Friday, March 7, 2014

Faulty Thinking: "some things man was not meant to know"

Breakpoint, who I respect in general, just aired a radio article on transhumanism. And their concerns are good, and need to be considered. That doesn't mean they didn't commit a thinking error.

The main point of the article was that knowledge can be used evily, and some forms of knowledge can be put to greater evils than others. With which I agree. It then claims that such areas shouldn't be researched at all. Here they went wrong.

The trouble is that any piece of knowledge that can be discovered, can be rediscovered. History supports this claim just as much as it does theirs, if not more. What matters is when it's discovered, and by who.

(There's a handy example of this in cryptography, the study of secret communication. A group of people working for the british government invented the form of encription now used for internet banking, -- before powerful computers existed. The british government kept it hush, because they didn't have a way to break it. Later, some american academics came up with the same system, without knowing anything about the british version.)

If you'll forgive my archtypes, I'm going to go with a supervillian analogy. Say a supervillain is doing genetic research. He discovers a way to trigger a latent genetic defect in the majority of humanity--a virus that causes cancer, maybe. He can then release it, or threaten to releas it, on major cities or even the whole planet.

But if a good guy scientist has been researching as well, and discovers the trigger first, she and others can research and find an antidote or a vaccine. Then, by the time the supervillain is ready to unleash his disaster virus, maybe it won't work anymore. Certainly it won't be as bad. Now imagine if the scientists hadn't been working on the antidote.

I won't argue with the should-ness of their claim. But as the line being crossed sooner or later is inevitable, it's far better to look in hope for Prometheus than to wait in fear for Pandora.

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