Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy
of Evolution and Technology Vol.
Alan Walker Ph.D.
New Mexico State University
inception, philosophy has struggled to reconcile the apparent finitude of humans
with the traditional telos of philosophy—the attempt to unite thought and
Being, to arrive at absolute knowledge, at a final theory of everything. In
response, some pragmatists, positivists, and
philosophical naturalists have offered a deflationary account of philosophy: the ambitions of philosophy ought to be scaled back to something much
more modest. Inflationism is offered as an alternative: it is conjectured that
philosophy might make more progress towards the traditional telos if we attempt
to create beings (through the application of technology) who are as far removed
from us in intelligence as we are from apes. Rather than deflating the ambitions
of philosophy we ought to consider inflating the abilities of philosophers.
turn of the millennium provides a natural opportunity to reflect on the future
of philosophy. For the last hundred years or so we have heard the call for the
end or “death” of traditional philosophy—what might be thought of as the
“Plato to Hegel” cannon. This call has been issued by some of the most
important thinkers and movements in this period: from James to Rorty, Nietzsche
to Derrida, from logical positivism to naturalized epistemology. If there is a
common thread here, it is that there is a gap between the ambitions of
philosophy, and the abilities of human philosophers. On one side looms the
seemingly transcendent telos of philosophy, namely: what has been described as
the attempt to unify thought and Being, to obtain the absolute conception, to
realize absolute knowledge, to discover a final theory of everything. On the
other side of the gap stand humans; human, all too human humans. The trouble is
how to square this vaulting ambition with a modern understanding of the etiology
of humanity. If we believe, for example, that Homo
sapiens are the result of natural selection of random mutations, then how
plausible is it to believe that we might pursue the transcendent conception of
wisdom embodied in the telos of traditional philosophy? Certainly such an
aspiration would seem less formidable if we believed that we had a divine
element within us—if, for instance, we believed that a divine artificer had
created our souls out of some divine stuff, or at least if humanity turned out
to be the embodiment of Geist. What
are we to say about the ambition of philosophy given that our ancestry can be
traced not to the divine, but to slime?
There are, I believe, three answers currently in the offering. One is to
deny that there is ultimately any teleological gap as described. Perhaps the
mistake is to believe that we require a divine phylogeny to realize this
ambition. As we will see below, Davidson’s reflections on the notions of
‘truth’, ‘belief’, and ‘meaning’, seem to place him firmly in this
category of “denial”. A second alternative is what is sometimes described as
a ‘deflationary response’: we ought to adjust the teleology of philosophy to
make it more “human”, i.e., to abandon the attempt to unify thought and
Being. There have been various proposals by pragmatists, naturalists, and others
as to how to scale down the ambition of philosophy. How to provide philosophy
with a “human face”. Philosophy, in other words, is to be given an easier
more realistic—as it were—task like “breaking the crust of convention”
(Dewey) or figuring out how “things hang together” (Sellars). A third
riposte is what might be termed ‘stoic resolve’. The idea is that we can
acknowledge that there may well be a chasm between our abilities and the
ambitions of philosophy; nevertheless, we ought to keep a stiff upper lip and
soldier on. Nagel, for instance,
bravely inveighs against the self-image of the age by adopting exactly this sort
truth is our aim, we must be resigned to achieving it to a very limited extent,
and without certainty. To redefine the aim so that its achievement is largely
guaranteed, through various forms of reductionism, relativism, or historicism,
is a form of cognitive wish-fulfillment. Philosophy cannot take refuge in
reduced ambitions. It is after eternal and nonlocal truth, even though we know
that is not what we are going to get.
we may never adequately realize the ambitions of philosophy, the activity of
philosophizing, says Nagel, is ennobling and important for the human spirit:
“Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to
skip over it will never grow up.”
are the three familiar responses. There is actually a fourth response, one that
has yet to make itself heard. The idea, in a slogan, is that it is not we who
ought to abandon philosophy, but that philosophy ought to abandon us. Consider
that as a mere point of logic, if there is a gap between the telos of philosophy
and humanity then there are at least two means to close this gap: either
philosophy can be scaled down into something more human, or philosophers can be
scaled up into something more than human. The idea would be to create better
philosophers, ones more naturally suited to realizing the ambitions of
philosophy. This view then is diametrically opposed to deflationary accounts
which would alter philosophy to provide it with a more “human face”. The
“inflationary’ experiment proposes to create philosophers with a more
Inflationism offers the most profound challenge to philosophy and indeed
humanity in its entirety.
In order to make this case I argue as follows. As a
purely practical point, I believe that it may be that soon—very soon—we will
have the technological means to attempt to create beings who may usurp our
position as the most intelligent on earth. These creatures, with their superior
intellect, may well turn out to be better philosophers—the philosophers of the
future. On the theoretical plane I hope to show that reflection on the
possibility of creating such creatures provides a compelling challenge to the
three competing metaphilosophical views outlined above. Finally, I argue that
philosophy is uniquely endowed among the academic disciplines to reflect on the
potential impact of such a technological revolution. As such, philosophy has a
particular responsibility to take up the sorts of questions addressed here, and,
to do so with some urgency.
Questions Concerning Technology
may seem strange (to put it mildly) to suggest that technology will have such
profound implications for the metaphilosophical positions outlined above. The
link here is provided by the Darwinian revolution in biology. Two points are
salient for our discussion: One is that we may think of biological organisms as
exhibiting design without having to postulate a divine artificer, the other is
that species are not fixed but have evolved and are evolving. Applying these
insights to the topic of human intelligence we may conclude that our
intelligence is not the product of the benevolent activities of some divine
artificer but the result of the natural selection of random mutations. The
history of our intelligence lies in a secular phylogeny, that is, with our
apelike ancestors and indeed even more “primitive” organisms. Since some
grand architect has not fixed our intelligence, we may also ask where it might
evolve. Of course, if we are concerned exclusively with the course that natural
selection might take we are engaged in some serious long-range forecasting.
Natural evolution typically takes tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.
are other means that will allow us to alter Homo
sapiens in ways in which it would take natural selection hundreds of
thousands if not millions of years to duplicate. Let us consider three.
is that which would result from applying the techniques of genetic engineering
to the task of creating a more intelligent species. Consider as some very
preliminary evidence the familiar correlation between intelligence and brain
size, that is, other things being equal, a larger brain correlates with greater
For example, our brain is larger than that of an orangutan, and an
orangutan’s brain is larger than a Great Dane’s. The level of intelligence
among these three species follows this same progression, i.e., we are more
intelligent than orangutans, and they are more intelligent than Great Danes. It
seems plausible to hypothesize that a creature who had a brain size of 2200 cc
ought to be more intelligent and have greater conceptual abilities than Homo
sapiens with their measly 1300 cc. Certainly
this is the sort of reasoning that is used to explain the vast difference in
intelligence between humans and apes, i.e., apes (although similar in body
weight) have much smaller brains.
Technologically speaking, there does not seem to be
any principled reason why we could not genetically engineer the aforementioned
creature with a 2200 cc brain. If the correlation between brain size and
intelligence cited above holds, then it would seem that this creature has a good
probability of being more intelligent than humans. In other words, it seems a
perfectly valid piece of naturalized speculation to investigate the following
1: A primate with a brain volume of 2200 cc will exceed humans in intelligence
by the same margin as humans exceed that of chimpanzees.
a corollary to hypothesis 1 the following hypothesis might be entertained.
2: A primate as described in hypothesis 1 will be capable of gleaning
information and thinking about aspects of the universe that will exceed human
ability in this regard by the same order of magnitude that human ability exceeds
that of chimpanzees.
put this in some perspective consider that adjusting for body size a great ape
with the same body size as a human we would expect to have a brain about 400 cc
in size. Australopithecines of similar body size we would project a brain
of approximately 600 cc. Homo sapiens
of course enjoy a brain of approximately 1300 cc. If we engineer a creature, let
us call it ‘Homo bigheadus’, with
a brain of 2200 cc how intelligent might we expect it to be, given that the same
relationship between intelligence and brain size versus the log of body weight?
It is difficult to say in part because we have no interval measure for
interspecies comparisons of intelligence. That is, we do not have some
recognized scale which would allow us to state that humans are say 15 times as
intelligent as an Orang but only 5 times as smart as Australopithecus robustus. At best we have some rough and ready
ordinal rankings of intelligence. As noted, we may say that Orangs
are more intelligent than a Great Dane, and Homo
sapiens more intelligent than Orangs,
with Australopithecus robustus falling
somewhere in between. Nevertheless,
even with mere ordinal rankings of intelligence we might guess that Homo
bigheadus might eclipse us in intelligence in a very dramatic fashion, e.g.,
we might properly expect that the difference between our intelligence and theirs
would be more like the difference between human and Australopithecine
intelligence, than say human and intelligence with that of Homo erectus. Again, since we have a grasp only on the ordinal
intervals between intelligence it is hard to be much more precise than this. We
might even suppose that this is some sort of iterative process, Homo
Bigheadus creates the Homo
Biggerheadus, creatures with brains 4000 cc in size, and Homo
Biggerheadus creates Homo Evenbiggerheadus, etc.
No doubt many will find the thought of such an experiment “fantastic”
(to put it mildly). Yet incredible as it may seem, it is not a question of whether
we will have the technological ability to perform an experiment along the lines
suggested by these hypotheses. The only question is when will we have the ability. Consider that the basic information
and techniques necessary for such an experiment are already available; it is
really a matter of working through the myriad of details. There are, for
instance, several methods for genetic engineering. One such technique is the
microinjection procedure. Basically, DNA is injected into the developing egg of
an organism; this DNA attaches itself to the chromosome and then can be passed
on genetically to succeeding generations in the usual fashion. Over fifteen
years ago, researchers were able to partially correct a genetic defect in mice
employing this method. The strain of mice in question suffers from reduced
levels of a growth hormone that results in dwarfism. By inserting the DNA that
contains information for a rat’s growth hormone, the researchers were able to
reverse this condition.
the technology necessary for genetic engineering is already available to us, the
real trick is finding the appropriate genes that control the growth of the
brain. This may not be that difficult. The crude map of the human genome we now
possess certainly could be of some assistance in this regard. There is also
evidence from our phylogenetic cousin the common chimpanzee. As is well known,
there is an incredible genetic similarity between our species, e.g., King and
Wilson have found that “…the average [human] polypeptide is more than 99
percent identical to its chimpanzee counterpart.”
The idea would be to discover the genes that have altered the allometric
curve of the brain in humans as compared with chimps. From there it would be a
relatively simple matter to manipulate them in the genome of a human zygote, and
the recipe should be complete.
The ease in which we might create a larger brain through genetic engineering is
underscored by the fairly recent discovery in developmental genetics of homeobox
genes: genes that control the development of the body plans of a larger number
of organisms. For our purposes what
is of interest is that there are a number of homeobox genes that that control
the growth of various brain regions.
For example, if you want to make a larger brain in a frog embryo simply insert
some RNA from the gene X-Otx2 and voilà—you have a frog embryo with a larger
brain, specifically, the mid and forebrain mass is increased.
Homeobox genes also come in various forms of generality. Otx2 is obviously very
general in its scope; in contrast, for example, Emx1 controls the growth of the
isocortex (one of the two regions of the neocortex). Thus, if we believe that
intelligence and philosophical wisdom might be aided by tweaking one area of the
brain or another there may be just the right homeobox gene for this task.
Of course this simplifies many, many problems. It is much like as if one
had said back in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, that landing men on the moon
was merely a question of working through a myriad of details. This was of course
true, but it is not to belittle all the problems and technical innovations that
were required to achieve this end, e.g., problems of miniaturization.
Remember vacuum tubes were still in use back in 1957! Similarly there are
a host of difficulties that would have to be solved in creating such creatures,
let me just mention a couple in passing. First, there are general considerations
of physiology e.g., a larger brain might require increase blood flow, which
might mean increasing the size or strength of the heart. Would we have to adjust
the allometric curve of the heart and other vital organs? Perhaps the skeletal
structure would have to be altered in order to support the additional cranium
weight. We might have to look at extending the life span of these creatures in
order to allow them enough time to develop to their full potential.
Second, one may wonder about the sufficiency (or perhaps even necessity) of
creating greater intelligence by dramatically increasing the gross brain size.
It has been speculated, for example, that it is the greater development of our
neocortex, as compared with other primates, that is primarily responsible for
our greater intelligence, or that due consideration ought to be given to the
fact that we exhibit much more hemispheric specialization of cognitive tasks. It
may be that the task of attempting to create more intelligent beings ought to
focus on the quality as opposed to the quantity of the brain.
Thus, it should be clear from what has just been said that there is really
nothing so simple as “the crucial
genetic engineering test”. There are a number of tests that we might perform
depending on the relative weight we assign to these variables. For instance, one
group of researchers might suppose that doubling the mass of the neocortex ought
to be sufficient for testing whether we can make more intelligent creatures,
while another might focus on increasing the total mass of the brain by 50%. What
could reasonably be expected from such tests would probably require input from a
number of diverse academic fields. Whether increasing the gross size of the
brain to 2200 cc would be necessary or sufficient for a radical increase in
intelligence is thus an open question. The general principle—that we might be
capable of experimentally manipulating the intelligence of various creatures
including humans—does seem scientifically respectable. Certainly it seems
scientifically respectable to suggest that we might be able to experimentally
increase the intelligence of any non-human
animal. It is difficult to see why humans might be exempt from this inductive
How long would it take to
prepare this recipe? As a conservative estimate, it would be safe to say that
sometime in the twenty-first century we should possess the relevant knowledge and
technology. If nothing else, it seems, that we could in fairly short order have
some idea of the efficacy of such procedures by studying other species such as
rats. We might, for instance, today attempt to genetically engineer a rat with a
brain twice the normal size and observe how this affects its level of
intelligence. Such procedures would be achievable in the short term and provide
some evidence as to what might be feasible in our own case.
Ethics aside, genetically engineering the human zygote in this way is
technically feasible today.
Another possibility for creating greater intelligences is based on
extrapolations from computer science. The possibility that computers might be
able to out-think us has been put forward by a number of researchers, one of the most prominent
is Professor Hans Moravec at Carnegie Mellon
Moravec’s conjecture has two essential components: (1) an estimate of how long
it will take to develop (affordable) computers with the requisite amount of
computing power, and (2), an estimate of how much computing power will be
necessary to simulate human intelligence. The key unit of measurement here is
MIPS, a million machine instructions per second. Moravec predicts that robots
capable of executing 100 million MIPS will be commercially available around 2040
and these should equal or surpass human intelligence. He claims that
“…mass-produced, fully educated robot scientists working diligently,
cheaply, rapidly and increasingly effectively will ensure that most of what
science knows in 2050 will have been discovered by our artificial progeny!”
Presumably, the artists and philosophers etc., in 2050 will also be our
artificial progeny. Moravec basis his estimate of how much computer power is
necessary to simulate the power of the human brain on two quantities that have a
fair degree of empirical support. One quantity is the 0.2-gram of neural
processing circuitry at the back of the human retina. This tissue is devoted to
detecting edges and motion in the visual field. Moravec notes that these tissues
perform about 10 million detections per second, that is, there are approximately
a million image regions performing 10 detections per second. Data from
experiments in robot vision suggest that 1,000 MIPS would be necessary to
simulate the .02-gram of neural tissue at the back of the retina. Moravec then
reasons that, since the entire human brain is 75,000 times heavier than the .02
gram of neural tissue, a computer with 75,000 times the computing power is
necessary to model human intelligence. In round numbers then a computer with 100
million MIPS should be equal to humans in intelligence. It perhaps goes with out
saying that Moravec’s claims are contentious.
I do not propose to defend his estimates here, rather, I think the important
point to observe is that his inductive reasoning is grounded in empirical data
and as such is naturalistically respectable. Moravec may be wrong (as he himself
admits) that robots will usurp humans as the scientists and (presumably)
philosophers of the future, but it seems a conjecture that is at least worthy of
Another means to attempt to continue the vector of the natural selection
of intelligence with directed selection. The idea then would be to selectively
breed humans on the basis of intelligence. Estimates for how many generations it
would take to make a statistically significant difference in intelligence, based
on studies from other species such as rats and dogs, range from three to ten
As is well known, Plato advocated selective breeding of the best humans; it is interesting to think what might have happened if we had taken up the
If we conservatively allow 3 generations per century then
this would mean that under Plato’s program there would have been sufficient
time for 75 generations. Probably more than ample time to reap tremendous leaps
in intelligence. Indeed, this may have been a sufficient interval for speciation
to have occurred given than it can happen in 10 generations with fruitflies, and
as little as thirteen generations with salmon.
Clearly there are a number of ways of combining these technologies and
procedures: one could, for instance, opt for selectively breed genetically
engineered cyborgs. And there other procedures that I have not mentioned, for example,
in vivo augmentation of our brains with neurons created with stem cells. However, the primary aim of this paper is not to review the
technical aspects of this project. On the other hand, I have covered some of the
empirical details here at some length with the hope of convincing the reader that the expertise required by the project is imminent—or at least
worthy of considering whether it is indeed imminent. Even if one assigns a very
low probability to the likelihood of any of these coming to fruition, the
enormity of the consequences ought to be cause for reflection. For ease of
reference, in what follows we may think of super-intelligent beings (SIBs) as any
creature—genetically enhanced or non-naturally selected humans or
future supercomputer—whose intelligence transcends our own by the same
magnitude as ours eclipses that of the apes.
Implications for Philosophy
83) The wisest man will appear an ape in relation to God, both in wisdom and
beauty and everything else.
79) Man is called childish compared with divinity, just as a boy compared with
is Heraclitus’ description of the human epistemic situation. These analogies
suggest just how the idea of a higher intelligence might be directly relevant to
philosophy. The “phylogenetic
analogy” proposes that we simply imagine adult humans as standing at some
midpoint between less developed forms of intelligence, such as an apes’, and
the higher form of intelligence often attributed to divine forms of
understanding or knowledge. The “ontogenetic analogy” makes the same point,
but with reference to a human child as opposed to an ape. The connection with
philosophy is straightforward if we think of ‘philosophy’ in its
etymological sense as “the love of wisdom.” If Heraclitus is correct, we may
never fully grasp wisdom. We may not in principle be capable of passing, as
Hegel quipped, from the love of wisdom to wisdom itself.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the SIBs present to philosophy
concerns the idea of “epistemic superiority”. Yet it might be remarked that
as suggestive as Heraclitus’ analogies are, they lack the articulation that
one might expect in a philosophical theory on the subject. The hope, in other
words, is that these analogies might be elucidated in more detail, but an
immediate and obvious problem presents itself. We are able to describe certain
ways in which the perspective of a child or a chimp’s is more limited, e.g.,
we might cite the fact that no chimpanzee will be capable of understanding the Critique
of Pure Reason, Gödel’s
Incompleteness Proof, Munch’s “Scream",
Baudelaire’s “Spleen”, or
Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”. The trouble lies in the fact that
it is difficult to say how our understanding is limited, without presupposing
access to a higher understanding. Just as only we can appreciate exactly what it
is that a child fails to know or understand, so too, it seems, only creatures
who transcended our understanding should be able to detail our limitations.
Perhaps a full philosophical account of our epistemic limitations is not
something we are in a position to formulate or even appreciate. It is perhaps
conceivable that only creatures like the SIBs can provide the appropriate
sort of philosophical theory on this subject—at least as it concerns humans.
This seems to leave us in a philosophical quandary. On the one hand,
these analogies are, well, merely analogies. They are insinuative of how our
perspective might be circumscribed, but they do not provide a philosophical
theory of this limitation. On the other hand, if we try to articulate a
philosophical theory about these limitations, it seems we are in danger of
begging the question: we cannot know too much about that which we do not know.
Is there a means to further articulate these analogies in a manner that does not
beg the question?
proposal for further explication of the idea of the (conjectured) epistemic
superiority of the SIBs is via the notion of conceptual schemes. The basic
idea is that the SIBs might said to be epistemically superior in that they
possess a conceptual scheme that is more encompassing than our own. Whether this
proposal is itself an improvement on Heraclitus’ analogies is open to
question, since the coherence of the notion of conceptual schemes has been
disputed. This is precisely the line Davidson takes in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Schemes”—perhaps the best-known recent discussion of the
question. A brief look at what Davidson has to say in this regard is in order.
of Davidson’s most important recommendations is to connect the idea of
conceptual schemes with that of language translation:
conceptual schemes differ, so do languages. But speakers of different languages
may share a conceptual scheme provided there is a way of translating one
language into the other. Studying the criteria of translation is therefore a way
of focusing on criteria of identity for conceptual schemes.
conclusion, that no solid meaning can be attached to the idea of a conceptual
scheme, turns on his argument for the claim that all languages are essentially
intertranslatable. In other words, the idea is that if we are to make sense of
the idea of conceptual schemes, then there must be a failure of translation
between languages; but since all languages are intertranslatable, the idea of a
conceptual scheme is a mere philosophical fiction.
An interesting, and I believe important, omission in Davidson’s
argument is the possibility of asymmetrical failure of translation. This is not
an oversight on his part, for Davidson remarks parenthetically that “…(I
shall neglect possible asymmetries).”
Given that the idea of asymmetrical failure of translation seems such an obvious
maneuver for the conceptual scheme proponent to adopt, it is curious Davidson
does not inform us as to why he neglects these asymmetries. In any event, it is
perhaps worth considering for a moment what the conceptual scheme proponent
might say in favor of the idea of asymmetrical failure of translation.
If we limit the field to two languages, our home (H) language and the
target (T) language to be translated, then the following translation
possibilities present themselves:
1. H <— >
3. H <—
arrows in the schema represent the direction of full translatability. Thus, the
first case represents the idea that our home language is fully translatable into
the target language, and the target language is fully translatable into our home
language. The second case expresses the idea that our language is fully
translatable into the target language, but our language lacks the expressive
powers necessary to fully translate the target language. If we allow the idea of
giving some sort of numerical indices to languages to represent their expressive
powers, then we might think of the second case as that where the home language
has less expressive power than the target language. The third case represents
the idea that the home language is greater than the target language, thus the
target language is not able to fully translate the home language. The fourth
case represents the idea of symmetrical failure. We cannot translate the target
language with our language, and the target language cannot translate our home
language. It might be plausible to maintain in this case that the languages
differ in their expressive resources, although one is not necessarily richer
than the other.
analogies, however, indicate just how such asymmetries might occur. If we take
the language of an adult human as the home language, and compare it with the
language that a five year old speaks, the target language, then the third
translation possibility best describes this situation. We are able to fully
translate what five year old children say, but there are aspects of adult speech
that transcend their understanding and linguistic resources. The situation, it
seems, might be reversed if we were to apply this translation framework to the
speech of the SIBs. We might imagine that the SIBs are able to fully
translate what we say into their language, but we might not be able to translate
all their utterances into our language. Obviously, this is the sort of scenario
that the second translation possibility describes.
The intention here is not to argue that Davidson is wrong to dismiss the
idea of conceptual schemes. The limited ambition here is merely to indicate that
Davidson’s argument is incomplete precisely along the vector that it would be
most plausible to describe our conceptual resources compared with that of how we
might envision the SIBs.
But this is critical for Davidson’s project since he wants to show that the
idea is incoherent—this would mean that he has to analyze every permutation.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of conceptual schemes, let us
attend again to the original question about ‘epistemic superiority’.
A slightly less direct means to criticize this notion would be to
question it by attending to its implications. One thing that seems certain is
that the idea of epistemic superiority implies some sort of skepticism; for we
are conjecturing that the SIBs might know things that we are incapable of
comprehending. One way to criticize the idea of epistemic superiority, then,
would be to reject the sort of skepticism that it implies.
But what sort of skepticism is at stake here?
the contrast between ‘justificatory’ and ‘noetic’ skepticism. The former
concerns the limits of our ability to justify claims, the later concerns the
limits of our thoughts. Although these limits are not always clearly
distinguished, both, it seems, are relevant to the skeptical doctrine.
A preliminary way to get a handle on this distinction is to think of it in terms
of attributions of error and ignorance. Typically, although not invariably,
justificatory skeptics present their case via the possibility of error, while
noetic skepticism is explicated in terms of ignorance. It might be useful to
think of such attributions in terms of a (quasi) scientific example. For
simplicity sake let us suppose that there are just two contested hypotheses
about the nature of the universe. The standard model, or big-bang theory, H1,
describes the universe as evolving from some primordial singularity. The steady
state hypothesis, H2, proposes that the universe has always been more or less as
it is now. The justificatory skeptic might be seen as arguing that we do not
know that H1 is true because there is at least a conceptual possibility that we
are in error. While our best available empirical evidence supports H1, it is
logically possible that H2 is true. We might be asked by a skeptic to imagine an
evil demon has arranged all sorts of false clues; e.g., the “alleged”
background radiation of the universe leftover from the big bang was simply
planted there by the epistemic fiend in an attempt to mislead us. The
justificatory skeptic does not suggest
that we are ignorant of the conceptual alternatives, for they allow that we
might entertain the possibility that H2 is true.
skepticism, in contrast, does not challenge the justification for any particular
hypothesis, but questions whether we are capable of formulating the correct
hypothesis in the first place. Noetic skepticism claims that the hypothesis that
correctly describes the truth might be beyond the “reach of our minds”—to
use Nagel’s formulation. We cannot even entertain the true hypothesis as a
possible object of belief, according to this line of skepticism, never mind the
subsidiary question of whether such a hypothesis can be justified. To extend the
example above, the noetic skeptic might agree that H1 and H2 describe the only
two hypotheses about the universe that are worthy of human scientific scrutiny.
However, suppose the “complexity” hypothesis H3 is true. It suggests that
the theory that best describes the universe must posit a billion billion billion
billion billion billion initial conditions, and each of these initial conditions
requires at least the same number of bits of information to describe it. Such a
hypothesis, let us suppose, is far too complex for any human to conceive. The
noetic skeptic then argues that the possibility of H3 demonstrates that we might
forever be ignorant about the truth of the universe.
Noetic skepticism is not without its critics. Of the a priori strategies
to reject such doubts, perhaps the most famous is Hegel’s attempt to vanquish
noetic skepticism. In the Phenomenology of
Spirit, we are told that humans have reached the point of absolute
knowledge. In the Logic we are
provided with (Hegel’s version of) a complete description of (at least the
main features of) reality. Davidson also falls in the a priori camp. As we have
seen, the argument in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” is that the idea of
conceptual schemes turns on the idea of a failure of translation between
languages. Davidson then provides us with a transcendental argument to
demonstrate that intertranslatability is a condition sine qua non of
languagehood in general.
Having ruled out the possibility of (massive) ignorance, i.e., noetic
skepticism, Davidson also rules out the possibility of (massive) error,
i.e., justificatory skepticism, with his “Omniscient Interpreter” argument.
Davidson thus is epistemically “optimistic” in much the same way as Hegel.
is possible to conceive of an empirically based epistemic optimism as well. Such
optimism seems to be wide spread (although certainly not ubiquitous) in the
sciences. In physics, for example, the question of how close theoretical science
is to finding a “final theory,” or what is sometimes known as a “theory of
everything,” is often mooted. Perhaps the most prominent recent contribution
to this debate is Stephen Hawking’s lecture “Is the End in Sight for
Theoretical Physics?”, where he argued that the goal of theoretical physics
might be achieved by the end of this century. Realizing this goal would mean
that we “have a complete, consistent, and unified theory of the physical
interactions which would describe all possible observations.” Hawking is not alone
among physicists in making such prophetic statements—although most extend the
time frame beyond the end of this century.
the other hand, there are thinkers who are firmly planted in the naturalistic
tradition who seem to make a compelling case for taking skepticism seriously.
Fodor, for instance, raises exactly this sort of point:
long as the class of accessible concepts is endogenously constrained, there will
be thoughts that we are unequipped to think. And, so far, nobody has been able
to devise an account of the ontogeny of concepts which does not imply such
endogenous constraints. This conclusion may seem less unbearably depressing if
one considers that it is one which we unhesitatingly accept for every other
species. One would presumably not be impressed by a priori arguments intended to
prove (e.g.) that the true science must
be accessible to spiders.
and Chomsky seem to endorse noetic skepticism, as they entertain the possibility
that human reason might be limited with respect to the sorts of thoughts and
truth that we might be capable of entertaining. Furthermore, they do so
according to what seems to be naturalistic precepts, i.e., they see noetic
skepticism as a consequence of considering Homo sapiens as a biological product
formed by the process of natural selection. In effect, then, their views are
theoretical analogues to the experiment described above.
what of Davidson's a priori argument? I
believe that there is room to speculate whether Davidson’s argument against
noetic skepticism (even if correct) is sufficient to squash the notion of
epistemic superiority. For let us assume that Davidson is correct that all
languages are intertranslatable. What follows? It would seem that the idea that
the SIBs might possess a view of the universe that transcends our own would
have to be abandoned. For if such a view is to be expressed in a language, then
Davidson’s argument shows that this idea must be rejected. But must the
(conjectured) transcendent view of the SIBs be couched in a language?
Consider first the relation of the idea of language to what seems to be
the more general concept of communication. In other words, language may be used
as a form of communication, but all
communication is not in the form of language. 
If all natural languages are intertranslatable, then, it follows that creatures
that are “lower” on the phylogenetic scale, such as chimpanzee and honey
bees, do not possess languages. Nevertheless, such creatures are able to glean
information about the world and communicate it to conspecifics. The fact that
such creatures possess these abilities indicates that their means of
communicating might be thought of as ‘protolanguages’. By analogical
reasoning, then, it seems that, for all we know, it is possible that there are
other forms of communicating and gleaning information about the world that stand
to languages, as languages stand to protolanguages. Imagine that beings that
stand to us in intelligence, as we do to chimpanzees, communicate by means of a
‘hyperlanguage’. Hyperlanguages transcend human languages in the same manner
which human languages transcend the protolanguages of chimpanzees. If this case
can be made, then it is possible to maintain the skeptical position that thought
and language might not be able to comprehend reality in all its complexity, even
though all languages are essentially intertranslatable.
fill in the details of this argument reflect on why chimpanzees and monkeys
might be thought of as having a “protolanguage”. To what extent the other
primates possess a language, if at all, is a much-contested issue. For the
present purposes it is sufficient to make the somewhat banal observation that at
least some of the other primates possess a form of communication that enables
them to announce information about their environment. It has been know for some
time, for example, that the East African vervet monkeys make different-sounding
calls in response to three different predators: leopards, eagles and snakes.
Commenting on the observation, Seyfarth and Cheney write:
Each call elicited a distinct apparently
adaptive, escape response from nearby vervets. Alarm calls given about leopards
caused monkeys to run into trees, where monkeys seemed safe from feline attack.
Eagle alarms caused them to look up in the air or run into brushes. Snake alarms
caused the animals to stand on their hind legs and look into the grass.
on the Davidsonian view, the information gleaned and communicated by the
nonhominid primates does not merit the appellation of a ‘language’, since
even the chimpanzee is not capable of understanding all the information that
might be communicated by means of a language. No chimpanzee, for example, is
going to be able to translate the terms necessary to express quantum physics.
Thus, according to Davidson’s criteria of languagehood, chimpanzees do not
have a language.
at this point it may be wondered whether Davidson has the argumentative
resources to deny the “hyperlanguages” since the argument in “On the Very
Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” does not seem to speak to this possibility. The
fact that languages are said to be intertranslatable is of no concern since
hyperlanguages, by definition, are not intertranslatable with languages. For
hyperlanguages stand in the same relation to languages which languages stand to
protolanguages, i.e., hyperlanguages, languages, and protolanguages all share
the feature of being employed by creatures in gleaning information about the
world, and communicating it with conspecifics. Where they differ is in the
complexity of the information that might be represented. Thus, languages are
capable of representing information of greater complexity than that of
protolanguages, and hyperlanguages are capable of representing information of
greater complexity than languages.
might be thought that this line of argument begs the question against
Davidson’s original association of languages and conceptual schemes. However,
the same motivation that underlies the distinction between languages,
hyperlanguages and protolanguages, can be employed for distinguishing between
concepts, hyperconcepts, and protoconcepts. Clearly the stacks of papers on
concept mastery in animals and human infants that fill our libraries are
mistaken if Davidson is correct. For such creatures cannot employ concepts since
they do not possess a language. At best what such creatures might be said to
possess, on the Davidsonian view at least, are protoconcepts and a
protoconceptual scheme. If this is the case, then it would seem that we ought to
say that hyperconcepts and a hyperconceptual scheme, stands in the same relation
to concepts and a conceptual scheme, as the latter stands to protoconcepts and a
this line of argument can be made out, then Davidson’s transcendental
argument, which concludes that all natural languages are intertranslatable, is
less significant that might first appear. This argument “defines” language
in a manner such that there is little reason to suppose that languages are the
only means of communicating information, or that they are the most sophisticated
means of communication. Natural languages might be just that: a natural kind in
the order of communication. Other forms of communication are more primitive, and
hence, are termed ‘protolanguages’, and some are more sophisticated, they
are ‘hyperlanguages’. 
skeptical upshot turns on the question of whether the final philosophical and
scientific theory of everything might ultimately be expressed in a language? Are
languages just too primitive to express the true theory of everything? Does the
final philosophical and scientific account of everything require a hyperlanguage
for its expression? Is it possible that the epistemic superiority of the SIBs might lie precisely in the fact that they have evolved beyond the need
to express their views in a language? What shall we term this—‘logos
similar line of thought leads one to wonder whether truth itself is an adequate
“vehicle” for the final philosophical theory of everything. One “modern”
way to understand truth is that it is a property that is properly applied only
to (declarative) sentences. If we accept this modern view in conjunction with
the Davidsonian position on language intertranslatability, then this implies
that chimpanzees are never in possession of the truth. Since chimpanzees are not
language users (according to Davidson), a fortiori, truth does not even come
into play. If not truth, then, it seems that there still has to be some neutral
description of chimpanzees by which we may describe them as communicating
correct or incorrect information about their environment. Some primates, for
example, have been observed “intentionally” attempting to mislead their
comrades by evincing “false” cries of “food over in this direction”. The
“ploy” is to misdirect the troop while the signaler doubles back to the real
food source. We might say that, while chimps do not communicate truth or
falsehoods, they do communicate both information and misinformation or
“prototruths” and “protofalsehoods”. If the SIBs communicate with a
hyperlanguage, then they too are not in possession of the truth. Perhaps they
seek the Hypertruth. Truth (even if it is a woman) may be human, all too human.
Have philosophers hitherto set their sights too low? Should philosophy seek
Hypertruth? What shall we term this sort of skepticism? Aletheia skepticism?
That is, the doctrine that philosophical wisdom might require a standard higher
than truth itself.
has been said thus far tell mostly against those—like Davidson or Hegel—who
are inclined to think that there is no gap between human abilities and the telos
of (traditional) philosophy. It would be rash to believe that these remarks
constitute a “refutation” of Davidson’s position. Rather, I think they are
best seen as providing an inflationist’s perspective on his position. A more
considered treatment is beyond the scope of this paper.
want to turn now very briefly to the other two contending metaphilosophical
positions mentioned above, namely, “deflationism” and Nagel’s stoic
resolve. Since these positions acknowledge the teleological gap there is no
reason to think that they might be adverse to the critique of Davidson. James,
one of the founding members of modern deflationism, for instance, writes:
firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of
experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the
same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to
the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take
part in scenes whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent
to curves of history, the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly
beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.
critique of Davidson offered above is obviously in the same spirit as the dose
of humility that James offers. This is of course not surprising since James’
deflationism and inflationism are agreed that there is a potential teleological
gap. What would it take to close this gap?
Concerning this question Putnam, a contemporary heir to the deflationary
can sympathize with the urge to know,
to have a totalistic explanation which includes the thinker in the act
of discovering the totalistic explanation in the totality of what it explains. I
am not saying that this urge is “optional,” or that it is the product of
events in the sixteenth century, or that it rests on a false presupposition
because there aren’t really such things as truth, warrant, or value. But I am
saying that the project of providing such an explanation has failed.
It has failed not because it was an
illegitimate urge—what human pressure could be more worthy of respect than the
pressure to know—but because it goes
beyond the bounds of any explanation that we have. Saying this is not, perhaps,
putting the grand projects of Metaphysics and Epistemology away for good—what
another millennium, or another turn in human history as proud as the
Renaissance, may bring forth is not for us today to guess—but it is saying
that the time has come for a moratorium on Ontology and a moratorium on
Epistemology. Or rather, the time has come for a moratorium on the kind of
ontological speculation that seeks to describe the Furniture of the Universe and
to tell us what is Really There and what is Only a Human Projections, and for a
moratorium on the kind of epistemological speculation that seeks to tell us the
One Method by which all our beliefs can be appraised.
is interesting is Putnam’s conditional rejection of the grand questions of
philosophy. For Putnam does not say that these questions ought never
to be asked by humanity again, only that at present we ought not to ask them. He
allows that in another historical epoch these questions might be worth pursuing.
As Putnam correctly observes, we cannot guess today what “another millennium,
or another turn in history as profound as the Renaissance, may bring forth.”
Rorty, it seems, would have us smash the “mirror of nature”. Putnam, with a
keener historical sense in this instance, would have us merely put the mirror of
nature in the closet to wait for happier times.
What Putnam says in this quote would seem to apply, a fortiori, to a
change in our biology as well. It would seem that we could not today guess what
a change in our biology of the same magnitude as that of the development of the hominid
line from australopithecines
bring. If we genetically alter the human zygote in such a way as to create
larger brained creatures, they may well possess the sort of godlike perspective
presupposed by traditional philosophy. At the very least, I do not think we can
discount such a possibility a priori. Sometime in the next 5 to 25 years we will
in all likelihood possess the expertise to genetically engineer the
human zygote in the aforementioned manner.
deflationists are flat-out wrong to say that the ambition of philosophy cannot
be pursued. What is required—at least by the traditional telos of
philosophy—is that we radically improve ourselves. Obviously there is no
guarantee that we will be successful in this endeavor, nor is likely to be easy.
But this is not exactly late breaking news. Plato, the greatest
inflationist of them all, in the Republic
instructed us that the philosopher’s ascent from the cave would be difficult;
and results in a radical transformation of those individuals who could complete
this arduous task. Specifically, they will become godlike—a point on which
For those who want to remain shackled to the cave wall we might gladly donate
our copies of Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity, as manuals for self-help. Qua footnotes to Plato, it is clear
where our duty lies.
Obviously it is still open to the deflationist to say that we ought not
to pursue the telos of philosophy. They might argue, for example, that the
procedure outlined—genetically altering the human zygote, selective breeding
or the construction of transcendent computers—is unethical. But this would be
to argue for deflationism on totally new grounds For traditionally deflationists
have argued that we cannot realize the telos of traditional philosophy, i.e., the unity
of thought and Being—not that we ought
Of the positions delimited, inflationism agrees most with stoic
perseverance both with the difficulties facing philosophy and the viability of
the alternatives. We saw, for instance, how Nagel, one of its leading exponents,
criticized Davidson’s view that we cannot make sense of a transcendent
saw as well, in the initial survey of the four options, that Nagel rejects
deflationism in the strongest terms. The residual question is whether we ought
to become something more or wallow in stoicism. Nagel at times seems to point
the way to inflationism itself:
There is a persistent temptation to turn philosophy into something less
difficult and more shallow than it is. It is an extremely difficult subject…I
do not feel equal to the problems treated in this book. They seem to me to
require an order of intelligence wholly different from mine.
if philosophical questions require an order of intelligence wholly different
from that of Homo sapiens, as Nagel
seems to suggest, then the obvious move is to attempt to create a different
intelligence. But like deflationism, it is open to those that opt for stoic
perseverance to argue that inflationism is not a “live” option since it
requires us to perform unethical acts. As noted above, I do not propose to
respond to this charge.
Yet clearly this ethical question looms large, i.e., ought we to attempt
to create transcendent thinkers? A negative answer would obviously foreclose the
possibility of exploring inflationism—at least for those that hold and heed
such norms. As noted in the introduction, the ambition here is merely to point
out the theoretical possibility of inflationism. The practical question of which
of these four positions we ought to adopt is beyond the scope of the diminutive
ambitions of this paper.
There is one further obstacle, in addition to any potential ethical
barriers, that might stand in the way of inflationism, namely, that pesky thing
known as ‘reality’. As noted above, it is an empirical question whether we
can in fact create higher intelligences. If it proves impossible then, as I see
it, inflationism is done. It is hard to see how, for instance, a deflationist
might be moved (other than to laughter) if one insists that there is a possible
world where the telos of philosophy is realized. The cash value of inflationism
lies in the fact that it is an empirically testable means to further the
ambitions of philosophy.
to Any Future Philosophizing.
In section 2 I argued that there is a technological revolution afoot that
may radically alter human history and indeed humanity itself. In section 3 I
indicated how such a revolution might affect our understanding of philosophy. In
this section I want to indicate how philosophy might affect our understanding of
the nature of this technological revolution. To focus this discussion let us
take three questions as central and which we might suspect (following Kant) that
philosophy exhibits some acumen: What can we know? What should we do? What
should we hope?
What can we know?
us suppose that technology raises the prospect of transcendent intelligences.
better than philosophers to cogitate this prospect? The debate between Davidson
and Nagel on the viability of transcendent intelligences is merely the latest
incarnation of a controversy that extends back to the dawn of western philosophy
itself. For instance, epistemologically, this is perhaps the
divisive issue between Hegel and Kant. That
is, Kant allows the possibility of transcendent intelligences; such creatures
may know things in themselves, while such knowledge is inaccessible to humans.
Hegel of course had little patience for the notion of things in themselves, at
least at the end of history.  While philosophy has all but forgotten the
question of its relation to human and higher intelligence, prior to this
century, the topic was of central concern. Indeed, philosophy has over
twenty-five hundred years of experience to bring to bear on this question.
think it is incumbent upon philosophers to draw on this history in order to help
frame the terms of this debate.
Here is but one example. A recent article has us imagine what sort of
constraints might operate on creatures with brains the size of Jupiter. The
author’s fundamental premise is that “The laws of physics impose constraints
on the activities of intelligent beings regardless of their motivations, culture
or technology.” The author then proceeds
to investigate the sort of information processing ability that such a brain
might enjoy, e.g., the author supposes that the speed of light imposes a
constraint on the processing speed of a Jupiter sized brain. Let us grant the
author’s fundamental premise. It certainly does not follow that the
Jupiter-sized brains are bound by the speed of light unless it turns out that we
happened to get this physical law correct with our puny 1300 ccs of brain
matter. In other words, even if physical laws constrain the activities of
intelligent beings we need some independent support for the claim that our view
of these laws is even close to the mark. The author does not seem to take
serious the possibility that there might be intelligences that radically
transcend our own. Perhaps such creatures might smile at our claim that the
speed of light is a fundamental physical law in the same way we smile at Lord
Kelvin’s claim that heavier than air flying machines are impossible. To think
of the Jupiter-sized brains in such human terms is to seriously underestimate
what might be at stake in implementing the technologies noted above. Philosophy
ought to bring its expertise on the question of transcendence to this debate.
What should we do?
the assessment here is correct, then it may be that we are on the verge of a
technological and cultural revolution of unparalleled proportion. At present
there seems to be two clear options. We might embrace this technology and
attempt to create beings who are better equipped to complete philosophy (and
science). The other option is that we find that the wisest course of action is
to not employ this technology. Either course presents us with huge moral and
ethical challenges. Obviously the former option raises the possibility of the
extinction of the human species. What if our transcendent children turn on us?
If the latter course is chosen we have the difficult moral challenge of
justifying this course of action, and the moral challenge of policing this
policy. To effect a worldwide moratorium on such research would require
international cooperation on a scaled not yet realized. Our success with
stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology—which is by its very
nature much more tractable, since it requires a much larger industrial
base—ought not to encourage us. The genetic research outlined above could be
carried out in any number of labs throughout the entire world. If philosophy has
primary justification over any domain of discourse then morality is as good a
candidate as any. Given the enormity of these moral questions philosophers, I
believe, have a duty to take them up in conversation.
May We Hope For?
we answer this question (as Kant clearly saw) is intimately intertwined with how
we answer the previous two. The upper bound on what we may hope for might be
that our transcendent children will fulfill the prophecy of the second coming
with only a small inversion of the etiology: It is not God that creates a
man-god but we humans create god-like beings. The lower bound on what we may
hope for is that in repressing the proliferation of these technologies we do not
have to institute such a repressive regime of social control that George
Orwell’s 1984 looks like complete
anarchy in comparison.
Call to Arms
Our battle is with the future. Thus far the battle has been engaged by
those most closely linked with technology—engineers, scientists and
science-fiction writers. A case in point is a recent article by Bill Joy;
co-founder of sun Microsystems, which has a caused a stir in certain circles.
Joy brings his computer background to bear in assessing the prospects for
technology in the twenty-first century. Joy’s version of the future is bleak
in the extreme, in contrast to the mostly upbeat or utopian vision offered by
other technologists such as Moravec and Kurzweil. Wherein lies the truth? The
answer to this will depend on how we answer the questions of ‘What can we
know?’, ‘What should we do?’ and ‘What might we hope for?’ Even if
there is a remote possibility that I am correct about the imminent nature of
this technology, and the potentially radical implications for humanity, I
believe that philosophers are duty bound to cogitate these questions with some
urgency. This is the call to arms.
I’m grateful for comments from Peter
Menzies, Malcolm Murray, Philip Pettit, Huw Price, Graham Priestand to the audience at the Canadian Philosophical Association May 2001,
Quebec, Quebec City, where an earlier version of this paper was presented. The
paper has also benefited from correspondence with Jason Grossman, and Richard
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It has been suggested to me that 'inflationism' has a number of negative
connotations to it and that 'amplificatory' might work better here. While I
agree with the sentiment I think 'inflationism' tends to make more perspicuous
the contrast with 'deflationism'.
Although on occasion a single genetic mutation may be sufficient for
speciation. It has even been argued (controversially) that
Homo sapiens speciated on a single genetic change involving the
lateralization and hemispheric specialization of the brain. See, T. Crow
(1999) Did Homo Sapiens Speciate on the Y Chromosome?” available on line
The locus classicus on this
subject is H. Jerison’s Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence, New York: Academic Press,
1973. The correlation is actually between intelligence and brain volume
versus the log of body weight. A direct comparison between humans and chimps
is a little unfair, since the chimps’ body weight is less, on average,
than a human’s. This does not affect the main point, which is that the
chimpanzee has a proportionately smaller brain than Homo
sapiens. The point about comparing body weight is that the intelligence
of a creature is thought to be a function of its “surplus” brain mass: a
larger body requires more brain mass to control and motor its operations.
Thus, although a whale has a larger brain than Homo sapiens it also
has a much larger body. The correlation is by no means perfect. Dolphins
have a higher brain versus body weight ratio; if we are to believe this
correlation has no exceptions then we ought to accept the conclusion that
dolphins are more intelligent than humans. Jerison provides much
illumination on these issues.
I discuss this in more detail in my manuscript "Naturalism and
R. E. Hammer, R. D. Palmiter, R. L. Brinster, Nature,
311, 65, 1984. Unfortunately, the treatment was not a total success as the
growth hormone production was inappropriately controlled. An excess of
growth hormone in the treated mice resulted in giganticism—mice one and a
half times their normal size. (The sound scientific basis for a bad sci-fi
M. C. King and A. C. Wilson, “Evolution at two levels in Humans and
Chimpanzees,” Science, 188, pp.
In fact I have argued elsewhere that it might be best to look at the genetic
differences between the common chimpanzee and the “pygmy chimpanzee”
since the latter has a smaller probably neotenous brain compared with the
 See P. Holland, P. Ingham,
and S. Krauss (1992), “Development and Evolution. Mice and flies head to
head”, Nature 358, 627-628; and R. Finkelstein and E. Boncinelli
(1994) “From fly head to mammalian forebrain: The story of otd and Otx”,
Trends in Genetic 10, 310-315.
 See Boncinelli, E., and A.
Mallamaci (1995) “Homeobox genes in vertebrate gastrulation”. Current
Opinion in Genetics and Development 5, 619-627.
In nature we see a fairly reliable correlation between length of juvenile
period and brain size in primates, see J. T. Bonner, The
Evolution of Culture in Animals, Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1980, p. 50.
It has been argued, for example, that the neocortex ought to be used as the
relevant brain structure in studying the evolution of primate intelligence
since primate encephalization is principally a result of an increase in
neocortical size, and “higher” cognitive functions are primarily
attributed to the neocortex. In addition to the classic discussion in
Jerison, op. cit., see R.I.M.
Dunbar, “Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in
humans,” (with commentary), Behavioral
and Brain Sciences, 16, 681-735 and Sawaguchi, T. “The size of the
neocortex in relation to ecology and social structure in monkeys and
apes,” Folia Primatologica, 1992, 58, 131-45 and numerous references therein.
Hans Moravec, Robot: mere machine to transcendent mind, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1998, and “ Rise of the Robots,” in Scientific
American, Vol. 281 no. 6 December 1999, pp. 124-135 and
“When will computer hardware match the human brain?,” Journal
of Transhumanism, www.Transhumanism.com, vol. 1, March 1998.
“Rise of the Robots,” op. cit., p. 135.
Some thoughtful criticisms can be found in the replies to Moravec’s Transhumanism
article, op. cit.
See Hendry, A.P., J.K. Wenburg, P. Bentzen, E.C.
Volk, and T.P. Quinn. (2000). “Rapid evolution of reproductive isolation
in the wild: evidence from introduced salmon.”
Science 290: 516-518.
Plato, The Republic 459-461.
The Worlds of the Early Greek
Philosophers, edited by J. B. Wilbur and H. J. Allen, Buffalo:
Prometheus Books 1979, p. 72.
Cf. Plato, Laws,
The Phenomenology of Spirit,
Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, reprinted in
Inquiries into Truth and
Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 184.
Nagel, op. cit., makes a similar
argument against Davidson, pp. 93-99.
This distinction seems to be operating at some level in Descartes and
Kant’s work. Thus Descartes: “I would dare not even dare to say that God
cannot arrange that a mountain should exist without a valley, or that one
and two should not make three; but I only say that He has given me a mind of
such a nature that I cannot conceive a mountain without a valley or a sum of
one and two which would not be three, and so on, and that such things imply
contradictions in my conception.” (Letter to Arnauld, 29 July 1648).
Quoted in H. Frankfurt, “The Logic of Omnipotence” reprinted in Readings
in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. By B. A. Brody, Englewood Cliffs, N.
J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 343, note 3. Kant too clearly thought our
understanding was limited in comparison to God. Kant contends that we labor
under the misfortune of not having an intellectual intuition like god, but
merely a sensuous intuition, hence, we may only know objects as phenomena
not noumena, The Critique of Pure
Reason, translated by Kemp Smith, Toronto: Macmillan, 1965, B308-310.
Sometimes the problem is put that we have to think rather than using pure
intuition: “…all his [God’s] knowledge must be intuition, and not thought,
which always involves limitation,” ibid.,
B 71. Of course Descartes and
Kant both tended to concentrate on what I am calling ‘justificatory
skepticism’ to the neglect of noetic skepticism. Much of the tradition,
unfortunately, in my view, has had a similar focus. A closely allied
distinction is made by Nagel in his The
View From Nowhere, op. cit., p. 90: “In the last chapter we
discussed skepticism with regard to knowledge. Here I want to introduce
another form of skepticism—not about what we know but about how far our
thoughts can reach. I shall defend a form of realism according to which our
grasp on the world is limited not only in respect of what we can know but
also in respect o what we can conceive. In a very strong sense, the world
extends beyond the reach of our minds.” His distinction is not exactly the
same as the one discussed here. The difference lies in the fact that Nagel
seems to suggest at certain points that the world does in fact transcend our
ability to conceptualize it, whereas, the skepticism here asserts merely
that we leave open the possibility of such a transcendence. I discuss these
various types of skepticism in my unpublished "On the Fourfold Root of
Davidson acknowledges the transcendental nature of his argument in “In
Defence of Convention T”, in Inquiries into Truth and
Interpretation, op. cit. p.72. Carol Rovane argues in “The Metaphysics
of Interpretation”, in Truth and
Interpretation, ed. Ernest Lepore, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986,
417-29; that there is a strain of transcendental argumentation in Davidson.
Rorty argues that Davidson’s conceptual scheme argument is a
transcendental argument to end all transcendental arguments,
“Transcendental Arguments, Self-reference, and Pragmatism”, in Transcendental
Arguments and Science, ed. by P. Bieri, R. P. Horstmann, and L. Kruger,
Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing co., pp. 95-103.
Although Davidson does not directly speak to the possibility of higher
intelligences in his discussion of conceptual schemes, this is clearly an
implication of his argument as Rorty, “The World Well Lost”, reprinted
in Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1982, and Nagel, The View from Nowhere, op. cit., have
Davidson appeals to the notion of an omniscient interpreter as a means to
guarantee the veracity of our belies in his “The Method of Truth in
Metaphysics”, reprinted in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretations, op. cit., pp. 199-214. The
omniscient interpreter has a return engagement in “A Coherence Theory of
Truth and Knowledge”, reprinted in Truth
and Interpretation, op. cit., p. 307.
“Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics”, reprinted in John
Boslough’s Stephen Hawking’s
Universe, (New York: Avon Books, 1985) p. 119.
The Modularity of Mind,
(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983), pp. 125-6. I would be impressed if the
spiders themselves made the arguments—although I am not sure I would
believe the arguments.
See my "Naturalism and Skepticism: Can Skepticism be scientifically
tested" op. cit., for details on how to naturalize noetic
Cf. F. Dretske’s opening remarks
in Knowledge and the Flow of
Information, Cambridge: MIT press, 1981, p. vii: “In the beginning
there was information. The word came later.”
R. M. Seyfarth, and D. L. Cheney, “Meaning and Mind in Monkeys”, Scientific
American, December 1992, Volume 267, no. 6, p. 122.
An alternate means to reflect on the import of Davidson’s position is the
a priori aspect of his transcendental argument. We know a priori that if we
encounter any language user then their language is translatable into our
own. Now suppose we create or happen on beings with brains the size of a
football stadium, (where ever would they find a good fitting hat)? Wheeling
out our favorite Davidsonian transcendental argument, we announce to them
that if they think or employ a language, then we can translate their
language. They respond (in our language) that if that is the way we want to
define ‘language’ so be it. When they (the stadium brain creatures)
communicate with one another they employ a hyperlanguage and think in
hyperthought. It is only when they communicate with us puny brained
creatures that they must resort to using a language. Just as when we
communicate with apes we do not employ a language but only a protolanguage.
It is difficult to see how the argument could prove anything more than this
about creatures with such large brains—in an a priori fashion—unless one
thought of language as analogous to the transcendental ego or Hegel’s
Geist, as opposed to an evolutionary adaptation. In other words, at best
what Davidson has shown is that it is inconsistent to speak about languages
failing to be mutually intertranslatable. To show that our view of the
universe dovetails with an omniscient view would require showing that an
omniscient interpreter must speak only in a language. That is, Davidson
seems to require is some sort of “completeness” theorem to show that
language exhausts the possibility of “higher” forms of communication.
Cf. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil,
preface; and Human, all Too Human.
Re Heidegger: Is there a poet’s irony in the idea that the question of
Being had to be successively submerged in the Greek trinity of metaphysics,
science, and technology, only to be reborn by technology itself. Perhaps the
famous Der Spiegel remark—Only a god can save us now—does not look so hopeless.
Some of these issues are discussed in my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
"Becoming Gods". I discuss Davidson's views in more detail in my
"On the Intertranslatability of all Natural Languages."
James (1995). Pragmatism:
A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, London:
Dover publications, p. 299.
“Why is a Philosopher?”, reprinted in Realism
with a Human Face, op. cit. pp. 117-8.
 See note 45 for references
for Plato and Aristotle’s view on this matter.
Some popular discussions of this issue suggest that the implementing of
these technologies cannot be stopped. My own view is not nearly so
fatalistic. But there certainly is a problem here. The more these various
technologies advance the easier it will be for fewer and fewer individuals
to perform the relevant sorts of experiments to attempt to create higher
intelligences. For example, Moravec estimates that 100 million MIPS are
sufficient for this sort of experiment. We might legislate then that no
computer should be above say 10 million MIPS in size. But then how do we
stop 10 graduate students from linking 10 of these computers together after
a night at the pub? (Graduate student supervision could take on a whole new
meaning). Many biological laboratories, particularly ones funded from
private sources, operate in a certain amount of secrecy for
“proprietary” reasons. Even one such small laboratory may be able in the
coming century to genetically engineer Homo
We are perhaps in a position to add a few other names to this list: Fodor
and Chomsky, op. cit., and Colin McGinn,
(Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, Oxford:
Nagel, op. cit. p. 12.
Cf. M. Westphal, History
and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, third edition, Indiana: Indiana
University Press, p. 37: “I have argued in another place that Kant’s
dualism and finitism are the expression of a religious world-view, since the
thing-in-itself is so clearly defined as the thing-for-God. If this is true,
we will have to conclude that as the problem of the Phenomenology developed
and took on dimensions transcending the narrowly epistemological, Hegel
moved closer to the spirit of Kant and to real engagement with his thought.
For both of them the question of knowledge becomes the question of man in
relation to God.” To which we might add that this makes Kant and Hegel
Xenophanes, fragments 18 and 34, The
Worlds of the Early Greek Philosophers, op. cit., p. 56. Heraclitus, op.
cit. Plato, Phaedrus, 247; Parmenides,
134-5; Timaeus, 1178-9. Aristotle, Nicomachean
Ethics, 1177b. Aquinas,
Summa Theologica, 1a, 3, prologue. Descartes, Meditation
5. Spinoza, Ethics, propositions
14 and 15. Kant op. cit., B71 and Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, section 58.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit,
paragraph 8. Nietzsche, The Gay
Science, section 125.
Anders Sandberg, "The Physics of Information Processing Superobjects:
Daily Life Among the Jupiter Brains," This Journal, http://www.jetpress.org/,
Vol. 5, 1999.
“Why the Future Does Not Need us” in Wired,
April 2000. While technologists have lead the debate thus far philosophers
have had some part. Joy recounts an encounter with John Searle in his
I had missed
Ray's [Kurzweil] talk and the subsequent panel that Ray and John [Searle]
had been on, and they now picked right up where they'd left off, with Ray
saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate
and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something
like that, and John countering that this couldn't happen, because the robots
couldn't be conscious.
While I had
heard such talk before, I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm
of science fiction. But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a
strong argument that they were a near-term possibility. I was taken a back,
especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future. I
already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and
nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic
and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.”