Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, December 6, 2013

Humanism After All

Zoltan Istvan is a self-described visionary and philosopher, and the author of a 2013 novel called The Transhumanist Wager that he claims is a “bestseller” because it briefly went to the top of a couple of Amazon’s sales subcategories. Yesterday, Istvan wrote a piece for the Huffington Post arguing that atheism necessarily entails transhumanism, whether atheists know it or not. Our friend Micah Mattix, writing on his excellent blog over at The American Conservative, brought Istvan’s piece to our attention.

While Mattix justly mocks Istvan’s atrociously mixed metaphors — I shudder to imagine how bad Istvan’s “bestselling novel” is — it’s worth pointing out that Istvan actually does accurately summarize some of the basic tenets of transhumanist thought:

It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both -- of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger -- perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.

Why be almost human when you can be human? [source: Fox]
Istvan is certainly right that transhumanists are motivated by a sense of disappointment with human nature and the limitations it imposes on our aspirations. He’s also right that transhumanists are very optimistic about what science and technology can do to transform human nature. But what do these propositions have to do with atheism? Many atheists like to proclaim themselves to be “secular humanists” whose beliefs are guided by the rejection of the idea that human beings need anything beyond humanity (usually they mean revelation from the divine) to live decent, happy, and ethical lives. As for the idea that we cannot be happy without some belief in eternal life (either technological immortality on earth or in the afterlife), it seems that today’s atheists might well follow the teachings of Epicurus, often considered an early atheist, who argued that reason and natural science support the the idea that “death is nothing to us.”

Istvan also argues that transhumanism is the belief that science, technology, and reason can improve human existence — and that this is something all atheists implicitly affirm. This brings to mind two responses. First, religious people surely can and do believe that science, technology, and reason can improve human life. (In fact, we just published an entire symposium on this theme subject in The New Atlantis.) Second, secular humanists are first of all humanists who criticize (perhaps wrongly) the religious idea that human life on earth is fundamentally imperfect and that true human happiness can only be achieved through the transfiguration of human nature in a supernatural afterlife. So even if secular humanists (along with religious humanists and basically any reasonable people) accept the general principle that science, technology, and reason are among the tools we have to improve our lot, this does not mean that they accept what Istvan rightly identifies as one of the really fundamental principles of transhumanism, which is the sense of deep disappointment with human nature.

Human nature is not perfect, but the resentful attitude toward our nature that is so characteristic of transhumanists is no way to live a happy fulfilled life. Religious and secular humanists of all creeds, whatever they believe about God and the afterlife, reason and revelation, or the ability of science and technology to improve human life, should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature.

(H/T to Chad Parkhill, whose excellent 2009 essay, “Humanism After All? Daft Punk's Existentialist Critique of Transhumanism” inspired the title of this post.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cloning and the Lessons of "Overparenting"

Tonight, HBO is premiering a new episode of its State of Play series on sports. This new installment is called "Trophy Kids" and its focus is the tendency among some parents — in this case, the parents of student-athletes — to live vicariously through their children. Here's a teaser-trailer:

Of course, the phenomenon of parental overinvolvement and inappropriate emotional investment isn't limited to sports and athletics. It can happen with just about any childhood activity or hobby — from schoolwork to scouting, from music to beauty pageants (Toddlers and Tiaras, anyone?). The anecdotal stories can be astonishing; it would be interesting to see what psychologists, therapists, and social scientists have had to say about this.

All of which brings to mind the debates over human cloning. Way back in 2010, we here at Futurisms tussled with a few other bloggers about the ethics of cloning. We were disturbed, among other things, by the way that cloning advocates blithely want to remake procreation, parenthood, and the relationship between the generations. As the phenomenon depicted in this HBO program suggests, many parents already have a strong desire to treat their children's childhoods as opportunities to relive, perfect, or redeem their own. Imagine how much more powerful that desire would be if the children in question were clones — willfully created genetic copies.

In its 2002 report Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the President's Council on Bioethics attempted to think about procreation and cloning in part by contrasting two ways of thinking about children — as "gifts" or as "products of our will":

Gifts and blessings we learn to accept as gratefully as we can. Products of our wills we try to shape in accord with our desires. Procreation as traditionally understood invites acceptance, rather than reshaping, engineering, or designing the next generation. It invites us to accept limits to our control over the next generation. It invites us even — to put the point most strongly — to think of the child as one who is not simply our own, our possession. Certainly, it invites us to remember that the child does not exist simply for the happiness or fulfillment of the parents.

To be sure, parents do and must try to form and mold their children in various ways as they inure them to the demands of family life, prepare them for adulthood, and initiate them into the human community. But, even then, it is only our sense that these children are not our possessions that makes such parental nurture — which always threatens not to nourish but to stifle the child — safe.

This concern can be expressed not only in language about the relation between the generations but also in the language of equality. The things we make are not just like ourselves; they are the products of our wills, and their point and purpose are ours to determine. But a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore their equal in dignity and humanity.

The character of sexual procreation shapes the lives of children as well as parents. By giving rise to genetically new individuals, sexual reproduction imbues all human beings with a sense of individual identity and of occupying a place in this world that has never belonged to another. Our novel genetic identity symbolizes and foreshadows the unique, never-to-be-repeated character of each human life. At the same time, our emergence from the union of two individuals, themselves conceived and generated as we were, locates us immediately in a network of relation and natural affection.

As that section of the report concludes, it is clear that the nature of human procreation affects human life "in endless subtle ways." The advocates of cloning show very little appreciation for the complexity of the relations they wish to transform.

(H/t to Reddit, where the HBO video elicited many interesting responses from students, parents, and coaches.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Future of Technology, or a Future for Science?

Just before Thanksgiving, acclaimed physicist, science popularizer, and futurist Michio Kaku had an article in the “Crystal Ball” section of the New York Times Opinion pages on his predictions — as a scientist — for the future. Kaku lists ten putatively great technological developments that we will achieve if only we can just “grasp the importance of science and science education.” But Kaku’s predictions of the future, which are just extrapolations from currently trendy technologies, sells science short in a way that is characteristic of much futurist speculation. From this list, you would get the impression that the “importance of science education” simply means that science will help us design better machines.

Now, I don’t even really think that Kaku himself thinks this; he has written some decent popular science books on theoretical physics, and he is known for his activism on such science-policy issues as climate change and nuclear power, and for promoting such public-science endeavors as SETI. (Even if you do not agree with the positions Kaku takes on these issues, they are instances of science as a source of knowledge, not as merely the basis of technology.) It is clear that Kaku does know that the importance of science extends beyond its engineering applications, but it is almost in the nature of futurist writing to let one’s sense of certainty in the arc of technological progress overcome the curiosity and openness to new and unexpected knowledge characteristic of science. This is certainly the case with transhumanist writing, which tends to assume that better and faster versions of today’s technologies (which represent exponentially accelerating trends, after all) will be what define the future.

Michio Kaku
(campuspartybrasil [CC])
Kaku’s vague and loose criteria for making predictions follow from having too much certainty — he insists only that “the laws of physics must be obeyed”(always a good rule of thumb) and that there exists some “proof of principle” example of the futuristic technology he is making predictions about. What kind of principle an existing technology proves can easily be overstated, however. To take one example, his prediction that we will have a “brain net” in which we will share memories and emotions the way we now use the Internet to share MP3s is based on some actual recent innovations in neuroprosthetics that enable paralyzed people to mentally control cursors on computer screens or robotic arms. These experiments show that there are mental states that can be channeled through electronics or computers, and so they refute the general principle “mental states cannot have an effect on non-biological prosthetics.” But just because that very general principle fails, that does not mean that there are no practical or theoretical reasons why mental states like emotions or memories cannot be transferred to computers. To think otherwise would be to give technological demonstrations vastly more theoretical significance than they deserve, as though they already settle a vast range of difficult theoretical problems — as though the job of neuroscientists in the future will just be working out how to build telepathic technologies for the “brain net,” and not thinking about theoretical problems like how different mental states relate to different brain states. The answers to problems like these will be the principles upon which technologies like Kaku’s “brain net” will either succeed or fail, and these problems have not yet been solved by scientists.

Kaku’s discussion of the future of medicine suffers from this same excessive focus on current trends in technology without paying enough attention to the limits of what these technologies might be expected to accomplish. He predicts that people will soon be able to obtain whole genome sequences for $100, and he is probably not wrong about that — biotechnologists have been very good at improving the efficiency of DNA-sequencing technology. But sequencing technology has already far outstripped the ability of biological science to understand the function of genes. Take the recent story of the FDA putting the kibosh on the personal genomics company 23andMe, which today offers limited personal genetic testing (not whole-genome sequencing) for $100. Because 23andMe makes a number of claims about the probabilities that its customers will suffer from a wide variety of diseases, the FDA wants the firm to conform to the standards of diagnostic reliability of other medical devices, and 23andMe has (not altogether surprisingly) not been able to provide that kind of evidence. The big lesson from this developing story is not that the FDA is unduly risk averse and paternalistic (though it is those things, and that’s surely part of the story), but rather that we are far from being able to reliably interpret genetic information in a way that is both inexpensive and meaningful for patients and doctors. Those are scientific problems, not technological problems, and the fact that there are some examples that prove we can “in principle” know something about the effect of a gene on health outcomes does not shows us that we will. Unless we make some amazing and unexpected breakthroughs in our understanding of genetics, which will not come from faster DNA sequencing, the growth of genetic medicine will not be as dramatic as many futurists would have it.

Our esteemed colleague Alan Jacobs pointed out on Twitter and over on Text Patterns that Kaku does not even mention anything about environmental problems like climate change that we seem sure to face in the future. Though Kaku as a scientist has been active in environmentalist politics, in this little scientific prediction of the future, which concludes with an exhortation to “grasp the importance of science,” he focuses on science only as a means for creating technology, and regrettably ignores the role science plays in instructing us in how technology can be prudently used.

Alexander Leydenfrost, Popular Mechanics, January 1952
(h/t Paleofuture)
This is disappointing but not surprising. Environmental degradation is one of the inconvenient consequences of the unrestrained and unintelligent use of technology. Our awareness of environmental problems, their scope, and of the sorts of technological developments or policy solutions that could plausibly mitigate or solve them comes not from technological progress as such, but from scientific knowledge as such. Ecology, geology, climate science, and the other disciplines relevant to environmentalism are, to use Francis Bacon’s language, light-bearing sciences more than fruit-bearing. Though they do not often lead to technological developments, they are nonetheless very useful, not because they give us power over nature, but because they teach us when and how to limit our exercise of the power we have over nature. To paraphrase another of Bacon’s well known aphorisms, to live wisely we must learn not only how to command, but also how to obey nature.

Not all predictions and recommendations by scientists about the future of science are as fixated on technological fads as this silly little article by Michio Kaku. Consider, for instance, this thoughtful 2004 essay by evolutionary biologist Carl Woese on why the next generation of biologists will need to overcome the reductionist paradigm of molecular genetics that dominated the twentieth century. Beyond this salutary recommendation about biological theory, Woese also admonished biologists to recognize that their science was not simply an “engineering discipline” and that it is dangerous to allow “science to slip into the role of changing the world without trying to understand it.”

The most fundamental aim of science is knowledge and understanding, which can usefully reveal things about the world even beyond the useful power it can give us to change the world. And then, of course, as Bacon recognized, light-bearing science is the necessary precondition of fruit-bearing science. This principle was also recognized by the always-prescient Alexis de Tocqueville, who advised that democratic societies, where all things practical are naturally pursued with great vigor, will need to direct their efforts “to sustain the theoretical sciences and to create great scientific passions.” Just as it is crass and counterproductive to justify the humanities in terms of such career-focused deliverables as “critical thinking skills,” talking about science education as a kind of magic wand that will let us transform today’s fantasies into reality or lead us to the “jobs of the future” cheapens and misunderstands the nature of the scientific enterprise.