My Thoughts on a Conversation Between Martin Rees and David Deutsch
Recently I had the good fortune of stumbling across a streamed conversation between David Deutsch and Lord Martin Rees who had slightly opposing takes on what may occur in the 21st century. Deutsch thinks that the prophecies of doom that tend to think of technological fixes as naive have created a damaging attitude of pessimism towards the idea that knowledge and good explanations of the universe, humans and society might lead to more “progress”. Rees, on the other hand, generally agrees that creativity and knowledge creation has brought about improvements in living standards etc etc, but on a social and political level seems to hold a far more pessimistic viewpoint, that humans are not wise enough to steward the unlocking of new technological powers.
I feel I have seen this fundamental question come up again and again when reading the works of generalists! They tend to fall on the side of one of these, that knowledge will liberate us to new heights or be our downfall. However, the more I listen to conversations about this it tends to focus less on the strength of our technology but more on the question of who are we?
Homo Creativus - David Deutsch argues that the human niche is creativity. What separates us from other animals is our sheer ability to create novelty. Most animals tend to fit their ecological niche but humans create their own niches through creativity which creates knowledge that is used to help us overcome the inevitable problems we will encounter due to the infinite fallibility of our knowledge. He uses the example of the Easter Islanders who were too busy creating massive stone statues for 21st century tourists to take selfies with that they neglected the deforestation and reliability on wood that lead to a civilisational collapse. Deutsch argues that had they only known how to fish without wooden boats or known how to replant forests they would have survived. Our survival has always relied on human creativity and good explanations to get us out of problems we ourselves often create.
“We are gods, but for the wisdom” argument - What Deutsch makes clear is that their is certainly no guarantee of a good future as we cannot predict for a time that will be fundamentally different in many ways, there is only an attitude that we adopt. Rees’ attitude in this case is one of pessimism. He believes that we lack the socio-political wisdom to be stewards to technological innovation and run the risk in the 21st century of making a civilisation ending mistake.
I have to say that I came down on the side of Deutsch. My main question for Martin Rees would be that if it is about adopting an attitude then surely there is a moral dimension to optimism in the Kantian sense. I would also argue that socio-political wisdom is a form of knowledge creation so rather than seeing us as inherently ethically and politically unwise we should instead see the challenges of AI, climate change and biological risks as problems for the social sciences as much as for technologists.
What we do need however is an expansion of what rationality and reason mean and leave space for different types of knowledge. Moral and ethical knowledge is not always about “good explanations”. The contextual nature of virtue ethics doesn’t always leave much time for abstraction as well as the fact that humans are self-deceptive and inconstant in their actions, a lot of the time without knowing it. Institutional, ethical and political progress will require the most creativity.