I delivered this rant as part of a panel entitled “New Directions for Information Ethics Scholarship” at the CEPE (Computer Ethics Philosophical Enquiry) conference 2011. It was given as the last of four rants, in the early morning of the last day of the conference so I’m not sure many attendents really got the main message, and it seems to have been interpreted as more controversial than it really was. Sorry about the typos, but parts of this was written down in a hurry
Let me start by saying a little bit about the background for this rant. Although academia doesn’t seem to be a harsh existence when we exchange ideas with friends and colleagues at these gatherings, it often requires you to go in directions you didn’t plan, to tackle issues that are placed in front of you rather than chosen by an act of volition. I think we all can relate to the fact that the research we’ve done seems to be a chaotic network determined in large part by chance or external pressure, rather than careful elaboration of a coherent system. Because of this, it came as a surprise to me when I recently realized that there was a red line running through my various ramblings. The common denominator, and this is what I want to emphasize today, was something that seems to have fallen into disrepute; the common denominator was nothing less than what distinguishes us from physical reality, what distinguishes from brute facts – that which makes us into something more than extended matter. I am of course talking about the mind, our consciousness. It is my firm conviction, and I find this almost as indubitable as Descartes did back in the day, that mind is not only that which sets a small subset of matter apart from everything else, it is also a necessary condition for ethics. Without mind, there is no right and wrong, no good or bad, no beautiful or ugly. More related to this conference, without the mind, there would be no privacy, no intellectual property, no values-in-design, no professional responsibility, no identity theft, no cultural differences – in short, without mind, nothing would matter. Before moving on to some of the implications of this view, I want to clarify that this is not anthropocentric, it is anthropogenic; conscious beings are the origin of value and morality, but this does not entail that we are the only ones worth caring about. Quite the contrary.
I want to continue by addressing a few implications from this emphasis on mind.
First, and please do not misunderstand this point and please apply the principle of charity, the important and enlightening effort to question the sharp dividing line between subject and object, is sometimes taken to extremes that leave the mind out in a concerning manner. I am talking about attempts to ascribe moral rights and personhood to non-sentient beings, to propose the extension of mind while forgetting about the locus of the mind, to regard ‘the human condition’ as independent from subjective contingencies, to regard synthetic emotions as equivalent to felt emotions, to disregard the importance of the subject’s context in understanding embedded values, to evaluate technology’s impact on well-being as independent from conscious experience, to regard syntax as exhaustive of semantics (let alone pragmatics), and to regard interaction between conscious beings as equivalent to interaction between non-conscious nodes in a network. The dividing line between these phenomena can be seen as ontological, epistemological or pragmatical, but ignoring this dividing line is, in short what has been known in philosophy of mind as feigning anaesthesia. Anything that requires mind to exist, such as our ideas, emotions and deliberations, have a mode of existence that is fundamentally different from everything that is non-conscious. I don’t think any of us genuinely think that mind can be removed from the equation, but I do think that we are all pushed in that direction for a number of reasons. Paradoxically, one reason is that bracketing the mind doesn’t immediately conform with common sense, common sense being a term that has gotten the unfortunate connotation of equalling lack of reflection. That taking emotions, deliberations, subjective desires and personal preferences into account, is seen as tantamount to basing your evaluations on gut feeling – tantamount to lack of reflection. Another reason why mind is being ignored is that the move towards neglecting the complexity of our mental states is a natural movement of the pendulum, as a response to placing too much emphasis on the mind, and too sharp a distinction between subject and object – but common sense should be the gravity that pulls the pendulum towards a golden mean. Yes, mental states muddy the water, and they introduce ambiguities and complexities that makes any analytically minded philosopher cringe, but that in itself is not a reason to bracket those concerns. As I tried to argue in yesterday’s talk, I applaud methods that allow us to conceptualize the complexity and subtlety of mental states in a way that lends itself to analysis. But, I feel compelled to emphasize that this can only be one approach in a necessarily pluralist computer ethics. To put it in Wittgensteinian terms, we do not have to uphold Western philosophy’s contempt for the particular case, a contempt rooted in philosophy’s traditional equation between objective truth, on the one hand, and stability, observer-independence and universality on the other. As John Searle has made clear, ontological subjectivity does not entail epistemological subjectivity. If you don’t believe that this is a one dollar bill, you are wrong, even though this truth that is made possible only by consciousness – indeed, only by collective consciousness. In a similar manner, emphasizing the importance of subjective consciousness does not entail ethical relativism. It should not be necessary to remind you that even the strict objectivity of Kant’s deontology –if you allow me to put it crudely for the sake of this short talk – is grounded in self-consciousness. Consciousness is not only emotions and qualia and the ephemeral what-its-like-to-be, it is also self-reflection, autonomy and rationality.
Another reason why I emphasize mind, is that the mind is a form of magic, in the strict sense of the word. It is a reason for awe and wonder that can’t be seen as equivalent to non-conscious processes. I believe that this is something we can all agree about, across religious and cultural backgrounds. When God is dead, the only thing that brings telos and value to this world is consciousness, so even atheists can marvel at the splendour of the mind, and regard the mind as the origin of value, and the anchor we need in order to avoid nihilism. As such, and this is one of my main points, mind and consciousness can form a common denominator for pluralism and cultural sensitivity – a common denominator that does neither presuppose nor exclude religious beliefs or culturally rooted beliefs.
Finally, and less sermon-like: If the best reason for downplaying the importance of mind is methodological, we need to consider the range of methods available to us. That is, if we want to take the mind seriously, we ought to take the science of mind more seriously. For a long time, I have been baffled by the lack of cooperation between philosophy and psychology. Let me emphasize that I do not, as the dreaded referee #2 once accused me of, claim that empirical research should have the final say in philosophical matters. Rather, questions that cannot be settled a priori, should be informed by empirical research. We cannot presuppose a priori that violent video games make us anti-social, that globalisation flattens cultural values, that reduced privacy is an evil, that virtual relationships cannot be meaningful, that intellectual property is necessary for innovation, or that workplace surveillance leads to efficiency. There is psychological research on these topics, research that should play a much larger role in our analyses. Related to this, I want to mention the field of positive psychology in particular. When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he opened his inaugural speech by saying that psychology should not only be concerned with bringing patients from -.5 to 0, but also to bring humans from 0 to 0.5. That is, psychology should not be concerned only with curing illness, but just as much with leading people towards more fulfilling lives.
In a similar manner, I think we need to start paying more attention to how technology can improve our quality of life. We should pay as much attention to the promise of technology as we pay attentions to the threat of technology. However, and this brings me back to my earlier point, being optimistic about technology and looking for ways in which technology can enrich our lives is often seen as naive and unreflected – there is a reason why this attitude is dismissively referred to as Pollyannaism. In the original children story, Polyanna looses her legs, and her optimism disappears. What brings it back it the encouragement of the townspeople, letting her know that her optimism improved their lives. It’s time for Polyanna to walk again. If we want to do the same, there is a large and untapped source of empirical research in positive psychology, findings that enable us to look for new ways in which technology can improve people’s lives. At the same time , this research is riddled with methodological problems, biases and limited validity. This is why philosophy and ethics – and philosophy and ethics of computing – is the natural meeting point. The place where we can make all-things considered evaluations – and where all-things-considered does not undermine the importance of mind.