Modesty, Humility, and Book Reviewing

I am not ungrateful to Issues in Science and Technology for presenting, in its spring 2016 issue, a review (available here) of my book Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress. I wish it were not such a negative review. But as negative reviews go, this one is easy on the ego, even if unsatisfying to the intellect, because so little of it speaks to the book I wrote.


The reviewer gets some things right. He correctly points out, for some reason or other, that I teach at a Catholic university, and also notes that the book does not conform to the narrow dogma of diversity that says that in intellectual endeavors one must always include discussion of people other than dead or living white males. All true.

On the other hand, the reviewer also claims that “a good third of the book is devoted to lovingly detailed but digressive plot summaries.” He also speaks of my “synopses” of Engines of Creation and The Diamond Age. This is a very telling error. Actually, about 4 percent of the book (9 of 215 pages, by a generous count) is devoted to plot summaries of the fictional works that play a large role in my argument. How do we get from 4 percent to 33 percent? The reviewer apparently cannot discern the difference between a plot summary and an analysis of a work of literature or film. These analyses are indeed “lovingly detailed” because they involve a close reading of the texts, and a careful effort to understand and respond to the issues raised by the authors of the works in question. The same goes for my reading of Drexler; it is an analysis, not a summary or general survey of his book, as is asserted by calling it a synopsis.

Now, it may be my failure as an author that I could not interest the reviewer in my arguments as they emerged from such analyses, and of course those arguments may be wrong or in need of revision in a host of ways that a serious review might highlight. But my reviewer avoids mentioning that the book has any arguments at all. For example, a key theme of the book, announced early on (page 15), is that if we want to understand transhumanism, we need to see how it emerged out of an ongoing intellectual crisis that faced Enlightenment views of material progress when they had to face the challenge of Malthusianism and Darwinism. This point is right on the surface, consistently alluded to, and is one of the main threads holding the book together. Yet you would know nothing of it from the Issues in Science and Technology review.

There is one point raised by the reviewer which is substantive and worth thinking about. He accuses me of recommending modesty when I should have recommended humility. Oddly, he does so in a mocking way (“Are we to establish a federal modesty commission to enforce a humble red line…?”) when of course his own suggestion could just as easily be made to look unserious (Are we to establish a federal humility commission?).

But here at least there seems to be a real issue between us. By speaking of modesty I highlighted that moral choices are both central to our visions of the future and inescapable. The reviewer bows in this direction, but his notion of humility is actually an effort at avoiding moral questions in favor of supposed lessons drawn from a particular take on the history and philosophy of
science. By “humility,” the reviewer means that we need to acknowledge that we never know as much as we think we know when we project the utopian/dystopian possibilities for the future in the manner of transhumanism:

Every major technical advance or scientific insight leads to the opening up of a vast world of undreamed-of complexity that mocks the understanding we thought we’d achieved and dwarfs the power we hoped we’d acquired.

This is a beautiful, poetic sentiment. But it is quite irrelevant to the crucial question of how to deploy the new knowledge and powers that we are plainly achieving. Self-directed genetic evolution, for example, may indeed be far more difficult to achieve than was once thought, but that does not at all mean that we are not on path to gaining the knowledge and ability to undertake it. Even if it were true that we always overstate our powers, that does not mean we are not becoming more powerful, and in such a way as to encourage us to think that more power is coming. And it certainly does not mean that, as a moral question, there are not many who, eschewing both modesty and humility, are anxious to travel that road.

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.

Who Speaks for Earth?

A recent not-very-good article in The Independent presents as news what is really an ongoing debate within the relatively small community of scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The issue is whether or under what circumstances SETI should become “METI” — that is, Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. We have been listening for messages; should we start deliberately broadcasting them?

Image via Wikimedia

Actually, we have been doing this deliberately but hardly systematically for some decades now: think of the justly famous Pioneer plaques of 1972–73 and the Voyager Golden Record of 1977. David Brin, the noted science fiction author and admittedly a partisan of one side in this debate, provides an excellent background discussion, which I hope he will update again in light of the more recent events The Independent alludes to.

Like all discussions about SETI, the merits of this one depend heavily on our assumptions about the nature and existence of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, a topic that reasonable people are very free to disagree on because we know absolutely nothing about it. For example, the whole question of sending messages to planetary systems that we have newly identified as good targets for having life at all (which discoveries seem to be spurring the current round of METI interest) presupposes not only that we have some solid understanding of all the conditions under which life can emerge. It also presupposes what some would regard as a rather old-fashioned SETI model of interplanetary communication between intelligences more or less advanced yet bound to their planets. For those transhumanists like Hans Moravec who see the future on our planet as artificial intelligences greedily transforming matter into computational substrates and spreading out in a wave of expansion traveling at not much less than the speed of light (think Borgs without bodies) the notion that we should just send messages over to other planets can only look quaint. Or if intelligent self-replicating nanomachines are in our future, then we may already be sending messages to ETI without even knowing it because such machines created by super-intelligent aliens may already be here among us. And so on. Transhumanist responses to SETI have shown how the sky is the limit when it comes to our imagination of not-implausible ETI scenarios (indeed, what defines “plausible”?). And imagination will be all we have to go on, until well after we have had some comprehensible first contact.

I admit to finding both sides of the METI debate unsatisfying. Those who advocate sending messages are counting either on a dogmatic belief in the benevolent nature of alien life or on the vastness of cosmic distances to act as a quarantine effect. These are both dubious assumptions; I discuss them critically at some length in my new book Eclipse of Man.

And there is certainly something to David Brin’s concern that the advocates of sending messages are taking a great deal on themselves by proceeding along these lines without a more thorough consideration of the merits of the case. Yet Brin’s own desire for international consultation, or, as he puts it on his website, getting “input from humanity’s best and wisest sages … while laying all the issues before a fascinated general public,” does not conform to the sensible reservations he expresses elsewhere about the wisdom of individuals and seems pretty thin gruel if indeed the fate of all of humanity is at stake. It is a wonderful thing “to open up broader, more eclectic and ecumenical discussions.” But we still have to wonder about their results, if indeed they reach any conclusions at all, when there is no framework of authority for actually shepherding such a discussion to a presumptively globally legitimate and enforceable conclusion — which is almost certainly just as well when you stop and think about the way so many of the global political institutions we do have actually work. We may not know anything about extraterrestrial intelligence, but we do know the answer to the question, “Who speaks for Earth?” So far: nobody, thank goodness.

Darwin Among the Transhumanists

Image: Wikimedia / Patche99z (CC)

Today is “Darwin Day” — the anniversary of the great naturalist Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 — which is as good a time as any to reflect on the complicated ways in which Darwinian thinking influences the transhumanists. This is discussed at several points in Eclipse of Man, the new book by our Futurisms colleague Charles Rubin, which you should go out and buy today.

Professor Rubin lays out some of the ways, both obvious and subtle, that the Darwinian idea of evolution via competition was picked up by the predecessors of today’s transhumanists. This fundamental idea is in tension with the ideas of other major thinkers, like the philosopher Condorcet’s sunny belief in human improvement and the economist Thomas Malthus’s worries about scarcity and limited resources. “Through to our own day,” Rubin writes, “much of the debate about progress has arisen from tensions among these three men’s ideas: Condorcet’s optimism about human perfectibility, the Malthusian problem of resource scarcity, and the Darwinian conception of natural competition as a force for change over time. The transhumanists, as we shall see, reconcile and assimilate these ideas by advocating the end of humanity.”

Transhumanism, Professor Rubin writes, is

an effort to maintain some concept of progress that appears normatively meaningful in response to Malthusian and Darwinian premises that challenge the idea of progress. Malthusianism has come to be defined by thinking that the things that appear to be progress — growing populations and economies — put us on a self-destructive course, as we accelerate toward inevitable limits. But it almost seems as if, in the spirit of

Malthus’s original argument, there is something inevitable also about that acceleration, that we are driven by some force of nature beyond our control to grow until we reach beyond the capacities of the resources that support that growth. Meanwhile, mainstream Darwinian thinking has done everything it can to remove any taint of progress from the concept of evolution; evolution is simply change, and randomly instigated change at that.

Transhumanism rebels against the randomness of evolution and the mindlessness of a natural tendency to overshoot resources and collapse. It rejects … the “assumption of mediocrity” in favor of arguing that man has a special place in the scheme of things. But its rebellion is not half as radical as it assumes, for transhumanism builds on the very same underlying conception of nature that the Malthusians and Darwinians build on, vociferously rejecting the thought that nature has any inherent normative goals or purposes. While it rejects blind evolution as a future fate for man, it accepts it as the origins of man. While it rejects a Malthusian future, it does so with threatening the same old apocalypse if we do not transcend ourselves, and, in the form of Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, it adopts a Malthusian sense that mankind is in the grip of forces beyond its control.

Because transhumanism accepts this account of nature, it is driven to reject nature. Rejecting also any religious foundations for values, then, it is left with nothing but socially constructed norms developed in response to human power over nature, which, given the unpredictable transformative expectations they have for that power as it becomes not-human, ultimately amounts to nothing at all. Transhumanism is a nihilistic response to the nihilism of the Malthusians and Darwinians.

You can see why Peter Lawler says Eclipse of Man is a “hugely significant accomplishment”: you simply won’t find as insightful, thoughtful, and trenchant a critique of transhumanism anywhere else.

Transhumanism, Freedom, and Coercion

Transhumanists believe that natural human limitations can, or should, or even must be overcome, via biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other means.

Yet many transhumanists emphasize that people should not be be forced into using enhancement technologies. Rather, individuals should be free to decide whether or not to transform themselves. Our colleague Charles T. Rubin puts it this way in his excellent new book Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress:

A great many transhumanists stand foursquare behind the principle of consumer choice. Most are willing to concede that enhancements ought to be demonstrably safe and effective. But the core belief is that people ought to be able to choose for themselves the manner in which they enhance or modify their own bodies. If we are to use technology to be the best we can be, each of us must be free to decide for himself what “best” means and nobody should be able to stop us.

This techno-libertarian stance seemingly allows transhumanists to distance themselves from early-twentieth-century advocates of eugenics, who believed that government coercion should be used to achieve genetic betterment. What’s more, when they are compared to eugenicists, the transhumanists turn it around, employing a clever bit of jujitsu:

Indeed, the transhumanists argue, it is their critics — whom they disparagingly label “bioconservatives” and “bioluddites” — who, by wishing to restrict enhancement choices, are the real heirs of the eugenicists; they are the ones who have an idea of what humans should be and want government to enforce it. The transhumanists would say that they are far less interested in asserting what human beings should be than in encouraging diverse exploration into what we might become, including of course not being human at all. Moreover, the argument goes, transhumanists are strictly speaking not like eugenicists because they are not interested only in making better human beings — not even supermen, really. For to be merely human is by definition to be defective.

It is this view of human things that makes the transhumanists de facto advocates of human extinction. Their dissatisfaction with the merely human is so great that they can barely bring themselves to imagine why anyone would make a rational decision to remain an unenhanced human, or human at all, once given a choice.

However, if the transhumanists are for the most part against state coercion in relation to enhancements, as we have already seen that does not mean there is no coercive element in the transition to the transhuman. They can avoid government coercion because they believe that the freedom of some individuals to enhance and redesign as they please adds up to an aggregate necessity for human enhancement, given competitive pressure and the changing social norms it will bring. Indeed, to the extent that transhumanists recognize that theirs is presently the aspiration of a minority, they are counting on this kind of pressure to bring about the changes in attitude they desire.

Within the framework of the largely free market in enhancements the transhumanists imagine, an arms-race logic will drive ever-newer enhancements, because if “we” don’t do it first, “they” will, and then “we” will be in trouble. This kind of coercion is not of much concern to transhumanists; they are content to offer that it does not infringe upon freedom because, as the rules of the game change, one always retains the freedom to drop out. Indeed, the transhumanists seem to take particular delight in pointing out that anyone who opposes the idea that the indefinite extension of human life is a good thing will be perfectly free to die. In a world of enhancement competition, consistent “bioluddites” will be self-eliminating.

Once we see past the transhumanists’ superficial appeal to freedom, we can see transhumanism for what it is: an ideology committed to the necessity of human transformation, a transformation that is tantamount to extinction.

To read more of Rubin’s thoughts on techno-libertarianism and transhumanism, get yourself a copy of Eclipse of Man today, in hardcover or e-book format.

Human Flourishing or Human Rejection?

Sometimes, when we criticize transhumanism here on Futurisms, we are accused of being Luddites, of being anti-technology, of being anti-progress. Our colleague Charles Rubin ably responded to such criticisms five years ago in a little post he called “The ‘Anti-Progress’ Slur.”

In his new book Eclipse of Man, Professor Rubin explores the moral and political dimensions of transhumanism. And again the question arises, if you are opposed to transhumanism, are you therefore opposed to progress? Here, in a passage from the book’s introduction, Rubin talks about the distinctly modern idea that humanity can better its lot and asks whether that goal is in tension with the transhumanist goal of transcending humanity:

Even if the sources of our misery have not changed over time, the way we think about them has certainly changed between the ancient world and ours. What was once simply a fact of life to which we could only resign ourselves has become for us a problem to be solved. When and why the ancient outlook began to go into eclipse in the West is something scholars love to discuss, but that a fundamental change has occurred seems undeniable. Somewhere along the line, with thinkers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes playing a major role, people began to believe that misery, poverty, illness, and even death itself were not permanent facts of life that link us to the transcendent but rather challenges to our ingenuity in the here and now. And that outlook has had marvelous success where it has taken hold, allowing more people to live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before.

So the transhumanists are correct to point out that the desire to alter the human condition runs deep in us, and that attempts to alter it have a long history. But even starting from our perennial dissatisfaction, and from our ever-growing power to do something about the causes of our dissatisfaction, it is not obvious how we get from seeking to improve the prospects for human flourishing to rejecting our humanity altogether. If the former impulse is philanthropic, is the latter not obviously misanthropic? Do we want to look forward to a future where man is absent, to make that goal our normative vision of how we would like the world to be?

Francis Bacon famously wrote about “the relief of man’s estate,” which is to say, the improvement of the conditions of human life. But the transhumanists reject human life as such. Certain things that may be good in certain human contexts — intelligence, pleasure, power — can become meaningless, perverse, or destructive when stripped of that context. By pursuing these goods in abstraction from their human context, transhumanism offers not an improvement in the human condition but a rejection of humanity.

For much more of Charlie Rubin’s thoughtful critique of transhumanism, pick up a copy of Eclipse of Man today.

Our new book on transhumanism: Eclipse of Man

Since we launched The New Atlantis, questions about human enhancement, artificial intelligence, and the future of humanity have been a core part of our work. And no one has written more intelligently and perceptively about the moral and political aspects of these questions than Charles T. Rubin, who first addressed them in the inaugural issue of TNA and who is one of our colleagues here on Futurisms.

So we are delighted to have just published Charlie’s new book about transhumanism, Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress.

We’ll have much more to say about the book in the days and weeks ahead, but for now, you can read the dust-jacket text and the book’s blurbs at EclipseOfMan.net and, even better, you can buy it today from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.