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Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy. William Hirstein. Oxford University Press.

I found this book by accident, when somebody on Facebook happened to share a link to its Amazon page. I was intrigued to read the title, and even more intrigued to read the Amazon blurb:

William Hirstein argues that it is indeed possible for one person to directly experience the conscious states of another, by way of what he calls mindmelding. This would involve making just the right connections in two peoples’ brains, which he describes in detail. He then follows up the many other consequences of the possibility that what appeared to be a wall of privacy can actually be breached. Drawing on a range of research from neuroscience and psychology, and looking at executive functioning, mirror neuron work, as well as perceptual phenomena such as blind-sight and filling-in, this book presents a highly original new account of consciousness.

This description sounded very similar to my and Harri Valpola’s paper Coalescing Minds: Brain Uploading-Related Group Mind Scenarios, which was published last year. In that paper, we argued that it would be possible to join two minds together by creating artificial connections between their brains, and that this could allow anything ranging from mere improved communication to a full-blown merger between two minds. Since it seemed like Hirstein was talking about the same thing, I got curious – had this book, published a few months before our paper, already said everything that we argued for, and more?

Fortunately, it turns out that the book and the paper are actually rather nicely complementary. To briefly summarize the main differences, we intentionally skimmed over many neuroscientific details in order to establish mindmelding as a possible future trend, while Hirstein extensively covers the neuroscience but is mostly interested in mindmelding as a thought experiment. We seek to predict a possible future trend, while Hirstein seeks to argue a philosophical position: Hirstein focuses on philosophical implications while we focus on societal implications. Hirstein talks extensively about the possibility of one person perceiving another’s mental states while both remaining distinct individuals, while we mainly discuss the possibility of two distinct individuals coalescing together into one.

The main purpose of Hirstein’s book is to argue against a position in philosophy of mind which holds that conscious states are necessarily private, that is, only available to a single person. If conscious states were private, that could also be used to argue against materialism, the position that everything is physical, by the following privacy argument:

Premise 1: No physical states are private.

Premise 2: All conscious states are private.

Conclusion: No conscious states are physical states.

Hirstein seeks to use the possibility of mindmelding to refute this argument. He proposes that it should be possible to link the brains of two people together so that when A experienced something, that experience could be relayed to the brain of B, who would then also experience essentially the same thing. Thus, premise 2 of the privacy argument would be shown to be false.

To support his proposal, Hirstein arrays an impressive amount of neuroscience. I would briefly summarize his argument as follows: the brain employs what are called executive processes, which are responsible for dealing with novel or unanticipated situations:

There is an ongoing debate about what exactly is in the set of executive functions, but the following tend to appear in most lists: attention, remembering, decision-making, planning, task-switching, intending, and inhibiting. Executive processes play a part in our non-routine actions. When we attempt something new, executive processes are required. They are needed when there are no effective learned input-output links. As we get better at a new task, processing moves to other brain areas that specialize in effectively performing routine actions without conscious interruption. Gilbert and Burgess say that, ‘executive functions are the high-level cogitive processes that facilitate new ways of behaving, and optimise one’s approach to unfamiliar circumstances’ (2008, p.110). As Mille and Wallis pithily state it, ‘You do not executive control to grab a beer, but you will need it to finish college’ (2009, p.99). According to Gilbert and Burgess, ‘we particularly engage such processes when, for instance, we make a plan for the future, or voluntarily switch from one activity to another, or resist tempttion: in other words, whenever we do many of the things that allows us to lead independent, purposeful lives’ (2008, p.110).” (p. 87)

In order for the executive processes to be able to do their job correctly, they need just the right kind of information. For this purpose, the brain carries out an extensive amount of processing on all the sensory information it receives, creating a kind of an ”executive summary” of the most relevant content of that information. Executive processes then use that highly-preprocessed data in order to make their decisions. Essentially, conscious states are this ”executive summary”, and all the decisions that we consciously choose to make are made by the executive processes, which are the ones perceiving the conscious states.

Colors are one example of the kind of preprocessing that’s done on the sensory data before it’s presented to the executive processes. Light hits our eyes on a variety of different wavelengths, giving our visual system information about the way that light is reflected off various objects. The data about these various reflectance profiles then undergoes a complicated transformation in which the data is simplified, and the different objects are labeled with colors that summarize their reflectance profiles. This data, in turn, is useful for making sense of the things that we see: it allows us to tell different objects apart with considerable ease.

Emotions are another possible example of the kind of preprocessing that our brains carry out on sensory data before it’s presented to the executive processes. Hirstein doesn’t discuss emotions very much, but my ”Avoid misinterpreting your emotions” article from some time back discussed this theory of emotion:

The Information Principle says that emotional feelings provide conscious information from unconscious appraisals of situations. Your brain is constantly appraising the situation you happen to be in. It notes things like a passerby having slightly threatening body language, or conversation with some person being easy and free of misunderstandings. There are countless of such evaluations going on all the time, and you aren’t consciously aware of them because you don’t need to. Your subconscious mind can handle them just fine on its own. The end result of all those evaluations is packaged into a brief summary, which is the only thing that your conscious mind sees directly. That “executive summary” is what you experience as a particular emotional state. The passerby makes you feel slightly nervous and you avoid her, or your conversational partner feels pleasant to talk with and you begin to like him, even though you don’t know why.

Surveying neuroscientific data, Hirstein proposes that the temporal lobes seem to hold the ”final stage” of conscious states – data that has undergone all the preprocessing steps, and which is ready to be presented to the executive processes. The executive processes, in turn, are located in the prefrontal cortex, and access the data via thick fiber tracts connecting the two parts of the brain. Hirstein’s mindmelding proposal, then, is that if we could connect the temporal lobes of person A with the prefrontal cortex of person B, A and B could then simultaneously perceive A’s conscious states.

One can compare this to our paper, in which we discussed the possibility of a ”reverse split brain operation”: it is known that splitting the axons which connect the two hemispheres of a human brain will produce two different conscious minds, one for each hemisphere. Presumably, if such severed connections could be recreated, the two consciousnesses would merge back together. More speculatively, if artificial connections could be created between the hemispheres of two (or more) distinct humans, then the consciousnesses of those two people would eventually also merge together.

Of course, two people merging together to have only a single consciousness would probably be less useful than having two people who had merged together and had access to each other’s information and knowledge, but also had two separate streams of consciousness. So we postulated that one might construct an exocortex, a prosthetic which mimicked the functions of the brain and which would gradually integrate to become a seamless part of its user’s brain. Once this had happened, the exocortex could be connected to the exocortices of other people, with the exocortex having been built to manage the connection in a way that allowed for information-sharing but prevented the consciousnesses from becoming completely merged. We based our argument for the feasibility of the exocortex on the following three assumptions:

1. There seems to be a relatively unified cortical algorithm which is capable of processing different types of information. The brain seems to start out with a general-purpose algorithm which will gradually specialize for the kind of data it receives. Implement that general-purpose algorithm in an exocortex, and with enough time, it could learn to understand the thoughts of the brains that it was linked to. It could act as a kind of translator between the “mental language” of its user, and the “mental language” employed in other exocortexes.

2. We already have a fairly good understanding on how the cerebral cortex processes information and gives rise to the attentional processes underlying consciousness. We have a good reason to believe that an exocortex would be compatible with the existing cortex and would integrate with the mind.

3. The cortical algorithm has an inbuilt ability to transfer information between cortical areas. Information is known to move around in the brain. Long-term memories are first formed in the hippocampus but then gradually consolidated in the cerebral cortex; gradual damage to the cortex can cause it to shrink while the patient retains the ability to act normally, as damaged functions are relocated. Once a person was equipped with an exocortex, many of their existing memories and knowledge might gradually move over to it.

Hirstein’s work and ours, then, are nicely complementary: Hirstein does not really cover a full mindmeld at all, while we only briefly touch upon the mere sharing of access to another’s conscious states without a full mindmeld.

The societal implications of mind coalescence was one of the main focuses of our paper: we argued that it might lead to evolutionary scenarios in which individual minds would end up outcompeted, with all of the power accumulating to different group minds. We also suggested that exocortices might allow for mind uploading, transferring a human mind to run on a digital computer. As one’s biological brain gradually degraded and died, its functions could increasingly be transferred on the exocortex, until the individual’s mind was solely located on the exocortex.

In contrast, Hirstein seems content to treat mindmelding as a pure thought experiment, saying nothing about the consequences of the technology actually being developed. Perhaps this is because Hirstein wishes to present mindmelding as a serious philosophical argument, and avoid the stigma of being associated with science fictional speculation. Nonetheless, the style of mindmelding that he presents would have plenty of interesting consequences on its own.

Most obviously, if another person’s conscious states could be recorded and replayed, it would open the doors for using this as entertainment. Were it the case that you couldn’t just record and replay anyone’s conscious experience, but learning to correctly interpret the data from another brain would require time and practice, then individual method actors capable of immersing themselves in a wide variety of emotional states might become the new movie stars. Once your brain learned to interpret their conscious states, you could follow them in a wide variety of movie-equivalents, with new actors being hampered by the fact that learning to interpret the conscious states of someone who had only appeared in one or two productions wouldn’t be worth the effort. If mind uploading was available, this might give considerable power to a copy clan consisting of copies of the same actor, each participating in different productions but each having a similar enough brain that learning to interpret one’s conscious states would be enough to give access to the conscious states of all the others.

The ability to perceive various drug- or meditation-induced states of altered consciousness while still having one’s executive processes unhindered and functional would probably be fascinating for consciousness researchers and the general public alike. At the same time, the ability for anyone to experience happiness or pleasure by just replaying another person’s experience of it might finally bring wireheading within easy reach, with all the dangers associated with that.

A Hirstein-style mind meld might possibly also be used as an uploading technique. Some upload proposals suggest compiling a rich database of information about a specific person, and then later using that information to construct a virtual mind whose behavior would be consistent with the information about that person. While creating such a mind based on just behavioral data makes questionable the extent to which the new person would really be a copy of the original, the skeptical argument loses some of its force if we can also include in the data a recording of all the original’s conscious states during various points in their life. If we are able to use the data to construct a mind that would react to the same sensory inputs with the same conscious states as the original did, whose executive processes would manipulate those states in the same ways as the original, and who would take the same actions as the original did, would that mind then not essentially be the same mind as the original mind?

Hirstein’s argumentation is also relevant for our speculations concerning the evolution of mind coalescences. We spoke abstractly about the ”preferences” of a mind, suggesting that it might be possible for one mind to extract the knowledge from another mind without inherting its preferences, and noting that conflicting preferences would be one reason for two minds to avoid coalescing together. However, we did not say much about where in the brain preferences are produced, and what would be actually required for e.g. one mind to extract another’s knowledge without also acquiring its preferences. As the above discussion hopefully shows, some of our preferences are implicit in our automatic habits (the things that we show we value with our daily routines), some in the preprocessing of sensory data that our brains carry out (the things and ideas that are ”painted with” positive associations or feelings), and some in the configuration of our executive processes (the actions we actually end up doing in response to novel or conflicting situations). (See also.) This kind of a breakdown seems like very promising material for some neuroscience-aware philosopher to tackle in an attempt to figure out just what exactly preferences are; maybe someone has already done so.

Getting back to the topic of the book itself, a considerable part of Hirstein’s argumentation is focused on things that are probably of not very much interest to people who haven’t diven deep into the things that philosophers of mind care about. For example, it is important for Hirstein’s argument that A and B actually have access to the same conscious state, as opposed to B only having a copy of A’s conscious state, so he spends time establishing this, which I personally felt was somewhat uninteresting. Considerable attention is also given to other similar technical points of philosophy throughout the book. Some of these I did find rather interesting: for instance, I had previously been rather persuaded by the ”there is no such thing as a self” school of thought, but Hirstein makes a convincing argument for identifying the self with the executive functions, and also makes a good defense against possible homunculus accusations that this might cause. Others will probably find this whole line of argument meaningless.

The bulk of the book, however, is focused on establishing the philosophical and neuroscientific plausibility of mindmelding. So I would in any case recommend this book for anyone interested in seeing a detailed argument for how one variety of mindmelding could be accomplished. And if you already have a strong interest in philosophy of mind, all the better.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. James Paul Gee. Palgrave Macmillan.

(This review is based on the first edition of the book.)

This book was a very nice discussion about video games in light of various academic theories of learning. I particularly liked this point:

“The fact that human learning is a practice effect can create a good deal of difficulty for learning in school. Children cannot learn in a deep way if they have no opportunities to practice what they are learning. They cannot learn deeply only by being told things outside the context of embodied actions. Yet at the same time, children must be motivated to engage in a good deal of practice if they are to master what is to be learned. However, if this practice is boring, they will resist it.

“Good video games involve the player in a compelling world of action and interaction, a world to which the learner has made an identity commitment, in the sense of engaging in the sort of play with identities we have discussed. Thanks to this fact, the player practices a myriad of skills, over and over again, relevant to playing the game, often without realizing that he or she is engaging in such extended practice sessions. For example, the six-year-old we discussed in the last chapter has grouped and regrouped his Pikmin a thousand times. And I have practiced, in the midst of battle, switching Bead Bead to a magic spell and away from her sword in a timely fashion a good many times. The player’s sights are set on his or her aspirations and goals in the virtual world of the game, not on the level of practicing skills outside meaningful, goal-driven contexts.

“Educators often bemoan the fact that video games are compelling and school is not. They say that children must learn to practice skills (“skill and drill”) outside of meaningful contexts and outside their own goals: It’s too bad, but that’s just the way school and, indeed, life is, they claim. Unfortunately, if human learning works best in a certain way, given the sorts of biological creatures we are, then it is not going to work well in another way just because educators, policymakers, and politicians want it to.

“The fact is that there are some children who learn well in skill-and-drill contexts. However, in my experience, these children do find this sort of instruction meaningful and compelling, usually because they trust that it will lead them to accomplish their goals and have success later in life. In turn, they believe this thanks to their trust in various authority figures around them (family and teachers) who have told them this. Other children have no such trust. Nor do I.” (pp. 68-69)

This part struck a particular chord in me since I had just read an opinion piece making exactly such an argument: that not all parts of education can be made to be fun, and that “it’s important to realize early on that mastery often requires persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter”. I found myself somewhat annoyed with that position, but couldn’t formulate my exact reasons for why.

After reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, things became much clearer in my head: part of the value of video games is that they can make a subject feel interesting and meaningful on its own. Once a person has encountered a topic in an interesting context, they will be much more likely to find the topic interesting in other contexts as well. Personal example: when we were first taught probabilities in high school, me having read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made the subject matter feel more interesting, even though our exercises made no mention of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

Yes, children should learn that mastering valuable skills often requires repetitive practice… but if we want them to actually learn, we should also be teaching them how to experience that practice as interesting and meaningful, and as something that is helping them get better in a field they care about. What we should not teach children is the attitude that much of learning is dull, pointless and tedious, detached from anything that would have any real-world significance, and something that you only do because the people in power force you to. Unfortunately, many traditional school systems are very successful at teaching exactly this attitude, and only the kids who have sufficient trust in various authority figures to make the learning feel meaningful manage to avoid it – and even they only succeed partially.

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy also talks about the impact of identities on learning, and by associating school with games and school success with success in fun games, we could help learners more easily develop identities as good students, helping make the learning process feel more meaningful – even when they had to tackle tasks that weren’t as inherently fun.

I also liked the discussion of the fact that if a person reads a text that covers a topic the person doesn’t have much experience of, it can be very hard to understand exactly what it is that the text is saying. The words aren’t clearly connected to the concepts that they are discussing. And much of school learning does consist of having the students read elaborate discussions of concepts that they don’t necessarily have much experience of. Even when the students do successfully memorize the rough content of the writing, they are not likely to understand it or be able to apply it very well.

In contrast, somebody playing a video game is actively engaged in the content of the game, free to experiment around with it. Well-designed video games also involve a gradual and natural progression where the players naturally obtain various skills required for playing the game. Once they have beaten the game, it is certain that they have acquired those skills to a far greater extent than if they had just read and memorized the game manual. Games provide for active learning, and the way that a game proceeds from easy initial levels to challenging late-game levels forces a player to constantly acquire additional skills while also practicing the basic skills, in an organic and natural fashion.

The main flaw of the book is that while it provides an excellent discussion of academic theory on learning, its discussion of the way the theory relates to games is at times somewhat superficial. A more detailed analysis of the content of some games in light of the theory would have been nice.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games. Dylan Holmes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

As a form of storytelling, what makes video games distinct from other forms of storytelling, such as movies or books? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this form, what techniques has it borrowed from other media, and what untapped potential does it still have?

A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games is a book that is essentially doing two things at once. It provides a history of thirteen games that have made important contributions to the art of video game storytelling, and on the side, it also provides some commentary on more general questions like the ones above. Doing two things at once is always harder than just doing one thing, but A Mind Forever Voyaging pulls it off pretty well. One or two early transitions between the specific and the general felt a little jarring, but then I either got used to them or the shifts became more natural.

The book is an interesting read in both senses. I had thought myself relatively knowledgeable about the history of video games, but until now, I hadn’t known what 1983 title had been possibly the first video game in history that had managed to make its players cry. And as there several games that I had heard a lot about but never played, it was interesting to hear exactly why Half-Life, for example, had been so popular.

The games that get a full chapter devoted to them are: The Secret of Monkey Island, Planetfall, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, System Shock, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Shenmue, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Libery, Façade, Dear Esther, and Heavy Rain. A number of others also get a couple of paragraphs worth of coverage each. As the author readily admits, this necessarily leaves out many games that would have deserved to be included, and the selection of which ones to include is a somewhat subjective one. In one case, a game was excluded from getting the full treatment because it was too good: Planescape: Torment was left out because ”there was too much to talk about: it begs for in-depth literary analysis, which was beyond the scope of what I was doing”.

Still, although one can always quibble about particular games that should have also been included, overall the selection strikes me as a good one: I’m pretty sure that if I’d had to pick thirteen games for such a project, I would have done worse. Before reading the relevant chapters, I felt a little dubious about whether it was really necessary to include two games from the same series – Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, neither of which I had played. But when I did read the chapter about MGS2, I became apparent that the game had been quite innovative in the way that it exploited its nature as a sequel, and deserved a mention because of that fact. The nature of video game sequels is also somewhat special – as the author points out, video games are exceptional in that the sequels are often better than the original games, which isn’t the case with most other forms of media. That alone merited some discussion.

The titles have basically been picked on the basis of their novelty: whether they contributed new innovations to the art of video game storytelling. As such, the book can also be read as a collection of different storytelling techniques and considerations as applied to video games, which makes for a fascinating read.

How can game mechanics and storytelling aspects be integrated so that they support each other in building a more immersive experience? How much does immersion suffer from the game being so difficult that the player must keep reloading earlier saves? If it is exceedingly hard to make conversations with other characters feel like conversations with real people, is it sometimes better to not include any other characters at all? When can a game get away with addressing the player directly, potentially breaking the fourth wall? What techniques can be used to create the illusion that the player’s choices actually matter and have consequences? Such are some of the questions which are touched upon in the book, and seeing the intricacies behind some of the games I had liked made me appreciate them, and video games storytelling in general, more than I had before. If I were running my own video game studio, this book would probably be required reading for all my employees.

Some of those questions get relatively superficial coverage: they’re raised when discussing a single game, in the context of how that game did things, and then they’re never touched upon again. Others feel like recurring themes. The book will discuss a theoretical aspect of one game, and then move on and return to the same topic from another angle when discussing an entirely different game. These interwoven threads are not always pointed out explicitly, and it remains up to the reader to notice them and put the pieces together.

For example, one recurring theme in the book is the notion that video games are made distinct by the need to develop the whole world beforehand: a strength of video games is that the player can freely explore a world on their own, but fully exploiting this strength also requires the game designer to prepare interesting content that maintains that illusion of freedom and being able to do anything. If the game has many interactive or simulationist elements – an environment that actually gets damaged when it’s shot at, NPCs that display signs of intelligence, a system of moral consequence – it also becomes more likely that the player will be disappointed when the cracks in the illusion show up. Examples of such cracks include there being indestructible parts of the environment, the NPCs being clearly revealed as just scripted pieces of dialogue, or when the player’s actions don’t actually matter or morality is reduced to just another score to be maximized. The designer can avoid this problem by just making things more tightly akin to a movie, where the player is just a passive observer who’s along for the ride – but to do so means neglecting some of the unique potential that video games have.

Another solution is to try to use artificial intelligence techniques and machine-generated content in order to avoid needing to specify all the content by hand – but again, this can easily fail as the successes of the technique make its failures ever more obvious. This is clearly highlighted in the book’s discussion about Façade, an indie game about the breakdown of a couple’s marriage which uses a natural language parser to let the player converse with the couple and try to save their marriage. Sometimes the game gets lucky at interpreting the player’s writing and delivers a strongly compelling experience, and at other times, it performs… considerably less well.

A sort of meta-theme in the book, uniting many other themes, is the sense of game designers being engaged in a constant struggle to overcome the limitations of their format – both technical and financial. In a sense, it is a study of human ingenuity, of many people over many decades throwing themselves into a novel domain and gradually accumulating new ways of handling that domain, each building on the previous accomplishments of the others.

Although the book draws heavily upon the academic study of games, it never comes off as dry and boring: instead, it is a fast and enjoyable read. When I first started reading it, I thought that I’d read it for about half an hour before going to bed – I finally managed to force myself to put it away two and a half hours later. While this is a common occurrence with fiction, a non-fiction book that pulls this off is far more rare.

When not chronicling and analyzing specific games, the style of theoretical analysis is more tilted towards breadth than depth – which is fine, especially given that the book is mainly focused on providing a history of video game storytelling, not building a grand theory of said storytelling. Still, one gets a clear feeling that the author would have been capable of discussing each of the issues in far more detail than he does now. In any case, while the theoretical analysis does occasionally feel somewhat superficial, and never gets to the point of giving off a similar sense of brilliance as reading someone like Henry Jenkins does, it remains fascinating throughout. Reading it, I felt myself wanting to give it to some friends of mine to read, so that we could discuss its analyses together.

As is often the case, possibly the biggest failing of the book is that even at 250 pages, it feels too short. I would have gladly read a version of the book that was twice or even thrice the lenght, and covered that many more games. Right now, the book feels more like a snapshot of the history of storytelling in video games, rather than a history of it.

Perhaps the thing that I like the most about the book is that after reading it, I was left with a clear feeling of the very greatest video games still being ahead of us. Video games remain a young art form, and while game designers have experimented with many techniques for better storytelling, the full potential of those techniques remains untapped, waiting for someone to perfect them. We have only began to glimpse at just how good games could be.

(Full disclosure: the author is a long-time online friend of mine, which has probably biased this review a little, but I wouldn’t have written this in the first place if I hadn’t liked the book on its own merits.)

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Ingmar Persson & Julian Savulescu. Oxford University Press.

The core thesis of Unfit for the Future is that human morality evolved to allow cooperation and altruism in small groups, but that we today face challenges requiring extensive global coordination. Challenges such as weapons of mass destruction and climate change require both individual humans and nation-states to make various kinds of sacrifices for the benefit of all, but it is currently very unlikely to get everyone to actually make such sacrifices. Humans do have moral emotions such as a sense of justice and fairness that cause them to willingly make sacrifices in order to benefit those they know, but international cooperation requires trusting and helping faceless strangers – and humans have also evolved to be naturally suspicious or even xenophobic towards people outside their tribe. Since traditional moral education isn’t enough to overcome these challenges, we need to engage in “moral enhancement” and alter our biological moral dispositions.

The tone of the book is very academic and rational: there are few if any appeals to emotion, and logical reasoning from first principles is almost purely the style of argument. This makes the authors’ train of thought relatively clear to follow, though it also makes for a rather dry reading, and things are occasionally expressed in needlessly convoluted ways.

The best part of the book is the explanation of the coordination challenges involved with international cooperation, of why rational self-interest isn’t enough to overcome the challenges, and how our commonsense morality has evolved to solve some of these problems. The reader is assumed to already be mostly on board with the notion of risks from climate change and WMDs: some time is spent on explaining these risks, but probably not enough to sell the topic as a really extreme one for someone new to it.

Surprisingly, the book spends relatively little time (one chapter) talking about actual moral enhancement, and few concrete enhancement methods are proposed. Rather, there are a few examples of developing technologies that could be useful for moral enhancement, and a suggestion that more research be dedicated to developing more enhancement methods. Some criticisms of moral enhancement are discussed and argued against. The book concentrates on establishing the need for moral enhancement, not on proposing specific enhancement methods.

The main weakness of the book is that it does not always seem to engage with the strongest possible opposing arguments. A minor thesis that’s offered is that we should be ready to give up our privacy in order to prevent terrorists with WMDs, because of the untold damage that those terrorists could cause. The authors move to dismiss people having any moral right to privacy in only four (!) pages, and do so by considering two possible defenses for privacy: that violating privacy requires violating property rights, and that having one’s privacy violated makes one uncomfortable. The former is rendered irrelevant by the possibility of privacy violations that do not violate property rights (such as mind-reading devices or scanners that could see and hear through walls). The latter is rejected on the grounds that if you could forbid people from knowing something about you simply because it made you feel uncomfortable, “you could acquire very extensive rights against others just by being extremely sensitive about what others think of you”.

Leaving aside the fact that the latter argument is excessively simplistic, there is no absolutely no discussion of the fact that privacy gives people the chance to do harmless things for which they might nonetheless be discriminated against. Homosexual acts are the classic example, but even if one made the (false) assumption that liberal democracies – in the context of which the authors mostly frame their discussion – no longer exhibited homophobia, there are plenty of more examples to be found. Perhaps a person became sexually aroused by looking at (entirely non-sexual) pictures of children or animals, or enjoyed violent pornography, but would nevertheless never harm a soul. Ironically, a major part of the authors’ argument is that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we find potential harms to be more pressing than an equivalent amount of potential gain. It is exactly because of such reasons that people who were thought to be possibly dangerous would be harshly and unfairly discriminated against – because even if the risk of them actually harming anyone would be small, few people would be willing to take that risk.

Nor do the authors discuss the fact that a lack of privacy could lead to excessive self-censorship, with even people who wouldn’t be discriminated against for acting according to their desires restricting their behavior just in case (again, the potential for harms outweighing the potential for gains). And once people could perfectly observe the behavior of everyone else, and see that everybody was acting conservatively, then even behavior that was previously within normal bounds might be come to be seen as suspicious, leading to an ever-more conformist, cautious, and unhappy society. The human suffering of such a development gives reason to believe in a strong moral right to privacy, and the suffering in question might easily outweigh the suffering from even several nuclear terrorist attacks. But aside for briefly mentioning that a fear of terrorism might cause some ethnic minorities to be unfairly discriminated against, the authors consider none of this.

It might also be somewhat distracting for some that the authors are clearly left-wing, which leads them to occasionally make ideological claims which are not very well-defended. For example, the authors briefly mention prevailing economic inequality as an example of one of humanity’s moral failings, citing differences between the poorest and richest nations as well as the poorest and richest people within some Western countries. None of the arguments for economic inequality of this form not necessarily being a bad thing are addressed. Fortunately, for the most part the left-wing digressions are minor points, and possible disagreement with them does not detract from the book’s major theses.

Overall, the book makes a nice argument for its core thesis, but could have been made much stronger by improving the strawmannish discussion of privacy, removing or better supporting ideologically contentious points, making the risk from WMDs better argued for, and by spending more time discussing moral enhancement itself, not just the need for it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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