Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Humanity’s Last Breath

In Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 tome The Singularity is Near, he has a section rebutting what he calls “the criticism from holism” — the idea that “machines are organized as rigidly structured hierarchies of modules, whereas biology is based on holistically organized elements in which every element affects every other.” His response is that “It’s true that biological design represents a profound set of principles ... [but] there is nothing that restricts nonbiological systems from harnessing the emergent properties of the patterns found in the biological world.”

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Kurzweil is correct in claiming that all of the phenomena of the human being can be replicated on machines. Let’s instead consider a different proposition: that the transhumanist understanding of humans is by its nature shallow and incomplete — in particular, its methodology blinds them to aspects of human nature only apparent when the human being is considered as a whole, and in relation to society, culture, and environment. If so, then transhumanists are not able to recognize many of the defining characteristics of that “pattern” known as the human being, and so by their approach won’t be able to fully replicate and modify us — even if such a feat is in principle possible.

Kurzweil’s description of the replacement of the human circulatory and respiratory systems perfectly exemplifies this myopic methodology. Kurzweil notes what impressive “machines” the heart and lungs are but highlights their vulnerability to failure, and argues that we can replace them with machines that perform the same functions but with much greater efficiency and reliability. Soon a runner might only need to take a single breath to sprint a mile, and
Eventually... there will be no reason to continue with the complications of actual breathing and the burdensome requirement of breathable air everywhere we go. If we find breathing itself pleasurable, we can develop virtual ways of having this sensual experience.

This argument gets to the heart (a phrase that may lose its meaning if this scheme is carried out) of the transhumanist approach to the human being as a sort primitive production economy just waiting for its own Henry Ford to break it into processes fit for assembly lines. At first blush (another phrase that draws its meaning from human respiration and circulation) the approach seems sensible enough, particularly in a case like this: breathing is simply a bodily function for providing oxygen for respiration, with the apparent epiphenomenon of a pleasurable sensation. Why not separate the two, maximizing both by making the respiratory function more efficient, and the respiratory sensation more pure and not dependent on the function?

But since Kurzweil here at least implicitly claims to be interested in replicating and improving all of the “patterns” of human existence, his scheme for replicating breathing should capture all of its goods before it sets about improving them. So let’s take a look at how his ostensibly complete account of breathing stacks up against other commonly available accounts.

Just to name a few:
  • A quick look at the scientific literature shows that breathing is not simply a respiratory process but, as a function of the autonomic nervous system, is integrally connected to other bodily processes. For example, as yoga instructors have long known, proper breathing is strongly correlated with overall physical wellbeing: labored breathing can contribute to and breathing therapy can alleviate stress and stress-related diseases such as hypertension and blood pressure.

  • In a New Atlantis essay from last year, Alan Rubenstein notes that “The activity of breathing demonstrates very nicely how action on the world can be initiated by an organism either deliberately, as in conscious breathing (think yoga, or simply ‘take a deep breath’) or ‘unconscious’ breathing (think breathing while we sleep or, in fact, most of the time that we are awake and not paying attention).”

    Further, he writes, “Breathing is an activity of the whole organism, an action taken by the organism, toward the world, and spurred by the organism’s felt need. The body of an animal needs what the world has to give and works constantly in its own interests to obtain it.”

    Rubenstein suggests that the absence of an organism’s impulse to breathe, its drive to continue its existence through a basic engagement with its environment, ought to be considered alongside the absence of heartbeat, brain activity, and awareness as one of the basic markers of death.

  • For Alexi Murdoch and Radiohead, to remember to breathe is to remember to be grounded in the world, to maintain sense and clarity in the face of confusion, alienation, and suffering. For R.E.M., to stop breathing is to surrender to these forces.

  • For Laika, breathing signifies a connection to wind and the seasons, the breath of nature.

  • For The Prodigy, Frou Frou, and The Police, to feel the breath of another is to have one’s being wrapped up in theirs. For Telepopmusik, to breathe is to be grounded in the world or taken out of it through another.

  • For The Corrs (among many others), to be in awe is to be breathless.

  • For Margaret Atwood, to love and be loved, to live for another, is to wish “to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only...to be that unnoticed & that necessary.”

  • For Roger Ebert, the feelings we have towards other human beings — as equal or lesser beings — are something we breathe.

  • For Geography professor Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing.”

  • For Lydia Peelle, the Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing include a rootedness in existence that allows us the possibility of catching “a glimpse of the infinite.”

  • For Walker Percy, breathing is the first force of gravity that grounds a person in his own existence when he attempts to fly away from it entirely through scientific detachment: “I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it.... The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”
Just to name a few.

One may dismiss some of these understandings of breathing as unreal or unimportant. But if any of these aspects are deemed integral to our experience, it must be noted that none will survive the transhumanist decomposition of the human in general and breathing in particular into function and sensation. Just in the attempt to isolate the respiratory function of breathing, the place of breathing within the whole human body — its autonomic connections to other bodily functions — will make the task of decomposition far more practically difficult than its proponents suggest. But that’s only part of the picture.

In the basic act of breathing, there is not simply a feeling of pleasure and a co-incidental act of sustenance, but a feeling of pleasure as an act of sustenance. The sensation of rhythmed breathing during a long jog, or gasping for breath after surfacing from the bottom of a river, is not simply a feeling of pleasure as pleasure, like eating a sweet dessert, but the feeling that comes from the being’s act of sustaining its own life. No matter how accurate a virtual simulation of breathing, the sensation when divorced from function can never be the full phenomenon, the phenomenon of breathing as the act of a being working for its existence from the surrounding world. None of the other aspects of breathing — its connection to love, to spirit, to nature, to the experience of being — could survive either.

Transhumanists find the relationships between the various components of human existence quixotic, and best to ignore. It’s easy to pick us apart, and so, they assume, it must be to put us together — so even when it comes to a feature of our existence as basic as breathing, they cannot grasp that there might be some purposeful relationship worth preserving between what it is, what it is like, and what it is for. Transhumanists may succeed in making us into some new being, but it will be one bereft of all the everyday depths of experience to which they are now so blind.


[Image credit: "breathe" by deviantart user sibayak.]

13 comments:

  1. So you're essentially a vitalist then?

    Vitalism: "a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining."

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  2. What an odd comment. Let's set aside the fact that, pace Messrs. Merriam and Webster, that is a strange definition of vitalism. Exactly what do you see in Mr. Schulman's post that suggests that he is "essentially a vitalist"?

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  3. Yes, the reductionist mindset may make body modification dangerous and we should always be careful what we wish for. However, you overdo your argument toward the end. As reality to us resides in the brain, sufficiently advanced virtual reality should be identical.

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  4. I am not a "vitalist" or a "holist" at all. However, I think emulating the human brain on a computer is going to be such a horrendously difficult challenge that its not going to happen for another 50 years at least. Also, as we all known too well, software is buggy. When they can make bug-free software, the notion of AI and the like will become more believable to me.

    Human memory is chemical in nature. Not only are synapses chemical in nature, they vary by chemical type. There is diffusion based chemical communication between neurons that is not based on synapses either. There are probably 4-5 levels of memory mechanism in the human brain. I think it unlikely that this can be emulated using digital computers.

    Rather, computing technology in the future will be manufactured from the same kind of chemical self-assembly that biology is based on (advanced synthetic biology or bio-nanotechnology). These computers will be wet and squishy, like our brains, and by virtue of that, be more brain-like. It is this technology, not conventional digital computers that can lead to real AI.

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  5. I'm afraid that, when you get right down to it, this post reduces to 'stasis for the sake of stasis'- an emotional appeal to extreme conservatism.

    Schulman is quite correct in saying that no convincing simulation of breath will be quite the same as breathing. If we know that our lives don't depend on it any more, then it won't, subjectively, be the same pleasure. But the joy of breathing does not outweigh the burden of it.

    Respiration is a basic necessity, and the reality of that necessity is a profoundly limiting factor. This is self-evident. Yes, moving beyond those limitations will change the nature of our experience- and of ourselves- on a very primal level. But growth is always a kind of death, isn't it?

    I can respect your love of being human. I just don't get the implication that being something else must be worse.

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  6. I'm afraid that, when you get right down to it, this post reduces to 'stasis for the sake of stasis'- an emotional appeal to extreme conservatism.

    That's one of the two main points, which you adeptly answer. The suggestion that transhumanist ignorance and hubris could lead to a nightmare scenario holds greater intellectual merit. Body modification isn't something you want to screw up.

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  7. Jonathan, I'm not sure how the desire to keep us breathing is extreme conservatism. You say that the joy of breathing does not outweigh its burden? According to what standard? With respect to what end (there is no avoiding teleology here, I'm afraid). Indeed, what does this even mean, when, as Schulman points out, and you acknowledge, the joy of breathing is bound up with it being a limit and burden. Freedom from breathing would mean the loss of some joy and what is gained? The ability to run forever with ease and without discomfort? But if it is made painless then there is no point to running. I can't escape the sense that the only people to whom this appeals are people who already dislike their bodies and experience them only as encumbrances. And summerspeaker, if I grant you reality only resides in our brain -- though this is a totally paradoxical statement (brain? what brain? a real brain? can I deny this and so make it false?) -- this doesn't change matters one whit, for the question is still why prefer the one determined illusion (we need to breath to be alive, and the feeling of breathing is sometime great) for another determined illusion (total freedom to use our bodies without worrying about aerobic exhaustion). The point is that while the latter sounds good at first, to anyone who actually uses their body for much of anything, the burden is bound up with the sense of joy and accomplishment that comes from that use.

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  8. tlcraig, I was referring in particular to the loss of life (particularly infant life) that cerebral hypoxia causes each year. If we can both agree that the good of preventing an infant death outweighs the good of those joys of breathing to which Schulman refers, then we needn't examine some ultimate Reason why we both might agree on this fact- no need for teleology, eh? If you can accept those deaths in the presence of some presumed capacity to prevent them, then I feel comfortable using the label 'extreme.'

    Not that this is the only joy or benefit that comes from not breathing- preservation of life is met by the capacity for growth. Kurzweil used running as an example, though you seem to have problems with that. Personally, I'd find the oceans pretty quickly- a direct, visceral experience of an environment and biosystem that I am currently partially denied. Space travel would become wildly easier. I could kiss my partner for a half hour without coming up for air. And there are many things that we probably can't even imagine. Are these things better than the joy of breathing? In my estimation, yes. Not because I hate having a body- I don't, it's a sublime joy. But it is an aesthetic one-if the moral value of persons is derived from their status as persons, and not by some accidental circumstance in which they find themselves, then I see no reason why body (even brain) modification should be held apart from political, technological, and scientific advancement as a method of improving ourselves and our lives.

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  9. Jonathan,
    Thanks for a helpful response. Your reference to infant cerebral hypoxia has me a bit puzzled. How does this help me to decide whether being without breathing would be a better way for me to be? (Between us, if you press me, I will accept the death of hypothetical infants even in the presence of a hypothetical cure which, in order to deliver, requires me to give up an aspect of my physiology that is constitutive of some of my moments of greatest satisfaction... I'm extreme like that.)

    Now, I was with you on the long term snorkelling without a snorkel, that does sound good. But then you get me thinking about kissing. Kissing until breathless is definitely something I'm not willing to give up, even for snorkelling without a snorkel (after all, we do have snorkels!). In fact, I'm pretty sure kissing wouldn't be kissing if we didn't breathe through our mouths; it would be more like endless lipsmearing, and kind of pointless. I could go on about this, but had better stop. The point is only that the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by how aspects of my physiology which I sometimes experience as burdensome or frustrating limits are actually essential to the satisfaction I derive from using my body. And self-imposed limits wouldn't do the trick at all, it is essential that they are given.

    Per your concluding point, I don't know what a person is without a body. And I'm all in favor of brain and body modification (i.e. improvement) -- or, as Socrates called them, music and gymnastic.

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  10. And summerspeaker, if I grant you reality only resides in our brain -- though this is a totally paradoxical statement (brain? what brain? a real brain? can I deny this and so make it false?) -- this doesn't change matters one whit, for the question is still why prefer the one determined illusion (we need to breath to be alive, and the feeling of breathing is sometime great) for another determined illusion (total freedom to use our bodies without worrying about aerobic exhaustion).

    What I meant was that suitably advanced virtual reality would be able to simulate present conditions to the point that we couldn't tell the difference.

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  11. You sound like you actually *like* being trapped in these meat cages. And like you think it's bad to want to escape a cage that does pretty much nothing except find new ways to hurt and malfunction.

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  12. Woops, in doing the follow-up post to this one, I realized I forgot to post a response I'd had to tlcraig's comment:

    @tlcraig: Excellent comments, thanks. I would just add that what's distinctive about breathing is not just that its joys are bound up with it being an act of limits and burdens, in the sense that the accomplishment of climbing a mountain depends on there being a burden to overcome in doing so. What makes it distinctive beyond this is that breathing is an act with an inherent purpose, at least for the sort of beings that we are. Its inherent purpose is for the being to sustain its own existence through interaction with its environment. Human breathing has many other purposes, meanings, and significances, a few of which I outlined in this post, many of which are distinctly human, and all of which are bound up with this inherent purpose of sustenance. Everything that breathing means and everything that it is — from which we derive our understandings of how it feels — depends on it being an act of biological need. Aside even from questions of goodness, one simply cannot coherently describe breathing as anything else.

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  13. So, meaning is an important factor that distinguishes humans from non-humans which is seen as irrelevant to transhumanists? I don't doubt heartbeats and breathing are important features of being human because of their meaning but I don't doubt greater and more nuances meaning can be created through culture by their superior replacements.

    Check.

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