Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, July 30, 2010

Link roundup


(h/t: Caitrin Nicol, Elana Clift-Reaves)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brain Scans and Broken Hearts

Over at Boing Boing, Lisa Katayama reports on the latest neuroscience on romantic breakups. I’m not going to comment on the report itself, but rather her take on it:

I think most of us have experienced this feeling at one point in our lives, but it’s interesting to know it can be backed up by science.

How interesting that anyone should think that it is important for one’s feelings to be “validated” in this peculiar way. In the wake of a failed romance, lacking this latest information, would I otherwise be in some kind of doubt that I was miserable? Does a scan of my brain tell me what I am really feeling?

Tea Partying Transhumanists?

The New York Times published last month an intriguing exploration by New School professor J. M. Bernstein of the philosophical underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. Does this analysis remind you of any other movement?:

Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?...

Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state.

...[H]uman subjectivity only emerges through intersubjective relations, and hence how practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence....

All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved....

The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch.

The whole post is fascinating and, even if it's overwrought, it's worth reading at the level it was intended. But try reading it too as about a certain other movement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are "Hostile Wives" Too Cool Toward Science?

I recently reviewed Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. I note the shallowness of those science-policy arguments that pretend that the issues — like embryo-destructive stem cell research, or proposals to mitigate climate change — are purely scientific and that disagreement over them results chiefly from differing literacy in and enthusiasm for science.

Transhumanism, of course, has inherited much from the ideologies that spawned this scientism, and so falls prey to it as well. Consider a recent example from that reliably credulous disseminator of scientistic tropes, Michael Anissimov.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a feature article on the men who want their heads chopped off and frozen when they die, the women who love them, and the marital strife that results when they both keep at it. Attacks of spousal common sense are, of course, a barrier to icy immortality, and so cryonicists safely package them up and stick them on a shelf with the label “hostile-wife phenomenon.” The article explores the bizarre and often sad features of romantic relationships of cryonicists, and focuses on one couple in particular, prominent transhumanist Robin Hanson and his wife Peggy Jackson, who happens to be a hospice worker.

Anissimov, writing about the Times article, bundles up “hostile-wife phenomenon” even more neatly: “My explanation for the phenomenon is pretty simple: gender differences in enthusiasm towards science.” Okay, but “enthusiasm for science” — if we do truly just mean science — means enthusiasm for empirical facts and the discovery and understanding of them. But the article makes it sound as if Ms. Jackson is as curious and intelligent as her husband, and as well-informed of the empirical facts of cryonics. How can her differing enthusiasm for cryonics then be a matter of differing enthusiasm for science? Might there be something else at stake?

As the article notes, her hostility to the idea is “rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality.” It continues, “Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness.” “[T]o be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning.” Indeed, lending some support to her judgment, the article notes that Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics, advised his followers in the late 1960s, “Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.”

Ms. Jackson’s level of enthusiasm for science itself can’t explain her differing judgment from her husband on the good and bad of cryonics.

(In fact, notably and rather hilariously, the first commenter on Anissimov’s post was Robin Hanson himself, and, though he falls for the same trope, he does so by way of succinctly countering Anissimov’s argument: “Women are actually more enthusiastic about most medicine than men. Women go to the doc more often, and push men to go more often than men push women. So this isn’t about women not being as pro science.”)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Transhumanist Resentment Watch II: Breathing, Ctd.

[A continuation of our Resentment Watch series.]

In my last post, I described the anti-humanism of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, who more than rhetorically ask the question of whether humans should exist. While I don’t believe (as, say, Wesley J. Smith does) that Singer’s anti-humanism is now characteristic of the West in general, Singer’s apparent loathing of human existence in all of its supposed misery is at least shared by many transhumanists.

The discussion thread for a recent post here exploring the full human phenomenon of breathing illuminates the point. Commenter IronKlara says,
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.
It’s hard to see how we could contrive new good things outside our “cages” if all we know is inside them and all that’s inside them is bad.

Similarly, commenter Jonathan is concerned about “the loss of life (particularly infant life) that cerebral hypoxia causes each year,” invoking a utilitarian calculus to claim that “the good of preventing an infant death outweighs the good of those joys of breathing to which Schulman refers.” Commenter tlcraig, whose comments on this thread are smart and funny, aptly asks, “How does this help me to decide whether being without breathing would be a better way for me to be?” Not only does it evade the central question, but if you tease out Jonathan’s comment, it amounts to claiming that if I like breathing, I support allowing infants to die, which veers into South Park farcical political ad territory (“If you support this, you hate children. You don’t hate children ... do you?”).

To put it mildly, of course, the “breathing versus dead infants” idea is what they call a “false choice,” and one that, aside from its odiousness, manages to put the problem precisely backwards. If there are infants with cerebral hypoxia, or anyone with any sort of hypoxia for that matter, the problem is that they have a fundamental need they are unable to meet, and that we should focus our medical efforts on helping them meet it. The commenter seems to be saying, however, that if someone has trouble breathing, then instead of eliminating the trouble, we should eliminate the breathing.

Okay, but what’s left over once we do — particularly if we consistently apply this standard of eliminating rather than fulfilling needs? One would have to say we should do away with arms because some babies are born without them, and do away with sight to accommodate the blind. For that matter, if this idea is really fully and consistently applied, one would have to say we should eliminate all needs, and do away with life, because so much death results from it. And so at the root of this utilitarian transhumanist argument we find the same anti-humanism as we did at the core of Singer’s: the ostensible concern for eliminating suffering hollows out our understanding for why we should even be alive. Rather than maintaining aspects of our humanity like breathing, it’s the whittling away of everything that is essentially human from our self-understanding that poses the real threat to our existence.

Peter Singer's utilitarianism increases human suffering

They told you life is hard, Misery from the start, It's dull, it's slow, it's painful. But I tell you life is sweet In spite of the misery There's so much more, be grateful. -Natalie Merchant
Peter Singer recently published a New York Times blog post seriously posing the question of whether the human race should allow itself to go extinct. Most of the post is built around the arguments of philosophy professor David Benatar, author of the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Singer writes:
We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
There is a simple riposte, of course, to anyone seriously claiming we should not exist: one simply need note that no rational being is capable of posing such a claim, for once he believes it, if he is fully consistent in his conclusions and convictions, he should immediately kill himself, and so never have the opportunity to communicate the argument. Of course, I’m not suggesting that extreme utilitarian philosophers should kill themselves (though one could consider their existence as a special sort of suffering), and the fact that they don’t do so should be the first indication that something is amiss in their arguments. They live, like the rest of us, based on the notion that their lives are worth living, even though they are uniquely incapable of understanding that they are and why.

Even the most hardcore of evolutionary psychologists can agree with the notion that an organism that has lost the will and drive to continue its own existence is deeply sick — indeed, not just sick, but suffering from sickness. And it is a sickness of the highest degree, overwhelming as it does the most fundamental imperative of any organism or rational being: to exist, to maintain the prior condition for any state of goodness, joy, or wellbeing. We consider this true for animals so ill they have ceased to eat; and we consider it even truer for human beings who are suicidal: over and above whatever suffering has caused their state, we understand the state of not wanting to live to be itself a profound form of suffering — literally, the deepest form of existential despair.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So, also, he who has no why to live cannot bear with almost any how. Walker Percy claims that postmodern man “has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and ... finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.” Singer et al. turn this problem into the explicit question of why we shouldn’t, and when it exposes the gaping vortex of nihilism at the center of their philosophy, they attempt to divert our gaze with posturing of bold discovery and heroic honesty.

What we risk suffering from most deeply is not the physical anguish that concerns the utilitarians, but the very existential despair they so eagerly prescribe. By defining the value of our lives as simply the absence of physical suffering, philosophers like Singer may actually markedly increase human suffering. Not only does their philosophy provide an active reason for people to be suicidal, but it commits extreme utilitarians to arguing that the profound suffering of being suicidal is itself good reason for the suicidal to go ahead and commit suicide. (Notably, I know of no utilitarian philosophers who have had sufficient confidence in their convictions to openly advance such an argument.)

It is indeed a profound loathing for most of human existence that undergirds Singer’s philosophy. At the end of his post, he poses the question to the readers, “Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?” Though Singer allows, both here and in the conclusion to his post, that life is under the right circumstances worth living — presumably, under circumstances similar to his own — it is apparently taken for granted in this question that life is not worth living for people in undeveloped nations. And it must be even more taken for granted that life was not worth living for the thousands of generations of ancestors to whom we owe our own (at last potentially worthwhile) existences. Posterity, then — the accumulated infliction of the suffering of existence by each generation on the next — must be an injustice of unthinkable proportions.

It is in this understanding of the meaning of posterity, of course, that Singer most profoundly misses the worth of life, as available to today’s poor and to our impoverished ancestors as it is to affluent college professors. As a commenter on the Singer post, Pierce Moffett, puts it:
Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own. This sort of utilitarian, weigh-everything-on-the-scales approach is the worst sort of academic pseudo-philosophical nonsense.

As a philosopher, Dr. Singer is surely aware that the notion that [the] world is getting worse every year has been around among philosophers for a very long time. But out in the real world, people do the millions of things they like to do — from roller skating to playing computer games to solving differential equations to flying hang-gliders ... and many of these things we love to do involve our children.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Singularity is Near the New York Times

In case you missed it, the New York Times recently published a front-page (ask your parents) business-section article on the Singularity. The article is actually remarkably unremarkable. It narrowly explores Kurzweil and the Singularity University, but it's pretty credulous and uninformative. Science writer John Horgan more or less accurately characterizes it as an "enormous puff piece." It's notable mostly just because it's a lengthy piece in such a prominent venue; conferencegoers mentioned it frequently and with excitement at the recent H+ Summit at Harvard, just because it was a piece in the Times.

But there were a couple wonderful anecdotes in the article, such as:
One executive sullenly declines to participate in another robot design exercise because no one in his group will consider making a sexbot.
And:
Daniel T. Barry, a Singularity University professor, gives a lecture about the falling cost of robotics technology and how these types of systems are close to entering the home. Dr. Barry, a former astronaut and “Survivor” contestant with an M.D. and a Ph. D., has put his ideas into action. He has a robot at home that can take a pizza from the delivery person, pay for it and carry it into the kitchen. “You have the robot say, ‘Take the 20 and leave the pizza on top of me,’” Dr. Barry says. “I get the pizza about a third of the time.”
Macaulay Culkin had better luck with this sort of thing in Home Alone with a VCR (ask your parents again).

And here's one that's just sad on several levels:
Sonia Arrison, a founder of Singularity University and the wife of one of Google’s first employees [and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an H+ board member], spends her days writing a book about longevity, tentatively titled “100 Plus.” It outlines changes that people can expect as life expectancies increase, like 20-year marriages with sunset clauses.
Sunset indeed.