Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The stars our destination

Forget performance enhancement, optical implants, and all the other "upgrades" that the coming decades of progress towards the Singularity are supposed to bring. What about the distant (or at least remote) future, after we've transcended? Many transhumanists believe that our destiny is to continue expanding outward from the Earth, consuming the Solar System, the Galaxy, and eventually the entire Universe with our being. The exact nature of that being is still a matter of dispute — it may be bodies like our own but made to live much longer, or bodies that have been enhanced through mechanization, or robotic surrogates, or perhaps even Consciousness itself expanding on a computational substrate (see Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near for a depiction) — but the general idea of our inevitable expansion into the cosmos is the same.

Of course, long before transhumanism and even before space travel, science fiction writers were speculating on the implications of just such a notion of posthuman destiny. In his 1956 short story "The Last Question," Isaac Asimov considers the inevitability of limits, ends, endings, and beginnings. The story presages the metaphysical spiritualism of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 and related science fiction, as well as that of many of the later transhumanists. Read it for the provocation of thought (and the hilarious anachronism of planet-sized computers).

(Hat tip: Mark Reitblatt.)


  1. You guys amuse me. Your hostility towards transhumanism seems to be rooted in a hostility towards the notion of continual accomplishment and progress. That there is a certain limit, beyond which no further accomplishment or progress is possible. At the same time, it is clear that you guys come more from the philosophical field that denegrates hedonism as well. This amuses me greatly because the only reason to limit hedonism is to get people to focus on work ethic and long term accomplishment, of which transhumanism is the logical progression.

    By saying that there is a limit to accomplishment and that there is no openness, you are arguing for an "inward orientation". Hedonism is inward orientation. Since there is nothing to be accomplished, why not party and life's pleasures to the fullest extent? There is no other value in such a closed system.

  2. Kurt9, your characterizations of the inner life and of accomplishment greatly underrate the range and value of each.

    There is far more to the inward life than pleasure of the hedonistic variety: there is contemplation, reflection, contentment, fulfillment, and so forth. Achieving many of these pleasures requires externally-imposed limitations. (To name just one, a certain lack of control is required for the pleasures of discovery and adventure.) And even the hedonistic pleasures you allude to require some sort of external limitations: real human communities that have experimented with open sexuality, for example, have been unable to sustainably deal with the problem of jealousy (among many others).

    And those of us who are skeptical of transhumanism and human enhancement technologies are not opposed to accomplishment. Quite the opposite, in fact. You can “enhance” a runner with steroids, but in doing so you have degraded that runner’s accomplishment because it no longer belongs entirely to him. You can “enhance” a chess player by allowing him to consult Deep Blue, but then you have robbed him of the satisfaction of winning by his own skill (and this is just as true when the software is on a chip in his brain as when it is on a computer in the next room).

    Of course, the technologies themselves are great human feats. So in a posthuman world there certainly would be something to celebrate about the technological achievements of the designers themselves. But as for the enhanced individuals — they would find themselves with far greater powers than their forebears, but ironically with far less sense of accomplishment in what they are able to do. The doped-up runner will enjoy less genuine satisfaction from competitive running; the chess player will lose interest in the game when it is no longer truly he who is playing it.

  3. I'm an outward oriented guy. So sue me.

    I argue that the reduction of hedonism is a big reason for promoting outward orientation. I can also tell you that as a self-employed professional, that outward orientation is essential for my personal survival and well-being.

    Why do we want our kids to study and work hard rather than go out and party all the time? Because we want them to have a "great" future. We want our kids to have the maximum range of options available to them. Does this mean that they are nothing if they do not get into Havaad or Stanford? No, of course not. But we want them to have the greatest range of opportunities and possibilities consistent with their capabilities and, above all, we want them to have some measure of self-sufficiency, both financially and psychologically.

    Self-sufficiency and outward orientation are very fulfilling for me.

    In any case, I think we are talking past each other. I understand your comments about using performance enhancing compounds in sports. I don't do these. I don't even use stuff like Retalin or Muldafinal for brain enhancement either (I don't think these things work nor do I think they are safe for long term use). I also think stuff like "uploading" is a fantasy.

    However, the one area that I am into 100% is radical life extension (SENS, regenerative medicine, synthetic biology). I don't consider life extension to be transhumanism. I view curing aging as no different than curing any other disease. Its a "restorative" process in that you are restoring yourself to your natural youthful functionality. Thus, life extension cannot be consider enhancement. You should also know that there are conservative bioethics people who agree with me on this.

    In any case, this is an existential issue for me. As such, I refuse to brook any criticism thereof. My purpose in life is to always survive and to continually expand my personal horizons. Of course, I do not entertain opposition to this.

    I know many, many people who are interested in radical life extension, but have no knowledge or interest in the transhumanist movement as we discuss here. I know many women who are interested in life extension, but who have no involvement in transhumanism.

  4. As usual, Ari pretends that the whole sophisticated transhumanist discussion of this issue has never happened. Or perhaps he's genuinely ignorant. Either way, you will find a detailed transhumanist reply already written here: Living By Your Own Strength.

    -- Eliezer Yudkowsky

  5. You have to admit that opening up the space frontier will allow all of the disparate factions of humanity to all go their separate ways. After all, there is more than enough room in the galaxy to allow for every possible choice, every possible indulgence.


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