Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, March 26, 2010

Geoengineering: Falling with style

Brandon Keim at Wired has a short piece and a gallery called "6 Ways We’re Already Geoengineering Earth," related to the new conference on geoengineering being held at Asilomar:
Scientists and policymakers are meeting this week to discuss whether geoengineering to fight climate change can be safe in the future, but make no mistake about it: We’re already geoengineering Earth on a massive scale.

From diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to planting and grazing two-fifths of its land surface, humankind has fiddled with the knobs of the Holocene, that 10,000-year period of climate stability that birthed civilization.
The point that humans are altering geophysical processes on a planetary scale is almost inarguable. But while this alteration is an aggregate effect of human engineering, it is not in any sense geoengineering. Geoengineering is the intentional alteration of geophysical processes on a planetary scale, while anthropogenic environmental change as it exists now occurs without such intent (either through ignorance or indifference).

Mr. Keim probably had no hidden agenda himself, but the attempt to blur a distinction of intent into a difference of degree is a common transhumanist move, and a seductively fallacious one. In the case of climate change, it can lead to advocacy for what amounts to fighting fire with fire. As I've argued before, the lesson we ought to learn from global warming is that humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them.

Just like a project to remake man, a project to remake the planet will have to be so advanced from today's technology as to overcome what is at least now the truth of this lesson — but it will not do so by treating the project as essentially more of the same of what humankind has already done to the planet.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quick Links: Fake Ray Kurzweil, 30 Rock, Avatar

• Don't miss tweeting alter-Ray Kurzweil:
All I'm saying is that if Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof read my books they would know how to write complex hypothetical narratives
His bio reads, "While my physical self remains cryogenically preserved in Yucca Mountain, I maintain an active VR life where I blog in anticipation of the singularity." Which reminds me of a great moment in last night's episode of 30 Rock, in which fictional GE CEO Don Geiss's eulogy is delivered by Alec Baldwin's character at his "Episcopal cryogenic freezing service," which looks like this:

• Speaking of Twitter: We recently launched a New Atlantis Twitter feed, for more frequent updates on our work.

Avatrocious: Futurisms readers might enjoy the essay about Avatar by James Bowman in the forthcoming issue of The New Atlantis. Caleb Crain's take from a few months back is also worth a read.

"The Geek's Guide To Getting Girls"

H+ Magazine's "humorist" Joe Quirk (author of "The Meaning of Life Lies in Its Suckiness," which we discussed here) has penned another literary triumph. Watch out, Voltaire:
It wasn’t until her bikini thong hit me in the face that I recognized her. It was the sophomore from Holy Cross College I’d interviewed yesterday who had said her deepest desire was to marry a mature gentleman who would see her not just as a piece of flesh but as the intelligent entrepreneur she planned to be. I didn’t recognize her up on that stripper pole on the beach amid all this Spring Break mayhem. She had complained it was difficult to land a good man with all these loose girls sending the wrong impression.
He goes on to weave the latest evolutionary/social psychology/biology research into a story about how he "headed to Spring Break in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, so I could observe these principles at work in the courtship behavior of drunken beach apes." Wherein he indeed describes what he sees as if viewing primates, complete with descriptions of how women's menstrual cycles alter their mating preferences, etc.

Here's the kicker: the main principle Quirk wants to relate (perhaps with the aim of lending some reassurance to the self-image of the magazine's likely readers) is that women are attracted not to alpha males but to men with social respect and intelligence. "Female primates can tell the difference and boink accordingly." Classy.

From this, he assures us, "At Spring Break in 2011, science nerds will get more sex than jocks and cheerleaders, because science nerds will understand the biology of human desire." (Which sounds hilariously if probably unintentionally like the response in Revenge of the Nerds to the cheerleader's query "Are all nerds as good as you?": "Yes. Because all jocks think about is sports. All we ever think about is sex.")

Maybe I'm missing something here, but this seems to conflict a bit with all of that social respect and intelligence stuff. If there's one thing I know about women, it's that talking about how hormonal and easily manipulated they are isn't likely to endear you to them.

It doesn't speak well of H+ Magazine that they would publish this sort of thing. There's the question of the scientific validity of these claims, not to mention the article's apparent ignorance of the "Seduction Community", which has been attempting a similar (if arguably more respectful) project for decades. And then there's the writing itself, which should make anyone with even a shred of respect for women and women's rights shudder. Some of the commenters on the piece try to defend it as just a joke, but it sounds a bit more like the rantings of a few bitter science/engineering students I knew in college who tried to couch their misogyny in supposedly humorous or scientific language.

Appropriateness aside, I'd like to suggest that this piece is indicative of a deeper tension within transhumanism between the ev/social science outlook that wants to view humans as little more than animals and the Enlightenment outlook that wants to raise humans to the level of equal beings endowed with supreme individual rights and wills. The application of the former outlook to ethics leads to some attitudes that are directly in conflict with the latter. To put it another way, treating people in practice as little more than animals leads to some pretty un-Enlightened ideas and behavior. More about this later.

Update: Elana J. Clift, author of the work on the "Seduction Community" I linked to, adds in an email that the H+ article "sounds similar to a lot of the (b.s.) pop psychology/anthropology that people in the Seduction Community blather on about.... [I]n addition to women's rights and sexism against women you might mention how this kind of crap is harmful to men and how they are taught to view themselves, their intentions, their bodies, etc."

Now you can ignore the Singularity while checking Facebook on your laptop

The Singularity is coming this summer to a new course available at Rutgers University. The instructors are father-son duo Ted and Ben Goertzel (respectively), and a cabal of guest speakers will make appearances, including James Hughes, Aubrey de Grey, and Robin Hanson, as well as a variety of other colorful characters, including one possibly from a cartoon. According to H+ Magazine, this is the first-ever accredited college course on the Singularity, although it's certainly been at least a subject of discussion in college courses before.

Naturally enough, the course will be conducted entirely online, and will feature virtual classroom discussions. All well and appropriate, and I'm actually really thinking of registering, except you still have to "attend" classes two nights a week just like a regular class, and that's a big time commitment. If only there were some way for me to absorb all that information without all the hassle.

Also of note: the official textbook for this first-ever accredited college course on the Singularity is Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. Which I have it on good it authority makes the course unserious and unacademic, so consider yourself warned.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Ambiguous Utopia

Following up on my last post about artistic depictions of human life post-progress, the gentle reader is directed for his edification to our colleague Alan Jacobs’s New Atlantis essay on the “Culture” novels of Iain M. Banks. The novels are plainly meant first and foremost to be compelling science fiction, and Banks openly describes their universe as a sort of utopia in which he would gladly live (“Good grief yes, heck, yeah, oh it’s my secular heaven”) — but even so, Jacobs indicates that the problems of utopian alienation still crop up in characters “who try to restore unpredictability and drama to their lives”:
What I find fascinating about the anatomy of the Culture novels is the dissonance between Banks’s straightforward statements about the Culture and certain recurrent features of the stories he writes. Banks talks about how “nice” the Culture is, and yet we see hidden cruelties and open desires for universal domination. He clearly envisions the overcoming of scarcity as the signal achievement of the civilization made by the Minds, and yet he focuses time and again on objects of unfulfilled desire. He is aware that the very language of the Culture is a subtle but immensely powerful training in “correct” ideology.

To some extent these oddities are ... the inevitable consequence of the decision to write novels about the Culture. It is not possible to come up with stories as such about people who are perfectly nice and can have everything they want instantly. But one might also say that people of whom no stories can be told are not really people in any sense recognizable to us; and the lives that they experience are not lives in any sense recognizable to us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

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.]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Transhuman and the Postmodern (A Further Response to James Hughes)

My previous post on transhumanism and morality elicited a response from James Hughes, whose recent series of essays was my prompt. I thank Prof. Hughes for his response, although it seems to me to confirm more than not the main point of my original post.

I’m confident that Prof. Hughes understands that what we are calling for the sake of shorthand “Enlightenment values” did not present themselves as “historically situated” but as simply true. Speaking schematically and as briefly as possible, it took Hegel (no unambiguous fan of the Enlightenment) to historicize them, but he did so in a way that preserved the possibility of truth. It took Nietzsche’s radical historicism in effect to turn Hegel against himself, and in so doing to replace truth with willful, creative overcoming. That opens the door to postmodernism.

It looks like it is almost axiomatic to Prof. Hughes that all “truths” are historically situated and culturally relative, so in that postmodern manner he is rejecting “Enlightenment values” on their own terms. Nietzsche, shall we say, has eaten that cake. But why then “privilege” “Enlightenment values” at all? Prof. Hughes wants to keep the cake around to the extent it is useful to pursue a grand transformational project (a necessary one, according to at least some of his transhumanist brothers and sisters). But why (assuming there is a choice) pursue transhumanism at all as a grand project, or why prefer one version over another? To this question Prof. Hughes’s axiom allows no rational answer (“Reason,” he writes, “is a good tool but ... our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason”) although the silence is covered up by libertarian professions, the superficiality of which Prof. Hughes understands full well.

What Agnes Heller calls “reflective postmodernism” describes a response to the dilemma Prof. Hughes is facing that to my mind is not without problems, but at least seems intellectually respectable. Armed with Nietzsche’s paradoxical truth that there is no truth, the reflective postmodernist is alive to irony, open to being wrong and playful in outlook. But above all, the reflective postmodernist is an observer of the world, having abandoned entirely the modern propensity to pursue the kind of grand, “necessary,” transformational projects that made the twentieth century so terrible. Absent such abnegation, I don’t see how the postmodern-style adherence to “Enlightenment values” Prof. Hughes recommends for transhumanism can be anything more than anti-Enlightenment will to power.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

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 them, 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.

Monday, March 1, 2010

“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.

Will it Blend?: Apples and Philosophy of Mind

If you're studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all. But philosophy, you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.

-Steve Martin

Anyone who sticks with a philosophy major long enough to take a philosophy of mind course will be familiar with some of the field’s classic thought experiments, typically involving zombies, identical twins, molecular clones, teleportation, amoeba-people, etc. And while these thought experiments can be quite useful for clarifying and constructing proofs about our concepts of mind, they are just as often used in fallacious attempts to destroy them.

Take the following scenario, a distilled version of one offered by Oxford professor Derek Parfit: Two molecularly identical copies of your body (including your brain) are created, and your original body is destroyed. Each copy thinks it is you, but which one really is? If one kills the other, is this suicide or murder? This experiment is supposed to prove that personal identity does not really exist, or at least that our understanding of it is illusory. Many similar arguments purport to dissolve related concepts such as selfhood and agency.

It should hardly need stating (but it does) that our concepts do not survive such scenarios because the scenarios are so wildly outside the realm in which those concepts arose. We shouldn’t expect personal identity to survive such violence intact. But we can’t draw from this gedankenexperiment the conclusions that Parfit proposes. Parfit’s aim is to prove that our notion of personal identity is wrong or unimportant, and that what really matters is psychological continuity. This attempt at conceptual demotion rests on the confusion wrought by the fact that some aspect of personal identity does survive in Parfit’s examples, even though related aspects, such as embodiment, do not.

Consider another thought experiment: Take an ordinary apple, drop it in a blender, and hit “frappé.” Pour the results into a glass and take a gulp. What you’re drinking still tastes like an apple, and still has the same nutrients. But we can’t really call it an apple. Conclusion: apples do not really exist. Appleness is defined by those chemical components that survive the trip through blender.

Of course, the fact that an apple is destroyed when you put it through the blender doesn’t mean that our concept of the apple is illusory. The redefinition down to the chemical components is impoverished, missing traits such as texture, shape, viability in producing apple trees, etc. Moreover, the aspects of appleness that do survive the blender can similarly and just as easily be “proven” illusory.

This apple-in-a-blender thought experiment is comparable to Parfit’s. Just because neither personal identity nor the apple has quite the ontological fortitude of, say, the electron, doesn’t mean they do not exist. One conclusion to draw is that made famous by Wittgenstein, which is that our concepts depend on certain conditions, and we should not expect our concepts to remain intelligible in scenarios where those conditions do not hold.

But there is a related practical conclusion, too: If we want to maintain things like personal identity, selfhood, and agency, we should avoid situations where the conditions upon which they depend no longer hold. This is why we rightly consider people with brain injuries and certain mental illnesses to suffer some loss of these faculties, and why we work medically to heal them — not because the notions themselves have broken down, but because the patients have lost the necessary conditions for maintaining them.

And the same warning holds about the efforts to make realities of some of these wilder thought experiments: For example, it is certainly true that if Alice surgically swaps brains with Bob, each resulting person would have a partial but not complete claim both to be Alice and to be Bob, as Alice’s-brain-in-Bob’s-body would probably maintain aspects such as Alice’s original memory, but would inherit Bob’s bodily continuity, including Bob’s sex, the neurophysical influences of Bob’s body on personality and the attitudes that come from looking like Bob looks, and so forth. All this, however, is less an argument for why you don’t actually have personal identity than an argument for why you might not want to swap brains with another person.

(Thanks to Futurisms friend Brian Boyd, from whose paper “Derek Parfit is a Zombie” this post cribs rather immodestly.)