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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“What were we thinking?”

Largely adopting the same tone of shocked superiority, both Gizmodo and Boing Boing have featured the following picture of a Victorian/Edwardian-era prosthetic arm:


A century or so is not so long even in the scheme of human history, and in that short space of time there have surely been huge changes in design ability and sensibility across a wide range of technologies, with fashion and capacity alike playing roles. Yet while we certainly can understand the material constraints that would have led to creating a prosthesis along these lines, we are apparently still left with a sense of “what were they thinking”?

Now consider the following portraits from the same era by the great John Singer Sargent. The first, from 1897, is of Mrs. George Swinton:


Nobody may dress like this anymore, but the sense of bored or slightly impatient, self-satisfied superiority in the language of her body and her face is instantly recognizable. Or consider this later portrait (1906) of Maud Coats, no less than the Duchess of Wellington:


It’s reasonably obvious to me, anyway, that she must have been quite a hoot: the ironic but not unfriendly smile on her lips and in her eyes, the determined conformation of her left hand and arm. She can barely bring herself to grasp the clichéd white rose she has been given.

We might not all see exactly the same thing when we look at Singer’s portraits, but they are not oddly mysterious in the way that the prosthetic arm is. Which suggests to me one of the great problems hidden within transhumanist aspirations: If our minds and bodies are to be increasingly technological artifacts, then should we not expect that transhumans will have as little understanding for each other, and for their own pasts — both collective and personal — as we have for that arm? Human solidarity can extend back for hundreds, even thousands of years, based on the continuities of human nature; but in a fast-paced world hurtling towards the Singularity, a world in which the fads of fashion and design seek to replace the unvarying aspects of human nature, it seems likely that transhumans will much more regularly find themselves saying, “What were we thinking?”