Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy New Fear

I think the first news report I saw about the possibility of genetically engineering avian influenza to be more virulent was this one by the redoubtable Brandon Keim of Wired in 2010. Keim’s post did not really make clear why Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison had sought to develop a more virulent strain of the virus; it seems to suggest it was done to show it could be done, and that hence, if some final obstacles were overcome, some such pandemic would be “inevitable.” In any case, the research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and apparently included guidance on the particular human protein that would allow the virus to occupy the upper respiratory tract.

The next story I saw was just this past November, when Kristen Philipkoski at Gizmodo posted that “Engineered Avian Flu Could Kill Half the World’s Humans.” Philipkoski presented the research of virologist Ron Fouchier, and noted the many red flags that might have gone up in the course of his efforts to increase the virulence of H5N1. But no:

He presented his work at the influenza conference in Malta this September. Now he wants to publish his study in a scientific journal, so those responsible for responding to bioterrorism can be prepared for the worst case scenario. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Not exactly. The research has set off alarms among colleagues who are urging Fouchier not to publish, for fear the recipe could wind up in the wrong hands. Some question whether the research should have been done in the first place. Fair point!

Fair point indeed.

I waited for follow-on stories that would suggest that the danger here had been exaggerated, or that there was some extremely compelling reason that Philipkoski had missed for Fouchier to have undertaken his work. To date, I’ve seen nothing along those lines; do let me know in the comments what I might have missed. But the danger of the situation seems to be more or less confirmed by news reports this week that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has, for the first time ever, requested that Nature and Science publish only redacted versions of Fouchier’s work, and of further work by Kawaoka. (Fouchier, to his credit, seems to have agreed to the request, if grudgingly and skeptically.)

This time, Gizmodo’s Jamie Condliffe is up in arms. The request is

not cool.... I admit that this is a tough situation, but censoring journals is a dangerous precedent to set.... In many respects, this goes against the nature of science. Science works because people announce their findings for others to question — allowing us to confirm or refute them. That’s how science progresses, and censoring it like this kills the process. It’s also a hugely dangerous precedent to set. I hope the journals win out.

Condliffe’s knee-jerk reaction is only slightly less sophisticated than the pontificating by the journal editors about what “responsible influenza researchers” need to know. For while Fouchier may be willing to see his work redacted, it is not so clear Science is willing to publish it that way. Says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, “Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”

“How science works” is of course important to the transhumanist project as well, and the libertarian impulse in the face of potentially grave danger that this particular incident reveals is not especially promising. Condliffe’s laissez-faire attitude toward science, and Alberts’s attempts to gain the upper hand over the NSABB, are not the brave defenses of the scientific enterprise that they intend them to be — for they are defending irresponsibility.

Says Fouchier:

We have made a list of experts that we could share this with, and that list adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts. As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street. And so we have serious doubts whether this advice can be followed, strictly speaking.

Is he being cynical, or is this his honest assessment of the ability of his professional colleagues to act in the public interest? When developing atomic weapons, genuinely responsible researchers worked in the full knowledge that their path-breaking efforts would not be published at all, and that any sharing of knowledge would be on a strictly need-to-know basis among an extremely carefully restricted group. Would it not be the very definition of “responsible researcher” for any genetic engineer working in this newer field of weapons of mass destruction to accept, indeed actively seek, similarly serious restrictions?

[Editor’s note: For an analysis of the likelihood of pathogens being bioengineered and weaponized by terrorists or rogue states, see the article “Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology?” from the Spring 2011 issue of The New Atlantis, by our late contributor Jonathan B. Tucker.]

Image: The Birds (1963), © Universal Pictures

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Problem with “Friendly” Artificial Intelligence

Readers of this blog may be familiar with the concept of “Friendly AI” — the project of making sure that artificial intelligences will do what we say without harming us (or, at the least, that they will not rise up and kill us all). In a recent issue of The New Atlantis, the authors of this blog have explored this idea at some length.

First, Charles T. Rubin, in his essay “Machine Morality and Human Responsibility,” uses Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. — which introduced the word “robot” — to explore the different things people mean when they describe “Friendly AI,” and the conflicting motivations people have for wanting to create it. And he shows why it is that the play actually evinces a much deeper understanding of the meaning and stakes of engineering morality than can be found in the work of today’s Friendly AI researchers:

By design, the moral machine is a safe slave, doing what we want to have done and would rather not do for ourselves. Mastery over slaves is notoriously bad for the moral character of the masters, but all the worse, one might think, when their mastery becomes increasingly nominal.... The robot rebellion in the play just makes obvious what would have been true about the hierarchy between men and robots even if the design for robots had worked out exactly as their creators had hoped. The possibility that we are developing our “new robot overlords” is a joke with an edge to it precisely to the extent that there is unease about the question of what will be left for humans to do as we make it possible for ourselves to do less and less.

Professor Rubin’s essay also probes and challenges the work of contemporary machine-morality writers Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, as well as Eliezer Yudkowsky.

In “The Problem with ‘Friendly’ Artificial Intelligence,” a response to Professor Rubin’s essay, Adam Keiper and I further explore the motivations behind creating Friendly AI. We also delve into Mr. Yudkowsky’s specific proposal for how we are supposed to create Friendly AI, and we argue that a being that is sentient and autonomous but guaranteed to act “friendly” is a technical impossibility:

To state the problem in terms that Friendly AI researchers might concede, a utilitarian calculus is all well and good, but only when one has not only great powers of prediction about the likelihood of myriad possible outcomes, but certainty and consensus on how one values the different outcomes. Yet it is precisely the debate over just what those valuations should be that is the stuff of moral inquiry. And this is even more the case when all of the possible outcomes in a situation are bad, or when several are good but cannot all be had at once. Simply picking certain outcomes — like pain, death, bodily alteration, and violation of personal environment — and asserting them as absolute moral wrongs does nothing to resolve the difficulty of ethical dilemmas in which they are pitted against each other (as, fully understood, they usually are). Friendly AI theorists seem to believe that they have found a way to bypass all of the difficult questions of philosophy and ethics, but in fact they have just closed their eyes to them.

These are just short extracts from long essays with multi-pronged arguments — we might run longer excerpts here on Futurisms at some point, and as always, we welcome your feedback.

The Cases For and Against Enhancing People

A recent issue of The New Atlantis features several essays on transhumanism which may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’ll describe them briefly in this post and the next.

The first essay is “The Case for Enhancing People,” by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for Reason magazine. Ron is well known for supporting transhumanism and enhancement technologies; he makes the case for them in his book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution. Here’s a snippet of his essay for us:

Contrary to oft-expressed concerns, we will find, first, that enhancements will better enable people to flourish; second, that enhancements will not dissolve whatever existential worries people have; third, that enhancements will enable people to become more virtuous; fourth, that people who don’t want enhancement for themselves should allow those of us who do to go forward without hindrance; fifth, that concerns over an “enhancement divide” are largely illusory; and sixth, that we already have at hand the social “technology,” in the form of protective social and political institutions, that will enable the enhanced and the unenhanced to dwell together in peace.

In response to Ron Bailey’s piece, we’ve published an essay by Benjamin Storey, an associate professor of political science at Furman University. The essay challenges Ron’s particularly libertarian strain of transhumanism, but also speaks to some of the fundamental questions raised by human enhancement. Here’s a taste:

“The Case for Enhancing People” is obviously the work of a sharp and curious mind, but Bailey’s libertarian commitment blinds him to the moral difficulties of our biotechnological moment, and condemns him to endlessly exploring what Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” When we step outside that prison, we find ourselves confronting a complex political, historical, and moral-existential landscape in which there are no easy answers. Politically, we face both the difficult task of attempting to responsibly shape mainstream moral life without going overboard in “childproofing our culture,” as Yuval Levin has put it, and the sobering reality that technology and individual liberty do not always exist in harmony. Historically, we stand before an uncertain future, in which there is no reason to believe that all technological change issues in genuine human progress.

This is a bracing and carefully wrought exchange; I believe readers will find it well worth their time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Coding our OSes

A charming YouTube video is making the rounds, showing a very small child playing with an iPad, and then trying to get a magazine to respond to her finger gestures in the same way. My favorite part is when, with transcendent infant logic, she tests her finger on her leg, to make sure her finger is working properly.

Reasonable parents might disagree on the probity of giving such a young child an iPad to play with, but that is not where I think her proud parental units have gone most seriously wrong. Rather, their error comes near the end of the video, when a title comes up saying, “For my one year old daughter, a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so for her whole life.” Well, I hope not, because that would mean a profound lack of intelligence on her part. Those of us who grew up with TV on the rise and radio on the decline did not think of radios as TVs that did not work. (Although I would have to admit that, in my family, it was a truism that a TV was a radio that stole your imagination away.)

In reality, one imagines that all too soon this baby will learn to expect different things from different media; then she will at first be charmed by her own infant foolishness, but probably later change her mind and ask her dad to please not show the video to all her boyfriends.

The video concludes, “Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.” The misreading of the significance of what this child is doing is pretty typical of the common brand of techno-projection which observes a molehill and immediately projects it into a towering mountain. It is only useful to think about just how far things might go if we spend at least as much time considering why they might not get there.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Manufacturing Freedom

Scientists claim they have discovered the brain mechanism responsible for susceptibility to group pressure — and a way to control it. Dr. Vasily Klucharev, the lead researcher, says, “People can try to reduce conformity in certain situations, especially when they know about negative consequences of group pressure such as criminal behavior, propaganda or aggressive marketing,” and suggests a drug that could accomplish this. Transhumanist Rachel Haywire finds this development “extremely inspiring to me as someone who views groupthink as the major problem with Humanity 1.0.”

However, the article notes that “such drugs would be controversial ... as they could be used by companies hoping to make their employees more reliable or to help control rebellious individuals.” I don’t know what the fuss is about — I, for one, can hardly think of a better way to encourage individualism than a mass program to chemically control peoples’ brains.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Posthuman Art Exhibit

The New York Times reports on an exhibition at The National Art Museum of China called “Translife,” a collection of works about the supposedly imminent post-human future.

“Brain Station,” WU Juehui

The exhibition’s organizers (and the article’s author) speak in breathless tones of the various boundaries they’re crossing, and how the exhibit “ring[s] the death knell for ‘representational’ art.” Apparently they haven’t heard of the last hundred years of art history — though they’ve at least managed to rediscover its penchant for passing off uncreativity as bold transgression. (This is not to indict most modern art, but let’s be honest.)

As an added bonus, the article contains this wonderfully ironic jewel for a transhumanist exhibit (emphasis added): “ ‘Humanity objectifies nature as a source of income, as a pure utilitarian relationship,’ said [curator Zhang Ga]. ‘This is the essential root of our current crisis. How do we deal with it?’ ”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

IBM’s New “Cognitive Computing” Processor

IBM recently unveiled a new “cognitive computing” chip that is said to function like the human brain. These sorts of claims are made all the time, and are, as a rule, grossly exaggerated or outright false. But from everything I’ve read, this breakthrough sounds legitimate: if the researchers have done what they claim, this may be a significant break from the integrated, highly linear Von Neumann architecture that has been at the heart of computer processors for over sixty years.

The reports I’ve read, though, have all mostly failed to emphasize the likely fact that this new architecture can only be taken full advantage of by tasks like pattern recognition that are already amenable to being processed in parallel, or all at once, rather than in a sequence of steps.

Also, reports of the brain’s demise are greatly exaggerated: this architecture is a lot more like the brain than current architecture, but it’s still not remotely similar enough to produce consciousness, thought, or strong AI.

UPDATE: See also Alex Knapp’s two highly informative posts on the IBM research: “Is IBM Building a Computer That Thinks Like a Human?” and “How IBM’s Cognitive Computer Works.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Link Roundup: The Singularity, Friendly AI, and Text-Messaging Contact Lenses

Hello out there, all you hard-workin’ cowboys and cowgirls and species-liberated cow-human persons! Here are some links you might find interesting if you read this here blog:

On the Singularity

Hank Campbell argues, in so many words, that Singularitarianism is a fraud conceived to line the pockets of several prominent figures with speaking fees and book deals. He’s right about at least half of this.

• On a related note: is the Singularity here yet? (Be sure to check out the HTML source code too.)

• Notice anything funny about the academic tracks offered by the Singularity University? (hat tip: Spencer McFarlane and Emily Smith Beitiks of the Center for Genetics and Society)


On Chatbots and AI

A video of two chatbots talking to each other has been making the rounds. XKCD has the definitive response (see Mark Halpern’s “The Trouble with the Turing Test” for a longer consideration of a similar argument):

• The same chatbot has almost passed the Turing Test, but apparently even transhumanists now realize what an unreliable gauge of intelligence that is.

• After many months of sitting depressed on the couch, IBM’s Watson is finally out of the unemployment line and back to work.

• Michael Anissimov reveals in a comment that he corrected a post because he didn’t know the difference between functionalism and reductionism. I wouldn’t expect most people to know this, of course — unless, that is, they happen to have read something about psychology, philosophy of mind, or anything remotely technical about artificial intelligence. And we’re supposed to take seriously his work on “friendly AI”?

• Speaking of friendly AI: Ben Goertzel takes the concept and advocates instead an “AI nanny” for humanity. Sort of like friendly AI, only with an emphasis on saving us from ourselves instead of saving us from the AI itself. Yet, somehow, this idea seems a little less — well, friendly. Good luck selling that one. (Goertzel does suggest, though, that it would be programmed with “A mandate to be open-minded toward suggestions by intelligent, thoughtful humans about the possibility that it may be misinterpreting its initial, preprogrammed goals.” You know, something along the lines of: “Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.”)


Potpourri

• A short, informative post by Michael Cooney examines a recent report by the Government Accountability Office on the current state of climate-engineering science and technology. (via Slashdot)

Mark Frauenfelder reviews the new novel The Postmortal by Drew Magary, in which society suddenly invents a cure that halts aging (but does not reverse it, or prevent accidental death or diseases).

The New York Times reports on advances in neural implants that can control computers — making its subjects the first cyborgs, it claims. (As Adam Keiper has noted in his lengthy article on neuroelectronics, reports beginning this way have been around for a long time.)

• The webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has had a couple of hilarious and brilliant transhumanism-related strips recently: one on psychological engineering, another on genetic engineering.

• Among the list of preposterous business ideas mentioned with great enthusiasm by the character Tom Haverford on a recent episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation was a transhumanist favorite:

Contact lenses that display text messages!

• Finally, from the benighted realm of the real world and meatspace, an image of Saturn from Cassini:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Computerized Translation and Resurrecting the Dead

Tim Carmody wrote a fascinating article recently on the future of computerized translation, noting that Google recently shut down its Translate interface for programmers (and later reopened it, but now as a paid service).
Apparently more and more of the data Google were using to refine its translation technology were drawn from pages that had themselves been generated by being run through Google Translate. As James Fallows put it:
The more of this auto-translated material floods onto the world’s websites, the smaller the proportion of good translations the computers can learn from. In engineering terms, the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse.
One wonders what implications this has for the project suggested by the likes of Ray Kurzweil and David Chalmers to resurrect the dead by recreating minds from their artifacts, such as letters, video recordings, and so forth: if the mind is a “fractal,” as Kurzweil likes to claim, would such a project be magnifying more the signal or the noise?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Robin Hanson on Why We Should “Forget 9/11”

A few days ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, who is influential among transhumanists, wrote a blog post arguing that we should “Forget 9/11.” Why? Well, partly because of cryonics:

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Hanson’s post may have been “flamebait” — but we should assume that he sincerely means what he has written, and read it as charitably as possible. His concern about matters of public health is admirable (although one wonders how much more public attention could be paid to the importance of exercising and not smoking, and whether paying attention to 9/11 was really a significant blow to those efforts). And many would agree that our government could have better allocated its money to save, lengthen, and improve lives (although one wonders when this is ever not the case, and what is the foolproof way to avoid misallocation).

Still, one has to marvel at Hanson’s insistence that there is no meaningful difference between the ways people die. He implies that all deaths are equally tragic — so there is no difference, apparently, between a peaceful death and a violent one, or between a death in old age and one greatly premature. In a weird version of “blaming the victim,” Hanson implies that many of the people who have died since 9/11 are to blame for their own deaths, because they could have made choices like exercising, not smoking, and undergoing cryonic preservation. But of course, people who are murdered never get the chance to make or have these choices matter at all.

This is part of the larger point Hanson misses: One certainly can doubt the severity of the threat posed by terrorism, and the wisdom of the U.S. response to it. But the September 11th attack was animated by ideas, and Hanson willfully ignores the implications of those ideas: The lives he would have us forget were lost in an attack against the very liberal order that allows Hanson to share his ideas so freely. It’s hard to imagine transhumanist discourse flourishing under the theocratic tyranny of sharia law. And if the planners of that attack had their way, that liberal order would be extinguished, as would the lives of many who now live under it — which would certainly alter even the calculus admitted by Hanson’s myopic utilitarianism.

Thus the true backwardness of Hanson’s argument. While he may think he is making a trenchantly pro-humanist case for how insensitive and outrageous it is that we focus our emotions on some deaths much more than others, one wonders whether dulling our sensitivity to the deaths of the few can really be the best way to make us care about the deaths of the many. If we cannot feel outrage at what is shocking, can we still be moved by what is commonplace? If we do not mourn the loss of those who are close to us, how can we ever mourn the loss of those who are far?

Parental Goodness versus Efficiency

Speaking of good versus efficient, the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has a gem today (click to see the whole thing):


I love the expression on the father’s face: truly efficient love.

(P.S. Don’t forget the button.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Aren’t Transhumanists More Successful at Love?

A lovestruck Romeo sings the streets a serenade

At H+ Magazine, Katja Grace asks whether we are getting “better at romance,” or, more precisely, “more romantically efficient.” In case you’re wondering about the definition:

A romantically efficient person gets more affection and orgasms for the same input of searching and pining, just as an efficient farmer gets more grain and pigs for the same amount of land and dirt.

So much for, well, romance.

Incidentally, Grace claims without apparent irony that “oddballs and pornography enthusiasts” are the people who have contributed the most to our romantic efficiency. This means that, basically, the Comic Book Guy is her ideal of the most romantically efficient, and presumably, happy and satisfied, person in our society:

UPDATE: See also Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on efficiency.

Monday, September 12, 2011

History, 9/11 Relics, and “Technological Superstition”

Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together.
—Niels Bohr, to Werner Heisenberg, at Kronborg Castle

Kevin Kelly recently declared that most of the value we place on historical artifacts is a matter of mere “technological superstition.” Beginning with artifacts from the September 11 attack sites, and continuing to Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter, home-run baseballs, and the pen used to sign the Declaration of Independence, Kelly claims that we preserve, collect, and pay great sums for these objects because we believe they are akin to religious relics that confer supernatural or magical powers.

(flickr/aturkus)Now, I could see Kelly’s point if people were preserving 9/11 rubble because they thought that tossing it over one’s shoulder would ward off evil spirits, or were buying Hemingway’s typewriter because they thought rubbing one’s temples upon it would help one get a story into McSweeney’s. But as far as I know, no one believes, or is saying, any such thing. In fact, Kelly’s own argument suggests something rather different.

The main elements of Kelly’s argument seem to be: (1) The supposed “specialness” of an artifact does not reside in the artifact itself, cannot be measured by scientific instrumentation; it is thus superstitious. (2) An artifact’s supposed “specialness originates in the same way as an ancient relic — because someone says so.” This is why people who value artifacts are so interested in provenance — documentation or evidence to establish that the artifact actually has the historical connection it is supposed to. (3) There are only two legitimate, non-superstitious reasons to value particular historical objects: age and rarity. (Kelly makes parts of this last point in the comments section beneath his original post.)

Hemingway’s typewriter and binoculars, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho (US Plan B)

A variety of immediate problems arise. The idea that an artifact’s uniqueness cannot be measured empirically is simply not true in the examples Kelly has provided. His prime example is Hemingway’s typewriter, which is supposedly physically identical to every other typewriter of the same model. Except it isn’t. Hemingway owned it, so, for example, it presumably has bits of his skin cells and hair lodged in it. It is chemically unique: a forensic scientist needing to obtain Hemingway’s DNA might examine this typewriter, but would not examine any other instance of that model.

Kelly’s point (2) is trying desperately to eat its own tail — more on that in a moment. And on point (3), age is not a property that resides in an object (even if evidence of it sometimes does) and rarity most certainly does not reside in an object. If a home-run baseball becomes sufficiently old, or other baseballs of the same model are destroyed so that it becomes rare, why can we now value it? Nothing residing in the ball itself has changed.


Putting these problems aside for now, it seems that Kelly wants us to value objects only inasmuch as they yield information, in particular scientific information. Scientific theories are interested in universals and types, not particulars and instances. A lab rat is useful because we can manipulate it and perform tests upon it to verify or falsify theories. But the particular rat has no scientific value beyond its membership in a class. This is because science is especially interested in studying repeatable events — events whose existence is, paradoxically, not bound to a particular time or place. It would be superstitious to scientifically value any particular rat, because the future will always yield more rats.

The problem is that the reason people value historical artifacts is quite different from the reason they value objects that are useful for forming and validating scientific theories. In both cases, the central task (if not the ultimate goal) involves learning empirical facts about the world. But where scientific facts are repeatable, available for verification by anyone anywhere, a historical event happens only once, and then is gone. (The two qualities that Kelly concedes might make an artifact legitimately valuable — age and rarity — are in fact only valuable in a historical sense; their value seems scientific simply because it can be quantified.)

This is the rub of history: we can’t go back and see it again for ourselves, because it already happened. So we tell stories, and we remember. But we worry that we will forget; and we worry that the next generation will not believe us — or that they will believe, but not feel, because it didn’t exist for them as it did for us. Perhaps we worry that, after enough time, even things that happened to us, and people we knew, will begin to seem less real — because even for us they don’t exist now as they once did.

World Trade Center rubble (via Daily Mail)

And so we demand tangible, physical evidence that history actually happened. Ernest Hemingway is just a name on a book; the closest we can come to experiencing and verifying the real existence of the historical person is standing in his study, touching his typewriter. It becomes easy for those of us who were not living in New York or D.C. or Shanksville, and especially for the children too young to remember, to disbelieve the events of 9/11 on some level — to think it really was just a movie that played out on TV. Left, the wedding ring worn by Bryan Jack, a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Right, his wife’s ring. (From a New York Times story on 9/11 relics.)It is easier to believe and feel the weight of it when one sees the hole in the ground, or holds a piece of twisted metal.

Kelly notes in a comment that we may value a watch that belonged to our father or a necklace that belonged to our mother because it has some “intangible, spiritual, ineffable quality that would be absent in another unit.” But there is nothing ineffable about it: the watch belonged to our father, the necklace to our mother, while the others did not. These are hard, empirical facts — nothing superstitious or supernatural about them. And the objection that a historical fact does not reside in an object is backwards: the whole point is that it was the object that resided in history.

But the curious thing about artifacts is not just that they reside in events, but that they also reside outside of events, becoming altered by them but persisting beyond them. Artifacts are the precipitations of history. They form a bridge between the past and the present in a way that our own transience and finitude cannot. This is why we are interested in artifacts, and especially in their provenance: not because we value authority as proof of history, but just the opposite, so that we can step beyond taking other peoples’ word, and get as close as possible to personal knowledge of history — of events that happened and people that lived, but are forever gone.


The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.
—Walker Percy

At Ground Zero in New York now stands the National September 11 Memorial, built around the footprints of the Twin Towers. If we are to take Kelly’s argument seriously, then the design, even existence of this memorial is a travesty, a voodoo incantation to nothing. Why does it preserve the footprints of the towers — the space around objects that do not exist, in which nothing now resides because they reside in nothing? Why, indeed, is the memorial located at Ground Zero — which is not especially old, and surely cannot, especially now that the memorial is built over it, yield much new empirical information? Why is it built where the events actually happened and not in some other part of Manhattan — or, for that matter, in Trenton or Boise or São Paulo? Why do we remember at all?

Beware what is afoot when someone comes crying that he has shined the brightest of lights on human affairs, and found that he cannot see in it something everyone else does. There is a good chance he has simply blinded himself.


The footprint of one of the World Trade Center buildings (Mary Altaffer/AP, via The New York Times)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Transhumanists: The Once and Future Christians?

Charles Stross recently claimed that he had found some roots for transhumanism in the relatively obscure Russian Orthodox writing of the idiosyncratic Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. Stross provocatively asks:

So. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity? You decide!

I would be more cautious than Stross seems to be about claiming any discernible intellectual influence here. But, influence or not, there are indeed interesting likenesses, and those (along with the striking differences) can illuminate some of the perennial aspirations that transhumanism builds on, at the very least turning our attention away from questions of mere technological feasibility.

In that vein, I just finished a novel from 1884 that contained the following passages:

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes ... what a monotonous store of meadows and trees, what a commonplace display of mountains and seas!

In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture....

There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old crone has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible.

The book is Joris-Karl Huysman’s à Rebours, translated (not very literally) in the English version from which the above quote is taken as Against Nature. It is considered one of the minor classics of French Decadence. I’d be surprised if any transhumanist luminaries had actually been influenced by this book, or by the Decadents in any fashion, but the underlying similarities hardly need to be belabored. Nor do I think they are intellectually accidental.

The Decadents, like transhumanists, seem to have believed in the unrelieved grimness of human life. Where the Decadents thought culture was at a standstill, the transhumanists care not a whit for it, that battle having been lost. In a decaying world where everything was permitted, the Decadents found it hard to find anything worth doing (including eating, drinking and being merry).

Transhumanists have a more crusading mentality, but it points in the same direction as Against Nature. For the fictional Des Esseintes abandons civilization (that is, Paris) and undertakes a series of strange and refined aesthetic experiments on the assumptions articulated above. (Seasteading, anyone?) He works hard, and not without technological assistance, to achieve the ideals he has set for himself, just as transhumanists would have us work hard to be the very best we can imagine ourselves (if we have selves) to be.

Here’s the bad news from the transhumanist point of view. Des Esseintes is a broken man by the end of the book. Worse yet, eight years after writing this minor classic of the Decadent genre, Huysman found himself, rather more to his own surprise than not, a devout Catholic. Contempt for nature can lead in unexpected directions. Who knows what is in store for our transhumanist friends?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Immortality, pro and con

Two popular articles on radical life extension have recently been making the rounds — dueling articles, in a sense, in dueling publications.


Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life

First, Sonia Arrison, H+/World Transhumanist Association board member and one of the founders of Singularity University, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on longevity, presumably a snippetized version of her upcoming book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. The article is a lengthy litany of the same basic longevity claims that have been made for years — worms, rats, and monkeys on restricted diets, social-science data about changes in marriage and Social Security if lifespans were greatly extended, etc. — followed by an ethical analysis on the subject. The analysis does not consider whether any of the aforementioned potential social changes — for instance, increased divorce rates (perhaps intentionally facilitated by “sunset clauses” in marriages) and periods of living alone, which even social scientists acknowledge as harmful to individual and social metrics of wellbeing — could be disruptive or otherwise bad. In fact, the crux of the ethical analysis at the end seems to be: “Arguments against life extension are often simply an appeal to the status quo.” Hmm. Could arguments for life extension then often simply be an appeal against the status quo? Perhaps, then, an ethical analysis either way deserves a bit more fleshing out than the 105 words of meditation Arrison expends upon it here. Maybe that is in her book, but I wouldn’t say this article promises much for it.

On the other side, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Stephen Cave (also author of the forthcoming book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization) discusses the premise of the TV show Torchwood: Miracle Day (the new fourth season of the British TV show Torchwood), in which all of humanity suddenly becomes immortal. This piece is much more philosophically serious. But it makes an old and on its own rather inadequate argument: “our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality,” and so we need death to motivate our value systems and our personal drives to action. Cave also adds in a novel sprinkling of social-scientific research to his article to give it a sheen of scientific authority. Still, the force of his argument is tantamount to trying to make lemonade out of existential despair. At any rate, as wild as immortality premises inherently go, this one is particularly outlandish; a more serious inquiry would look at a gradual scenario like the one in Arrison’s article, in which we can watch the social fabric progressively unweaving (or uplifting — your mileage may vary).

UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Torchwood: Miracle Day is not a new TV series in its own right, but a new season of the existing British TV show Torchwood.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Varieties of Transhumanist Experience

My last post, “Seven Scenarios for the Decline of Transhumanism,” prompted a number of comments. One in particular seems to get at the spirit of the general criticism of the others, and so to merit a response. Commenter gwern notes:

It doesn’t need to win on every possible front against every possible enemy. The overall trend is what matters.

The question is, what “it” are we talking about? If nothing else, the comments on this post, and on this blog generally, suggest something that people both inside and outside the transhumanist movement have long been aware of: it would be more accurate to speak of “transhumanisms” rather than “transhumanism,” at least to the extent that the latter implies a degree of unity that does not in fact exist.

Plainly one can consider oneself a transhumanist and readily disavow what somebody else considers transhumanism. I am not, for the moment, attempting any criticism of this sectarianism; but it does mean that it is hard to discern an “overall trend” because the most significant trendline for one transhumanist may be pointless to another. Hence my effort at disaggregation: my aim was to highlight the technologies that self-identified transhumanists typically use to suggest how the seeds for their desired future are already being sown in the present. Will it make no difference if these technologies don’t take off?

But perhaps I am making things too difficult. Perhaps one can just say that transhumanism is all about using our seemingly ever-increasing powers over nature to take control of human evolution — using our intelligence to build a better human being or to transcend humanity altogether. For the sake of unity, we will try to avoid defining “better,” and let each decide for himself (although, as James Hughes has acknowledged, not all transhumanists are this libertarian). At any rate, if we operate at this level of admittedly problematic generality, then what is the “overall trend”? Looked at in this way, the tide does seem to be coming in for transhumanism: we do indeed seem to have ever increasing power over nature. So much for those cranky “bioconservatives”?

Not exactly. For, at the moment, anyway, when it comes to building a better human being or transcending humanity altogether, there is no trend strictly speaking, because nobody actually knows how to do it. It is a narrowly held dream, an aspiration, a hope, a wish — not a trend. And even if transhumanist dreams or aspirations are held by increasing numbers of people, the mere aggregation of dreams is not sufficient for turning them into realities. Of course, various people have various thoughts about how the dream might be turned into a reality, but these remain but big ideas. A day may come when one of those big ideas bears fruit, and the time of men will begin to pass away. But this is not that day.

I acknowledged at the start of my previous post that transhumanism may in some sense never disappear. But that does not mean it has to grow. So that is why, despite gwern’s rolling eyes, I do not regret having highlighted some small things that could be indicative of the normative aspects of society and culture that might serve to undermine the salience of transhumanism. Sometimes all it takes to wake the dreamer is a gnat in the ear.

Monday, August 22, 2011

“Fixed” — A New Documentary on Disability and Transhumanism

I recently attended a rough-cut screening of Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, a new documentary by filmmaker Regan Brashear. Her film tackles the vexed relationship between transhumanists and disability advocates.

The film is framed around interviews with a number of members of the transhumanist, bioethics, disability, and robotics communities, such as Rodney Brooks, James Hughes, and Marcy Darnovsky. But it focuses primarily on three figures, each of whom is disabled (apparently all by paraplegia [SEE UPDATE]): John Hockenberry, an accomplished journalist and a Distinguished Fellow of the M.I.T. Media Lab; Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethicist at the University of Calgary; and Patty Berne, a disability and LGBT activist.

Through these interviews, Fixed weaves a subtle and challenging story. If it has a specific conclusion you are meant to take away, it is not interested in simply presenting it and telling you to believe, but nonetheless you can’t come away from it without your thoughts on these issues deepened. What the film presents is the paradox that comes from entering into any other person’s life — the discovery of how profoundly different we each are, and yet how essentially the same.

That tension between sameness and difference is particularly crucial to understanding how transhumanism relates to disability. As the film shows, transhumanists seem keen to co-opt the disability movement, arguing that people with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are the first cyborgs, and that they show why we should embrace departure from “normal.” The film gives the impression that this is only a rhetorical move by transhumanists, who are less interested in honoring and respecting the disabled than in using them as a steppingstone on the path to self-modification and techno-transcendence.

That much is obvious; but what’s so challenging about Fixed is that transhumanists and disability advocates (some of whom are the same people) can’t seem at all to figure out how to feel about each other — and don’t seem to realize it. “Abolish normal” and “Embrace difference” seem to be the common rallying cry of both movements. Yet many of the disability advocates in this film seem to think that this is a cry against transhumanists even more than against the strictures of society itself.

“Transhumanism is just the logical extension of ableism,” says one interviewee, and many seem to agree that the quest for ever more strength, intelligence, and ability, will devalue the lives of the disabled. And indeed, where John Hockenberry and others are seen praising how happy, valuable, and loved by their families are people with Down syndrome, the film also shows a discussion between James Hughes and Gregor Wolbring in which Hughes claims:

Our society is far too ready to encourage parents who have disabled children to bring them into the world, with this logic of “You know, oh, I have a Down syndrome child, and he’s the greatest gift to my life, and he’s had so many special gifts.” Well, if you want to just have a child to enrich your family, why don’t you get a dog?

The charge that the lives of the disabled will be devalued, even discarded, by those who celebrate their own tolerance is far from hypothetical. (Note that Gregor Wolbring, an accomplished scientist and eloquent speaker, is paraplegic due to being a “thalidomide baby” — so a little advance in prenatal diagnosis of the sort that the enlightened Hughes calls for might have averted the burden of Wolbring’s existence.)

There are useful distinctions on these issues that are not made by any of the interviewees in this film: between “normal” as inclusive versus exclusive; between difference as given versus chosen. Without these, it remains unclear what might come of the relationship between transhumanism and disability — whether “tolerance” might not end up being perverted into the rallying cry of the powerful against the weak. But Fixed offers a fascinating and insightful look into the lives of the people for whom these questions are more than academic.

I hope the project will get to see completion, and the film will have a public release. If you’re interested, you can help the film reach that goal at its Kickstarter page. And for more reading on this subject, see Caitrin Nicol’s “At Home with Down Syndrome” in our pages.


UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by filmmaker Regan Brashear that I’ve gotten some things wrong about Fixed in this post. So I’d like to clear a few things up about this post.

First, contrary to my claim, the three people featured in the documentary are not all paraplegics. The version of the film I saw doesn’t state the nature of their disabilities; I simply inferred this because the film offers some glimpses into the personal lives and struggles of these figures, including that all appear to lack use of their legs. Because the film includes these personal elements, it seemed important to mention them, though I did not mean to imply that any of the people mentioned should be defined by their disabilities.

I should also make clear that my parenthetical comment about the “burden” of existence of one person with a disability was meant ironically; one of the things the film’s main interviewees all suggest is that if we view the lives of disabled persons this way, then the fault lies in ourselves.

The larger problem, though, is that I may have given the misimpression that the film shared my own particular critical stance on its subject. I meant to make clear that the film, in the version I saw, does not seem to be pushing any particular stance towards transhumanism one way or the other, but neither is it simply informative; the ideas and persons presented are challenging. More to the point, I didn’t sufficiently emphasize that many of the people presented in the film seem pretty clearly to be pro-enhancement, and so one could reasonably interpret the film itself as having either a pro- or anti-enhancement message, or something more agnostic. So, to be clear, the film presents both sides of this story; my aim was to indicate that there is one side we ought to find much more compelling.

Most importantly, it may not have been sufficiently emphasized in my post that the version of the film I saw was unfinished. So, I hope my commentary will be viewed in that provisional light. I maintain that the film offers an insightful and compelling look into the relationship between transhumanism and disability advocacy, and will challenge anyone who views it to think more deeply about ideas like “disabled,” “normal,” and “enhancement.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Real Human Future


Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looks through a window of the International Space Station. Image courtesy NASA.
When I was growing up, this image was science fiction. Even now it is not at all clear what kind of future the accomplishments it represents will have. But here is an illustration of an extension of human ability and experience which represents a fuller realization of our inherent human potential. That is surely part of what gives the photograph its beauty. It would be a shame if such a promising start were allowed to go nowhere.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seven Scenarios for the Decline of Transhumanism

Many of the things that transhumanism aspires to, like greatly extended life or special abilities, are not really new; expressing dissatisfaction with the human condition by rejecting some of its limits seems to be a perennial human possibility. So it is possible that something like transhumanism at least will never die, so long as there are people in the world who can imagine things being different from what they are. However, in its current manifestation it may be subject to just the sort of decline into quaint obscurity that has been the fate of previous versions of its ideas. So, in the helpful spirit of Kyle Munkittrick’s “When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism” I would like to present seven scenarios that would conduce to its growing irrelevance.

1. Recent concerns about too-skinny models, increasing interest in exposing Photoshopped versions of already-beautiful people, and of course the constant use of celebrity plastic surgery as a topic for satire suggest that there is a broad undercurrent of distrust about body modification that places people too far outside a certain norm. This attitude may not always have the highest motives, but were it to gain momentum it would suggest there would not be much toleration for experiments in more radical bodily modification of the sort that the more “free”-spirited transhumanists celebrate.

2. Whether or not it has a solid rational basis, lots of people are suspicious of genetically modified (GM) foods and the businesses that produce them. For many foods, having no GM ingredients has become something to advertise. If this resistance grows, it is hard to imagine how people who will not eat a GM corn chip will rush right in and have their prospective progeny genetically tweaked.

3. In a similar vein, the problems of in vitro fertilization and allied technologies are getting increasing attention, as evident in The Wall Street Journal excerpting Holly Finn’s The Baby Chase, or the California Independent Film Festival Best Documentary Award going to Eggsploitation, which exposes some of the risks to health and autonomy created by the infertility industry. If all that emerges from this attention is even a more balanced approached to questions of fertility, it will be bad for transhumanism’s wholehearted aspiration to technologize reproduction.

4. If Wikipedia is to be believed, cryonics businesses have a hard time staying alive (so to speak), which may have something to do with the fact that the number of people who chose this method of disposing of their bodies is pitifully low. A well-publicized meltdown at a cryonics facility, particularly one that could be linked to financial weakness, might go a long way to putting this genie back in the bottle.

5. The imperatives of innovative medical equipment design and academic fashion being what they are, it is not hard to imagine that the current rage for neuropsychological research — which, however premature scientifically, seems to be a good fit in attitude with transhumanist aspirations for “uploading” — will fade away as young, ambitious researchers and inventors seek to make their own marks on the world. Of course, what replaces it may be yet more dogmatically materialistic, but you never know — after all, during the reign of radical behaviorism in the 1950s, who would have predicted that its philosophical vacuity would actually dethrone it in just a few short years?

6. Japan supposedly needs robots to care for its aging population, which has spurred a good deal of effort in robotics and AI there. Yet it turns out that the Japanese people are not so fond of the idea of being taken care of by robots after all. Widespread commercial failure, and/or some noteworthy failures in human-robot relations — especially under circumstances of tight national budgets and slow economic growth — could slow research and development in this area and push it in the direction of other technological dead ends, like the Concorde supersonic transport.

7. Once upon a time progressives were certain that the direction of history was on the side of universalism and increasingly inclusive human solidarity. For better and for worse, that is hardly obvious today. Should the present climate of global opinion, which has enough trouble extending political and legal recognition to unambiguously human beings, continue, it hardly seems likely to extend the circle of such recognition to nonhumans.

I’m not myself a fan of all of the tendencies I have called attention to here, but as a general rule it is important to distinguish between how things are and how one wishes them to be. Otherwise one ends up with a relatively juvenile belief that wishing will make it so. The aura of inevitability that transhumanism likes to cultivate (as says Michael Anissimov: “I will intervene in my own essence. If you try to stop me — good luck.”) is not one of its intellectual strong points, and has almost nothing to do with the real world., which is rife with conflicting possibilities.

UPDATE: See a follow-up post here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Humanist confused

Late last year, Fred Baumann offered in the pages of The New Atlantis a depiction of the complicated relationship between humanism and transhumanism. It is a wonderful essay, and we will have more to say about it here on Futurisms before too long. Meanwhile, though, I noticed that the new issue of The Humanist magazine has a book review that touches on transhumanism, and I thought it worth a brief comment here.

For those who don’t know, The Humanist is a publication of the American Humanist Association, a group with stridently anti-religious views. The twentieth-century humanist movement, of which the American Humanist Association is a part, considers itself a true heir to the Enlightenment. You can see this all over the group’s literature, which lauds science as “the best method for determining” knowledge of the world and “for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.” Science can also “inform” our “ethical values.”

I wonder if contemporary humanists have given much thought to the tensions between science and some of the other things they embrace. For example, I wonder what today’s vocally atheistic humanists would make of Joel Garreau’s article “Environmentalism as Religion.” And I wonder what they would have to say about the profoundly anti-human eugenics movement, which prided itself on its scientific rationalism but would seem to offer us a terrible warning about how scientistic ideology can trample on the “inherent worth and dignity” of human beings. (An old version of the humanist manifesto, dating back to 1973, did concede that “science has sometimes brought evil as well as good” — but the next version of the manifesto cut that bit.)

A thoughtful humanist truly concerned with understanding and protecting human dignity might also want to ask some probing questions of today’s transhumanists. Is transhumanism the ultimate expression of humanism, or is it a kind of rejection of humanism? As far as I can tell, the only time anyone critically challenged transhumanism in the pages of The Humanist magazine was in a letter to the editor in 2004, and even that letter only barely touched on transhumanism.

Which brings us to the book review in the new issue of The Humanist. Written by Jende Andrew Huang, it’s a review of The Techno-Human Condition, the new book by Arizona State professors Dan Sarewitz and Brad Allenby. Huang contends that the authors misunderstand transhumanism, but he doesn’t really explain what they get wrong — except to say that some of the “conversations [about the unintended consequences of human enhancement] that the authors are calling for are already happening in transhumanist circles.”

Then, thinking that he is going in for the kill, Huang offers this:

Though it would almost be petty to harp on a single citation as an example of the authors’ thought processes, I was surprised to see them reference The Religion of Technology by David Noebel. Noebel is the founder of Summit Ministries, which, among other things, offers two-week summer sessions for Christian college students to teach them about five pernicious worldviews: Islam, secular humanism, Marxism, New Age, and postmodernism. As Noebel teaches it, the Christian worldview has fueled every great scientific advance and leap of knowledge in history, until Charles Darwin wrote On the Origins of Species in 1859, and scientists turned away from God toward both evolution and morality-free atheism, a shift that has since allowed society to run amok. It would be an understatement to say that most of what he writes cannot be assumed as objective or grounded in historical fact. Referencing Noebel as a reliable source on the thoughts and beliefs of seventeenth-century scientists is problematic, to say the least (though I suppose if we removed “applied reason” from the conversation, then we wouldn’t need to worry about letting facts get in the way of things).

Unfortunately for Huang, the entire premise of this paragraph is wrong. The book The Religion of Technology was written not by David A. Noebel, the minister Huang decries, but by the late David F. Noble, the Canadian historian and critic of technology. Huang thinks he has found a glaring problem with Sarewitz and Allenby’s approach to transhumanism, but the problem here is Huang’s own — and it’s a lapse that a few seconds of googling could have obviated.

At any rate, we would be glad to hear if there are folks in the contemporary humanism movement who have doubts about the wisdom of transhumanism. Or does their faith (so to speak) in science run so deep that they are disinclined to question any project that seems as squarely scientific as the transhumanist project does?

UPDATE — In case you were wondering whether the authors may have misspelled Noble’s name and thereby unintentionally misled Huang, here is a scanned in version of the paragraph on page 18 (at least in the advance galleys that I own) of Sarewitz and Allenby’s book:



UPDATE II — Huang has e-mailed us the following reply to this post:

Thanks for pointing out my mistake! It’s especially embarrassing because I know “Doc” David A. Noebel, by virtue of having take one of his summer sessions at Summit Ministries when I was in college (you can read about my impressions here.)

My time at Summit is one reason I highlighted the citation of what I thought was Doc Noebel’s book. I had done a quick web search and thought I’d “confirmed” that it was the Noebel from Summit. Clearly, I was mistaken. However, if you omit that paragraph, the rest of the review still stands. My comments regarding Doc Noebel are hardly the crux of my argument that you wish it to be. That paragraph was more like icing on an already delicious cake.

I’m glad you’re reading (and hopefully enjoying) The Humanist magazine. After seeing your commentary about humanism, I would implore you to read the magazine with more of an open mind. Your characterization of humanism hardly befits the serious discussion I would assume your journal is trying to have about these complex issues. It’s unlikely you’d find many humanists willing to engage in serious dialogue with you about these topics, when you’re still questioning what humanists think about eugenics.

Clearly, I disagree with Mr. Huang about his review; I think that it did not seriously engage with Sarewitz and Allenby’s book, and that it did little to explain what they got wrong on transhumanism — but I will leave that to readers of the book, of Huang’s review, and of my post to judge.

However, I would invite Huang, or any readers who consider themselves part of the humanist movement, to elaborate on the point Huang makes in his last sentence. What do humanists think about eugenics? I did a little googling before writing this post, focusing especially on the website of The Humanist and the American Humanist Association, and all I found was a glancing reference to eugenics as a "downside[] and absurd offshoot[]" of freethinking, and a blog post that in passing called eugenics "infamous." I am happy to assume that humanists abhor eugenics, and I am happy to assume that they really care about protecting human dignity (a notoriously difficult term to understand and define). I just want to understand how they reconcile their appreciation of science as a source of knowledge and even ethical insight with the fact that it gave rise to the eugenics movement. The eugenics movement considered itself impeccably scientific, and its proponents used the latest scientific knowledge to justify their preferred policies. If there are books, essays, or blog posts by humanists that explain how they think through this problem, I would be glad to read and link to them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?

Michelangelo’s David

Next up in my coverage of the Alasdair MacIntyre conference is a talk by Irfan Khawaja of Felician College, addressing the question of whether we should judge moral character based on appearance. More specifically, as he puts it, “Does focal visual perception ever disclose evidence relevant to judgments about moral character, where the relevant aspect of moral character is under the agent’s control?” This question is in response to MacIntyre’s argument in Dependent Rational Animals (1999) that appearance is likely to mislead, especially when it comes to the disabled and disfigured.

Khawaja outlines the major arguments for and against. On the side that a person’s appearance is not (or should not be) relevant to judging his or her character:

- The projectivist argument: Believing that a person’s appearance is relevant to his character assumes that there is such a thing as good and bad appearance. But standards of beauty, and appearance more generally, are highly culturally bound, making it impossible to come up with universal norms. (I’m guessing this is called the “projectivist” argument because it claims that we wrongly project our own culture’s ideas of beauty onto others.)

- The mismatch argument: Physical appearance is almost entirely a matter of natural endowment, or of circumstances beyond one’s control. People can work a little bit with what they are given, but cannot change the facts about their endowments. So moral character and natural endowments are ontologically different.

- The danger argument: The notion that appearance is connected to moral character has been at the root of destructive social trends, from racism, to our modern cult of beauty, to sexual objectification, and so on.

On the “pro” side:

Chief Bone Necklace
of the Oglala Lakota, 1899.

- The appropriateness argument: There are virtues of social appropriateness, which include matters of dress, cosmetics, and other standards of appearance. Judging whether we comport with these standards, or fail or neglect or choose not to comport with them, is relevant to judging character. (This is the Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. Dear Prudence argument: “We care because we’re group-living social animals, and there are certain accepted codes of behavior in various settings.”)

- The concomitants argument: Good character leads to happiness, which has an appearance, which can be judged visually. Likewise for bad character.

- Common-belief argument: It is often thought that portraiture uniquely reveals the character of the person depicted. Consider the adage that painters show us how the face at any age may be revealed as the face the subject of the portrait deserves.

Khawaja’s purposes for the talk were just to outline the terms by which we might approach the question, but he indicates briefly at the end that he doesn’t think the “pro” arguments hold up, at least not very strongly, and so we should not judge a person’s character based on his or her appearance. Or, he says, if there is some connection between the two, it is so weak that we should make sure such judgments stay in the private sphere (or spheres, as it were).


This is a dense and complicated subject, on which Khawaja has written a lengthy paper, and I haven’t given full justice to his account here — probably I’ve misunderstood parts of the argument too. That said, I think Khawaja is a bit too quick to dash the intuitive connection between appearance and character, despite having well presented the case for it. Part of what he seems to be after with this talk is something very important: the “danger” argument he described only begins to hint at just how dangerous is the idea of pre-judging, or passing final judgment, on a person’s character based on his or her appearance.

Particularly relevant today is the “cult of beauty” he mentions: we assign inordinate status to people who, through no effort of their own, are born beautiful, while the plain or unattractive are disadvantaged. Something he didn’t mention in the talk that I find particularly bothersome, and that is as old as time but probably worse than usual today, is our tendency to react with distaste towards the elderly, and disgust towards the disabled. These are all reactions we would do well to shake ourselves of — but I think the answer is not to ignore our evaluations of appearance, but to teach ourselves to treat them with initial hesitance, and to learn how to better cultivate them.

First, the “concomitants” argument deserves more emphasis. It’s not just that happiness might indicate a life well lived, which can be a sign of good character. People are very good at reading facial expressions — especially within their own cultures, but many expressions have been found by anthropologists to be universally recognizable. And there are greater depths to facial expressions that strongly indicate personality, and so character. For example, there is a subtle but apparent difference between how happiness looks on the face of a person when it comes from kindness, charity, and good humor as opposed to when it comes from smugness, greed, and pridefulness. One of the functions of portraiture is to highlight the differences between these.

There are many other aspects to appearance, of course, that are relevant to judging character. When you consider a word like “comportment,” it becomes clear how difficult it is to strictly separate appearance from behavior, and behavior is clearly relevant to judging moral character. At one point, Khawaja noted that he teaches criminal justice majors, and has found that law enforcement organizations and the public alike think cleanliness and neatness in appearance are related to trustworthiness in enforcing the law. But he doesn’t think this connection necessarily holds: certainly there is no reason that a person who looks scruffy or unshaved cannot be trustworthy.

I asked him whether police officers should wear uniforms, and he said yes, but only so they are easily identifiable as police officers. In effect, he argues that while we do have standards of social appropriateness when it comes to appearance, we should not, at least not as a matter of policy or practice. Should doctors wear uniforms, then, I ask? He says no, but the Q&A ends before I get a chance to follow up.

U.S. Army ceremonial uniforms

I think the matter becomes more clear when you consider comportment in the military. Militaries place a strict emphasis on discipline in all aspects of appearance — neat uniforms, clean haircuts, rigid, formal salutes, and so forth. Are these merely a means of signaling conformity to the standards of a group? If so, are they superfluous to understanding and acting in accordance with those standards? Or might participating in a set of rituals exclusive to one group actually be an important means of inducing a person to actually reason and act as if he were a member of the group and its traditions? (And isn’t becoming a member of some tradition or practice crucial, on MacIntyre’s account, to exercising virtue?)

Similar points can be made — though they have to be done carefully, as we will see — about the way people shape their appearances more generally, including the way they choose to dress and use cosmetics, especially as an exercise of style. These can also rightly be seen as aspects of the way individuals embrace the beauty of the human form, and display their possession of it, in all its varieties — which is something we should be attuned to and celebrate.


But the more important point for this discussion is hinted at in a position MacIntyre outlines in After Virtue: appearance is never purely a matter of aesthetics. Visual perception always depends on theories — and might this not include theories about other people? Put simply: doesn’t the way a person appears change as you get to know him? At a basic level, when you come to admire or love someone, they become more pleasing in appearance, and when you come to dislike or hate someone, they become displeasing. (Deeper contours of character, one might think, could also be revealed in appearance as you get to know someone.)

I would contend that these are good and just responses. In fact, they provide the basis for believing that attractiveness (and attraction) is not solely a matter of appearance. Holding this idea does justice to the notion that a person, not just in appearance but in character, can be “beautiful” or “ugly.” It takes us away from what Khawaja rightly notes is a false idea that we all do or should evaluate the beauty of others in the same way. (If this were true, it would imply, among other things, that everyone who tells his or her spouse that he or she is the most beautiful person in the world is lying, except for one.)

This idea could also have the specific effect of teaching us to treat our initial evaluations of appearance to be suspect but capable of refinement, in the same way we do evaluations of character itself. Our reaction to people who are disfigured should not be to feel disgust and then decide whether to legitimize or ignore our disgust; rather, it should be to humanize our response to the person himself such that we can experience his appearance as beautiful rather than disgusting.

Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1979.

This seems to be central to the value of portraiture — as Khawaja mentioned, and as Charles Rubin has insightfully discussed on this blog. It is not coincidental that some of the best portrait and figure painters choose as their subjects not the most conventionally beautiful human subjects, but ones that might be considered plain or unattractive. The Helga paintings of Andrew Wyeth are a particularly famous example.

There is a deeper point about appearance here, both for and against the idea of linking it to moral character: probably a lot of what is at stake in a person coming to “deserve” the face he has is that people are treated as if their character were linked to their appearance, whether they deserve it or not. Naturally beautiful people probably tend to be treated better in life than others, and so are more prone in the first place to have a pleasant disposition, whereas someone who is disfigured may become bitter as a result of his likely treatment.

But, of course, crucial for character is how we fare with things that are beyond our control, including our own natures. So in someone who is aesthetically beautiful, unkindness to others may indicate an exceptionally weak character, while in someone who is disfigured, affability and cheer may indicate an exceptionally strong character. (And both character traits would, and should, cause us to treat and view the person contrary to how we might otherwise be prone based on their raw appearance.)


I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is the lesson about transhumanism: Khawaja seems to be continuing what I consider a basically noble progressive project teaching that, to paraphrase the famous line, a person should not be judged based on the color of his skin (or his immediate attractiveness) but on the content of his character. But once we say that a person’s physical form, particularly his appearance, not only can but should be a matter of his total control, we perversely then should judge a person based on superficial aspects of appearance. We can now legitimately find distaste at an ugly person for not having the good sense or the courage to slice and dice her face to conform to others’ standards of beauty. The same point applies not only to attractiveness, but to things like skin color and other aspects of race, not to mention novelties of self-modification.

Social pressures that already induce people to focus excessively on the most immediate aspects of their appearance now become imperatives to exact more permanent changes on the body, whether through plastic surgery or implants or genetic modification. It’s a difficult distinction to make, but one could argue that this is the point at which a person’s concern with his or her own appearance crosses from a potentially good exercise in exploring and displaying the beauty of the human form to an implicit rejection of that form.

This is not just hypothetical, but already becoming a reality. As we’ve noted here before, transhumanists like Kyle Munkittrick have celebrated Asians carving their faces up to look more like white people (a continuation of the early-twentieth-century trend in which blacks were encouraged to chemically straighten their hair so they would appear more white), while many transhumanists celebrated a young woman who self-mutilated through implants as a supposed sort of self-expression.

It’s worth asking how we ought to regard the character of someone who looks aesthetically beautiful due only to non-reconstructive cosmetic surgery and other elective enhancements. If there seems to be something of a cultural distaste arising for people who look too “fake” and “plastic,” perhaps it is because we sense that there is something inauthentic — not only in their appearance but in their characters. This notion indeed seems to throw some cold water on the idea that transhumanist ambitions are truly a means of liberating the self, when it is perhaps closer to the truth to say that they shackle it.

[NOTE: Prof. Khawaja has promised to send in a response to this post. I’ll put that up as a new post and add a link here when it comes through.]