The licence to speculate on the fringes of human progress is immediately issued when that which we hadn’t even imagined transitions to that which we merely know we do not fully understand. This transition point is the playground of the so-called “popular imagination”, the stage on which esteemed careers are built without the effort and determination of achievement. Though, admittedly, it's often where middling scientists and researchers go to retire (as in, for example, the case of master babbler Michio Kaku).
In this space, most commonly reserved for the self-consciously fictitious, transhumanist conferences are on constant replay alongside their more prescient counterparts: Star Trek and the Twilight Zone. The presenters, keynote rock stars and wide-eyed, thin-haired wanderers each proclaim: 1) look at all the cool science stuff we've discovered!; 2) we don't even know its implications!; 3) here are some of its implications! ... [pseudo-philosophical techno-babble].
To my mind, the goal of this activity, and of all human activity - be it intellectual, social or moral - is the satisfaction derived from purely psychological phenomena. Without the benefit of seeing things from this perspective, a lot of human behaviour appears completely mysterious: if one formulates human behaviours as solutions to intellectual problems, one puzzles over the fact that humans never really solve them. Indeed, they don’t really appear to receive much attention at all; they merely operate as a minimal framework of meaning. From this, incidentally, arises the power of ritual: a formal system – akin to that of the problem statement – which, if followed, may assuage, for example, one's guilt. If you have hurt another person, you may intellectualize this problem and “solve” it by paying restitution, or perhaps by confessing to a priest: either way the target of your action is your own guilt. Hence one of the recurring critiques of the “ask for forgiveness” Christian mantra is that it's simply the easy way out of guilt.
If one does, however, see things from this perspective, the panoply of transhumanist literature comes into focus. On my interpretation, it is the intellectual attire of human beings afraid of frailty and addicted to wonder. This phenomenon ought to have a specialized name (perhaps “religiosity”?): “Oh God we're going to die! Quick look over there, a sunset. Damn it's over. Oh God! Oh God! Quick imagine if we could upload consciousness . . . wow!” The intellectual problem transhumanism could solve is thus that of our mortality; however, the rituals one finds in the place of this productive "solving" are podcast, manifesto, expo-wonder.
Transhumanism is, despite its adherents' best slight-of-hand, a purely social phenomenon of this ritualistic variety. It is parasitic (contra motivating) on achievements in the bridge between biology and technology and typically the preserve of internet upper-middle classes (aka the TED talk audience). Push this underground a little, add in 10% more “quantum” and 30% more “federal” and we descend quickly to the web's lower-middle (aka youtube conspiracy theorists). It is a cultural reaction in an arm-chair audience; it is not the manifesto of a research program, but a collage of them set to a Rod Serling monologue and delivered by a motivational speaker.
We would be in trouble if it were a research programme proper, a new “human science” a la transhumanist economics, transhumanist psychology, transhumanist sociology. As a utopian fantasy, its vision of human nature oscillates between the extremes of communism and objectivism – the commonality in the two is the pre-“post-structuralist” world view, the pre-Foucualdian era of Enlightenment naivety in which knowledge might set one free.
Applied to society, the transhuman project, as a project, becomes immediately fascist: a programme on behalf of Humanity (as opposed to particular humans). As “knowledge capital” replaces “economic capital” in this new techno-social landscape, power becomes a function of who knows and who does not know – rather than who has and who has not. And this process of transition will, of course, occur in this world – rather than the ahistorical vacuum in which transhuman fantasyscapes evolve. The wealthy immediately co-opt this knew knowledge economy and double-down on the present inequality.
The route to a transhuman utopia must, alas, be plotted upon 21st century earth. The “singularities” and predictions of many of the transhumanist propagandists thus become painfully reminiscent of all the early 20th century science-utopianism of the same variety, that thinking which in the economic sphere predicted a one-day work-week; in the political sphere , an educated citizenry checking a democratic government; in the psychological sphere , an end to fear and zealotry caused by ignorance and scarcity; and, of course, the end of all religious and superstitious thinking.
The Enlightenment, as a solution to the psychological problem of the fear of mortality, is a recurring social phenomenon. Humans may be perfected, it says, through the toil of science and the progress of humanity. It is as reliable as the wax and wane of religion. And as one must not take Heaven too seriously, and treat all efforts to hasten it with suspicion, one should reflect on transhuman futures with equal care.
That about sums it up. Well done.
I agree. Transhumanism is *mostly* unsubstantiated fiction, created by people who’s got a computer but don’t know enough about computers – or perhaps biology, or philosophy, or physics? – to get towards something real. I also find it frustrating that most of this technology is no different from any other kind of magic, no better explained just because it’s got a “computer” in there somewhere. The computer is not magic. It is, unfortunately, something far less.
Wayne Schroeder says
Another great post Michael.
Geoff Edwards says
I will disagree with the others and suggest that this is merely an extended ad hominem, with the spice of a little ridicule and your morally convenient hypothesis about the ends of human activity – I assume you yourself are not of the poor saps seeking “satisfaction derived from purely psychological phenomena.” You at least take the care to innoculate yourself by adding in a “it is my belief” and an “on my interpretation.”
You manage arrive at a position where you can comfortably dismiss all of transhumanism and it’s advocates as without actually addressing any of the ideas in detail. Bravo.
Michael Burgess says
> an extended ad hominem, with the spice of a little ridicule
A good headline for my next project!
> You manage arrive at a position where you can comfortably dismiss all of transhumanism and it’s advocates as without actually addressing any of the ideas in detail. Bravo.
Though I fear if I took the “dismissing the ideas” route too all movements I wouldnt yet be through with Hinduism – let alone Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Jainism, … Transhumanism, Liberalism, Communism, … etc.
It seems to me that there comes a point when you have enough experience of an outlook to have one interpretation of it consistently confirmed more than any other. I’m quite comfortable in saying that I’ve had more than enough experience of Transhumanists/ism to reach a conclusion of this kind; (and given that nearly all conclusions are revisable).
Feel free however to bring one key idea that is well-researched, philosophically sound (or at least thought-out), takes great care to spell out the relevant variables and tradeoffs, isnt phrased to inspire wonder over productive thought, motivates/provides-a-direction to research, etc.
In lieu of such an idea I shall reuse your accusation:
You manage arrive at a position where you can comfortably Ignore My Position and it’s advocates as without actually addressing any of the ideas in detail. Bravo.
Geoff Edwards says
It seems to me that there comes a point when you have enough experience of an outlook to have one interpretation of it consistently confirmed more than any other
Indeed, but you are writing about it here – on a philosophy blog – where the opinion means very little without the argument. In the absence of your reasons, all we have here is a lazy sneering opinion piece.
“Feel free however to bring one key idea that is well-researched”
Pick one from Nick’s list below: preimplantation genetic diagnosis; genetic engineering; pharmaceuticals that improve memory, concentration, wakefulness, and mood; performance‐enhancing drugs; cosmetic surgery; sex change operations; prosthetics; anti‐aging medicine.
Michael Burgess says
> preimplantation genetic diagnosis; genetic engineering; pharmaceuticals that improve memory, concentration, wakefulness, and mood; performance‐enhancing drugs; cosmetic surgery; sex change operations; prosthetics; anti‐aging medicine.
Those arent “transhumanist” ideas. Those are independent research programmes conducted by people who in the large part havent even heard of the movement. As I said TH is *parasitic* on innovation, not motivating it – and certainly not owning it. The meglomania of calling these things “transhumanist ideas” is only further evidence of my position.
> Indeed, but you are writing about it here – on a philosophy blog – where the opinion means very little without the argument.
Well I write what I want and the Powers that Be (Mark Peace Be Upon Him, et al.) decide if they wish to publish it and the readership decide if it’s interesting or not. As a podcast which occasionally dips into apropos snark my impression is that they dont mind the blog to do so, on occasion, either.
Though you’re in dangerous waters if definitions of what constitutes philosophy and what constitutes the proper rhetorical form of philosophy is the basis of some attack. Personally I believe there is enough philosophical content in this short, off-hand piece to justify itself. I dont mind if others do not however.
Geoff Edwards says
“Those arent “transhumanist” ideas. Those are independent research programmes conducted by people who in the large part havent even heard of the movement.”
Transhumanism doesn’t claim that these are their ideas, but these ideas are the subject matter from which their theorizing begins. They ask questions about where these technologies might lead us. What kind of future is possible and what kind do we want. They advocate the use “of wisdom and foresight” in how we might apply these technologies and how we might benefit and avoid causing harm.
“The meglomania of calling these things “transhumanist ideas” is only further evidence of my position.”
No, it is further evidence that you are misrepresenting transhumanism, its thoughts and its agenda. Many fields are “parasitic” feeding of the work others do. But it would seem rather stupid do go out and rediscover the wheel. You only really need to do that once. The fact that you didn’t invent it doesn’t mean you can’t come up with knew and exciting uses for it, or imagine what kind of futures it’s invention might herald.
“Well I write what I want”
Cool. And I will criticise what I want.
Michael Burgess says
> No, it is further evidence that you are misrepresenting transhumanism, its thoughts and its agenda.
Well I asked for transhumanist ideas, you gave me research programmes in biology. Either you thought these were ideas of the TH movement in which case my reply stands, or you didnt think that, in which case my original question remains open.
> , but these ideas are the subject matter from which their theorizing begins.
Well to an extent. The problem is theyre not just writing ethical commentaries, theyre making predictive claims. Once you get into that business you have to be able to do more than “theorize” in this loose, speculative sense.
In a comment elsewhere on this artlce I was “acused” of being a philosopher criticizing transhumanism for being a proto-typical, speculative science without a sound basis. The implication being that philosophy is exactly this kind of discipline. Projection and confusion abound! Its interesting to wonder if all these New Atheist/Transhumanist/Neo-enlightenment types going around accusing philosophy of bunk proto-science are doing so because they believe their naive neo-enlightenment ideas fully exhaust the space. The irony here is of course, philosophy is nothing of the kind and their proto-science is bunk.
The transhumanistic philosophy is very simple:
1. It will be possible to use technology for human beings to improve ourselves in terms of health, intelligent, longevity, or some other useful trait
2. It is desirable to do so.
That’s really the only two assumptions made. Everything else comes from starting from that point and considering what the logical consequences of that might be, and of course different people come to different conclusions. He gave a number of good examples that seem to strongly indicate the likelihood of point #1, and you haven’t even commented on 2 yet, except in bizzare apocalyptic terms (random comments about “fascism” or “communism” that don’t seem to have anything to do with anything else).
Then that begs the question; which ideas should he address in detail? How do we know if they are worth addressing in detail? How can we tell fantasy AI from probable AI? I think all us nay-sayers here would agree that transhumanism is interesting, however we also probably agree that *often* it is fetishising the more unreal aspect of it rather than adressing anything real or substantial.
So, give us something worth addressing, something we’ve obviously missed or didn’t understand. And I mean this in the most respectful way I can muster, however my 20 years in commercial AI has made me somewhat jaded. But I’d *love* for my cynicism to be wiped off my face! I really do! I used to think there was lots and lots to this field, and I still hope that there again will be. I’m just … a skeptic, I suppose. But, please?
Geoff Edwards says
“…we also probably agree that *often* it is fetishising the more unreal aspect of it rather than adressing anything real or substantial.”
I don’t know about often, I will take your word for it. My investigations into transhumanism were for a specific essay a little while back and it is not something I make an effort to keep up with. As for AI, while it is certainly one part of the discussion, I don’t even know that it is a necessary aspect of transhumanistic thought.
“If either superintelligence, or molecular nanotechnology, or uploading, or some other technology of a similarly revolutionary kind is developed, the human condition could clearly be radically transformed. Even if one believed that the probability of this happening any time soon is quite small, these prospects would nevertheless merit serious attention in view of their extreme impact. However, transhumanism does not depend on the feasibility of such radical technologies. Virtual reality; preimplantation genetic diagnosis; genetic engineering; pharmaceuticals that improve memory, concentration, wakefulness, and mood; performance‐enhancing drugs; cosmetic surgery; sex change operations; prosthetics; anti‐aging medicine; closer human‐computer interfaces: these technologies are already here or can be expected within the next few decades. The combination of these technological capabilities, as they mature, could profoundly transform the human condition. The transhumanist agenda, which is to make such enhancement options safely available to all persons, will become increasingly relevant and practical in the coming years as these and other anticipated technologies come online. – A HISTORY OF TRANSHUMANIST THOUGHT, Nick Bostrom, http://www.nickbostrom.com/
Whatever the failings of the mystics and the snake oil traders, there is at the heart of transhumanism some important subject matter. We are witnessing the emergence of technologies that have the very interesting potential. For all the pie in the sky stuff, there are some very real advances, especially in the medical sciences, that may make the gradual work of evolution somewhat obsolete for “man”.
The debates around animal cloning, genetical modification of crops and live stock, DNA analysis and health care provision, should alert us to the type of questions that transhumanism and it’s advocates will force us to answer.
“which ideas should he address in detail”
Well he could do worse than to start here.
We can sit here and pick of the low hanging fruit, pointing to the more ludicrous and unspecified claims, or we can look at what thoughtful people are thinking, and what the advocates are advocating.
When Michael talks about the wealthy doubling down on current inequality, he is not saying something that transhumanists haven’t thought about. When he urges caution he is also in the same boat as many transhumanists – they are also exercising their caution by considering the future risks of new technologies.
When last I checked the Web site of the World Transhumanist Association, an organization formed to agitate for transhumanism, I learned that it had a global membership of 3744. But transhumanists are not the philosophically marginalized, technology-obsessed Trekkies that this number might suggest. Transhumanis thinkers present their view about where we should be headed with a keen awareness of how we might get there. Their opponents, not they, tend to be the ones guilty of arguing from caricatures of the technologies in question. – Agar, N., Whereto Transhumanism?: The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass, The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May – Jun., 2007), pp. 12-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4625740 .
If Michael claims he his familiar enough with transhumanism to feel confident in his conclusions, then so be it. Where he asks me “Feel free however to bring one key idea that is well-researched” it seems that we are operating on divergent definitions of transhumanism, or he doesn’t acknowledge the breadth of the transhumanist movement. To me it looks like the conclusion is based on the worst cases of excess, if not the actual caricature that Agar describes, and not the more interesting cases married to the reality of technologocal progress.
Michael Burgess says
> it seems that we are operating on divergent definitions of transhumanism, or he doesn’t acknowledge the breadth of the transhumanist movement
To a degree, both. I’m off jibing Catholicism whilst you’re pointing towards the cream-tea fuelled discussions in the episcopalian synod. There are always going to be reasonable people who take on the label and try to orient the community around sane ideas and principles. My concern in post wasnt to say that a “self-describing transhumanist” is never going to say anything reasonable.
And it is also true that the topics TH addresses (genetic modification, etc.) are of vital importance (and many philosophers address these without the TH label, incidentally). It is also true that a sociological critique of TH isnt new to the seasoned amongst them. Nevertheless I see THists injecting an “addiction to wonder” and “fear of fragility” into their treatments in a way which academic review does not.
And this social movement cum psychological disposition is what I see as the glue uniting all the disparate commentaries and events labelled “transhumanist”.
Daniel David says
I sort of agree and disagree with both of you. Michael’s overall evaluation of transhumanists comes to some accurate conclusions (from my perspective), but we best make sure we don’t lump the science and technologies that they fetishize (even when they are still in their conjectural phases) in with the dismissal of their religious fervor. Surely there’s a place for a thorough, sober philosophical conversation about these technologies that doesn’t slide into wish fulfillment or fantasy (maybe even one that includes the public!). Granted, it’s hard to philosophize about the future, but surely some use of our imaginations is called for here, merely for the sake of caution, no?
Geoff Edwards says
“Granted, it’s hard to philosophize about the future, but surely some use of our imaginations is called for here, merely for the sake of caution, no?”
I think this is a point that the members of the episcopalian synod as, Michael eloquently describes them, would like to bring to the forefront.
There are certainly those in the broader TH church that warrant criticism such as Michael has delivered. And as for how the TH population breaks down – wild eyed fronteirs men v reasonable adults – I don’t know.
But I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that it is not just freaks and there are some people in their with interesting ideas which differ somewhat from standard philosophical discussions on the technology.
> As for AI, while it is certainly one part of the discussion, I
> don’t even know that it is a necessary aspect of transhumanistic thought
Possibly not, but there’s a heck of a lot around about it. I might add, though, that I consider most transhumanism that involves transferring thought or brain wiring into a different media as the same, even down to storing “consciousness” in some way or another. Plausible? Maybe. Feasible? Probably not. In order to have a human working consciousness in a non-human storage facility is beyond the pale, in my opinion, and any variant therebetween is pure SciFi, not philosophy nor based in anything but brutal speculation and wishful thinking. Right, so now with that off my chest ;
“[From Bostrom] If either superintelligence, or molecular nanotechnology, or uploading, or some other technology of a similarly revolutionary kind is developed, the human condition could clearly be radically transformed”
Possibly true, except that those magical things are loosely defined. So why are we to take something that we can’t really define seriously? I think most of this discussion boils down to that. What is uploading? Not as a SciFi concept, but as an actual thing; what’s that supposed to mean? Storing brain connections? Strong AI with storage facilities? What? What is superintelligence when we can’t even agree to what “intelligent” means?
“The debates around animal cloning, genetical modification of crops and live stock, DNA analysis and health care provision, should alert us to the type of questions that transhumanism and it’s advocates will force us to answer.”
Again, possibly, but what does “transhumanism” bring to the debates which haven’t been mangled through the existing ones? People don’t understand what GMF really is, of scratch that; people don’t know how genetics works, and yet we are to have meaningful discussions about its implications? We’re all mutants already, so what does transhumanism bring to that discussion? Is it the interaction between the organic and technical? Because once you get down to a low enough level, even those distinctions break down. And to bring that down and back to the original point, what is the difference between sugars grown organically and through GMF, for example, or even assembled by some other organic process, say through some technical chemical process? It’s one of those questions people think they know something about, but when you prod a bit (and it doesn’t take a lot of prodding) we find that they have no friggin’ idea about it.
I fear that most transhumanism is based in some wrong idea that all humans are somehow equal, that we’re all the same. But when we get down to details and the microcosmic, the “human” element have a tendency to disappear. So what are we addressing, then?
As an example, let’s go to the transhumanist declaration you link to, and I’ll only pick the first one for this reply (otherwise I’ll be here all day) ;
“Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.”
First sentence is completely bunk; we’ve been profoundly affected by science and technology throughout the history of our existence, so one would hope that this introductory definition would be a bit more specific. But all we get is ;
1. overcoming aging. Well, we’ve done that already, through a) millions of years of evolution, and b) not working so hard, and c) eating better. And all of these is before we even get to talk about technology.
2. Cognitive shortcomings. Again, a) millions of years of evolution, b) cognitive categorisation (you’d be surprised how much this counts for) and c) reasoning. We’re talking about overcoming it, right?
3. involuntary suffering. Again, a) millions of years of evolution, b) thousands of years of societal evolution, c) hundreds of years of cognitive awareness. Again, before technology is even mentioned.
4. Confinement to planet Earth. Assuming that life even started here to begin with.
I could go through the rest of the list, but I find too much to object to, and so it wouldn’t be very helpful. So, why am I talking about this? Because to me, transhumanism, even after this first introductory point (and still reading through the list), is hopelessly ill defined. Now, I’m not stupid, and I know what the list of authors (a lot of SciFi authors, I notice) are getting at. In many ways I was a transhumanist for many years until I noticed that when you get down to details, the novelty wears off fairly quickly. Here’s an example (that you also brought up);
Uploading. It’s a cool idea; the brain and its content and possibly its consciousness could be uploaded into a computer, either for storage and retreival, sometimes even for continued operations in a simulated world.
But when we stop thinking about the coolness and start to look to practical implications … when you start looking at the plausibility of the thing, about the complexity not only of discovering neural truths about pathways and linkage, but when you open up each individual neuron to discover the massive complexities even within one friggin’ neuron, it’s easy to do a bit of math to realize that most of the idea is bunk. We need so much storage, so much energy, so much computing power that the mind boggles. Sure, we’re rooting it in what we know today, and we like to speculate a bit about the wonderful new technology that will come soon that will store more for less, and so on, but all it means is that we’re projecting wildly … about just storing the friggin’ thing. (I hear my fake opponent say “crystals” or some such, telling us just how little they know about … crystals … yup, this is a real argument I’ve been given, time and time again)
Now we want to do what with the data? Simulate the billions and billions of neurons in any meaningful way? And then we need to plug that into a framework that can handle this complexity? And now we need a bigger framework that can handle multiples of this complexities? We’re nearing an interesting point where there is no difference between the thing we create and the thing we already got, except with little of the fun, and all new really, really, really hard problems. And we haven’t even touched on philosophical questions yet!
And at the end of the day I kinda think, yeah, that’s a cute idea, but man, it’s just wildly speculating about … magic. The technology – as we use the word – gets lost in the coolness of the idea, and is easily replaced by the word “magic.” At that point it should cause you to stop and re-think a bit.
For funsies, I’ve translated the first transhumanist point;
“Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by magic and potions in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to our lot in life.”
I could go on. 🙂
“Where he asks me “Feel free however to bring one key idea that is well-researched” it seems that we are operating on divergent definitions of transhumanism, or he doesn’t acknowledge the breadth of the transhumanist movement.”
Or you could be wrong? I’m with Michael still. The reason is that a) transhumanism is ill-defined, b) the scope is so broad as to hide the shallowness of it, c) “technology” needs to be a better replacement that “magic”, and d) the “movement” has goals in ethics that we are already talking about, so why are you special?
I guess d) is heavily linked to a), and as I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this (overly long) reply, what is transhumanism that isn’t covered by thinking humans in such a way that you need to organise yourself? I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea or even wrong, but I’m just truly baffled that it is so hard to get past the technobabble to something really interesting.
Anyway, I’m rambling. And I don’t want to sound dismissive, but I am, so that’s how I come across. Sorry about that. 🙂
Geoff Edwards says
“We’re all mutants already, so what does transhumanism bring to that discussion?”
We are not mutants by choice. Transhumanism proposes that people be permitted to choose their changes, to go beyond unguided mutation and to purposfully direct augmentation that confers various advantages. Should we stop them? We permit people with serious illnesses to find treatments and enhance there life. Should we permit people to take treatments that enhance capacities beyond the normal? And not just one treament but a suite of such that confers a range of advantages. Or even treatments that permanently alter their genes in ways beyond the temporal constraints of evolution.
If such technologies are available, Transhumanists say yes. What do you say?
“I fear that most transhumanism is based in some wrong idea that all humans are somehow equal, that we’re all the same.“
“But when we get down to details and the microcosmic, the “human” element have a tendency to disappear.“
Yes, and transhumanists would probably agree. But most people adhere to ideas about what it is to be human, and what we should and shouldn’t do. Transhumanists would suggest we shouldn’t be beholden to such notions – they call there intellectual foes bio-conservatives.
I will skip the rest. If you are skeptical, you are skeptical. As I am not an advocate for transhumanism I am not going work that hard to convince you otherwise. But I do think that you are splitting the wrong hairs here, and missing an important aspect of what transhumanism is about.
To my mind, It is not primarily about can we, it is about should we. There are practical limitations, but also moral limitations. They want to get the moral concerns out of the way while they wait for the practical limitations to be removed.
> We are not mutants by choice.
Sure we are; your mum and dad made some choices (in most cases) about merging DNA to create a mutant mix. Sure, they weren’t thinking this at the time of conception, but hey. It wasn’t *your* choice, granted, but the idea of genetic choice isn’t new. What is the difference between choose the sex of your child, and killing every child until you get your boy, apart from murder? Is there some discussion worth having that hasn’t been covered, or isn’t being covered by non-TH?
So, let’s pick a subject that’s probably closer to what you’re referring to; altering some genetic markers of your potential child to, for example, remove a fatal disease. Where will the debate on this subject enter the realm of TH?
> It is not primarily about can we, it is about should we?
Sure. But that’s just … philosophy, no?
TH. What the heck is it again?
Geoff Edwards says
“It wasn’t *your* choice, granted”
And that is the choice that is relevant in the context. People seem to be pretty okay with the whole mummy daddy thing.
Should I be allowed to alter my DNA, locally or globally whatever the technology dictates, so that I grow back lost hair – i.e. cure baldness?
Should I be able to at the same time make that hair flouresce as a matter of course? Could I also have that hair grow in a ridge down my kneck and back, sort of like a Girrafe? And maybe a swishy tail?
Where do we have to get of the slippery slide?
But that’s just … philosophy, no?
It is a philosophical question. Transhumanists say yes we should. I am happy to stop engaging if you are just looking for something to disagree with.
Geoff, I think you missed my point. It wasn’t about where the choice is made, it’s about the fact that there are choices being made, and that there’s a tradition following that, so where is the new aspect of genetics to be talked about?
If the ethical dilemma of whether you should be allowed to cure your baldness is the ammo you’ve got …)
I’m still not sure why your asking these particular questions, though. What you do to yourself and your looks are not ethical conundrums, are they? Extreme body piercing and alterations and tattooing is not a hot ethical potato in our society, so what does this talk of genetics change?
I’m not looking for someone to disagree with just for the hell of it. I’ve raised big questions about TH which you have ignored, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s more to TH than the shallowness I’ve asserted. I’m still not convinced otherwise, but I am a patient guy who takes these things really seriously, and like I’ve said, I’m someone who’s been more TH than I’d like to admit and who’s worked in commercial AI for many years who’d love to find that there’s more to TH than the SciFi fetishising of technology as some magical force that we’re not talking about already under the normal discourse of philosophical chatter.
Again; what is TH, really? Like deep down and getting down to detail? What makes it TH, and not, just, like, philosophy?
Geoff Edwards says
“If the ethical dilemma … is the ammo you’ve got ”
I am not her trying to gun you down. I am not interested in an adversarial point scoring waste of time.
Really, I don’t care enough about TH or your opinion of it to spend time trying to convince you that there are people talking about things that you may or not have an interest in. I am not suggesting that these people are discussing things that philosphers are not and that we MUST know, or doing research or making the advances that are actually being done by science.
I am suggesting that some, not all, people in the movement who identify as TH have some intersting things to say. If you think it is important, Bostrom is an Oxford prof in the Philosophy faculty.
TH is not a discrete easily identified set of ideas. It doesn’t fail just beacuse of some issue with one particular technology. Besides the tech fetishists, there are some genuinely smart people thinking about human futures in light of current technological developments and who are generally optimistic about human prospects. If that is some kind of intellectual sin, than so be it.
Hey, mate, sorry for using the word “ammo”, it seems to have caused a bit of defense. I meant it in the friendliest way possible, because I found the example of baldness so amusing.
Also, I know you’re not the TH spokesperson, I’m just going by the fact that you said there’s more to TH than the original article lampooned.
Now, I’ve read Bostrom and others before, and I especially revisited Bostrom when the PEL guys did their recent post-Brin transhumanism episode, and I’m more or less reiterating what those guys also found in his papers; there’s a shallowness to it, probably driven by fetishising the technological aspect of the issues at hand. There *might* be gold on those hills, but I think the article we’re all commenting on here at least points to some problem that, well, I think still stand; all that glimmer ain’t philosophy. Should we buy an excavator if we find gold dust sprinkled on the surface?
Geoff Edwards says
“Should we buy an excavator if we find gold dust sprinkled on the surface?”
Probably not an excavator, but it might still be worth kicking the dirt around a bit.
The baldness was meant to be amusing. i.e we may have the technology to do these things, and the cosmetic examples mentioned are all pretty harmless. I couldn’t see anyone raising any objections beyond, well if you want to look like a dick, go ahead.
If we don’t object to that, an otherwise healthy indvidual doing this stuff, can we still object to other healthy indviduals doing stuff which might not be as harmless. What do we feel about the priveleged elite, in any already priveleged society, making changes or employing therapies not available to the hoi polloi that further entrench their dominance? We already see how income inequality effects health outcomes for various groups. The rich tend to live longer, healthier lives. What happens if technology starts to exacerbate such trends to even greater degrees.
These are questions of a moral nature which as you say are philosophical questions and as such not unique to TH. And I don’t believe that those in the TH movement are somehow uniquely able to answer such questions, Indeed they may be the worst people to answer these questions. But it does seem more likely that they will actually be engaging with the questions. And they are not without influence – I think Michael’s somewhat glib dismissal does a disservice both to the more thoughtful TH advocates and the potential importance of the things that the broader TH movement is, however poorly, advocating for.
Yes, there is plenty of stupid in TH. But that is true with most social and ideological movements. There are plenty of brick stupid marxists, or enovironmentalists, or libertarians, or christians. Whatever the movement you can be sure to have plenty of dumb on tap with which to ridicule them.
But the doesn’t mean that there aren’t ideas in there that are worth examining, or thoughtful people worth paying attention to. It is not essential that one does so, but I sort of get annoyed when it seems like people are turning a mere lack of interest into a justified intellectual rejection. However false the impression was, that is how Michael’s article came across to me.
Hang on, Geoff, I thought we were talking about TH, right? The term ‘trans’ in humanism must mean something, right? Now, you pointed to the TH manifest which is to define what TH is all about, and even then I could pick it apart quite easily. In philosophy the goal is rigor, I think we all agree to that?
Nobody wants the proliferation of ideas more than me, but I’m interested in philosophy because it takes ideas seriously and tests them with rigor. That rigor is what I find lacking in TH. So … could we agree that TH is interesting, but not necessarily philosophy? (Again, would love we some TH rigor)
Geoff Edwards says
“The term ‘trans’ in humanism must mean something, right?”
I don’t think the meaning is terribly specific beyond signifying movement:
People attach names to things, but I think “transhumanism” is about as informative as “liberalism” or “socialism.” ie not very.
“TH manifest which is to define what TH is all about”
No, I don’t think of it as definitive, just a starting point. Yes, we can point and laugh at someone pining to have their brain scanned and uploaded. But that doesn’t exhaust the scope of what TH advocates discuss. It is a strawman. I pointed it out because it seemed an easy steping off point, not a summary of everything that one needs to know about TH. It is easy to pick it apart because it as a manifesto, not an argument representing the sum total of transhumanist thought ar the opinion of the Transhumanist hive mind.
Could we agree that TH is interesting, but not nece
I never claimed that TH was Philosophy so I have no problem agreeing with this. TH engages with questions we consider philosophical, it also engages with technical questions, economic questions, social and cultural questions. I didn’t listen to the Brin episode or the follow ups, so I am not sure what claims were made or examined by him or PEL.
> No, I don’t think of it as definitive, just a starting point
A manifest that doesn’t manifest the thing? Who would have known. 🙂
> I didn’t listen to the Brin episode or the follow ups
I would encourage you to do that, at least the transhumanism episode where a paper by Bostrom is tackled directly, and I agree with their conclusions there (which I’ve reiterated here).
Geoff Edwards says
Or I could just read the paper by Bostrom and draw my own conclusions. Unless the paper is exceedingly long, in which case I’ll just skip the lot.
Yes, of course you could do that. But … you’re on this website, right? I find your comment a bit puzzling. Anyway, I think we’re done.
Michael Burgess says
To elaborate on a small point further, in the process of editing
” is the satisfaction derived from purely psychological phenomena ”
was used in place of:
” is the satisfaction of purely psychological phenomena ”
To clarify the difference, I do not think that people derive satisfaction (as commonly understood) from their behaviour. In the large part I think people, in general, increase their anxiety – or at least “manage it”. Therefore on a standard reading the second phrase is closer to what I intended to say.
Where I use the word “satisfy” in its non-psychological sense (confusingly, perhaps) to mean “fulfil”, as in to satisfy a requirement. There are various psychological forces which function as requirements that our behaviour satisfy and in satisfying them we will very often be very dissatisfied.
For example visiting the priest will (perhaps) satisfy our guilt – “deal with it” – but we will likely still feel sorry in some way, just not guilty.
To complicate things further, however, there is a reading of “satisfaction” which i’d be sympathetic with, and would make the original phrase equally accurate: namely, lacan’s jouissance. That is a kind of pleasure that “feeds off” pain (, anxiety, etc.). Thus we derive satisfaction in the sense that we desire the pain to continue.
Wayne Schroeder says
If I look at what transhumanists are looking for, it seems to be very ideological along the lines of faith in technology and science as giving hope and thereby meaning/hope to living a life everlasting from a technological, scientific, rational position.
Hawking has made the leap from having a quantum physics explanation of the universe to state that there fore “Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (Grand Design, p. 5) Clearly Hawking’s is not a clearly held philsophical position, but the common error of scientism: a presumed realism of science alone, replete with scientific theories and equivalent dismissal of philosophical perspectives.
This seems to be the same falsely ideological and dogmatic position of those whose passions posit the value of transhumanism, not a new science, but a belief in science to yield ideological hope in realism, rationality and everlasting life and thus endangering the possibility of having those very values by clinging to belief rather than to either reason or reality.
There appears to be no additional gain with the entity of TH over normal scientific and technological development, which generally does not carry the ideological overhead which TH generates, as reflected in the above interaction, high on intensity but low on content. Without neuroscience, transhumanism/science is dead in the water, and I don’t see adequate understanding of neuroscience among the positers of TH. I am in total support where science an TH overlap, but with the caveat of how humans are in drastic need of adequate bioethical standards, an entirely additional subject. As of now, I see TH as primarily a belief rather than a science.
Very well written and insightful. I agree with your sentiment Michael. I do still believe though that there is very fertile ground in the transhumanism context for philosophical discussion, especially since it ultimately relates to the relationship of man to technology (since I find that there is too little philosophy of technology) and of course to himself (which for me has always held close relation between transhumanist themes and existentialism). So whilst I agree that the ‘movement’ itself is mostly vapid (and usually an expression of an underlying angst), the underlying themes definitely are philosophically worthwhile. Thanks again for a well written and insightful post.
I’ve glazed… I mean glossed over much of what has been written here. Just a few questions for clarification:
1. What does Transhumanism even mean? Trans as in “across” or “beyond” or perhaps a state of flux ultimately ending somewhere but, for now, temporary. Does it have some kind of agenda, teleology? Is it “a philosophy” or Philosophy?
2. If it is “across” humans then it would seem to be heading toward a Star Trek Borg-type end. Even if an illusion, I prefer to be a Free Agent and not a single cell in a multi-cell organism. Isn’t this a techno form of Nationalism not based on geography or social identity as we have known it but the binding of ourselves to one another with electro-digital sinews? What does this do to the idea of Democracy?
3. What do we do about the inevitable “progress” of technology and with the Ray Kurzweil’s and David Brinn’s out there? Every once in a while I think it good to just stop. Stop and look around at our World the way it is. Talk to people from the “wrong side of the tracks,” to people that are not politically active or college educated or fill in the blank.
Alright, I’m done ranting. Sorry.
Mark Plus says
Transhumanism certainly has its silly and illogical aspects. I’ve written about the nonsense which the precursors to today’s transhumanists published back in the 1970’s in this book review of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger:
I continue to laugh at transhumanists’ predictions that we’ll “become immortal” by arbitrary dates in this century which fall within current life expectancies. “Living forever” doesn’t mean “living to 2045,” despite the fact that transhumanist conferences have advertised 2045 as the immortality date.
Besides, I thought immortality would last longer than 31 years. What a gyp!
Despite transhumanists’ cargo cultism, however, parts of transhumanism have empirical foundations. The idea of using cryopreservation to turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state has scientific support if you approach it as a problem in applied neuroscience: Some neuroscientists and cryobiologists have established the Brain Preservation Foundation to raise money for incentive prizes towards that goal to encourage scientists to push hard on the envelope of current and reachable brain preservation techniques:
Michael Shermer, the American critic of pseudoscience and editor of Skeptic magazine, serves as one of this foundation’s advisers, so he apparently considers its goal scientifically defensible:
I’m not disagreeing with you, but even if there’s scientific support for a lot of cryo stuff, it’s still very disputed whether it’s actually feasible. There’s companies that have offered services for years, hedging their bets that the future might be able to restore those they have frozen, however as much as it is thinkable that it might be possible, it’s still … magic. I seem to recall a prominent scientist who not that long ago caused some kerfuffle by saying that most of the science in that field is bunk and speculation, and something about the way crystallizing tissue (or some important part of it … might have been neurons or some other important part of the brain) made it dead on arrival. (SHGI:WTL)
Niels Vandamme says
You have a very oversimplified and overgeneralized view of a very large and diverse group of people, and that kind of bigotry makes you no different from any other kind of propagandist, whether nationalist, religious, racist or ideological. You ascribe whatever faults some people in a group have to everyone in the whole group for the sole purpose of sowing discord. That makes you the kind of person that’s made a mess of this world since time out of mind, and the one which I’d most like to see go extinct. Don’t you have anything better to do?
So from your perspective, whateverTranshumanism is, it is never propagandistic, scientistic, or ideological? And you’d rather see someone who disagrees with you as dead? Interesting…
Words… words… But if transhumanism isn’t creative hedonism I dunno what it is – it’s just that we may dare to imagine an awful lot we don’t dare to talk about.