Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

As part of a Washington Post series this week about transhumanism, our own Charles T. Rubin offers some thoughts on why transhumanists are so optimistic when the pop-culture depictions of transhumanism nearly always seem to be dark and gloomy:

What accounts for this gap between how transhumanists see themselves — as rational proponents of a cause, who seek little more than to speed humanity along a path it already follows — and how they are seen in popular culture — as dangerous conspirators against human welfare? Movies and TV need drama and conflict, and it is possible that transhumanists just make trendy villains. And yet the transhumanists and the show writers are alike operating in the realm of imagination, of possible futures. In this case, I believe the TV writers have the richer and more nuanced imaginations that more closely resemble reality.

You can read the entire article here.

CRISPR and the Human Species

Over at Tech Crunch, Jamie Metzl writes that we need to have a “species-wide conversation” about the use of gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, because these technologies could be used to alter the course of human evolution:

Nearly everybody wants to have cancers cured and terrible diseases eliminated. Most of us want to live longer, healthier and more robust lives. Genetic technologies will make that possible. But the very tools we will use to achieve these goals will also open the door to the selection for and ultimately manipulation of non-disease-related genetic traits — and with them a new set of evolutionary possibilities.

Transhumanists want to take control of human evolution because of their sense of radical dissatisfaction with our evolved nature; they believe, hubristically, that they they have or can attain the wisdom and power to design mankind according to their own whims. Such schemes for redesigning the human species led eugenicists and totalitarians in the twentieth century to the trample on the rights and interests of human beings in the service of their vision for the human species, and the terrible legacy of these movements should serve as a warning against attempting to take control over human evolution.

Does germline gene therapy necessarily represent such a hubristic, transhumanist attempt to alter the species? Or can the insistence that we avoid all forms of germline therapy also subordinate the rights and medical interests of human beings today to a vision of the human species and its future?

As I argue in an essay in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the conversation that is needed should focus on ways to ensure that gene therapy is used to treat actual patients suffering from actual diseases — including, perhaps, unborn human beings who are at a demonstrable risk of genetic disease.

The task ahead of us is to distinguish between legitimate forms of therapy and illicit forms of genetic control over our descendants. These kinds of distinctions will be difficult to draw in theory, and even more difficult to enforce in practice, but doing so is neither impossible nor avoidable.

Toward a Typology of Transhumanism

Years ago, James Hughes sought to typify the emerging political debate over transhumanism with a three-axis political scale, adding a biopolitical dimension to the familiar axes of social and fiscal libertarianism. But transhumanism is a very academic issue, both in the sense that many transhumanists, including Hughes, are academics, and in the sense that it is very removed from everyday practical concerns. So it may make more sense to characterize the different types of transhumanists in terms of the kinds of intellectual positions to which they adhere rather than to how they relate to different positions on the political spectrum. As Zoltan Istvan’s wacky transhumanist presidential campaign shows us, transhumanism is hardly ready for prime time when it comes to American politics.

And so, I propose a continuum of transhumanist thought, to help observers understand the intellectual differences between some of its proponents — based on three different levels of support for human enhancement technologies.

First, the most mild form of transhumanists: those who embrace the human enhancement project, or reject most substantive limits to human enhancement, but who do not have a very concrete vision of what kinds of things human enhancement technology may be used for. In terms of their intellectual background, these mild transhumanists can be defined by their diversity rather than their unity. They adhere to some of the more respectable philosophical schools, such as pragmatism, various kinds of liberalism, or simply the thin, “formally rational” morality of mainstream bioethics. Many of these mild transhumanists are indeed professional bioethicists in good standing. Few, if any of them would accept the label of “transhumanist” for themselves, but they reject the substantive arguments against the enhancement project, often in the name of enhancing the freedom of choice that individuals have to control their own bodies — or, in the case of reproductive technologies, the “procreative liberty” of parents to control the bodies of their children.

Second, the moderate transhumanists. They are not very philosophically diverse, but rather are defined by a dogmatic adherence to utilitarianism. Characteristic examples would include John Harris and Julian Savulescu, along with many of the academics associated with Oxford’s rather inaptly named Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. These thinkers, who nowadays also generally eschew the term “transhumanist” for themselves, deploy a simple calculus of costs and benefits for society to moral questions concerning biotechnology, and conclude that the extensive use of biotechnology will usually end up improving human well-being. Unlike those liberals who oppose restrictions on enhancement, liberty is a secondary value for these strident utilitarians, and so some of them are comfortable with the idea of legally requiring or otherwise pressuring individuals to use enhancement technologies.

Some of their hobbyhorses include the abandonment of the act-omission distinction — that is, that there are consequences of omitting to act; John Harris famously applied this to the problem of organ shortages when he argued that we should perhaps randomly kill innocent people to harvest their organs, since failing to procure organs for those who will die without them is little different than killing them. Grisly as it is, this argument is not quite a transhumanist one, since such organ donation would hardly constitute human enhancement, but it is clear how someone who accepts this kind of radical utilitarianism would go on to accept arguments for manipulating human biology in other outlandish schemes for maximizing “well-being.”
Third, the most extreme form of transhumanism is defined less by adherence to a philosophical position than to a kind of quixotic obsession with technology itself. Today, this obsession with technology manifests in the belief that artificial intelligence will completely transform the world through the Singularity and the uploading of human minds — although futurist speculations built on contemporary technologies have of course been around for a long time. Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, for example, imagines a whole world designed in the image of the early twentieth century factory. Though this obsession with technology is not a philosophical position per se, today’s transhumanists have certainly built very elaborate intellectual edifices around the idea of artificial intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence represents a good example of the kind of systematic work these extreme transhumanists have put into thinking through what a world completely shaped by information technology might be like.

*   *   *

Obviously there is a great deal of overlap between these three degrees of transhumanism, and the most mild stage in particular is really quite vaguely defined. If there is a kind of continuum along which these stages run it would be one from relatively open-minded and ecumenical thinkers to those who are increasingly dogmatic and idiosyncratic in their views. The mild transhumanists are usually highly engaged with the real world of policymaking and medicine, and discuss a wide variety of ideas in their work. The moderate transhumanists are more committed to a particular philosophical approach, and the academics at the Oxford’s Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics who apply their dogmatic utilitiarianism to moral problems usually end up with wildly impractical proposals. Though all of these advocates of human enhancement are enthusiastic about technology, for the extreme transhumanists, technology almost completely shapes their moral and political thought; and though their actual influence on public policy is thankfully limited for the time being, it is these more extreme folks, like Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, and arguably Eric Drexler and the late Robert Ettinger, who tend to be most often profiled in the press and to have a popular following.

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.

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.

Transhumanists: The Once and Future Christians?

Charles Stross recently claimed that he had found some roots for transhumanism in the relatively obscure Russian Orthodox writing of the idiosyncratic Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. Stross provocatively asks:

So. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity? You decide!

I would be more cautious than Stross seems to be about claiming any discernible intellectual influence here. But, influence or not, there are indeed interesting likenesses, and those (along with the striking differences) can illuminate some of the perennial aspirations that transhumanism builds on, at the very least turning our attention away from questions of mere technological feasibility.In that vein, I just finished a novel from 1884 that contained the following passages:

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes … what a monotonous store of meadows and trees, what a commonplace display of mountains and seas!In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture….There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old crone has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible.

The book is Joris-Karl Huysman’s à Rebours, translated (not very literally) in the English version from which the above quote is taken as Against Nature. It is considered one of the minor classics of French Decadence. I’d be surprised if any transhumanist luminaries had actually been influenced by this book, or by the Decadents in any fashion, but the underlying similarities hardly need to be belabored. Nor do I think they are intellectually accidental.The Decadents, like transhumanists, seem to have believed in the unrelieved grimness of human life. Where the Decadents thought culture was at a standstill, the transhumanists care not a whit for it, that battle having been lost. In a decaying world where everything was permitted, the Decadents found it hard to find anything worth doing (including eating, drinking and being merry).Transhumanists have a more crusading mentality, but it points in the same direction as Against Nature. For the fictional Des Esseintes abandons civilization (that is, Paris) and undertakes a series of strange and refined aesthetic experiments on the assumptions articulated above. (Seasteading, anyone?) He works hard, and not without technological assistance, to achieve the ideals he has set for himself, just as transhumanists would have us work hard to be the very best we can imagine ourselves (if we have selves) to be.Here’s the bad news from the transhumanist point of view. Des Esseintes is a broken man by the end of the book. Worse yet, eight years after writing this minor classic of the Decadent genre, Huysman found himself, rather more to his own surprise than not, a devout Catholic. Contempt for nature can lead in unexpected directions. Who knows what is in store for our transhumanist friends?

“Fixed” — A New Documentary on Disability and Transhumanism

I recently attended a rough-cut screening of Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, a new documentary by filmmaker Regan Brashear. Her film tackles the vexed relationship between transhumanists and disability advocates.The film is framed around interviews with a number of members of the transhumanist, bioethics, disability, and robotics communities, such as Rodney Brooks, James Hughes, and Marcy Darnovsky. But it focuses primarily on three figures, each of whom is disabled (apparently all by paraplegia [SEE UPDATE]): John Hockenberry, an accomplished journalist and a Distinguished Fellow of the M.I.T. Media Lab; Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethicist at the University of Calgary; and Patty Berne, a disability and LGBT activist.Through these interviews, Fixed weaves a subtle and challenging story. If it has a specific conclusion you are meant to take away, it is not interested in simply presenting it and telling you to believe, but nonetheless you can’t come away from it without your thoughts on these issues deepened. What the film presents is the paradox that comes from entering into any other person’s life — the discovery of how profoundly different we each are, and yet how essentially the same.That tension between sameness and difference is particularly crucial to understanding how transhumanism relates to disability. As the film shows, transhumanists seem keen to co-opt the disability movement, arguing that people with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are the first cyborgs, and that they show why we should embrace departure from “normal.” The film gives the impression that this is only a rhetorical move by transhumanists, who are less interested in honoring and respecting the disabled than in using them as a steppingstone on the path to self-modification and techno-transcendence.That much is obvious; but what’s so challenging about Fixed is that transhumanists and disability advocates (some of whom are the same people) can’t seem at all to figure out how to feel about each other — and don’t seem to realize it. “Abolish normal” and “Embrace difference” seem to be the common rallying cry of both movements. Yet many of the disability advocates in this film seem to think that this is a cry against transhumanists even more than against the strictures of society itself.“Transhumanism is just the logical extension of ableism,” says one interviewee, and many seem to agree that the quest for ever more strength, intelligence, and ability, will devalue the lives of the disabled. And indeed, where John Hockenberry and others are seen praising how happy, valuable, and loved by their families are people with Down syndrome, the film also shows a discussion between James Hughes and Gregor Wolbring in which Hughes claims:

Our society is far too ready to encourage parents who have disabled children to bring them into the world, with this logic of “You know, oh, I have a Down syndrome child, and he’s the greatest gift to my life, and he’s had so many special gifts.” Well, if you want to just have a child to enrich your family, why don’t you get a dog?

The charge that the lives of the disabled will be devalued, even discarded, by those who celebrate their own tolerance is far from hypothetical. (Note that Gregor Wolbring, an accomplished scientist and eloquent speaker, is paraplegic due to being a “thalidomide baby” — so a little advance in prenatal diagnosis of the sort that the enlightened Hughes calls for might have averted the burden of Wolbring’s existence.)There are useful distinctions on these issues that are not made by any of the interviewees in this film: between “normal” as inclusive versus exclusive; between difference as given versus chosen. Without these, it remains unclear what might come of the relationship between transhumanism and disability — whether “tolerance” might not end up being perverted into the rallying cry of the powerful against the weak. But Fixed offers a fascinating and insightful look into the lives of the people for whom these questions are more than academic.I hope the project will get to see completion, and the film will have a public release. If you’re interested, you can help the film reach that goal at its Kickstarter page. And for more reading on this subject, see Caitrin Nicol’s “At Home with Down Syndrome” in our pages.UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by filmmaker Regan Brashear that I’ve gotten some things wrong about Fixed in this post. So I’d like to clear a few things up about this post.First, contrary to my claim, the three people featured in the documentary are not all paraplegics. The version of the film I saw doesn’t state the nature of their disabilities; I simply inferred this because the film offers some glimpses into the personal lives and struggles of these figures, including that all appear to lack use of their legs. Because the film includes these personal elements, it seemed important to mention them, though I did not mean to imply that any of the people mentioned should be defined by their disabilities.I should also make clear that my parenthetical comment about the “burden” of existence of one person with a disability was meant ironically; one of the things the film’s main interviewees all suggest is that if we view the lives of disabled persons this way, then the fault lies in ourselves.The larger problem, though, is that I may have given the misimpression that the film shared my own particular critical stance on its subject. I meant to make clear that the film, in the version I saw, does not seem to be pushing any particular stance towards transhumanism one way or the other, but neither is it simply informative; the ideas and persons presented are challenging. More to the point, I didn’t sufficiently emphasize that many of the people presented in the film seem pretty clearly to be pro-enhancement, and so one could reasonably interpret the film itself as having either a pro- or anti-enhancement message, or something more agnostic. So, to be clear, the film presents both sides of this story; my aim was to indicate that there is one side we ought to find much more compelling.Most importantly, it may not have been sufficiently emphasized in my post that the version of the film I saw was unfinished. So, I hope my commentary will be viewed in that provisional light. I maintain that the film offers an insightful and compelling look into the relationship between transhumanism and disability advocacy, and will challenge anyone who views it to think more deeply about ideas like “disabled,” “normal,” and “enhancement.”

Immortality: timeless truths, or enshrined experiences?

I’m a little surprised that in their big-tent quest for legitimacy, transhumanists have not claimed Aristotle as one of their own. Towards the end of his Nichomachean Ethics he writes (in Joe Sachs’s translation): “But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view to living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself.” Take that, anthropocentric Futurisms bloggers!
Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer [Wikimedia Commons]

In fact, the difference between what Aristotle and our modern-day advocates have in mind by “being immortal” is instructive. For Aristotle, the philosopher aspires to immortality through thinking the eternal verities that make the world, otherwise a world of flux, what it is. For the transhumanist, the scientist and the engineer are asked to extend our ability to experience flux, to become for ever longer intervals, and to become what we have never before been. For Aristotle, the human being who uses his reason to “be immortal” in his sense is employing to the greatest possible extent the special ability that makes him human. For the transhumanist, reason makes us immortal by abandonment of our humanity.

What these otherwise contrary visions of immortality share is that in both of them, the I that so desperately does not wish to die is lost, but I rather think that in Aristotle there is less bait and switch on this point. Ur-transhumanist Hans Moravec acknowledged long ago that, contrary to the appearance of uploading a mind into some more durable instantiation, the consequent ability to upgrade would mean that the original I would not persist with machine immortality, except perhaps as some long-irrelevant backup copy. Since Moravec first made that argument, this near necessity has been turned into a virtue — so that transhumanism, as my previous post suggested, promises a succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves of technological possibility. The Aristotelian lover of wisdom, on the other hand, is successful to the extent that he can overcome the din of just such passionate and restless desires, so the quest for such immortality as we can have and the taming of the ego go hand in hand.
To put the difference another way, I associate Aristotelian immortality with an attempt to achieve a life of coherent and rational meaning, whereas transhumanism is looking to extend indefinitely the ability to have whatever experiences are desired. Perhaps that quest helps explain the growing fascination among our techno-elite (by no means all transhumanists) with finding ways to record and preserve the minutiae of everyday life. These are mere details if one sees life as having a meaningful pattern, direction or purpose. Without this perception, the transitory is all there is, and immortality is enshrinement of one damn thing after another.