09 January 2019

On the Edge of a Revolution: Automation and Technology-Improved Human Beings

Stephen Kershnar
The Coming Revolution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 23, 2018

            When people in Europe enjoyed the end of the Belle Époque, they had no idea of the massive change to people’s lives that would accompany World War I and its aftermath. Similarly, in the next two decades, the degree of change and the speed with which it will occur will usher in radical change.
            There are two changes that will rock our world. First, improving machinery (including artificial intelligence) will vastly reduce the number of workers needed and the amount of work required of each worker. Second, genetic engineering will make human beings smarter, faster, and better in ways previously unimagined.

            In 2013, Oxford University professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that nearly half of U.S. jobs could be replaced with automated machines in the next two decades. This is a mind-boggling 80 million unemployed people. The jobs most at risk of automation are those that are routine, that is, performed according to explicit rules. This includes manual jobs (for example, truck driver) and cognitive jobs (for example, cashier). Harvard economist Lawrence Katz estimates that in transportation alone, five million people (3% of the work force) could be unemployed as the result of driverless vehicles. Consider, for example, delivery vehicles, long-haul trucks, and taxis.  

California Polytechnic State University philosopher Ryan Jenkins points out that even jobs requiring strategy, cunning, and context-sensitivity not only will be replaced, but already are being displaced. Consider that many stock trades are already handled by machines.

Jenkins points out that massive technological unemployment will have large effects. First, he predicts it will lead to extended unemployment. Tens of millions of people unemployed in a short period of time will likely cause many to suffer the social ills that plague the long-term unemployed underclass. Consider, for example, alcoholism, depression, opioid abuse, out-of-wedlock births, suicide, and violence. Second, he argues, because many people find life meaningful in part based on the work they do, there will be a dizzying change in values as tens of millions of people no longer contribute to society through their work. They will have to decide how to occupy their days. Third, he notes, with so many people unable to contribute in the marketplace, fellow taxpayers will have to expand the amount of welfare in terms of cash, food, housing, medical care, etc. for those whose jobs have been automated away.  

Second, and perhaps later than the automation of jobs, genetic engineering will make people far better in a few generations. Drew University philosopher Thomas Magnell argues that genetic engineering will make people smarter, faster, stronger, and morally better. He further argues that the rate of improvement will accelerate. This is part because machines will improve people through selection of better gametes, gene repair and replacement, better mate selection, and so on. This is also in part because people will improve machines as each generation of smarter people will build better machines. Large numbers of brilliant people working with ever more powerful computers will discover and design dazzling things. Nor is this Jules Verne speculation. As it is (at least in part due to changes in nutrition), people’s IQs are increasing and genetic counselors are increasingly able to warn people of maladies some are likely to face.

By analogy, 19th Century intellectuals, let alone most people, could only foresee the changes in chemistry, philosophy, and physics in crude and imprecise terms. They likely didn’t foresee the computer revolution at all. There is a good chance that the changes coming our way will be just as radical as those experienced by someone living from 1865 to 1965. 
A world with vast unemployment, levels of economic efficiency and luxury barely imaginable, and new and improved people will change the world in the same way that other revolutions did so. Consider, for example, the agricultural, industrial, and computer revolutions and changes that accompanied the Civil War and World War I.

An interesting question is whether our current values should continue to guide us. Most people find value and meaning in their families, jobs, community, and religion. Leaving aside people’s commitment to families, it is unclear which of the other things will continue to provide value and meaning. As many people become unproductive because they cannot efficiency produce things, work will cease to be so important to people’s lives. Many people will be increasingly be like Florida retirees only with an earlier start.

Religion is already declining in importance in Europe and the U.S. As the metaphysical claims on which religion rests (consider, for example, free will, God, and souls) and the specific content of particular religions (consider, for example, atonement, chosen people, and Muhammad and Joseph Smith as prophets) become increasingly less plausible, today’s religions will likely fade in a way similar how the Greek and Roman religions faded away.

The effect on community is harder to predict. Contrary to what many intellectuals predicted, societies continue to emphasize tribalism. This can be seen in wars and increasing balkanization of countries. This can also be seen in the international revulsion at the U.S. and European elites’ attempt to flood their countries with poor-and-uneducated third world immigrants, many of whom have different values and loyalties. See, for example, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of nationalist European parties. It is unclear if the accelerating change will strengthen or weaken tribalism.

Nor will people be able to hold off these changes. Societies that attempt to adopt Luddite-like rules to hold off such changes will become increasingly worse off relative to their competitors. Market-like pressures and the desire of people to see their children flourish will limit communities’ abilities to hold off these revolutions. Similar to the Amish or Hasidim, contemporary Luddites will likely exist but mainly on the fringe.  

It is both exciting and disturbing to sit on the edge of a revolution. Exciting because we’re about to see a new world. Disturbing because what we want and value will likely change.Aut

12 December 2018

The War on Christmas: Is the truth of Christianity relevant to it?

Stephen Kershnar
Original Sin and the War on Christmas
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 10, 2018

            The war on Christmas is an attempt by the government and private companies to avoid mentioning Christmas or its religious content. Schools, stores, and advertisers are soldiers in the war. Partly in response to the war, some religious folk encourage people to keep Christmas focused on Christ. An interesting issue is whether the war is justified.
            Christianity has a number of problematic doctrines. Examples include atonement (Christ can be punished or, perhaps, pay for other people’s sins), transubstantiation (all of Jesus can be located in each of many different wafers), and the trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct and yet only one person).  

            Perhaps the most bizarre religious doctrine, though, is the doctrine of original sin. The Catholic version (seen in Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic Encyclopedia and other places) holds that through his sin, Adam caused the human race to face not only bodily death, but to also have evil desires that produce a tendency to sin. Adam’s sin was so monstrous that not only did he lose holiness and justice, but he lost it for almost everyone else. This sin so stains humanity that infants have to be baptized to wash it out of them. The original sin that Adam brought about is not universal, though. The Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin.

Some Protestantism lines adopt a similar position. This was true of some of its leaders. Consider, for example, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). Nor was this position plucked out of thin air. It is a plausible interpretation of the Old Testament (see Psalms 51:5) and New Testament (see Romans 5:12-21 and Corinthians 15:21-22). Mormons and most Jews reject this doctrine, but have plenty of other problematic doctrines.  

            St. Augustine (354-430) believed that original sin was so serious that unbaptized infants who die early go to hell. However, the Catholic Church’s current position is that it does not know what happens to them. It instructs members that they can hope that such infants go to heaven rather than in Limbo or to hell. Still, a grieving parent can’t rule out that her miscarried or aborted fetus or tragically dead infant might be in Limbo or Hell, perhaps even permanently.

            The doctrine of original sin has problems. First, what did Adam do that was so bad that he stained not only himself, but also humanity? He (and, perhaps also, Eve) was disobedient to God and consumed forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is hard to see why this is a sin given that he wasn’t blameworthy for doing it. He wasn’t blameworthy because he didn’t know disobedience is wrong. He didn’t know it was wrong because such knowledge requires his knowing good and evil (and this came about from eating the fruit).

            Second, even if it were sinful to eat the forbidden fruit, it is hard to see why this result in future people being in a fallen state when they didn’t perform the sin. In general, one person cannot be blamed for what another does unless both are part of a conspiracy. People today did not conspire with Adam. Even if a fallen state is not strictly speaking sin, it is unclear how Adam could have done something that resulted in people thousands of years later lacking holiness, justice, and (sanctifying) grace.

            Third, even if Adam did sin and a son can be blamed for his father’s sin, one wonders why God would not simply give people holiness, justice, and grace. That is, did God have a good reason to deny them these things? If he did have a good reason, then it is this reason, rather than Adam’s sin, that explains why they are in a fallen state. If God does not have a good reason, then he harms them or, at least, refuses to benefit them for no good reason. We expect more from him.    

            Fourth, science gives us no reason to think that there ever was a Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge of good and evil, or that early humans or apes were free of envious, lustful, and violent desires. Thus, the doctrine fits poorly with science.

            Should the problems with Christianity provide a justification for the war on Christmas? The motivation for the war in the context of government rests on concerns about the separation of church and state. In the private sector, its motivation is not causing unnecessary offense. It doesn’t rest on whether Christianity is plausible.

There is nothing wrong with government or businesses using their resources to make people happy even if it does so by catering to an implausible worldview. Still, if large number of people believed in the moral views of the Westboro Baptist Church or the metaphysical views of Mormonism or Scientology, it would seem that the destructive or false nature of such belief systems might be a good reason not to cater to them.

If this is correct, and I am not sure it is, then perhaps whether the government or businesses cater to Christianity should also be evaluated with regard to whether it is destructive or false. The doctrine of original sin suggests that some lines of Christianity would not fare well when evaluated for truth. It is less clear if Christianity is destructive. The religion’s costs and benefits are so complex and extensive that is nearly impossible to determine whether people would have been better off without it.  

Still, Christmas is a joyous and beautiful holiday. It would be a shame for businesses and other private groups to tamp it down merely to avoid offending hyper-sensitive babies. Perhaps a good rule might be that if promoting a holiday makes many people happy, then in the absence of a strong evidence of a comparable cost, it is fine to promote it.

30 November 2018

SUNY Fredonia: Declining Student Enrollment and Quality

Stephen Kershnar
Fredonia Undergoes Surgery
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 16, 2018

            Fredonia State has decided to undergo life-saving surgery. Quoted in The Observer, President Horvath said the structural deficit for this academic year was projected to be $12 million. There is another massive structural deficit projected for next year.  
Facing these difficulties, the college tentatively plans to surgically cut out programs such as applied mathematics, art history, French, philosophy, and some fine arts programs (ceramics, film, and sculpture). It also tentatively plans to cut the English and biology departments’ graduate programs as well as graduate education programs in the education and math departments. Disclosure: I chair the philosophy department.

            The alleged emergency is caused by a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of students at Fredonia. Consider first quantity. The student body has fallen 20% in eight years from the enrollment high water mark to its current level (5,775 in 2009 to 4,631 in 2017). It now has, roughly 1,100 fewer students. Fewer students means less revenue. The structural deficit came about in part because each year between 2009 and 2015, the number of students decreased while spending increased.

            Consider, next, quality. The number of weak high school students (bottom half of their high school class) has increased by 65% in the last five years (15.8% to 26.1% of Fredonia’s incoming class). This underestimates the increase given that an incredible 29% don’t report their high school rank. Assuming that they have the same distribution of high school ranking as the rest of the incoming students, roughly a third of incoming Fredonia students were in the bottom half of their high school class. Over the same period, the acceptance rate has climbed upward (52% to 65%).

These things matter because student ability (measured by SAT score and class rank) predict a student’s likelihood of graduating from college and performance while there.

Along with this change in student ability, retention is a problem. Many of the students who transfer out of Fredonia go to community colleges, suggesting that some were not ready for the rigor of a four-year college or didn’t want to be too far away from home. It is unclear if retention explains why Fredonia has a lower graduation rate than a number of its competitors such as Brockport, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego (U.S. Department of Education numbers).

            In comparative student ability, the college has held steady. Among comprehensive SUNY colleges, it is tied for having the sixth smartest students (out of the ten comprehensives that provide a SAT range). In order of student ability as measured by SATs, Fredonia ranks behind Geneseo, New Paltz, Oswego/Cortland, and Brockport. It is tied with Oneonta.

Fredonia is far behind the major university centers (in order of student ability) Binghamton, Stony Brook, Buffalo, and Albany. It’s worth noting that two of the four university centers have students who are, on average, noticeably better than Geneseo students. Buffalo and Geneseo students are on par.

            Fredonia State frantically pursues diversity. Here the college had less success. According to a recent study by the USC Race and Equity Center, Fredonia received an F in the diversity equity index. In fact, it received the lowest score of any SUNY college. For those of us who think diversity is unimportant, this is no big deal. If Fredonia State poured resources into pursuing it, though, this is a problem.

            There is good news on the campus as well. The college regularly has outstanding students (often in my classes). They end up doing very well in areas such as law and business and, also, in their family lives. The faculty is peppered with talented scholars and outstanding teachers.

            The college will have to choose what sort of institution it wants to be. First, it could move toward being an open-admissions-type institution, thereby aiming to serve disadvantaged and first generation college students. Consider, for example, Buffalo State or Old Westbury. Second, it could shrink the number of employees and students and aim to be a highly competitive liberal arts college similar to Geneseo. Third, it could more sharply focus on its signature arts programs by further transferring resources from business, humanities, and the sciences into the arts (music, studio arts, and theater). The arts programs (for example, music) are expensive per student and, as a result, investing in them has significant opportunity costs. Fourth, it could try to be an all-purpose college that pursues all of these goals and achieves them to varying degrees.

            The problem with the fourth model is that it risks Fredonia not having a brand name. This is a problem for marketing and recruitment. It also results in an unclear roadmap when the college is deciding how to tradeoff increasing the caliber of students against providing opportunity for the disadvantaged students, promoting diversity, and making sure there aren’t layoffs.  

            There is a moral case for the university continuing to allow the caliber of students to fall by focusing on the disadvantaged and diverse students. This might be accompanied surgically cutting out programs that add too little revenue to the university (see tentative plans above) or that are unlikely to serve disadvantaged and weaker students. The argument is that the most capable students are much more likely than other students to graduate, graduate on time, and major in fields that have a good return on investment. If so, these students have the least need for educational subsidies. They can go to better private colleges or, within SUNY, university centers or elite comprehensive colleges. The students who are less likely to graduate, graduate on time, or who tend toward weaker majors (in terms of return on investment or worth of subject matter) are the ones most in need of education-welfare.

One might think that investment in education like any other investment should be private as a way to ensure efficient decisions and that taxpayers don’t get soaked. However, given that this is not going to happen, one can see why a university might want to pursue social-justice-related goals.