Nick Bostrom is an Oxford philosopher known for work on ‘anthropic reasoning‘, warnings about the dangers of superintelligent AI, and the simulation argument (see my thoughts on the latter). He recently released a new working paper: ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis‘ that poses a strong argument for strengthening global state power. Anarchists and libertarians of all stripes should consider the argument and address it, as it constitutes a serious challenge to their program.
In the paper, Bostrom argues as follows: think of human technological development as an urn filled with balls. Most balls are white: these are mostly beneficial, or at least harmless, technological developments. A few are gray: they’re dangerous and have potentially catastrophic consequences, but either act on a long enough timeline that it’s possible to prevent these consequences, or are otherwise containable (fossil fuels and nuclear weapons might both go under this category). Presumably, there are some black balls. These are the sort that, if anyone discovered this technology, it is almost certain that humanity would suffer a catastrophic, possibly species-annihilating, event within a very short span of time, unless it were possible to very quickly and effectively contain it.
Bostrom elucidates the black ball possibility vividly: we had no reason to assume that something like nuclear power, if it were possible, should be easy or difficult to recreate. Had it turned out that nukes were fairly easy to make in your own basement, we might not be around right now to talk about it.…
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Suppose you’re in a serious, long-term monogamous relationship. One day, your partner comes to you and says: “I have been finding myself irresistibly attracted to other people. I’ve tried just getting over it but it hasn’t worked. This has left me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. I still love you and remain committed to our relationship. Can we discuss options for alleviating my situation while still staying together? I am open to anything, and let’s talk, but I hope you will at least consider an option that involves my seeing other people in some form because I doubt that anything less will make me feel okay. In turn, I will consider anything that you might need to make that workable for you.”
How do you respond? As I see it, you have two broad options:
A: say ‘absolutely not, no chance in hell, if you require this to even be an option, then I’m out’; or
B: say ‘let’s look at our options’.
B can have a number of different flavors. It can be something like, ‘yes, of course, if you really feel that way, let’s consider our options’. Or it can be something more like ‘I really don’t like this and doubt that it can work; what’s more, I have some non-negotiables; but, okay, let’s talk and see what we can work out’. One is more open than another, but both fall into category B.
If you can honestly say that your answer would be of form B, you’re already in a polyamorous relationship.…
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A quick observation about a trend in philosophical argumentation:
When a philosopher defends a view that seems to align with our immediate expectations, s/he will frequently raise something like the following, often in the introduction: this view aligns with common sense. And while it is possible for philosophy to overturn common sense, this is rare. Usually, common sense views are correct.
When a philosopher defends a view that seems counterintuitive, s/he will frequently raise something like the following point, often in the introduction: yes, this view runs counter to common sense. But sometimes radical shifts in thinking do occur, as in the Copernican revolution. It is a mistake to dismiss a view out of hand simply because it does not accord with common sense.
(I was recently reminded of the former attitude by Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, and of the latter by Graham Priest’s In Contradiction, which, though it does not cite Copernicus, does cite scientific theories that were initially considered ‘outrageous’ and eventually accepted. I’m sure I have seen both before elsewhere.)
The two attitudes are not inconsistent. It is possible that both (1) it is rare for philosophy to overturn common sense; and (2) it is poor practice to dismiss arguments on account of their being counterintuitive. In fact, I suspect most would agree that both (1) and (2) are true.
Even so, the two attitudes do roughly pull in opposing directions. The stronger our belief in (1), the less serious we are likely to be about (2); and vice versa.…
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