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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Current issue of JET complete

We have now completed the current issue of the Journal of Evolution and Technology - Volume 17 Issue 1. Rounding it out is an in-depth review by Milan Cirkovic of Ian McDonald's novel Brasyl. Other books reviewed include Marc Hauser's Wild Minds and the new autobiography by Craig Venter. We have articles covering a wide range of issues related to technological change, society, and the future of humanity.

We're now putting the finishing touches on two special issues: one basically a proceedings volume from a conference held at Stanford on human enhancement technologies and human rights; the other an issue devoted to the subject of transhumanism, edited by Sky Marsen.

We are already looking to material for volume 18, for which four articles have been accepted and more are under review. We're always looking for high-quality scholarly material on the issues that interest us - essentially to do with emerging technologies, the human future, and the increasingly plausible and familiar idea of a new kind of human evolution, driven not by biological mechanisms such as natural selection but by the application of technology to expand human capacities. These ideas need to be examined from every disciplinary viewpoint, and as editor-in-chief of JET I'm determined to make it the forum for rigorous discussion of the issues.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Another good review for Dreaming Again

Here's another good review for Jack Dann's anthology, Dreaming Again, this time by Carol Neist on the Specusphere website. My story, "Manannan's Children" gets a favourable mention, though the reviewer's comment left me unsure that she really "got" the ending:

Love of mythology is fed by several tales. Russell Blackford’s “Manannan’s Children”, for example, sweeps the reader up into the world of Irish legend while questioning the value of immortality. Janeen Webb’s “Paradise Designed” also has a mythological base, but with a Jurassic Park twist. Kim Wilkins’s “The Forest” is a near-future take on the Hansel and Gretel story. All three are well-told and very enjoyable.

I guess it's true that the story questions the value of immortality, but so does a lot of other literature and myth. The point is to provide an answer to the question, something that I attempt as the story draws to a close and the moral of the tale turns out to be not what a reader might assume it would be.

Still, I'm always pleased when something I've written is described as "well-told and very enjoyable"; I won't complain. I'm also glad to have my work mentioned in the same paragraph as stories by Janeen Webb (one of my dearest friends) and Kim Wilkins - both people whose work I admire greatly.

Monday, July 21, 2008

World Youth Day

I've spent the past week resisting an urge to comment on the Cult of Misery's great festival known as World Youth Day, actually a week-long set of activities culiminating in an address by the pope to hundreds of thousands of the faithful. This year, World Youth Day was held in Sydney, and its effects could also be seen in Melbourne where any trip into the city over the past fortnight has involved contact with roaming bands of young "pilgrims" from other countries.

I've avoided the topic for a couple of reasons. One is that I'm just sick of the media coverage and would rather ignore this sorry episode as much as possible. It's not as if my attitude to the Catholic Church, with its sick morality of misery and guilt, is any secret. And, too, I feel genuine good will towards the young people who are guests in my country, much as I abhor the religious morality preached by their religious hierarchs.

I am, of course, appalled by the outrageous attempts to legislate to suppress the freedom of speech of people protesting against the Catholic Church, and I applaud the fact that the worst of this legislative effort was struck down by the courts. Things have come to a pretty pass if governments are even going to think about banning peaceful forms of protest against a highly controversial religious worldview.

I am also appalled that many millions of tax-payers' dollars have been spent promoting that same worldview - I do not want the mechanism of the state promoting ideas that I, for one, oppose and seek to undermine by intellectual critique and satire. Why should the dollars of the citizenry and the might of the state be spent on such blatant, one-sided distortion of the community debate about ideas about metaphysics and morals? The fact that associated tourism may have ended up making the exercise profitable for Sydney, and Australia in general, is beside the point. The issue is not that the expenditure has harmed our economy - it probably hasn't - but that the state has taken sides on a huge scale in an important controversy over the truth of religious doctrine. Imagine the outcry if tens of millions of tax-payers' dollars were spent promoting a major event organised by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to rally the world's youthful atheists (complete with laws criminalising efforts to "annoy" the atheistic pilgrims, such as by handing them religious pamphlets in the street).

Anyway, the whole thing is over now. Hopefully, many of the young Catholic pilgrims used the trip more as an opportunity to see the world, engage in a certain amount of pleasurable sinning, and enjoy Australia's lifestyle ... rather than to imbibe more deeply of the misery, guilt, and so-called "spirituality" on offer from that bloated and monstrous cult, the Roman Catholic Church.

Friday, July 18, 2008

WTA changes its image

Following a membership vote, the World Transhumanist Association will be changing its image to the extent of trading under the "doing business as" name "Humanity Plus" and using a stylised "h+" as its logo. This decision was made by the Board, which sent it to the organisation's financial members for ratification or rejection. It follows an extensive review by the WTA Board over the past few months.

For the record, I voted in favour of these moves. However ambivalent I am about the word "tranhumanism" and its cognates, I am in broad agreement with the goals of the WTA and am a member in good standing. As I see it, the proposed move is very cautious and may do little either for good OR ill. However, if the Board believes that such initiatives can help it in its wider efforts to make the WTA more attractive as an organisation to fund and support, then, in the absence of some compelling argument to the contrary (and I haven't heard one that seems compelling), then I think the membership should be supportive. Clearly, various soundings were taken, so I'm hopeful that a total public relations overhaul - with a neat logo, a contemporary-sounding trading name, and a revamp of the website and everything else - might make the WTA a more attractive proposition to others who largely agree with its pro-technology emphases.

The new name and logo may themselves cause some confusion and/or have some undesirable connotations, but we can probably live them, and the decision can always be reversed a few years down the track if it has turned out, by then, to have been counterproductive.

There was some very spirited debate, with a wide range of viewpoint, some of which I find congenial - while some sounded bizarre. But that's the transhumanist movement, a very broad one in the ideas that it welcomes. In the end only 108 people actually voted, and the majority in favour of the change was overwhelming.

The breakdown was:

CHOICES AND RESULTS
- Yes, 75 votes, 69.44%
- No, 22 votes, 20.37%
- Abstain, 11 votes, 10.19%

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jenny Blackford getting attention

No, I don't mean that sort of attention (which she can command any time).

I mean that up-and-coming writer Jenny Blackford has had a good week for critical attention paid to her short stories. "Python", published last year in the anthology Ruins Terra, has made Gardner Dozois' Honorable Mentions in his latest Year's Best SF anthology, which is quite an achievement for Jenny's first published short story aimed at adult readers rather than at children or the YA market. Her second such story is "Trolls' Night Out", in Dreaming Again - which has also picked up early praise. Reviewing Dreaming Again in AurealisXpress, Stuart Mayne says:

The stand-outs for me were Lucy Sussex's "Robots and Zombies, Inc."; John Birmingham's terrific colonial horror show "Heere Be Monsters"; Jenny Blackford's playful "Troll's Night Out" was supernatural fun; Lee Battersby's "In From the Snow"... Oh, this is silly there are too many terrific stories to list. The lovely thing I found about the majority of the stories is the local content; in this respect I particularly like Trudi Canavan's, Jenny Blackford's and Cecilia Dart-Thorton's Melbourne pieces.


(Eek! My own story in Dreaming Again is set in ancient Ireland and retells the Oisin legend from a vaguely transhumanist viewpoint - but (*grin*) never mind about me.)

Meanwhile, Jenny's YA retelling of the Perseus myth, "Andromeda", appears in Paul Collins' new anthology Trust Me - and again her story was singled out for praise, this time in a review in the influential Magpies magazine.

All this in one week. Not bad going.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Listen to Triple J at 5.30 pm

I just did an interview with Triple J on unreasonable/absurd religious practices. This was conducted in a light-hearted way that involved my being presented with a list of odd practices to rank in order of unreasonableness.

If you have a moment (and see this in time), tune in to Triple J at 5.30 this afternoon and let me know what you thought. And how would you rank the traditional Jewish kaparot ceremony (in which an individual's sins are transferred to a chicken), pentacostals' speaking in tongues, Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal of blood transfusions, Mormon temple garments, and the E-meter beloved of Scientologists? What's the best criterion to use to determine relative unreasonableness? E.g., is it what just seems weirdest or least familiar to you or to someone of your background? What involves the most unlikely understanding of reality? Or what does the most harm (or maybe some weighing up of bizarreness and harmfulness?)?

Tune in for a (hopefully) quick-witted discussion of these issues and more.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

At the AAP conference

I've been a bit scarce all week, as I've been attending the AAP conference. I'm perhaps not getting "into" this as much as if it were held in a different city - with it being here in Melbourne this year, it's tempting to stay home and worry about my paper (on tomorrow) and deal with other things. Still, I've been there most of the time since Sunday evening, and need to give a paper first thing tomorrow. Wish me luck, everyone.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

AAP conference coming up

The AAP conference starts this afternoon and continues through until Friday afternoon - in fact there's social activity on into Saturday. This is the big event in the yearly calendar for philosophers based in Australia and New Zealand. I can't believe that it's already upon us (where did the year go?).

My own paper, which is entitled "Transhumanism and its Critics: Time to Transform the Debate" is scheduled first thing on Friday morning. Hmmm, early in the morning on the last day is not the best time to give a paper if you actually want an audience. In fact, that's putting it rather mildly - I hope someone shows up to it. Never mind, we'll see how it all goes.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Avoidance activities?

The time has come for me to write the paper that I'm committed to give at the AAP Conference next week. The subject is ... well, I must check what exactly I committed myself to, but I know it was something to do with transhumanism. I even tried to get a transhumanism-related stream on the program, but that didn't come to anything.

I figured earlier in the week that spending most of the week thinking and writing about transhumanism - by immersing myself in the papers published in The Global Spiral, and commenting on them all - might get me in the mood. As a matter of fact, it has, and I hope that all the work that went into it will be of value to someone. But it hasn't actually written my paper for me. Hmmm, maybe I'm not that much in the mood to write a conference paper. what avoidance activities should I try next?

Transhumanist theology

Lutheran theologian Ted Peters is the author of the sixth and last of the generally hostile articles on transhumanism in the June 2008 issue of The Global Spiral . Despite my own rather anti-religious bias, I actually consider this the best of the six articles. Peters bases many of his claims on theological concepts, but similar claims could have been based on purely secular considerations. He does, however, fall into the usual trap of conflating the transhumanist movement with certain specific ideas that are controversial within the movement, such as proposals for personality uploading and a particular view of inevitable evolutionary and technological progress.

Peters helpfully spells out his general position in a way that is refreshingly clear after the almost-impenetrable style of Jean-Pierre Dupuy's article in the same issue. Here is Peters:

My thesis is this: transhumanist assumptions regarding progress are naive, because they fail to operate with an anthropology that is realistic regarding the human proclivity to turn good into evil. It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes.

The two long (but, as I said, clear) sentences here merit consideration. The first may well be true of some transhumanists (though, as usual in these articles, it would be helpful if Peters had put it that way rather than in a way that slanders an entire cultural movement). You don't need to think in terms of theological notions of evil and sin to realise that new technologies can be used in dangerous and even malevolent ways, as well as in beneficial one. Most transhumanists are painfully aware of this, but perhaps some do have an overly optimistic view of technology that stands diametrically to opposed to that of contemporary Luddites; i.e. the former are blind to the evils of technology while the latter are blind to the good. While Peters could have been more careful and conciliatory in his wording, the note of caution in this sentence is not itself unwelcome.

What about the second sentence? Peters says: It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes. It appears to me that this is a perfectly sensible view. It is, indeed, my own view, and I'm sure that most sophisticated transhumanists share it. As I've said so often, with apologies to William Gibson, the street finds its own uses for things. We can't be sure in advance what uses new technologies will put to, and we mustn't proceed on the insouciant assumption that we do know. Pragmatically speaking - not as some kind of law of nature - we are likely to be surprised at how any particular technology ends up being used (of course, doomsayers about new technologies should also keep this in mind before they run off trying to prohibit this and that because it just might be used in such and such a nasty way).

In a sense, that's all that needs saying: the general position advanced by Peters is one that could be advanced within the transhumanist movement, so it can't be a critique of the transhumanist movement.

But there's a little bit more that's worth adding. I can't refrain from commenting on Peters' account of the relationship between transhumanism and theology. He takes transhumanists to task for assuming "that religion will attempt to place roadblocks in their way on the grounds that the religious mind is old fashioned, out of date, Luddite, and dedicated to resisting change." He insists that Christian and "even" Jewish theology are dedicated to the new. "If a theologian would become critical of a transhumanist, it would not be in defense of what has been. Rather, it would be because of a naiveté in thinking that we could accomplish with technology a transformation that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving God."

With all respect to Peters, with whom I'm in agreement about much, this seems rather disingenuous. It doubtless conveys his own theogical position accurately, and I'm prepared to accept for the sake of the argument that it's even the "correct" position. Obviously, theology is itself a complex discipline within which many views are advanced and contested. However, it's also true that there has been an enormous amount of theologically-based resistance to emerging technologies and their applications, and even the supposedly secular arguments that are so often run (e.g. those of Michael Sandel with his talk about life as a gift) actually make little sense outside of a framework of theological assumptions. To concede, as I do, that some theological positions are compatible with an embrace of emerging technologies does not entail a denial that much of the actual, real-world opposition has been theologically motivated, often motivated by lurking ideas of the sanctity or inviolability of life, the world, or the human genome as "given" to us.

Like Kathryn Hayles, Peters should embrace transhumanism and declare himself an ally rather than an opponent. His actual political position on enhancement technologies is one that a sophisticated and realistic transhumanist could share. He needn't self-identify as a transhumanist, if the t-word word carries too much baggage for him - if it has too many connotations of specific ideas that he really does oppose. But he could certainly adopt a stance in relation to the transhumanist movement as a whole of being a friend - and a friendly critic where he feels he must criticise particular people or ideas.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Pickering on "transhumanism"

I'm nearing the end of my current blog project of commenting on each of the six articles in June's edition of The Global Spiral , which is devoted to a critique of transhumanism. This time, I will discuss Andrew Pickering's, "Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics", in some ways the strangest of the five articles that I have read so far. We'll come to why, but let me step back for a moment to survey the overall terrain.

The five articles that I've read all express hostility to transhumanism, or to what the authors imagine transhumanism to be. Some are more hostile than others. None offers a clear and plausible account of what transhumanism actually is.

Perhaps that last point is not entirely the fault of the authors: perhaps transhumanism, as an international cultural and philosophical movement, is too protean, too contested from within, to be defined adequately. This could make it very difficult to attack or support, because it can be difficult to be sure what, exactly, is being attacked or supported.

Nonetheless, difficult though it may sound, surely it's not all that difficult for critics of transhumanism, particularly people who have been asked to carry out academic research on the subject, to appreciate that they are dealing with a multi-faceted phenomenon - one that may well look different in Italy (say) from how it looks in (say) California or Nairobi, and one that may not always look the same in Italy (or California, or Nairobi) from day to day or from local theorist to local theorist.

It's not unfamiliar that cultural, social, or political movements can be like this. The environmentalist movement would also be difficult nail down as one thing in the naive sense of one set of doctrines to which all environmentalist must subscribe if they are to count as such. Or take the example of feminism: no one would imagine that feminism is just one set of doctrines and that the feminist movement is lacking in internal debates and conflicts - with the views of Andrea Dworkin resembling those of Gayle Rubin, who in turn resembles Wendy McElroy ... and so on.

What might reasonably be said about feminism is that there's a core of concern for the interests of women, and for consideration of women's perspectives and experience, and that there's an agreement that women are not in any way the moral or intellectual inferiors of men. If we define feminism that broadly, then there are few serious thinkers these days who are not feminists - though I suppose there are still some thinkers who should be considered serious who occupy positions out on the more bizarre branches of the political Right where even the broadest idea of feminism is greeted with suspicion.

So, how do you attack feminism if you're inclined to do so? Well, perhaps if you disagree with certain views put forward by some feminists it's better to explain that it's not actually feminism itself that you mean to attack, but certain specific feminist positions that are popular or influential or otherwise worth your efforts. Or alternatively, you need to attack some very broad propositions - e.g. you need to argue that women really are, in some sense, the moral inferiors of men (and should be subservient to them). But you can't attack the views that Andrea Dworkin espoused and claim thereby to have refuted "feminism". Even if your argument is a good one, and you can show that certain of Dworkin's were intellectually untenable, you have not thereby made a dent in the real-world feminist movement, within which Dworkin's views are controversial to say the least. You may have refuted something that you've chosen to call feminism, but in doing so, you have refuted "feminism", rather than feminism. The actual feminist movement marches on.

None of this is meant to deny the legitimacy of arguing that, say, Dworkin's views have become popular within the feminist movement to an extent that is disproportional to the their actual merit, and have crowded out more plausible views. There may or may not be a good argument for that, but the argument has to be made out. You can't just declare, "By feminism, I mean the views of Andrea Dworkin." Well, you can, but your victory over "feminism" will be an empty one: you may become legendary for defeating feminism - but you'll be a legend only in the confines of your own lunchbox.

Incidentally, as I've noted on a previous occasion, no one should imagine that it is a sign of weakness in the feminist movement that it contains so much internal debate and disagreement. Instead, it is a sign of ferment and energy. Admittedly, the very idea of feminism would be pretty useless if feminist positions didn't have some things in common - or at least enough widespread tendencies to enable us to see a family resemblance among the various positions.

All of this is familiar to most educated people whenever they deal with any large idea or any kind of social, etc., movement. So why is it difficult to grasp that this applies equally to transhumanism? It's certainly been difficult for the Global Spiral contributors.

As I remarked to be the case with feminism, there's a great deal of ferment and energy within the transhumanist movement (and among people who stand outside it, but with philosophical positions that are generally congenial to it). In any transhumanist forum or gathering there will be people who are atheists, people who are (in one way or another) religious, people with a wide range of political positions, people who emphasise the importance of different technologies, people who are sceptical about the grandiose claims of others for the recognition of certain novel moral imperatives, and so on. All of this is up for grabs.

So what do transhumanists all have in common? Or if the answer is "Nothing", what clusters of overlapping interests and ideas are there among groups of transhumanist thinkers and activists such that transhumanist views really do bear some kind of family resemblance to each other?

These are not easy questions to answer, though one might have expected the six Global Spiral contributors to have made some kind of attempt to tease out the complexities. So far, with only one article remaining to be read, I can't see any attempt at this at all.

If I had to attempt the task, where would I begin? Probably with ideas of technology being used to enhance human physical and cognitive (etc.) capacities or to redesign the human body (by genetics, prosthetics, and other technologies). I'd mention ideas that involve what are alleged to be self-preserving transfers of personality from our current bodies to other substrates (usually some kind of advanced computational hardware). I'd make clear that there is a wide range of positions that could reasonably be called transhumanist: positions that are sympathetic to various radical uses for the emerging technologies of enhancement. I'd also mention that even the concept of "enhancement" is up for grabs. Nonetheless, I'd probably conclude, there are some general tendencies within transhumanism - a certain willingness to use technology to alter ourselves in direct and powerful ways. Even if we can't find a core group of proposition that every transhumanist believes, we could show something of how various transhumanist positions constitute a "family" of related worldviews, with various patterns of overlapping resemblances among them.

By contrast, every time one of the Global Spiral articles comes close to making such points, with some acknowledgment that the transhumanist movement is complex ... the points quickly get waved away.

This brings me back to the article by Andrew Pickering.

Pickering candidly admits that he knew "almost nothing" about transhumanism when he was invited to give the paper (so why on Earth was he chosen to give a paper on the topic in the first place?). He suggests that tranhumanism raises the question of what does it mean to be human, then adds that he thinks "that transhumanism may not have a single agreed position." However, rather than exploring what varied positions transhumanists might have on this (rather problematically worded) question, he declares that "for the purpose of exposition I’ll narrow my definition of transhumanism down to the goal of 'cybernetic immortality' as a sort of defining outer limit of transhumanist thought."

I have no idea what he means by "a defining outer limit" in this context, so I'm a bit stumped by this - maybe a kind reader can explain what Pickering means. Meanwhile, all I can say is that some transhumanists are keen to pursue something like cybernetic immortality - though not in the precise sense that Pickering goes on to describe in the article - while others are less keen. Some self-described transhumanist are probably even hostile to the notion, or sceptical about it. So we have this situation: Pickering concentrates on a particular position that he imagines (I suppose) to be a popular one within transhumanist circles. He criticises this position as if he were thereby criticising the transhumanist movement itself. It's much as if someone said, "By 'feminism' I mean the view of heterosexuality advocated by Andrea Dworkin" and then went on to attack Dworkin's view, castigate "feminism" for its narrowness, make remarks such as "Yes, I’m starting not to like feminism."

In other words, Pickering is criticising "transhumanism" rather than criticising transhumanism. The real transhumanist movement marches on unscathed.

Note that even transhumanists who subscribe to the idea that we should attempt to achieve a form of immortality by uploading ourselves onto a durable substrate of computer hardware might feel that their position is caricatured by Pickering. It's worth looking closely at his language when he defines the idea of cybernetic immortality like this: "A certain timeless essence of humanity—consciousness, the mind—is to achieve immortality, with all the useless paraphernalia of humanity—the body, even the unconscious and subconscious reaches of the mind—to be sloughed off." I'll dwell on this, since what Pickering is describing is not just a less-than-universal transhumanist aspiration; it is an idea that I have never seen advanced by any transhumanist thinker anywhere!

Now, there may be a transhumanist thinker whom I don't know about who has argued for such an idea. I can't prove a negative, at least not this sort of negative. But uploading, as conceived of by actual transhumanists, is never understood so simplisticly. The idea is to emulate on some other substrate than the original human brain and body, not just the rational mind but the entire personality. This includes unconscious drives, underlying values, and whatever else constitutes or feeds into the personality. If the idea of substrate invariance is correct, then it is possible to recreate an individual's entire personality (including all the relevant inner experience) in an inorganic computerised form. The claim is that the entire personality - not just the reasoning powers and so on - can be transferred to adequately functioning inorganic hardware (or, as one imaginary alternative, inorganic hardware can gradually be used to substitute for however much is required of the person's original organic body).

Far-fetched? No doubt it is, and I am (in various ways and for various reasons) sceptical about it. Such a process may not violate any physical or (if there are such things) psychophysical law, but the theoretical and practical hurdles appear to be so high that the entire idea is off the table as a serious near-future policy option. Or so I'd argue. Those who think that it's just a matter of developing sufficiently powerful hardware are (I argue) naive about the other problems. Nonetheless, their position is not the one that Pickering ascribes to them. Once that's cleared, it can be seen that his entire article misses its target.

Why? Because Pickering's concern is that transhumanism (as he defines it) contains a "narrow" conception of what it is to be human, one that equates our humanity with reason and the conscious mind. This is what Pickering calls an Enlightenment view, though it's not clear that the thinkers associated with the Enlightenment all shared such a view. (Perhaps Kant believed something like this, but Enlightenment thought was varied, complex, and nuanced.) In any event, Pickering is arguing against a position held by no contemporary transhumanist of any note, based on the work of no particular Enlightenment thinker. He then claims that his dislike of this chimerical position is a criticism of transhumanism. It is not; it is not even a criticism of the idea of uploading, which is a somewhat different thing. It is only a critique of "transhumanism", while the real transhumanist movement marches on untouched.

This fundamental error enables Pickering to make the following key statement of his position. It's a fascinating one:

in the history of cybernetics ... curiosity about the performative self has been entangled with all sorts of technologies of the self (including flickering strobe lights and hallucinogens, as well as meditation), and with associated altered states, explorations of consciousness, strange performances, magic, the siddhis, the decentered dissolution of the self, tantric yoga and union with the divine. The self, as revealed here, turns out to be inexhaustibly emergent, just like the world—the antithesis of the given human essence of the Enlightenment and cybernetic immortality. And again, for me, this shows the extent of the freezing and narrowing of the human that transhumanism entails—the severity of its editing of what the human might be. Of course, all of the practices and states that I talk about in my paper are already marginalized in contemporary society—it feels vaguely embarrassing to talk about them in public. But at least the margins exist, and one can go there if one likes. The transhumanists would like to engineer them out of existence entirely and forever. Yes, I’m starting not to like transhumanism.

In other words, Pickering dislikes transhumanism - or, rather, "transhumanism" - because he thinks it leaves no room for such things as the experiences of meditative states, hallucinogenic drugs, and tantric yoga. But there is no reason for the real transhumanist movement to be hostile to whatever merits these things actually have.

Later in the article, Pickering discusses Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, which he describes as a vision of the future that offers "open-ended experimentation, emergence and transformation with no fixed end". Then he adds:

I would like to know how it came to be that in the 20s and 30s people were able to imagine radical transformations of the human form, when no evident technological possibilities were at hand. And ... I am struck by the impoverishment of our imagination that has since come to pass. Now we have biotechnology, now we really could dream of equipping ourselves with wings or new senses, but we don’t. Instead of experimentation with the endless possibilities of humanity, we dream transhumanist dreams of purification and the excision of what already exists, of downloading consciousness. Something profoundly sad has happened to our imagination. That, in the end, is what transhumanism brings home to me.

The ignorance of this is breathtaking!

I can only wonder at how an article like this, by someone who clearly does not know what he's talking about, could ever have been published. It is possible to discuss transhumanism in opposition to visions of biologically-transformed bodies "with wings or new senses" only if you define transhumanism in Pickering's bizarre and arbitrary way and only if you are totally ignorant of the fact that real transhumanists - rather than "transhumanists" - do, indeed, imagine transformed bodily morphology, new senses and so on, and are open to experimentation and endless possibilities in just the way that Pickering describes.

Given Pickering's openness to the radical use of biotechnology to alter human powers, he should actually be an ally of transhumanists in the real struggle that has emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century: i.e. the struggle against modern-day Luddites who are adamantly opposed to such possibilities as the transformed bodies with wings, new senses, etc., and who are often opposed even to medical research on human embryos. By all means let us imagine these wild biotech possibilities (while also being realistic about what actually will be possible). But when we wonder at the strange people who may come after us - people with wings or gills, or the radar sense of a bat, or more likely just with longer and healthier lives than our own - let's not imagine that in doing so we are somehow being opposed by, of all things, the transhumanist movement.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Publication prize

I've just found out that I won the 2007 Faculty of Arts Postgraduate Publication Prize for my article "Dr Frankenstein Meets Lord Devlin: Genetic Engineering and the Principle of Intangible Harm", published last year in The Monist (with a nominal 2006 date on it). Apart from the prestige and recognition, and a certificate to frame, this carries prize money of $1000. Off to have a celebratory lunch now, and I gather there'll be a ceremony in the School of Philosophy and Bioethics later on. I'm grinning from ear to ear about this: the recognition is really nice.