The flaw of reasoning by analogy

A frequent argument used to say that there is nothing wrong with technological development is to point to historical cases of development. “Horses were replaced by cars, and we coped with that”, is certainly something I’ve heard more than once. Or, “people of every generation complain about the weird practises of the next”. The more things change the more they stay the same.

People love to use this argument because it sounds right and perhaps on some level it is. However, using it with regard to the dangers of technology is fundamentally flawed. First, things definitely won’t always stay the same, regardless of what “things” you are considering. Our society can easily break down and we can even go extinct at some point, making life fundamentally different from before. Even if human behaviour doesn’t change, our world can get quite a lot worse.

Or consider one very dangerous technology: weapons. At some point, weapons were primitive but people kept making better ones, but all the while they were fighting just as they always did with them. But then something changed with the development of the atomic bomb: it was a weapon so powerful that after it was used twice on Japan, it was never used in combat again and hopefully never will be. Unlike every other kind of weapon that came before it, it was something of sufficient power that brought about the fundamentally-new concept of mutually assured destruction, which was never something that existed with conventional weapons.

This example shows that weapons development was not more of the same old stuff, but lead to a culmination point of something fundamentally different, something that could not have been deduced purely by analogous thinking.

We are close to reaching such a culmination point where technology will infiltrate our lives and introduce fundamentally new concepts into society that will change it forever. It is not more of the same old stuff, but something of a “critical mass” that will alter us so strongly that we may not ever be the same. This is why it is so dangerous to give into analogous thinking, because such thinking cannot reach or prepare us for such a radical change.

Furthermore, reasoning that we adapted from horses to cars isn’t very convincing either, because that stage was also crucial in bringing about the world on the brink of destruction that we have today. Without the internal combustion engine, it is unlikely we would have reached such a horrifying level of CO2 in our atmosphere.

We are going through some serious changes now, with the development of very advanced computer technology. And reasoning by analogy that we will be okay with all these changes not only is faulty and lazy reasoning, but the analogies hardly have any premise to start with because all such previous changes also caused serious detriments to humanity as well.

Of course, there is no doubt that technology has improved lives as well and made many of us more comfortable. Thus, in a future post I will treat this topic of the benefits of technology and how we can reconcile this with its dangers.


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