Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Future Selves

In the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books, political philosopher Mark Blitz — a professor at Claremont McKenna College — has an insightful review of Eclipse of Man, the new book from our own Charles T. Rubin. Blitz writes:
What concerns Charles Rubin in Eclipse of Man is well conveyed by his title. Human beings stand on the threshold of a world in which our lives and practices may be radically altered, and our dominance no longer assured. What began a half-millennium ago as a project to reduce our burdens threatens to conclude in a realm in which we no longer prevail. The original human subject who was convinced to receive technology’s benefits becomes unrecognizable once he accepts the benefits, as if birds were persuaded to become airplanes. What would remain of the original birds? Indeed, we may be eclipsed altogether by species we have generated but which are so unlike us that “we” do not exist at all—or persist only as inferior relics, stuffed for museums. What starts as Enlightenment ends in permanent night....

Rubin’s major concern is with the contemporary transhumanists (the term he chooses to cover a variety of what from his standpoint are similar positions) who both predict and encourage the overcoming of man.
Blitz praises Rubin for his “fair, judicious, and critical summaries” of the transhumanist authors he discusses, and says the author “approaches his topic with admirable thoughtfulness and restraint.”

Some of the subjects Professor Blitz raises in his review essay are worth considering and perhaps debating at greater length, but I would just like to point out one of them. Blitz mentions several kinds of eternal things — things that we are stuck with no matter what the future brings:

One question involves the goods or perfections that our successors might seek or enjoy. Here, I might suggest that these goods cannot change as such, although our appreciation of them may. The allure of promises for the future is connected to the perfections of truth, beauty, and virtue that we currently desire. How could one today argue reasonably against the greater intelligence, expanded artistic talent, or improved health that might help us or those we love realize these goods? Who would now give up freedom, self-direction, and self-reflection?...

There are still other limits that no promise of transhuman change can overcome. These are not only, or primarily, mathematical regularities or apparent scientific laws; they involve inevitable scarcities or contradictions. Whatever happens “virtually,” there are only so many actual houses on actual beautiful beaches. Honesty differs from lying, the loyal and true differ from the fickle and untrustworthy, fame and power cannot belong both to one or a few and to everyone. These limits will set some of the direction for the distribution of goods and our attachment to them, either to restrain competition or to encourage it. They will thus also help to organize political life. Regulating differences of opinion, within appropriate freedom, and judging among the things we are able to choose will remain necessary.

Nonetheless, even if it is true that what we (or any rational being) may properly consider to be good is ultimately invariable, and even if the other limits I mentioned truly exist, our experience of such matters presumably will change as many good things become more available, and as we alter our experience of what is our own — birth, death, locality, and the body.

Let us look carefully at the items listed in this very rich passage. Blitz does not refer to security and health and long life, the goods that modernity arguably emphasizes above all others. Instead, Blitz begins by mentioning the goods of “the perfections of truth, beauty, and virtue.” These are things that “we currently desire” but that also “cannot change as such, although our appreciation of them may.”

Let us set aside for now beauty — which is very complicated, and which may be the item in Blitz’s Platonic triad that would perhaps be likeliest to be transformed by a radical shift in human nature — and focus on truth and virtue. How can they be permanent, unchanging things?

To understand how truth and virtue can be eternal goods, see how Blitz turns to physical realities — the kinds of scarcities of material resources that Malthus and Darwin would have noticed, although those guys tended to think more in terms of scarcities of food than of beach houses. Blitz also mentions traits that seem ineluctably to arise from the existence of those physical limitations. The clash of interests will inevitably lead to scenarios in which there will be “differences of opinions” and in which some actors may be more or less honest, more or less trustworthy. There will arise situations in which honesty can be judged differently from lying, loyalty from untrustworthiness. “Any rational being,” including presumably any distant descendant of humanity, will prize truth and virtue. They are arguably pre-political and pre-philosophical — they are facts of humanity and society that arise from the facts of nature — but they “help to organize political life.”

And yet this entire edifice is wiped away in the last paragraph quoted above. “Our experience” of truth and virtue, Blitz notes, “presumably will change” as our experience of “birth, death, locality, and the body” changes. Still, we may experience truth and virtue differently, but they will continue to provide the goals of human striving, right?

Yet consider some of the transhumanist dreams on offer: a future where mortality is a choice, a future where individual minds merge and melt together into machine-aided masses, a future where the resources of the universe are absorbed and reordered by our man-machine offspring to make a vast “extended thinking entity.” Blitz may be right that “what is good ... cannot in the last analysis be obliterated,” but if we embark down the path to the posthuman, our descendants may, in exchange for vast power over themselves and over nature, lose forever the ability to “properly orient” themselves toward the goods of truth and virtue.

Read the whole Blitz review essay here; subscribe to the Claremont Review of Books here; and order a copy of Eclipse of Man here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Do We Love Robots Because We Hate Ourselves?

A piece by our very own Ari N. Schulman, on WashingtonPost.com today:

... Even as the significance of the Turing Test has been challenged, its attitude continues to characterize the project of strong artificial intelligence. AI guru Marvin Minsky refers to humans as “meat machines.” To roboticist Rodney Brooks, we’re no more than “a big bag of skin full of biomolecules.” One could fill volumes with these lovely aphorisms from AI’s leading luminaries.

And for the true believers, these are not gloomy descriptions but gleeful mandates. AI’s most strident supporters see it as the next step in our evolution. Our accidental nature will be replaced with design, our frail bodies with immortal software, our marginal minds with intellect of a kind we cannot now comprehend, and our nasty and brutish meat-world with the infinite possibilities of the virtual. 

Most critics of heady AI predictions do not see this vision as remotely plausible. But lesser versions might be — and it’s important to ask why many find it so compelling, even if it doesn’t come to pass. Even if “we” would survive in some vague way, this future is one in which the human condition is done away with. This, indeed, seems to be the appeal....

To read the whole thing, click here.