As we rapidly approach 2020, we find ourselves in a unique and, perhaps, uniquely pivotal moment in human history. On the cusp of numerous technological breakthroughs, in the midst of wanton consumerism and betwixt political engagement, what better time than now to turn towards the steadfast subject of truth, virtue, and ethical cultivation: philosophy.
Don’t get me wrong — philosophers have always evolved alongside us and bestowed their timeless knowledge and perspective in the direst times of uncertainty. Plato and Aristotle laid the foundation for science and mathematics in the BC’s; Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi shone the bright lights of theology through the dark ages; Galileo and Descartes uncovered to us the workings of universe during the Renaissance; David Hume and John Locke later structured our legal and economic systems during the pre-industrialist age; and more recently, Noam Chomskey and John Searle have helped (and continue to help) us toe the line with novel issues like programming (and A.I.) through their commentaries on linguistics and consciousness.
The point of the matter is that, when humanity comes to a crossroads over religion, the structure of the universe, economy or law, philosophy is there to push us in the right direction and to warn us of the wrong direction. And boy, do we seem to need it now more than ever.
- “The real question is, when will we draft an artificial intelligence bill of rights? What will that consist of? And who will get to decide that?” — Gray Scott
The singularity: this shudder-inducing topic is a favorite asked of many scientifically inclined minds from Elon Musk to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Rightly so, we’re obsessed with the idea of A.I. as smart-speakers come into our homes and self-driving cars begin to roam our streets. Is it possible for A.I. to cross a threshold of consciousness? What does it mean to be a self-aware machine? What rights ought to be afforded to such entities? These are questions that may have to be addressed sooner than we think and the clearest answers may stem from those who do not have a hand of profiteering involved in the debate. If you need any more convincing, try to watch this video of a robotic dinosaur being beaten, which is A.I. programmed to be receptive to physical distress; you’ll find a curious thing happens — you, like most who watch the video, will feel empathy upon hearing the tormented cries of the child’s toy.
Same story goes in terms of other ethical topics like DNA sequencing and the technological enhancement of the human body (or mind). Is it fair to allow people with wealth to essentially build their ideal offspring with desirable characteristics, creating a class of wealthy and advantaged super-humans? What do we make of human cyborgs, like Neil Harbisson, who is equipped with an antenna to hear color, once they become more cyborg than human? These are just a few fleeting questions that we seem at a loss to find an answer for. Philosophy, right or wrong, grapples and wrestles with the idea until sheer exhaustion — whether an answer is determined or not, all avenues are at the least explored.
- “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything” — Chuck Palahniuk
Fact: Self-storage construction costs amounted to a just under half a billion dollars in the US in 2009; since then, they’ve swelled to $4 billion. Another fact: 80% of the world lives in poverty. We love stuff. We literally can’t get enough stuff — having to stuff our stuff in storage units because we have too much stuff in our homes and, of course, we keep buying more stuff. At some point, the dam has to burst, if not the seams of our storage units. We live in a consumerist society that has created commercial holidays to boost profits, idealized lifestyles via brand names, and exploited poverty-stricken parts of the world to fulfill its unquenchable ambitions. How long can this go on for before the camel’s back collapses under the weight of exploitation? Our earth doesn’t seem to be able to handle many of the industries at the rate we’re consuming. Capitalism in itself is an infantile concept on the larger scale of human existence; like communism, it is revealing it’s many flaws that leave it susceptible to exploitation. New movements, reflecting minimalist virtues echoing those of Jesus, Ghandi, Einstein, Da Vinci, Confucius and the like are on the rise (tiny homes, living off the grid, etc). Every now and again, philosophy swoops in to provide an effective litmus test for the ideal way to live and, in the face of consumerism, this test is around the next corner.
- “Politics is the entertainment branch of industry” — Frank Zappa
At a certain point, it’s worth throwing up the white flag with respect to our current model of politics. Nearly half of the U.S. population doesn’t bother to vote. The white flag may not come anytime soon, or even in our lifetime, but it’s fair to see that a lack of transparency, corruption, scandals, intentional obscurity, and deception cannot effectively govern a population. Overhauls will be had, revolutions are as cyclical in history as is economic collapse, and where better to gain insights for success than the field of philosophy. It’s wholly implausible that democracy will be thrown out the window, but in terms of reforming the voting process, increasing transparency, creating checks and balances against the potential for corruption — such baby steps require our utmost contemplation, fierce debate, and eventual adoption.
- “The domain of quantum world is so astonishingly strange that it even makes tales of alien abductions sound perfectly reasonable”
― Jim Al-Khalili
Good old scientific materialism is, surprisingly and not surprisingly, on its way out the door. In truth, this has been brewing since Bohr and Heisenberg conquered Einstein and Schrodinger in the great debate of 1927 — at stake, the way in which the universe is understood. Fast forward to now and nothing in the atomic world makes sense. Concepts like quantum entanglement and quantum tunneling cannot be explained in a way that reconciles the microcosmic world with the macro. Dark energy looms around us like some inconceivable shadow taunting us at every corner. It is becoming increasingly evident that consciousness has a role to play in science via observation and we cannot explain that role in a way which satisfies all sides of the field. As new discoveries creep up, as did the Higgs-Boson particle, philosophy will be required to make sense of everything, to be the glue that underpins fact and theory and, above all, purpose.
These are merely four areas amidst a sea of modern issues that could use some Plato-sized contemplation. As an intelligent species, we tend to make it through paradigm shifts relatively unscathed, though it can be argued that we need not be subjected to such turbulence when adapting to our own advancement. Some facts remain— that the technological evolution we’re facing today is unprecedented, as is our accumulation of material goods, as is the sense of political disenchantment and, lastly, as is our growing knowledge (and consequent uncertainty) of the universe.