The last philosopher

Geoffrey asked:

Who will be the last philosopher?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Three scenarios: warm up; job done; footnotes forever.

I will describe three possible scenarios and suggest that a combination of the second and third is most likely.

Warm up

Sarah was the last to survive. The group had eked out their lives underground with food, tanked water and air conditioning, but the heat was inexorable. The scientists had been right about global warming, but wrong about its extent. Of course the experts, as ever, were ready with explanations after the event. There was talk of chaotic bifurcation, catastrophic progress to a new steady state, movement to a different strange attractor. But the upshot was that the Earth would only balance incoming short-wave solar heat with outgoing longer-wave radiation, impeded by the blanketing greenhouse gas, when the surface of the Earth reached 600 degrees C. Earth was going the way of Venus. Nothing could be done. The oceans would soon evaporate, all life would be destroyed. Sarah wondered what it had all been about, and whether life would continue elsewhere in the universe. As it happened, talk of an infinite universe or a multiverse, was just that. Talk. The universe was unique, big but finite, life on Earth a complete fluke, never to occur elsewhere. So Sarah, truly, was the last philosopher.

Job done

The artilects had long ago left the home planet, leaving it to their biological precursors. The smartest of the latter, humans, had realized that biological evolution couldn’t make them much smarter. Mere increase in brain size was no good – elephants were no smarter than men – problems of energy supply, waste removal and increased signal distances limited complexity. Smaller nerve cells would keep size down but meant more ionic leakage with huge rises in noise-to-signal ratio. Electronic web communication among humans was rich in information, but nothing more. The answer was artificial intelligence. After a slow start, there was soon talk of machines being smarter than humans. A few warned of, some even welcomed, the prospect of a ‘singularity’ when machines with suprahuman intelligence initiated their own cognitive evolution to unimaginable heights. And, of course, once the threshold was passed, this happened. The artilects’ projects and concerns soon became as opaque to humans as quantum mechanics is to dogs. They used the biosphere as needed, but humans were neither very useful nor a threat and were largely ignored. In time the artilects understood all of reality, and knew that they did, so metaphysics and epistemology were sorted. The primitive beginnings of convergence seen in 21st century human ethical theories, soon accelerated, and ethics, too, was sorted, evil no longer being a problem. Philosophy was complete, the artilects had done the job. They were the last philosophers.

Footnotes forever

My view is that, rather than a single finite universe, there exists either a universe infinite in extent with different domains or patches forever incommunicado with one another (the quilted universe), or an infinity of disconnected universes, as in the inflationary multiverse or in the string landscape. Whichever, there always have been and always will be creatures struggling to understand the world and their place in it, and we humans, scribbling our footnotes to Plato, are a typical example. There can be no last philosopher, the description is uninstantiated.

Of course, ‘job done’ and ‘footnotes forever’ can coexist, and I think they do.

No doubt I show species chauvinism and make a virtue of necessity when I say I’d rather be a footnoter than a job-done superintelligence for whom no new insight or surprize is possible. And, of course, the latter are as gods to us, and it is idle for us to speculate what it is like for a god to be a god.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Philosophy, like religion and mathematics is a natural tendency of the human mind. We would have to be very different creatures to lose our interest in philosophy. Of course this doesn’t mean that philosophy is a branch of human knowledge in the way that mathematics is. Philosophy is a branch of human ignorance and misunderstanding but it only when you come to understand that you are hopelessly confused that you have any change of reaching the truth.

There will always be some humans who want to know the truth and who are not content with mere belief. So there will never be a last philosopher.

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