much different kind of world than the one we find ourselves in now.

This simple fact – that the modern world is so unlike the primitive world in which our brains evolved – is profound: It’s the cause of humanity’s most daunting problems (for example: as detailed below, it explains why there’s starvation in the face of food enough for all, our indifference to the risks of global warming, and our economies and incentive systems that are becoming increasingly disconnected from human well-being).

Like a wild tiger attending a church service, our intelligence and default behavior are simply poorly-suited to modernity. But unlike...

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The Tyranny of Supernormal Stimuli

In one habitual click I was surfing Facebook, my eyes automatically drawn to the happy red notification indicator. Another click revealed that a once-met acquaintance had posted a photo. Then a quick flicker of satisfaction as red returned to neutral grey. Already on the site, I scrolled to view updates and pictures from other marginal friends. The whole episode was pointless, but soon I’d lightly itch to repeat it.

What causes the irrational comfort from habitual visits to social media sites? Why do we feed our unproductive voyeuristic curiosity by sifting through the posts of people we barely know, whether on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The emptiness is clear – yet still we scroll and click. In sober moments it’s clear that our lives would improve by instead spending our time on things of meaning, like visiting or calling the ones we love. But most of us don’t uproot these silly...

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A Scientist’s Impact

The Wright Brothers. Thomas Edison. Albert Einstein. When inventors and scientists discover Great Things, we shower those individuals with praise and fame. But does this culture of rewarding first movers make sense? Why is who discovers something really the key issue? Isn’t the effect to create a gold rush atmosphere where we advance technology at breakneck pace regardless of its human impacts? And isn’t ultimately what is most important not who discovers, but how the discovery or invention will affect the well-being and flourishing of humanity?

The usual argument is that we praise individual inventors because their genius changed the world: Their intellect took humanity a step further, by uncovering profound new understanding of the world. But when you start to look deeper, the logic becomes tangled. Without the Wright Brothers, would we never have flown? If a certain nameless caveman...

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Reinventing Humanity

Though written hundreds of years ago, we can still empathize with the tragic heroes of works such as Hamlet and Anna Karenina. Despite their age, the classics aren’t so different from modern tragedies like Breaking Bad. In fact, they all illustrate common human flaws that often precipitate our downfall, such as pride, hunger for power, jealousy, and greed. These flaws are part of our cultural and genetic heritage. They’re part of what it means to be human.

Now, imagine that scientists develop treatments to remedy these flaws. It seems likely that as technology develops, and as our understanding of our brains increases, such remedies will become possible. For example, imagine a pill is formulated that modifies a person’s brain chemistry to increase their rationality or capacity for empathy, or reduce their predisposition towards hatred or greed. Would you take that kind of pill?


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Natural Evolution is Slower Than Cultural Evolution

I’ve argued elsewhere that the human brain no longer is well adapted to the modern world that we’ve invented – a world vastly different than the one in which natural evolution crafted our brains. The reason that our physical brains lag behind is that our culture evolves faster than our genes: Natural evolution is a slower process than cultural evolution.

By cultural evolution, I mean the changes in our ideas, our technology, our inventions, and our society as a whole. This kind of evolution can proceed relatively quickly, because ideas can emerge over short periods of time (minutes, months, days, or years) and be transferred between people easily. Think about how remarkable it is that in the span of only a few years, our culture has seen the first black president and an increasing acceptance of homosexual marriage – two important steps in our moral development, and at the same time...

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Technology as a Bear Trap

“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.”


TLDR: Once technology gifted an unready civilization the ability to destroy itself via the push of a button, it bankrupted the wisdom of unfettered technological development for its own sake – yet we still barrel ahead.

Why Question Technology?

This post aims to call into question whether technology as a whole has well-served humanity so far. Now, of course advancing technology has brought numerous practical benefits to our lives, which might seem to place the good of technology beyond question. However, because technology so fundamentally shapes and reshapes our world, we should still regularly question whether the benefits of technology really do outweigh the costs.

Even if after such questioning we conclude that, yes, on the whole, technology has made our lives better, it is still important to pause and ask the...

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The Meaning of Life and Work in the Age of AI

There’s a deep-seated belief in our culture that work is inherently good.

Not just any work: but the kind of work that one gets paid for. On the whole, as a practical culture we tend not to idolize the starving artist, but the man who can pull himself up by his bootstraps from poverty into business. Should we respect the office worker more than we do the poet? Perhaps, because we can be more sure that the office worker is doing something of value because his employer pays him a living wage. While the poor poet might be working equally hard, the economy assigns little value to his work. And so we might too – what is the value in the poet’s output?

Attitudes Towards the Unemployed

Because we prize this kind of paid work so highly in our culture, those without paying jobs are often considered lazy, stupid, or incapable. Social systems like welfare or unemployment benefits, that allow the...

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Apes with Nukes

TLDR: Although we aspire to be much more, at heart humans are slightly-evolved apes with brains and morality unsuited to handle the massive responsibility of the technology we’ve created. By using our brains to create a complex society, we’ve made our own brains obsolete, and it is crucial that we seek to modernize them.

We don’t often stop moving long enough to think about the biggest, heaviest things. Life. Death. Humanity. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize that our seemingly urgent day-to-day concerns are tiny specks in the larger context of life. But it’s surprisingly difficult to resisting being consumed by life’s trivialities.

So, for a moment, just stop. Take a breath and notice the present moment. A illuminating (if somewhat morbid) quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn is the following:

The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler...

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