Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

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.]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Manned Space Exploration Goes West: Oklahoma, OK!

Robotic space exploration is better than no space exploration at all, and the Mars Rovers have proven to be particularly remarkable machines. Those who made and manage them deserve to be proud. The latest news is that the Opportunity rover has, after seven years, traveled a total of a little over twenty miles, some 50 times its design distance.

That’s quite an impressive accomplishment, but it does help to suggest why manned exploration is likely to have real advantages over robotic vehicles (in the present case, a vehicle that is in fact manned at a distance) for some time to come. Let’s imagine that Opportunity, rather than a bunch of Englishmen, had arrived at Jamestown in 1607 and set out to explore the continent. At the rate of twenty miles every seven years, and assuming a good deal of counterfactual geography (i.e. the ability simply to travel as the crow flies) it would be approaching somewhere in the vicinity of Norman, Oklahoma about now.

It’s not just that humans can move faster and cover more ground while on the ground; someday we might cede that advantage to robots. Rather, the human advantage is to be found in the urgency of discovery and the call of the wild, in risk-taking and on-the-scene ingenuity. Such things drive us to press beyond the frontier of the moment. The next few years are unlikely to be kind to man in space, but we’ll know we have a serious manned space program when the astronauts check in with Mission Control whenever they damn please.

[Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bradey J. Thames on Virtuous Authenticity: I Just Want to be Bad

The first talk I’m covering for the ISME conference is by Bradley J. Thames, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, on “Virtuous Authenticity.”

Thames is seeking to address an area I’ve always found to be a huge gap in MacIntyre’s work: the question of what role the individual plays in living virtuously. There are many aspects to this, but the one Thames specifically seeks to address is: even if we can come to some sort of agreement on what are the good virtues, then where do individuals fit in in following those? Isn’t the virtuous individual reduced to being a product of his society’s dominant modes and norms, however good? (Though Thames does not quite say it, the other option here seems to be choosing to live badly.)

This is where Thames finds value in the work of Charles Taylor, who, like MacIntyre, describes the fractured state of modern philosophy and moral discourse, but unlike MacIntyre finds much in Enlightenment philosophy worth defending and preserving. (Taylor has done this work most notably in his books Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, both of which I highly recommend; the former I’ve used before here to point out some severe myopia on the part of James Hughes about the history of the Enlightenment.)

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For Taylor, authenticity is a modern ideal that has to do with being true to oneself. It is a dedication to recognizing and uncovering one’s potential for originality. The identity of the authentic person must be in some ways self-generated, in contrast to an identity that is determined solely by society or by natural functions.

There are some tensions with this notion of authenticity: for one, it is already a standard that is not the individual’s own. Moreover, whatever our identity is, if we are to be intelligible to others, what must be drawn from the social and natural world from which we are given. Fundamentally, we are so drawn: we are inevitably finite in belonging to, and arising from, a particular social and historical context. So we can in part reject what we are given, but we can’t simply create ourselves out of nothing.

When we speak of “authenticity,” Thames says, we can also mean something that is not a fake or simulacrum. Consider the usage of the word in talking about works of art, or in security verification. It means that something is the thing it purports to be. To be an authentic human, we can then say, is to fulfill the conditions of what it means to be human. This does not mean that if you are inauthentic you are not a human; rather, authenticity is the fulfillment of the potential inherent in an individual as already a certain kind of being. If you fail to be authentic, it means you fail to live up to the potential of what it means to be you.

Thames’s solution to how we should regard authenticity draws on the work of Heidegger, who gives an account of human agency that denies the dichotomies of subject-object. He argues instead that our embodied nature situates us as already a part of our world, prior to any reflection on it. This is the account of the structural features of human life that is required for individuals to be intelligible, either to themselves or to others. It is thus that I cannot consider the significance of my life without understanding how I am constituted out of what I am given: my social context, and my natural being.

Understanding this relationship between an individual and a social context leads naturally to an articulation of individual authenticity within the MacIntyrean picture of the progress of societies and traditions. On MacIntyre’s account, individuals must hold together inherited horizons of intelligibility, with the need to continually challenge and reconceive them, working out their problems and maintaining their ability to answer the questions of how we should live.

Although I’m not entirely clear on the last step in Thames’s argument, he seems to be saying that the virtues are (among other things) what allow the individual to participate in the flourishing of the society of which he is a part. Authenticity is what allows the individual to find his own unique ability to contribute to his society’s flourishing. The potential originality of the individual can become the source of innovation and renewal that every society needs to flourish.

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There is quite a lot going on in this talk, but Thames’s work seems to me a crucial step towards reconciling the rather unitary nature of human goods that is MacIntyre’s concern* with the fantastic strangeness and variation of the individual that motivates much of Enlightenment philosophy. How can we give a consistent account of the notion of the human good or goods while recognizing that each individual will necessarily have goods and ends that are uniquely his or hers?

*I’m simplifying MacIntyre’s position here almost to the point of misrepresenting it. He actually holds that the nature of moral decision-making is that of the tragic dilemma, as in ancient Greek drama: a recognition of multiple goods — not necessarily rival, but conflicting in that each makes a claim upon us, but the finite nature of life and of choice means we cannot attain them all. (See After Virtue, 2nd ed., p. 224.)

It was of course not addressed in Thames’s talk, and didn’t need to be, but I wonder what satisfactory understanding of authenticity, and of the life well lived, can be had when both the naturally and socially given are wholly rejected. Doesn’t self-realization imply realization of something already given? The alternative seems to be the will to power, in which the choices of the self are unlimited, but also wholly arbitrary — lacking any end, and so any meaning.

(By the way, Thames’s account of authenticity is strikingly similar to the brilliant naturalistic account of free will given by Raymond Tallis in the New Atlantis essay “How Can I Possibly Be Free?” He argues that free will progressively emerges and secures more of itself, both for the individual and society, especially through the progress of technology.)

[UPDATE: See the comment section for Thames’s clarifying comments on my account of his talk.]