[Exi-east] "Geoethical Nanotechnology"

Perry E. Metzger perry at piermont.com
Sun Jul 10 18:34:43 UTC 2005

Natasha Vita-More <natasha at natasha.cc> writes:
> > It is sad to see people who once wrote eloquently about libertarian
> > approaches to the world giving even lip service to words like "global
> > regulatory framework".
> why would you hang your future so tightly to any one political
> theory when no one political theory is substantially adequate to
> intelligently address the rate of change and the effects of change and
> how the world can function in order to protect individuality and
> freedom.

Why would I hang my future on such inadequate tools as reason and the
scientific method, when no single method is substantially adequate to
intelligently address the rate of change and the effects of change?
Why not try to absorb the best ideas from shitoism, scientology and
astrology as well?

Dismissing my view as just one "political theory" among many is, to
me, rather similar to dismissing evolution as one theory among many
equally valid ones (like creationism).

The fact that you even bother to ask the question about why I "cling
tightly" to my views shows you don't understand my views. I don't mean
to offend, and I'm sure you did not mean to offend, but I suspect
neither of us can help but offend the other. Our views are
irreconcilable because there is a massive gap of method between

For my part, I have a theory about how autonomous agents with bounded
rationality interact. Based on that theory, one can make predictions
about the world and attempt to falsify the theory. The attempts to
falsify it have, so far, failed, thus giving me substantial reason
to trust the theory. Moving forward from that trust in the theory,
I've made predictions for myself about where efforts involving words
like "Geoethical" and "global regulatory framework" lead. Thus, just
like the doctor who has a definite view about the efficacy of rubbing
linseed oil on the feet of someone with a staph infection versus
giving them antibiotics, I have a definite view about what a "global
regulatory regime" will do to the health of the world, and most
especially, what it will do to (and not for) me.

To you, of course, my views are just one among many sets of views you
have heard. Indeed, I'm hardly the only person who claims my views are
based on the scientific method and reason -- the Marxists claim
similarly after all. Many other people have told you many other
things, often quite contradictory things. Sadly, although you may
think otherwise, you have chosen not to try to evaluate these views to
assess their truth, but rather to pick based on other methods. Perhaps
you embrace the ones that seemed most emotionally resonant to you, or
perhaps the ones presented by the people who were most attractive, or
perhaps the ones that you were told were true very early in your life.
That you have done this is not particularly surprising -- many people
do that sort of thing. That's why we have a majority of the world
population that is religious, after all. Perhaps you take the
fashionable view that one must seek "middle ground" -- that always
sounds pleasing to the ear, and certainly is the careful thing to say
at Washington cocktail parties. "We are in a new era -- we will need
new methods!" sounds ever so euphonious.

Were it not for one small thing -- reality -- there would be no need
for a conflict between our views about what you dismiss so off-hand as
mere "political theory". Reality, however, throws a small monkey
wrench in the machine.

    "[...]reality must take precedence over public relations, for
    nature cannot be fooled. "
     -- Richard Feynman in his minority report on the Challenger Accident 

I see the system of the world as amenable to reason, and using that
method, I've been convinced that there are rules about the way
societies of interacting agents can function. Ideas like Pareto
optimality do not depend on particular times and places, just as the
laws of physics don't depend on particular times and places.

One can predict, with near certainty, the probability amplitudes for
particles using Quantum Mechanics.  Using the principles of
evolutionary theory, you can predict, with near certainty, that a
mutation that prevents a creature from reproducing will not be passed
on to offspring, regardless of what effect it might have on the
survival of that particular organism. Similarly, I can predict that
attempts to regulate the exchange of goods and services between
voluntary actors necessarily reduce global utility. Similarly, I can
predict that attempts to construct regulatory frameworks will
necessarily have perverse consequences because they do not take into
account, among other things, the fact that the regulators necessarily
are independent actors with their own utility functions to maximize.

This is not a mere "political theory". This is an understanding about
how the world works. It is testable in the real world, as all good
theories are. It makes falsifiable predictions, and those predictions
come out correct. It says things like "if you try to `help the poor'
by imposing price controls on apartments, you will get apartment
shortages", and lo, it happens in the real world. It says "if you
attempt to prevent people from selling liquor, all you will do is make
liquor less safe and create violence", and lo, it happens. You can
even conduct simple demonstrations to people in Econ 101 classes by
handing out pens and sticks of gum to the students and allowing them
to trade freely or constraining trade, and things work out just as
predicted. Want to know what will happen if you print lots of money?
You'll get inflation. Want to know what will happen if you set a
minimum wage of $10 an hour? You'll get unemployment.

Quite pathetically, I "cling" to this "political theory" -- "just one
theory among many in a shifting world!" you insist.

I am the sad man, the pathetic man, the man who tries to understand
aerodynamics rather than waving my hands over a carpet and imagining
it might float. I am the man who claims that regulation will not work
because my stupid annoying theory which has been tested repeatedly
tells me so. I get in the way of the progressive, modern viewpoint. I
speak of utility functions, demand curves and other horrible
abstractions, but what right minded person would want to speak of such
things? They are annoying and unfair, not to mention boring.  The
"reality based community" tells us that we can't make a new law have
any arbitrary effect we desire, because in the real world behavior is
constrained, just as we can't make a mass in free space suddenly make
a right angle turn.

Horrible, unfair and annoying, isn't it? You have so many desires, and
the world thwarts them!  "If only the selfish would help Africa more!"
you say. "If only that evil company would give their employees health
insurance!" you think. "If only the government would just DO SOMETHING
about poverty!"  you cry. And yet, somehow, when the government forces
people to do what you want rather than what they want, the bastards
refuse to conform to your expectations. Perverse of them, isn't it?
And, since you will not open your eyes, also inexplicable!

To the person who asks how the world works, the world provides
horrible limitations. They are forced to shake their head sadly at
their friends' cocktail hour musings about how much better the world
would be if only some pet law were passed. Their world has no such simple
"magic wand" solutions. It is a boring world, a world of equations,
and rules, and hard won insights. It is not the exciting world of the
Live 8 concert where if we all only hold our hands and believe, a
major global problem can be fixed while thrilling music is played. On
the other hand, it is a world that has a serious advantage -- if you
pay attention to it, the things you design might actually work.

The person that understands the world is not completely powerless
against it. While friends stand by, frustrated that no matter how
often they chant at the carpet it does not float and whisk them to the
other side of the world, the enlightened person sits down and studies
physics and builds an airplane. This annoys their friends, who
secretly call them a "geek" and sneer, but mysteriously they tend to
ride the resulting airplanes none the less.

At any rate, I wish you all great luck with your "Geoethical
nanotechnology" conference and the search for a "global regulatory
framework". I'm sure you will also make great progress on the squaring
of circles using compass and straightedge alone, the factoring of
prime numbers, and the curing of public health problems through
nationalized health care. Remember always that the most important
thing about the world is belief, and if you only believe hard enough,
your fondest wishes will come true.

And please, don't mind me. I'm naive. I don't understand people in the
real world. I don't know how political power works, and have no idea
what horrors people like you defend me from by putting a friendly,
marketable face on unpalatable ideas like transhumanism. Proceed
apace, and ignore the intrusion from the peanut gallery.

   "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars -
   mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert
   night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of
   the heavens stretches my imagination -- stuck on this carousel my
   little eye can catch one million year old light. A vast
   pattern - of which I am a part... What is the pattern, or the
   meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a
   little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any
   artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present
   not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if
   he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane
   and ammonia must be silent?"
    -- Richard Feynman, in a footnote in "The Feynman Lectures on Physics"


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