Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Autonomy and Responsibility

The National Intelligence Council has just published one of its periodic forays into thinking about the future: Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. As even the title suggests, the report is full of carefully qualified projections and scenarios, often noting the ambiguity of technological development—the truism that the same technology can produce both good and bad outcomes depending on how it is deployed. In its relatively brief thematic discussion of human augmentation, however, there is really nothing said about specific downsides of augmentation technologies beyond noting the likelihood of their inegalitarian distribution over the next 15-20 years, a problem which “may require regulation.” Instead, the passage closes with the sentence, “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable.”

Apparently, while it is helpful to anticipate what enhancement technologies might allow in the future, there is nothing to be gained by trying to anticipate what the moral and ethical objections to them might be. Of course, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that such objections will exist, but it is hardly worthwhile to actually attempt to think about them.

This largely symbolic bow to ethics is common enough in such reports, perhaps only to be expected. It is one of those moments we have noted repeatedly at Futurisms, where the debate over human enhancement meets up with our culture’s democratic libertarianism and moral relativism. Plainly, we don’t think this outlook is a sound footing upon which to meet the undeniable challenges of the future.

Indeed, we are hardly short on reasons to think we ought to flee whenever possible from thinking seriously about moral distinctions, in the name of protecting autonomy or free choice. Our decades-long social experiment of eliminating “stigmas” and allowing people more and more to do their own things has contributed to the weakening and impoverishment of families and communities. Belief in what is now being called “neurodiversity” has been a factor in making it harder to get the mentally ill the help they need. If the latest election is any indication, the progressives among us count it a boon when one more casual method to escape from reality is legalized — presumably eventually to be used, like the others, to shore up precarious state finances.

Periodically, some tragic event reminds us of the cost of our laissez-faire morality, and an increasingly ritualized period of introspective mourning will commence, one which probably reflects less well on our ethical sensitivity than we might like to think, even though it serves its cathartic function and we soon return to our nonjudgmental business as usual.

And of course that business as usual is not so bad for those of us who are more of less insulated from its worst effects (even though no insulation is perfect) and therefore have the bourgeois luxury of arguing about the merits of human enhancement. But Global Trends notes as one of its “tectonic shifts” how “individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies...enabling them to perpetuate large-scale violence — a capability formerly the monopoly of states.” Some of these disruptive technologies are of course directly related to human enhancement. Will we have the wherewithal to say “no” or “not you” before these technologies become lethal and disruptive? Why should we expect that, when our flabby moral judgments have so weakened out ability to respond to the ideas that make even some of our present technological capacities dangerous?

Although there is little sign of it prospectively, I would like to believe that eventually, the greater moral challenge will elicit greater moral effort. But recovering what that means will not be easy. It is no sure bet that we will suddenly find the moral strength to deal with powers over nature and ourselves yet greater than what we have now, particularly when those advocating on their behalf will have been complicit in keeping us weak.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Un-Mainstreaming Human Enhancement

Chris Kim @ NYT
America’s Grey Lady, the New York Times, has long been willing to take transhumanist topics seriously, perhaps in some hope that she too will be somehow rejuvenated. Indeed, a recent piece by David Ewing Duncan on human enhancement has something of the aura of a second childhood about it, with its relatively breathless and uncritical account of the various promising technologies of enhancement in the works. There follows the stock paragraph noting with remarkable brevity the safety, distributional, political and “what it means to be human” issues these developments might create, before Duncan really gets to the core of the matter: “Still, the enhancements are coming, and they will be hard to resist. The real issue is what we do with them once they become irresistible.”

Here at Futurisms, we were not unaware that human enhancements may be hard to resist. Speaking only for myself, however, I can add that there are all kinds of things I find hard to resist. It was hard to resist the desire to stay in bed this morning, hard to resist the desire for dark chocolate last night. It is hard to resist the temptation not to grade student papers just yet, hard to resist the urge to make a joke. I’m sure I need not go on. We all face things that are hard to resist on a daily basis. It requires motivation and discipline to resist them, and sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t. Mostly, however, we have it, at least where it counts most, or our lives together would be far more difficult than they already are.

By saying in effect that because enhancements are coming and the “real issue” is what to do about them when “they become irresistible,” Duncan is really saying he sees no reason to resist what is hard to resist, no reason to think that the question of human enhancement might be linked to self-control in any sense other than willful self-creation. That is a pretty strong form of technological determinism. Under the posited circumstances, of course enhancements will become irresistible, because we will have made no effort, moral or intellectual, to resist them. But should that situation arise, how will it be possible to decide “what we do with them”? If the underlying principle is “resist not enhancements” then the only answer to the question “what do we do with them” can be “whatever any of us wants to do with them.” Under these circumstances, even Duncan’s anodyne concerns about issues of safety, distribution, politics and “what it means to be human” will go out the window. After all, it is my body, my life, my money, my choice, my will, my desire, that will be the important things.

Duncan reports that when he asks parents whether they would give their children a memory-boosting drug if everybody else were doing it, most reply yes. But that is hardly interesting; if most people are doing anything, it will be hard for a few to say no. What is more noteworthy is where he begins his questioning:

I have asked thousands of people a hypothetical question that goes like this: “If I could offer you a pill that allowed your child to increase his or her memory by 25 percent, would you give it to them?” The show of hands in this informal poll has been overwhelming, with 80 percent or more voting no.

That is to say, most people he has asked at least say they think they would resist the temptation to give their child such a pill. If these healthy inclinations can be supported by social consensus buttressed by a variety of good reasons, perhaps enhancement will not be so hard to resist after all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Peak Loudness

The Onion gets human enhancement right (audio slightly NSFW):

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

No News Is Good News

While I think the stakes for the upcoming election are pretty high, the past months of media coverage have only increased my conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with our understanding of “the news.” I don’t follow “media studies” much, so the observation that follows may in some circles be a commonplace. But here it is: while we are to believe that there is always something new under the sun, and that an educated human being and a good citizen are to pay close attention to such developments in the news, in fact our fascination with the news causes us to spend a great deal of time and attention on things that are not very important. Within a week, a month, or a year, the vast majority of what appears on TV or in a newspaper will be rightfully forgotten, of interest only to specialists of one sort or another if to anyone at all. The news is for the most part not even the stuff that one will regret one day not remembering; it is the sort of thing that was not worth knowing in the first place.

What we call the news is really just the fractal repetitions of the human condition, the follies and triumphs that are experienced by individuals, communities, cities, states, nations, empires, each at its own scale. Those who are closely touched by these matters must for better and for worse attend to them to the appropriate degree. But our own affairs are just that; most of the time what the news tells about the affairs of others has very little to do with them, and our interest is the interest of the voyeur. In the midst of the flow of events, I am not aware of anyone who has a consistent ability to pick out and highlight those relatively few things that will have enduring or widespread significance. Time does that for us. If we wanted to be serious about “current events,” then nothing would be covered until after it had had a chance to age; we would want our news to be our olds.

What does this point have to do with transhumanism? We’ve noted before in this blog how transhumanism is in many respects a manifestation of some of our more problematic cultural characteristics. If our fascination with the news is unhealthy, then transhumanism shares that ailment, with its love of the new, the novel, whatever appears disruptive. It routinely confuses the latest with the greatest, and mistakes speedy communication of information for knowledge. Like the news, it is subject to thinking that something is important because it is happening right now, under our noses, making its allegedly long view remarkably short-sighted.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Idealizing Childhood

I have to say it was a surprise a few days back to find a link on Drudge for an article that Julian Savulescu has published in Reader’s Digest, of all places. It’s the UK edition, mind you, but all signs on their website point to it being as impeccably middlebrow as its U.S. counterpart. And Savulescu’s piece advocating the moral obligation to screen babies in utero for desirable genetic traits catches just that tone of banal sweet reasonableness which is perfect for the venue, despite the fact that the homepage link provides the heading “The Maverick: Thinking Differently.”

Yet I wonder if this rhetorical effort can ultimately succeed. For the more you try to make it seem obvious that the parental ability to design children is a self-evidently good thing, the more you are inviting people to think about the all-too-often not very pretty parenting choices they see in the real world. Savulescu’s arguments seem completely detached from that world, where it is a problem when parents try to go too far in molding their children into their ideal image. But then again, maybe in the UK there are no parents who are obnoxious at their children’s sporting events, no little-girl beauty pageants, no dance moms living through their daughters, no parental pressure for academic over-achievement. Maybe everybody in the UK raises children with only the most high-minded motivations and principles — or at least maybe those are the kids Savulescu meets at Oxford.

It could be argued that the kind of real-world parents I’m calling attention to are problematic to the extent that they fail to see the unhappiness they are creating in their children, and they would not create that unhappiness if their children were designed from the start to meet their expectations. Precisely at that point we reach the most frightening possibility, of course: parenting as unmediated narcissism, and child as consumer product. So what kind of warranty have you got on that baby?
Image via Emily Strempler

Monday, August 20, 2012

New from The New Atlantis

Also, in case you missed them, The New Atlantis has published a number of articles in recent issues that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Transhumanism Links from Friends of the Journal

Gentle reader, we’d like to share with you a few recent items of interest by contributors to The New Atlantis:

• Robert Zubrin on antihumanism and transhumanism (discussing his new book, Merchants of Despair, from New Atlantis Books)

Alan Jacobs on the hivemind Singularity: “What if the price exacted by the Singularity is the elimination of human individuality altogether, either voluntarily or, if you happen to have retained your individuality at the moment when the playful giants come through, involuntarily?”

• Rita Koganzon on egg donation and manufacturing children

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A World without Weakness

Aside from the opportunity to watch the ever-delightful Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man may not be one of the great superhero reboots. But it is an interesting movie nevertheless for what seems like some thoughtful consideration of transhumanist themes.

“A world without weakness” may not be the explicit motto of any transhumanist group, as it is of the villainous Oscorp and Dr. Curt Connors. But it certainly encapsulates as well as any four-word slogan could an essential transhumanist aspiration. Nature has created us with all kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transhumanists believe, and we would be far better off without them. Dr. Connors’s effort to achieve that goal may not make much scientific sense, but making better humans by using DNA from other animals reflects another not uncommon transhuman trope: think Catman and Lizardman and morphological freedom, or Hans Moravec’s interest in melding uploaded human minds with uploaded animal minds.

So it is noteworthy that these transhumanist aspirations ultimately combine to produce the movie’s dangerous monster. It is perhaps even more interesting that behind Oscorp stands a wealthy, shadowy figure who is using its ostensibly philanthropic program to create a world without weakness as a cover for a quest for personal immortality — just the sort of detail of real-world motivation that transhumanists tend to want to gloss over.

Of course, I may seem to be ignoring that Peter Parker is himself also a transhuman of sorts, and indeed that Connors is like him in at first using his powers in an attempt to prevent harm from coming to others. But the writers give us ample grounds on which to distinguish the two cases.

Peter’s life is just plain messy, full of conflicting inclinations and obligations. From what we see of it, Connors’s home is as sterile as his lab, and the backstory suggests a man who avoids emotional entanglements. Peter remains an all-too-human teenager after his transformation, struggling to try to understand what it means to do the right thing in the face of an unsought-for transformation that, like growing up itself, presents him with unanticipated problems and opportunities.

As he grows into an intelligent reptile, Connors, on the other hand, merely becomes clearer on the implications of the ideology that had driven his deliberate quest all along. His ostensibly compassionate desire to eliminate human weakness when he himself was missing an arm becomes contempt for human weakness when his serum “works.” Eliminating human weakness thus becomes eliminating weak human beings. This same contempt is rarely far below the surface of transhumanism, whose own charitable impulse is founded on avoiding entanglements with what human beings really are.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Game

If you read this blog you may well have already come across the wonderful short film “Sight.” But just in case not:

(hat tip: Ted Rubin)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

We Demand To Be Taken Seriously

Can even the best parody ever surpass self-parody (here or here)?

Tell us what you think.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Remedial Anthropological Extinction Studies

This summer, Brian Hoffstein is attending the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program, and over at the Singularity Hub, he writes that they are “thinking exponentially,” and that this is exciting stuff: “participants have hit the ground running,” and are being repeatedly assured that amazing things are already possible, not to speak of all that is just around the corner. You see, “exponential technologies are powerful, and this power can be harnessed for good.” This power is a reflection of the fact that, in Kevin Kelly’s words, “evolution has evolved its own evolvability,” and that ability introduces a good deal of uncertainty about the future—“thinking about the future is a brain teaser,” opines Mr. Hoffstein. However, “despite the limits we put on ourselves to forecast and predict the future, we have a pretty good understanding of what we can expect in the next couple decades.”

The “limits we put on ourselves”? If he means limits we put on ourselves voluntarily, then one might have thought those were the least of our constraints when forecasting the future (though doubtless they play a role). But never mind, for we have already a pretty good idea about what to expect, because “ ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ For the remainder of the summer, the goal is to distribute the future so we can flourish in the present.”

Oh, to be young again, and to face for the first time those late night bull sessions, taking up the deep existential questions like how to distribute the future so we can flourish in the present!

Actually, we did a fair amount of exponential thinking in my (relative) youth; the seventies were lousy with the stuff. Except back then it was not good news. The likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich wanted us to learn exponential thinking in order to understand why modern civilization was going to destroy itself. You heard then the same arguments you hear today about the special effort we evolutionarily disadvantaged mere human beings need to make to think exponentially. Back then, the claim was that our very survival depended on learning how to do it. Now we are promised it is the route to flourishing.

When I started writing about environmentalism in the eighties, the more I looked into such claims the more they seemed to be a product of questionable data, questionable methods, outright hype if not hysteria, and a very problematic political agenda. So far as I can tell, not much has changed in this respect. Back then, experts lectured about how cutting-edge technologies were destroying us. Now, they lecture about how they will save us.

Or not us, exactly. We are, after all, taking about Singularity University. The transhumanists of the early twenty-first century are preaching the imminent destruction of mankind as fervently as the environmentalists of the late twentieth. The difference is that the transhumanists are rooting for it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bug or Feature?

I came across an amusing juxtaposition recently on the subject of the brain. The first part comes in the form of this video about neuro-enhancement, basically a clever advertisement for the new novel Amped by Daniel H. Wilson (of Robopocalypse fame):

The video is about a hypothetical brain implant that will increase focus, and at the 1:13 mark you will see it “at work” preventing a young boy from daydreaming about riding a dinosaur. (In passing, let me just note also how amazing it is that Wilson, having just written a novel on the subject, professes never to have thought about whether he would want such an implant.)

But then, coming late to the game, I also came across a reference to an April post at the Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog about “The Benefits of Daydreaming”:

A new study published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, suggests that a wandering mind correlates with higher degrees of what is referred to as working memory. Cognitive scientists define this type of memory as the brain’s ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions.

So maybe a wandering mind is better able to focus than a focused mind?

Now, I can almost hear some of our committed transhumanist readers saying, “Well, we want to be focused when we want to be focused and to daydream when we want to daydream, and a real enhancement will obviously allow us to do both.” Fair enough — although lurking not so far beneath the surface of this reasonable-sounding qualification is the voracious desire to have whatever we want whenever we want it that is the mighty if not very mature engine of transhumanist imagination.

And if I were to dare say that these contrasting views of daydreaming suggest transhumanists might face a problem unless they think more carefully about what would really constitute human enhancement and why, then I could pretty well count on being reminded that this is a question we all ought to be able to answer for ourselves. And there’s that mighty engine again....

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Our Chemical Romance

A love pill
Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg have an article in the New Scientist (subscription required) talking about how we need to start taking control of romantic love by pharmaceutically enhancing marriages. By infusing our brains with neurotransmitters like vasopressin and oxytocin, we may be able to “tweak” these neurochemical systems “to create a longer-lasting love” as a way to curb rising divorce rates.

The basic logic underlying their argument is the same as Savulescu’s case for biomedically enhancing human morality: just as evolution did not make us “fit for the future,” so also it did not make us “fit for love.” Once again, our current problems are explained by “discrepancies between our adaptation to a past environment” — what they call the “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness” (EEA) — and “our current existence.”
Savulescu and Sandberg’s specific evolutionary argument in this case is that in the EEA, “people survived for a maximum of 35 years,” so that genes predisposing people to stay married longer than roughly 15 years would not have been selected for, since most marriages would end with death before then anyway. It would seem that we are outliving our natural capacity to love, with the current median duration of marriage being 11 years — “surprisingly close” to the 15 years that we could have expected to live in marital bliss in the EEA.

However, in an article on the topic they wrote in 2008, they observe that “divorce rates peak among younger couples, declining with age,” with the highest rates of divorce found for men and women aged 25-29. If natural selection disfavored the kinds of marriages that did not occur in the EEA, then why are people who are older than the historical “maximum of 35 years” apparently so much better at staying married? Shouldn’t the divorce rate continue to climb as people age past that evolutionary point and their marriages drag on past the typical duration they would have had in the EEA?

Furthermore, how does this evolutionary explanation account for the precipitous rise in the divorce rate since in the 1970s? Or the fact that, among college-educated women, the divorce rate has since returned to the levels seen before this rise? However our evolutionary heritage has affected our contemporary pair-bonding practices, there are many other factors at play here that make the evolutionary forces difficult to discern on their own. Savulescu and Sandberg’s particular evolutionary hypothesis, plausible though it initially sounds, doesn’t hold up to the actual evidence, and doesn’t help to explain human marriage trends and behaviors.

It is worth pointing out something that Savulescu and Sandberg had right in their 2008 paper, though: while they rightly acknowledge the importance of marriage as a social institution for parenting, they generally focus their analysis of the value of marriage on love — the formation of an interpersonal sexual and emotional relationship — rather than on theories that see the value of marriage simply in terms of economic or social utility. However, they end up distorting the meaning and importance of love by crudely reducing it to a biological phenomenon; as important as love is for human pair-bonding, it is not the sort of phenomenon that is easily amenable to scientific study — which greatly undermines the case for technologically manipulating it.
Savulescu and Sandberg begin their argument on the ethics of “love drugs” by combining a crudely reductionist approach with a familiar transhumanist trope—that their radical biotechnological scheme is actually “consistent” with what we have been doing all along:

There is a long history to the use of love potions. Alcohol is the commonest love drug. We have always tried to use chemistry to influence the chemistry between people. Neurolove potions will just be more effective. There is no morally relevant difference between marriage therapy, a massage, a glass of wine, a fancy pink [sic], steamy potion and a pill. All act at the biological level to make the release of substances like oxytocin and dopamine more likely.

Assuming this is true, would the fact that these disparate romantic activities all increase the likelihood of oxytocin and dopamine being released mean that there are no morally relevant differences between them? Perhaps if it were true that these activities could really all be understood as essentially acting “on the biological level” in the same way, then there might not be a reason to see any moral difference between them. But it is obvious that marriage therapy does not “act at the biological level” in the same way that a dopaminergic pill does; in the first case, insofar as the activity of talking about your relationship leads to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, it does so by a complex process of dealing with the real obstacles that impede love, and reminding the couple of the real qualities that make one another lovable — all of which allow for the natural emotional responses associated with love, which do indeed tend to correspond with the release of these neurotransmitters. Pills and “neurolove potions” on the other hand, insofar as they are effective, would start with the release of these neurotransmitters, causing the person to feel the emotional responses associated with love, but not in any direct connection with any of causes that might make these responses meaningful and true — namely, an actual, loving relationship with another person.

The President’s Council on Bioethics addressed this to some extent in Beyond Therapy when they argued that “drug-induced ‘love’ is not just incomplete — an emotion unconnected with knowledge of and care for the beloved. It is also unfounded, not based on anything — not even visible beauty — from which such emotions normally grow.” Savulescu and Sandberg argue that these objections might apply to the inducing of new relationships, but would not to apply to established relationships. That may be partly true: most people would probably find it worse to establish a relationship through drug-induced emotions than it would be to maintain an existing relationship. But similar objections still apply to the latter: severing the connection between the emotion of love and its proper object could still threaten to make a relationship detached from the real circumstances on which such emotions are normally sustained. And if an established relationship has the kinds of problems that would require a “neurolove potion” to keep it going, then maybe it is those problems themselves that need to be addressed. For instance, Savulescu and Sandberg argue that it is basically a good idea for a woman to take love drugs in order to tolerate her husband’s infidelity. Is that really a prescription for personal and moral progress?

Psychopharmaceuticals surely have an important role to play in enabling people with clinical depression and other mood disorders to live well and pursue their happiness; but they become an odious and dangerous tool when they are used as a way to avoid dealing with real problems in the real world.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy Birthday?

One of our crew here at The New Atlantis celebrated a birthday this week, and we were discussing the question of whether transhumanists — especially of the Eliezer Yudkowsky, hyper-rationalist variety — should celebrate birthdays. On the one hand, from a philosophical perspective, they are a barbaric concession to arcane rituals of pre-rational cultures. They are based, moreover, upon a system of non-universal measurement — the arbitrary length of time it just happens to take the planet on which we just happen to be located to rotate around the stellar mass around which it just happens to rotate. What’s so special about occupying the same region of the solar system you did when you crossed through the maternal threshhold? And what about beings who don’t live on planets? What would a universal sentience say?

On the other hand, birthdays suggest the primacy of the individual, who is after all at the center of the transhumanist ethos. However, this suggestion comes by way of noting our icky, evolutionarily inefficient, and arguably tyrannical biological natality — not to mention our mortality. Yikes! It’s all quite dizzying.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Free Willy

On a Mothers’ Day trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the antics of a baby sea otter. The docent explained that it had been found on an Alaskan beach along with its two dead parents, nursed on Pedialyte to stabilize it, and then shipped via FedEx to Pittsburgh, where to all appearances it is thriving.
It is one of those little stories that tells us what a remarkable time and place we live in. For the vast stretch of human history, I’m guessing, a foundling sea otter would have meant some useful fur and perhaps meat (does anybody eat sea otter?). Books like Rascal and Ring of Bright Water suggest that, for some decades in the twentieth century, somebody might have tried to make this otter a pet. Now, a network of commerce, civic institutions, and individual professionals is ready to swoop in and save the critter, at no small monetary cost. It is a privilege to live in a society that can afford to do such unnecessary things, and, on balance, I’m willing to say it represents something we can fairly call progress.
But what is the next step in such progress? The docent did not present a cause of death for the otter’s parents; but plainly, for many, further progress would mean at least making sure that human activities were not the cause. Hence we list the sea otter as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and we can imagine all sorts of schemes to protect it and its habitat. Beyond that, as we have had occasion to discuss on this blog, some would say further progress would mean protecting it from the dangers and pains of nature itself — such as by eliminating animals who prey on them. And then, there are those who imagine that someday “we” — that is to say, our posthuman descendents — will be able to implement the Uplift of sea otters, granting them the gift of rational intelligence.
Now, I think it is fair to say that the consensus position of the vast quantities of science fiction I read as a much younger man in the 1960s and 70s was that in the future there would be no wild animals at all, and that a trip to a zoo might mean a look at exotic species like cats, dogs, and pigeons. The prospect of such a future is still a threatening card to play in the hand of environmentalism. But here is a great example of where extremes meet. For at a certain point, our vision of progress for the sea otter would mean its extinction just as surely as its entire habitat were paved over. The more we imagine ourselves managing the world of the sea otter, the less it is a wild animal, and the less it is a wild animal, the more it seems reasonable to place it within our technological dominion, until even its self-evident joie de vivre is not enough if it can’t tell us all about it.
Plainly, we are on this slope already — the otter I saw will likely spend the rest of its life in a zoo, and I for one will enjoy visiting it there. The question is, how slippery will this slope prove to be? It will be all the slipperier if we fail to note that, like any other good thing, there can be too much progress.
[Image: Sea otter at the Pittsburgh Zoo via flick user mikentiffy]

Monday, April 30, 2012

Don’t Waste Your Time

I just recently got around to seeing Andrew Niccol’s 2011 movie In Time. In the dystopian world the film depicts, people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, but they will die by 26 unless they can earn enough time to keep living, with this living-time also serving as currency. Why and how this system was established are never explicitly spelled out; indeed, in the world of the movie, it seems as though things had ever been thus. No one expresses any nostalgia for a time before time was currency, and however resentful many of the characters may be of the inequality and injustice of the distribution of time, no one ever thinks to challenge the actual use of the anti-aging technology that underlies the whole system. As Emily Beitiks’s review over on the CGS website notes, the film’s central message is a critique of economic inequalities in our own time. A shadowy cartel of bankers controls the world’s time, with its members preserving their opulent lifestyle by oppressing the poor with exorbitant interest rates.
But beyond the movie’s cliché-riddled Robin-Hood steal-from-the-rich narrative, the fact that living-time was used as a currency gave the movie a few more thoughtful moments. Also, the theme of population control — one of the dark undercurrents running through such movements and ideologies as social Darwinism, eugenics, and neo-Malthusian environmentalism — was strongly implied throughout the film. As the despairing time-rich Henry Hamilton tells the movie’s protagonist, Will Salas:
For a few to be immortal, many must die.... Everyone can’t live forever; where would we put them?... The cost of living keeps rising to make sure people keep dying. How else could there be men with a million years while most live day to day? But the truth is, there’s more than enough. No one has to die before their time.
Hamilton, who is 105 years old, has grown tired with life, goes on to tell Will that “the day comes when you’ve had enough. Your mind can be spent even though your body’s not. We want to die. We need to.” Hamilton’s message has clear implications for those interested in radically extending the human lifespan: he reports that some people grow tired of living forever. The idea is not fully fleshed out in the film, and even in Hamilton’s own case we are given reasons to believe that it is guilt over the inequalities of society rather than mere exhaustion with living that drives him to despair. After all, Hamilton doesn’t kill himself in his own wealthy neighborhood; rather, he travels to the slums, spending his time-currency buying drinks for the destitute people his class had long oppressed, in a neighborhood where people with “too much time on their hands” are regularly robbed and murdered by gangsters. Just as these gangsters, called “Minutemen,” are about to “clean his clock” (sorry, but the movie is ham-handed with the punning), Will rescues the seemingly naïve rich man, taking him to an abandoned warehouse where they spend the night sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and Henry explains his intention to die to Will. The next morning, while Will is still sleeping, Henry gives our hero almost all of his time-currency. Hamilton leaves himself just enough time to walk to a nearby bridge and write as a suicide note what is perhaps the only decent play on words in the movie: “don’t waste my time.”
The characters in In Time are largely defined in terms of what their time and mortality mean to them. The strength of the film is the way it explores the meaning of mortality, poverty and oppression among the different classes. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the effect of social class leads the characters to be perhaps too sharply defined in terms of class roles — there’s the tired Robin Hood narrative again — making the film’s message about social justice feel heavy-handed and simplistic.
The poor, who wake up in the morning knowing that they will need to earn time-currency just to survive the day, are willing to take the kinds of risks necessary to really live life to the fullest — and despite their poverty and desperation, many of them show admirable generosity. In contrast, the rich, who could live forever if they “don’t do anything foolish,” are far more anxious about death. They are surrounded by bodyguards, they seem to live only indoors, and they never even take advantage of their beautiful beachfront properties by risking their lives with a swim in the water. Near the film’s climax, the disaffected daughter of a super-rich banker tells her father, “We’re not meant to live like this. We’re not meant to live forever. Although I do wonder, Father, if you’ve ever lived a day in your life.” Living in constant anxiety about death, and attempting to exert rational control over all the circumstances of life in order to unnaturally prolong it, leaves the immortal lives of the time-rich hollow and joyless.
In the movie, the rational control that the rich exert goes so far as draconian population control measures that kill millions of poor people. In the real world, without the time-as-currency conceit, the risk-averse people of today and tomorrow might well find themselves trying to secure their continued existence by controlling their circumstances in other, less evil ways that nonetheless may leave them leading empty, less fulfilling lives. As our ever-insightful New Atlantis colleague Peter Lawler imagines:
We might be looking forward to a future with people blessed by technology with indefinite longevity obsessing over their lack of immortality. Death, having become much less obviously necessary and much more seemingly accidental, might consume our lives. We’ll knock ourselves out like never before in accident-avoidance strategies — maybe spending our lives in in lead houses communicating with our virtual (and so non-threatening) friends with the most advanced forms of social media.
Niccol delivers a similar message with In Time, reflecting on how our technologically mediated mortality profoundly shapes our lives.
[Images © 20th Century Fox]

Friday, April 6, 2012

Alex Knapp Grades Ray Kurzweil’s Predictions

Over at Forbes, Alex Knapp has taken a look at Ray Kurzweil’s technological predictions for 2009 from his 1999 The Age of Spiritual Machines. This is something we were planning on doing last year here on Futurisms, but never got around to — so we’re glad now that we don’t have to, thanks to Mr. Knapp! He finds most of Kurzweil’s predictions to be wrong. Here’s my favorite item:

“Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which had been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvements in the price performance of computing.” Comment: Not only did the tech bubble burst shortly after this prediction was made, leading to a decade of economic stagnation, it’s arguable that more and better computing actually made the financial instruments that caused the financial collapse possible. Wrong in every way.

(See Paul J. Cella for more on how computational mindset in the financial sector can be dangerous.) Kurzweil makes a few good points in his rebuttal, which Knapp graciously posted on his blog — although one should take with a grain of salt Kurzweil’s citation of a detailed report showing his predictions to be highly accurate, given that he doesn’t mention that he himself was the author of the report.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

“Not Necessarily Abnormal, But Certainly Stupid”

I believe Dale Carrico is rather ill-advised to keep using the term “Robot Cultists” to dismissively refer to transhumanists. First of all, the desire for biological enhancement is more common and definitive of transhumanists than is the desire for robots and AI. Second, the cult comparison is not entirely wrong, but mostly. And third, and more to the point, repeatedly talking about “Robot Cultists” just makes him sound as insular as his targets.

Those objections aside, this recent rant of Carrico’s is classic and pretty much spot-on:

While transhumanists like to pretend that the real reason we don’t live in the science fiction fantasy land they pine for is because there are sinister forces abroad in the land who worship disease or are terrified of the idea of living for centuries in sexy model bodies wallowing around in piles of treasure, the truth is that almost nobody on earth doesn’t think it would be swell, caeteris paribus, to live in paradise but few people are idiotic enough to pretend that if they only clap louder this paradise will blossom into spontaneous existence, or, I must add, idiotic enough to join a Robot Cult and pretend that indulging in this kind of wish fulfillment fantasizing but then calling it Science! is somehow not idiotic anymore. Robot Cultists like to paint themselves as brave for devoting their adult lives to daydreaming about how awesome it would be if magic were real, then they like to paint themselves as progressive activists for pretending this daydreaming constitutes some kind of efficacious force for making daydreams real, then they like to rail against phantom armies of supremely powerful mortality-loving disease-loving luddites who presumably stand in the way of the spontaneous emergence of all the magic. Not to put too fine [a point] on it, all of this is quite palpably stupid.

Of course, there is plenty of greed and intolerance and superstition and fear holding back progress and there is plenty of work to be done solving our shared problems through scientific research and democratic reform, but none of that has anything to do with the magical thinking the Robot Cultists are peddling.

Hear, hear. Read the rest of the post here. The main thing I disagree with is the claim at the beginning about paradise: even if the longing is universal, I think very many people would not actually choose to live in utopia were they really given the chance — because they understand that it is an illusion, and not merely for reasons of technical infeasibility. For more on this, see our colleague Caitrin Nicol’s superb essay on utopias, in which she argues that “Seeking to escape chaos and suffering by idealizing the past or the future is, in the end, a rejection of our responsibility to the short bit of time that is ours.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
YearSex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.

Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.

Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.

Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.

One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.

The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The Taco-larity is Near

Folks, prepare yourselves for the yummy, inevitable, yummy taco-pocalypse. So said the news last week, anyway, which saw an exponential growth in taco-related headlines. Three items:

1. A new startup called TacoCopter has launched in the San Francisco area. It beats robotic swords into ploughshares, turning unmanned drones into airborne taco-delivery vehicles. Tacos are choppered in to your precise coordinates, having been ordered — yes — from your smartphone.

2. Google’s self-driving car is turning from project into practical reality. Google last week released a video of its car being used by a man with near-total vision loss to get around. His destinations? The dry cleaner and Taco Bell.

3. But beware: tacos may not always be used for good. In response to the arrest of four police officers in East Haven, Connecticut on charges of harassment and intimidation of Latino businesspeople, the mayor of the town was asked by a local reporter what he was going to do for the Latino community. His response: “I might have tacos when I go home; I’m not quite sure yet.” Watch the comment, followed by four minutes of exquisitely awkward backpedaling and attempts to celebrate all colors of the rainbow. It puts Michael Scott to shame.

Okay, so the last of those isn’t really about the future. Also, it turns out the taco-copter was a hoax. Well, phoo. Scientific progress goes boink.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Arguing with Transhumanists

Yesterday, our co-blogger and New Atlantis senior editor Ari Schulman discussed transhumanism on The Stream, a social-media-based show on Al Jazeera English. Hosts Imran Garda and Malika Bilal did a good job of kicking off the discussion, and plenty of viewers commented and asked questions in real-time via Twitter. Several video clips were interspersed throughout the show, including a snippet of Regan Brashear’s documentary Fixed, which we previously discussed here on Futurisms.

Ari debated two outspoken advocates of transhumanism*: Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (whom we have frequently written about here), and George Dvorsky, a blogger and activist. If that sounds unfairly lopsided to you — two against one — well, it was unfairly lopsided: Ari clearly had the better of the conversation.

The conversation touched on many subjects, and there wasn’t time to deal with anything in great depth, but I’d like to highlight three items.

First, Ari pointed out on the show something that Hanson said recently — that “if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives.” (Hanson wrote this in response to a New Atlantis article; we blogged about it here.) When confronted with his own words, Hanson didn’t retreat; he stood by those remarks. Today, one of Hanson’s blog readers took him to task: “You totally let yourself look like you’d support sexism.... You made us look bad and ... I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to repair the damage your mistake caused.” I certainly agree that Hanson’s comments make transhumanism look bad — not because he misspoke or misrepresented his views, but because his forthright comments revealed the heartless calculation that underlies much transhumanist thinking.

Second, Dvorsky and Hanson both objected to one of Ari’s comments: that transhumanism shares with the twentieth century’s eugenics movement a deep dissatisfaction with human nature. When we sometimes make this comparison, transhumanists accuse us of smearing them — after all, who would want to be compared to a movement that was responsible for forced sterilizations and that inspired some of the worst Nazi atrocities? But Ari’s remarks were measured and careful, and the comparison is apt: both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. That does not mean (as Dvorsky claimed) that we think that human nature as it now exists is perfect. To the contrary, we think that human beings are flawed, and some of us might even say fallen, creatures. But for this very reason, as Ari said, we are skeptical of grand schemes that promise or pursue perfection.

Dvorsky also bridled against the comparison to eugenics for another reason. He said that eugenics was a “top-down imposition,” wherein terrible decisions were made by “either the state or certain groups in power.” By contrast, Dvorsky said,

transhumanism is absolutely opposed to any of those ideas. In fact, it’s very much a hands-off type of a philosophy. If anything, it’s bottom-up, where we give the benefit of the doubt to individuals who are informed individuals, in conjunction with their doctors, their fertility clinics, and so on, who will make the decisions that are right for themselves. So everything from their reproductive rights, their morphological rights, and their cognitive rights as well.

But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it. Julian Savulescu, for example, recently proposed that we should compel people to take behavior-altering drugs to make them more “moral” (as our colleague Brendan Foht mentioned here last month). And just because Dvorsky and some of his confreres think that the transhumanist future will be “hands-off” and “bottom-up” doesn’t mean that it actually will be. Who’s to say that we won’t see dictatorships of (or backed up by) Unfriendly AI? And even if somehow the transhumanist future were accomplished without obvious coercion, that doesn’t mean (as we have pointed out many times here on Futurisms) that “individuals who are informed individuals” would be free to abjure the enhancements that society is pressuring them to accept.

All in all, a fine television performance by Ari; anyone interested in hearing more such intelligent criticism of transhumanism should poke around here on Futurisms and read some of the articles we’ve linked to the right.

* To be clear, Hanson doesn’t consider himself a transhumanist, and during the program he said that he thinks “it’s somewhat premature to either advocate for or oppose these changes, because we don’t actually know very much about the context in which they’ll appear.” But since he is a vocal proponent of cryonics and he believes that many of the things that transhumanists embrace are at least plausible and in some cases desirable, I think it’s not unfair to put him on the transhumanist side of these debates.

UPDATE: See Ari’s follow-up on his exchange with Robin Hanson about sex selection.

More Problems with Jonah Lehrer’s Science Reporting

Speaking of Jonah Lehrer, there is a terrific review at The Millions of his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. The carelessness evident in his writing about memory makes one wonder about his work more generally, and as it turns out, there is good reason to be suspicious, even when it comes to the basic veracity of his science reporting. Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, who seem otherwise quite complimentary of and sympathetic to his work, catalog a variety of problems with the new book:

If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.


The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.

The review is informative, thoughtful, careful, not too long, and well worth a read. Also note a still-ongoing conversation between Lehrer and the authors in the comments section. Here is a particularly revealing exchange:


Lastly, I’d just like to point out that I’m pretty sure nearly every popular book on the brain (written by both journalists and scientists) would fail the standards you preach above. I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.

Requarth and Crist:

That every popular book on the brain would “fail the standards [we] preach above” does not make those standards any less valid. But we want to be clear: although we believe it is problematic that books “cite fMRI localization studies at face value,” or generally claim certainty where is does not yet exist, we have absolutely no objection to writers who “engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.” It is a matter of acknowledging the speculative nature of those links....

An endemic problem in popular science writing is that what should be musing is presented as argument. Such misrepresentation is a disservice to readers and, ultimately, to science, as it clouds public perception of how science actually works.

The whole review is here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Examining the Moral Meaning of Memory

The true moral significance of memory alteration is not a simple thing to understand, and cannot be inferred from basic observations about its reliability and potential manipulability. Jonah Lehrer, in his recent Wired magazine article on memory — which I earlier discussed heredoes claim to be genuinely interested in the ethical questions raised by memory alteration:

Would the President’s Council [on Bioethics] have the same reaction to memory training? What about an more effective form of talk therapy? Or is it simply the idea of an amnesiac pill that we find so Orwellian and frightening? If so, why? We take pills to cheer us up. What’s wrong with taking a pill that might get at the root cause of the sadness? These aren’t rhetorical questions – I’m honestly interested in the answers.

But it’s hard to take Lehrer’s expressed interest seriously when this is the next thing he says: “In the meantime, progress continues apace. (What Feynman dismissively said about philosophers of science is also true of bioethicists, for better or worse: they are to scientists what ornithologists are to birds.)” So is Lehrer honestly interested in bioethics or isn’t he?

Unfortunately, it seems he isn’t. The questions he poses as apparently obvious rejoinders to the ethical inquiry in Beyond Therapy are all in fact addressed directly and plainly in the memory section of the report. To wit, here are four excerpts from the report:

We also know that individuals ‘naturally’ edit their memory of traumatic or significant events-both giving new meaning to the past in light of new experiences and in some cases distorting the past to make it more bearable. The question before us is how or whether new biotechnical interventions alter this inborn capacity to refine, reshape, and edit the way we remember the past.

What could be wrong with, or even just disquieting about, wanting to feel better about ourselves and our lives, and availing ourselves of the necessary assistance in doing so? If we may embrace psychotherapy for the same purpose, why should we not embrace mood-brighteners, especially if they are not only safe but also cheaper and more effective than ‘talk therapy’? Only a person utterly at peace with the world and content with himself would be beyond temptation at the prospect of having his troubles effortlessly eased.

...there are many people whose deep psychic distress precludes meeting obligations and forming close relationships, and for whom the proper use of mood-brighteners is the blessed gift that can restore to them the chance for a full and flourishing life.

...many Holocaust survivors managed, without pharmacological assistance, to live fulfilling lives while never forgetting what they lived through. At the same time, many survivors would almost certainly have benefited from pharmacological treatment.

And so forth. The Council’s entire report is characterized by this kind of effort to explore and present both the potential good and bad of biotechnological advancement, without firmly concluding in one direction or the other. Certainly there is reasonable room to argue with the analysis. But it’s hard to take seriously Lehrer’s “hey, I’m just asking some questions and I’m really interested in the answers” shtick when it seems based on a near-total lack of knowledge of the answers the ostensible opponents have already given, and is followed by a claim that those answers are actually irrelevant anyway.


Of course, while Lehrer professes interest in the bioethical questions raised by memory alteration, he has clearly already staked out a position in the debate in favor of memory alteration. The heart of his argument seems to be that, as he puts it, “we already tweak our memories — we just do it badly.”

One can get a sense of what’s wrong with this argument by seeing how quickly it devolves into this: “there is no clear line between the tweaks of ‘biotechnology’ and the changes that unfold every time we remember anything.” This is perhaps the most common argument in the transhumanist playbook. It goes basically like this: X new biotechnical intervention will totally change everything, so it’s great and we should embrace it — and there’s no reason not to because it’s actually no different from what we’re doing already.

This line of argument is linked to another favorite theme of transhumanists and other pro-enhancement writers: who we are as human beings is the result of an unplanned, chaotic, and messy sequence of events — whether those events were in our evolutionary past, shaping our genetic heritage, or just things that happened to us during our own lifetimes that we would rather not remember. Sometimes, as with Allen Buchanan’s discussion of evolution and human nature, the arguments raise deeply important questions about the moral meaning of human nature. But Lehrer’s application of neuroscience to the ethics of memory alteration is just a misunderstanding of the ethically significant questions.

Real ethical reflection on these issues would not try to dismiss them with one or two stale tropes. The personal, moral, and emotional significance of memory does not depend on it representing past experiences with perfect factual accuracy. And just because there are natural processes for “re-constructing” our past experiences, it by no means follows that techniques for purposefully ablating memories are morally uncontroversial. If we already tweak our memories, it seems just as possible that we could already sometimes do it well as do it badly. One would hope that in any case the goal would be to better understand the personal and moral significance of memories, and to learn how to integrate them into the broader meaning of our lives.

Jonah Lehrer’s Errors on Memory and Forgetting

About a month ago, Wired magazine published a widely discussed article on a scientific breakthrough that will have huge implications for psychotherapy, bioethics, and human self-understanding: apparently, memory is not perfect.

The author — Jonah Lehrer, the popular writer on neuroscience — reports on some scientific findings regarding the reconsolidation theory of memory retrieval, which holds that every time a memory is recalled, the brain needs to recreate the memory, just as it did when the memory was originally formed. He quotes one of the researchers describing his work in terms of Thomas Kuhn, saying that he is overturning “a very stubborn paradigm.” And Lehrer seems to agree with this characterization:

Once a memory is formed, we assume that it will stay the same. This, in fact, is why we trust our recollections. They feel like indelible portraits of the past.

None of this is true. In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.

Reconsolidation theory and the research behind it are potentially important contributions to the neuroscientific study of memory. But Lehrer grossly exaggerates the significance of these findings by repeatedly trying to characterize them as novel and revolutionary when they are not.


The problem starts from Lehrer not making much effort to distinguish between the two big takeaways from this research, which are: (1) memory can be altered by the act of recollection; and therefore, (2) memory is fallible. The first part is reconsolidation theory itself. Lehrer presents some evidence that this idea has only recently entered the scientific mainstream, but as for its being revolutionary, well, he himself notes in a follow-up blog post that scientists have been conducting research in support of the idea for almost a hundred years. Moreover, as he also notes in the article, the idea has been basically assumed by psychotherapists for decades.

It’s the second point that’s really supposed to be revolutionary, though: Lehrer uses as a foil the supposedly naïve conventional and ancient philosophical wisdom that human memory works like a videotape, accurately recording and replaying events. But he does this mainly by misrepresenting or misunderstanding the way others have thought about memory in the past.

The first volley is fired at Plato, who, Lehrer says, “compared our recollections to impressions in a wax tablet.” But Plato, in the Theaetetus, discusses this model only to quickly reject it. More to the point, Plato does so precisely in an effort to explain why beliefs can be false and memories unreliable. The naïve assumption that memories are “inert packets of data” has certainly had its adherents over the years — most of them in the last century, really, when such metaphors came into vogue — but the idea that memories are fallible, and that they have a life of their own, is at least as old as philosophy and literature. Indeed, even without philosophical reflection there are certain self-evident aspects of memory that show us how it can be imperfect; memories are clearly less distinct than present experiences, and no one trusts their recollections to the same extent they trust their perception.

Lehrer suggests that these developments in neuroscience constitute a transgressive and exciting challenge to entrenched beliefs about human nature. But there’s no apparent reason in this case for why neuroscience should be fighting with ordinary human self-understanding — indeed, this seems like a perfect case of neuroscience coming around to realizing and providing some biological explanation for a phenomenon that’s already very familiar.

The fact that people have always known memory to be fallible still leaves unknown why this is so, and does not diminish the value of neuroscientific research that might help explain it. Moreover, this possible biological explanation for why memory can be inaccurate does not show that memory is arbitrary or always unreliable, or that memory cannot or does not have some strong relation to the truth.


These problems with Lehrer’s account would not be so important if not for the highly flawed ethical arguments he uses them to support. You see, another implication of this research is the possibility of creating drug-based therapies to erase the painful aspect of particular memories, or even the memories themselves. By way of supporting this possibility, depicting as naïve the idea that memory always is truthful becomes the basis for depicting as naïve the idea that memory ought to be truthful.

In that blog post following up on his article, Lehrer gives the supposed ancient philosophical wisdom about memory a modern voice in the ethical analysis of this topic by the President’s Council on Bioethics in its 2003 report Beyond Therapy. As he describes it, the Council

declared the possibility of erasing traumatic memories deeply dangerous, and worried that it would lead to the unraveling of “moral responsibility” in society. After all, if we can choose to forget our pain, then what would prevent us from thoughtlessly inflicting pain on other people? “Without truthful memory, we could not hold others or ourselves to account for what we do and who we are,” the Council wrote. “Perhaps no one has a greater interest in blocking the painful memory of evil than the evildoer.”

This argument at first seems “perfectly reasonable” to Lehrer, since “even the worst memories serve an important purpose, allowing us to learn from the past.” But his agreement turns out to be rhetorical, for

the verdict of the Council, grounded in our ancient intuitions about memory, is also problematic. The main reason is straightforward: Although the Council repeatedly proclaims the importance of maintaining “authentic” memories, they failed to realize that such an ideal form of memory doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as immaculate recall....

But the word “authentic” does not even appear anywhere in the part of the Council’s report dealing with memory. Moreover, the Council itself acknowledges precisely the point about memory reconsolidation that Lehrer claims vitiates the Council’s analysis:

it is important to note that “stored memories” do not remain static. Every time we recall a memory, what gets stored after such acts of recollection is a different memory, altered on account of how we, in recollecting it, have “received” and reacted to it. Once encoded, memories can be altered by recall.

Lehrer is criticizing a straw man. Not only does the Council’s argument not presuppose some idealized notion of perfectly accurate memory, but there is no reason for it to. Would evildoers only have an interest in blocking painful memories, in themselves or their victims, if those memories were perfect? Does the fact that memories can change or be imperfect mean that they have absolutely no relation to the truth? Does it mean we have no ethical or emotional interest in them bearing some relation to the truth?

Questions like these are the ones that the scientific discoveries Lehrer mentions really seem to raise, but Lehrer seems more interested in making bold bioethical pronouncements on the basis of neuroscientific findings than examining these tough bioethical questions. I’ll turn to comparing the Council’s analysis of these questions about the ethics of memory alteration with Lehrer’s analysis in my next post.

Images: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind;
Photo Album (via Shutterstock);
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seeing and Believing

John Ruskin, in Modern Painters (1843), defined the “pathetic fallacy” this way: “false appearances ... entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.” He was largely but not entirely critical of this fallacy for its tendency to produce bad poetry. But as reflecting certain kinds of human characters, the story was more complex:

The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is ... that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.

I was reminded of the pathetic fallacy by this music video:

NO "Stay With Me" from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.

However charming in its own way, this video is certainly an instance of “false appearances.” But it is less clear just what emotion the filmmakers are “over-dazzled” by, or whether they are to be credited with an emotion sufficiently powerful to overwhelm a strong intellect, or rather with a weak intellect easily mislead by emotion. I’m inclined to think Ruskin would find it bad poetry: What is the point of ascribing human emotional characteristics to crash-test dummies? One might as well feel bad for the car being crashed. Does it add anything to the longing of the song’s lyrics to have them reflected in an impossible scenario, or is it rather some post-modern ironic distancing from longing, an unwillingness to commit to it even while expressing it?

Perhaps a recent interview with Sherry Turkle, the erstwhile techno-optimist, helps to clarify this particular pathetic fallacy. Turkle has written a book called Alone Together, which she calls “a book of repentance in the sense that I did not see this coming, this moment of temptation that we will have machines that will care for us, listen to us, tend to us.” She explains:

People are so vulnerable and so willing to accept substitutes for human companionship in very intimate ways. I hadn’t seen that coming, and it really concerns me that we’re willing to give up something that I think defines our humanness: our ability to empathize and be with each other and talk to each other and understand each other. And I report to you with great sadness that the more I continued to interview people about this, the more I realized the extent to which people are willing to put machines in this role. People feel that they are not being heard, that no one is listening. They have a fantasy that finally, in a machine, they will have a nonjudgmental companion.

The video takes this idea one step further — a companion that will save us from the mere humans who are not hearing us. I suspect that here is the pathetic fallacy at the heart of social robotics. It is a vicious circle. The more we put our hopes in machine companions, the less we expect from each other, and the less we expect from each other, the more we will accept the substitute of machine companions. Thus does “only connect” become “just plug it in.”