Saturday, May 23, 2015

An interesting congruence of objectivist and singularitarian beliefs

In the latest instalment of his dissection of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism discusses, and quotes at length somebody else who discusses, the enormous complexity of production and supply chains that are needed to make items as simple as a pencil, let alone an engine, exposing the absurdity of Rand's belief that "the only thing that's essential to build a tractor, a railroad or an airplane is a rational mind".

I couldn't agree more; the Randian tenet promoted in her books, that all that matters is to be a rational capitalist, and that all company employees and public servants are merely superfluous parasites, falls apart the moment one tries to fit it against the reality of any economy more complex than early Middle Ages subsidence agriculture. And that is also all that needs to be said about those who seriously believe that they shouldn't have to pay taxes because they built all they have by themselves - I'd believe that if they had spent all their life on a lonely island and started by fashioning their own crude stone tools, but not if they are running a company in an industrial age society.

But what really only just occurred to me is that this tenet - if you are only rational and talented enough you can achieve anything, regardless of resource limits and laws of physics - is pretty much identical to a central assumption underlying singularitarianism:

Singularitarians believe that within the next few decades humanity will create a self-improving artificial intelligence which will then quickly achieve an unimaginable level of intelligence. Depending on their general outlook, they are then either hopeful that this event will usher in paradise on Earth, with space colonisation, inexhaustible wealth and immortality for all, or worried that the resulting god-like intelligence will squash us like insects.

In either case a necessary assumption is the same as Rand's: This self-improving supercomputer only needs to be intelligent enough, and then it will be able to achieve anything. Survivable space flight - laws of physics don't matter any more because it is just that intelligent. Solution of all the world's economic and ecological problems - resource limits somehow don't matter any more because it is just that intelligent. Immortality for all - biology doesn't matter any more because it is just that intelligent. Extinction of humanity - and we are helpless and cannot just take an axe to its power supply because it is just that intelligent.

Apparently quite a few Californian information technology entrepreneurs, who are of course the primary support base of the singularitarianism movement, are also libertarians in their political outlook. So perhaps that shouldn't have surprised me, but I just never before made the connection between these two belief systems.


  1. Alex,

    Comments on the Ned Block interview seem closed, So I thought I'd post this here.
    Yes oceans are not land, but there are those fuzzy areas, like estuaries and tides. The point being that neither oceans or consciousness exist in isolation, nor in absolute distinction from their context. So to understand them, one area to explore are those boundary areas.

  2. I did not think I was making either a revolutionary or stubborn claim when I wrote that consciousness is generally defined as awareness. That is just what we mean when we say losing consciousness and things like that.

    So when somebody claims, "hey, we have found these totally amazing results about consciousness because look, we see stuff that we aren't aware of", I won't give them a Nobel Prize; I will point them towards the nearest dictionary and ask them to come back when they have found out something our ancestors didn't know four thousand years ago already.

    I find the whole discussion around consciousness interesting, but this interview did nothing to increase my understanding.

  3. Alex,

    I would agree consciousness and awareness are synonymous, but I do sense my own state of awareness as a node in a larger network and often feel these threads being tugged in surprising ways. So the issue of boundaries of consciousness does pique my interest.