Re: Mary Shelley?

J. R. Molloy (
Tue, 9 Feb 1999 23:45:33 -0800

Hal has generously engaged this thread,
>A bold and challenging statement!

uh-oh, <J. R. puts down beer>

>I wonder, though, if the reasoning really works. If you are saying
>that *because* algorithms, physics, and evolution have no responsibility
>to their creations, *then* scientists don't either, that doesn't work.
>Algorithms, physics and evolution have no responsibility, because by their
>nature they aren't the sort of entities that can have responsibility.
>They are simple, blind forces, natural laws, regular patterns in nature.

Yes, I see what you mean. So, I'd better _not_ go back and insert the word "because" in the bold and challenging statement. Best leave it alone.

>If we accept that there are things which can have responsibility and
>things which can't, if we are to attempt to make that a meaningful
>distinction, then the fact that some things fall on one side of that
>line doesn't mean that everything will.

That sounds like a manageable "If" to me. But who gets to decide what constitutes responsibility? As for Dr. Frankenstein's monster, one might remember that the story resides in the fiction department of literature. As for actual creations, one might consider that scientists actually do science (discover, theorize, experiment, observe, record, repeat) more than they do creations, Hollywood notwithstanding. Nevertheless, your logic holds, and the ethicists may send in the invading Centaurs.

>People can and do have responsibility for their actions. Natural laws
>do not.

Right, someone may use the scientific method to do something irresponsible like create something that suffers as a result of its own creation or the subsequent negligence of the scientist. We can find such suffering in nature, which obeys none but natural law, as creatures great and small suffer terribly. Ought humans to intervene in nature to arrest the misery there? Surely some have done so. Yet tides of agony sweep through the biosphere still, as every animal meets its inevitable death. Measured against so vast a plain of natural torment, for what does a single (fictional, so far) Frankenstein's monster count? I only ask that one put things in perspective. Without perspective, who can define responsibility?

But to no avail I rail... you've got me in that ol' Existentialist corner. Looks like Check...


>Even human beings, in many cases, are allowed to escape responsibility.
>There are a number of arguments based on diminished capacity which people
>can use to avoid responsibility for bad behaviors.

This could develop into a slippery slope where people actually try to incapacitate themselves so that they can escape responsibility (which we haven't defined, but never mind, everyone knows what responsibility means, more or less).

"Responsibility, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

"Alas, things ain't what we should see
If Eve had let that apple be;
And many a feller which had ought
To set with monarchses of thought,
Or play some rosy little game
With battle-chaps on fields of fame,
Is downed by his unlucky star
And hollers: 'Peanuts! -- here you are!'" "'_The Sturdy Beggar._'" --A. Bierce

Please excuse the diversion. You say natural law does not enter into responsibility? If it does not, i.e., if genetic algorithms, biological evolution, and molecular physics do not favor responsible behavior, then how did we ever get here? It seems to me, and I think E. O. Wilson might agree, that evolution does exert some pressure to establish organic systems of ethics. Animal populations that do the right thing, obey certain (animal-ethical) patterns of behavior, stand a better chance of survival. Or, if not, they self-destruct. So, if by responsibility you mean accountability to the ancient and inexhaustible law of nature, then I must reverse my position on this matter. But if you maintain that natural law does not contain the elements of responsibility then I differ with you on this.

>It is possible that in the future we will change the world to one where
>there are wider expectations of responsible behavior. We might even see
>Simak's conception of animal responsibility come into being. It would
>be a logical outcome and extension of today's animal rights movement.
>With rights come responsibilities.

Yes, rights and responsibilities seem to go together like a horse and a... well they do seem linked.
Of course most wars come about as a result of rights, responsibilities and the definitions and interpretations thereof. Without rights and responsibilities humans could probably slay one another only serially rather than en masse on the battlefield.

>It sounds comical today to imagine patiently teaching wild animals
>to behave ethically, but the greater wealth of the future may make
>it possible.

Hmmm... something bothers me about this. Not just that one can't safely walk the streets of responsible cities late at night (even though one might have the "right" to do so).

Aha! It just occurred to me that we've forgotten the words "no more" in the bold and challenging statement. It went:
> Scientists who play god have no more responsibility to their creations
> do the genetic algorithms, molecular physics, and biological evolution
> created the scientists.

Therefore, I'd like to add to this statement, and make it: "Scientists who play god have no more responsibility to their creations than do the genetic algorithms, molecular physics, and biological evolution that created the scientists, because up to this point, humanity has shown no more responsibility than the genetic algorithms, molecular physics, and biological evolution that created humans." For evidence of this last clause, I offer the book by the possible next president of the US, Al Gore, namely _Earth In The Balance_.

In short, it seems to me that natural law does contain the seeds, and does consequently direct the course of healthy, prosperous, beautiful, practical, excellent, competent, bountiful, and who knows, perhaps even responsible action. The fact that humans (and their close cousins, the scientists) do not (yet?) fully comprehend the complexities of natural law, need not imply that the principles of right and wrong do not emerge naturally and lawfully from genetics, biology, and existence itself.

This then becomes the "meaningful distinction" to which you have referred. The line marking the boundary of natural law defines the extent to which scientists may play god while keeping proper account of their creations. Another bold and challenging statement: Humans did not create responsibilities. They emerge as a consequence of the same natural laws that formed humanity.

Congratulations if you've read this far. Now let's go out and create something marvelous... a great honking wonder to carry us on an endlessly enchanting adventure of discovery. Compassionate extropians would have it no other way, would we?

Love, --J. R.