My dying machine (Man / Machine VIII)

Our view of death is probably key to exploring our view of the relationship between man and machine. Is death a defect, a disease to be cured or is it a key component in our consciousness and a key feature in nature’s design of intelligence? It is in one sense a hopeless question, since we end up reducing it to things like “do I want to die?” or “do I want my loved ones to die?” and the answer to both of these questions should be no, even if death may ultimately be a defensible aspect of the design of intelligence. Embracing death as a design limitation, does not mean embracing one’s own death. In fact, any society that embraced individual death would quickly end. But it does not follow that you should also resist death in general.

Does this seem counter-intuitive? It really shouldn’t. We all embrace social mobility in society, although we realize that it goes two ways – some fall and others rise. That does not mean that we embrace the idea that we should ourselves move a lot socially in our life time — in fact, movement both up and down can be disruptive to a family and so may actually be best avoided. We embrace a lot of social and biological functions without wanting to be at the receiving end of them, because we understand that they come with a systemic logic rather than being individually desirable.

So, the question should not be “do you want to die?”, but rather “do you think death serves a meaningful and important function in our forms of life?”. The latter question is still not easy to answer, but “memento mori” does focus the mind, and provides us with momentum and urgency that would otherwise perhaps not exist.

In literature and film the theme has been explored in interesting ways. In Iain M Banks’ Culture World people can live for as long as they want, and they do, but they live different lives and eventually they run out of individual storage space for their memories so they do not remember all of their lives. Are they then the same? After a couple of hundred years the old paradox of Odysseus’ ship really starts to apply to human beings as well — if I exchange all of your memories – are you still you? In what sense?

In the recently released TV-series Altered Carbon death is seen as the great equalizer and the meths – after the biblical character Methusaleh who lived a very long life – are seen to degrade themselves into inhuman deities that grow bored and in that fertile boredom a particular evil grows that seeks sensation and satisfication of base desires at any cost. A version of this exists in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker trilogy, where Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged fights the boredom of infinite life with a unique project – he sets out to insult the universe, alphabetically.

Boredom, insanity – the projected consequences of immortality are usually the same. The conclusion seems to be that we lack the psychological constitution and strength to live forever. Does that mean that there are no beings that could? That we could not change and be curious and interested and morally much more efficient if we lived forever? That is a more interesting question — is it inherently impossible to be immortal and ethical?

The element of time in ethical decision making is generally understudied. In the famous trolley thought experiments the ethical decision maker has oodles of time to make decisions about life and death. In reality these decisions are made in split seconds in any such situation as what is described in the thought experiments, and generally we become kantian when we have no time and act on baseline moral principles. To be utilitarian requires, naturally and obviously, the time to make your utility calculus work out the way you want it to. Time definitely should never be abstracted away from ethics in the way we often tend to do it today (in fact, the answers to the question “what is the ethical decision” could vary as t varies in “what is the ethical decision if you have t time”).

But could you imagine time scales at which ethics cannot exist? What if you cut time up really thickly? Assume a being that acts in a way where each act takes place in every hundred years – would it be able to act ethically? What would that mean? The cycle of action does imply different kinds of ethics, at least, does it not? A cycle of action of a million years would be even more interesting and hard to decipher with ethical tools. Perhaps ethics can only exist at a human timescale? If so – does infinite life and immortality count as a human timescale?

There is, from what my admittedly shallow explorations hint at, a lot of work done in ethics on the ethics of future generations and how we take them into account in our decisions. What if there were no future generations or if it was a choice to have new generations appear at all? How would that effect the view of what we should do as ethical decision makers?

A lot of questions and no easy answers. What I am digging for here is probably even more extreme, a question of if immortality and ethics are incompatible. If death or dying is a pre-requisite for acting ethically. I intuitively feel that this is probably right, but that is neither here nor there. When I outline this in my own head I guess the question that I get back to is what motivates action – and why we act. Scarcity of time – death – seems to be a key motivator in decision making and creativity overall. When you abstract death it seems as if there no longer is an organizing, forcing function for decision making as a whole. Our decision making becomes more arbitrary and random.

Maybe the question here is actually on of the unit of meaning. Aristotle hints at the fact that a life can only be called happy or fulfilled once it is over, and judged as good or bad only when the person who lived it died. That may be where my intuition comes from – that a life that is not finished never acquires ethical completeness? It can always change and the result is that we have to suspend judgment about the actions of the individual in case?

Ethics require a beginning and an end. Anything that is infinite is also beyond ethical judgment and mening. An ethical machine would have to be a dying machine.

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