Humanist confused

Late last year, Fred Baumann offered in the pages of The New Atlantis a depiction of the complicated relationship between humanism and transhumanism. It is a wonderful essay, and we will have more to say about it here on Futurisms before too long. Meanwhile, though, I noticed that the new issue of The Humanist magazine has a book review that touches on transhumanism, and I thought it worth a brief comment here.For those who don’t know, The Humanist is a publication of the American Humanist Association, a group with stridently anti-religious views. The twentieth-century humanist movement, of which the American Humanist Association is a part, considers itself a true heir to the Enlightenment. You can see this all over the group’s literature, which lauds science as “the best method for determining” knowledge of the world and “for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.” Science can also “inform” our “ethical values.”I wonder if contemporary humanists have given much thought to the tensions between science and some of the other things they embrace. For example, I wonder what today’s vocally atheistic humanists would make of Joel Garreau’s article “Environmentalism as Religion.” And I wonder what they would have to say about the profoundly anti-human eugenics movement, which prided itself on its scientific rationalism but would seem to offer us a terrible warning about how scientistic ideology can trample on the “inherent worth and dignity” of human beings. (An old version of the humanist manifesto, dating back to 1973, did concede that “science has sometimes brought evil as well as good” — but the next version of the manifesto cut that bit.)A thoughtful humanist truly concerned with understanding and protecting human dignity might also want to ask some probing questions of today’s transhumanists. Is transhumanism the ultimate expression of humanism, or is it a kind of rejection of humanism? As far as I can tell, the only time anyone critically challenged transhumanism in the pages of The Humanist magazine was in a letter to the editor in 2004, and even that letter only barely touched on transhumanism.Which brings us to the book review in the new issue of The Humanist. Written by Jende Andrew Huang, it’s a review of The Techno-Human Condition, the new book by Arizona State professors Dan Sarewitz and Brad Allenby. Huang contends that the authors misunderstand transhumanism, but he doesn’t really explain what they get wrong — except to say that some of the “conversations [about the unintended consequences of human enhancement] that the authors are calling for are already happening in transhumanist circles.”Then, thinking that he is going in for the kill, Huang offers this:

Though it would almost be petty to harp on a single citation as an example of the authors’ thought processes, I was surprised to see them reference The Religion of Technology by David Noebel. Noebel is the founder of Summit Ministries, which, among other things, offers two-week summer sessions for Christian college students to teach them about five pernicious worldviews: Islam, secular humanism, Marxism, New Age, and postmodernism. As Noebel teaches it, the Christian worldview has fueled every great scientific advance and leap of knowledge in history, until Charles Darwin wrote On the Origins of Species in 1859, and scientists turned away from God toward both evolution and morality-free atheism, a shift that has since allowed society to run amok. It would be an understatement to say that most of what he writes cannot be assumed as objective or grounded in historical fact. Referencing Noebel as a reliable source on the thoughts and beliefs of seventeenth-century scientists is problematic, to say the least (though I suppose if we removed “applied reason” from the conversation, then we wouldn’t need to worry about letting facts get in the way of things).

Unfortunately for Huang, the entire premise of this paragraph is wrong. The book The Religion of Technology was written not by David A. Noebel, the minister Huang decries, but by the late David F. Noble, the Canadian historian and critic of technology. Huang thinks he has found a glaring problem with Sarewitz and Allenby’s approach to transhumanism, but the problem here is Huang’s own — and it’s a lapse that a few seconds of googling could have obviated.At any rate, we would be glad to hear if there are folks in the contemporary humanism movement who have doubts about the wisdom of transhumanism. Or does their faith (so to speak) in science run so deep that they are disinclined to question any project that seems as squarely scientific as the transhumanist project does?UPDATE — In case you were wondering whether the authors may have misspelled Noble’s name and thereby unintentionally misled Huang, here is a scanned in version of the paragraph on page 18 (at least in the advance galleys that I own) of Sarewitz and Allenby’s book:



UPDATE II — Huang has e-mailed us the following reply to this post:

Thanks for pointing out my mistake! It’s especially embarrassing because I know “Doc” David A. Noebel, by virtue of having take one of his summer sessions at Summit Ministries when I was in college (you can read about my impressions here.)My time at Summit is one reason I highlighted the citation of what I thought was Doc Noebel’s book. I had done a quick web search and thought I’d “confirmed” that it was the Noebel from Summit. Clearly, I was mistaken. However, if you omit that paragraph, the rest of the review still stands. My comments regarding Doc Noebel are hardly the crux of my argument that you wish it to be. That paragraph was more like icing on an already delicious cake.I’m glad you’re reading (and hopefully enjoying) The Humanist magazine. After seeing your commentary about humanism, I would implore you to read the magazine with more of an open mind. Your characterization of humanism hardly befits the serious discussion I would assume your journal is trying to have about these complex issues. It’s unlikely you’d find many humanists willing to engage in serious dialogue with you about these topics, when you’re still questioning what humanists think about eugenics.

Clearly, I disagree with Mr. Huang about his review; I think that it did not seriously engage with Sarewitz and Allenby’s book, and that it did little to explain what they got wrong on transhumanism — but I will leave that to readers of the book, of Huang’s review, and of my post to judge.However, I would invite Huang, or any readers who consider themselves part of the humanist movement, to elaborate on the point Huang makes in his last sentence. What do humanists think about eugenics? I did a little googling before writing this post, focusing especially on the website of The Humanist and the American Humanist Association, and all I found was a glancing reference to eugenics as a “downside[] and absurd offshoot[]” of freethinking, and a blog post that in passing called eugenics “infamous.” I am happy to assume that humanists abhor eugenics, and I am happy to assume that they really care about protecting human dignity (a notoriously difficult term to understand and define). I just want to understand how they reconcile their appreciation of science as a source of knowledge and even ethical insight with the fact that it gave rise to the eugenics movement. The eugenics movement considered itself impeccably scientific, and its proponents used the latest scientific knowledge to justify their preferred policies. If there are books, essays, or blog posts by humanists that explain how they think through this problem, I would be glad to read and link to them.

James Hughes, the Enlightenment, and the radiant future

[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]

James Hughes had the morning talk after Patrick Hopkins. He basically did a rapidfire ten-minute version of a mini-essay he published earlier this year on transhumanism’s inheritance of Enlightenment problems. That mini-essay was supposed to be part of a seven-essay series, although it looks like only five have been published. We have discussed a few of these essays on this blog (here, here, here, and here).

James Hughes, far right, enlightened by his laptop's glow.

Because of the short time slot, Hughes compressed his talk into a thesis with which I’m generally in agreement: that transhumanists don’t usually realize that very many of their debates recapitulate Enlightenment debates, and they have a responsibility to learn about and engage with those arguments. We part ways with Hughes on the details, though (as evidenced by our series of responses), and in particular I’m skeptical about the idea that transhumanism’s fractured Enlightenment inheritance spells positive things for its coherence and goodness, even when that inheritance is recognized and engaged with.

Here’s just one example. Hughes notes that continental Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations for the utopianism we find alive today in transhumanism. In particular, they pioneered the idea that pure reason would liberate us from the shackles of death and tyranny, a notion that Hughes more or less embraces (albeit with a huge caveat).

Hughes calls particular attention to the Marquis de Condorcet, who “wrote one of the most remarkably utopian essays in the history of the Enlightenment, which proposed that reason would eventually liberate us all from the church and the state, that there would be women’s suffrage eventually, that we would get rid of slavery eventually, and that we would get rid of unnecessary involuntary death.” He’s referring here to the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit.

Although Hughes notes the difficult conditions under which Condorcet wrote his Sketch — he “was part of the French Revolution but was being hunted down by the Jacobins” when he wrote it — Hughes misses the significance of that fact. As Charles Taylor explains in his book Sources of the Self:

Certainly the greatest and fullest statement of the philosophy of history of the unbelieving Enlightenment is Condorcet’s Esquisse [Sketch], taking us through ten ages of human existence, the tenth being the anticipated radiant future of mankind…. This passage takes on an additional poignancy when one reflects that it was written in 1793, when its author was in hiding in Paris, with a warrant for his arrest by the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety as a suspected Girondin, and that he in fact had only a few months more to live. There were, indeed, “errors, crimes, injustices” for which he needed consolation. And it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future. [Emphasis added.]

One can only hope that transhumanists will heed the darker lessons of the Enlightenment in their call for a radiant future incomprehensibly brighter than that dreamed of by the Jacobins. But that would require levels of responsibility and restraint that are not only not in evidence among transhumanists, but are basically inimical to its goals.

[NOTE: I’ll have a few more posts tonight or tomorrow, catching up on other presentations from the conference, along with some more pictures and a few concluding thoughts.]

“The Geek’s Guide To Getting Girls”

H+ Magazine‘s “humorist” Joe Quirk (author of “The Meaning of Life Lies in Its Suckiness,” which we discussed here) has penned another literary triumph. Watch out, Voltaire:

It wasn’t until her bikini thong hit me in the face that I recognized her. It was the sophomore from Holy Cross College I’d interviewed yesterday who had said her deepest desire was to marry a mature gentleman who would see her not just as a piece of flesh but as the intelligent entrepreneur she planned to be. I didn’t recognize her up on that stripper pole on the beach amid all this Spring Break mayhem. She had complained it was difficult to land a good man with all these loose girls sending the wrong impression.

He goes on to weave the latest evolutionary/social psychology/biology research into a story about how he “headed to Spring Break in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, so I could observe these principles at work in the courtship behavior of drunken beach apes.” Wherein he indeed describes what he sees as if viewing primates, complete with descriptions of how women’s menstrual cycles alter their mating preferences, etc.
Here’s the kicker: the main principle Quirk wants to relate (perhaps with the aim of lending some reassurance to the self-image of the magazine’s likely readers) is that women are attracted not to alpha males but to men with social respect and intelligence. “Female primates can tell the difference and boink accordingly.” Classy.
From this, he assures us, “At Spring Break in 2011, science nerds will get more sex than jocks and cheerleaders, because science nerds will understand the biology of human desire.” (Which sounds hilariously if probably unintentionally like the response in Revenge of the Nerds to the cheerleader’s query “Are all nerds as good as you?”: “Yes. Because all jocks think about is sports. All we ever think about is sex.”)
Maybe I’m missing something here, but this seems to conflict a bit with all of that social respect and intelligence stuff. If there’s one thing I know about women, it’s that talking about how hormonal and easily manipulated they are isn’t likely to endear you to them.
It doesn’t speak well of H+ Magazine that they would publish this sort of thing. There’s the question of the scientific validity of these claims, not to mention the article’s apparent ignorance of the “Seduction Community”, which has been attempting a similar (if arguably more respectful) project for decades. And then there’s the writing itself, which should make anyone with even a shred of respect for women and women’s rights shudder. Some of the commenters on the piece try to defend it as just a joke, but it sounds a bit more like the rantings of a few bitter science/engineering students I knew in college who tried to couch their misogyny in supposedly humorous or scientific language.
Appropriateness aside, I’d like to suggest that this piece is indicative of a deeper tension within transhumanism between the ev/social science outlook that wants to view humans as little more than animals and the Enlightenment outlook that wants to raise humans to the level of equal beings endowed with supreme individual rights and wills. The application of the former outlook to ethics leads to some attitudes that are directly in conflict with the latter. To put it another way, treating people in practice as little more than animals leads to some pretty un-Enlightened ideas and behavior. More about this later.
Update: Elana J. Clift, author of the work on the “Seduction Community” I linked to, adds in an email that the H+ article “sounds similar to a lot of the (b.s.) pop psychology/anthropology that people in the Seduction Community blather on about…. [I]n addition to women’s rights and sexism against women you might mention how this kind of crap is harmful to men and how they are taught to view themselves, their intentions, their bodies, etc.”

The Transhuman and the Postmodern (A Further Response to James Hughes)

My previous post on transhumanism and morality elicited a response from James Hughes, whose recent series of essays was my prompt. I thank Prof. Hughes for his response, although it seems to me to confirm more than not the main point of my original post.

I’m confident that Prof. Hughes understands that what we are calling for the sake of shorthand “Enlightenment values” did not present themselves as “historically situated” but as simply true. Speaking schematically and as briefly as possible, it took Hegel (no unambiguous fan of the Enlightenment) to historicize them, but he did so in a way that preserved the possibility of truth. It took Nietzsche’s radical historicism in effect to turn Hegel against himself, and in so doing to replace truth with willful, creative overcoming. That opens the door to postmodernism.

It looks like it is almost axiomatic to Prof. Hughes that all “truths” are historically situated and culturally relative, so in that postmodern manner he is rejecting “Enlightenment values” on their own terms. Nietzsche, shall we say, has eaten that cake. But why then “privilege” “Enlightenment values” at all? Prof. Hughes wants to keep the cake around to the extent it is useful to pursue a grand transformational project (a necessary one, according to at least some of his transhumanist brothers and sisters). But why (assuming there is a choice) pursue transhumanism at all as a grand project, or why prefer one version over another? To this question Prof. Hughes’s axiom allows no rational answer (“Reason,” he writes, “is a good tool but … our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason”) although the silence is covered up by libertarian professions, the superficiality of which Prof. Hughes understands full well.

What Agnes Heller calls “reflective postmodernism” describes a response to the dilemma Prof. Hughes is facing that to my mind is not without problems, but at least seems intellectually respectable. Armed with Nietzsche’s paradoxical truth that there is no truth, the reflective postmodernist is alive to irony, open to being wrong and playful in outlook. But above all, the reflective postmodernist is an observer of the world, having abandoned entirely the modern propensity to pursue the kind of grand, “necessary,” transformational projects that made the twentieth century so terrible. Absent such abnegation, I don’t see how the postmodern-style adherence to “Enlightenment values” Prof. Hughes recommends for transhumanism can be anything more than anti-Enlightenment will to power.

the Republic of Letters

Here’s an excellent article by Robert Darnton, about which I will have more to say later. But for now here’s a taste:

The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won. The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson — each filling about fifty volumes — and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network. I especially enjoy the exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison. They discussed everything, notably the American Constitution, which Madison was helping to write in Philadelphia while Jefferson was representing the new republic in Paris. They often wrote about books, for Jefferson loved to haunt the bookshops in the capital of the Republic of Letters, and he frequently bought books for his friend. The purchases included Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which Jefferson thought that he had got at a bargain price, although he had mistaken a reprint for a first edition. Two future presidents discussing books through the information network of the Enlightenment — it’s a stirring sight. But before this picture of the past fogs over with sentiment, I should add that the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another.

By “Letters” these figures did not mean epistles, though obviously they produced plenty of those, but rather Writing, humane learning, what we might call “literature” in the broadest sense of the word. (They used the word “literature” quite differently than we do. To us it means — more or less — poetry, fiction, drama, and some kinds of essay; to them it meant the scope of a person’s reading, especially in the classics and the best moderns. “He is a man of great literature” is a characteristic phrase of the period: it means “he is exceptionally well-read in the best books.”) Anyway, as I said, more on all this later. But read the whole essay.