When The Robots Take Over


People now are suspicious of robots and AI and there are plenty of books and movies and celebrities telling us how risky it is. I think robots will take over, but not like that, and nobody will be afraid.

Just like nobody is really phased about the global surveillance we are under on a constant basis by government and private advertising firms and thieves, people won't bee too worried about robots. In fact I think that people will love robots in the way they love their gmail, iphones and facebook. A love so deep that criticism of the target of their affection will either be selectively tuned out or reacted to with indignation and belligerence.

Why would people question robots that deliver their orders from amazon, make them food, drive them around and do all kinds of other things that should probably be left to the imagination? Apple already walls people into an ecosystem from which they struggle to escape, google already snoops on us and we allow it. We allow a certain amount of abuse if we like what we get in return.

People who see what these companies are doing and question it are seen as zealots. Apple's walled garden doesn't scare anyone. In fact they want to be there. They like it. As long as it serves their short term needs. And I am a total hypocrite. I do the same thing. 

So when robots come along that call me sweety and bring me waffles with caramel and banana in bed on a Saturday morning, how can I press myself to question them? An iBot will surely be completely closed to me, sending info back to its servers, and so will a Google Bot. But we don't really mind all of that, as long as we get waffles! We should demand the things we know are better for all of us. We should demand transparency, since this technology has entered our private lives. We should be very insistent and very wary of it, but we wouldn't be because if smartphones and the internet has taught us anything, it is that convenience outstrips all other concerns. At bottom, we are all dirty little hedonists, who don't think having things at our fingertips is even enough. We want it fed directly to us. 

There is nothing wrong with loving technology. I think we should appreciate the Googles and Apples for what they have done for us. But we give them a free pass, and we will do the same with consumer robotics. We should demand transparency to the point where the code running on those robots are accessible, and to the point where we know every shred of data it collects. Of course, we will be told that the robots can learn better if they share information, but at what peril do we put ourselves if we don't know what is being shared? And what about security? An autonomous car can take you where you want to go, but at which point will it take you where you don't want to go? What prevents a house cleaning robot from being hacked and setting your house on fire? We need to be more wary this time, because we are already sloppy enough in our thinking. But as always I think we will probably end up pushing our recklessness to its full potential and start mending our ways when things start to collapse all around us. That seems to be the human way.

Why Secularism Is Important

Portion of a graph of religious sects

Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.

In a country where 85% of people are Christian, why shouldn't we have Christian prayers in schools and even in parliament? Why should we be neutral toward religion if a certain religion is over-represented in the populace? Why shouldn't we have laws that represent the religious views of such a large number of people?

Secular government was conceived by religious people. Why would they do that? I will attempt to show the motivation behind secular government and why even though most atheists support it, it makes sense for everyone to support it.

The truth is that even if a particular religion dominates a country, there are still many sects of that religion, which are offshoots that have different values and beliefs. Not all Christians believe the same things. Some believe that evolution is false and should not be taught in schools, while others believe that god created the first life but that life evolved from there. Some believe that life evolved but god intervened in the process to create man. Some believe that species change over time, but new species only come about through god's design. Even if we had a religious government, it would be difficult if not impossible to find common ground between different sectarian views of the same religion! The best way to avoid this situation is by not favouring any particular religion in government.

While many Christians would be happy to see Christian prayer and Bible study in schools, they wouldn't be happy if that school taught that their particular sect was wrong and bad. We know what happens with such sectarian governments. In Islam, Sunni governments are not favourable to Shia Muslims, side lining them and sometimes even turning a blind eye when Shia Muslims are victims of crime. Catholic governments were especially brutal toward protestant heresy, ultimately resulting in genocide, such as the genocide of the French Huguenot's, many of whom fled France for South Africa and introduced wine making to the Western Cape. The history taught by different religious sects are not favourable to others either. If you read Catholic history the protestants are badmouthed as heretics and traitors, and protestants think of Catholics as murderers and idol worshippers.

When people want prayer back in school, and they are not Catholic, I ask them if they would want their children to do Hail Marys and confession in school. What if your religion becomes a minority? Would you be equally happy if all history, science, politics, music and art taught in schools was Muslim or Hindu? The reason we have a rights based society, and not simple majoritarian rule, is because nobody will know when they will find themselves as part of a minority. If not them, what of their children. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, which is perhaps something Christians should keep in mind. If Christians impose Christianity now, how would it be unfair to say that Islam should not be imposed when it numerically overtakes Christianity?

A common fear is that secularism is actually just the imposition of atheism as the state's religious position. This is not true. An atheist state would conceivably be actively anti-clerical, disbanding churches and outlawing religion, or teaching children in school that there is no god. The goal of any state should be to represent citizens as best it can, and as a secularist I believe that such a government would not be in my best interest or yours, and I would fight along side religious people to change a system like that. For people to be most free and for society to work best, the freedom to practice your religion should be allowed, and that is what secularism is about.

In order to live in a pluralistic and successful society, the only real way to accomplish that is by tolerating different views of religion, and not favouring or imposing a single one. In our nation people of different religions and sects work together and even form friendships and intimate relationships that cross religious and sectarian boundaries. We generally understand that our beliefs are personal, and that there are good people with other beliefs that we can get along with. On a more cynical level, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian or Atheist  money all has the same value. To be economically successful, imposing a certain religion would be unwise. People would just go to freer places where they feel equal.




False Legitimacy & Religion

When Marty McClain, an American pastor from Georgia, visited the Scandinavian countries and asked people about their god beliefs in interviews. The man's facial expressions were very interesting as most of the people replied with a stern no. It was a definite culture shock. What seems clear watching this kind of thing is that our beliefs are culturally reinforced by those around us. In Georgia, I'm sure the question is "which church do you go to?", not "do you believe in god?". It's somewhat easier to maintain a belief if everyone around you does. 

It's strange then that atheism seems to grow in places like the U.S.. Despite the strong religious culture, there are many people leaving religion there. But we still grant legitimacy to religious beliefs when we really shouldn't have to. Christianity in particular has a long history, spanning more than a thousand years, and many of the greatest minds of our culture have been Christians, and spoke positively about their religion. This lends a kind of legitimacy by authority that's easy to intuitively latch onto. 

Christianity is also very well funded. When I leave my house, whether I turn left or right, I am within five minutes of two large churches, and there are more if I keep going. There are Christian schools, and in the U.S. there are even Christian universities. The money that goes into religion keeps it on a pedestal of legitimacy. The number of religious scholars in the west who are Christians far outweighs the number of secular religious scholars. Often apologists tout consensus in their fields, simply because they vastly outnumber secular scholars in their field. 

Professional apologists have large organisations that are well funded. Just to compare two examples, Justin Schieber, a relatively well known secular philosopher of religion, has a small YouTube channel with meagre funding compared to the Reasonable Faith organisation headed by William Lane Craig. Christians have all the money and they have all the momentum from more than a thousand years of Christian domination. 

What this brings about, is the general feeling that there is some legitimacy to Christianity. Many atheists shy away from claiming there is no god. I believe this is because of the sheer bombardment of the Christian belief system in our culture. This pushes many atheists into deeper uncertainty about Christianity's truth than is really justified. If however you ask these atheists if they feel the same about Hindu gods, the answer is "of course they don't exist.". Once we take off our cultural goggles and see Christianity as other people from non western cultures consider it, we are forced to conclude that we lend too much legitimacy to Christianity. 

When you take a closer look at apologetics, you see the kind of reasoning that conspiracy theorists engage in. Somehow, it seems to them as though there is a man behind the curtain, controlling everything, and the same spurious reasoning is present that we see in moon landing conspiracy theorists. The arguments only really seem legitimate because we are used to granting Christians a free pass. Despite the small number of secular philosophers of religion, theologians have failed to give decisive arguments for the central problems of their faith, such as the problem of evil. We should expect not to see these arguments at all if a god is so apparently real. Some arguments appeal to complicated concepts in physics, but we don't need those things to justify things in our apparent reality. We don't need to appeal to quantum mechanics when we are trying to demonstrate the existence of our pets. A photograph will do. How is it that the omnipotent creator of the universe is less apparent than the existence of dogs, cats and parakeets?

We engage in discussions where we admit that it's not impossible for such a thing as a god to exist, but we scoff at people who claim that they have abducted by aliens, or claim that Lady Gaga is a member of the illuminati. Liberal, educated religious believers also scoff at claims of alien abduction, but on a regular basis they claim speak to someone who is quite apparently absent. All tests for such a being fail, and when asked the old conspiracy theory chestnut is pulled out that that is what it is made to seem like, in this case that god has reasons for not wanting to be tested. Some believers claim that when they look at the world around them, it's apparent that god exists. Illuminati conspiracy theorists that scour pop culture claim the same thing, but for the existence of another entity. Why should one carry automatic weight while the other is the butt of our jokes?

It's hard to overstress the point of this essay, because it took me a fair amount of time to realise the trap. I know what it's like. I think the time for giving legitimacy to the big man behind the curtain conspiracy is probably is past its sell by date. I think it's time to realise that if all the arguments for yahweh fail so terribly that its reasonable to conclude that they will continue down that path. All it would take to reverse the failure is god showing up on Oprah, but this god either does not exist or seems extremely uninterested in demonstrating its own existence, rather requiring his followers to learn the intricacies of cosmology, quantum physics and philosophy.

Freemarketeers vs. Freedom


The terminology used by freemarketeers seem squarely focused on individual freedom. But what if the adoption of their principles had a negative effect on freedom for the majority of persons instead of maximising it? This seems like an odd conclusion given their marketing material. After all, "the state" will not harass you in a freemarketeer Utopia, so how will your freedom be restricted?

Let's explore the concept of freedom. If I am free, I am free to move, think, speak and spend my time as I see fit. If I cannot move my arm, I am less free in a very real and very physical sense. If I am limited from moving onto some geographical area I am less free than if I could. If I have less choice about what to occupy my time with, I am less free. I am more free since I have quit smoking, since I am free from the burden of feeding my addiction. A conception of freedom as a maximisation of choice then makes sense. The ultimate freedom would be that of omnipotence, because I would be able to do anything, and omniscience, since I would be able to think anything.

But freedom must have some practical limits where other people are involved. My freedom should not be an imposition on the freedom of others, because if we wanted to maximise freedom, maximising my freedom alone would at some point negatively affect the freedom of others. My freedom to cut off someone else's arm imposes on their freedom to move it. If we maximise the freedom of one person in a group, it will not only impose on the freedom of one other person, but on the freedom of many others. If I was free to dictate what everyone must wear, it will impose on their freedom to express themselves with stupid hats (or skinny jeans). If freedom was the only currency, it would be a net loss to give me that much freedom, but restrict others in the same regard.

In a freemarketeer Utopia, you will not necessarily be more free, as their marketing suggests, unless you consider your newly found freedoms to exist in the absence of the ability to exercise them.  Your freedom to have exclusive access to property, education, free time, and expression will be limited by your material resources to access those freedoms. Examples abound.

Education is important as a giver of freedom, because education is the construction of mental space. If you are well educated, you move freely in a larger mental space. If you are uneducated, your freedom to think is limited by the scope of the knowledge you posses. In the case of nutrition you may be impaired in your physical freedom to think, since malnutrition is a well known cause of permanent cognitive handicaps.  Not maximising someone's mental space impairs their freedom to think.

Freedom of movement is also a concern. Public parks would not exist, and neither would public nature reserves. This would be a limitation of the movement of people, and therefore their freedom. If all property could be owned and controlled by private individuals, it is conceivable that some poor people who own no property or the means to occupy it, could illegally occupy every space they find themselves in. Why then wouldn't we want to create public spaces that enable freedom of movement for others.

The freedom to spend your time as you please is a freedom that is often neglected. In terms of value, time cannot be valued enough, because not even the richest person (as of now at least) can buy a whole lot more of it. Yet it is conceivable that if we abolish labour laws, such as minimum wage, paid leave, and weekends, that more people will spend more time working for the same amount of money. Since they are earning the same amount of money, they suffer no material loss. Their freedom is severely restricted however. You cannot move very far if you have to be back at work in a few hours, and you cannot move at all if you work more than one job or work hours that occupy the entirety of your day, perhaps minus your most basic human needs such as visiting the toilet, eating and sleeping. Labour laws, which freemarketeers reject, often give people a _right_ to free time. This extends back to intellectual freedom, because it gives people time to educate themselves through reading and travel, or express themselves through writing or engagement in public forums.  

If we want maximal freedom, we would accept certain limits on our freedoms (such as our freedom to enter into economic exchange without taxes) for the sake of maximising the freedom of those around us. I am saying that giving small concessions in freedom can give large gains for others, so if we feel the need to maximise freedom we are logically obligated to not fixate on our freedoms at the cost of others'. Freedom is not a zero sum game either. The limits others have on their freedoms impact us also. We may not be free to engage in unfettered exchange, but others are not free to help themselves to our stuff either.

A question remains, and that is how much of our own freedom should be limited for the gain of freedom for those around us. Although interesting, this is hardly relevant. Only once we accept that it is a valid path can we meaningfully approach this question. There is no point in asking how much flour we should buy if we haven't decided to bake a cake.

Freemarketeers vs. Wealth



Any wealth you receive has already been distributed at least once based on the decided structure and nature of wealth distribution in your society. So people who are wealthy are not wealthy because they create some sort of objective value in society, they are wealthy because society decides that they are the ones who morally deserve to be wealthy. The concept of wealth is intersubjective, and so is the decision about who gets to be.

Free markets are a method to distribute wealth. There can be other methods too. We can for instance have a feudal system, where wealth is distributed according to social strata. The feudal system existed because it was recognized as morally legitimate, and for no other reason. Free markets today exist for the same reason. Therefore, because there are underlying moral considerations, if a free market fails us in an ethical way, it is our moral duty to violate it as a society. This means that in a moral society, excess wealth may be allowed, but not at the expense of others suffering. Indeed this is one of the reasons feudalism fell. We could no longer morally justify the harm of placing wealth into the hands of the few. For all the good things the free market has about it, it promotes the distribution of wealth to those who can exploit its underlying subjective nature. An inferior product could very well make someone rich if they play the market the right way.  There is no natural or transcendent entitlement attached to that. If everyone ceased to recognize the value of someone's wealth, they would be destitute. We, as a society, are the masters of who gets what. We divide the cake together, whether we like it or not. We can even distribute wealth according to who is the tallest, who has the most hair or who can say "Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry" repeatedly the fastest without making a mistake. Sadly, in many cases, we have excluded people from wealth on arbitrary measures, like their skin colour.

It's vital to understand that wealth distribution is completely arbitrary and decided by us, and that no single person or even a group can claim that there is only one way, or even one right way. Among the best ways however, every single one of them must be justified by moral considerations. If we are not a moral society who hold each others' interests at heart, we are setting ourselves up for failure, just like the privileged strata did before their social system imploded.

What's happened with free markets though, is that the the concept has gained overzealous fundamentalist followers, who incorrectly conflate morality with free markets. In other words, if the free market fails and people suffer, that is ethically preferable to violating the tenets of free markets. They rely on a central premise, that a free market, and absolute claims to property, are morally above any other consideration. It's not that they think the free market is moral, it is that they think the free market is morality itself. This presupposition strongly guides every other thing they consider, because no matter how much pain and suffering there is, it may not violate their absolute entitlements, because that would be immoral given the presupposition.

When I point out to freemarketeers that they don't have absolute claims on wealth, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. They don't seem to grasp that society decided that they are entitled to the wealth they have, and they especially fail to grasp that when it comes to taxes. That deserves another post, but this one laid important groundwork to begin to explain this fundamental error in freemarketeer ideology.

Many people are uncomfortable with this reality I have explained here, and to some extent I am as well. There can be an arbitrary change in the way wealth is distributed that can negatively affect me, although that has been happening throughout history. The privileged classes who lost their wealth were at risk, probably without realising it. They probably thought, as the bunch I have my disagreements with, that claims to wealth are absolute and inherent in nature or transcendent somehow. They aren't. They are in the hands of humans. If you can convince enough people that you should be wealthy, you will be. On the other hand, if you can convince enough people that certain people, or classes of people, don't deserve their wealth, they will lose it. Wealth is simply grounded in human societies, and there is no way around that. Even if you believe firmly that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, if nobody else does, your claims to wealth will be invalid. If everyone believes that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, the decision to recognise it as such was still taken collectively, and it is still grounded in humanity.

Freemarketeers vs. Prostitution


In my previous post, I described how the agreement that freemarketeers seem to have with liberal or progressively minded people about drug policy is actually superficial and even wrong. The marketing message of the idea that there is agreement tells us that free market types are rational and that they oppose senseless government policy. However, government policy in many places has been left decades behind the times by society already. For heaven's sake, let someone smoke some pot if that's what they really want.

Prostitution is a more charged subject, and there is less general consensus about it. On the one hand we know that the sex trade can be very exploitative and can trap people (especially young women) for life. Bringing the hammer down has never been effective, because the high demand for sex is hard to stop by legal means. Freemarketeers claim that  if we legalised sex work "prostitutes can more easily work in settings where conditions are controlled, clients are screened and health safeguards are obligatory.". But there is a problem. Of course having laws for safe sex work would be regarded as another imposition by the "nanny state", and a libertarian government could never waste money funding a bureaucracy to ensure the safety of sex workers.  In the extreme case of anarcho-capitalism, there would be no government to speak of in the first place.

Essentially, what freemarketeers want, under the guise of reasonable ideas like deciding your profession, is a totally unregulated labour market, which includes an unregulated sex market. That means that many people will not only legally engage in sex work, they will still not have any legal recourse when it comes to their working environment. If there was a truly free market without any regulation, there would be no black market, but there wouldn't need to be one, because nobody would be able to step on the brakes when the wondrous free market chews up and spits out human beings as if they are worthless. 

What progressive thinkers want is not an unregulated sex market, but legalised prostitution that works to protect the rights of sex workers, ensure that they are treated fairly, and giving them a path away from sex work if that isn't truly what they want to do with their lives. Offering free education, child welfare and housing are things that could save someone from turning to the sex trade in desperation, and those promiscuous ones who just like to do sex work can still go about their business unhindered. The question that I can't answer is how many prostitutes will remain if we had a society that didn't force people to choose sex work. I suspect there won't be many, but to the delight of freemarketeers, the remaining ones can make use of the limited supply to push their prices as far up as they want to.

Perhaps this is how freemarketeers see sex work with no regulation:


Free Market Fundamentalism & The War on Drugs


What is free market fundamentalism? Free market fundamentalism is a term I encountered in the book Merchants of Doubt, and it refers to people that think that free markets can solve all our societal problems. 

Whenever there are societal problems that can be solved using legislation, you can count on these people to come out of the woodwork and decry the "nanny state", moan about slippery slopes and claim the moral high ground because to them liberty means that one dollar equals one vote. This world view is very favourable to the rich, who repackage it and sell it to ordinary people under the guise of ending government corruption and coercion.

It's been suggested that there are some points of agreement, like the agreement on the war on drugs for example.

For example, according to free market fundamentalists the war on drugs is immoral and should be ended. This is an example of agreement, but only very partially, and to a degree that is almost trivial. Even though progressives such as myself think we agree with them, we don't really in any meaningful sense. We agree the drug war should end. But we disagree on why. We don't disagree because we think that the state using force is always unjustified, as they do. We think the state using force in this instance is not justified. State force must be the last, and not the first way to deal with problems in society. 

We also disagree on the desired outcome. Progressives want legalized drugs, state issued to addicts to ensure quality and purity for health reasons, complimented by government funded treatment programs and informational campaigns to prevent people from trying drugs.

Free market fundamentalists want a free open market for drugs. That means  the possibility of animated billboards with stylish photos of models shooting up heroin, drug dealers hanging around schools and selling to children, and brands competing to make the purest, most potent, most addictive drugs as available to the public as possible. Would you like a few grams of cocaine with your happy meal?

These free market fundamentalists want whatever a free market has to give, no matter how bad it is, because the free market itself is more important than what its outcomes could be. The war on drugs is bad policy to us, but to free market fundamentalists it is evidence that governments are inherently bad. It doesn't even matter if governments reform, because the way these fundamentalists gather evidence is very flexible. It needn't be existing laws, leaders or politics. Any evidence can be cherry picked from anywhere or any time such that brutal Asian dictators from the former part of the twentieth century are proof that government is bad, but good leadership and governments are not counter evidence. The war on drugs is just another chapter in their book of apologetics, and there isn't much agreement there anyway, so I think it's probably best not to focus on the minor point of agreement that the war on drugs should be ended.