Would AI and Aliens be moral in a godless universe?

Black hole

Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions. Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist.

The name of the book was Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (contemporary philosophy isn’t all that sharp when it comes to titles), by Erik J. Wielenberg. Now, I won’t even attempt to write a proper philosophical review of Robust Ethics for the book has been excellently dissected by a proper philosopher, John Danaher in pieces such as this, this, and this, and one more. Indeed, it was Danaher’s thoughtful reviews that had resulted in Wielenberg’s short work being in the ever changing pile of books that shadows my living room floor like a patch of unextractable mold. It was just the book I needed when thinking about what types of intelligence might be possessed by extraterrestrials.

It’s a problem I ran into when reviewing David Roden’s Post-human Life that goes like this: while it is not so much easy, as it is that I don’t simply draw a blank for me to conceive of an alternative form of intelligence to our human type, it’s damned near impossible for me to imagine what our an alternative form to our moral cognition and action would consist of and how it would be embedded in these other forms of intelligence.

The way Wielenberg answers this question would seem to throw a wrench into Bakker’s idea of Blind Brain Theory (BBT) because what Bakker is urging is that we be suspicious of our cognitive intuitions because they were provided by evolution not as a means of knowing the truth but in terms of their effectiveness in supporting survival and reproduction, whereas Wielenberg is making the case that we can generally rely on these intuitions ( luckily) because of the way they have emerged out of a very peculiar human evolutionary story one which we largely do not share with other animals. That is, Wielenberg argument is anthropocentric to its core and therein lies a new set of problems.

His contention, in essence, is that the ability of human being to perceive moral truth arises as a consequence of the prolonged period of childhood we experience in comparison to other animals. In responding to the argument by Sharon Street that moral “truth” would seem quite different from the perspective of lions, or bonobos, or social insects, than from a human standpoint Wielenberg  responds:

Lions and bonobos lack the nuclear family structure. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests the “[b] onobos have stretched the single parent system to the limit”. He also claims that an essential component of human reproductive success is the male-female pair bond which he suggests “sets us apart from the apes more than anything else” . These considerations provide some support for the idea that a moralizing species like ours requires an evolutionary path significantly different from that of lions or bonobos. (171)

The prolonged childhood of humans necessitates both pair-bonding and “alloparents” that for Wielenberg shape and indeed create our moral disposition and perception in a way seen in no other animals.

As for the social insects scenario suggested by Street, the social insects (termites, ants, and many species of bees and wasps) are so different from us that it’s hard to evaluate whether such a scenario is nomologically possible.  (171).

In a sense the ability to perceive moral truth, what Wielenberg  characterizes as “brute facts” such as “rape is wrong”, emerges out of the slow speed in cultural/technological knowledge requires to be passed from adults to the young. Were children born fully formed with sufficient information for their own survival (or a quick way of gaining needed capacity/knowledge) neither the pair bond nor the care of the “village” would be necessary and the moral knowledge that comes as a result of this period of dependence/interdependence might go undiscovered.

Though I was very much rooting that Wielenberg would have succeeded in providing an account of moral realism absent any need for God, I believe that in these reflections found in the very last pages of Robust Ethics he may have inadvertently undermined that very noble project.

I have complained before about someone like E.O. Wilson’s lack of imagination when it comes to alternative forms of intelligence on worlds other than our own, but what Wielenberg has done is perhaps even more suffocating. For if the perception of moral truth depends upon the evolution of creatures dependent on pair bonding and alloparenting then what this suggests is that due to our peculiarities human beings might be the only species in the universe capable of perceiving moral truth. This is not the argument Wielenberg likely hoped he was making at all, and indeed is more anthropocentric than the argument of some card carrying theists.

I suppose Wielenberg might object that any intelligent aliens would likely require the same extended period of learning as ourselves because they too would have arrived at their station via cultural/technological evolution which seems to demand long periods of dependent learning. Perhaps, or perhaps not. For even if I can’t imagine some biological species where knowledge from parent to offspring is directly passed, we know that it’s possible- the efficiency of DNA as a cultural storage device is well known.

Besides, I think it’s a mistake to see biological intelligence as the type of intelligence that commands the stage over the long duree- even if artificial intelligence, like children, need to learn many task through actual experience rather than programming “from above” the  advantages of AI over the biological sort is that it can then share this learning directly with fully grown copies of itself a like Neo in the Matrix its’ “progeny” can say “I know kung fu” without ever having themselves learned it. According to Wielenberg’s logic it doesn’t seem that such intelligent entities would necessarily perceive brute moral facts or ethical truths, so if he is right an enormous contraction of the potential scale of the moral universe would have occurred . The actual existence of moral truth limited to perhaps one species in a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has such a narrative to begin with.

The only way it seems one can hold that both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment very different from our own.

I think the best chance here is if moral truth were somehow related to the truths of mathematics (indeed Wielenberg thinks the principle of contradiction [which is the core of mathematics/logic] is essential to the articulation and development of our own moral sense which begins with the emotions but doesn’t end there.) Like us, other animals seem not only to possess forms of moral cognition that rival our own, but even radical different types of creatures such as social insects are capable of discovering mathematical truths about the world, the kind of logic that underlies moral reasoning, something I explored extensively here.

Let’s hope that the perception of moral truth isn’t as dependent on our very peculiar evolutionary development as Wielenberg’s argument suggest, for if that is the case that particular form of truth might be so short lived and isolated in the cosmos that someone might be led to the mistaken conclusion that it never existed at all.

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6 comments on “Would AI and Aliens be moral in a godless universe?

  1. James Cross says:

    This is such a great follow-up to your previous post!

    Regarding your inability to imagine other forms of intelligence of our human type, I am not sure you mean that literally. Of course, there is likely to be few if any other forms of life in the universe precisely like the human. What I think you really mean other forms of intelligence with the degree of elaboration and sophistication of the human. I think we can see intimations of these other forms of intelligence in innumerable other mammals and birds.

    Dolphins, whales, elephants, squirrels, crows, and magpies all show great intelligence and all have a robust social life that involves extended child-rearing.

    What distinguishes human intelligence, however, is not just the extended period of childhood but it is the related fact that our neurological systems are so undeveloped at birth. As a consequence the neurological connections are hard-wired in social insects, for example, are loosely coupled when we are born. Through acculturation the connections are that make us what we become are made. This provides an enormous capacity to change the script almost from one generation to the next.

    Geza Roheim, a psychoanalytic anthropologist, thought this neurological underdevelopment at the birth was the driving force behind human culture.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for the compliment, James.

      I think it was a real fault of Wielenberg’s book that he not only brushed aside but seemed to openly dismiss the kinds of altruistic behavior seen in social animals such as the ones you mentioned. What I am struggling with though has more to do with whether high intelligence is conceivable absent the kinds of extended youth Wielenberg thinks is the starting point for our moral sentiments and if indeed moral perception is a consequence of the kinds of dependencies he thinks emerge from what he sees as our unique type of development.

      It’s really hard for me to grasp how such a thing would develop via evolution but I can imagine a creature that uses the fact that DNA can be used as a store of memory to pass on its experiences directly to it’s offspring… (I know it seems like a stretch). As long as this creature had a somewhat flexible intelligence I would think the overall intelligence of this species would grow very fast. On Wielenberg’s terms lacking a period of dependence such a creature would be blind to morality/ethics as we understand it. I don’t think he is right here, but I need to better grasp and articulate why I think he is wrong.

      • James Cross says:

        But wouldn’t it be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint to not pass on in DNA?

        I would think advanced extraterrestrials would be cultural beings. I would leave open the question of whether culture could arise in some way other extended youth.

      • Rick Searle says:

        “… wouldn’t it be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint to not pass on in DNA?” Honestly, I don’t know, but I am thinking along the lines of a read/writable version of DNA that we don’t really see in nature- more akin to the way computer programs work. Perhaps the line between biology and culture that we have isn’t as sharp elsewhere, but I’ll admit it’s all just speculation. I am just trying to stretch BBT like taffy and see if I can get it to snap.

        I really liked your latest piece on the deep dream.. and its’ implications or lack thereof.

      • James Cross says:

        It seems to me that externalizing information to culture, language, and technology would be more efficient than DNA. It would easier to alter, preserve, and transmit.

        If we extend Freud’s view of history and human evolution to extraterrestrials, the critical phase would be the period where alien biology begins to externalize itself in culture.

        I could imagine creatures with biology unlike ours doing this is quite a different fashion from ourselves. Imagine insect-like creatures born completely self-sufficient and not needing of care or dependency but also able to absorb new cultural information. Or perhaps creatures that unlike us (in most cases) could modify their neural wiring after maturation or maybe pass through several phases of maturation with significantly different capabilities and roles.

      • Rick Searle says:

        I don’t think it’s a question we’ll actually resolve, but I think there would be huge advantages were some creature to have evolved that could, in a sort of Lamarckian fashion, transfer their knowledge directly to their offspring. (Maybe I’d be able to get my daughters to clean up their room.) It might or might not be more efficient than the way we have evolved, but it would certainly be much less of a risk to the young who are helpless for much of their childhood. The human pattern of development seems to have been an enormous evolutionary gamble (I know, it was an accidental one) that paid off. Perhaps the fact that no other species here developed intelligence of our sort in a way different from this gamble means it is not a possible path through evolution?

        Here though is exactly where I was going:

        “I could imagine creatures with biology unlike ours doing this is quite a different fashion from ourselves. Imagine insect-like creatures born completely self-sufficient and not needing of care or dependency but also able to absorb new cultural information. Or perhaps creatures that unlike us (in most cases) could modify their neural wiring after maturation or maybe pass through several phases of maturation with significantly different capabilities and roles.”

        In a similar vein I can imagine the intelligence “insect-like” creatures being dispersed in some kind of collective organism, or even just an individualized creature like ourselves only like a “zombie” that lacked internal consciousness and just rode on “automatic”. (It’s a shame we’re stuck with b-movie tropes when discussing such things.)

        Any of these scenarios, it seems to me, restrict our conclusions about the types of “philosophy” aliens would practice to a VERY WEAK version of BBT- namely, there will be blind spots internal/external to any aliens knowledge and if they ask any questions akin to our philosophy it will partially focus there.

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