Why the pope is not a fair science advisor

‘The Black Marble: Our Planet in Brilliant Darkness’, via the breathtaking resources over at https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery

Guidelines vs. doctrine and why minorities might want a say in this debate, too

I’m aware of how unpopular of an opinion this is going to be. If I was more popular myself, I’d be bracing for impact right now. Seeing as this isn’t the case, I can still afford to say it without much ensuing uproar: I’ve been thinking about the pope weighing in on ethics in AI — and I have follow-up questions.

For one, I don’t think that it’s exactly impartial. It’s not the pope’s genuine selfless good interests that I’m questioning here. I’m reasonably sure, like, 99% convinced, the pope is in it with a sincere desire to create a humane and fair ‘doctrine for ethical AI and facial recognition’. So, intentions are not in question here, at all.

Now, a younger, extremely cringy and utterly obnoxious atheist edge-lord version of myself might have even pointed out that the doctrine track record for the institution he represents (the Catholic Church) is not particularly fair to womankind (see burning innocent women for sleeping with the devil and all that) — and I’ve seen little historic proof of the Catholic Church being overtly considerate of the LGBTQ+ minority, either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still an atheist, I’m just no longer a cringy edge-lord. Which is why I’m not going to dwell on that past stuff, either. Let bygones be bygones, am I right?

What I am going to point out though, is that it’s not really fair, is it? It’s not just people of one faith being impacted by this ethical doctrine. Why is the representative not Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist? Did the Catholic Church simply have better PR? What makes the pope particularly qualified to answer AI and facial recognition related ethical questions in the name of billions of people? The pope has dedicated his life to study, nobody will deny that, yet it’s not the case appropriate study, is it? Why not someone who’s dedicated their life to the literal field of the philosophy of science? Why not, for example, someone like Noah Harari, who wrote an entire bloody tome in which these exact fucking questions are being explored, thoroughly referenced and documented with the help of an entire team of researchers, and addressed in a fair, humane, and impartial manner?

Atheism gets dragged around a lot — and I blame much of that on cringy, utterly obnoxious atheist edge-lords. However, the sadly quiet legal-drinking-age majority of us strongly believe in leaving religious warfare behind, embracing science, respecting the planet, and treating everyone equally and kindly regardless of gender, religious belief (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, race, or cultural background.

Because everything dies, including the universe itself, eventually, and we’re lost adrift in an ever-expanding mass of darkness and wonder of which we ourselves are but an insignificant speck of dust, and if you peel away the skin on humans you can barely tell us apart from monkeys, so we’re all really just monkeys trying our best, so we should be fucking nice to each other and embrace the awe-inducing coincidence that is a mass of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium capable of contemplating its sentient existence.

The Blue Marble: The View From Apollo 17. Image via the breathtaking resources over at https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery

Yet what we go do with this wondrous accidental gift is spend time actually debating if it’s okay for people to be gay.

One nerd’s quest to revive the philosophy of science

Stephen Hawking famously proclaimed that ‘philosophy is dead’. I get where he was coming from: philosophy has failed the modern world.

It has, by and large, failed to keep up with scientific advancements and it has definitely failed to provide us with an all-encompassing global philosophy, an ideology beyond any political interests, which we could adhere to regardless of our race, gender, personal beliefs or cultural backgrounds, a perspective that would render religious warfare pointless, would show racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the blinding light of their senseless idiocy, would help us move beyond petty territorial conquest and care for our ailing planet and for the species we share it with, while guiding us in finding meaning in our fleeting existence through helping others less fortunate, dedicating our lives to the pursuit of art and science, and exercising empathy and compassion. We needed philosophy to do all this for us, however it’s failed to step up, so now we’re killing it.

Or — and I hate to disagree with both the pope and Stephen Hawking in a single essay here — have we instead failed to listen?

First God, now the philosophy of science? This metaphorical killing spree needs to stop someplace, lest we risk falling into nihilistic catatonia. So, I instead propose we look for philosophy outside the traditional realm of volumes written in impossibly pretentious copy, with the specific purpose of residing in the Philosophy section of the local bookstore to be purchased by people looking to show-off their intellectual snobbery. I mean, no offence meant, I am those people, but a little self-awareness never hurt (more on that concept later).

Even if you care little about outer space and find it cold and existential, if you have trouble sleeping (I experience insomnia sometimes as a result of my severe anxiety), I strongly recommend the audiobook of Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot. Not only is it narrated on a borderline ASMR tone (back before the concept was even a thing), it provides meaning and comfort beyond borders or personal beliefs (unless you choose to believe the Earth is flat, in which case, what are you even doing here? Are you lost? Are you okay, can I call someone?).

Carl Sagan never fails to ease my anxiety. My particular brand of anxiety is health anxiety (colloquially known as hypochondria). The astonishing vastness and beauty of the cosmos makes my internal 2am debate on whether I suffer from a rare form of brain cancer kind of irrelevant in the grand scheme of shit. Case in point being, that book is philosophy — probably some of the best ever written, as true today as it was the day he was working on its last page. Sure, you find out lots of fun facts about the cosmos, but they’re almost an excuse for some of the most peaceful, all-encompassing philosophy ever written. An astronomer is, as it turns out, uniquely qualified to provide us with a guide on how to find meaning in our lives and to show us how stupid our racism and bigotry look when gazed upon from space. Like, seriously bro, all this, and what you want to do with your short, miraculous life is spend it bullying LGBTQ+ people and policing women on what they do with their own bodies? Can you not find anything, anything at all, that’s more meaningful and fulfilling, and maybe doesn’t involve raining misery upon someone else’s existence, which you’d rather be doing with your life?

The Pale Blue Dot, aka Carl Sagan’s dream for humanity. More on this here: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/536/voyager-1s-pale-blue-dot/

While philosophy in the Socratic sense may indeed be dead, The Pale Blue Dot is one of my favourite examples of an all-encompassing source of meaning and wonder. A tl;dr of it would be: space is vast, beautiful, and fascinating; we are small and insignificant set against the backdrop of this epic cosmic drama, but we can find meaning in knowing we are one rare, staggering accident capable of witnessing all of this; we are made of the universe and we are capable of helping it understand itself; stop warring with each other over stupid shit and just marvel at the beauty of all this stuff instead.

You don’t need to be any race, gender or religion in particular to adhere to this, nor do you need to live anywhere in particular. All it asks of you, politely and kindly at that, is to not be a self-centred dick.

We can, as I’ve already mentioned, find equally meaningful ideas about life and humanity as a single species with vast amounts of culture and history in Noah Harari’s work. The tl;dr takeaway is, again, pretty clear: humans are fascinating, yes, but so are all other living creatures; stop destroying the planet; stop worshiping wealth and help each other out; consider our history and what it can help us understand about the potential consequences of our actions in the future; quit being a self-centred dick.

Ironically, pondering the complexities of the universe while reading Stephen Hawking’s A brief history of time has pretty much the same effect in terms of helping one understand the meaninglessness of shit like territorial conquest.

The philosophy is alive and much needed. We’re just not having any of it.

‘Ethical dogma’ brought to you with a word from our sponsors

While Noah Harari and Carl Sagan may have gained some popularity, a fact which somewhat restores confidence in humanity’s ability to transcend its self-obsession, come time to put such ideas into practice, we stray right back into confusion, ideology, fear, and dogma.

Instead of applying such logic as can be derived from their philosophical ideas in answering simple questions like ‘should AI mirror our systemic racism’, we fall back on that ideology which has better PR. (In case this needs saying for the people in the privileged seats at the front, no, AI should most decidedly not mirror your racism, and just a handful more self-awareness would help factor this in.)

Yes, the Catholic Church is attending all the right social events and voices their opinions publicly a lot, which makes them seem like more of an authority on ethical matters, and yes the United States (which some people seem to have confused for the entirety of the planet) is mostly okay with having their interests represented by the Catholic Church, but are we, for instance, sure that their answers ensure adequate representation for the LGBTQ+ people who can’t officially decide to spend their lives together under the confines of its dogma?

To attempt actual fairness for all parties involved, we need to be considering this from a perspective completely liberated of any one institution’s interests — be they those of the Catholic Church or of any other institution. Because even though asking the pope what to do about ethics in STEM isn’t quite the same as asking Jeff Bezos (to be clear, the latter would be a far worse choice), it’s not exactly fair, either, seeing as there are interests attached to any one institution.

Of course, the argument could be attempted here that the Catholic Church is not an institution, however we’d be arguing semantics: any entity with that much advertising and a clear agenda on who should be fucking whom and under what conditions, has interests. And whether you believe those to be just and compassionate interests, is a matter of your personal beliefs (but it helps to find yourself being Catholic and on the right side of the penis). The fact of the matter is, the interests are there. It’s not as bad an idea as it would have been to ask the 45th president of the United States or Mark Zuckerberg, but you know, still not exactly no strings attached here, all due respect.

To be clear, I’m also not saying ‘literally ask Noah Harari what to do with your life’, as the poor man has yet to express any interest in being directly involved in this ethical debate — just like I’m obviously not saying ‘literally ask Carl Sagan’. What I am saying is, ideas such as those they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their lives to expressing, could help make the answers more obvious and the questions more all-encompassing and fairer. Because the more convinced someone is that they have all the answers, the less likely it is they actually do.

Furthermore, while I don’t believe any one voice can ‘speak for the gays’ or for <<insert chronically under-represented minority here>>, I do believe minorities should be included in the conversation, else we risk embedding those very same biases that make them underrepresented into the ethical framework of the technologies we develop.

Guidelines vs. doctrine: how to keep questioning your ethics

So, on the contrary: don’t ask any one person; make it a point to ask as many people as possible, from as many different backgrounds as possible, before jumping aboard the ‘ethical doctrine’ wagon. I can list few, if any, examples throughout human history of shit with the word ‘doctrine’ in it that didn’t end up at best disadvantageous to (and at worst downright criminal towards) one group of people or another.

Doctrines have a way of being biased towards those who’ve contributed to shaping them. This doesn’t have to be through any sort of malicious intent, it’s just how the human brain works, it’s naturally biased towards that which is familiar to it, seeing as the unknown often used to equate danger throughout humanity’s evolution. We need to factor in the unknown and make it known, by actively seeking out differing perspectives over ethical matters before formulating guidelines.

See what I did there, guidelines vs. doctrine? Guidelines tend to be a set of ever-evolving principles, something one comes back to and refines again and again as new evidence presents itself — whereas doctrines tempt to evolve into immutable truths being referenced again and again without question. Which is a less graphic way of saying, I have yet to witness anyone using the World Health Organization’s guidelines for the treatment of type II diabetes to justify stoning women to death.

If you’ve made it this far, you can choose to take home from this that I’m atheist scum and I hate the pope (I am and I do not, respectively), however what I do hope you take away from this, regardless of your personal beliefs, gender, culture, sexual orientation, or race, is that ‘dogma’ is, as seen in your average history class, a dangerous word — and that it tempts to be naturally, and at times unmaliciously, biased in favour of those who’ve helped shape it.

What I always hope you do walk away from my debates with, is an ever-nagging itch to question everything, but especially yourself and your own bias.

Thank you ever so kindly for your time and for participating in this debate with me, regardless of where you happen to fall on the vast spectrum of human experience. Your thoughts are welcome.

And, as ever, stay safe, nerds.

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Alex Moody

Alex Moody

Secular thinker with an empathy compulsion. Anxiety-nerd. Certified Crazy Cat Lady.