The Cases For and Against Enhancing People

A recent issue of The New Atlantis features several essays on transhumanism which may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’ll describe them briefly in this post and the next.The first essay is “The Case for Enhancing People,” by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for Reason magazine. Ron is well known for supporting transhumanism and enhancement technologies; he makes the case for them in his book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution. Here’s a snippet of his essay for us:

Contrary to oft-expressed concerns, we will find, first, that enhancements will better enable people to flourish; second, that enhancements will not dissolve whatever existential worries people have; third, that enhancements will enable people to become more virtuous; fourth, that people who don’t want enhancement for themselves should allow those of us who do to go forward without hindrance; fifth, that concerns over an “enhancement divide” are largely illusory; and sixth, that we already have at hand the social “technology,” in the form of protective social and political institutions, that will enable the enhanced and the unenhanced to dwell together in peace.

In response to Ron Bailey’s piece, we’ve published an essay by Benjamin Storey, an associate professor of political science at Furman University. The essay challenges Ron’s particularly libertarian strain of transhumanism, but also speaks to some of the fundamental questions raised by human enhancement. Here’s a taste:

“The Case for Enhancing People” is obviously the work of a sharp and curious mind, but Bailey’s libertarian commitment blinds him to the moral difficulties of our biotechnological moment, and condemns him to endlessly exploring what Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” When we step outside that prison, we find ourselves confronting a complex political, historical, and moral-existential landscape in which there are no easy answers. Politically, we face both the difficult task of attempting to responsibly shape mainstream moral life without going overboard in “childproofing our culture,” as Yuval Levin has put it, and the sobering reality that technology and individual liberty do not always exist in harmony. Historically, we stand before an uncertain future, in which there is no reason to believe that all technological change issues in genuine human progress.

This is a bracing and carefully wrought exchange; I believe readers will find it well worth their time.

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.

Is Transhumanism a Religion?

In late April, blogger Michael Anissimov claimed that we are all transhumanists now, in part because

At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self‑modification.

Just a few days ago, on the other hand, Mr. Anissimov observed that “When theists call the Singularity movement ‘religious,’ they are essentially saying, ‘Oh no, this scientifically‑informed philosophy is intruding on our traditional turf!’”

My point in juxtaposing these two passages is not only to suggest that it is not fully clear just who is intruding on whose turf, but also to suggest that the whole issue seems to be miscast. Back when I was writing about environmentalism I came across those who thought environmentalism was somehow a religion, and for that reason alone deeply problematic. That they would often speak of it as a “secular religion” already struck me as odd, not quite like talking about a “square circle” but close.

In response, I paraphrased a passage from T. S. Eliot (“Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion”) to suggest that if environmentalism is a substitute for religion, it is because our religion is already a substitute for religion. Something of the same idea applies to transhumanism in its various forms. If it looks like a religion, that is probably because so many have a pretty degraded conception of what “religion” — and here I speak of the Biblical religions — is all about. Let me suggest it is not fundamentally angels.

At root, Biblical religion is about there being a God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world. At root, transhumanism is not about any of these things; so far as I can tell for most transhumanists there is no God and we are the only source of expectations about how we should live in the world. It is very hard for me to understand in what sense one of these belief systems can substitute for another. True, both of them can be strongly held, both of them can serve as a guide to life. You can even say both depend on faith, to the extent that a good deal of transhumanism depends on evidence of what is as yet unseen. So I suppose that if you define religion as “a strongly held guide to life that depends on faith” then you can have a secular religion and it could be transhumanism.

But that definition seems to me to miss the point — like saying that Coke can serve as a substitute for red wine because both of them are dark-colored and drinkable liquids. Whatever their similarities, transhumanism and religion simply do not play the same part in the moral economy of human life. They strive for different ends and as a result they admire different qualities. For example, transhumanism is all about pride, while Biblical religions point to humility. Eliot once again seems to have the clearer understanding of what is at stake:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself … that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name.

Transhumanism has indeed decided that it can do without religious faith and philosophy, hitching its wagon to willful creativity and calling it science. In contrast, binding discipline is at the root of Biblical religion. You do not have to want that discipline or believe in it to see that transhumanism is not just offering us the same kind of thing under a different name.

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.