Future Selves

In the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books, political philosopher Mark Blitz — a professor at Claremont McKenna College — has an insightful review of Eclipse of Man, the new book from our own Charles T. Rubin. Blitz writes:

What concerns Charles Rubin in Eclipse of Man is well
conveyed by his title. Human beings stand on the threshold of a world in which
our lives and practices may be radically altered, and our dominance no longer
assured. What began a half-millennium ago as a project to reduce our burdens
threatens to conclude in a realm in which we no longer prevail. The original
human subject who was convinced to receive technology’s benefits becomes
unrecognizable once he accepts the benefits, as if birds were persuaded to
become airplanes. What would remain of the original birds? Indeed, we may be
eclipsed altogether by species we have generated but which are so unlike us
that “we” do not exist at all—or persist only as inferior relics, stuffed for
museums. What starts as Enlightenment ends in permanent night….

Rubin’s major concern is with the contemporary
transhumanists (the term he chooses to cover a variety of what from his standpoint
are similar positions) who both predict and encourage the overcoming of man.

Blitz praises Rubin for his “fair, judicious, and critical summaries” of the transhumanist authors he discusses, and says the author “approaches his topic with admirable thoughtfulness and restraint.”

Some of the subjects Professor Blitz raises in his review essay are worth considering and perhaps debating at greater length, but I would just like to point out one of them. Blitz mentions several kinds of eternal things — things that we are stuck with no matter what the future brings:

One question involves the goods or perfections that our successors might seek or enjoy. Here, I might suggest that these goods cannot change as such, although our appreciation of them may. The allure of promises for the future is connected to the perfections of truth, beauty, and virtue that we currently desire. How could one today argue reasonably against the greater intelligence, expanded artistic talent, or improved health that might help us or those we love realize these goods? Who would now give up freedom, self-direction, and self-reflection?…

There are still other limits that no promise of transhuman change can overcome. These are not only, or primarily, mathematical regularities or apparent scientific laws; they involve inevitable scarcities or contradictions. Whatever happens “virtually,” there are only so many actual houses on actual beautiful beaches. Honesty differs from lying, the loyal and true differ from the fickle and untrustworthy, fame and power cannot belong both to one or a few and to everyone. These limits will set some of the direction for the distribution of goods and our attachment to them, either to restrain competition or to encourage it. They will thus also help to organize political life. Regulating differences of opinion, within appropriate freedom, and judging among the things we are able to choose will remain necessary.

Nonetheless, even if it is true that what we (or any rational being) may properly consider to be good is ultimately invariable, and even if the other limits I mentioned truly exist, our experience of such matters presumably will change as many good things become more available, and as we alter our experience of what is our own — birth, death, locality, and the body.

Let us look carefully at the items listed in this very rich passage. Blitz does not refer to security and health and long life, the goods that modernity arguably emphasizes above all others. Instead, Blitz begins by mentioning the goods of “the perfections of truth, beauty, and virtue.” These are things that “we currently desire” but that also “cannot change as such, although our appreciation of them may.”

Let us set aside for now beauty — which is very complicated, and which may be the item in Blitz’s Platonic triad that would perhaps be likeliest to be transformed by a radical shift in human nature — and focus on truth and virtue. How can they be permanent, unchanging things?

To understand how truth and virtue can be eternal goods, see how Blitz turns to physical realities — the kinds of scarcities of material resources that Malthus and Darwin would have noticed, although those guys tended to think more in terms of scarcities of food than of beach houses. Blitz also mentions traits that seem ineluctably to arise from the existence of those physical limitations. The clash of interests will inevitably lead to scenarios in which there will be “differences of opinions” and in which some actors may be more or less honest, more or less trustworthy. There will arise situations in which honesty can be judged differently from lying, loyalty from untrustworthiness. “Any rational being,” including presumably any distant descendant of humanity, will prize truth and virtue. They are arguably pre-political and pre-philosophical — they are facts of humanity and society that arise from the facts of nature — but they “help to organize political life.”

And yet this entire edifice is wiped away in the last paragraph quoted above. “Our experience” of truth and virtue, Blitz notes, “presumably will change” as our experience of “birth, death, locality, and the body” changes. Still, we may experience truth and virtue differently, but they will continue to provide the goals of human striving, right?

Yet consider some of the transhumanist dreams on offer: a future where mortality is a choice, a future where individual minds merge and melt together into machine-aided masses, a future where the resources of the universe are absorbed and reordered by our man-machine offspring to make a vast “extended thinking entity.” Blitz may be right that “what is good … cannot in the last analysis be obliterated,” but if we embark down the path to the posthuman, our descendants may, in exchange for vast power over themselves and over nature, lose forever the ability to “properly orient” themselves toward the goods of truth and virtue.

Read the whole Blitz review essay here; subscribe to the Claremont Review of Books here; and order a copy of Eclipse of Man here.

Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity

The new book Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity, just published by Rowman & Littlefield, brings together essays examining the future — particularly scientific and technological visions of the future, and the role that virtue ought to play in that future. Several of the essays appeared in The New Atlantis, including essays about robots and “friendly AI,” and most of them grew out of a conference that New Atlantis contributing editor Peter A. Lawler hosted at Berry College in Georgia back in 2011. (Professor Lawler edited this new book, along with Marc D. Guerra of Assumption College.)

Lawler’s own introductory essay is a real treat, weaving together references to recent movies, philosophers and economists, the goings-on in Silicon Valley, and a Tocquevillian appreciation for the complicated and surprising ways that liberty and religion are intertwined in the United States. No one is better than Lawler at revealing the gap between who we believe ourselves to be and who we really are as a people, and at showing how our longing for liberty is really only sensible in a relational context — in a world of families, communities, institutions, citizenship, and interests.

Charles Rubin’s marvelous essay about robots and the play R.U.R. is joined by the essay that Ari Schulman and I wrote on so-called “friendly” AI. The libertarian journalist Ron Bailey of Reason magazine makes the case for radical human enhancement, arguing, among other things, that enhancement will allow people to become more virtuous. Jim Capretta and William English each contribute essays on demographics and our entitlement system. Dr. Ben Hippen discusses organ donation (and organ selling).

Patrick Deneen, Robert Kraynak, and J. Daryl Charles each offer wide-ranging essays that challenge the foundations of modernity. Deneen discusses some of the assumptions and tendencies in modern science and modern political science that corrode the very institutions, traditions, and beliefs that made them possible. Kraynak shows how thinkers like Richard Rorty and Steven Pinker must scramble to explain the roots of their beliefs about justice. Do their “human values” — mostly just secularized versions of Judeo-Christian morality — make any sense without a belief in God? And J. Daryl Charles looks at the ways that genetics and even evolutionary theory affect our understanding of moral agency, a question with implications for fields such as criminal law.

Each of the editors offers an essay about education: Lawler critiques the libertarian critique of liberal education, and Guerra explores the ways that liberal education fits (sometimes uncomfortably) in the broader setting of higher education.

The collection is rounded out by Ben Storey’s smart essay about Alexis de Tocqueville and technology — focusing not just on Democracy in America but on two of Tocqueville’s lesser known works.

So far, Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity is only available in a hardcover format that is rather costly (more than $80 new). Here’s hoping it comes out in a more affordable format before long. Readers of The New Atlantis and of our Futurisms blog, and indeed anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the meaning of progress, will find much to learn in its pages.

Ethical questions and frivolous consciences

Our Futurisms colleague Charlie Rubin had a smart, short piece over on the Huffington Post a couple weeks ago called “We Need To Do More Than Just Point to Ethical Questions About Artificial Intelligence.” Responding to the recent (and much ballyhooed) “open letter” about artificial intelligence published by the Future of Life Institute, Professor Rubin writes:

One might think that such vagueness is just the result of a desire to draft a letter that a large number of people might be willing to sign on to. Yet in fact, the combination of gesturing towards what are usually called “important ethical issues,” while steadfastly putting off serious discussion of them, is pretty typical in our technology debates. We do not live in a time that gives much real thought to ethics, despite the many challenges you might think would call for it. We are hamstrung by a certain pervasive moral relativism, a sense that when you get right down to it, our “values” are purely subjective and, as such, really beyond any kind of rational discourse. Like “religion,” they are better left un-discussed in polite company….

No one doubts that the world is changing and changing rapidly. Organizations that want to work towards making change happen for the better will need to do much more than point piously at “important ethical questions.”

This is an excellent point. I can’t count how many bioethics talks I have heard over the years that just raise questions without attempting to answer them. It seems like some folks in bioethics have made their whole careers out of such chin-scratching.

And not only is raising ethical questions easier than answering them, but (as Professor Rubin notes) it can also be a potent rhetorical tactic, serving as a substitute for real ethical debate. When an ethically dubious activity attracts attention from critics, people who support that activity sometimes allude to the need for a debate about ethics and policy, and then act as though calling for an ethical debate is itself an ethical debate. It’s a way of treating ethical problems as obstacles to progress that need to be gotten around rather than as legitimate reasons not to do the ethically dubious thing.

Professor Rubin’s sharp critique of the “questioning” pose reminds me of a line from Paul Ramsey, the great bioethicist:

We need to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do. [from pages 122–123 of Ramsey’s 1970 book Fabricated Man]

How many of the signers of the Future of Life Institute open letter, I wonder, are men and women of frivolous conscience?

(Hat-tip to our colleague Brendan P. Foht, who brought the Ramsey passage to our attention in the office.)