TCS Daily


Moore vs. Plato

By Arnold Kling - May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

"The intellectual is no longer a man without a country. But he may be a man without a future. And if he is not in league with the future, can he be right?"
--Merle Kling

Almost 50 years ago, in the shadow of World War II and at the dawn of space exploration, the question was raised whether the future could be comprehended by non-scientists. I will argue below that today the question is whether the future can be understood without grasping the implications of Moore's Law.

The Two Cultures

What was an economist like me doing at a "Socratic Seminar" discussing C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures, the mind-body problem, and the philosophy of science? This was a two-day event sponsored by the organization that hosts my EconLog site.

The seminar, led by Oxford-trained poet Frederick Turner, had a number of erudite participants. It turns out that fellow bloggers Megan McArdle ('Jane Galt') and Will Wilkinson ('Fly Bottle') can hold their own with the sherry-sipping, repartee-trading, philosopher-name-dropping set. For my part, I was in over my head, sort of like when people are discussing opera, or when everyone else is eating with chopsticks.

The theme of the seminar was the difference in viewpoint, if any, between humanists (professors of literature, philosophy, and so forth) and scientists. It was Wilkinson who provided what for me is a useful way to describe this difference. He said that a humanist arrives at understanding subjectively, through introspection and empathy. A scientist arrives at understanding objectively, through the scientific method.

Of Ghosts and Machines

This distinction led me to think of the psychology of Sigmund Freud, which comes from a humanist perspective. Is that perspective destined to disappear, replaced by neuropharmacology? Even Ronald Bailey, an advocate for biotechnology, says that he still believes that some of Freud's concepts, such as the unconscious, remain insightful.

Indulge in a thought-experiment: two patients are brought in to two psychiatrists. The first psychiatrist, a humanist, after interviewing the patients pronounces that both suffer from Depression. The second psychiatrist, a scientist, after reading brain scans of the patients pronounces that both suffer from chemical imbalance. One patient is then assigned to each psychiatrist for treatment.

For six months, the humanist psychiatrist uses a "talking cure," consisting of sessions in which the patient discusses early childhood memories, dreams, and so forth. The scientist psychiatrist puts the other patient on a regimen of medication.

After six months, both patients once again are examined. The humanist psychiatrist interviews both patients and pronounces, "Their depressions are gone!" The scientist conducts a brain scan of both patients and pronounces, "Their chemical imbalances are gone!"

How would you interpret such a result? Such a result would show a correspondence between the subjective experience (lifting the Depression) and the objective experience (better brain chemistry). In terms of an old metaphor, the internal experience of the Ghost (the conscious mind) can be mapped to the externally-measurable Machine (the physical brain).

Who is Winning?

In the thought-experiment, the two psychiatrists are equally skilled. The scientist and the humanist appear to be tied.

I think that at any point in time, we tend to see the humanists and the scientists as evenly matched. However, this is because at any point in time we focus on the areas where neither side appears to have an advantage. However, if we look at long-term historical trends, the humanists have steadily given up ground. For example, until relatively recently the humanists had psychology pretty much to themselves.

Humanists will boast that their conception of man has stood the test of time. They argue that Shakespeare's insights have lasted for centuries, while, science keeps changing. Scientists have periodically latched on to false doctrines--Skinnerian psychology comes to mind--with fervor.

However, the evolutionary nature of science is a feature, not a bug. The ability of scientists to sift through ideas has led to great breakthroughs, including Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolution, and the many discoveries of the past century.

Breaking with the Past

Economists, unlike humanists, see the present as almost completely different from the past. Brad DeLong's chapter on economic growth in his macroeconomics textbook makes this point clearly. From the time of Plato to the age of Shakespeare, there was almost no improvement in the average standard of living. Since then, the rise has been spectacular. Commenting on the price of flour, DeLong made calculations showing that in 1500, a five-pound bag of flour would have represented four days' pay. Modern workers earn close to 500 times as much.

Even more striking is the rate of acceleration of technical change. DeLong points out that most of the increase in living standards took place within the last century. The humanist believes that we can still relate to the early 19th century by reading Charles Dickens. The economist believes that the poverty of that age is scarcely conceivable.

Gazing into the Future

Technologists see Moore's Law as the driving force of our era. Moore's Law is accelerating the rate of progress and technological change even beyond what was observed in the past century. Prior to Moore's Law, an annual economic growth rate of 1 or 2 percent produced significant cumulative change. Moore's Law itself implies annual growth rates of computer productivity of 20 percent or more, which in turn could lift economic growth to unprecedented levels, perhaps 4 percent or higher. See Rationally Exuberant.

To a humanist, the recent war in Iraq had the potential to turn into a quagmire. To a technologist, such an outcome was highly unlikely, given the advances that had taken place in computer and communication technology in just the last ten years. In a sense, the war to liberate Iraq demonstrated Moore's Law as powerfully as Hiroshima demonstrated modern physics.

At the seminar, one of the humanists remarked with casual confidence that Plato will last for 50,000 years. Bailey and I rolled our eyes, because we regard it is questionable whether the continuity of the human race is assured for even 50 years, much less 50,000. With genetic engineering, advances in neuropharmacology, and computerized implants, our great-grandchildren will be qualitatively different from us.

The New Classics

From the humanist perspective, the classics of literature are indispensable. The project of understanding human nature from the introspective viewpoint continues to owe much to the writers of earlier eras.

From the perspective of science and technology, the indispensable works are those that are informed by Moore's Law. Our required reading list might include:
  • Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, a work of science fiction that attempts to describe a future that includes nanotechnology as well as advances in computers.

  • David Brin's The Transparent Society, an extrapolation of the path for surveillance technology implied by Moore's Law, which seems eerily prescient after the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks.

  • Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, a bold, often-irritating attempt to trace through the implications of exponential growth in computer technology over several decades.

The Kling thesis is that the project of the humanists is degenerating into an exercise in archaeology. It is a way to study where we have been. But it does not tell us where we are going.
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