Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Crisis of Everyday Life

Over at The Speculist, Phil Bowermaster has fired a volley across our bow. His post contains a few misrepresentations of The New Atlantis and our contributors. However, we think our body of work speaks for itself, and so rather than focusing on Mr. Bowermaster's sarcastic remarks, I'd like to comment on the larger substantial point in his post. In covering a talk at the Singularity Summit last weekend, I wrote the following:
[David] Rose says the FDA is regulating health, but he says "everyone in this room is going to hell in a handbasket, not because of one or two genetic diseases," but because we're getting uniformly worse through aging. And that, he says, is what they're trying to stop. Scattered but voracious applause and cheering. It's that same phenomenon again — this weird rally attitude of yeah, you tell 'em! Who is it that they think they're sticking it to? Or what?
Bowermaster responds, "Gosh, I can't imagine," and contends that my question arises from the fact that "the New Atlantis gang ... ha[s] a difficult time even imagining that the positions they routinely take on issues — being manifestly and self-evidently correct — could be seriously opposed by anyone, much less in a vocal and enthusiastic way." He adds that my question appeared to be one of "genuine puzzlement."

In the haste of blogging in real time, I may have failed to make clear that my question wasn't expressing "genuine puzzlement," but was rhetorical. But now, with the leisure to spell out my concerns more fully, I'd like to expand on the point I was trying to make — and thereby to address Mr. Bowermaster's post.

The combative rhetoric of transhumanists
I posed my question — Who is it that they think they're sticking it to? — not just in response to the specific scene I had just described, but because of the pervasive rally-like attitude at the conference. That sense of sticking it to an unnamed opponent was part of the way many presenters spoke. Their statements — however technical, mundane, or uncontroversial — were often phrased as jabs instead of simple declarations. They spoke as in defiance — but of adversaries who were not named, not present, and may not have even existed. (The worst example of this was in the stage appearances by Eliezer Yudkowsky, as I noted here and here. Official videos of the conference are not yet available, but the point will quickly become evident in any video of his talks you can find online.)

This combative tendency demands examination because it is so typical of transhumanist rhetoric in general. To take just one egregious example, consider this excerpt from a piece in H+ Magazine entitled "The Meaning of Life Lies in Its Suckiness." This piece is more sarcastic and vulgar than most transhumanist writings, but its combativeness and resentment are fairly representative:
[Bill] McKibben will put on his tombstone: “I’m dead. Nyah-nyah-nyah. Have a nice eternal enhanced life, transhumanist suckers.” Ray Kurzeill [sic] will be sitting there with his nanotechnologically enhanced penis and wikipedia brain feeling like a chump. Whose life has meaning now, bitches? That’s right, the dead guy.
The combativeness of transhumanist rhetoric might be more justifiable if it emerged chiefly in arguments with critics dubious of the transhumanist project to remake humanity (or to "save the world," or whatever the preferred rendering). But their combativeness extends far beyond direct responses to their critics. It is rather a fundamental aspect of their stance toward the world.

Take, for instance, the discussion I was blogging about in the first place. A member of the audience asked whether the FDA should revisit its definition of health; the speaker's rally-like attitude (and the audience's corresponding response) could not have been directed at anybody in particular, for the FDA has nothing to do with what either the questioner or the speaker were talking about. Both the question and answer were detached from reality, but the speaker acted as if the FDA were really shafting the American people, and he nursed the audience's sense of grievance at their perceived loss.

The fault, dear Brutus...
Against whom, then, is their grievance directed? Or — as I suggested in my initial post — against what is it directed? The ultimate target of the unhappy conferencegoers' ire was not the FDA. Nor does the H+ Magazine author I quoted above have much of a case against Bill McKibben. Rather, the grievance of the transhumanists is against human nature and all of its limitations. As my co-blogger Charles T. Rubin wrote of prominent transhumanists Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, they "share a deep resentment of the human body: both the ills of fragile and failing flesh, and the limitations inherent to bodily life, including the inability to fulfill our own bodily desires."

Despite tremendous advances in our health, longevity, and prosperity, man's given nature keeps us in bondage — and the sense of urgency in the effort to slip loose those bonds paradoxically grows as we comprehend ever greater means of doing so.

Transhumanism's combative stance derives from this sense of constant urgency — what Yuval Levin has dubbed "the crisis of everyday life." The main target of the combativeness, then, is man's limited nature; the transhumanists are warring against what they themselves are. Any anger directed at critics like Bill McKibben or the FDA is rather incidental.

The transhumanists' stance might become more clear — or at least more honest — if they acknowledged that their resentment is more directed at their own human nature than at any particular humans. But to do so might imperil their position. For they might realize — if the history of which they are exemplary is any guide — that as their power grows, their resentment at the remaining limits will only deepen, and will increase their hunger for ever more power to chase those limits away.

If their power did allow them to vanquish the last of their limitations — if "man's estate," to borrow Francis Bacon's phrase, were fully relieved — to what purposes would these posthumans then turn their power? What purpose would they find in their existence when the central reason they have now for living was at last fulfilled? Through what struggle would they flourish when their struggle against struggle itself was complete?


  1. Excellent questions you raise at the end of your post.
    I think the most compelling answer to them would be 'well of course we can't expect to know; our posthuman intelligence will be so much greater than we can possibly comprehend; but surely we'll come up with something worthwhile!' At least, this is surely a better answer than the nanotech-penis-theory, which seems to be pretty widely held: http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/“-primary-purpose-singularity-will-be-seen-after-fact-be-awesome-sex”.

    Once again, though, I find the parallels to theistic eschatology to be both fascinating and amusing. For the core of the 'Apollonian' critique of Heaven is that it would be boring - without struggle, something to achieve, there can be noting worth our efforts. And the theistic reply is that the glories of the Beatific Vision cannot possibly be comprehended by us now, but, well, they'll be glorious!

    Faith and hope, for Christians, are admitted to be virtues; I cannot see how transhumanism can operate as a governing life philosophy without admitting that it needs a secularized version of each.

  2. I guess that is the most compelling answer, Brian, and it's one I've heard before. But it makes little sense. The aspiration for the Singularity is borne out of purposes and desires now that have no place once we transcend. It won't be the achievement of a dream, but the transformation into a state in which we can make no sense of our dreams and aspirations now.

    Charlie Rubin's linked piece, and his one "The Rhetoric of Extinction" draw out this point in much more articulate detail.

    As for theistic eschatology: if this is a big interest of yours, then you doubly need to read Walker Percy's The Message in the Bottle.

  3. *Laughs.*

    Of *course* we're fighting the human condition! Bill McKibben? You think our fury is directed at Bill McKibben? What on Earth did you think we were fighting? Death and frailty, darkness and despair, all the ills to which the flesh is heir! Duly acknowledged! Thank you for asking!

    For an account of what we'll be doing after fixing that little problem, google "Fun Theory".

    -- Eliezer Yudkowsky

  4. You pinpoint the target of transhumanists' frustration and it seems to hold a stake in the answers to your last questions. The limitations of being human are probably not the true bane of transhumanists' existence. Once "man's estate" has been "relieved," there will still probably be something to work for because they/we still probably won't be entirely satisfied.

  5. Eliezer, now that I know we're on the same page about the transhumanist stance toward the human condition, I'm curious to know what you think about the tensions of that stance. It is from human nature itself that the transhumanist desires for unlimited longevity and power derive — and so in lusting after those desires, transhumanism is a sort of radical submission to certain aspects of human nature. And yet at the same time transhumanists, openly or otherwise, loathe that very nature. You are seeking to escape it, and yet your motivations are derived entirely from it.

    There is another way of attempting to improve the human condition — one that begins from a humbled appreciation of what is good about the human condition, and attempts to secure more of it and longer lives in which to appreciate it. But the transhumanist stance, as you acknowledge, begins from anger and resentment rather than appreciation. It is thus a difficult stance to say the least, not only for the reasons I've described, but because it requires a belief that nearly the entirety of the human experience has been one of tragedy and misery. That stance makes our existence seem more worth extinguishing than perfecting because, as myself and the previous commenter have noted, it is inherently resentful and unsatisfied and thus unlikely to ever be otherwise.

  6. If their power did allow them to vanquish the last of their limitations — if "man's estate," to borrow Francis Bacon's phrase, were fully relieved — to what purposes would these posthumans then turn their power? What purpose would they find in their existence when the central reason they have now for living was at last fulfilled? Through what struggle would they flourish when their struggle against struggle itself was complete?

    Space colonization. First our solar system. Later, the slow expansion through out the galaxy.

  7. Ari, the post from "Eliezer Yudkowsky" seems distinctly un-Eliezer-like in its composition and content. I suspect we're being hoaxed.

  8. Ah, didn't see that there'd been a reply.

    For starters, you're not being hoaxed.

    Yes, we're quite aware that we're judging human nature and human existence from within human nature. There is nothing the least bit paradoxical about this, and no reason to withhold judgment. Some parts of human nature are good, some parts of human nature seem rather more fraught, some parts of human existence are downright awful.



    So in short: Yes, we thought of that, all of it, every last dot and jot and tittle of it.

    -- Eliezer Yudkowsky


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