Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth: Part I

Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth: Part I

Jalalu’ddin Rumi, the 12th century Persian poet, made the pertinent observation that “there is a disputation [that will continue] till mankind are raised from the dead between the Necessitarians and the partisans of Free Will.” The observant reader will observe that the specified event has not occurred, and, indeed, there remains no closure on whether free will exists or what it is. And a brief column on environmental issues is unlikely to resolve this issue - so why on earth bother?

Very simply, free will matters in large part because in most cultures -- including the dominant Eurocentric globalized culture -- ethical responsibility accompanies decisions made where free will exists, and does not accompany actions that do not arise from free will. Thus, moral responsibility is generally not imposed where actions are taken under duress, or by individuals who are incapable for some reason, such as mental illness, of exercising free will.

Extending this principle into the complex, self-organizing structure of an anthropogenic Earth is not trivial. It is undoubtedly true that even given an earth dominated by the activities of one species, many ethical issues continue to arise in the realm of individual decisions, where traditional formulations (and arguments) about free will prevail. But such a world also exhibits emergent behaviors at high levels of the system, and there the prevailing models break down for a number of reasons, many of which arise from the fundamental unpredictability of emergent behavior, and related questions of “control” (if one controls a system, one may be held responsible for its behavior; if one does not or, indeed, cannot, imposition of ethical responsibility is problematic).

Consider, for example, the Portuguese ship engineer that built the first caravel (a light sailing ship of the 14th century that was particularly adept at sailing into the wind, and accordingly was the basic design that enabled European colonization). If the initial boat had sunk because of bad design, few would have qualms about assigning moral responsibility to the engineer. However, it strikes most people as inappropriate to assign responsibility for the subsequent colonization process, with all of its social and environmental dimensions, to the individual engineer: there are simply too many intervening decisions, and stochastic events. Or, to take a more recent example, consider the environmental and social implications of the Internet. It is a complex system which is clearly entirely human in origin, for every piece of it, from routers, to transmission infrastructure, to personal computers used to access it, is of human design and manufacture. On the other hand, the Net itself has been designed by no single individual or institution; indeed, there are not even any good maps of the Internet, for it continually redesigns itself. It is a self-organizing system. The Net as a whole may have “good” or “bad” features, but these effects are far beyond the designer of a particular component of the Net.

Microethical systems -- ethics at the level of the individual as a member of a particular culture, or profession -- are not free of disagreement and complexity, but at least it is well tilled ground. Macroethics, however -- the ethics of emergent behavior of technology systems, societies, or intercultural relations that a profoundly multidisciplinary world calls forth -- is an area that to date has yet to receive adequate attention. This requires not just new ethical formulations, but new institutional roles -- if the individual engineer is not ethically responsible for the emergent behavior of the Net, then who is?

These questions become particularly important in light of the rapid evolution of new foundational technologies, particularly those known as NBIC -- nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology, and cognitive sciences. These technologies almost certainly will transform human beings, their cultures, and the anthropogenic earth and its systems: researchers talk of “functional immortality” within fifty years; of building cells from simple molecules in two decades; of seamless wireless human/remote machine systems within several decades. Specific scenarios may or may not occur, but it is apparent that our current evolutionary trajectory carries with it enormous ethical questions and implications. While I will suggest several ideas in the next column about how we may begin considering some of these, a far more basic message is clear: these futures are not hypothetical, but are in the process of being reified; we are not prepared for them; we have little time to begin doing so; and our current ideologies are ill-suited to these unprecedented and complex challenges. Luxuriating in past verities is no longer just irrelevant, but unethical.

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Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T’s vice president of environment, health, and safety.