One stock criticism of philosophers is their uselessness: they address useless matters or address useful matters in a way that is useless. One interesting specific variation is to criticize a philosopher for philosophically discussing matters of what might be. For example, a philosopher might discuss the ethics of modifying animals to possess human levels of intelligence. As another example, a philosopher might present an essay on the problem of personal identity as it relates to cybernetic replacement of the human body. In general terms, these speculative flights can be dismissed as doubly useless: not only do they have the standard uselessness of philosophy, they also have the uselessness of talking about what is not and might never be. Since I have, at length and elsewhere, addressed the general charge of uselessness against philosophy, I will focus on this specific sort of criticism.
One version of this sort of criticism can be seen as practical: since the shape of what might be cannot be known, philosophical discussions involve a double speculation: the first speculation is about what might be and the second is the usual philosophical speculation. While the exact mathematics of the speculation (is it additive or exponential?) is uncertain, it can be argued that such speculation about speculation has little value—and this assumes that philosophy has value and speculation about the future has value (both of which can be doubted).
This sort of criticism is often used as the foundation for a second sort of criticism. This criticism does assume that philosophy has value and it is this assumption that also provides a foundation for the criticism. The basic idea is that philosophical speculation about what might be uses up resources that could be used to apply philosophy to existing problems. Naturally, someone who regards all philosophy as useless would regard philosophical discussion about what might be as being a waste of time—responding to this view would require a general defense of philosophy and this goes beyond the scope of this short essay. Now, to return to the matter at hand.
As an example, a discussion of the ethics of using autonomous, intelligent weapon systems in war could be criticized on the grounds that the discussion should have focused on the ethical problems regarding current warfare. After all, there is a multitude of unsolved moral problems in regards to existing warfare—there hardly seems any need to add more unsolved problems until either the existing problems are solved or the possible problems become actual problems.
This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, if a person has not completed the work in the course she is taking now, it does not make sense for her to spend her time trying to complete the work that might be assigned four semesters from now. To use another analogy, if a person has a hole in her roof, it would not be reasonable to spend time speculating about what sort of force-field roof technology they might have in the future. This is, of course, the classic “don’t you have something better to do?” problem.
As might be suspected, this criticism rests on the principle that resources should be spent effectively and less effective uses of resources are subject to criticism. As the analogies given above show, using resources effectively is certainly reasonable and ineffective use can be justly criticized. However, there is an obvious concern with this principle: to be consistent in its application it would need to be applied across the board so that a person is applying all her resources with proper utility. For example, a person who prepares a fancy meal when she could be working on addressing the problems presented by poverty is wasting time. As another example, a person who is reading a book for enjoyment should be out addressing the threat posed by terrorist groups. As a third example, someone who is developing yet another likely-to-fail social media company should be spending her time addressing prison reform. And so on. In fact, for almost anything a person might be doing, there will be something better she could be doing.
As others have argued, this sort of maximization would be counterproductive: a person would exhaust herself and her resources, thus (ironically) doing more harm than good. As such, the “don’t you have something better to do?” criticism should be used with due care. That said, it can be a fair criticism if a person really does have something better to do and what she is doing instead is detrimental enough to warrant correction.
In the case of philosophical discussions about what might be, it can almost always be argued that while a person could be doing something better (such as addressing current problems), such speculation would generally be harm free. That is, it is rather unlikely that the person would have solved the problem of war, poverty or crime if only she had not been writing about ethics and cyborgs. Of course, this just defends such discussion in the same way one might defend any other harmless amusement, such as playing a game of Scrabble or watching a sunset. It would be preferable to have a somewhat better defense of such philosophical discussions of the shape of things (that might be) to come.
A reasonable defense of such discussions can be based on the plausible notion that it is better to address a problem before it occurs than after it arrives in force. To use the classic analogy, it is much easier to address a rolling snowball than the avalanche that it will cause.
In the case of speculative matters that have ethical aspects, it seems that it would be generally useful to already have moral discussions in place ahead of time. This would provide the practical advantage of already having a framework and context in which to discuss the matter when (or if) it becomes a reality. One excellent illustration of this is the driverless car—it certainly seems to be a good idea to work out the ethics of such matters of how the car should be programmed when it must “decide” what to hit and what to avoid when an accident is occurring. Another illustration is developing the moral guidelines for ever more sophisticated automated weapon systems. Since these are being developed at a rapid pace, what were once theoretical problems will soon be actual moral problems. As a final example, consider the moral concerns governing modifying and augmenting humans using technology and genetic modification. It would seem to be a good idea to have some moral guidance going into this brave new world rather than scrambling with the ethics after the fact.
Philosophers also like to discuss what might be in other contexts than ethics. Not surprisingly, the realm of what might be is rich ground for discussions of metaphysics and epistemology. While these fields are often considered the most useless aspects of philosophy, they have rather practical implications that matter—even (or even especially) in regards to speculation about what might be.
To illustrate this, consider the research being conducted in repairing, augmenting and preserving the human mind (or brain, if one prefers). One classic problem in metaphysics is the problem of personal identity: what is it to be a person, what is it to be distinct from all other things, and what is it to be that person across time? While this might seem to be a purely theoretical concern, it quickly becomes a very practical concern when one is discussing the above mentioned technology. For example, consider a company that offers a special sort of life insurance: they claim they can back-up a person to a storage system and, upon the death of the original body, restore the back-up to a cloned (or robotic) body. While the question of whether that restored backup would be you or not is clearly a metaphysical question of personal identity, it is also a very practical question. After all, paying to ensure that you survive your bodily death is a rather different matter from paying so that someone who thinks they are you can go to your house and have sex with your spouse after you are dead.
There are, of course, numerous other examples that can be used to illustrate the value of such speculation of what might be—in fact, I have already written many of these in previous posts. In light of the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that philosophical discussions about what might be need not be a waste of time. In fact, such discussions can be useful in a practical sense.