Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Transhuman Ambitions and the Lesson of Global Warming

Anyone who believes in the science of man-made global warming must admit the important lesson it reveals: humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them. Let’s call this (just for kicks) the Malcolm Principle. Our knowledge is little but our power is great, and so we must wield it with caution. Much of the continued denial of a human cause for global warming — beyond the skepticism merited by science — is due to a refusal to accept the truth of this principle and the responsibility it entails.

Lake Hamoun, 1976-2001,
courtesy UNEP
And yet a similar rejection of the Malcolm Principle is evident even among some of those who accept man’s role in causing global warming. This can be seen in the great overconfidence of climate scientists in their ability to understand and predict the climate. But it is far more evident in the emerging support for “geoengineering” — the notion that not only can we accurately predict the climate, but we can engineer it with sufficient control and precision to reverse warming.

It is unsurprising to find transhumanist support for geoengineering. Some advocates even support geoengineering to increase global warming — for instance, Tim Tyler advocates intentionally warming the planet to produce various allegedly beneficial effects. Here the hubris of rejecting the Malcolm Principle is taken to its logical conclusion: Once we start fiddling with the climate intentionally, why not subject it to the whims of whatever we now think might best suit our purposes? Call it transenvironmentalism.

In fact, name any of the most complex systems you can think of that were not created from the start as engineering projects, and there is likely to be a similar transhumanist argument for making it one. For example:
  • The climate, as noted, and thus implicitly also the environment, ecosystem, etc.
  • The animal kingdom, see e.g. our recent lengthy discussion on ending predation.
  • The human nutritional system, see e.g. Kurzweil.
  • The human body, a definitional tenet for transhumanists.
  • The human mind, similarly.
Transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov (who earlier argued in favor of reengineering the animal kingdom) initially voiced support for intentional global warming, but later deleted the post. He defended his initial support with reference to Singularitarian Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality,” particularly that of “lightness,” which Yudkowsky defines as: “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.” Yudkowsky’s list also acknowledges potential limits of rationality implicit in its virtues of “simplicity” and “humility”: “A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere,” and the humble are “Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans.” Yet in addition to the “leaf in the wind” virtue, the list also contains “relinquishment”: “Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs.”

Putting aside the Gödelian contradiction inherent even in “relinquishment” alone (if one should not hesitate to relinquish one’s beliefs, then one should also not hesitate to relinquish one’s belief in relinquishment), it doesn’t seem that one can coherently exercise all of these virtues at once. We live our lives interacting with systems too complex for us to ever fully comprehend, systems that have come into near-equilibrium as the result of thousands or billions of years of evolution. To take “lightness” and “relinquishment” as guides for action is not simply to be rationally open-minded; rather, it is to choose to reflexively reject the wisdom and stability inherent in that evolution, preferring instead the instability of Yudkowsky’s “leaf in the wind” and the brash belief that what we look at most eagerly now is all there is to see.

Imagine if, in accordance with “lightness” and “relinquishment,” we had undertaken a transhumanist project in the 19th century to reshape human heads based on the fad of phrenology, or a transenvironmentalist project in the 1970s to release massive amounts of carbon dioxide on the hypothesis of global cooling. Such proposals for systemic engineering would have been foolish not merely because of their basis in particular mistaken ideas, but because they would have proceeded on the pretense of comprehensively understanding systems they in fact could barely fathom. The gaps in our understanding mean that mistaken ideas are inevitable. But the inherent opacity of complex systems still eludes those who make similar proposals today: Anissimov, even in acknowledging the global-warming project’s irresponsibility, still cites but a single knowable mechanism of failure (“catastrophic global warming through methane clathrate release”), as if the essential impediment to the plan will be cleared as soon as some antidote to methane clathrate release is devised.

Other transhumanist evaluations of risk similarly focus on what transhumanism is best able to see — namely threats to existence and security, particularly those associated with its own potential creations — which is fine except that this doesn’t make everything else go away. There are numerous “catastrophic errors” wrought already by our failures to act with simplicity and humility — such as our failure to anticipate that technological change might have systemic consequences, as in the climate, environment, and ecosystem; and our tremendous and now clearly exaggerated confidence in rationalist powers exercised directly at the systemic level, as evident in the current financial crisis (see Paul Cella), in food and nutrition (see Michael Pollan and John Schwenkler), and in politics and culture (see Alasdair MacIntyre among many others), just for starters. But among transhumanists there is little serious contemplation of the implications of these errors for their project. (As usual, commenters, please provide me with any counterexamples.)

Perhaps Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality” are not themselves to be taken as guides to action. But transhumanism aspires to action — indeed, to revolution. To recognize the consequences of hubris and overreach is not to reject reason in favor of simpleminded tradition or arbitrary givenness, but rather to recognize that there might be purpose and perhaps even unspoken wisdom inherent in existing stable arrangements — and so to acknowledge the danger and instability inherent in the particular hyper-rationalist project to which transhumanists are committed.


  1. Thanks for an insightful post. I usually strongly disagree with this blog, occasionally because I see things as factually inaccurate, but more often just because of a values conflict. I think I'm mostly on your side here though; humanity must be careful when we try to reverse engineer complex systems and interact with them in new ways. The financial crisis, food science, political philosophies like communism are great examples.

    Still though, what's needed is to find a compromise between going forward full steam without looking ahead, and being arch-conservatives who are either too happy with the status quo or too afraid to change it to accept progress. This is not a false compromise; you lay out good examples of the former worry, but the latter is necessarily more difficult to see. We notice more when things go horribly wrong than when they are prevented from going beautifully right. There are certainly technologies that [i]could[/i] have benefited humanity which had their development curbed in the name of precaution, and geoengineering might wind up being one such technology.

    So while it may be dangerously hubristic to try to precisely predict and engineer complex systems, its insanely naieve to dismiss these attempts outright unless you can propose your own way of progressing toward an understanding of said systems.

  2. Ari, thank you for a remarkable and provocative post.

    Will, an interesting comment, thanks. I wonder what specifically you have in mind when you remark that "there are certainly technologies that could have benefited humanity which had their development curbed in the name of precaution."

    Also, Will, I fear that you misunderstand the kind of conservatism that animates Ari's post (and much of our work on this blog). It is not a conservatism simply opposed to "progress" (see, for instance, Professor Rubin's post on that subject). It is a conservatism that believes, as Ari put it quite nicely, that there "might be purpose and perhaps even unspoken wisdom inherent in existing stable arrangements." The counsel of this conservatism is not simply for inaction, but for change that is incremental and respectful of what has come before.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Will. To follow up on Adam's thoughts, the question of how to find the proper balance you mention is an enormous one - arguably one of the basic questions of politics, and not one that can be satisfactorily answered briefly.

    But to name just one, medicine is a good example of a technology that has more or less found that proper balance. Conservatism towards treatment is a well-established principle because most doctors understand just how limited is our knowledge of the human body. But by practicing under respect for those limitations, medicine has made enormous strides over the course of history without wreaking too much havoc (despite various glaring missteps).

    But the post itself also points to a more general principle about striking such balances, which is that tradition and reason must be intertwined. Neither can be subjugated, as in the "arch-conservatism" you refer to or the hyper-rationalism of Yudkowsky et al. Each must be carefully employed in checking and improving the other. Good old virtues like prudence and common sense become useful in such a formulation. But the book by MacIntyre I linked to provides a much more rigorous exploration of this approach to reason and tradition - which, on his account, are in fact inseparable.

  4. This is a valid post in regard to transhumanism as a mass movement and I agree with it. This concept of transhumanism is really no different than the mass movements of the mid 20th century such as Nazism and Soviet Communism. I don't like any kind of collectivist movements and I certainly have no desire to turn transhumanism into one.

    However, you must consider that there are those of us who consider ourselves to be transhumanist, but who have no such desire to make a mass movement out of it and to impose it on others as part of a grand design to "redesign" humanity.

    We seek to change only ourselves and from this perspective, this post is irrelevent.

    You could expand on this post by discussion how geo-engineering of the climate would have been an unnecessary disaster because the global warming concept itself has been exposed to being nothing more than a fraud cooked up for political purposes.


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