You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?
This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.
The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]
Zoltan Istvan was my favorite presidential candidate in 2016. He toured the country in a bus modeled to look like a coffin, with the message that death is a curable disease.
And it’s not just people on the fringe who are involved in the anti-aging cause. There is a sister company of Google called Calico whose goal is “tackling aging.”
Ray Kurzweil, inventor, senior engineer at Google and holder of 21 honorary doctorates, has written a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. At age 69, he expects technology to improve enough in his lifetime that he will live forever. (In the meantime, he takes extremely good care of himself!)
But hold on a second. While we’re waiting for Istvan, Calico, and Kurzweil succeed, let’s take a moment to ponder the possible dystopian consequences.
In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.
A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!
What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.
Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.
Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.
Even if you don’t believe in God in the traditional sense, you might be open to supernatural phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP), ghosts, or the ability of a spirit world to influence what happens in the familiar world of our senses. I like to think I’m open to such things; how can we possibly claim to know that our everyday experience is all there is?
Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture, has me opening up to the idea that maybe I should not be so open.
His argument is simple:
Here’s the most astonishing, scary thing I came across all week. Have a look. I promise that you’ll consider it time very well spent and a real eye-opener.
Armed only with a man’s cell phone number, a hacker skilled in what’s called “social engineering” is able to totally take over his account. She effortlessly convinces a representative of the phone company that she’s the man’s wife, gets herself added to the account, and then changes the password. Bingo!
Within 10 years, nobody will be able to lie. Or more precisely, all lies will be detected instantly, so people will stop lying. Can you imagine how that will change society!?
But hold on a second! How is this going to happen?
Think about it: the technology is all here. We’re only waiting for someone to put the following pieces together.
The structure of the world is shot through with a sublimity so sublime that it simply had to exist. …
The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-centered goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence. (Plato at the Googleplex, pages 385-389.)
I like that phrase “the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” I’ll return to it in a moment. First, let’s look at a pretty picture.