Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Immortality: timeless truths, or enshrined experiences?

I’m a little surprised that in their big-tent quest for legitimacy, transhumanists have not claimed Aristotle as one of their own. Towards the end of his Nichomachean Ethics he writes (in Joe Sachs’s translation): “But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view to living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself.” Take that, anthropocentric Futurisms bloggers!

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer [Wikimedia Commons]
In fact, the difference between what Aristotle and our modern-day advocates have in mind by “being immortal” is instructive. For Aristotle, the philosopher aspires to immortality through thinking the eternal verities that make the world, otherwise a world of flux, what it is. For the transhumanist, the scientist and the engineer are asked to extend our ability to experience flux, to become for ever longer intervals, and to become what we have never before been. For Aristotle, the human being who uses his reason to “be immortal” in his sense is employing to the greatest possible extent the special ability that makes him human. For the transhumanist, reason makes us immortal by abandonment of our humanity.

What these otherwise contrary visions of immortality share is that in both of them, the I that so desperately does not wish to die is lost, but I rather think that in Aristotle there is less bait and switch on this point. Ur-transhumanist Hans Moravec acknowledged long ago that, contrary to the appearance of uploading a mind into some more durable instantiation, the consequent ability to upgrade would mean that the original I would not persist with machine immortality, except perhaps as some long-irrelevant backup copy. Since Moravec first made that argument, this near necessity has been turned into a virtue — so that transhumanism, as my previous post suggested, promises a succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves of technological possibility. The Aristotelian lover of wisdom, on the other hand, is successful to the extent that he can overcome the din of just such passionate and restless desires, so the quest for such immortality as we can have and the taming of the ego go hand in hand.

To put the difference another way, I associate Aristotelian immortality with an attempt to achieve a life of coherent and rational meaning, whereas transhumanism is looking to extend indefinitely the ability to have whatever experiences are desired. Perhaps that quest helps explain the growing fascination among our techno-elite (by no means all transhumanists) with finding ways to record and preserve the minutiae of everyday life. These are mere details if one sees life as having a meaningful pattern, direction or purpose. Without this perception, the transitory is all there is, and immortality is enshrinement of one damn thing after another.


  1. Thanks for the Aristotle. An amazing quote.

    It's always been telling that the Greeks contributed more directly to the ascetic traditions of Western Christianity and Islam than to the Enlightenment as such (although the influences were certainly there as well), especially with the view that transhumanism is an heir of that more modern school of thought.

    Both (Greeks and Ascetics, I mean) tended to retreat from experience in order to contemplate truth, and this post certainly reflects a regard for that method. In particular, the dismissal of 'minutiae' as mere details, or even 'one damn thing after another.' The Enlightenment, to the contrary, tends to value these details quite highly- it finds the roots of Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion in the humble experience of weights falling off a tower.

    Personally, I've always found the safest bet of epistemology has been placed on the necessity of human ignorance. Our species-long journey has always been the attempt to be *less wrong*, hasn't it? Under no circumstances- even those promised by the wildest dreams of posthuman experience- can we imagine real perfection or an inviolate rightness. In those terms, isn't the flux promised by transhumanist engineers the only means by which we can remain true to the pursuit of these timeless truths? It seems to me that the willingness to move beyond the experience of one's self might be the product of an admirable humility, rather than some base pursuit of experience for its own sake. Are we so willing to abandon the idea that great age might bring great wisdom?

  2. There are a couple of treacherous ambiguities in what you write here. If I could not point them out, I would think that you had already written everything that needs to be said about transhumanism.

    When you write about the quest "to become what we have never before been," you leave unchallenged the assumption that, in "becoming," the objects referred to as "we" are preserved, and endure in "being" this new thing that "we have never before been." Yet, if these new objects are not human animals, how can "we" ever be them?

    When you suggest that the transhumanists err in seeking immortality "by abandonment of our humanity," you implicitly allow that it is possible for us to "abandon" this seemingly removable garb, "our humanity." But what are we, then?

    When you suggest that the reason that "the I that so desperately does not wish to die is lost" is that the "uploaded mind" would seek to "upgrade," and that the "original I" might persist only "as some long-irrelevant backup copy," you fall headlong into the dualistic trap that captures the desire to evade death and befuddles the critical mind into accepting that having your brain cut up into little bits is a possible way to do so.

    When you write of "a succession of new me's" you reference the common way of speaking of the successive phases of one's life as one moves from one role and relationship to another. What's so bad about that, a less conservatively-minded person is apt to ask? But in the common sense, one human animal moves from one situation and ego-conceit, one stage of her life, to another, whereas the transhumanists would put the animal into a meatgrinder and transfer her "identity" to a machine.

  3. Great post. I've always thought that Aristotle was under appreciated in these debates. The distinction between Aristotelian immortality and transhumanist immortality is quite interesting!

  4. Jonathan has given me various things to think about, but for the moment I only wish to respond to his last point about great age and great wisdom. The two might go together to the extent that accumulated experience of the world would allow one to begin to see the patterns and regularities of human behavior. Think of Miss Marple, who has learned all she needs to know to unlock mysteries of the human heart based on her attentive observation of her neighbors in tiny St. Mary Mead. Or again, the distracting passions of the young are moderated by failing powers of one sort or another; there is more opportunity for focus and reflection.

    But such conditions for correlating age and wisdom are just what transhumanism is promising to eliminate: we are to be “forever” young, beautiful, and vigorous, and we are to allow ourselves to be constrained by no pattern or regularity. We can already see in our world increasing age bringing along with it increasing perceived irrelevance, and this trend would only speed up as we press onward to posthumanity.

    But perhaps Jonathan is simply eliding the difference between wisdom and the accumulation of knowledge that we hope is achieved through ongoing scientific research?

  5. Transhumans reject essences in the aristotlian sense for the same reason cognitive scientists also reject the soul as a necessary component of thought (note I did not say all cognitive scientists reject the soul, clearly their are religious cognitive scientists).

    Someone who wants humanity to be defined by their current "design" is going to not like transhumanism, but that cannot lead to a rational argument. Whatever happens, happens sure, but that isn't a philosophy of what counts as "truly human". No details will ever add up to what counts as truly human without a prior belief in design, and of course, all transhumanists reject intelligent design and creationism, and most reject theological evolution.

  6. >"...the consequent ability to upgrade would mean that the original I would not persist with machine immortality, except perhaps as some long-irrelevant backup copy. Since Moravec first made that argument, this near necessity has been turned into a virtue — so that transhumanism, as my previous post suggested, promises a succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves of technological possibility."

    You just unwittingly described our current human state as well, so if you object to the transhumanist notion of uploading then you also reject any notion of 'self' that may currently define your current existence. We really are a 'succession of new me's endlessly riding new waves', those waves being biological patterns currently, but transhumanists aim to extend their patterns to other, less fragile, more long lasting patterns of matter. Yes, it is unintuitive, but simple and straightforward once you come to this realization of what we really are.

  7. I understand that it is nowadays intellectually fashionable in some circles to think that there is no single self, that “We really are a ‘succession of new me’s endlessly riding new waves,’ those waves being biological patterns...” That we change over time is surely true; that there is no continuity that goes along with the change is far less obvious to me. Transhumanism promises a state of affairs where what was my past would be irrelevant or non-operative, a state of being that has nothing to do with lived human experience, however hard we might try to convince ourselves otherwise.


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