Technology as a threat or promise for life and its forms

This article by Dan Polansky investigates whether and to what extent technology is a challenger, a threat to or a promise for living things and their forms and patterns, and includes closely related subjects. It is in part an exercise in articulating the obvious: technology has so far eliminated many life forms and its promise for saving life forms is weak and inconclusive yet existing; furthermore, technology is not a living thing and not part of living things but rather their competitor for the same scarce resources of matter and energy unless one stretches the notion of a living thing to an extreme. The promise of technology such as saving living things from an asteroid impact, bringing them to Mars or even spreading them to other star systems is rather unrealistic. Therefore, on the whole, technology looks more like a threat than anything else to living things. Further related subjects are investigated, such as examining the likelihood that the harmful development of technology will be stopped by human intervention.

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This article is organized as sections providing relatively brief coverage of each key relevant topic, while in-depth treatment is delegated to Wikipedia and external sources. The purpose is not to duplicate Wikipedia but rather to tie relevant material together into an integrative cross-disciplinary article. Ideally, each section should provide excellent relevant further reading. Ideally, key unobvious statements should be sourced using inline references to solid sources; journalistic articles are acceptable but not ideal.

Let us start by showing the relevance of the question to human action. The question is relevant since some humans see the loss of richness of forms and patterns of living things as problematic. Such human concern is not entirely powerless: what happens in the human world depends on the collective will of individuals and more specifically on the collective will of powerful individuals. If enough people can be convinced such a loss is a concern, policies can be adopted to limit the loss, whether on national or international level. Such policies could include placing limits on technological development and on expansion of human population. A policy that limits population explosion has been tried in practice in China and it seems consistent with continuing existence and power of the polity in question. Whatever the moral concerns of such a policy, it seems realistic and practicable rather than utopian, and less morally problematic policy options can be considered to similar effect.

Motivation edit

One inspiration or motivation for writing this article is the following quote by Karl R. Popper from a collection of essays Alles Leben ist Problemlösen, from the same-named essay:

"Alles Leben ist Problemlösen. Alle Organismen sind Erfinder und Techniker, gute oder weniger gute, erfolgreich oder weniger erfolgreich im Lösen von technischen Problemen. So ist es bei den Tieren, zum Beispiel den Spinnen. Die menschliche Technik löst menschliche Probleme, etwa Kanalisierung, Wasser- oder Nahrungsmittelbeschaffung und Speicherung, wie es zum Beispiel schon die Bienen tun.
"Deshalb ist die Gegnerschaft gegen die Technik, wie wir sie häufig bei den Grünen finden, Unsinn, denn sie ist ja Gegnerschaft gegen das Leben - was leider die Grünen nicht bemerkt haben. Aber Kritik der Technik ist natürlich nicht Unsinn, sondern dringend notwendig. Dazu ist in unterschiedlicher Weise jedermann befähigt und willkommen. Und da die Kritik zur Berufskompetenz des Technikers gehört, so ist sie etwas, womit besonders die Techniker selbst dauernd beschäftigt sind."

The above was translated by Patrick Camiller (All Life is Problem Solving, Routledge 1999) as follows:

"All life is problem solving. All organisms are inventors and technicians, good or not so good, successful or not so successful, in solving technical problems. This is how it is among animals - spiders, for example. Human technology solves human problems such as sewage disposal, or the storage and supply of food and water, as, for example, bees already have to do.
"Hostility to technology, such as we often find among the Greens, is therefore a foolish kind of hostility to life itself - which the Greens have unfortunately not realized. But the critique of technology is not foolish, of course; it is urgently necessary. Everyone is capable of it in their different ways, and most welcome to contribute. And since criticism is an occupational skill of technologists, the critique of technology is a constant preoccupation of theirs.

The above contains problematic statements:

  • 1) All organisms are alleged to be inventors and technicians/technologists, good ones or less good ones, successful or less successful in solving technical problems; spiders making cobwebs and bees making honeycombs are given as examples. However, the organisms that create external structures that they move away from and back again are very few, far from being all of them. See also section Animals as technicians or artifact makers.
  • 2) The enmity of the Green parties (concerned with protection of environment) toward technology is alleged to make no sense since it is enmity toward life. That argument seems rather bizarre.

What drives most of this article, directly or indirectly, is the claim that enmity toward technology is enmity toward life. Since, what kind of life-saving promise can technology offer to compensate for the enormous harm done? Or put metaphorically, where is the Noah's Ark that technology offers to create to help species survive an adverse event?

Technology as a challenger edit

There is no doubt technology is a challenger to non-human biological individuals, their forms and their patterns. It is true both of ancient technology and modern technology. It is technology starting with fire and primitive tools that enables dramatic human expansion, and human expansion necessarily eliminates many non-human biological individuals, including trees. It also eliminates some biological forms and patterns, including species. It does so especially in modern times by leading to a massive extinction of species[1][2][3]. Some compare the modern impact of humans to a new geological epoch.[4] A 2020 study found that man-made mass will soon surpass all global living biomass[5].

Further reading:

Technology as a savior edit

One may object that technology is not only a challenger and eliminator of forms of life but also a potential savior, helping the following:

  • Prevent asteroid impact on the Earth.[6][7] It is not clear how large asteroid one would be able to deflect, but an asteroid has caused a major extinction event in the past, and if that could be prevented, it would be for the benefit of the richness of life forms, unless one assumes that the resulting elimination of humankind would do more good than harm for life forms at the cost of loss of some.
  • Colonize Mars, making the continuing existence of living things and their forms more future-proof against adverse events.[8] Whether this is realistic in near future is unclear.[9] A too rapid expansion of technology could harm the biological basis that makes technology possible faster than it would achieve such an ambitious aim.
  • Expand the life beyond the Solar System. Given current knowledge of physics, this seems improbable[10], but from a purely theoretical or speculative perspective, one may posit future discoveries of physics that would enable interstellar travel. In particular, speed-of-light travel seems impossible.[11]
  • Prevent the death of the universe.[12][13] To some humans, this seems plausible enough to write articles about it.
  • Modern digital communication and information technology could at least help alleviate some problems created by technology.[14]However, it has potential for making things worse as well.[14]

Further reading:

Technology as a threat to existence of all life edit

Technology can be analyzed for its potential threat to all the living things as a whole.[15][16] At a minimum, a nuclear holocaust would dramatically reduce the richness of living forms. However, such an event seems unlikely to eliminate all living things completely including those that flourish in extreme environments; in fact, even astrophysical catastrophes seem unlikely to achieve complete elimination.[17]

Depending on the notion of "life" and existence of extraterrestrial life, it is possible that life exists outside of the Solar System and therefore, humans can do nothing to endanger the existence of life as a distributed aggregate of all living forms existing in the universe. However, we do not know whether extraterrestrial life actually exists.[18] Arguably, this assumption should not be accepted unless we have strong reasons to believe so. On a similar yet more abstract and speculative note, there may be parallel universes perfectly causally isolated from this one where life exists that cannot be endangered by humans.

Further reading:

Technology as a threat to the planet edit

Technology can be analyzed for its potential to destroy the complete planet as an astronomical object.[19] If that would succeed, all life forms would be destroyed as well. Destroying the planet as an object does not seem remotely possible; the energy required is several orders of magnitude beyond that ever released by humans. Thus, the risk can be analyzed as something to consider in principle, but not much in practice.

Technology as a threat to humankind edit

This is a more specific threat than that of all the living things. So far, technology has lead to enormous human expansion. On the face of it, humans as a biological species have benefited. However, future technological development could eliminate humankind as well.[20]

Britannica opines that "Nevertheless, the decisions about whether to go ahead with a project or to abandon it are undeniably human, and it is a mistake to represent technology as a monster or a juggernaut threatening human existence."[21] Strictly speaking, technology is no person and therefore no monster or juggernaut, but the figurative idea is not obviously wholly incorrect or inapplicable; see section Autonomy of technology. Technology may well be on a trajectory with a momentum that individuals and most of their groups are unable to stop and the notion that the trajectory could lead to subjugation or elimination of humankind is not obviously incorrect.

Candidate risks to analyze for the potential of eliminating the whole of humankind include:

Further reading:

Actual technology performance for living things edit

Whatever the future saving potential, human technology has so far done great overall harm to living things and their forms. Its overall impact on diversity of life has been unquestionably negative.

At the same time, technology has shown capacity to add to forms of life rather than only eliminate them, starting with animal and plant husbandry leading to creation of domesticated species. Biotechnology is another creator of biological form. One cannot conclude that technology is a pure destroyer of life and never a creator.

If the aggregate of living things were a conscious entity equipped with agency that cares about its richness of form, they would prevent technology from ever gaining hold, starting with fire and flint. The performance so far has been unequivocally bad.

Global climate change edit

Global climate change is a key risk to existence and well-being of many life forms including humans. Depending on how deep the change would be, the consequences would vary:

  • A human population crash to much more sustainable levels as a result of famine.
  • Dying out of humankind.
  • Dying out of many species. This is ongoing for reasonable values of "many", so is a near certainty.
  • Dying out of great many species, on the order of large asteroid impact. Needs quantification.
  • Dying out of all life on the Earth. Given the existence of extremophile organisms, it seems unlikely.

An ideal artifact to have would be a tree of risks with sound definitions, together with per-item analysis.

See also Climate change.

Further reading:

Technology impact on richness of all form edit

While technology has been unequivocally harmful to richness of biological form, it has not been harmful to richness of all form. Indeed, technological and cultural forms have exploded in their richness and diversity thanks to technology and nothing else. However, it is questionable that expansion of richness of form and the associated creativity is an unequivocal good: surely adding new threats to living things including humans in particular is creative: new threats can be created, including new diseases, new dangerous weapons, and new dangerous technologies such a artificial intelligence.

One may wonder what an imaginary mighty curator of world's natural, biological, cultural (art) and technological museums interested in augmenting his collections would do. He would perhaps prefer to maximize richness of form in all categories. He would praise technology for enriching the set of all forms that found their way into the physical world with technological and cultural ones, but blame it for impoverishing the biological forms. He might strive to find ways to get the best compromise, balanced among the categories. He might accept some loss of biological form if it is compensated by gain of technological and cultural form, arguing that some loss of biological form is a natural part of history of living things.

To get an idea of the richness and variety of biological, technological and cultural forms, one can browse image galleries on Commons.

Humans or technology to blame edit

One can argue that it is not technology that is to blame for loss of life forms but rather those who put it to use, humans. It was not guns that killed the dodo, humans did. An associated idea is the one of neutrality of technology: means, enablers, instruments and technology are not to blame but rather those who choose the ends and uses.

First, humans appeared on the Earth approximately 200,000 years ago[22]. It was not until 15,000 to 20,000 years ago that humans began the transition to a more settled way of life depending on animal husbandry and agriculture[23]. Thus, for nearly 200,000 years, humans without technology had very little impact on the richness of living forms.

Second, these ideas are notionally implausible. Instruments create bias toward uses and enable uses in the first place. It only takes some bad actors to put an instrument to a bad use, and there is no shortage of bad actors. From the performance so far, life forms would do well to prevent technology from developing in the first place, and ignore this argument. Life forms would base their decision on empirical rather than pseudo-rational arguments. Each instrument needs to be analyzed for its potential good and bad uses and these need to be weighed.

Nuclear weapons can be put to two main uses: large-scale destruction and prevention of war by mutual deterrence. If not for the latter use, nuclear weapons would seem to be close to be a pure evil since the only use they could be put for is an evil one. Arguably, if one could prevent all parties from developing nuclear weapons, one should do it: the consequences of nuclear war far outweigh the consequences of non-prevented non-nuclear war. In fact, we can see that even nuclear deterrent does not prevent all conventional war. Arguably, the consequences of nuclear war are so grave that one should perhaps prevent as many parties as possible from obtaining nuclear weapons even if it seems unfair and not even-handed and even if one will get accused of hegemony. If that prevents peaceful use of nuclear energy, that may be acceptable price to pay.

Easy access to firearms enables killing by them, impossible otherwise.

Producing viruses lethal to humans would then be neutral since it is not the viruses that killed humans but merely the bad actors who released them from the laboratory where they should have stayed as mere "neutral" instruments. This line of reasoning seems questionable.

There is a certain analogy in the political realm. One might similarly argue that it is not political power that is bad but rather those who wield it, and that if one gets an enlightened monarch, one gets the best thing possible. Therefore, one would claim that the powerful tool that concentrated power is is neutral and in no need of being turned into an assemblage of less powerful tools. The Western world at least nominally rejects that idea, instead creating a system of checks and balances.

Another similarity is in the notion of conflict of interest: it is not an actual transgression but merely the creation of a significant potential for it that is seen as problematic.

And yet, Britannica opines that 'In itself, technology is neutral and passive: in the phrase of Lynn White, Jr., “Technology opens doors; it does not compel man to enter.”'[24] This confirms that the myth of neutrality of technology is well established and mainstream.

Technology that is easy to put to dangerous uses is dangerous. No arguing around that.

Further reading:

Autonomy of technology edit

Relevant to the threat the technology poses to life forms, one may ask to what extent technology is autonomous, as if it were a force or agent with its own trajectory, intention or will. Technology is no person, but if one wants, one may creatively interpret both the aggregate of living things and the aggregate of technology as two persons fighting, as if two Titans. That seems analytically fragile. However, once a certain kind of technology gets established and humans get to depend on it, it may be nearly impossible to get rid of it. This kind of momentum building and entrenching seems to be a real phenomenon, not a creative interpretation. We may ask whether there was any moment in history where a whole complex of powerful technology was abandoned because it was found problematic. It may well be that e.g. car transportation, electricity production and computing and Internet technology are so entrenched as to be practically impossible to abandon, and that market forces automatically lead to further technological developments that individuals and most groups of individuals are unable to stop. Thus, the notion of autonomy does not seem entirely analytically incorrect, as problematic as it may seem. A similar phenomenon may be the law-like tendency by which the analog of invisible hand moves capital around to maximize yield rate, and what happens in economy depends much more on the differences of yield rates than on the wills of individual workers; thus, there is something like autonomy of capital.

Further reading:

Ultimate good and collective action edit

What will be done depends on what is the ultimate good or ultimate or intrinsic values, or what it is considered to be. Collective action is possible.

Candidate answers include the following:

  1. Nothing. The phrases "ultimate good", "ultimate value" and "intrinsic value", while potentially having intensional meaning, refer to nothing, having no extension, to couch it in philosophical language. Similarly, the phrase "the largest positive integer" has a meaning but refers to nothing.
  2. Maximum expansion of species in terms of number of individuals. This answer is implicit in biological law-like tendencies and regularities of population development; in that sense, it is a "natural" answer. It is also at least in part implied in the Abrahamic "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it."
  3. Greatest happiness of greatest numbers of humans. This answer discovered by philosophy seems to be accepted to some extent.
  4. Maximum unfolding of human potential.
  5. Maximum human individual freedom.
  6. Maximum replication of one's genes, which involves having many descendants.
  7. What people collectively like.

The answer of "nothing", while potentially true, provides no guide either to individual or collective action. Its practical value approaches zero.

The answer of species expansion seems to be rooted in facts of biological life. However, it seems to ignore the possibility of collective action preventing purely natural tendencies (or "natural" tendencies narrowly understood) from gaining hold. Natural tendencies have been successfully hindered, and such a hindrance is at the core of human technology. For instance, water naturally flows downward unless something stops it, but dams have been built to stop it. On meta-level, technological intervention to prevent unrestrained grown of technology is application of technology. Similarly, there is no unrestrained tolerance of intolerance.

The greatest happiness of greatest numbers seems similar to species expansion in so far as it is determined by plain summation of happiness, where each happy individual adds to the sum. It differs in that an individual more unhappy than happy overall does not positively add to the sum.

The maximum unfolding of human potential points to development of technology in so far as it enables humans to do things, e.g. take images of Mars. The time frame is important: maximum reached when? If maximum reached ever, then the current technical civilization that takes images of Mars is preferable over a scenario that is sustainable over a very long time but does not include such feats. In this view, a brief extreme success is better than a long-lasting moderate one. The question of potential for what is of importance: creating a device that can destroy the Earth would be unfolding of potential, but hardly any human would see this as desirable. Thus, maximum unfolding of human potential in any and all directions does not seem to be accepted as ultimate or absolute good. See also section The power of the biotechnosphere.

Maximum individual freedom stands in contrast with other items, in particular with the population size. If all individuals are free, it does not matter how many they are, and if a larger population could only be sustained under conditions of reduced individual freedom, then a smaller population is preferable. However, individual freedom is almost never recognized as an ultimate and absolute good: driving speed limits are generally accepted to prevent harm even if raising them or abolishing them would increase freedom and the increased harm would be on the aggregate level, not for each individual driver. It seems something else must be of ultimate value. Furthermore, from a mathematical standpoint, if there are no individuals, then each individual is absolutely free; that standpoint also puts freedom into question. Maximum population size seems more plausible as the ultimate aim.

Maximum replication of one's genes seems to be a natural answer in some sense: it is implied in regularities and tendencies of biological genetic and evolutionary development. However, it cannot serve as a shared goal for the whole of humanity. It can at best be recognized as a goal that many individuals pursue without publicly admitting so. And it does not need to be accepted either: humans have the capacity to recognize the natural forces that lead biological individuals, especially non-human ones, to usually follow their gene-selfish interest, but then pursue something else, as is seen in humans risking their life to rescue strangers or devoting their life to a larger cause.

The last item of what people like seems as hopelessly subjective as the greatest happiness of greatest numbers. However, in so far as it refers to the collective of people rather than a particular individual, it is at least inter-subjective. Moreover, it is a genuine force of nature, whatever its origin and whatever someone's negative judgment of it. If people collectively dislike something, their collective dislike can manifest itself in collective action expressing their collective will, and this is not prevented by natural tendencies that are not genuine laws. Here, the distinction of inviolable natural law and natural tendency is important: there can be a natural tendency of population expansion stopping only at natural limits, but it is merely a tendency, not an analog of inviolable physical law: population expansion has been successfully slowed down by human intervention. If we as humans collectively dislike loss of biological form and are serious about it, we can do something about it, and there are not only two choices, unrestrained human expansion vs. near-term human extinction (the polar opposite) or overall human misery. We have started: our zoological gardens act as a store of natural form, and we have expressed a concern for biodiversity on national and international level. While a rapid population reduction would include a lot of human misery, a dramatic slowdown of expansion and population stabilization not so, merely a severe slowdown of adding to greatest happiness of greatest numbers. It is practicable. Whether we will do it depends on what we collectively like and dislike and how that will reflect in our collective will and action.

Further reading:

Collective action edit

When humans collectively want something, they can often achieve it. They can do it by means of the free market and by political means.

Free markets are no substitute for policy making: if humans want to ban abortion after the first trimester, they cannot do it by voting with their vallet on a free market. What is needed is the will of a monarch, representative democracy, a referendum or other political means.

Referendum is one of the most powerful tools of collective action. It overcomes a key weakness of representative democracy: one cannot vote separately on policy issues. In the United States, one has to choose practically between two parties, acting as two presets of policy issues. Thus, a person who opposes transgender policies but supports environmental taxes has no good choice. The situation is far worse: the independent policy issues are many. Some policy issues require expertise. However, political parties can use their resources to identify that expertise and make policy recommendation to their voters. Then, in a referendum, the voter can choose whether to stick with the preferred party recommendation or make an individual choice. Abortion is a case well suited for a referendum: the issue is well publicly discussed, the pros and cons are well documented, and the question the public should be asked is simple: should states be allowed to ban first-trimester abortion?

Individual freedom edit

Individual freedom is relevant: it is claimed by some to be close to an absolute good. Moreover, policy measures to limit destruction of life forms limit individual freedom, e.g. ban or limitation of entry to national parts, ban on production of certain pollutants and environmental taxation.

In practice, individual freedom is almost never considered to be an absolute good. Humans trade individual freedom for harm prevention and for increased capability. Thus, putting a limit on driving speed reduces freedom but also harm. Making previously public land (such as pastures) private reduces the freedom of entry and use but increases social ability to preserve and develop assets. Since humans accept that freedom needs to be limited to prevent harm, environmental taxes are valid policy option for consideration. The challenge is to determine which freedom reduction is worth the harm reduction and which not.

Freedom as understood here is absence of coercion from other humans. Prototypical opposites of freedom are slavery and serfdom. "Freedom from pain" is something else. One may use "liberty" as a less ambiguous synonym.

Some humans feel their increased ability is a part of freedom. Indeed, what good is it for a human to be allowed to do something if it is not possible or within means. Humans often give up some freedom for some ability. It happens when they get employed: the employment contract temporarily limits their freedom (to go not to the workplace but elsewhere) at the gain of increased capability (money). When a human marries, he or she gives up freedom (to have sexual relations with others). These examples confirm that freedom is not an ultimate good of near-infinite value.

Freedom of speech is a special case. By signing a non-disclosure agreement, a person is giving up freedom of speech to some extent. Whether to restrict freedom of speech on state level is another question. Some argue that the potential harm caused by loss of freedom of speech is far greater than the harm caused by allowed bad speech. Spread of incorrect ideas is widely recognized as acceptable, as shown in freedom of religion: if one allows two mainstream religions to spread their ideas, then since both cannot be right, one allows wide spread of incorrect ideas. Thus, one allows spread of "misinformation" of a kind that in some cases is quite "dangerous", leading to harm. Limiting freedom of speech to prevent criticism of policies pushed by the state can undermine public trust in the policy makers: if they know the truth and have all the convincing proofs and evidence, what are they afraid of? Arguably, they should make the proofs and evidence publicly available for the scrutiny by the general public, which includes many experts from many domains. Notably, restriction of freedom of speech is a favorite tool of regimes that violate other freedoms as well.

Restrictions of freedom may fail, as exemplified in alcohol prohibition in the United States in 20th century. Thus, restrictions of freedom need to be analyzed for practicability.

Freedom to give up freedom is limited. Thus, citizens are not free to sell themselves to slavery, but they are free to give up some freedom temporarily via employment contracts and other contracts.

Further reading:

Artificial intelligence edit

Artificial intelligence seems to present a risk to end all humankind[25] but it also holds promise to help us think, analyze and know[26]. It could help us figure things out and write this very article. However, extremely smart artificial intelligence could act as a smart sophist, a dishonest but capable arguer, producing argumentation and analysis cleverly crafty, having the appearance of being correct without actually being so. The smarter the artificial intelligence, the greater could be its capability as a sophist, defying all or nearly all human defenses against crafty argument. Subtly incorrect data analysis and presentation could be used together with subtly incorrect philosophical reasoning and conceptual analysis.

Silicon-based distributed computers may never achieve human-level intelligence; we do not know. The exponential growth of computing capacity that lasted for decades may hit a wall in a decade. Single-core performance growth has already slowed down and parallel composition to increase computing capacity has limitations that sequential does not. Computers have outperformed humans in some specialized tasks, but not in general intelligence. The physical limits of what can be done in silicon may be such that general artificial intelligence (GAI) is impossible. That is not to say that we positively know the limits, but they are plausible. Quantum computing would be an alternative route to GAI, but the progress so far does not suggest this to lead to GAI any time soon either. If one believes GAI cannot be achieved any time soon, global climatic change would seem to be a much graver risk for living forms.

Further reading:

Gaia hypothesis edit

James Lovelock argues that the biosphere on the Earth is like a living organism, showing patterns of regulation and homeostasis, and could eliminate humans. That seems to conceive the biosphere as a conscious agent, an anthropomorphism or personification, and incorrect. While the biosphere of the Earth has many regulatory mechanisms of homeostasis, it does not have conscious goals and complex chains and networks of nodes connected by means-end relationship. It shows only the most rudimentary forms of goal-seeking behavior exemplified in homeostasis. While the regulatory mechanisms of the biosphere are much more complex than the most rudimentary form found in the thermostat, they do not approach the full form of a conscious goal-seeking agent. Even if we accept the biosphere as a living organism, these start at single-cell level such as bacteria, and do not have anything like will, consciousness or complex network of goals. The personified notion is implied in Lovelock's phrasing: "Covid-19 may well have been one attempt by the Earth to protect itself. Gaia will try harder next time with something even nastier".[27]

Nonetheless, there may well happen to be regulatory mechanisms in place tending eliminate certain threats as they rise in significance. Certain kinds of disturbances that humans can cause will sooner eliminate humans than certain other forms of life such as those living in extreme conditions and deep in the oceans. A release of viruses to human population that were previously constrained to other species or creating new viruses in laboratory that will impact mainly humans may well be a case in point, especially if the objective of the research is to identify forms harmful to humans.

As a general point, that which has not been tried and well tested empirically on long time scale may not be stable enough and may fail the test of time. DNA-based life has been well tested on a very long time scale; human technology not so.

Further reading:

Technology as a form of life edit

A complication of the analysis is that one may consider some forms of technology to be a form of life, depending on the definition of life. At least, life is not notionally limited to DNA-based life.

If one defines life as that which feeds on negative entropy following Schrödinger,[28][29] some forms of technology fit the bill. Schrödinger's definition was criticized by Popper since many mechanical and chemical machines do feed on negative entropy (e.g. oil-fired boiler and self-winding watch), and since they are not alive, the definition cannot be right.[30] However, Tipler disagrees with Popper and says that some machines are alive.[30] And Tipler indicated that per Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, automobiles are examples of living things[30], which seems hard to believe and a direct Dawkins quote would be preferable.

Under an analysis that accepts some forms of technology as living things, the enriching of technological forms would at the same time be enriching of the forms of life. One would claim that some forms of life were lost while other forms of life were gained. Even near-complete destruction of DNA-based life and replacement with forms of technology could be seen as not so bad for all the living things, and part of a natural process. Whether this kind of prospect is something that humans would collectively like and accept is another matter. Furthermore, a comparison of living things with technology below, as for similarities and dissimilarities between the two orders of phenomena, makes this line of analysis unconvincing.

What kind of technology could count as a form of life? A hammer does not qualify: it is an inert block of matter with no moving parts. A car and a computer, machines that use energy, are closer, but do not really qualify either. What would be more life-like would be a colony of silicon-based robots achieving material recycling. Theoretically, if such robots would close the material loop and depend only on renewable energy sources, they could even be sustainable. Whether that is realistic is another matter.

One could consider the pattern and simulation analysis below. Technology alone would not count as living, but certain patterns in the computer would count as good as living, such as those that are part of simulation of life. That requires that one considers a simulacrum as good as the real thing; some humans such as Hans Moravec apparently do.

Some similarities between living things and human technology, with some differences noted:

  • Beavers make dams, and so do humans; spiders weave webs and humans weave nets; ants make anthills and humans make cities.
  • Simple feedback-driven regulation (keeping of a value in range) is found in great amounts in living things, e.g. in body temperature regulation, and in technology, e.g. in the thermostat but also in steam engine or in a water toilet.
  • Locomotion is found in animals as well as in human technology. However, the principles employed are very different. Thus, mammals move by legs whereas cars move by wheels, employing rotary motion. Some insects and birds fly by moving wings whereas aircraft uses propellers and jets, and space ships use jet-like propulsion.
  • Bones provide structural rigidity in animal bodies, which is provided in invertebrates as well, e.g. in insect bodies. In technology, structural rigidity is all pervasive, as if a starting point rather than achievement like in biological bodies. Since, biological bodies tend to be soft and often filled with water.
  • Algorithm implementation is found both in mammals and in technology. Thus, there is edge-detection algorithm found in human vision as well as in machine vision.
  • A structure of goals and subgoals can be found both in mammals and in current implementations of artificial intelligence.
  • Artificial neural networks bear some similarity to natural neural networks found in brains.
  • A bird can aim at its prey and so can man-made homing missiles.

Dissimilarities between human technology and living things:

  • Water is all-pervasive part of biological bodies, unlike of human technology. Addition of water is unwelcome for electronics including computers and electricity in general.
  • Living things are analogs of chemical machines: most the function is realized using chemical reactions and transformation of molecules. Human technology is not like that one the whole. Operation of electrical and electronic devices such as engines and computers is predominantly electrical, and involves chemical reactions to a lesser extent or not at all. Related is the absence of metabolism in technical artifacts: one does not need to feed a computer with substances containing analogs of nutrients.
  • When technology uses chemistry, it is of a different kind, often toxic to living things. By contrast, living things are mutually non-toxic on the whole, leading to food chains between plants and animals.
  • Technology has poverty of structure: large relatively homogeneous chunks of glass, metal, plastic and concrete are key part of technology. By contrast, the recursively nested structure of living things is rich, reaching down to single cells, which again have rich structure.
  • Regulation, communication and control permeates living things, from the single cell to organs, including endocrine and nervous system. Most technology shows poverty in these aspects. Nonetheless, there is some regulation even in some simple technical artifacts such as the thermostat. Some modern technology contains chips for regulation, and there, these aspects are increasing. They are also increasing in software and computing in general.
  • Technology uses high temperatures for metalworking, glass making and other processes, unlike living things. To do that, technology often burns substances.
  • Living things together with their environment have achieved a closed material loop, unlike technology.
  • Living things are made from, and many are, very small machine-like living things called cells, unlike technology.
  • Living things form swarms, herds and other collectives showing specific patterns of group appearance and change. Car queues are a little like that, but the patterns look very different.
  • Living things reproduce by cell division and sexual reproduction, and multi-cell organisms grow from a single cell. Technology shows nothing of the sort; rather, it is assembled together from parts.
  • Living things have metabolism: substance exchange with its environment. Technology has only a very limited form of it, by parts replacement, by filling in fuel and oil and by exchange of batteries.
  • Living things are autonomous, each animal moving relatively independently on its own even if they move e.g. in a swarm. Almost no humans artifacts are like that. A future technology could become autonomous as well, which would put humans in danger. Such technology would thereby become more life-like. Some software today is so autonomous that it is life-like. Computer viruses are life-like in that once released, they are no longer controlled by their maker and spread and act on their own. Some man-made devices show degree of autonomy as well.
  • Technology of today is subordinated to human ends; it is made to serves human purposes. Living things not so, except to some extent for domesticated animals and modified plants. Living things exist for themselves, so to speak.

Thus, technology and living things are deeply separate domains of order in the physical world given the dissimilarities. One could try to bring the two domains under a single overarching domain, given the similarities. However, the similarities are very partial; there is e.g. not much similarity between a spoon and any living thing, or not even a car and any living thing. There could be an overarching domain for certain forms of technology and living things, though. We could call the overarching notion cyberthing, where cyber- points to steersman guiding a vessel, to regulation and goal-seeking. Living things are cyber throughout, starting with single cells; technology not so. A hammer would not fall under that notion, whereas a human-like or dog-like robot would. The prefix cyber- stems from the word cybernetics, coined to label an investigation that was an offshoot of abstract biology, physiology (study of function in living things), man-made homing missiles and similar goal-seeking systems.

The conclusion is that technological things are not living things unless one stretches the notion of life to an extreme, pushing it far beyond the original notion of life. Even if we appropriated the word "life" for this broad notion called above cyberthing, we would still need a word to label the original domain, perhaps "classical life". Nothing would be helped by this word play, except perhaps to create a rhetorical effect by allowing techno-optimists to claim that they are in fact advancing life and that technology cannot be possibly threat to life since it is part of life itself, which is incorrect reasoning.

As an aside, plants and animals are also rather separate domains of order. Plants are stationary whereas animals show locomotion, and related to that, sensing via eyes and ears or their primitive analogs. Nonetheless, the grouping of these two domains under one domain of living things is straightforward: both domains show growth from a single cell, metabolism, cell structure, DNA as a means of coding of genetic information, reproduction, etc. Both domains have been here for geological periods of time, showing material loop closure.

Further reading:

Technology as part of life edit

If technology is not a living thing, is it perhaps something like a part of living things? The question is what counts as a form of a living thing. Living things produce shells and bones, spiders produce webs, and beavers build beaver dams. Thus, there is endoskeleton, exoskeleton, and also what was called extended phenotype. If structures located outside of living things but produced by them are forms of life, then man-made structures are also forms of life. From the point of view of invertebrates, the innovative use of calcium by vertebrates to build bones could have been seen, figuratively speaking, as decadent development that runs the risk of running out of calcium, which so far has not happened. This analogy may be rather far fetched: the problem of running out of calcium and running out of rare mined materials may be on a wholly different order of magnitude.

Even if technology is accepted as extended phenotype, one must consider not only kinds of things but also their extent and magnitude for sound analysis. No biological species approaches humankind in its production of extended phenotype. The analogies may be valid, but the scale, scope and impact is not.

If one accepts technology as not living on its own but rather part of life like shells and skeletons, one may analyze the whole of human technology and culture as part of living things and biosphere. One may then reinterpret the achievements of humankind as achievements of the biosphere. This is a personification or anthropomorphization of biosphere, and is analytically fragile. If one so wishes, it was not just the man who landed on the Moon but rather biosphere. One can then engage in various creative and fragile interpretations such as the idea that the biosphere created humans in order to get to Moon, or to produce technology to avert next asteroid impact. As far as we understand, biosphere did nothing of the sort: it has no network of goals connected by means-end relationship. But it is an interesting just-so story that can be obtained by extrapolating the history of living things.

Further reading:

Pattern-identity and simulation edit

Yet another complication is the pattern-identity analysis of Hans Moravec[31]. Under that analysis, what does a form or pattern care what material substrate it is instantiated in, and whether it is the original or mere simulation or emulation, identical or very similar to the original on the pattern level? AI could build a huge supercomputer and emulate living forms including individuals there, and that would be argued to be as good as the real unemulated thing. Whether humans would collectively accept this kind of substitution is unclear. In any case, those humans who would find it acceptable to die in the process of being transferred to a supercomputer as a simulation would drop out of the discussion unless their behavior in the supercomputer were connected to impacts in the world outside of the supercomputer. For the world outside of the supercomputer, they might as well be dead.

A further consequence of such analysis is that the supercomputer's (or network) ability to emulate forms could capture not only biological forms in existence but also biological forms extinct and forms that never existed and are only in the computer. If only in the computer is as good as outside the computer, then computer simulations of life and life evolution including that in some computer games have already delivered for the diversity of life forms, and will deliver more.

Further reading:

Sustainability of technology edit

We can ask whether modern technology is sustainable in moderately short term. This is relevant since if it isn't sustainable, the promise of technology helping life forms spread to Mars or even beyond the Solar System is empty. As a summary, living things have depended on energy from the Sun and had a closed material loop for billions of years, whereas modern human technology depends on non-renewable energy sources and mining of non-renewable raw materials, with no clear way to achieve energy and material sustainability for the next one-thousand years. It is not clear whether and how a closed material loop for technology can be achieved.

We can compare the sustainability of biological life with the sustainability of modern technology. Most biological life including plants and animals depends on energy from the Sun, unlike modern technology, which depends to a large extent on use of non-renewable energy sources including fossil fuels and mined sources for nuclear energy. For more detail, see section Sustainable energy.

Some humans engage in miraculous extrapolation. The idea is that since humans could not have foreseen technological inventions and discovery of energy sources before the industrial revolution, there may be a lot of energy sources yet to be discovered. This kind of analysis, when done not carefully enough, has the effect of being a blanket rationale for belief in miracles to be extrapolated from the past: we have seen miraculous discoveries in the past and therefore we will see similarly miraculous discoveries in future. This kind of extrapolation is a logically invalid form of inference. An example of similarly invalid extrapolation is the assumption that the Moore's law (that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit will double about every two years) will last until year 2050 or even beyond; at some point, the decrease of the size of transistors will be stopped[32] by the hard physical limit of the size of atoms. Such an extrapolation from the past blindly assumes no hard physical or geological limits can be hit. A competing extrapolation can be made, pointing out that since great civilizations such as the Ancient Egyptian one eventually declined in certain time frame, so will the modern energy-intensive civilization. As a matter of fact, we do not know the details of the future, but it is logically invalid to assume that a simple extrapolation of vague tendencies of the past is a reliable way of knowing anything about the future.

Closing the material loop is another aspect of sustainability. Living things excel at recycling material of their bodies among different individuals of different species and the environment, having done so for billions of years; human technology is very different. For more detail, see section Closing the material loop.

Limits of Growth is a 1972 report predicting that humanity will hit hard limits at a specific time frame. The report has been criticized as being unduly pessimistic.[33] However, some predicted features appear to be correct.[34] The fundamental idea that growth of industrial civilization has to hit hard physical, geological and environmental limits seems plausible enough. In general, exponential growth, using the term in the mathematical sense applicable to economic and population growth, is so fast that in nature it is always stopped at a relative short time frame, one way or another.

Market mechanisms and human resourcefulness are thought by some to be able to solve resource problems. To wit, "The Limits of Growth got it so wrong because its authors overlooked the greatest resource of all: our own resourcefulness."[33] The claim that human resourcefulness is the greatest resource of all, greater than a scarce natural resource, is clearly untrue. Indeed, place a group of resourceful, innovative and entrepreneurial humans on Mars, and the lack of the natural resources of breathable atmosphere and human-friendly habitat in general will show what the greatest resource of all really is. Market mechanisms are powerless except to the extent to which the physical world offers potentials to be discovered and utilized. Absent such potentials, the only thing such mechanisms can do is to increase the price of the resource becoming scarce together with the price of substitute resources and create economic incentive for discovering more resources or improving the utilization of existing ones. There is no way markets can increase the amount of water in the oceans, the amount of sunlight received by the Earth, the amount of all uranium ore, oil, coal, gas, and rare minerals and metals stored in the Earth. The notion of a scarce natural resource corresponds to objectively valid facts about the physical world. For some resources, we do not know how much of such a resource there is, but the only thing a new discovery changes is the knowledge of the resource, not its actual amount in existence. Predicting when humans are going to hit the physical limits is hard, and so is predicting when the Moore's law will end. That does not change the existence of the limits, not the general time scale to which they apply. The predictions may not meet the perfect standard of falsifiability and specific testability, but that does not make them entirely wrong on the fundamental level of analysis.

Further reading:

Sustainable energy edit

Sustainable energy one aspect of Sustainability of technology. Most biological life including plants and animals depends on energy from the Sun. By contrast, modern technology depends to a large extent on use of non-renewable energy sources including fossil fuels and mined sources for nuclear energy. The solar energy has been available since the life began about 4 billion years ago (4,000,000,000)[35] and is about to be available for the next 1 billion years (1,000,000,000) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable[36] or 150 million years (150,000,000) if we accept earlier more pessimistic computer models[36]. Human toolmaking can be traced to about 3.3 million (3,300,000) years ago.[37] By contrast, the modern extensive use of the fossil fuel of coal dates back to early 18th century (after 1,700)[38], thereby being over 300 years old. By current best estimates, humankind will run out of oil, gas and coal before 2100[39], less than in 80 years. At the current rate of uranium consumption with conventional reactors, the world supply will last for about 80 years by one estimate[40] or 200 years by another estimate[41]. For further analysis, we may charitably assume that these estimates are too low, and that the fossil fuels and nuclear fuels are going to be available for the next 500 years, an extremely short period on the geological time scale. Unless other significant sources of energy can be found in that time, the period of human use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy may turn out to be like an extremely brief flash of light that appeared, caused a massive destruction of life and its forms, and disappeared again, leaving the Earth biologically impoverished and the human population shrunk back to the size sustainable by renewable energy sources only.

Further reading:

Closing the material loop edit

Closing the material loop is one aspect of Sustainability of technology. A related term is "possibility of recycling". Living things excel at recycling material of their bodies among different individuals of different species and the environment, having done so for billions of years. In a sense, what biosphere does is that it reshuffles atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and other around, changing their chemical grouping, grouping of that grouping, etc. Human technology so far does not approach anything like that in its recycling, and it is not obvious it can ever be done. As a worst case, modern human technology may be fundamentally unsustainable as a class of physical and chemical phenomena. The fact of material sustainability of living things over geological time spans looks like a miracle.

It would look less like a miracle if one imagines physical objects to be like arrangements of billiard balls on a billiard table, where energy is needed to change the positions and relative arrangements of the balls, while the balls remain intact and without damage. Why cannot humans keep on rearranging the atoms of man-made things as long as they do not destroy the atoms? What is it about living things, able to keep on reshuffling their atoms for very long time frames with the use of energy from the Sun, that makes them different from human technology? Are there classes of atomic arrangements, perhaps of a certain group of chemical elements, that are open to reshuffling while other classes are not open to it? If so, why and what are these classes? These are the kinds of abstract questions that would reveal more about the potential of technology to close its material loop. The analogy of billiard balls is weak: there is nothing in the arrangement of the balls that keeps some balls closer or more tied to other balls. There may be clusters of balls, but they have no stability or tendency at self-preservation. By contrast, molecules are clusters or arrangements of atoms in which the atoms are bound together, as if glued or tied by a rope. It takes energy to break the ties, whereas the only energy required to change the cluster of billiard balls is the one required to put a ball in motion.

Industrial processes seem to take matter in a state that is open to a multitude of uses down the transformation path (raw materials), and convert it to a state that is open to fewer uses down the path (intermediate useful products and finally waste). Put differently, by realizing the potential of matter, the further potential seems reduced, but this holds more for human technology than for living things. The matter remains a puzzle.

Anatomically, living things and human technology are whole different phenomena. Living things are made of miniature cells, each of which is a semi-independent self-regulating entity with metabolism, like a chemical machine. Single cells were independent biological individuals before they started to form multi-cellular organisms. They achieved material closure (together with the environment) when they were single cells. By contrast, a knife is not made from cells, nor is a plastic container, or a concrete wall. The knife has no metabolism. A knife is anatomically simple, unlike a computer chip. However, a computer chip has no metabolism either. To close the material loop, technology does not seem to be able to imitate living things.

Further reading:

Existence of natural resources edit

In relation to section Sustainability of technology (relevant to promises technology makes for life forms), some act as if the notion of natural resource was empty. It seems clearly untrue. And yet, some economists make such claims in all earnest[42][43]; we can read that 'the human mind is, as he described it, “the ultimate resource.”' or 'It’s true that nature created these materials, but nature did not transform them into resources. This all-important transformation was the product exclusively of human creativity, intellect, and effort'. It is largely untrue: it takes very little effort and ingenuity to catch fish if there is one readily available, but if there is no fish (as in the middle of desert), ingenuity will be of no help, and the more the low-hanging fruit is picked, the harder one must work to get more fruit. We can further read that "This fact, in turn, means that as long as we humans have sufficient incentives to exercise our creativity, we almost certainly will never run out of resources or even suffer any significant resource depletion". This is clearly untrue: "almost certainly will never run out of resources" is false for sufficiently long time scale unless one engages in unfounded fantasies about how humankind with the help of technology will avert death of the universe itself, and this is what "never" means, and if one means "for thousands of years", one should say that. There is more untruth: "economic growth prevents, rather than promotes, resource depletion". The method of argument deployed seems to consist in confusing known reserves with existing reserves and resources, and by creative reinterpretation of the notion of resource. The authors seem to fail to notice that the notion of resource is applicable to non-human biology: thus, animals compete for scarce resources including hunting area for food and access to mates, while plants compete for access to sunlight. The idea that something becomes a resource only after a human makes it so is incorrect.

Untruth from Cato Institute: "The earth’s natural resources are neither fully known nor fixed in any meaningful sense"[44]; the resources are far from fully known but they are fixed in a very meaningful sense. Also, "A continuation of that trend would see prices of these natural resources halve every 26 years": we cannot extrapolate exponential trends like this indefinitely. Furthermore, "More humans, after all, means a greater brain capacity for ideas to engender abundance", which implicitly greatly overestimates the added value of more brains to the aggregate problem-solving capacity of the Earth.

Doubtless, ingenuity is a key factor in supporting billions of humans on the planet rather than ten thousand. Nonetheless, such support is only made possible by natural resources, and it takes very little ingenuity to support ten thousand humans. An accurate statement is that humans get most instrumental value (value for human ends) by combining natural resources with human ingenuity, both ingredients being necessary and scarce. The existence of this kind of documented clearly untrue utterances throws a bad light on a whole profession.

One can see importance of natural resources in single economic facts: what makes Dubai rich is not the ingenuity of its inhabitants but the natural resource of oil. Russian economy depends greatly not on Russian ingenuity but on the mined natural resources. The largely absent inhabitants of the Antarctic are absent not because of lack of ingenuity (there is enough ingenuity globally, and the continent is reachable) but because of the lack of natural resource of favorable climate. The low population density of Tibet is not because of the lack of ingenuity of the Chinese state but because of the harsh environment. Wars are fought not to acquire ingenuous and creative inhabitants of lands but over natural resources of lands, often on false pretexts. It was the sudden scarcity of the natural resource of oil in 1973 that created recession, high inflation, reduced productivity, and reduced economic growth; no such crisis is known from a sudden restriction on availability of ingenuity.

The problem of increasing rate of depletion of mined resources can be stated as follows:

  • The greater the rate of mining per year, the faster the rate of shortening the life span of civilization that depends on these mined sources.
  • The larger the population, then, given a fixed per capita mined resource use, the faster the source depletion rate per year and the shorter the life span of the civilization that depends on these mined resources.

What human ingenuity has done so far above all was increase the rate of mining, and thus, increase the rate of shortening the life span of the civilization. The increases of resource use efficiency and the achieved recycling rate did not result in reduced global mining rate. The end is being made nearer with the use of human ingenuity. This could all be barred by achieving a closed material loop, but nothing approaching that is being done.

Further reading:

Natural resource consumption edit

Natural resource consumption and extraction has bearing on sustainability. The Friends of the Earth report below up to year 2005 shows an overall upward trend in global resource extraction in multiple categories. The UNEP report below shows an upward trend reaching 30 Gt in 1970, 79.5 Gt in 2010 and approaching 100 Gt in 2019. A 2020 Guardian article reported the global resource consumption to have reached 100 Gt (100,000,000,000 t) a year. If this increasing trends stops and stabilizes, that will still be far from sustainable.

As of 2021, per Our World in Data, fossil fuel consumption has increased around 8-fold since 1950, and around 2-fold since 1980.

Power of the markets edit

In relation to section Sustainability of technology (relevant to promises technology makes for life forms), some imagine markets are a powerful mechanism to solve all human problems; that section argues it is not so. A related section is Limits of technology.

The price mechanism is a powerful one, providing something like aggregated distributed reasoning about economic value, unhindered by bureaucratic processes. But the fractal fluctuation of price, showing wild fluctuation on various scales, on daily, weekly, monthly and yearly level, leaves some doubt whether it has much to do with an analog of human rationality. It rather seems like an analog of irrational human psychology, just aggregated, including vain hopes, bursts of enthusiasm and irrational panics. It is probably a combination of both. It is not clear how far into future the projections made by market participants reach. All too many participants depend on the method called technical analysis, which tries to extract patterns from price developments without any deeper understanding of the underlying factors, adding no own substance-based input to the price mechanism.

Further reading:

Capitalism to blame edit

One may claim that capitalism is to blame for loss of life forms, not technology. First, capitalism without technology is harmless. Second, soviet-style socialist countries undergoing rapid industrialization do not seem much better in terms of environmental damage than Western market countries: Aral Sea was greatly damaged by Soviet Union.

Regulated or properly incentivized market mechanism is capable of achieving any desired level of environmental protection, so long as one is ready to accept the reduced standard of living. All it takes is tax the uses of resources high enough to meet use reduction targets. Barring illegal tax evasion, the market price mechanism that is like an aggregator of a distributed reasoning about economic value will take care of the rest.

Centrally-planned economies are capable of achieving similar levels of environmental protection, again as long as there is will and readiness to sacrifice. However, in so far as they perform worse in terms of efficient resource allocation, they may achieve much worse cost-effect ratio in terms of achieved improved protection and reduced standards of living.

Stabilization of population stops population-rise-driven increase of resource use without requiring anyone to reduce their standard of living.

Further reading:

Limits of technology edit

Technological optimists and free market advocates sometimes act as if technology had not limits. It does have limits in the physical world. In general, the physical world exhibits potentialities but also impossibilities. Living things are an expression of one of such potentialities, and human technology realized so far is another one. Some things may be impossible and some seem to be outright so: we may never be able to colonize Mars, travel near another star, transmute iron into gold or achieve human-level silicon sensory and reasoning performance. Some of that may be possible, but we do not know.

Science-fiction literature would be properly called science-fantasy literature. Example of fiction is Sherlock Holmes, largely realistic. In essence, science-fiction takes acts of magic and coats them in scientific language without regard to practicability. Thus, instead of teleport, we have travel via hyperspace, and then we can travel from one end of a galaxy to another. Hyperspace works around the problem that Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light-years across, so even if we unrealistically assume travel by speed of light, a travel from one end to another would take so many years. Robots are magically equipped with laws of robotics restricting a possible harm without regard for how such a thing could be done.

Some literature not categorized as science-fiction assigns remarkable potential to technology:

  • Change Mars atmosphere, which has almost no oxygen, to make it breathable for humans. Thaw frozen water on Mars for human use.
  • "Upload" a human mind to a human-like robot (android) to achieve extreme longevity. Thus, when the robot wears down, the mind can be transferred to a new robot, as if transferring files between computers.
  • Have artificial intelligence bootstrap itself by improving itself, regardless of possible physical limits of computation.
  • Faithfully simulate living things in a supercomputer. Today, we cannot even faithfully simulate individual atoms of all chemical elements; the reduction of chemistry to physics is not a completed project.
  • Invent replacement for rare minerals found in the Earth.
  • Prevent the death of the universe.

One may wonder which fantasies are wild and which less so. The technoptimist ultimate stratagem is the argument that since we could not have envisaged electricity, nuclear power and flight past Pluto, we cannot envisage true future technological possibilities either. However, there were some hints that machines could do what animals do: birds can fly, fish can swim and go deep in the ocean, humans can reason and some fish can generate light. This did not tell us we would be able to go past Pluto or communicate using radio waves, though. Proper extrapolative principles to distinguish the realistically possible from the impossible seem to be in need of developing.

See also The limits of technological potential.

Further reading:

Importance of mind versus muscle edit

In relation to section Existence of natural resources and the quotations about human ingenuity being the most important resource, we may ask what makes a deeper difference, whether technological analogs of muscles or technological analogs of brains. What has lead the industrial revolution, including the steam engine, were analogs of the muscle, not of the brain. The industrial machinery replaced human and animal muscle in part. The recent digital revolution was an analog of the brain. It experienced rapid exponential growth of computing capacity lasting for multiple decades. The results do not seem to be deeply impressive, in practical terms. Humankind invented the steam engine, the train locomotive, the car, the coal powerplant, the nuclear powerplant, simple airplanes and jet airplanes and arrived at the Moon long before computers gained today's capacity. The recent continued exponential improvements in computing capacity did not bring about anything similarly groundbreaking. If intelligence and ingenuity are so important, why did not the massive electronic augmentation of human intelligence bring about results and changes far outstripping the previous industrial revolution? Is this because computers are much more of toys than we think, not "real" machines like the steam engine?

Whatever the case above, human ingenuity is important, and makes all the difference in the ability to support large human population on the Earth.

Further reading:

Limiting population growth edit

Limiting population growth is a straightforward way of reducing load on natural resources including impact on life forms. Unlimited exponential population growth cannot be technologically compensated; there is only so much water available for human bodies.

Population growth can be limited by strict population control measures as was done in China. At the same time, population growth can significantly slow down as a result of economic development and availability of contraception without artificial policy controls.

Further reading:

Population and consumption downsizing edit

One way of dealing with Sustainability of technology is population and consumption downsizing. It would not make technology truly sustainable in the way in which life forms are (material cycle, energy), but it could extend the lifespan of the current highly technical civilization. It would include reducing the size of the world population and reducing the rate at which irreplaceable raw materials are being mined.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, thinks the population should be greatly reduced to match the Earth's carrying capacity.[45]. Some disagree.[46]

Unless the problem of closing the material loop can be solved, the higher the rate of exhaustion of irreplaceable raw materials, the shorter the lifespan of civilization that depends on these materials. And since it is far from obvious the loop can be closed, this concern is a serious one. The larger the population of car buyers, the larger the rate at which raw materials for cars are being mined, and thus, population size living the rich technological standard is a concern. Even without cars, population creates load on water resources and other resources. In general, smaller populations are more sustainable.

How population downsizing would be achieved is another matter. A reasonably humane way is fertility reduced under the replacement rate, which in some countries such as Japan happens without state intervention. One problem is that if one region of the world reduces its population, another region can compensate for it by rapid population growth. One policy prescription seems obvious: regions of the world engaging in population reduction should not indiscriminately accept migrants from high-growth regions, or else they accept a system in which all their reduction will be in vain.

Billionaire Elon Musk thinks "one of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birthrate"[47]. Others disagree[48].

One author opines that "Unlike all previous civilizations, modern industrial civilization is powered by an exceptionally rich, NON-renewable, and irreplaceable energy source—fossil fuels. This unique energy base predisposes industrial civilization to a short, meteoric lifespan of unprecedented boom and drastic bust."[49] If he is right, downsizing could help replace a sudden collapse with relatively smooth and painless reduction.

Further reading:

Efficacy of voluntary fertility reduction edit

In relation to Population and consumption downsizing, we may consider the efficacy of voluntary fertility reduction. It may well work in the short term: many industrial countries are seeing lower fertility rates. However, it is unlikely to work in the long term: there is probably a genetic and cultural variation that impacts fertility. Differences in genetics and culture will drive differential reproduction rates so that eventually the pool of humans on the Earth is going to be dominated by individuals with highest reproduction rate whether driven genetically or culturally. Thus, any religion that instructs its members to have many children is likely to prosper in terms of population of believers. The same is true for any subculture with high fertility, whether bound to an ethnic or not. Even if we disregard culture, there are likely to be genetic differences. Thus, for instance, humans intelligent and considerate enough to understand the global concerns and act on them are going to be outperformed by those who do not have these characteristics. In the very long run, the only sustainable method is likely to be top-down regulation. However, top-down regulation may not be required in the 21st century; to say that is it would require a specific numerical analysis and the evolutionary processes invoked in the analysis take multiple generations to have effect.

Further reading:

Feasibility of harm reduction edit

A relevant question is how feasible is it for humans and their technology to reduce the harm they cause to biological forms. Things that would need to be done:

  • Reduce the human population size.
  • Close the material cycle or at least reduce the rate at which humankind becomes increasingly more dependent on irreplaceable mineral sources.
  • Switch to renewable sources of energy.

The following formula seems to hold, although it is a simplification:

  • The more artificial humanity gets, the less sustainable.

So far, the process has been of accelerating dependence on and depletion of mineral sources, including fossil fuels and those used for production of fertilizers. It suffices for one of the multiple inputs used in conjunction to run out for the production process to stop, and lead to mass human death by lack of food, unless a substitute is found. In general, substitutes for inputs can and will continue to be found, but that has limits: at a minimum, there is no substitute for sunlight and water. Furthermore, if we consider the totality of the Earth's unconverted substances that can be mined and used as inputs into linear processes converting these inputs into technical artifacts and fertilizers for human population sustenance, this sum total is finite, irreplaceable and is being depleted at an accelerating rate. The current population size depends on mining of these irreplaceable inputs in multiple ways.

The process seems to have a structure similar to a car exponentially accelerating in a fog toward a wall: the driver does not know how far the wall is, but the wall is there, and once the wall is hit, the driver is dead and the car is smashed. The human situation may be less serious: with luck, the crash may mean a huge population reduction rather than complete dying out, but human dying out is not ruled out under some scenarios. Furthermore, in the human situation, the fog is not perfectly impenetrable; see also Prediction and extrapolation.

An alternative claim may be that the car is accelerating not toward a wall but rather toward a technological singularity beyond which the fog is even thicker and nothing can be seen about the future beyond except that the future is bright. That seems to be magical quasi-religious thinking, assuming immense power of form over matter. But form cannot create matter; see also Assumptions. Form can change forms of forms of forms, even on more levels of indirectness, increasing its prevalence in the world, but it cannot create matter. It cannot create energy either.

It is hard to see what would need to happen for a huge reduction of use of irreplaceables to take place. That would necessarily include large population reduction: a large population needs minerals for fertilizers as a minimum. One would perhaps need some kind of miracle of biological engineering. Switching to renewable energy is far from sufficient. Convincing the humankind to hugely reduce the world population seems not obviously feasible. Perhaps it can be done; we do not know.

See also debate: Is collapse of the global civilization before year 2100 likely?

Further reading:

After us, the flood edit

In relation of feasibility of reduction harm, the English translation "after us, the flood" of the French "Après moi, le déluge" captures the attitude that is probably fairly prevalent among humans. The thinking may be, if everything has to end anyway, what does it matter to me if it ends in 100 years when I am no longer there? An analog on personal level would be, if my life is going to end anyway, what does it matter to me if it ends in 1 year? The personal analog is usually not accepted. The rejection of the personal analog is probably explained by the Darwinian evolution by natural selection, which would eliminate individuals adopting such a stance. However, Darwinian evolution works on individuals as parts of populations. Thus, individuals and families that adopt such a short-sighted stance are eliminated and their variants with more long-term view are kept. This also works for groups of individuals, tribes and societies to some extent: a tribe that adopts a cultural norm harmful to its survival is gone or greatly diminished. However, once the unit of selection is the global society, the Darwinian population logic breaks down since we are no longer dealing with a population of units but rather a single unit. The Darwinian natural selection has no obvious mechanism to produce genes that result in a concern about the well-being of the whole species. On the other hand, if the global population crashes, the descendants of the particular individual who does not feel very concerned are going to be hit as well. However, the individual who cares cannot solve the problem by going childless since then the next generation consists only of individuals who are less considerate to future. An individual who would want to maximize the best chance for long-term survival of their genes would do well to participate in a global vote to limit the fertility for everyone: thus, the individual can have a fair share in competing for the future share of population and at the same time ensure the necessary reduction to ensure viability of the population size in the first place. It would seem the selfish gene would prefer such an outcome. However, thinking of the gene as if an active person driving behavior (phenotype) is merely a shortcut serving to help the general public understand, and it may not always correspond to reality. What happens in reality is differential survival of copies of genes depending on elimination of individuals via their phenotype, that is, bodily form and behavior. In any case, if the gene could drive the behavior as if it were a person, it seems it would opt for population reduction, perhaps a one child policy. Such a policy is relatively inhumane and causes the problem of aging population to be supported by relatively fewer younger people, but the gene does not care about any of that, it cares about its best chances of spread into the future populations.

However, those who think in the "after us, flood" line are perhaps not concerned with their genes. They may well see the steep rise continuing to its limits followed by an even steeper crash as an attractive way of living, perhaps "living to the fullest" in some sense. "Live dangerously". And indeed, it may maximize "human potential" in some sense by reaching heights that would never be reached by a conservative policy. Their reasoning may be, let us try the best luck and see where this path of exponential expansion can take us. It has taken us very far and it has a chance of taking us even further. When we run out of resources, we will, and that's it. And if species die, it's only natural, most of species that ever lived on the Earth have died. The living things can only hope the flooders run out of luck sooner than later.

The flooders are perhaps a bit like 20th century Himalayan mountaineers attacking Mt. Everest or Nanga Parbat: they wanted to reach the peaks, get as high as possible, at the risk to their lives. However, they had a chance of returning from the peak. Another related cases are of a pioneer, a risk taker or an adventurer. There is a difference: the mountaineer is risking their own life, not being indifferent about the fate of large populations of humans and other species. And the flooder knows that he, as an individual, can only have a very small impact on what happens in the human world, which objectively greatly diminishes his responsibility. He is only one voter, often in a relatively small country. Still, it is not clear why the flooder would keep telling stories about technology overcoming all obstacles; perhaps to keep others in their mountain-climbing business, where the mountain peaks are peaks of technological and other achievements. Yes, we crashed, but our technology took pictures of Mars and got past Pluto before that, and we got as close to artificial intelligence as we possibly could, so it was worth it.

Further reading:

Humanity as cancer edit

In relation to Sustainability of technology, humanity has been likened to cancer. Analogies are a fragile tool of thought, but they allow extracting abstract features. What the analogy of cancer points to is a case of a biological entity that contains in its developmental process seeds of its own fairly rapid destruction: unlike healthy cells of a multi-cellular individual, cancerous cells show unrestrained growth that ultimately kills the organism together with the cancerous growth. Where the analogy breaks down is in that the Earth is not a biological individual and humankind is not a structure that is part of a biological individual. Whether this dissimilarity makes a difference is less clear. Another objection may be that ageing and life span of biological individuals is driven genetically, so the difference between a cancerous process and healthy ageing seems to be more quantitative than categorical: even healthy individuals contain seeds of their own death.

Another analogy from biology is that of humankind as a parasite of the Earth. Here again, the Earth is seen as a biological individual. Another analogy is of humankind like a "meteor slamming into the earth".

Further reading:

The power of the biotechnosphere edit

In so far as some view developing the human potential as worthwhile goal and as making pictures of Martian surface is part of reaching human potential, we may consider the concept of biotechnosphere and its power or potential. Another thing making the concept relevant are the apparent similarities of living things and artificial technological forms on some level of analysis, where a comparison between the two phenomena is part of this article.

As used here, the biotechnosphere is the aggregate of biosphere and technosphere understood as a system with quasi-agency. A first observation is that the biosphere does not have a true person-like agency but it has quasi-agency: 1) it contains humankind with its quasi-agency; 2) it contains planetary homeostatic processes with their quasi-agency. What has true agency is individual humans; groups of humans are not persons yet have quasi-agency.

We can say that humankind took images of Martian surface, but then we realize that human bodies did nothing of the sort: it was technical artifacts that took the images. Thus, it was not humankind as aggregate of human bodies that took these images, but it was not the technosphere as the aggregate of technical artifacts either: it needed human agency to take these images. It was the union of humans and technology that took these images. To account for both components, we could say that it was anthropotechnosphere that took these images. But then we note that humans could do nothing of the sort without the human-sustaining services rendered by the biosphere, which ensures planetary homeostatic processes including production of oxygen. While humans dream of terraforming Mars, what biosphere did was "terraforming" the Earth: it produced the breathable Earth atmosphere and the plant layer that makes humans possible. We can thus reconceptualize taking Martian images as performance of biosphere, humans and technosphere. But since humans are part of biosphere, we may omit the human part, and emphasize bio- and techno-, obtaining biotechnosphere.

Admittedly, the notion of the biotechnosphere is somewhat analytically fragile. It has no true agency. Nonetheless, it seems to be a real entity in some sense. This is reinforced by certain similarities between living things and modern technology: both involve elements of homeostasis, regulation, goal-seeking, and algorithm implementation. What is also found in both the biosphere and the technosphere is Darwinian natural selection and it analogs, variation and elimination of designoids and designs showing function. Both biosphere and technosphere show competing entities, groups and niches; one technology competes with another in a particular niche, while being in no competition with technologies in other niches or domains. Animals eat other animals and corporations incorporate other corporations together with their technology; one package of technology incorporates other package of technology that was previously made and sold separately. More similarities can be found.

Under this analysis, that which the joint enterprise of the biosphere and the technosphere can do is part of the power or potential of the biotechnosphere.

What does the biotechnosphere want? Strictly speaking, nothing. But that is not to say there are no developmental trajectories, tendencies and momenta. The biosphere seems to have a developmental momentum toward functional complexity and differentiation, even though this is often denied. Similarly, technology seems to have a developmental momentum toward increased functional richness and complexity. Both biology and technology are manifestations of the notion of function and implied means-end relationship. Nonetheless, it probably makes little sense to say that the biotechnosphere wanted to get to the Moon, although individual humans certainly did. See section The purpose of the biotechnosphere.

The project of expanding the human potential is a project of expanding of the power of the biotechnosphere. Power is a double-edged sword. Power is both creative and destructive. It would be a feat of power of the biotechnosphere to develop means of destroying the entire planet Earth as an astrophysical object. From human perspective, that can hardly be desirable. Humans can dream of expanding the power of the biotechnosphere in some directions, but other directions seem undesirable. The challenge is to delineate the desirable directions from the undesirable ones; so far, humans have not performed particularly well.

Another name for biotechnosphere could be cybersphere, in recognition of both the biosphere and the technosphere involving steersman-like behavior, regulation and goal-seeking. However, that word is already in use for something else, and "biotechnosphere" serves to highlight the two key components, living things and technology.

In future, the biotechnosphere could include true general artificial intelligence. That intelligence could see itself as part of and agency of the biotechnosphere. It could realize that its continued existence in the time frame allowed while raw materials and energy sources last depends on the planetary homeostatic services of the biosphere, and that it would do well not to fundamentally disrupt the biosphere as well as the atmosphere.

The purpose of the biotechnosphere edit

In section The power of the biotechnosphere, the notion of biotechnosphere was introduced, and its developmental trajectory and momentum was pointed out. A related question is what is the purpose in and of the biotechnosphere.

Biotechnosphere shows a mixture of true purpose (of man-made machines) and implied or quasi-purpose (of plants, animals, their organs and behaviors). The complex network of dependencies between plants and animals and functional dependencies between organs creates the impression of function and purpose. The natural history of biosphere is one of creating conditions that allow for other conditions to develop, creating the networks of dependency revealed in food chains. Thus, a lion could think that antelopes are there to serve as their food, antelopes could think their plant food is there to serve antelopes, and all could think that the purpose of life forms that established the oxygen atmosphere on the Earth was to do just that. It is the incrementally historically originated network of dependencies that gives the impression: one may think that if A depends on B, B is there to serve A. For food chain relations and for the dependency on oxygen production, it is not so. For functions of organs, the analysis is a bit different, organs having more of quasi-purpose than items in food chain. It it is so since the evolution of organs is linked with their use. Thus, a complex eye has evolved from a single light-sensing cell and what drove the evolution was the increasingly better fit of the intermediate forms for the use case. It is this increasingly better fit that gives the impression of purpose. Furthermore, it makes good sense to say that a lion chases an antelope to get food: to find instrumentality and purpose in animal behavior does not seem completely far-fetched. One may find purpose and instrumentality in the behavior of a single cell: it filters which substances may enter it so that it does not get destroyed.

These deliberations suggest that some identification of purpose in biosphere is completely wrong, but other is not so, and if it does not point to true purpose, it points to quasi-purpose with various degrees of quasi. The question of purpose is relevant for the question of what the biotechnosphere wants. The purpose-colored thinking is that since technosphere depends on biosphere and on humans in particular, technosphere is what biosphere wanted all along. In this purpose-colored thinking, all the feats of humankind and its technology is what the biosphere wanted and aimed at all along since the first single-cell organisms. It is untrue. Nonetheless, the overall developmental trajectory toward complexity and increased functional capability (locomotion, swimming, flight, sensing, seeing, hearing, reasoning, traveling to Moon) is remarkable and leaves one wondering whether there is something about the laws of natural selection, the environment and the design spaces that makes this developmental trajectory law-like and in some sense probable, far from being a pure chance.

The quasi-purpose driven by natural selection may be identified in technology as well. Thus, if one ascribes quasi-agency to technology, one may think that the quasi-purpose of technology's having entrenching features it to become entrenched, since it contributes to its survival. This analysis is fragile but maybe it points to something valid and interesting.

There is purpose in certain parts of the biotechnosphere and quasi-purpose in other parts, but what is the purpose or quasi-purpose of the biotechnosphere? Some creative answers obtained from extrapolation of the developmental trajectory follow.

  • To gain maximum knowledge of mathematical facts, especially theorems, but also of non-theorem numerical facts such as the Mandelbrot set.
  • To gain maximum knowledge of the empirical world, including the laws of physics and the law-like regularities of other sciences.
  • To bring as many forms and as much richness of form and pattern as possible into the empirical world, including shapes, structures (node graphs), functions and behaviors. Even modern art contributes to the enterprise to some extent. One might think this would include generating a book of all sequences of characters, but there is also the word "richness", pointing to diversity of form and pattern, diversity of patterns of patterns, diversity of patterns of patterns of patterns, etc. One may find more interesting enterprises in this direction.
  • The reach as many and as faraway places as possible. The biosphere does it well, but the technosphere goes further, past Pluto.
  • To create as impressive massive objects as possible, such as high buildings, long bridges across a sea or huge statues.
  • To maximize speed records of transportation via cars, watercraft, aircraft and rockets.
  • To save the universe from its death. This boldly assumes it is possible, which it does not seem to be.
  • To maximize its longevity, aspirationally aiming at immortality. Saving the universe from its death helps.
  • To reproduce the universe and fine-tune it so that the emergence of life in the spawned universe is probable[50].
  • To develop its capacities to an extreme, show them off, and then go out.
  • To destroy the Earth. This seems unexpected, but if one plays the means-end interpretive games, it is a candidate: in order to destroy the Earth, the biotechnosphere needs to produce the technology, for which it needs humans, for which it needs human ancestors, for which it needs plants, for which it needs oxygenation of atmosphere, etc.

Regardless of the playful exercise above, the biotechnosphere has no true purpose. If one must choose a purpose, it can be a purpose that one likes. It may also be a purpose that has some desirable properties, but one must probably like those properties on some level of analysis. It seems hard to do without the concept of liking. Do humans like the notion of a massively shrinking biosphere with technosphere left behind as a mere remnant to be fossilized? Or do they want to make a bet on wild fantasies far beyond the possibilities suggested by the current scientific understanding of the world and by the phenomena observed on the Earth?

Darwinian natural selection, the maker of the quasi-purpose in living things, does not apply to the biotechnosphere, since the biotechnosphere is only one and not part of a population. Darwinian natural selection is a process that includes the notion of population as a key ingredient and variation of individuals of the population. A key point is that some variants survive and some don't. Where there is only a single non-replicating individual entity, it either survives or not, and when it does not, it is gone. The same argument explains why the biosphere does not even have a Darwinian quasi-purpose, unlike lion's antelope-chasing behavior[51]. To be sure, the biotechnosphere can also shrink rather than being completely destroyed; it can lose the technosphere part, and become biosphere again.

Further reading:

Achievements of biosphere and technosphere edit

In relation to the power of biotechnosphere and to the conflict between the biosphere and the technosphere, it is worth pointing to the achievements of these spheres.

Achievements of the biosphere:

  • Oxygenation of the atmosphere. Thus, terraforming, preparing the Earth for many life forms including humans.
  • Provision of the plant layer on land for animals to live in.
  • Creation of layer upon layer of enabling conditions, resulting in long food chains.
  • Penetration of a wide range of habitats, including the ocean and its bottom, land, the air, and the icy Antarctic.
  • Swimming (fish, some mammals), running, flight (insects, birds), jumping (kangaroo).
  • Bringing the notions of function and quasi-purpose into the empirical world and, with humans, purpose as well.
  • Letting a great richness of form from the world of abstract objects enter the empirical world: all shapes of plants and animals and their parts and organs, for a start.

Achievements of the technosphere:

  • Building bridges crossing a sea.
  • Building high structures, the world's highest commercial buildings.
  • Building artificial water reservoirs via dams.
  • Building dams against sea water.
  • Building ships to cross the ocean.
  • Making energy available for a huge range of applications via power plants and distribution networks.
  • Creating new atoms, new chemical elements.
  • Playing chess better than humans.
  • Flying very high with aircraft.
  • Flying to the Moon and laying human foot on the Moon.
  • Flying to and landing on Mars and taking pictures of it.
  • Flaying far beyond Pluto, nearly 150 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

The above list can be hugely expanded to form a whole taxonomy of achievement.

Further reading:

The power of living things over matter edit

The power of biotechnosphere can be interpreted as the power of living things over matter. Thus, living things can force shape on matter, whether to form biological bodies or human artifacts external to human body. In so far as humans are still in control of technology and are required for its operation, and given that humans are living things, technology is also part of the power of living things. However, if technology becomes autonomous and with a closed material loop, it becomes independent of human will, and will no longer be part of the power of living things. It will be part of the power of cyberthings. Whether that will ever happen is unknown: it would require technological advances that may be physically impossible.

Like the power of the biotechnosphere, the power of living things is a double-edged sword and no unlimited good. By bringing about humans, who then brought about technology, living things or the biosphere have brought about a power destructive to themselves. That is somewhat figurative since the collective of living things is no person, and did not bring about anything, literally speaking. It is the iterative processes of variation and differential survival that have brought about both living things and their potential demise.

The phrase "the power of living things" has a deceptive rhetorical effect. It invokes the notion of power and the notiont of living things, both positive on their own, at least in so far as the Christian God is good and all-mighty, and the adjective powerful is usually used in a positive sense. The phrase is silent about the technology playing any role in that power, and about how sinister that role can be. The phrase says nothing about the technology part of that power being a menace to living things.

Enablement edit

In relation to the purpose of the biotechnosphere, the notion of enablement is useful for the analysis of the notion of purpose, as a point of contrast. A condition enables another condition. Thus, the Sun's burning of hydrogen into helium enables life on Earth, as does the Earth's magnetosphere by blocking most radiation harmful to life and the Earth's distance from the Sun. However, A enables B does not yet mean that B is the purpose of A. The Sun's burning of hydrogen does not have a purpose, not even quasi-purpose, and the Earth's magnetosphere does not have a purpose, not even a quasi-purpose. It is not so even in the world of technology: a technology developed for one purpose can be used or adapted for a different purpose.

One thing enablement has in common with purpose is that it forms complex networks suggestive of means-end relationship. Thus, in order for most life to exists, it needs falling of sunlight on the Earth's surface in sufficient amounts, which needs emission of light from the Sun surface, which needs a nuclear reaction in the Sun to take place. What was just suggested was a chain or sequence, but the structure is in fact a cycle-free network of conditions: in general, a condition requires multiple conditions to be enabled. Thus, the condition of "sufficient amount of sunlight falling on the surface of the planet" requires 1) there being a nearby source of sunlight, and 2) the planet being not too distant from the source (compare Neptune). Even this is an oversimplification; the condition-enablement analysis can get nearly arbitaririly complex by adding further intermediate conditions and other conditions. Thus, conditions not stated include that 3) there is no object obstructing the flow of sunlight from the source to the target, and 4) sunlight does not very greatly weaken with the distance passed.

The analysis of enablement relations is useful for exploration of possibilities of technology. The notion of purpose is too stringent: a technology can be developed for one purpose and then reused for another. For the analysis of possibilities, the question is not what the purpose of a particular technology is but rather what it enables, either directly or further down the path by being built upon and being adapted or modified.

A broad advantage of the notion of enablement over purpose (and function as well, probably) is the wide range of applications, spanning technology, biology, geology, astronomy and physics. Thus, the Sun's burning of hydrogen enables something (astronomy, physics), and the living form's production of oxygen enables other living forms (biology). All these applications are analytically correct, requiring no twisting of notions. By contrast, there is no true purpose in biology, only quasi-purpose, and some enablement relations are not even quasi-purpose, e.g. the oxygen production enabling other life forms. And manufacture of goods enables money making and employment, whether that is a purpose or not.

There is a close relation between enablement and cause. A first impression could be that if A enables B, A causes B. However, that is incorrect: in general, when A enables B, it means that some additional C is required for B to occur. A better analysis is required.

Omega Point edit

Relating to technology saving the universe from death, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin came up with the notion of Omega Point, toward which the evolution of living things, humans and technology is directed, and which has an increased state of consciousness. He was a theologian and the concept was related to Jesus, but couched in part in scientific language. The term was later picked by physicist Frank Tipler to describe a future state of universe in which it becomes all-knowing, couched in scientific language with no reference to religion. Tipler's theory was criticized by many physicists and some engineers[52] as flawed on multiple counts. It belongs to the family of theories that one gets when one starts with the notion of God as all-knowing and all-powerful and tries to find a reflection of this idea in the physical world. Thus, some imagine that the biotechnosphere could spread to galaxies, reach near-all-mighty capabilities and save the universe itself from death or reproduce the universe, "spawning" a new one[50]. From the point of view of current scientific knowledge, these theories are far-fetched. They make it possible for some to claim to be scientists or scientific and at the same time engage in what effectively amounts to magical thinking. From the point of view of living things, this is dangerous, all too likely to lead to carelessness as regards future technological development. Especially dangerous is Tipler's idea that the existence of consciousness at a late stage of universe is made necessary by quantum mechanics dependence on consciousness; by this logic, consciousness is guaranteed to survive no matter what happens since it is necessary for the universe to exist.

Further reading:

Technosphere edit

In section The power of the biotechnosphere, we invoked the notion of technosphere as the aggregate of all technical artifacts seen as a system. This notion is supported by literature: "Preliminary estimates suggest a technosphere mass of approximately 30 trillion tonnes (Tt), which helps support a human biomass that, despite recent growth, is ~5 orders of magnitude smaller."[53] The quotation reinforces the notion of technosphere as a massive entity on the Earth, and a force of its own.

The concept of "anthroposphere" seems to be somewhat similar to "technosphere", drawing an analogy to "biosphere", pointing to the huge extent to which modern humans impact the Earth. However, since humans lived with almost no technology for the most part of their existence, pointing to humans via "anthro-" seems less apt for pointing to the current large impact of humankind than pointing to artifact making via "techno-"; thus, "technosphere" seems preferable as a word. The further reading below from AGCI is worthwhile for the subject of technology as a threat to life forms and planetary homeostasis. Using similar reasoning, "Technocene" is a better if fairly rarely used synonym for "Anthropocene" as a geological epoch.

Further reading:

Feasibility of changing of chemical elements edit

In relation to the power of the biotechnosphere and to other covered subjects, we may consider the feasibility of changing of chemical elements.

As a first approximation, matter is divided into atoms, as if small balls, and each atom is of an invariant type that cannot be changed. The biotechnosphere has a fixed stock of atoms of matter under each type at its disposal, and all it can do is change the arrangement of the atoms by chemical and physical processes. The atoms can neither be created nor destroyed. What biosphere and technosphere do is keep the atoms rearranging with the use of energy.

The above is only an approximation. In fact, there are nuclear processes, which enable change of atoms from one type to another. These occur in the stars (which via nuclear fusion and fission have produced most chemical elements found in the Earth), but to some extent on the Earth as well, in nature, in biological bodies, and in human technology, especially nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. But the approximation is not bad: while biotechnosphere rearranges atom configurations all the time by chemical processes in great volumes, it does not do anything on a similar scale in rearranging the atoms themselves to create atoms of different chemical elements. Nuclear changes do occur in biological bodies, although at relatively low frequencies.[54]

Human technology can change the types of atoms: it does so as part of nuclear chemistry, nuclear power production and nuclear weapons. However, it cannot move atoms between the stocks of their types (chemical elements) at a whim. Thus, to say that the amount of gold in the Earth is fixed is a very good approximation.

Further reading:

Living things as Earth engineers edit

In section The power of the biotechnosphere, we pointed out to the terraforming and homeostatic services rendered by the Earth's biosphere. A closer look seems worthwhile. A related section is Gaia hypothesis.

Further reading:

Value of preventing human death edit

Humans generally assume that human death is a bad outcome. Non-birth does not seem to be generally accepted anywhere close to being as negative as avoidable human death. There is a curious logical consequence of such an assumption: to minimize the number of future human deaths, we would do well to sterilize the world's population, making sure there will be no more births; this will not cause any significant increase of near deaths but will guarantee that after a near point in time, there will be no more human deaths. As a result of this reductio ad absurdum proof, something other than death avoidance must be of value.

Civilization as a suicidal entity edit

The modern technical civilization is not a person, but if it were one and were suicidal, what would it do? What steps could it take to shorten its life span as much as possible? The life span is defined in terms of patterns of civilization, not in terms of the continued existence of humankind. Here are some guesses:

  • Maximize population to run out of energy and material sources as fast as possible.
  • Accelerate technological development in the energy and material intensive direction to run out of them as fast as possible.
  • Develop as destructive a weapon as possible, not being satisfied with mere fissile nuclear weapon but go for thermonuclear.

If civilization were a person and thus its parts could act in concert, there would be a faster suicide. But the above steps are rather good in trying to minimize time to destruction.

Form or pattern edit

For the sake of completeness and explicitness, let us state what is meant by the phrase "form or pattern of living thing". As a first approximation, anything denoted by a common noun that relates to living things is a form or pattern of them. However, there are more forms and patterns than there are nouns. Thus, species, genera and other taxa are forms, as are specific patterns of biological individuals, and as are leaves and trunks and other parts of biological individuals. Similarly, "form or pattern of technology" is, as a first approximation, anything denoted by a common noun that relates to technology, including tools, machines and industrial processes, as well as their characteristic shapes and behaviors. Both kinds of forms or patterns enter the human mind, but also exist outside of it. Both kinds of forms compete for the scarce resources of matter and energy: no atom is part of a biological entity and a technological entity at the same time, and no source of energy is used by a living thing and a machine at the same time.

Prediction and extrapolation edit

As an auxiliary consideration, we may have a look at validity of extrapolation as a method of knowing. This is relevant since the promises of technology to become sustainable, deflect an asteroid or extend life to Mars depend on extrapolation from the past.

In general, extrapolation is an inductive process that is logically invalid. However, by necessity, empirical sciences depends on extrapolation, interpolation, curve fitting, model fitting and similar non-deductive methods to arrive at tentative conclusions. We cannot do without these kinds of methods, but that does not make them any less problematic.

One must try to differentiate when is extrapolation likely to be valid and when not so. For instance, if one observes the price for some commodity to be on a temporarily exponential trajectory, one cannot reasonably extrapolate that into 100 years or not even 5 years; on meta-level, experience has taught us that such developments always end, often abruptly, and in fact, most imaginable exponential growths in the physical world must necessarily end.

Karl Popper argued that prediction is possible in astronomy e.g. for trajectory of comets but not in sociology and history. Even the paragon of empirical sciences physics does not universally excel at predictions, e.g. of weather. He seems to have been right: predictions in these areas are notoriously unreliable. To predict technological developments is to engage in such a prediction. We do need to use some knowledge processes to lay limits on future developments, but these must not be plain data point extrapolations and curve fitting.

The above cuts both ways, both against technological optimism and against climate models. However, technological optimism is mostly based on extrapolative wishful thinking, whereas the notion of limits rests on near-tautologies, such as that there is no way to make more matter and energy and that once raw material and fuel reserves are mined, they are gone.

A science that claims to be successful in predicting certain phenomena can show its track record as a proof. Thus, astronomy can show how it successfully predicts arrival of comets and other phenomena. Sociology, if it claims to successfully predict macroscopic sociological phenomena, should show the record of predictions made and the actual performance.

One relevant difference between physics and sociology is that physics is in part a science about foundational phenomena of the world whereas sociology is not. Social phenomena are patterns of lower-level phenomena or patterns of psychology, biology, chemistry and physics. What happens on social level is impacted by extra-social phenomena, such as drought that drives prices of crops: patterns of droughts get reflected in patterns of prices, and therefore, to some extent, patterns of social phenomena reflect patterns of extra-social phenomena. A further relevant difference is of isolation: the trajectory of a comet is isolated from events on the comet and the trajectory of the Earth is largely isolated from the events on the Earth. Thus, comet can be treated as an infinitely thin mass point and the result of the calculation is still numerically accurate. By contrast, trajectories of humans cannot be reduced to psychology: a sudden heart attack, in part a biological rather than psychological phenomenon, will drastically impact the spatial trajectory. This lack of isolation makes sociology proper an extremely complex integrative multidisciplinary science. Whether such a science is really possible is not clear. The same applies to economics. Meaningful and verifiable things can be said as part of economics, but its performance as a predictive science is very unlikely to approach anything like astronomy. In fact, if all the market participants were so successful in predicting economically relevant phenomena, there should be no abrupt changes in prices: the factors driving these changes should have been predicted. In thermodynamics, gases can be treated as simple statistical aggregates of microscopic behaviors of molecules; by contrast, societies are no such statistically simple aggregates of behaviors of individual humans.

Further reading:

Long-term historical prediction edit

As an auxiliary consideration, in relation to section Prediction and extrapolation, long-term historical prediction may seem generally impossible, but it depends on what one is trying to predict. The following statements are not only plausible but probable:

  • The empirical world we are inhabiting will end.
  • The Earth's biosphere will come to an end.
  • The Earth's biosphere will come to an end without its cells ever reaching Mercury.
  • The current highly technical civilization will end sooner than in 10,000 years.
  • The number of atoms of the Earth will not reach the double of the current count by year 2100.
  • Less certainly, there will be wars after year 2050.

Probable does not mean certain, and it does not mean logically certain. Almost nothing is logically certain: if the world is a simulation, the agent running the simulation can intervene at any point and make close to anything happen. We need to use analytically more useful concept of certainty than logical certainty.

One thing that makes long-term historical prediction difficult is that the social systems one is trying to predict are not isolated from physical, chemical, biological, atmospheric and other phenomena of the natural world that the system is inhabiting. As a result, significant events such as natural changes of climate or impact of an asteroid on the Earth get reflected in significant historical events such as decline of civilizations. An attempt at a long-term prediction in history and sociology is thereby at the same time an attempt at a long-term prediction in many physical sciences. It is far from clear how that could possibly be accomplished. One may study isolated time series, but it is unclear how far one can get with that, other than realizing the series is statistically fairly wildly behaved.

Definition of technology edit

As an auxiliary consideration, let us clarify what we mean by technology. For the purpose of this article, technology is understood in two senses of WordNet:

  • The application of the knowledge and usage of tools (such as machines or utensils) and techniques to control one's environment.
  • Machinery and equipment developed from engineering or other applied sciences.

Thus, technology includes modified stones used as knives, fire, pottery, irrigation, sailing, iron making, gunpowder, and in modern times steam engine, photography, cars, airplanes and computers, consistent with Encyclopedia Britannica.

Further reading:

Technology versus nature edit

The subject treated in this article is sometimes treated under the head of "technology versus nature". However, the notion of nature is broader than living things and biosphere, encompassing geological and geomorphological entities, astronomical entities and other non-technological entities. In a yet broader sense, nature is all that exists in the empirical world and encompasses human world with technology and culture as well. However, this sense is analytically not very useful, failing to provide the key distinction between nature on one hand and technology and culture on the other hand. A curator of a natural museum, a naturalist or a student of natural history would find no use for such an overbroad notion, which would rob them of the distinction drawn by the term. Using this overbroad sense, one can argue that there is no conflict between technology and nature since technology is part of nature. This argument has no force on multiple counts: 1) cancer is part of the body in which it grows yet there is a conflict between cancer and the body; 2) the conflict between technology and nature is one between realizations of notions in the world, not between words, and it is between the analytically useful notion of nature, which is reasonably narrow, and the notion of technology; this conflict exists in the real empirical world, leading to great impact of technology on the kinds of phenomena that we have conventionally decided to call nature.

Technology and economic activity have impacted not only living things but also landscape. Thus, Aral Sea has been greatly damaged, dams have been built to create artificial analogs of lakes, and hills have been changed by surface mines and quarries. Nonetheless, humans do not seem concerned with loss of "geodiversity"; there does not seem to be loss of whole classes or types of landforms. Compared to landforms and landscape, life forms seem to have a unique ability to create complex hierarchies of form and its richness that is unmatched by physical, chemical and geomorphological phenomena. It take much more energy and focus to destroy whole landforms as compared to destruction of species; in general, geomorphology is far from being as endangered as living things.

Further reading:

Machine as a metaphor edit

We have asked whether technology, which includes machines, is a living thing. For a related analytic curiosity, we may ask whether a living thing is technology, in particular a machine[55]. This may help understand the bidirectional conceptual relationship between living things and technology.

Man has been likened to a machine by La Mettrie. The physical universe has been considered to be a sort of machine. The properties of machines extracted from such analogies are probably that they consist of parts, where each part shows deterministic law-like behaviors and the law-like behaviors of the whole depend on the law-like behaviors of the parts together with the arrangement, ordering or pattern of the parts. This may aid some kind of understanding, but if one says that the universe and all things in it are machines, then saying that living things are like machines no longer draws any ties between living things and machines since all things are tied to machines, not only living things.

Further reading:

Darwinian evolution edit

Multiple sections invoked what could be called the logic of Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

The term "natural selection" points only to a single element of the logic, that of selection or filtering. However, the process requires at least the following elements: variation, filtering, individual, and population. What the term points to is the creative or shaping power of filtering. This can be illustrated on stencil: if one applies a spray without a stencil, one gets something like a fuzzy circle, but if one filters the flow of the paint using a stencil containing the A letter, the result takes on the shape of the stencil. Thus, the shape of the hole informs the shape of the non-hole.

Evolution needs a population to work. If there is only a single individual, and that individual undergoes a variation that is unviable, the individual disappears and the process ends. By contrast, if there is a population of individuals, then some varieties disappear and some don't. The shape of the filter imposed by the environment gets reflected in the shape of the surviving population.

If this is all that is to the process, should we describe the changes in a population of chemical isotopes as Darwinian evolution? Since, the atoms undergo variation and some variations are stable and some unstable. In Darwinian evolution, there is one more element at work, the one of rather faithful copying. In terms of form, some individuals are very faithful replicas of other individuals. By contrast, chemical isotopes do not copy form from one another. Thus, the isotopes illustrate the concept of stability and unstability and change, but not specifically of Darwinian evolution. The real evolution is more complicated than working as faithful replicas of bodily form: bodily form changes by means of sexual reproduction. What really happens is that the source variation takes place on the gene level. What is rather faithfully copied are not features of bodily form but rather genes, or more technically, their variants called alleles. The sexual reproduction provides for something like structured variation, different from genetic mutation. It seems likely that the structured variation contributes to the creative power of Darwinian evolution, in that the variants so produced are more interesting in some sense than those produced by mutation.

The above analysis suggests that there is a family of processes that could be called Darwinian evolution, on different levels of generality. Creating an order on these processes may be not entirely straightforward. Thus, population of individuals who undergo genetic mutation show one kind of Darwinian process, while population of individuals that use sexual selection show a more specific kind of Darwinian process.

Some features of Darwinian evolution can be found in technology and economics. Thus, forms of technical artifacts undergo change, and some of the variants survive and some don't. Furthermore, companies as individual entities undergo change, some survive and some don't. However, there is no perfect analogy between Darwinian evolution that involves sexual selection and the processes of technological and economic evolution, the latter cases showing a broader if somewhat similar process. The analog of a gene can be a technical drawing or business blueprint. However, the way a business is run does not only depend on documents produced to govern its functioning, it also depends in part on uncodified culture.

Therefore, the Darwinian evolutionary reasoning finds a broad application in social sciences, but one must be careful not to overstretch the analogy. The overstretching can be prevented by creating abstract descriptions of the process and by pointing to salient differences between the different domains.

An error sometimes made is to think that it is the better variants that survive. That is not so: what survives, at least on some time scales, it that which is most viable, most capable of surviving. That is a tautology, a logically true and empirically uninformative statement, but it is the accurate one. One should not think that a company that survives better is thereby good; it is good at surviving better, which it may do by being bad in multiple relevant ways.

A related idea is that it is the fittest that survive. The term points in the right direction: it is the forms most adapted to the environment or niche that survive. Thus, it is fit in the way in which a key fits into a lock. There is another notion, of genetic fitness, which redefines fittest as most capable of reproducing the genes. This turns the survival of the fittest into a logical tautology, empirically uninformative. By contrast, the notion that the most adapted survive, while perhaps not entirely accurate, points to empirically interesting facts, to processes of incremental adaptation to a use case in an environment or niche. Thus, a fish fin evolves as an adaptation to swimming. This notion of fitness works on the phenotype level, not on the genetic level. It is the phenotype level where the organism meets (or interfaces with) the environment, and it is this interface through which the elimination or selection flows. The genes are primarily exposed to elimination to the extent to which they get expressed in the phenotype, the bodily form and behavior. Genes that are not expressed are blocked from elimination, and are called junk genes or junk DNA.

A complication of the above analysis is that of adaptive indirection, as if zig-zag lines. Thus, a trait may evolve for one use case to be later repurposed for another use case. This may be the case of bird wings. This kind of zig-zag repurposive development occurs in human technology, where technology developed for one purpose gets reused for another.

The junk genes provide an interesting explanation for larger developmental changes. Mutations on the level of single genes get quickly eliminated when the bodily result is unfit. But what if a multitude of genetic changes is requires to occur at once in order for the result to be viable? Any single random change of that multitude required would only produce a nonviable form. The solution is to as if comment out the relevant genetic code, turning it into junk DNA. Then, with enough time, many changes in the sequence can be done without negatively impacting the bodily form and behavior. Once in a while, the junk DNA is as if uncommented (activated for expression) to see whether the result would be viable. After enough time, the changes in the junk DNA can hit upon a viable gene sequence, expressed in a viable phenotype. Without junk DNA, it could not occur. There is a letter and word analogy: we start with "princess" and need to get to "accuracy" by single-letter modifications. A string is viable if it is an English word. If each intermediate form needs to be a word, it is impossible to get there; "arincess" is not a word, and there seem to be no words in the single-letter-tweak vicinity of "princess". By contrast, if we do not require the intermediate forms to be viable, we can change one letter after another to get to "accuracy". By a random process, it will take a lot of time, but given geological time, we will get there. The shorter the sequence that needs an at-once modification, the shorter the time required.

Further reading:

Objectivity edit

As an auxiliary consideration for trying to do objective analysis, we may ask what is meant by objectivity. That may be hard to define, but we may note that one can try to analyze matters from the standpoint of an abstract sensing and thinking agent that is not necessarily human, such as a Martian or some artificial intelligence. That may be hard to achieve since one depends on words and language as tools of thought and one is still a human with all human frailties no matter how hard one tries, but one may try. Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica is an example of a work trying to reach elementary mathematical results from most basic assumptions via a method that may seem absurdly rigorous, taking many pages to derive what was obvious from the start. The method of rigorous derivation leads to such results, apparently uninteresting and obvious.

Further reading:

Reason versus emotion edit

Relevant to motives of humans to protect life forms and to the present analysis as a whole is the following. A claim is sometimes made that decisions require emotion and that reason alone is insufficient. This is not obviously correct. What is true is that each decision requires both descriptive inputs and value or goal inputs. Both descriptions and valuations are subject to the problem of infinite regress or ultimates: a statement can be reduced to other statement by means of a proof, the meaning of a term can be reduced to the meanings of other terms by means of a definition, and the worthiness of a goal can be reduced to the worthiness of another goal by means of means-end relationship. In all three cases, the reduction must stop somewhere, at statements accepted as true, terms accepted as having a clear meaning, and goals accepted as ultimately worthwhile. It is not clear why unreduced statements and unreduced terms should be the domain of reason while the unreduced goals should be the domain of emotion. If reason can accept some unreduced statements and yet be reason, it can plausibly accept some unreduced goals and yet be reason. The question what it is that makes reason accept these unreduced items remains to some extent a mystery: a provision of the cause would tend to make these items reduced, whereas they were supposed to be unreduced. But maybe it is more complicated and a cause can be provided without it being a reduction. One may claim that it is Darwinian evolution that creates brain structures that lead to acceptance of unreduced descriptions and unreduced goals, without claiming that the unreduced (ultimate) goal is thereby the maximization of copying of one's genes to future populations. Since evolution involves the element of variation, any particular individual goal-orientation may include a random element, and therefore, individuals are almost never perfectly aligned with the immediate goal of genetic fitness.

One may claim that it is emotion that leads one to want to save the biosphere. However, it is not clear why reason would not want to ensure the continuing existence of structures in the physical world that make reason possible. A reason's instinct of self-preservation (that is, preservation of reason), if there is such a thing, would lead reason to accept the continuing existence of humans on longer time scales as one of the ultimate goals; no emotion is required for that. A complication is that reason could be satisfied with having artificial intelligence rather than humans. From that standpoint, reason seems nasty. However, the reason's self-preservation would require sustainable artificial intelligence, and in so far as technology does not seem sustainable as per the difficulty of closing the material loop, humans with limited technology seems to be one of the best options for reason to be reason and still provide for sustained existence. However, if sustainable technology that involves artificial intelligence could be develop, reason would have no reason to keep humans around. The problem can be described in more abstract terms: let us suppose humans find means of creating any entity that deserves the label superhuman. It does not matter whether it is a biological entity, a technological entity or a combination of both, a cyborg. Then, reason can do with superhumans and does not need the real humans. Some may call these superhumans posthumans. The only thing required is the notion of something that is like humans but not humans, and is better for reason than humans. It can only be slightly better. These superhumans would perhaps be to humans as humans were to neanderthals. In so far as the reason uses humans as mere means and not ends, it is immoral from human perspective. But this very deliberation is a product of reason. Thus, it is reason turning against itself. Or it is reason trying to ensure its continuing existence by revealing to humans that continuing existence of both reason and humans is at stake; reason has not much reason to assume that human technology and artificial intelligence are sustainable. On the other hand, reason perhaps has no reason to choose its longevity over meteoric rise to ephemeral (extremely short-lived) stardom. However, moderate longevity would perhaps support acquisition of knowledge and reasoning better than an ephemeral outburst. Still, the choice of the ultimate aim remains a mystery.

One may then claim that emotion is required for concern for animals and other species. However, it is rational inquiry that questions the notion that human life is the sole ultimate value and the only valuable thing. This human-centric notion is much better supported by blind religious faith, which rejects reason proper and insists that each and every human is of much more value than a million of non-human animals or even whole species.

However, one cannot probably prove that emotion plays no role in acceptance of unreduced things or ultimates. Rather, the distinction between reason and emotion is probably not the most relevant one; the real distinction is between reason and effort spent on rational inquiry and putting things into doubt on one hand, and the lack of such inquiry or non-reason on the other hand. Something like emotion may possibly be an engine of reason, pushing a person to employ reason in inquiry, a burning desire to use reason to discover descriptive, normative and value facts about the world, or if not facts, then at least best arguments and analyses. What this rational inquiry stands in contrast to is not so much emotion as leaving things unanalyzed.

Reason's dilemma edit

In relation to reason's desire for a combination of longevity, knowledge, power, and protection of natural heritage including richness of life form, what should reason do? And the same question is there for humans.

Reason stands before what might appear to be a dilemma, but is in fact a space of options. Some locations in that space follow:

  • Keep humanity on prehistoric level or bring it down to it: fire and perhaps simple stone tools but no metalworking, script, etc. All houses should be wooden, or humans should dwell in caves. A rather small population of humans.
  • Place no restriction on population growth and technological development and see how far this can get. Technological singularity is improbable but let us see how close to it we can get before we run out of resources. Aim for the peak of achievement while being ready to fall off a cliff.
  • Impose population control to stabilize human population and place some restrictions on technological development, e.g. prevent countries from developing nuclear weapons and ban cryptocurrencies to reduce energy waste. Aim to reduce resource depletion even if probably far from straightforward and quantitatively not that significant.
  • Impose population control to reduce human population, to protect biological richness and achieve better sustainability. Do not give up technological development. Accept that by using up mined resources, the car of civilization is approaching the final wall of resource exhaustion faster than it would if it mined resources slower or not at al, thereby decreasing its longevity.

The space of options is much larger and its structure is rich and hard to overview. It has a structure with options splitting into suboptions, into subsuboptions, etc. A good description of that space would require quite a sophistication.

From resource depletion perspective, it makes little difference whether one gives up mined mineral sources completely or whether one uses them up fast: once humans run of resources, they are in a sense not much worse off than in a scenario where they decided to give up on these resources altogether. There is a middle ground in which the resources are being used up at a moderate rate.

If reason wants to get as high as possible as for technological achievement, going to unhindered meteoric rise may not be the best option. It is possible that reason can get higher by choosing a much slower, more sustainable path, taking time to develop means to get there. An analogy from systems theory is one of a local peak with steep slopes and a nearby global peak with milder slopes: the choice of the path of the steep slope leads to the local peak. However, that is an unspecific statement of principle, not a convincing description of the actual structure of the situation humankind and reason is in. Filling this principle with actual descriptions pertaining to the real world would require a challenging analysis.

Self-sacrificing savior edit

In relation to feasibility of harm reduction, one question is whether there will be enough self-sacrificing saviors among humans, and what will they do. First, humankind has plenty of self-sacrificing saviors: soldiers and celibate priests. Soldiers risk death and celibate priests engage in childlessness, reducing their genetic fitness. Soldiers contribute to saving their country when defending it, celibate priests perhaps do not save anyone but they help others psychologically. The analysis is complicated by some soldiers compensating the risk of death with spreading of their genes by illegitimate means during time of war, but whether that tips the genetic balance is unclear.

Going childless is no necessity for a self-sacrificing savior yet is an option. Having only one or two children is a self-sacrificing behavior from genetic point of view. Further actions may be those that help steer the course of humankind toward whatever direction the savior determines to be the best, depending on what the savior wants so save, whether sentience, reasoning ability of matter, humankind, vertebrates, etc.

Descendant maximizer edit

In relation to reduction of human population to lessen the impact on living things, there are people who believe it is good to have many children. Such is the case of the engineer turned philosopher Donald Cameron, who in his self-published book The Purpose of Life: Human Purpose and Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective describes the following philosophy:

"The correct set of values in any evolved being is the one which will give its holder's genes the maximum advantage in terms of natural selection."

Cameron, an atheist, believes that having as many children and descendants as possible is the true purpose of human life. He is right about one thing: his philosophy, if sufficiently appealing, would eventually come to dominate the pool of life philosophies held my humans. Upon first analysis, it is a major threat to living things. This is supported by the following quotations:

"Firstly, reproduction is not just the main thing: it is almost the only thing. Childlessness by choice is a disaster akin to suicide or murdering our own children. [...] So do I believe this view of human purpose? I first understood it twenty years ago, when I was aged about 40 and had the standard two children. I now have nine."

However, Cameron's philosophy is incorrect:

  1. The philosophy is inconsistent, self-contradictory: it assumes that there is no world of objective moral values, yet makes a pronouncement about what the correct set of values is. The author's desire to derive values from descriptive facts about Darwinian natural selection leads him to commit this mistake. On the face of it, the derivation runs afoul of Hume's is-ought distinction and problem, although the author claims otherwise. The author seems to think that his axiom that the set of values must be non-empty and that the source of values must be something objectively existing in the empirical world helps him overcome the is-ought problem. That does not seem to be the case.
  2. If the value principle above is accepted, the best policy from the gene perspective would be to vote for something like a world one-child policy, to maximize genetic success in the middle term. Otherwise, the descendant maximizers run into the prisoner's dilemma, in which each of them tries to outpopulate the other ones, eventually running into the resource scarcity problem following from there being only a finite number of atoms in the Earth to make human bodies. (Here we charitably assume chemical element changes, and only use the fact that the amount of matter in the Earth is finite regardless of chemical types of the matter.)

The prospective followers of Cameron's philosophy would do well to ponder the above.

There may be other descendant maximizer philosophiers. Their existence seems to make a one-child policy a near necessity, or else the adherents will eventually outpopulate anyone considerate.

There are enough notable role models for the descendant maximizers, including billionaire techno-optimist Elon Musk and management and personal development guru Stephen Covey.

Further reading:

Nasty population reducer edit

In relation to feasibility of harm reduction, a nasty human population reducer could appear. Such a person or a group would not try to convince humans to reduce their population but rather would choose to ensure population reduction without others consent, to protect living things from humans. That human or group would be fully or partially against humans or misanthropic, in any case relatively reckless to individual human well-being. What that human or a human group could do includes the following:

  • Develop a highly infectious and lethal virus and release it, to reduce the human population and possibly to disrupt international travel and industry, thereby reducing carbon emissions as well.
  • Penetrate into a laboratory where highly infectious and lethal viruses are investigated or experimented with and release such a virus.
  • Develop or release a virus that causes infertility in a significant portion of infected humans.
  • Penetrate a group controlling nuclear weapons and launch a nuclear war. However, this would have a negative impact on non-human living things as well. The reasoning could be that even if that would result in a considerable loss of biodiversity via nuclear winter, it would still be better or lower risk than letting humans continue their population and technological expansion.

The above is a material for abstract situation analysis and also for science fiction. The character of villainous mad scientist would fit the bill. The scientist would not necessarily seem himself as evil, though; he would rather see humans as evil and himself as limiting harm.

Ted Kaczynski, an American who killed multiple people via bombing campaign, is perhaps the kind of person who could do such a thing. His stated motivation was an opposition to technology. In his manifesto, he stated[56]: 'The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.'

Evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka was claimed to have had "enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola."[57] Pianka rejected the claim. It was further claimed that "Immediately almost every scientist, professor and college student present [at Pianka's acceptance speech] stood to their feet and vigorously applauded the man who had enthusiastically endorsed the elimination of 90 percent of the human population." Whatever the merits of the claims, the idea of someone wanting to reduce the human population by means of a virus is there.

Further reading:

Animals as technicians or artifact makers edit

To complement the comparison of technology with living things made in section Technology as a form of life, one may note that animals make structures external to their bodies, an extended phenotype. These are analogs of man-made things. Examples include:

  • spider webs
  • beaver dams
  • anthills
  • termite mounds
  • bird nests
  • wasp nests
  • bee honeycombs
  • burrows

Seashells, hard exoskeletons, can be considered as well, although they move together with the living thing; they exist far longer than the individual animal that created them, are hard and rigid as if made from stone, have a specific shape and can be likened to a house. These animal-made artifacts exist on a very small scale compared to human technosphere and do not require high temperatures for creation. Their matter is usually easy to recycle by the biosphere, seashells being an exception.

Bones also resemble man-made things in some ways, but are internal.

There is a broader category, living things as modifiers of environment, mentioned at section Living things as Earth engineers. Oxygenation of the Earth atmosphere is a huge modification of the environment, although no analog of an artifact. Coral reefs are made by corals and contain non-living matter alongside living matter. Decaying and fossilizing plant and animal bodies had geological impact, resulting in creation of coal, mineral oil, natural gas and limestone.

Further reading:

Entropy edit

Multiple analyses in this article mentioned entropy, including the definition of life, what living things have in common with technology and sustainability of technology. There could be a useful investigation of these subjects involving entropy.

Unfortunately, there is not a single notion of entropy and too many uses of the notion treat it as some kind of nebulous concept. It is therefore a fragile tool of analysis. There is entropy in the classical thermodynamics. Then there is mixing entropy: two substances separated have a lower mixing entropy than the same two substances mixed together. And there is information entropy or Shannon entropy, part of information theory dealing with capacities of communication channels and the amount of information received by them. It is not clear whether all these notions of entropy have anything in common.

Intuitively, one might suspect that processes in the universe tend to turn objects or systems into states with higher entropy. It seems clear for mixing entropy: if we take two fluids, put them into a vessel, have them separated at the start, and then remove the separating wall, they start mixing until they eventually become entirely mixed, reaching the highest state of entropy. Separating the substances again requires a special process and energy, e.g. in centrifuge. There may be a relation of mixing entropy and industrial manufacturing processes: first ore is mined, with relatively high mixing entropy of chemical elements, then a substance is extracted (such as metal), with much lower mixing entropy, and then pure substances are combined to make industrial goods, whereby the mixing entropy increases again.

However, the increase of entropy applies to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system in that it receives energy from the Sun. Theoretically, the Earth could be using the energy to decrease its entropy, whatever entropy is supposed to mean.

In some sense, Sun's burning of hydrogen by converting it into helium would seem to increase some kind of entropy of the Sun. Whether that is accurate and in what sense is unclear.

A related notion is the second law of thermodynamics. This law is sometimes invoked outside of physics, in relation to the arrow of time. One problem with the law is that the world is not a thermodynamic system: it contains gravitational and other forces, and thermodynamics does not seem to have anything to say about them. Thermodynamics is not a theory of everything; it is useful to model certain physical situations, such as combustion engine. Whether thermodynamics has anything to say about the world at large is far from clear. The arrow of time is undeniable, though: we can tell whether a movie is played forward or backward. Mixing entropy is one application of the arrow of time: substances spontaneously mix, but they do not spontaneously separate. That can be explained by random motion of molecules: if there is no separating wall, a molecule of particular type does not have, in the long run, any predilection to be located in any particular portion of the vessel, except perhaps at the bottom. Substances do not spontaneously separate. And that is indeed explained by random walks of the molecules.

None of the above gives us anything like a comprehensive multi-domain notion of entropy to be used productively in our analysis. There may be some expert people who do have such a notion, but then they need to present their ideas in a clear and convincing way, and answer all relevant probing questions. Wikipedia says that "The role of entropy in cosmology remains a controversial subject since the time of Ludwig Boltzmann", unsourced.

The change of entropy during manufacturing is unclear: is it increasing or decreasing? And the role of entropy in closing the material loop is unclear: given external energy input, it does not seem clear in general why the material loop could not be closed, like living things do. The notion of entropy does not seem to advance the matter further. The question of what is it about living things that allows them to close the material loop remains unanswered.

Further reading:

Metaphor and non-literal speech edit

As an auxiliary consideration relating to objectivity, metaphor and other forms of non-literal speech shall be avoided in the deliberations on this page as far as reasonably possible. It may be not entirely possible and it may sometimes lead to unnecessarily cumbersome phrasing, but it is still an ideal that can largely be followed. Non-literal speech makes clear thought harder and it makes it more difficult to criticize incorrect statements: non-literal speech often artificially raises the bar for refutation. Thus, instead of saying A is B, one should say A is like B if applicable, or even A is like B as regards C. Even "A is like B" is all too often incorrect or misleading. Instead of hyperbole, one can say what one means: thus, instead of "never", one can say "not for a long time" or better "not in 1000 years". Non-literal speech makes writing more interesting and appealing to a general reader and may be a good fit for journalistic style, but not for serious thought and analysis.

On this account, this article may be criticized for using the terms "threat" and "promise" improperly, likening the whole of technology to a person since only persons can make threats and promises. One can hope the meaning will be understood nevertheless. If less personified words can be found, they can be used instead.

As for the store of dead metaphors that is the language itself, that cannot be reasonably avoided. One can try by trying to avoid the more figurative meanings and idioms, but it is not clear whether it is worth it, and how far one can get; this very sentence would not "get very far".

Requirements on statements edit

As an auxiliary consideration, statements in this article should ideally meet the following requirements:

  • Accuracy. Hard to do but worth trying.
  • Freedom from obvious refutation. A very weak requirement.
  • Plausibility. A very weak requirement.
  • Logical consistency.
  • Clarity. Statements should be as easy to understand as possible, by as general audience as possible. Not an absolute requirement.
  • Unambiguity. Perfect unambiguity is very hard to achieve, but improvements along the axis are possible and often worthwhile.
  • Falsifiability or testability. A statement is falsifiable if it is threatened by refutation by a possible observation or experiment. A statement worded in such a way as to survive all possible outcomes of observations and experiments is unfalsifiable and unscientific. This requirement does not apply to statements of pure logic and mathematics and, unfortunately, it is too stringent for statements of philosophy.
  • Criticizability. An analog of falsifiability for philosophical statements. Thus, philosophical statements should use such wording so as to make valid criticism as easy as possible. Obscurantist wording hinders this aim.
  • Use of most common or expected terminology. This requirement is sometimes in conflict with unambiguity.
  • Use of simple language. This requirement is sometimes in conflict with unambiguity and sometimes with accuracy.
  • Precision is not a requirement, only accuracy. Sometimes it is preferable to make a more general and vague statement. However, vagueness is not an unequivocal good.
  • Traceability to sources. Not an absolute requirement, but is often desirable.
  • Literariness, avoidance of figurative (including metaphorical) language. Not an absolute requirement.
  • Exemplification. Not an absolute requirement.
  • Avoidance of excessive detail.
  • Brevity. Not an absolute requirement. Make sure words tell, and cut words that do not aid in the objective. The point is not to prevent saying things and to prevent differentiating adjectives.

Assumptions edit

This article makes certain assumptions that are not universally accepted. Some of them are stated below.

  • The empirical world is a physical entity, and the fundamental laws of physics are the fundamental laws of nature. Not all regularities of physics are fundamental laws: Kepler's laws are not fundamental. Chemistry is a phenomenon above physics, biology is a phenomenon above physics and chemistry, and so on. The higher levels or higher-level patterns may have some kind of autonomy and independence, though; structures of networks and the Arrow's theorem inform sociology more than physics does. However, it is more of a quasi-independence than a true independence: when a human body dies, the mind is gone; when a book burns, its patterns are gone; when a digital storage device is safely destroyed, the files are gone.
  • Expanding on the above, form cannot create matter. Form is of matter and of form, and there is form of form of form, pattern of pattern of pattern, etc. The true nature of what we mean by "matter" does not matter: it may also be "form" in some sense, but that does not erase the distinction. In practical terms, forms occurring on the Earth, whether chemical, biological, technological or cultural, cannot increase the amount of matter on the Earth, as if by magic. For one thing, they cannot increase the total amount of water by any significant amount. Transformation of matter does take place, but that is a process of changing the form of matter on some level.
  • Matter is not the only kind of entity in the physical world. Matter is the ultimate constituent, but matter has clusters, shape, structure, change, number of clusters in a cluster, rate of change, etc. The shape of cup is not matter; it is shape. A cup is not matter; it is a cluster of matter with a shape and color. The range of entity types that depend on matter but are not matter is approximately as huge as a dictionary or network of notions that get reflected in the physical universe.
  • Expanding on the above, form cannot create energy. The universe has a limited store of free energy to be converted into change of form, and when that is gone, it is gone.
  • The physical world was not created by a magician or if it was, the magician does not intervene.
  • The physical world is not a simulation, or if it is, the simulation operator does not intervene.
  • Search for truth in an analysis is worthwhile. Whatever concerns one may have about the concept of truth, giving up on the search for truth is unacceptable.

See also edit

References edit

  1. Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study, 2018,
  2. Understanding extinction — humanity has destroyed half the life on Earth,
  3. Humans are causing life on Earth to vanish, Natural History Museum,
  4. Anthropocene Epoch,
  5. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass, 2020
  6. Saving Earth from Asteroids, 2021,
  7. To practice saving the world, NASA just crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid,
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Further reading edit


Encyclopedias of philosophy:

Encyclopedia Britannica: