Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

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.

6 comments:

  1. 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.

    This is also the reason to be skeptical of any kind of top-down authority or regulation of private attempts by private individuals to change or improve themselves. Skepticism of social engineering is certainly warranted. However, any form of state regulation of these technologies, whatsoever, constitutes social engineering.

    With regards to life extension, aging is a disease, a pathological state, plain and simple. Curing aging is no more a part of transhumanism than curing cancer or any other disease.

    Same for cryonics, which is nothing more than a medical technology. Cryonics is medical time travel, a temporal ambulance. It is way off base to call any of these things "transhumanism" or to question their pursuit in any way, whatsoever.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. MIT neuroscientist Sebastian Seung defends cryonics as a feasible medical experiment in his popular book Connectome, at least regarding ways to measure empirically the integrity of the fine structure of the brain:

      http://www.box.com/shared/static/pakcq9ffu2fral7r5uvd.png

      Delete
  2. "But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it."

    Another proposal for centrally planned transhumanism came up recently:

    Engineering Humans: A New Solution to Climate Change?
    http://www.livescience.com/19357-engineering-humans-climate-change.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. "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."

    This sounds like you are opposing consequentialism on principle. I agree that transhumanism is consequentialist by nature, as was eugenics. However many of our most esteemed progressive reforms are also consequence-based. We educate our children, defend ourselves from invaders, levy taxes to pay for domestic programs, fund scientific research, protect public health, etc. all because we anticipate positive consequences compared to if we did not. That's the very nature of public policy. Transhumanism may be misguided or not, but the fact that it is a calculation of consequence is not the fundamental problem with it if one exists. The real problem would be if there is a major miscalculation of what the consequences are likely to be.

    ReplyDelete
  4. > 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.

    I don't think the average transhumanist is that naive. The point of tranhumanism is to explore how we can use technologies to improve the human condition. A top down dictatorship is probably not an improvement of the human condition, hence most transhumanists would object to it.

    I often encounter the funny idea that - if only transhumanists were to stop thinking about the issue - we will never have to face the question: How should we use technology to improve ourselves? The technology will come, and people will have incentives to use it to improve themselves. So, since this seems to be a nearly inevitable future, why not try to make happen in a way that benefits society?

    > both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature.

    Buddhism is an expression of a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature:
    1. Life means suffering.
    2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
    3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

    Modern medicine is an expression of a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. So are medicine and buddhism as bad as the Nazi's eugenics program?

    Also let's talk about the term eugenics. Any kind of genetic therapy is eugenics. Should we stop it all?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree about the point of dissatisfaction with the state human beings find themselves in. Today in this day in age the Bible has been harshly kicked out of talking points and society as a whole. I see this a sad reality especially because religion in general has mocked the true essence of the bible and distorted it more than the labeled "enemies" of religion have. I am not for religion but for morality and beauty in life. How though can you have beauty when life has natural unwritten laws that man is desiring to bypass. I talk about all these subject in my blog. Maybe you all can take a look at it and let me know what you think. I like the discussion.

      http://www.reedshakinginthewind.blogspot.com.br

      Reed Shaking in the Wind

      Delete

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field. Comments are moderated for civility and relevance and will not appear until the blog's editors have approved them.]