Happiness, Freedom, and Transhumanism

Our friend Roger Scruton, who has an essay in the forthcoming Summer issue of The New Atlantis, has a new book coming out called The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope. The New Humanist has run a short preview excerpted from the book, concluding with this take on transhumanism:

There is truth in the view that hope springs eternal in the human breast, and false hope is no exception. In the world that we are now entering there is a striking new source of false hope, in the “trans-humanism” of people like Ray Kurzweil, Max More and their followers. The transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in some medieval Last Judgement.

The transhumanists don’t worry about Huxley’s Brave New World: they don’t believe that the old-fashioned virtues and emotions lamented by Huxley have much of a future in any case. The important thing, they tell us, is the promise of increasing power, increasing scope, increasing ability to vanquish the long-term enemies of mankind, such as disease, ageing, incapacity and death.

But to whom are they addressing their argument? If it is addressed to you and me, why should we consider it? Why should we be working for a future in which creatures like us won’t exist, and in which human happiness as we know it will no longer be obtainable? And are those things that spilled from Pandora’s box really our enemies — greater enemies, that is, than the false hope that wars with them? We rational beings depend for our fulfilment upon love and friendship. Our happiness is of a piece with our freedom, and cannot be separated from the constraints that make freedom possible — real, concrete freedom, as opposed to the abstract freedom of the utopians. Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is. We are led by love, friendship and desire; by tenderness for young life and reverence for old. We live, or ought to live, by the rule of forgiveness, in a world where hurts are acknowledged and faults confessed to. All our reasoning is predicated upon those basic conditions, and one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against destroying them. The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.

Why Transhumanism Won’t Work

[NOTE: From time to time, we invite guest contributors to Futurisms. This post is from Mark A. Gubrud, who has written widely on new and emerging technologies — including especially their implications for war, peace, and international security.]

* * *

This weekend, a philosophy professor will step up to the podium at Harvard University’s Science Center and drop a bomb on the audience gathered for the annual transhumanist showcase now called the “H+ Summit.” Although he shares their aspirations and even tells me that he “would love to be uploaded,” he will explain to the assembled devotees of transhumanism exactly “Why Uploading Will Not Work.”

I’ve seen a preview, and it’s a devastating critique — although it isn’t really new. Others have made essentially the same argument before, including me. In 2003, after years of debating this with transhumanists, I even presented a paper making very similar points at one of the previous transhumanist conferences in this series.

To understand why this is important, we first have to understand what “uploading” is and why it matters to the transhumanist movement. Put simply, uploading is the proposition that, by means of some future technology, it may be possible to “transfer” or “migrate” a mind from its brain into some new “embodiment” (in the same way one “migrates” a computer file or application from one machine to another). That may mean transferring the mind into a new cloned human body and brain, or into some other computational “substrate,” such as a future supercomputer with the horsepower to emulate a human brain.

From the latter stage of this transfiguration, the path would be clear to ascend beyond human physical and intellectual limitations simply by upgrading the hardware and software — adding more memory, faster processors, more efficient algorithms, etc. The mind (or consciousness, identity — or, shall we say, soul) could then become a being of pure information, immortal, flying freely in cyberspace, traveling interplanetary distances as bits encoded in beams of light, assuming any desired physical form by linking to the appropriate robot. One could copy oneself, disperse and later re-merge the copies. One could grow into a gigantic computerized brain (sometimes called a “Jupiter brain”) of immense power, able to contemplate the deepest mysteries of mathematics, physics, and the Meaning of It All. One could become as a god, even literally the creator of new universes, whose inhabitants would wonder who or what put them there. And one could have an awful lot of sex.

That’s the Promised Land of such transhumanist prophets as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. The latter predicted, in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, that “nonbiological intelligence” will vastly exceed the collective brainpower of Homo sapiens within this century, and that the human race will voluntarily “merge with technology,” so that by 2100 there basically won’t be any of our kind left.

Why Uploading is Impossible

Now comes Patrick Hopkins, a transhumanist and professor of philosophy at Millsaps College in Mississippi, to break the bad news: Uploading just won’t work. As he explains in his abstract for the upcoming H+ conference, uploading

will not preserve personal identity. Transhumanist hopes for such transfer ironically rely on treating the mind dualistically — and inconsistently with materialism — as the functional equivalent of a soul, as is evidenced by a carefully examination [sic] of the language used to describe and defend uploading. In this sense, transhumanist thought unwittingly contains remnants of dualistic and religious categories.

Or, as I put it in my 2003 paper:

Arguments for identity transfer cannot be stated without invoking nonphysical entities, and lead to absurdities that cannot be avoided without introducing arbitrary rules…. Dualism is built into the language that Moravec uses throughout, and that we use on a daily basis, “my brain, my body,” as if brain and body were distinguishable from “me,” the true “me” — the soul…. Moravec does not use the word “soul,” but he uses words which are effectively synonymous.

Transhumanists maintain that they do not believe in anything supernatural; they usually abjure belief in God and in an immortal soul. Yet every explanation of and argument for the idea of having your brain scanned and disassembled, bit by bit, so that some kind of copy can be made by some kind of Xerox machine, contains some word whose function and meaning, in this context, are the same as those of that venerable word, and the ancient idea it stands for: the soul.

In the traditional understanding, the soul — dual of the body, and separable from it — carries or constitutes the true identity of the human person. The soul is what we feel in a person’s presence, what we see when we look into a person’s eyes, and it remains steadily in place as a person’s body changes over the years — despite the constant exchange of mere atoms with the environment. The soul, not the brain, is what is conscious, as no mere material thing can be. It is connected to that transcendent world of pure spirit, where, perhaps, all will be understood. In some accounts, the soul endures after death and goes to Heaven, or to Hell, or else hangs around in graveyards and abandoned houses. A voodoo priest can capture a soul and imprison it in a doll — more or less what the proponents of uploading hope to do by means of technology.

Thus Moravec, in Mind Children (1988), argues that some future “robot surgeon” might have the ability to probe your brain a few neurons at a time, building up a detailed model of those cells, until a computer simulation is able to predict those neurons’ firing patterns exactly. Then it could override the output of those neurons, effectively replacing them with simulated neurons. The rest of the brain would go on working as normal, and since the rest of the brain can provide input to, and work with the output of, the simulation, just as well as it would with the real neurons, Moravec argues that “you should experience no difference.”

Continuing the process,

Eventually your skull is empty, and the surgeon’s hand rests deep in your brainstem. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine.

The premise that Moravec starts with — that you would not feel any different if some small number of your natural neurons were to be replaced by artificial neurons that provided the same input-output functions to the rest of the brain — might at first seem reasonable. Neurons die all the time, by the thousands every day, and you don’t notice any difference. If a few of them were replaced, how could you even tell?

But what if your brain cells all died at once, faster than the speed of neural transmission, say because a bomb exploded nearby? Would you notice then? No, you would be gone before you could feel anything. Death does not require our ability to perceive it; nor can we escape the Reaper by refusing to acknowledge him. In this we are unlike Wile E. Coyote, who can’t fall until he sees that he’s over the edge of the cliff.

Moravec claims that “you have not lost consciousness” at the completion of his process. This is powerful verbal magic, appealing to the sense that consciousness is an indivisible whole. Yet any number of experiments and observations from psychology show this to be an illusion. You are one body, leading one life, but your mind’s unity is a synthesis.

What is this thing, the “mind,” that Moravec claims can be “removed” and “transferred”? What exactly is it made of? Some say “information,” and that sounds appropriately scientific, but information has no existence, so far as we know, without the physical “substrate” used to “represent it.” When we speak of “information transfer” from one thing to another, we usually mean that some physical agent makes some physical measurement of the first thing and imposes related physical changes on the second thing. Pure information, completely separated from any physical matter or energy, would be something whose existence could not be distinguished from its nonexistence.

New Names for True Names

Even though transhumanists generally do not admit to believing in an immaterial “soul,” proponents of uploading continually invent or repurpose technical-sounding terms as stand-ins for that forbidden noun. Thus Moravec advances a theory of

pattern-identity … [which] defines the essence of a person, say myself, as the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. If the process is preserved, I am preserved. The rest is mere jelly.

Not only has Moravec introduced “pattern” as a stand-in for “soul,” but in order to define it he has referred to another stand-in, “the essence of a person.” But he seems aware of the inadequacy of “pattern,” and tries to cover it up with another word, “process.” So now we have a pattern and a process, separable from the “mere jelly.” Is this some kind of trinity? Or is the “mere jelly,” once appropriately patterned and undergoing the processes of life, what real human beings are made of — that and nothing else that is known to science?

Similarly, Kurzweil argues that

we should not associate our fundamental identity with a specific set of particles, but rather the pattern of matter and energy that we represent.

If taken literally, this carelessly worded statement suggests that we are not our true selves, but mere representations of our true selves! But note again that Kurzweil points to the assumed existence of a “fundamental identity” which is distinct from the body. In other words, he is referencing the idea of the soul, and manipulating the dualism that is embedded in our way of thinking about people.

So it goes with every author who advocates the idea of uploading as a route to immortality and transcendence. They must always introduce some term as a stand-in for “the soul” and argue that by whatever process they propose, this object will be moved from the old brain to the new one. Otherwise, they would have to describe their proposal not as transferring “you” (your soul) to a new body, but as making some kind of copy — perhaps an “identical” copy, structured the same way at the molecular level, or perhaps a mere functional copy, “instantiated” in some different kind of “substrate” (as one might copy an Old Master’s painting to some pattern of ink dots on paperboard).

Having one’s brain copied, particularly if it requires, as any even remotely plausible technical scenario for uploading would require, the complete disassembly of the original, hardly sounds appealing, since having your brain disassembled will pretty clearly kill you.

Thus the conclusion: Uploading cannot work, if we define its “working” as a way for people to escape death and transcend to existence as a technological super-being.

This Really Isn’t News

To be sure, these arguments against uploading are not novel — they go back years. In my own case, I’ve been making these points for around a decade, including in the paper I presented at the 2003 conference. At that conference — it was called “Transvision,” the annual meeting of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), before the group was renamed H+ — I gave a talk in a session chaired by no less a transpersonage than WTA cofounder Nick Bostrom, who now heads his own well-endowed “Institute on the Future of Humanity” at Oxford University. (Note: The conference organizers enhanced my bio and awarded me an honorary doctorate for the occasion.) I also posted the paper on various listservs, provoking comments from another transhumanist luminary, Trinity College lecturer and past WTA president James Hughes, who accused me of shooting a dead horse (although I was unaware of anyone else making these arguments about uploading at that time). So two of the most important leaders of the transhumanist movement were among those familiar with these arguments against uploading.

Which raises a question: Why only now does the leadership of the transhumanist movement see fit to acknowledge the serious case against uploading? Why will this weekend’s H+ conference feature not only Professor Hopkins with his critique of uploading, but also WTA cofounder David Pearce arguing that uploading “involves some fairly radical metaphysical assumptions” and that Kurzweil’s vision of a voluntary mass exit for Homo sapiens “is sociologically implausible to say the least”?

A Turning Point for Transhumanism?

The answer may be connected to public relations. The transhumanist movement has begun to break the surface of public awareness, not only through the infiltration of its science-fiction visions and technophilic attitudes, but overtly as transhumanism. The further mainstreaming of transhumanism seems to require some P.R. maneuvering, including a rebranding (the glossy new name “H+”). It may also require a moderating of ambitions. The old “Extropian” dreams of uploading and wholesale replacement of humanity with technology may be too scary and weird for mass audiences. Perhaps more modest ambitions will have a broader public appeal: life extension and performance enhancement, cool new gadgets and drugs, and only minimal forms of cyborgization (implanting technological devices within the body). In other words, more Aubrey de Grey, less Hans Moravec; more public policy and less cyberpunk; more hipster geeks and fewer socially-impaired nerds. A kinder, gentler Singularity. Maybe even one with women in it.

Perhaps some of the transhumanist top guns recognized “uploading” all along for the ontological nonsense it is. Perhaps that’s why they now stand ready to throw it overboard like so much ballast threatening to drag down their balloon. It sounds too loony and it’s too easy a target, too obviously inconsistent with transhumanism’s claim to being a creed grounded in science and technology.

If so, distancing themselves from uploading is probably a smart move for the H+ leaders, but it risks a split with their base, and the formation of new, hard-core splinter groups still yearning for cyber-heaven, still committed to becoming something that is too obviously not at all human.

In the longer run, this strategy to divert attention away from transhumanism’s original and ultimate aims will not work — or, at least, I am hopeful that it will not. For transhumanism itself is uploading writ large. Not only is the idea of uploading one of the central dogmas of transhumanism, but the broader philosophy of transhumanism suffers from the same kind of mistaken dualism as uploading, a dualism applied not just to human beings but to humanity, collectively understood. Transhumanism posits that “the essence of humanity” is something that can be preserved through any degree of alteration of the human form. In other words, it posits that humanity has an essence that is wholly separable from living human beings, an essence that is transferable to the products of technology.

The early history of transhumanist writing helps emphasize this point. If you investigate the origins of the notion of uploading, you’ll find that initially, back in the 1980s and 90s, it was called “downloading.” Back in the days of green screens and floppy disks, far fewer people thought that existence as a computer program would somehow be a step up from being alive and human. The idea was just that it would be nice to have backup copies; in case of an accident, the atman file could be uploaded back to fresh-cloned flesh.

But as technology and the cult of technology co-evolved, “downloading” became “uploading” — a dream of ascension and transcendence that became a vision of rapture for the geeks. Transhumanism raises technology above humanity, and all but deifies it, at least making it an end in itself, and the end of humanity, rather than a tool to serve human ends. This seems a new low for philosophy, an upside-down morality, a grotesque distortion of the scientific rationality and enlightened humanism of which it claims to be a continuation.

The H+ leadership would like to hide this by underlining their own humanity and recasting their rampant technophilia as a human desire for betterment. But if the “H” stands for humanity, what is the “+”? If it is cyborg hybrids of man and machine instead of superhuman robots, is that so much better? Do we really want that to follow us, as the next step in “evolution”? Whatever the “+” may stand for, I am sure it’s not my kid.

– Mark Gubrud

Why Hope?: Transhumanism and the Arts (Another Response to James Hughes)

In another of the series of posts to which Professor Rubin recently responded, James Hughes argues that transhumanism has been marked by a tension between “fatalistic” beliefs in both technological progress and doom. Hughes’s intention is to establish a middle ground that acknowledges both promise and peril without assuming the inevitability of either. This is a welcome antidote to the willful blindness of libertarian transhumanism.
But conspicuously absent from Prof. Hughes’s post is any account of why techno-fatalism is so prominent among transhumanists — and so of why his alternative provides a viable and enduring resolution to the tension between its utopian and dystopian poles.

I would suggest that the prominence of techno-fatalism among transhumanists is closely linked to how they construe progress itself. Consider Max More’s description of progress, which is pretty well representative of the standard transhumanist vision:

Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an indefinite lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities.

What is striking about this and just about any other transhumanist description of progress is that it is defined in almost entirely negative terms, as the shedding of various limits to secure a realm of pure possibility. (Even the initial positive goods seem, in the subsequent quote in Hughes’s post, to be of interest to More primarily as means to avoiding risk on the path to achieving pure possibility.) The essential disagreement Hughes outlines is only over the extent to which technological growth will secure the removal of these limits.
Transhumanists, following their early-modern and Enlightenment predecessors, focus on removing barriers to the individual pursuit of the good, but offer no vision of its content, of what the good is or even why we should want longer lives in which to pursue it — no vision of what we should progress towards other than more progress. Hughes seems to acknowledge this lacuna — witness his call to “rediscover our capacity for vision and hope” and to “stir men’s souls.” But in his post he offers this recently updated Transhumanist Declaration as an example of such “vision and hope,” even though it turns back to the well that left him so thirsty in the first place:

We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

This, along with much of the rest of the Declaration, reads as a remarkably generic account of the duties of any society — putting the transhumanists decisively back at square one in describing both social and individual good.

For transhumanists — or anyone — to articulate the content of the good would require an embrace of the discipline devoted to studying precisely that question: the humanities, particularly literature and the arts. Hughes is right when he suggests elsewhere the postmodern character of transhumanist morality. The triumphant postmodernist is a cosmopolitan of narratives and aesthetics, a connoisseur who samples many modes of being free of the binding power of any. Because the postmodernist redefines the good as the goods, he is compelled even more than his predecessors to be a voracious consumer of culture and cultures, particularly of narratives and aesthetics.
The transhumanist vision of progress begins from this postmodern freedom to function in any mode of being. But, seemingly paradoxically, transhumanists tend to be indifferent to the study of literature and the arts as a means of knowing the good(s) (with the notable exception of science fiction). If they were not indifferent, then they might be aware of the now-lengthy tradition in the arts dealing with precisely the postmodern problem of maintaining “vision and hope.” Near the middle of the last century, the novelist Walker Percy wrote of the subject of postmodern novel:

How very odd it is … that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!… The American novel in past years has treated such themes as persons whose lives are blighted by social evils, or reformers who attack these evils…. But the hero of the postmodern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.

Postmodern art moves from abstract theories to realized depictions of how the heroically actualized self lives. Inevitably in such depictions the triumphant victory of theory gives way to the unsustainable alienation of postmodern life, and the problem theory has shirked becomes pressing: Why hope? How to keep from blowing your brains out?
For the likes of the Beats, the solution could be found in a frantically earnest embrace of the postmodern imperative to move from one mode of being to the next. For Percy’s protagonists, the solution lies partly in embracing the same imperative, but ironically. For the readers of The Catcher in the Rye, the viewers of American Beauty, and the listeners of Radiohead, there is a consoling beauty to be found in the artistic depiction of alienation itself. For the French existentialists, the solution might just be to go ahead and blow your brains out.
That transhumanists have not grappled with the hollow and alienating character of their vision of progress could be taken as evidence of their historical and philosophical myopia. But of course their uninterest in depictions of the good(s) is not simply an oversight but an underlying principle. Whereas the postmodernist’s freedom from all modes of being is constitutionally ironic, the transhumanist is gravely serious about his freedom. His primary attitude towards discussions about the relative merits of different value systems or ways of life is not playfulness but wariness — or sometimes, as we have seen in the comments on this blog, outright hostility and paranoia.
Whereas the postmodernist takes the freedom from and to choose any mode of being as inherent, the transhumanist believes that it must be fought for — else there would be no gap between here and transcendence. Indeed, it is the effort to bridge this gap that constitutes transhuman teleology; the feat of the earning itself is the central end of transhuman progress. Transhumanism takes the lemons of postmodern alienation and makes the will to lemonade.
Hence the essential insatiability of the transhumanist project. It has as its goal not some fulfilled form, but a constant seeking after transgressive will and power which, once secured in some measure, surrenders its transgressiveness to the quotidian and so must be sought in still greater measure. The transhumanist, unlike even the theoretical postmodernist, can never fully actualize.
And hence the unsexiness Prof. Hughes bemoans in his project to split the difference between fatalisms, for his “pessimism of the intellect” appears only as a dreary accidental impediment to transcendence. A transhumanist project versed in the arts might be able to provide a more unified and compelling vision of its quest for progress — but it would also have to confront the everyday despair that lies at its heart.
[Images: “Transhuman DNA”, courtesy Biopolitical Times; Walker Percy; Radiohead.]

Transhuman Morality 2.0 (Responding to James Hughes)

I don’t know if I’d take his intellectual history to the
bank, but James Hughes is dealing with some serious issues in a series of blog posts
about internal tensions within transhumanism as they relate to the
Enlightenment ideas out of which he wants to claim it springs. In this post, for
example, he notes how transhumanism is torn between a universalistic and a
particularistic streak; this question is important because of its connection to
the moral framework within which we should be thinking about the rise of transhuman diversity and the relationships between
seriously advanced forms of posthuman intelligence and such merely human beings
as might still be around in the future. To put the problem somewhat more
bluntly than Professor Hughes does, the issue is whether posthumans
will be under any ethical obligation to be nice to their human forebears. On
the one hand, Prof. Hughes sees clearly that transhumanism’s stress on
diversity, and the libertarian moral relativism that goes along with it,
provides no good grounds for any such obligation. On the other hand,
transhumanists, Hughes notes, seem to want to be right-thinking liberals when
it comes to extending the sphere of egalitarian concern (a good, universal
Enlightenment value) and being on the right side of contemporary human rights
issues. It’s a puzzlement.

Prof. Hughes diagnoses that “transhumanists, especially of the libertarian variety, have retreated too far from Enlightenment moral universalism, towards moral relativism.” His concluding prescription:

We need to reassert our commitment to moral universalism and the
political project of equality for all persons and institutions of global
governance powerful enough to enforce world law and individual rights…. [But]
we partisans of the Enlightenment cannot defend moral universalism by re‑asserting
that rights are God‑given, natural, or self‑evident. We have to
acknowledge that rights and moral status are social agreements, shifting daily
with the balance of political forces seeking to limit and expand them. Moral
universalism needs to be tempered with respect for diversity and, where
meaningful, respect for individual consent and collective self‑determination.
Our moral universalism needs to acknowledge the limits of our current
perspective, the possibility that some of our universals may in fact be
parochially human, and that our descendants may come up with better ethical and
political models.

There is a technical term for what Prof. Hughes suggests
here: having your cake and eating it too. Unless he is imagining some kind of
neo-Hegelian universal and homogenous state, in what sense can rights and moral
status be universals if they are a matter of social agreement and choice? (I’ll
try to take up in a later post the question of what Prof. Hughes has to say elsewhere about
powerful global governance.) At the same time, what are respect for diversity,
individual consent, and collective self-determination (an interesting tension
is surely possible between the last two) being presented as except putative
universals, despite the fact that Prof. Hughes introduces them as ways to
temper moral universalism?

Prof. Hughes’s hopes for the future seem equally confused. When
he suggests that what we think of as universals might really just be
expressions of the “parochially human,” that might seem to open the door to the
progressive uncovering of genuine universals based on a less limited
perspective. But in fact all he will commit to is that our descendants may come
up with “models” for behavior that are “better.” The way he has framed the
issue, he can really only mean better for
, according to whatever balance of forces will operate in their world. That
may or may not look better, or be better, for us.

It is surely true that there is an irreducible element of
Enlightenment thinking in transhumanism, but it has little to do with
transhumanist politics and morality per se, and is to be found rather in
the topic of another of Prof. Hughes’s posts: scientific and
technical progressivism
. For the most part, though, transhumanism seems to
rely on thinkers who reacted against Enlightenment liberal universalism, as is
the case of Mill, whose utilitarian libertarianism explicitly eschews any
rights foundation. Indeed, the éminence grise behind transhumanism may well be that great
anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment thinker Nietzsche. Too few transhumanists,
if any, have fully come to grips with the significance of a crucial point of
agreement with Nietzsche: that mankind is nothing other than a rope over an
abyss, a rope leading to the Superman.

“Transhumanists Have a Problem”

In a post that went up on his blog over the weekend, Michael Anissimov sketched out what he considers a potentially serious problem in transhumanist thinking, and he credits this blog, and particularly an important essay by Professor Rubin, with spurring his thinking.

There is much in Mr. Anissimov’s post that we disagree with. There is also a heap of, shall we say, odd reasoning. (To pick just one example, he finds it “unacceptable” that the human body cannot withstand “rifle bullets without severe tissue damage.” But of course bullets hurt us; that is what they are designed to do.) But all in all, we’re happy to help set Mr. Anissimov on the right path, and it is encouraging to see him concede that there are valid criticisms of transhumanism and that there are problems in transhumanist thinking. Here’s hoping that more of his ideological comrades follow his lead.

Our Doppelgängered Future?

David Foster Wallace → Russell Crowe?

The gentle Facebooking reader will likely have noticed the news-feed trend of last week. No, it’s not posting the color of your bra in ostensible support of breast-cancer awareness (older readers will remember that one). I first noticed it myself when the faces on my news feed seemed both more familiar and more attractive. It turns out that it was all due to the latest Facebook fad: updating your profile picture to match your “celebrity doppelgänger.”

One friend’s doppelgängered profile picture was accompanied by a comment that she suspected the trend to be a product of “wishful thinking.” And how. David Foster Wallace’s words from the dawn of the 1990s seem truer than ever:

Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing…. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day [of TV watching] is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with…. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences…. The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another … are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?

One wonders how the transhumanist is to contend with such a problem. The libertarian transhumanist, especially, admits into his moral vocabulary little beyond the individual will. It is the locus of all human action; any collective action is only properly constituted contractually.

What then of the influence of popular culture — whether in average people’s everyday anxiety over the gulf between their looks and the looks of the pretty people they almost could be but are not, or in their actual efforts to bridge that gulf? The libertarian can deny such anxiety by proudly affirming that the individual will exercises itself autonomously, but as Wallace indicates, this is a woefully inadequate account of the way people think and make choices about their appearances (see: Nadya Suleman/Angelina Jolie).
The only other option is to affirm the supreme rights of the individual will in exercising its personal choices of expression, irrespective of whether those choices are truly autonomous. Every person can and should make himself — including his body — into whatever he freely chooses to be. This is the mantra behind morphological freedom. The numbers of people who go to drastic measures, starving themselves, going under the knife, etc., are surely then by virtue of their expressiveness the freest of all, and cosmetic technology a force for their liberation. Jocelyn Wildenstein is to be heralded as the Frederick Douglass of the morphological emancipators.
Because the libertarian transhumanist view admits of no normativity, neither can it admit of pathology. Libertarian transhumanists must claim to celebrate all morphological choices equally. In practice, of course, they do not celebrate them equally, for their ideology has its own qualitative distinction in the virtue of choice: It favors those “expressions” that seem to be freer — that is, those that have departed more from the given. Libertarian transhumanists seem vaguely aware of and mostly fine with this internal contradiction. But there is a deep irony in the fact that their embrace of morphological autonomy as liberation from cultural conformity commits them to celebrating choices that are so transparently made by unhealthy wills succumbing to the grip of cultural norms.

(See also this wonderfully-titled post by blogger Miss Self-Important: Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down.)

Why So Unserious? (Thoughts on Transhumanism and Politics)

A few days ago here on Futurisms, commenter Kurt9 made an interesting point: “The idea that our cutting-edge science, particularly radical life extension, is incompatible with current social regimes comes from you guys, not from us transhumanists.” In one sense his statement is not true at all; plainly, for all he might disagree with their vision of the future, there are transhumanists (and no few of them) who are talking about global changes that would render current society and politics as obsolete as the human beings that constitute them. If, as many transhumanists believe, we are Singularity-bound, it is no stretch to conclude that current society and politics would disappear — after all, do human beings today organize our lives like our lemur-like ancestors? Yet some advocates of hyperintelligence would say that the gap between humanity and posthumanity will be even greater than that one.

Still, Kurt9’s point is true in the sense that it reminds us that relatively few transhumanists have bothered to think very deeply about the political consequences of the changes they advocate. They may, as per the above, lay out the premises, but indeed leave their critics to draw the conclusions. Nick Bostrom says a few soothing words in the “Transhumanist FAQ,” and James Hughes makes some very near-term policy recommendations in Citizen Cyborg. There are some ongoing discussions of the rights of sentient beings, and Simon Young takes a stab at a “neuropolitics,” but barely achieves a flesh wound. I’d welcome being shown otherwise — please feel free to make suggestions in the comments — but so far as I can tell, transhumanism awaits its John Locke, its James Madison, its Herbert Croly, or even its E. J. Dionne.

I don’t think that is an accident. First, it would be perfectly consistent for the kind of transhumanist that Kurt9 disagrees with to think it the height of folly and presumption for us to think we could imagine a good or even adequate organization for a world that mere humans will find increasingly hard to understand. Second, it is consistent with the rather superficial libertarianism which guides so much of transhumanism, a quasi-political theory that leads to the now fashionable contempt for mere politics. Third, it is consistent with the moralism of transhumanism, which amounts to “if you will it, it is no dream.” Thinking too hard about all the ramifications of one’s dreams is not necessarily going to make it easier to follow them. Fourth, this apolitical tendency is consistent with one of the most powerful arguments transhumanists can make against at least some of their critics. If their goals appear utopian, they can point out how many things once thought difficult or impossible to do are now commonplace. To look at all the tradeoffs, compromises, side effects, and unintended consequences of these success stories — which is to say, to look at them politically — would weaken the appeal of this argument. Finally, even if not all transhumanists believe that the future they desire is, strictly speaking, inevitable, a great many seem to feel that history is on their side. Theirs is not a revolution that needs to be made politically, it just needs to be born.

But sooner or later, transhumanists will have to face up to politics. The tensions within their own movement suggested by the likes of Kurt9 will require it, not to speak of external critics. As the followers of Marx found out, you can only hide behind the direction of history for so long; sooner or later somebody has to start thinking about who is going to take out the trash.

On Lizardman and Liberalism

In post called “Getting Used to Hideousness,” Mike Treder makes three points. Each is provocative — and flawed.

First, he says, until relatively recently, people “with gross disabilities” or deformities “were expected to stay out of sight of the general public,” a closeting that Mr. Treder attributes to “the Victorian preference for order and rectitude.” But nowadays, he says, we have become more tolerant of people who “have shocking appearances.” (By way of example, he includes several pictures.)

Second, he moves from those whose unusual appearance was not their choice to those who intentionally alter their looks. He describes a range of body modifications — from makeup to orthodontics to plastic surgery to this sort of thing — and says that nearly everybody modifies himself in some way. He then envisions far more radical body modifications and suggests that there is no moral difference between any of them — they all alter what nature has given us, the only difference is “a matter of degree.”

Third, Mr. Treder invokes, with hope, the transhumanist doctrine of “morphological freedom.” He envisions a day when we will understand that “individuals who don’t look at all” normal will nonetheless be understood to be not freaks but “human beings with normal human feelings.”

Let me briefly respond to each of Mr. Treder’s main points in turn.

First, it is far too simplistic to say that we are becoming more tolerant of the different, deformed, and disabled in our midst. Mr. Treder includes with his post this picture — the lovely face of a smiling young girl with Down syndrome. But faces like hers are becoming ever rarer. Some 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are being aborted. This is not the mark of a growing tolerance or compassion; it is a silent purge, enabled by modern technology, of a class of human beings deemed unworthy of life.

Second, Mr. Treder’s argument about body modification is just a simplistic equivalency. The reasoning seems to go like this: Makeup and orthodontics and breast implants and (someday) extra arms and implanted wings are all unnatural, and so if you approve of any body modification you have no standing to criticize any other body modification.

But of course we make moral distinctions between different kinds of body modifications all the time — not based on grounds of “naturalness,” but based on the modification itself (Is it temporary or permanent? Is it external or invasive? Is it therapeutic? What is its cost?), based on the person being modified (Man or woman? Young or old? Mentally healthy?), and based on social context (What is this modification meant to signal? Is it tied to a particular cultural or social setting?). There is no simple checklist for deciding whether a bod-mod is morally licit, but we all make such judgments now, we make them for complicated reasons that reach beyond reflexive repugnance, and we will continue to make them in future eras of modification.

What Mr. Treder is really after is greater tolerance, an acceptance of people who look different. And this brings us to his invocation of “morphological freedom,” a supposed right to modify one’s body however one wishes. Like its transhumanist twin sister “cognitive liberty,” the concept of morphological freedom is an attempt to push the tenets of modern liberalism to their furthest logical extreme. In a 2001 talk elucidating and advocating morphological freedom, Swedish transhumanist Anders Sandberg stressed the centrality of tolerance:

No matter what the social circumstances are, it is never acceptable to overrule someone’s right to … morphological freedom. For morphological freedom — or any other form of freedom — to work as a right in society, we need a large dose of tolerance…. Although peer pressure, prejudices, and societal biases still remain strong forces, they are being actively battled by equally strong ideas of the right to “be oneself,” the desirability of diversity, and an interest in the unusual, unique, and exotic.

That little taste of Mr. Sandberg’s talk exposes the basic problem of “morphological freedom” (and more generally, the fundamental flaw of any extreme liberalism or libertarianism). The problem is that extreme liberalism destroys the foundations upon which it depends.

Consider: Mr. Sandberg scorns shared social and civic values. He derides them as “peer pressure, prejudices, and societal biases” and observes with satisfaction that they are being “actively battled” by an expansion of tolerance. But tolerance is itself a shared value, one that must be inculcated and taught and reinforced and practiced. A freedom so extreme that it rejects all norms, wipes away shared mores, and undoes social bonds is a freedom that erodes tolerance — and thus topples itself.

The Mainstreaming of Transhumanism

Congratulations to Nick Bostrom, Jamais Cascio, and Ray Kurzweil for being recognized as three of Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” Once upon a time this kind of notoriety might not have helped the reputation of an Oxford don in the Senior Common Room (do such places still exist?), but even were that still the case, it must be tremendously satisfying for Professor Bostrom qua movement builder to get such recognition. The mainstreaming of transhumanism, noted (albeit playfully) by Michael Anissimov, proceeds apace. Ray Kurzweil did not win The Economist’s Innovation Award for Computing and Telecommunications because of his transhumanist advocacy, but apparently nobody at The Economist thought that it would in any way embarrass them. He’s just another one of those global thinkers we admire so much.

Of course such news is also good for the critic. I first alluded to transhumanist anti-humanism in a book I published in 1994, so for some time now I’ve been dealing with the giggle and yuck factors that the transhumanist/extropian/Singularitarian visions of the future still provoke among the non-cognoscenti. Colleagues, friends and family alike don’t quite get why anybody would be seriously interested in that. I’ve tried to explain why I think these kinds of arguments are only going to grow in importance, but now I have some evidence that they are in fact growing.

The Emperor Has No ClothesWhich leads me to Mr. Anissimov’s question about what it is that I’m hoping to achieve. My purpose (and here I only speak for myself) is not to predict, develop, or advocate the specific public policies that will be appropriate to our growing powers over ourselves. In American liberal democracy, the success or failure of such specific measures is highly contingent under the best of circumstances, and my firm belief that on the whole people are bad at anticipating the forces that mold the future means that I don’t think we are operating under the best of circumstances. So my intention is in some ways more modest and in some ways less. Futurisms is so congenial to me because I share its desire to create a debate that will call into question some of the things that transhumanists regard as obvious, or at least would like others to regard as obvious. I’ve made it reasonably clear that I think transhumanism raises many deep questions without itself going very deeply into them, however technical its internal discussions might sometimes get. That’s the modest part of my intention. The less modest part is a hope that exposing these flaws will contribute to creating a climate of opinion where the transhumanist future is not regarded as self-evidently desirable even if science and technology develops in such a way as to make it ever more plausible. So if and when it comes time to make policies, I want there to be skeptical and critical ideas available to counterbalance transhumanist advocacy.

In short, I’m happy to be among those who are pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, even if, to those who don’t follow such matters closely, I might look like the boy who cried wolf.

The Significance of Man

Over at Gizmodo, Jesus Diaz has called attention to a genuinely lovely animation of Earth’s weather from August 17-26, 2009. He notes in passing, “It also shows how beautiful this planet is, and how insignificant we are.”

Scene from '2001: A Space Odyssey'There is something about pictures of Earth from space that seems to call forth this judgment all the time; it is equivalent, I suppose, to the “those people look like ants” wonderment that used to be so common when viewing a city from the top of its tallest building. That humans are insignificant is a particularly common idea among those environmentalists and atheists who consider that their opinions are founded in a scientific worldview. It is also widely shared by transhumanists, who use it all the time, if only implicitly, when they debunk such pretensions as might make us satisfied with not making the leap to posthumanity.

But in fact, just as those people were not really ants, so it is not clear that we are so insignificant, even from the point of view of a science that teaches us that we are a vanishingly small part of what Michael Frayn, in his classic novel Sweet Dreams, called “a universe of zeros.” Let’s leave aside all the amazing human accomplishments in science and technology (let alone literature and the arts) that are required for Mr. Diaz to be able to call our attention to the video, and the amazing human accomplishments likewise necessary to produce the video. The bottom line is, we are the only beings out there observing what Earth’s weather looks like from space. Until we find alien intelligence, there is arguably no “observing” at all without us, and certainly no observations that would culminate in a judgment about how beautiful something is. At the moment, so far as we know (that is, leaving aside faith in God or aliens) we are the way in which the universe is coming to know itself, whether through the lens of science or aesthetics. That hardly seems like small potatoes.

Sometimes transhumanists play this side of the field, too. Perhaps we are the enlivening intelligence of a universe of otherwise dead matter, and it is the great task of humanity to spread intelligence throughout the cosmos, a task for which we are plainly unsuited in our present form. So onward, posthuman soldiers, following your self-willed evolutionary imperative! Those of us left behind may at least come to find some satisfaction that we were of the race that gave birth to you dancing stars.

It is interesting how quickly we come back to human insignificance; in this case, it is transhumanism’s belief in our vast potential to become what we are not, which makes what we are look so small.